From Insult to Insight: Rudolf Steiner's Meditative Technique


By Derek Cameron

Theosophical Society - Derek Cameron studied mathematics at the University of Edinburgh and Sanskrit at the University of British Columbia. He now works as a corporate consultant in Vancouver, British Columbia. His previous article for the Quest, "Suffering on the Path," appeared in the Autumn.In the mid-1890's Rudolf Steiner (1861--1925) was repeatedly hurt by personal remarks made by his close friend Moritz Zitter (d. 1921). Even when recounting the incident a quarter century later, Steiner would still not admit his friend's observations contained some truth. Yet Zitter's stinging criticism forms a plausible trigger for the revolutionary psychological and spiritual changes Steiner underwent during 1896 to 1897--the period he himself described as that of his "profound transformation."

Steiner was thirty-five years old and a respected scholar with a Ph.D. in epistemology. He had edited the scientific writings of Goethe (1749-1832) for both the Kuerschner and the Weimar editions. He enjoyed discussing esoteric subjects with his more thoughtful friends and considered himself an expert on these topics who was already in possession of cutting-edge knowledge denied to lesser beings.

And then came the insults. Zitter wrote Steiner several times to the effect that he was merely intellectualizing his feelings. In fact, Zitter said to Steiner, you are so absorbed in your thoughts that you often appear to be scarcely human.

This Steiner hotly denied. The problem, he retorted, was Zitter's lack of comprehension. When Steiner appeared to be speaking intellectually, it was not that he had lost contact with the physical world. Rather, he was speaking about a world few had ever experienced--the world of spirit. And this error, Steiner explained, was the "greatest misunderstanding of my spiritual path."

* * *

To some extent Steiner was right. It was true he had already realized there was more to human experience than the world of the senses and the world of the intellect. The groundwork for this realization dated back to Steiner's childhood, when he received what he called "mental pictures"--images that conveyed nonphysical truths. When a school friend died, Rudolf unselfconsciously accompanied him into the world beyond. This spirit world was to Steiner every bit as real as the physical world.

Rudolf Steiner was also a curious child. He wanted to learn not only about the physical world but also about its inner essence. Near his childhood home was a factory. The boy Rudolf observed raw materials entering the factory at one end. He also observed finished goods emerging at the other. What frustrated him was that he could not see the processes taking place in between. What was it, behind those factory walls, that lay hidden from his gaze?

By the same token, he was also vexed by his inability to understand the source of his mental pictures. What faculty, he wanted to know, brought him these images? How did he know what he knew?

His problems were compounded by the fact that the adults around him did not share his perceptive abilities. When Steiner confided to a trusted schoolteacher the episode of having ventured into the world beyond death, he was met with stony silence. Steiner would have to construct for himself a framework for understanding his experiences. He did not find the beginnings of his explanation until he was a young man.

Around 1880 Steiner was reading Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805). In the "Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man," Steiner found a passage in which Schiller began by acknowledging that we can know things through our sense perceptions and we can know things through our thinking. But Schiller then went on to assert that we also have a third way of knowing things.

Most people fail to notice this third form of consciousness because it flits by so quickly. But by resisting the pull of both the senses and the intellect, said Schiller, we can cultivate this third form of knowing. It was, he asserted, a faculty that allows us to transcend the purely personal. "That which first connects man with the surrounding universe," he wrote, "is the power of reflective contemplation."

For Schiller this third state of consciousness was the aesthetic sensibility. But for Steiner, here was evidence that another human being shared his knowledge that we have more faculties than are generally acknowledged. Steiner had found a kindred spirit from whom he gathered the support and confidence he needed to continue his explorations.

Steiner found a second ally in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). From Goethe's writings on geological processes, Steiner learned that Goethe too had had the ability to receive mental pictures. For Goethe also these intuitive perceptions could point to otherwise hidden truths.

