The most important thing for which we can prepare a child is the experience of freedom, at the right moment in life, through the understanding of one's own being.


Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

Self Development
The Foundations of Human Experience, thinking, will, falling asleep, waking up, spirit-past, spirit-future
By: Florian Osswald, December 2016, Journal of the Pedagogical Section No. 59 Christmas

Given the Night – Part II

Here, we continue exploring a short practice which is based on a lecture by Rudolf Steiner on October 10th 1918 (1). It is a kind of retrospective exercise which includes the following steps: Shortly after waking up in the morning, pause for a moment for a brief review of the morning, the night and the evening. Imagine yourself going back in time to the moment when you woke up. Perhaps you can see yourself getting dressed, cleaning your teeth, pushing the duvet back or opening a window. Go back one more step. Now you meet a kind of threshold. Keep going backwards 'into the night' as it were. Perhaps you remember a dream. Usually, we do not have any memory of our sleep, it happens subconsciously. Keep going backwards until you arrive at the moment of falling asleep. Which were your last thoughts, your last feelings before falling asleep? Keep going backwards for a few more moments into the evening and then stop.

The first part of this article explored the moments of transition between falling asleep and waking up as well as some preliminary thoughts about sleep, the 'night side' of consciousness. In this second part we are considering the connections between this practice and the study of The Foundations of Human Experience.


The Foundations of Human Experience and Living Concepts

The Foundations of Human Experience (2) is Steiner's basis for the actual implementation of his educational impulse. This series of lectures includes a number of challenges for many people. An example of such a challenge is the second lecture in which Steiner develops a new kind of psychology which can be experienced and which takes the spiritual life before birth and after death into consideration.


His point of departure are the concepts of 'thinking' and 'will'. How can we develop a clear picture of those two terms? In The Foundations of Human Experience Steiner characterises thinking, as something which has no real existence but rather has a pictorial character. To us, it is an image of reality. But an image of what? Steiner's answer, 'In this manner, in that the activity you undertook in the spiritual world before birth is reflected in your physical body, you experience pictorial thinking. (3)


And what then is the will? 'It is nothing other than the seed within us of what our spirit-soul reality will become after death. (4)


Creating mental pictures, or thinking, is therefore a representation of our life before birth, called spirit-past ('geistvergangen') by Steiner. It is an image of something which no longer exists. Volition or will, on the other hand, is held-back, seed-like, a spirit-soul reality of that which will be after death, something which is not yet, something which will become. Steiner uses the term 'geistzukünftig', roughly translated as 'spirit-future'.


These things are connected in a complex way and we can only sketch them briefly here. If we wanted to understand these ideas better, we could investigate the etymological origins of the terms 'mental image' and 'volition' and how their meaning has evolved and changed. Such research may yield a lot of information but rarely sparks true inner change and usually does not provide any moving experiences. However, sometimes we find help in unexpected places. On October 10th 1918, Steiner held a lecture in Zurich; already then he was exploring the foundations of a new psychology. In this lecture he chose a different route on which to approach the twinned concepts of thinking and will: 'There are two moments in our lives a new psychology can initially connect to and from which it can then return to the concepts of thinking, will and so on; this again fills those two concepts with true meaning.' (5)


The two moments he mentions here are the moment of falling asleep and the moment of waking up.  The practice described above can therefore contribute to our understanding of thinking and will because it helps us to experience and practise the two actively. Many people experience that the expectations set down in the 2nd lecture are high indeed. Steiner himself confirms that, but he also indicates a possible approach:


'Nobody can really understand what it means when we say 'I imagine' – what it means to say: I am creating a thought in my soul – unless they really capture the moment of waking up by observation (…) What happens actually in my soul when I create a thought? The power which unfolds in your soul when you think is exactly the same power you need – albeit to a higher degree – when you wake up.' (6)


On the other hand, if we observe the way we fall asleep, we can learn something about the will.


'What then transforms in the soul when we fall asleep? What is the effect of pulling out of the physical reality and diving into the spiritual reality when we fall asleep? It is the transformation of the will. (…) We cannot truly understand volition if we do not grasp it on the basis of the process of falling asleep.' (7)


This is where our work starts. Regularly paying attention to the moments of falling asleep and waking up is the basis from which understanding grows and the night becomes more and more meaningful. Where or what do we dive into when we fall asleep? Why do we trust ourselves to the night? Animals in the tropics don't really sleep but in the northern parts of the world, hibernation is crucial for survival.


The sleep of the human being is an exceptional event, Steiner points this out in the first lecture of The Foundations of Human Experience. One of the first tasks of parents is to help their child to find the right rhythm of sleeping and waking.


You have a chance to observe for yourself how the practice described above influences your own rhythm of sleeping and waking, how your mindfulness has an effect on your nightly experience.


The Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez has captured the effect of the night in his own beautiful words:


Throw away today's stone,

forget and sleep. If it is light,

you will find it again tomorrow,

at dawn, made sun.

Tira la piedra de hoy,

olvida y duerme. Si es luz,

mañana la encontrarás

ante la aurora, hecha sol.


At first, we see only a riddle. What happens while we sleep? What of the night lingers on in us? Do we feel refreshed and full of ideas in the morning or do we have a headache and feel empty? What awakens in us when we wake up? And what is its relationship to that which we have taken with us into the night? What happened to the germs of the previous day?


I hope this paper helps you to approach the quoted passages of the 2nd lecture from a different angle.


Part three will focus on further aspects of the moments of waking up and falling asleep. In the meantime we are wishing you a lot of joy with your practice.


Florian Osswald, born in Switzerland, he first studied process engineering. After training as a curative teacher in a Camphill organisaton in Scotland, he attended the teacher training seminar in Dornach. He worked as an upper school science and mathematics teacher at the Bern Rudolf Steiner School for 24 years and has been internationally active as a pedagogical advisor. Since 2011, Florian Osswald has been leading the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach together with Claus-Peter Röh.


Translated by Karin Smith 



(1) Steiner, R. Der geisteswissenschaftliche Aufbau der Seelenforschung von deren Grundlagen bis zu den lebenswichtigen Grenzfragen des Menschendaseins. Zürich, October 10th 1918, GA 73 (No English translation available)

(2) Steiner, R. (1996) The Foundations of Human Experience. Anthroposophic Press. GA 293

(3) Ibid p.51

(4) ibid, p. 52

(5) See footnote 1, p.258

(6) See footnote 1, p.266

(7) See footnote 1, p.269

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