I spy with my inner eye

Alexandra Handwerk

His most famous book is undoubtedly Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment from 1905. But the subject of meditation plays a crucial role until the end of his life in 1925 and he keeps returning to it. If I now follow these instructions, do I also “spy with my inner eye.” Yes. But perhaps not as anticipated.

Looking back and discovering something new

One of the very first exercises in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment: take a bit of quiet time and look back at what you have experienced throughout the day. But don’t slip back into yourself and your experiences as your remember them but observe yourself in everything you have done. Observer yourself as if you were another person. If you met someone, observe both of you. How was your encounter?

We are sitting in the school library. A group of mothers. And we do precisely this exercise. We observe ourselves and our family as we got up this morning, had breakfast and went to school. Suddenly one mother says: “I found it so important this morning still quickly to do a few things but when I look at myself now I actually find myself quite annoying.” The others have to  laugh. Another adds: “My son wanted to sit on my lap this morning but I still had to fetch something and wanted to pack my bag and just snapped at him that now was not a good time. On other occasions I always want him to be a bit closer. And today he wanted to be and I actually pushed him away. I could quite easily have packed everything later on. There really was time this morning.”

It is very quite in the room. Everyone sees the scene in their mind’s eye. One thing is clear: when I observe myself like this, I see something of myself which I would not have observed in experiencing the same scene. At least not consciously. Institutes which train people to appear professionally in public work precisely with this element: they video the person and then get them to watch themselves.

Anyone who has every experienced this method knows about the embarrassing moment when the video is replayed. We rarely see our negative sides in such concentrated form. It increases our vulnerability: all it takes is for another participant on the course to remark, “You’re standing in such a funny way...”, and I can no longer manage to adopt a natural and relaxed stance for the rest of the day.

The experience when I do the exercise mentioned above is quite different. I also observe myself from outside but don’t look at my outer appearance – do I look cool, is my hair alright, do I stand in a relaxed way – but I see myself in a particular moment and within a constellation of people in which I am doing certain things. I see all of us, I see my part and I see where it all led. And depending on how the resonance of this experience feels as I look back, I see my actions as correct and meaningful or – well, how?

After all, the first mother in the group acted very reasonably when she still wanted to finish a few things. But in looking back, she realised that, as she saw it, it would have been better to remain at the breakfast table and not still do something in such an “nervy” way.

In the morning she had only experienced herself and, in doing so, done what seemed appropriate and reasonable at the time. It was only when she looked at herself from outside in the exercise that she noticed that her quite reasonable actions did not harmonise with the other people in the room.

The same applies with regard to the other mother. Who would think it wrong to prepare one’s things calmly in the morning and not want to be disturbed in doing so? She acted very reasonably. But when she looked at herself in the exercise, she noticed that it would have felt more correct for her to respond to the need for attention of her child.

What quality, then, does this exercise serve? In my ordinary experience I am in harmony with my actions. In the exercise I see something I did not see before: myself among other people. And I see whether my actions harmonise with them, I see what is happening between us. I spy with my inner eye.

Observing and learning to recognise feelings

A second little exercise, also from Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment: focus your attention on two phenomena in the world. On the one hand on burgeoning life, on the other on life that is withering and dying away. These two processes each call forth a particular feeling in the soul. Allow these feelings to grow very large in your soul until you have become really familiar with both.

We are sitting once again in the school library. A discussion starts about which feeling is better. There are those who love spring and those who love autumn. It takes quite a while until the group begins to realise: this is not about the question which feeling we like or don’t like. It is about distilling two feelings out of the wealth of our world of emotions and thereby getting to know them. Of course I know these feelings, they have often flitted through my soul. But I have never yet properly brought them to consciousness.

There are some plants in the library. We take time to look at them for a while. All of them have sprouting and growing parts, but also withering and dying ones. It is clear: the feelings which are called forth by both phenomena are clearly distinguishable. All of us go home having set ourselves the homework to repeatedly call forth these feeling throughout the week wherever we encounter burgeoning and growing or dying and wither life.

A week later we share our experiences. The garden and walks have shown themselves to provide a wealth of material for practising. We exchange tips: waiting at the bus stop is an ideal opportunity to practise! Everyone agrees on that. Then one mother cautiously moves the discussion on: “I visit my parents every week. This week I noticed for the first time that all these visits always feel the same as the withering away feeling.” Silence. Then another one says: “It is exactly the same when I quarrel with my husband. Of course I’m always right, but it feels so desiccated afterwards.« At first everyone laughs but then the silence returns.

“But when I go to singing on Thursdays – I have to make an effort each time because I’m so tired – then it is the purest burgeoning life. I am always quite refreshed at the end.” Now everyone thinks of something. Constantly, in every situation, they experience one of the two feelings but they have never before paid attention to them.

The conversation becomes more and more animated. “We should be able to turn a situation in such a way that what is withering can blossom again,” one interjects. “But we saw last week that it is not about the one thing being better and the other worse,” another contradicts, “things have to die away. And I find it exhausting to keep something alive which everyone actually knows has come to an end.” Silence. We have entered difficult territory. One mother speaks up who has been silent so far: “Do we not actually have to develop two abilities, namely to accompany both things, blossoming and dying away, in the right way? Who can do that? First feeling: here something is entering life, here something is leaving it. And in the second step deciding: I will accompany you faithfully on your path into life and you on your way out of it.”

As I am sitting here writing this article, a journal flutters through the front door with the following quote from Rudolf Steiner: “The spiritual world into which we go because we want to escape is not the right one, but the one in which we can actively immerse ourselves in life.” (Das Goetheanum, 37/2018).

That is exactly how it feels. The practice material in our group is the life which every one of us leads every day and in which we are actively involved. And which becomes ever more rich and fulfilled the more I see the spiritual at work in it. But so that I can see what I did not see before, the exercises in Knowledge of the Higher World and its Attainment, of which two examples were given here, are incredibly inspiring. Particularly if we reflect on them together in a group. Then I sit at the bus stop and suddenly – I spy with my inner eye – something red.

About the author: Alexandra Handwerk is the mother of four children and a freelance anthroposophist.