Rudolf Steiner’s method for retrieving past lives is deceptively simple. It’s this: meditate on a chosen experience over three subsequent days and on the fourth day (all being well) an impression will arise from a past life that accounts for the experience chosen from our current life .
Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Firstly, there’s a technique: we must picture the experience in our meditation ‘with strength and energy’ (p. 9) evoking every aspect ‘as though you were trying to paint it in spirit’ (p. 8). Steiner even describes the type of headache that the correct level of exertion will cause. This effort must be kept up over each day and an appropriate connection with the original experience must be maintained throughout the series of changes that meditating upon it will initiate.
Which brings us also to the question of process. According to Steiner, the picture of the experience is transplanted across progressive levels of our being. After the first night following the first meditation, the picture is copied from its starting-point in the astral body into the etheric body. On the second night it passes from the etheric body into the physical body. On the third night the physical body works on the picture and eliminates it altogether. The picture then becomes ‘spiritualised’, so that ‘when you get up in the morning the picture is there, with you actually floating within it. It is like a kind of cloud that you yourself are within’ (p. 19).
Each of the ‘bodies’ (physical, etheric, astral) performs a different function, so that the picture, as it filters down through them, has in effect been transformed through thought (astral) to emotion (etheric) to will (physical). Passing through will, the picture then moves beyond our conscious awareness altogether. As human beings, we cannot experience the will itself, but only the impulses, desires and motives that arise in our minds or feelings in connection with our will. In earthly life we have no direct access to the causes that issue from our will, but only to the reasons we supply (retrospectively, in many cases) to our actions . This is what Steiner seems to be referring to when he describes how we wake on the fourth day to find ourselves ‘inside’ the picture.
Because the picture has become will, then on the fourth day we experience a strong and peculiar sensation of being ‘shackled’, which Steiner describes in detail. We cannot experience will within ourselves, nevertheless will is what the picture has now become. Yet – Steiner assures us – if we can sit with this feeling of being ‘shackled’ and remain attentive to it without flinching, then:
the will becomes transformed: the will becomes seeing. The will cannot do anything but it leads to your being able to see something. It becomes an eye of the soul, and the picture you woke up with becomes actual, objective. What you see is the event of… some previous earth life, which had been the cause of what we sketched as a picture on the first day. (pp. 20-1)
Now, Steiner himself admitted that this material will sound highly unlikely to a lot of people. If it sounds unlikely to you, just try it! Have you ever taken the trouble to think hard about the same experience for a fixed period over a number of days? I was surprised to discover that the experience does indeed seem to pass through certain stages. Some of the terms in Steiner’s lecture sound a little odd or woolly, such as ‘being shackled’, and also the feeling ‘of metal spreading throughout your body’ (p. 30), but in the process of doing the exercise I encountered sensations that it didn’t seem unreasonable to describe in these terms. The exercise reminded me of experiences on a meditation retreat. For instance, at the end of the most intense retreat I’ve ever done, I felt as if I were wearing a tight skullcap over particular portions of my head. Sustained periods of meditative exertion can produce all kinds of quasi-physical sensations of the type Steiner describes.
In our first attempts to uncover our past lives, my colleague Alan and I opted for requesting information from spirits. We supposed they had better access to the answers than ourselves.
This produced some interesting results. For instance, I was informed by one spirit that my name in the last life was ‘Otto Berg’. I’d lived in Germany during the late nineteenth century and was possibly the same Otto Berg, a chemist, who had participated in the discovery of the element Rhenium in 1925.
However, information about previous lives gained in this way is only a story, unless it demonstrates a karmic connection with our current life. This is what Steiner’s method is better suited to deliver. A message from a spirit may stun us with its accuracy when a name or date actually checks out, but there’s nothing in the events of Otto Berg’s life that supplies a meaningful link between him and me other than what I infer myself from external circumstances. A random example: I used to be very good at chemistry when I was at school.
Steiner’s method may not be good for delivering specific names, dates and places, but it will deliver the experience of a lived connection between a previous incarnation and the current one. Lacking this, it seems impossible to make a case for any historical life possessing a greater connection with mine than any other. The problem, in other words, is that if a spirit tells me I was ‘Cleopatra’ or ‘Napoleon’ how do I know that I wasn’t?
The First Investigation
I had been to a lecture where a man who seemed to have serious mental health problems was seated in the front row. He couldn’t stop moving about in an aimless, anxious manner, and seemed not entirely aware of what was happening around him. Quite possibly, this may not have been the case, but even so I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Did he come to the lectures to keep warm? Was he genuinely interested in what was being spoken about? Because he had lingered in my head after the event I decided to choose this as the first experience I would investigate karmically.
During the first day’s meditation, the memory and its thoughts and feelings were vivid and easy to concentrate upon. On the second day, less so; other ideas would more easily take my attention away because they seemed relatively more arresting and interesting. I realised that something had therefore ‘faded’ from the original experience of the memory. Looking closer, yes, the memory still had feeling and resonance, but it wasn’t interesting in quite the same way and didn’t have the ‘mental hooks’ it had possessed on the previous day. I could see now what Steiner might mean by saying that the picture had been absorbed into the etheric body (emotional) from the astral (thinking).
On the third day the memory was duller still. The trick with the method is evidently not to discount the ‘dullness’ or the ‘fading’ as a failure or deficit. It’s not that. It’s a feature of the memory’s transition down through the bodies. Around the memory on the third day there was less emotional engagement and only a sense now that thinking about it was something I ought to be doing. It was only the intention to look at it that kept me coming back to the memory, and for much of the time continuing felt like a question of pure willpower. So I could see, again, what Steiner might have been getting at with the idea that the picture passes from the etheric (emotional) body to the physical (will). The emotional resonance that the memory had was now gone and it was only willpower that was left to engage with it.