In his essay "On Granite," Goethe described an experiential way of investigating natural history. Alone on a mountain peak, the researcher surrenders to the silence and solitude of the place and immerses himself in this experience. Images begin to form--vivid impressions of mountains rising and falling, of new mountains taking their place, of ancient seas receding and allowing life to grow in their wake.

Further encouraged, Steiner tried to write about Goethe, using the same intuitive capacities Goethe himself had used. This was the start of his conscious cultivation and development of his spiritual talents.

* * *

Moritz Zitter, however, had also been partially correct. Steiner's life before his mid-thirties had been a life of the intellect. This was the boy who had surreptitiously read Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) during high school history lessons. Large sections of Steiner's autobiography consist of detailed accounts of his subsequent philosophical reading and thinking. It was surely more than coincidence that, following his receipt of Zitter's letters, Steiner began a new practice.

In 1896 Rudolf Steiner turned his attention to the physical world. He would intentionally focus on his direct perceptions of the present moment. Likewise, he began trying to observe other people exactly as they actually were--in other words, observing without judging.

Over the course of that year, these practices transformed Steiner's way of being with people. He had previously been aloof, intellectually combative, and unable to listen to someone without wanting to argue with them. But now he found it easy, even natural, to be with people just as they were, observing, noting, and learning.

The observational skills thus developed proved useful in his own inner development. He would take quiet moments to observe and reflect on himself with this same objectivity.

Yet disinterested observation proved to be only a first step. In an unexpected turn, Steiner discovered that he now wanted to become more involved in the world. For the first time, he became one passionately engaged in life. His method of tranquil self-observation and contemplation he called his "meditation." Steiner learned clearly to distinguish between his intellectual activity and the underlying perceptions and feelings. He was now making practical use of the distinctions he had first gleaned from Schiller. While this "meditation" began as an activity he valued on purely intellectual grounds, he soon noted that "meditation became an absolute necessity for my inner life."

But Steiner's "profound transformation" went beyond the psychological sphere. He also began discovering spiritual truths. As one example, he noticed that problems in life are not solved by thinking about them. Problems, he observed, arise from the unfolding of events. Equally, problems are solved by a further unfolding of events. Solutions emerge. The same mysterious forces that create problems also create their solutions.

In 1898, the most rapid phase of his growth now over, Steiner went still deeper. His practices had not only reconnected him with the full richness of the world, but had also activated his higher perceptive faculties. These Steiner viewed as inner spiritual organs. He then turned these expanded faculties to the contemplation of the Christian tradition.

What he discovered was that, within the publicly available materials of the Christian narrative, there lay hidden, inner meanings. One detail will give the flavor of Steiner's exegesis. In St. John's Gospel there is a well-known pericope in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. For Steiner, debate over whether or not this "miracle" could really have taken place misses the point.

The real point, said Steiner, is that the raising of Lazarus from the dead is an allegory for spiritual initiation. Lazarus's death-like state is the preparation. Jesus, the initiator, then awakens him out of his spiritual slumber. Henceforth, Lazarus is an initiate. Jesus has catalyzed his evolution into a higher form of consciousness, and Lazarus is the first in a new lineage that builds upon (and is superior to) those of the ancient Mystery Schools. The insights gathered during 1898 formed the basis for Steiner's 1901--1902 lecture series, "Christianity as Mystical Fact."

* * *

The one thing Steiner had been unable to do as a boy was share his way of seeing things with those around him. As a child he felt lonely; as an adult, isolated and misunderstood. Steiner had come to believe it was safest to keep his deepest perceptions to himself--even among the relatively open-minded artists and intellectuals who were his adult friends. The decision to go public with his research would be the resolution of this issue.

In the autumn of 1900, Rudolf Steiner was invited to speak to a gathering in Berlin organized by the Count and Countess of Brockdorff. The first evening Steiner delivered a conventional lecture. Yet he sensed that this audience in particular might prove sympathetic to a deeper approach. So on a return visit he took the risk he had mulled over for several years. Steiner spoke in public, for the first time, from his personal perspective.

