About the secret of time

Christoph J. Hueck

Time is a peculiar phenomenon. It can fly past when a lot is happening and pass with agonising slowness when we are waiting for something. Yet our clocks, seen objectively, always seem to tick at the same speed. But can they make time comprehensible? Does time progress uniformly? Strictly speaking, clocks only show the spatial change in the position of their hands: first, say, an angle of 45 degrees, then 46 degrees, etc. Something similar applies to the course of the sun: we only ever see it in fixed positions above the horizon. But that is not yet directly connected with time. We add time to the spatial phenomena as an experience. Or in other words: we cannot perceive time with the senses. With the senses we can only ever observe what exists at any given time. We can no longer see, hear or touch the past and not yet the future. We only experience time because we can remember the past and relate it to the present and because we anticipate future events. Without memory and anticipation there would only be the eternal, colourful, always new, always different now. But we would not know that it is always different. All the context in life would be lost. Time is not an objective phenomenon that can be observed with the senses. We can only experience the reality of time psychologically. Is it any wonder, therefore, that it sometimes passes faster, sometimes slower, depending on the intensity of our experiences? Here – on the stage of our soul life – is where we have to observe time if we want to understand it more precisely. 

Memory and anticipation

We attend a concert. We can only hear the notes which are being played at any given moment but we remember those which have been and anticipate those still to come, and in that way build the arc of the music. Or we meet an old acquaintance. Many memories and experiences we have had resurface while at the same time we wait with more or less conscious anticipation what new things will happen in the encounter. Thus we have the arc of friendship across time. It is not only the past which is present in the moment but the future as well. That becomes particularly clear when we are dealing with life, with soul and spiritual development, with the development of children, with education and teaching, with therapeutic processes, but also with life processes such as for example in agriculture. The anticipation of future events always belongs just as much to the present as the memory of the past. And it is not just subjective memory and anticipation but the objective, if hidden, presence of the past and future in the present which constitutes life. This thought can become productive if, for example, we imagine in the child that his or her soul and spiritual personality flows towards him or her from the future in order to come more and more to expression in him or her.

The subjective and objective side of the approaching future are interlinked in a beautiful way in artistic activity. I start to paint a picture. The first brush stroke is preceded by a still very subjective anticipatory space to which the first dabs of colour already lend an objective concrete nature which wants to develop in accordance with its own demands. The approach of the future here turns into the interplay between myself and the object, between creating and receiving. We can therefore experience particularly well in the creative process what applies to everything that comes out of the future: it approaches us and bears its own logic within itself.

The dual stream of time

Rudolf Steiner described this peculiar connection as the “dual stream of time”. Alongside the familiar one, there is a second, hidden stream of time which flowed from the future into the past and the present is where these two streams meet and penetrated one another. We can observe this psychologically. The one stream contains the flow of everything that we once experienced and can continue to visualise, the other one brings what we anticipate, hope for and desire.

Vertically to this dual flow of time – Steiner says – we have the autonomous I of the human being which brings the past into the present through memory and grasps what flows in from the future through judgement. Finally, the immediate impressions of the senses, rising from the body into the soul, runs counter to the I, representing a fourth direction from below upwards.

Rudolf Steiner then goes on to explain that these four directional activities have their basis in the organisation of the human being, in the so-called components of the physical body, the life or etheric body, the consciousness or astral body and the I. What flows out of the past and can be re-visualised is supported by the life body while the future flows in through the desires of the astral body. The I acts through memory and judgement from above, the sensory impressions of the physical body from below. In other words, life flows from the past, the soul element from the future, the physical world from below and the spiritual element from above.


Geist (Ich) = Spirit (“I”) / Leben (Ätherleib) = Life (etheric body) / Urteilen = Judgement / Erinnern = Memory / Seele (Astralleib) = Soul (astral body) / Vergangenheit = Past / Vorstellen = Visualisation / Begehren = Desire / Zukunft = Future / Wahrnehmen = Perception / Bewusstsein = Consciousness / Materie (physischer Leib) = Matter (physical body)

In this diagram we have a key which can unlock the riddles of the soul and of life. Just observe how we stand at the centre of these four directional activities: facing the world in the present moment as an I, the past behind me, the future before me and eternity above everything. When all four directions are balanced in their interaction, harmony and health arise: gratitude (and not discord) with regard to the past, openness (and not fear) with regard to the future. With regard to the spiritual, the trust that everything, whatever may happen, has a higher meaning (in place of doubt), and attentiveness with regard to other people, the situation we are currently in and our own body (in place of coldness und self-reference).

Rudolf Steiner once spoke about the development of the butterfly as a wonderful image in nature of these four actions of our being: the egg corresponds to the physical present, in which all the forces of the past are bundled but which simultaneously bears so much hidden potential of the future. The caterpillar shows the dull life processes of rhythmical repetition and increasing growth while the astral forces dam this life stream and pupate it into something internal. Finally the bright, beautifully formed butterfly unfolds out of this seclusion and combines, like the I, with the play of air and light of its surroundings (not without becoming fertile and laying new eggs itself).

The key for education

Using this time matrix, development can now be better understood. We can say that development consists of a spiritual being coming to sensory appearance through the dual stream of time, whereby what has been created so that it is perceptible for the senses in turn becomes the abutment for further developmental steps. The soul and spiritual being of the child, for example, combines with a body which he or she has inherited from his or her parents – the living stream out of the past. As he or she grows, the soul element flows in from the future to an ever greater extent, the child develops an increasing capacity for consciousness. The spiritual individuality shines above everything, increasingly penetrating its physical and soul organisation, differentiating it and learning to use it as a tool. Finally, we can see a concrete physical human being coming to appearance in every developmental moment.

In this context the living forces of the past predominate in the first seven years of the child’s development, which the child trusts with unconscious devotion, while from the age of fourteen onwards the future-oriented, conscious astral soul forces burst in from the future, mostly associated with insecurity and anxiety. In the middle, between the change of teeth and puberty, there is a wonderful equilibrium in which the child oscillates between living activity and soul experience as it breathes in and out in the present. And now we know as educators and teachers how we have to work with the children and adolescents: in the first septennium, it is with the child’s life stream, developing it for the child; in the second septennium we have to stimulate and bring to life the breathing encounter of the child with the world; and in the third septennium we have to support the awakening of the individualising powers of consciousness regarding the world and an understanding of the human being – after all, as internal experiences they have a strong tendency to close themselves off from everything else. Through an understanding of the human soul being at the intersection of past and future and of the spiritually eternal and the physically present, the riddles of time and development can thus be made perceptible and productive.

About the author: Dr. Christoph Hueck is a life scientist and lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart