Living Connections – What is Anthroposophic Meditation?

From July 7.-9. the conference “Living Connections” took place at the Goetheanum in Dornach. This was the first public conference on anthroposophic meditation that has taken place at the Goetheanum.

There were are around 500 participants taking part in workshops, open spaces, panels, and countless conversations on all aspects of anthroposophic meditation practice.

One question was raised over and over: What is anthroposophic meditation? Here are some thoughts in this topic.

An Easy Definition

One easy, precise, but not very helpful answer is: Anthroposophic mediation consists of any meditations presented by Rudolf Steiner. This answer is easy because it says what it is with one sentence and it precise since it leaves no room for doubt about which meditations are anthroposophic. But it isn’t very helpful – it says nothing about the actual meditative activity and what this activity aims at. When we start going into that, the answer becomes more difficult and vague.

I could say: Anthroposophic practices consist on concentrating on an image, a feeling, a thought or thought process, a mantra, or aspects of the subtle or physical body. But it isn’t hard to come up with examples of meditation practices from other traditions that also do this.

And I could say: Anthroposophic meditation aims at connecting the human being with its spiritual origin. But isn’t this compatible with the aim of other contemplative traditions?

Maybe it’s connected to the sequence of the meditation practice? Maybe it’s about emptying consciousness after having done a concentration practice?

Answer: Possibly, but isn’t empty consciousness also practiced in other traditions? And what if you only do a concentration practice? Is your meditation then non-anthroposophic?

And so the conversation goes.

Four Points of Emphasis

I like to characterise anthroposophic practice by introducing the notion of emphasis. Anthroposophic meditation has an emphasis on:

  1. Thinking
  2. The self
  3. Nature
  4. Society/culture

This list isn’t intended to be complete, it only serves as a quick way of giving an indication of what is unique to anthroposophic meditation, in particular in relation to how meditation is typically conceived today.

As I’m sure many will recognise, thinking is sometimes, or even often, viewed as detrimental to meditation practice. Some conceptions of meditation are anti-intellectual. Stop thinking and you’re good – keep on going like that. In anthroposophic the focus is on cultivating thinking, transforming it, using it as a way of deepening knowledge, among other things, such as ensuring the freedom of the practitioner and making sure that the mind remains strong and stable as the meditator progresses.

Furthermore, anthroposophic meditation is not about realising a state of no-self, but rather of cultivating the self. This includes developing virtues, character, individuality, and a sense of inner continuity.

You seek to live a true spiritual story that is part of a big cosmic drama, rather than seeking to get rid of all stories about yourself.

One aspect of this story is developing the capacity of attention and devotion into a higher form of perception that can be used to investigate the cosmos: Anthroposophic meditation seeks a concrete knowledge of nature (including the divine nature, human nature, animals etc.). What are the real forces behind the growth and decay of plants? How are specific stars connected to specific trees? What is the true origin of the different species of animals? This point could also be expanded to incorporate concrete knowledge of for instance the nature of the human being: What are the specific karmic laws that govern a human life? How are the exemplified in the lives of well-known personalities in history? How did the human being and the earth develop? How does this related to what we know about nature from modern physics, chemistry, and biology?

And the final point: Anthroposophic meditation seeks to inspire and support cultural and societal renewal. Here we can easily get concrete. Anthroposophic meditation has directly or indirectly contributed to the development of for instance anthroposophic medicine, biodynamic agriculture, Steiner/Waldorf pedagogy, anthroposophic architecture and Eurythmy.

Now we can give another easy and precise answer to the question of what anthroposophic meditation is that perhaps is quite helpful: Anthroposophic meditation is a form of meditation practice that has given rise to and supported the different societal and cultural institutions mention in the previous paragraph.

I know of no other recent spiritual movement that has had such a strong and specific impact on the social world over the last 100 yeas than anthroposophy (developing a new form of medicine, pedagogy, etc.). To what extent the movements has dependent and been driven by anthroposophic meditation practice can be discussed, but I’m sure it hasn’t been without influence.

If we want to become more concrete and systematic than this, we’d have to look into the works of Steiner and consider specific meditation practices. I’ve done this here and here.

Challenges

Regarding the four points mentioned above, it should also be mentioned that they can challenged, and that a truly comprehensive and precise understanding of anthroposophic mediation needs to take this into account.

In the higher states of consciousness that anthroposophic meditation aim at – imagination, inspiration, and intuition – thinking changes profoundly. There is no (discursive) thinking present in the imaginative state, for instance. How do we characterise this? Is it similar to what in German idealism was referred to as “intellectual intuition”? Is it as deep as the so-called jhanas – the higher states of consciousness represented by Buddhist practice – in which thinking also ceases? How is the imaginative state really experienced? What are examples of real imaginations in Steiner’s work and among anthroposophic practitioners today?

A similar kind of questioning is necessary in order to reach real depth also in relation points about the self, nature, and society/culture. If we look closer into to the issue, new complexities will arise, we will probably encounter some frustration, and our views will have to be refined.

The upshot of this is that there is much good work to be done.

What Needs to be Done

The work that needs to be done can be divided into the following areas:

  1. Steiner’s work. All aspects of anthroposophic meditation practice described in Steiner’s work needs to be studied, systematised, and presented. A subordinate area would consist of doing the same for other texts that is based Steiner’s work.
  2. Actual meditation experiences. The actual meditation experiences of anthroposophic meditation practitioners needs be investigated and systematised.
  3. Other traditions. All aspects of anthroposophic meditation practice has to be viewed in relation to meditation in other contemplative traditions.
  4. Relation to conventional science. What is the relationship between for instance anthroposophic mediation practice and what goes on in the brain?
  5. Applications. How can anthroposophic meditation practice/methods be applied in order attain knowledge? How can anthroposophic meditation be applied with a medical, therapeutic, or artistic setting?
  6. Creating a comprehensive, experientially based, historically and scientifically informed overview over the anthroposophic path supported by the results of the work that happens in areas 1-5.
  7. Training. How can we train people in anthroposophic mediation in a way in that is both effective and secure? This training would be based on 1-6 and would also be developed further as knowledge and experience grows.

Again, there is much good work to be done.

The Split Personality of Science

I just received my copy of the newest edition of the Journal of Consciousness Studies in the mail. It contains an article on contemplative science that I wrote back in 2014, when I was a junior visiting scholar at the Mind and Life Institute.

The central idea is that contemplative science needs to be based in what people experience in meditation today, but also that we need to learn as much as possible from the contemplative traditions.

I use a recent theory from the philosophy of science to justify this. Here is the abstract:

“Contemplative science is usually conceived either as an introspective investigation of the meditative mind or as following methods of other scientific disciplines to study the mind in meditation. Here, I suggest a conception of a comprehensive contemplative science that includes both. Drawing on Paul Hoyningen-Huene’s work in the philosophy of science, I develop an understanding of contemplative science based on the idea that science consists of systematicity in nine dimensions of scientific activity. Hoyningen-Huene uses everyday knowledge as the main contrast to scientific knowledge, claiming that the latter is more systematic than the former. Since the contemplative traditions already exhibit a high degree of systematicity, these traditions are used as an additional contrast. This results in a description of the nature and current state of contemplative science and an indication of how it should develop in the future in order to become more systematic and thereby more scientific.”

The article originally ended with a passage that puts a more human and less theoretical spin on the whole idea of contemplative science. I removed the passage in order to reduce the size of the article. Here is it is:

“In a sense, modern science has a split personality. On the one hand, it is a commonplace belief that science is and end in itself. This is a high ideal that goes back to Antiquity, where contemplating truth was seen as a good in itself. On the other hand, scientific knowledge is often put to use based on very limited and even egotistic aims. Furthermore, the scientific picture that emerges from natural science can lead to the human being feeling estranged and disconnected from its environment. A natural reaction to this is to only regard nature in the light of narrow, human ends. The contemplative traditions contain perspectives where knowledge of the cosmos is not disconnected from the highest of human ideals. In other words, the contemplative traditions may be seen to contain forms of knowledge of its own that could help unite the split personality of modern science. This is an issue that I have left mostly untreated here, but which still is essential when conceiving of a future contemplative science that draws on the best of the ancient traditions and the modern mind.”

This last statement contains, in a nutshell, the whole idea behind this blog and what I will be spending the coming decades working on.

The final draft of the article is available here for those of you that do not have access.

Also, I highly recommend the article “What is it Like to Meditate?: Methods and Issues for a Micro-phenomenological Description of Meditative Experience” by Petitmengin, van Beek, Bitbol, Nissou, and Roepstorff in the same issue.