He had correctly gauged his audience. The Brockdorffs and their friends were Theosophists and were deeply impressed by Steiner's new manner of speaking. A whole series of speaking engagements followed. When Annie Besant (1847-1933) inaugurated the German Section of the Theosophical Society, Steiner was elected its first General Secretary. And thus began the pattern of traveling, writing, and lecturing that would occupy the remainder of his life.

People who listened with interest to Steiner naturally wanted to know the source of his material. Often he was accused of merely rehashing ancient Gnostic literature. Thus, when Steiner titled his 1901-1902 lectures "Christianity as Mystical Fact," the word he wanted to emphasize was "fact." His knowledge, he asserted, derived neither from Gnosticism nor from his imagination. He had developed methods for original spiritual research that he saw as being every bit as accurate as those of science. To prove his point, he published a series of magazine articles (later collected into Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment), revealing his techniques.

The foundation practice, Steiner taught, is to spend a few moments of each day in silent reflection. Normally the mind is a jumble of concerns about the details of our lives. But this, says Steiner, is precisely what keeps us from becoming aware of a higher perspective.

To remedy this confusion and ignorance, we should devote a few moments out of every day to reviewing our thoughts and actions as though they were those of another person. It is not that we use this time to continue pondering things, albeit at a more leisurely pace. Rather, it is our own reactions and thought processes that must become the objects of contemplation. This was the practice Steiner referred to as "meditation."

Serene contemplation of the lower self creates the opening in which the higher self can blossom. This new self, the spiritual self, can then begin to grow.

When the contemplation is over, the student returns to everyday life. Steiner emphasized that his form of meditation was aimed at those involved in the world, not those who wished permanently to withdraw from it. If a student's life was very busy, even as little as five minutes a day would have beneficial effects. Tranquil self-observation clears away the mental busyness that encrusts the higher perceptive faculties.

But we then encounter a second obstacle. Socialization has blunted our ability to feel. We no longer use the full depth and sensitivity of our capacities as human beings. Here Steiner gave a series of exercises to restore this ability to feel.

To begin with, we focus intently on something growing--a plant or a tree, for example. (This won't work as a thought experiment. Some real, physical organism is required.) While observing, we are to surrender neither to the lure of the sense impressions (color, smell, and so on) nor to any conceptual conclusions about growth and decay. We focus only on the felt sense of flourishing and growth. How is that? What is it like?

This is the sort of subtle impression we usually ignore. But during the exercise, we permit ourselves to reconnect with the richness of our feelings. Cultivating both concentration and a deep and refined sensitivity, we learn to become aware (or re-aware) of the impression of something growing and blossoming. To provide the necessary contrast, we alternately focus on something decaying, such as a dying tree.

In a similar vein, when we hear an animal, we focus on the felt sense of the sound--not our reaction to that sound, but the inner condition of the being who produced it. When the technique has been mastered with simple animate and inanimate objects, we can extend it to human beings. We observe someone in a state of desire. Focus on the felt sense of one who desires something. What impression do we then receive? How is a person who is in a state of desire? And how is a person who has acquired the object of his or her desires? Similarly, when someone speaks, instead of reacting either in agreement or disagreement to what is being said, can we just listen to that person, exactly as he or she is?

The next step of Steiner's program he termed "enlightenment," by which he meant the ability to receive mental images akin to the perception of physical colors. This again, Steiner asserted, is a capacity we all possess, but few ever learn to use.

Steiner does not mean that we actually see, or even imagine seeing, a color. Rather, we feel a sensation similar to that induced by the visual perception of a physical color. A plant, says Steiner, should produce an impression akin to that of green tinged with pink. A human being in a state of desire should be comparable to seeing something "flame-like, yellowish-red in the center, and reddish-blue or lilac at the edges."

Steiner's teachings on the spiritual significance of color draw on his reading of Goethe. In the "Theory of Color" Goethe remarks that colors leave an impression on human beings, and that these impressions can be correlated with human experiencing. Yellow, for example, equates to cheerfulness.

And yet these further exercises are still only preliminaries for the real goal of Steiner's program. Calmness, self-observation, sensitivity, and "enlightenment" are preparations for the work of opening the chakras.

For Steiner the chakras are active, perceptual organs, "the sense organs of the soul." By using these higher organs we discover deep truths about the universe in general and human beings in particular. The belly chakra, for example, is the means by which we perceive the strengths and gifts of other people.

The untrained person pays no attention to mental activity that follows sense impressions. A traveler in a train, for example, reminisces on a past event, but fails to observe how this memory, and the associated daydreaming that follows it, have been triggered by some visual stimulus seen through the windows of the train.

To develop the faculties of the belly chakra, says Steiner, we must first notice, and second take control of, the process by which sense perceptions give rise to a chain of linked thoughts. We must make a practice of consciously choosing which perceptions will be allowed to enter the psyche. This formidable undertaking will eventually lead to the activation of the third or belly chakra, and the consequent flourishing of our ability to understand other people. This kind of knowledge does not arrive in the same way as intellectual knowledge produced by discursive thought. Rather it emerges, intuitively, from the depths of our being, a whispering from the soul.

* * *

It is sometimes maintained, for example by Carl Jung (1875-1961), that except for limited instances such as the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), there has been no Western tradition of meditation. A culture that condemns introspection, says Jung, is incapable of producing a meditative tradition. And in any case, he adds, Westerners have too much unconscious material, which has been too ferociously repressed. The treatment of choice for Westerners, he concludes--without a trace of irony--is Jungian therapy.

Yet Steiner's experience refutes Jung's position. There is a Western meditation tradition, and that tradition is the tradition explored by Steiner, the tradition of contemplation. Contemplation is Western meditation and is a powerful technique because it liberates. Once you can contemplate something, Schiller wrote, it no longer has the power to control you.

Steiner was no isolated instance. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a pure contemplative. Like Steiner, Merton saw contemplation as "a kind of spiritual vision," "the highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual life." Merton described contemplation as "a sudden gift of awareness." And he saw himself not as an innovator, but as the inheritor of a tradition of contemplation that ranged from St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) to the Pensées of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Yet unlike Steiner, Merton held that the ability to contemplate could not, and should not, be taught. "There is no point whatever," Merton wrote, "in trying to make people get excited about the kind of interior life that means so much to you."

The Western contemplative tradition even predates Christianity. Marcus Aurelius (ad 121-180) is more widely remembered today for his Meditations than for the political reforms he instituted as Emperor of Rome. The aphorisms in the Meditations were evidently jotted down in response to contemplation. "Nowhere," wrote Marcus Aurelius, "can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul."

That is a sentiment with which Rudolf Steiner would surely have wholeheartedly agreed.


  • Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. London: Penguin Books, 1964.

  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Collected Works. Vol. 12. New York: Suhrkamp, 1988.

  • Jung, Carl Gustav. "Yoga and the West," in Collected Works. Vol. 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

  • Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions, 1972.

  • Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von. "Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man." In Harvard Classics. Vol. 32. New York: Collier, 1938.

  • Steiner, Rudolf. An Autobiography. Blauvelt, New York: Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1977.

  • ——.

    Christianity as Mystical Fact. New York: Anthroposophical Press, 1947.

  • ——.

    Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment. New York: Anthroposophical Press, 1975.

  • Wachsmuth, Guenther. The Life and Work of Rudolf Steiner. New York: Whittier Books, 1955.

Derek Cameron studied mathematics at the University of Edinburgh and Sanskrit at the University of British Columbia. He now works as a corporate consultant in Vancouver, British Columbia. His previous article for the Quest, "Suffering on the Path," appeared in the Autumn.