I noticed that my stomach chakra seemed especially active during this final stage when there was only ‘will’ left, and I recalled that ‘willpower’ is a function traditionally ascribed to this chakra. This set me wondering whether the chakras are somehow the means by which the experience is absorbed, which would add a fourth category to the correspondences we’ve collected so far:
Whilst sitting on the second day (etheric-physical) I also had the imaginative experience of a mass of water, and that I was one among many beings that lived merged together in the water with no separation between our consciousnesses.
On the third day (physical-spiritual) there was a sudden, vivid image of an ancient landscape. There were two hills that from my perspective seemed of equal height and similar shape. At the summit of the more distant hill stood a stone tower. It was day, but the sky was oddly dark and full of turbulent cloud. I couldn’t help wondering whether this meant that I had lived during the medieval period. At the time, I decided to stick with Steiner’s instructions and resisted the temptation to pursue these visions. Instead I focused my mind back onto the original experience.
The feeling that Steiner refers to as ‘metal spreading throughout your body’ (p. 30) seems connected with the continuous effort of the exercise. I had the sensation of a hard, constant pressure within my body to ‘do something’ during the period of the exercise. I also noticed recurrent dreams of dangerous road journeys by bus, travelling too fast along very winding and hilly roads. On the first night, however, the dream took the form of a very complicated journey I had to make on foot, which I had to constantly work at mentally so as not to forget the route.
The feeling of ‘being shackled’ arose for me in the final stages when there was only a sense of obligation left with respect to the memory. I became confronted with the fact (which I’ve also experienced on retreat) that there is simply nothing happening when we confront our bare intentions. When we explore intention we may be surprised to discover that intention in itself doesn’t lead anywhere, it just intends, intends, intends… It seems that the ‘shackling’ is the realisation that intention doesn’t do or achieve anything other than intending. At this point it becomes clear that intention is not the experience of our will that we commonly mistake it for. Intention has meaning, but it belies only motives, not deeds. I think this is what Steiner is getting at when he says ‘the will becomes seeing‘ (p. 21).
This state found its sudden resolution in a strong conviction that I knew the man at the lecture. All at once, without a doubt, I knew him. There was a flicker of imagery of a boy with blonde hair – who was me. I had been cared for by the man. He had been in the role of something like a priest or abbot, and I was a young novice or maybe a ward of the church. The man had looked after me, but from a distance. To me he was an inspiring figure, wise and kind, although I never had the contact with him that I would have liked. It was suddenly clear why I was distressed to see him at the lecture, because he had so obviously gone off-track and fallen behind in realising his potential. His tendency to isolate himself in order to pursue his ideals had grown out of control and had led to his predicament in this current incarnation, where his mind was so cut off that no one could reach him.
The Second Investigation
A man forcibly snatched two children from a woman and took them away. I witnessed this incident as I was walking down the street one evening. As I drew closer, I was uncertain what I should do. I heard the man call the woman by name, and to the children he said: ‘We’re going to nanny’s,’ so I assumed he was their father or closely associated with them. But the children were distressed and the woman looked devastated, too grief-stricken perhaps to make a fuss or appeal to me or the other passers-by for help.
I was frightened to get involved, because the man looked as if he could do someone some damage, and I wasn’t sure that both parties wouldn’t turn on me. Nevertheless what I’d seen was two children forcibly abducted in the street, and even if the man was their father did that make it okay?
In retrospect, I should have walked around the corner out of sight and phoned the police. Then I would’ve done my part; the rest would be for the police to decide. No matter the details of the circumstances, what I didn’t like was the suffering inflicted on the kids, or how people think it’s acceptable to conduct their personal affairs and abuse children in a public space, confident that no one will dare to call them to account. But in the event, I carried on walking and felt disgusted at my own lack of action over the following days.
Taking this memory as the object of Steiner’s exercise, what I discovered was this: I was disgusted at myself for colluding with both the man and the woman.
It may have been the same past life uncovered in the first investigation, in which case I saw myself this time as somewhat older. I was a lowly-born person who had ascended up the social scale, assigned to a role of some kind of senior servant that made me a party to the private lives of nobles. A military commander had originally held this post, but had managed to worm his way out of it and pass it onto me.
I was advisor to a nobleman and his wife who’d fallen out of love and used their children to score points over each other. Both cut themselves off from their children, trying to make it seem that this were the other’s fault, in order to attract social allies to their camp and score political points. It was clear to me that neither loved the children. I thought this was deplorable, but couldn’t declare it out loud without putting my life in danger. I was bitterly disillusioned that people so high on the social scale had no greater morality than the lowest. The only way forward that I could see was to try to serve both their interests without favouring one above the other. Neither wanted the children, so I decided to let them score whatever political points at the other’s expense they wanted, whilst I concentrated on trying to find the best outcome for the children. But I was still deeply frustrated and disgusted that I couldn’t tell them to their faces how despicable and selfish their actions were, not without getting myself executed.
There was also the image of a frightening face, like an old witch, as if this were a memory from my own childhood in this past life. It was as if I had been taken to the witch and initiated, or treated for an illness, or somehow given a taste of her powers that had frightened and traumatised me. It seemed to me that what the parents were putting their children through was like my experience of the witch – probably even worse.
The vision closed with a sense that in this past life I may have not been seeing a situation clearly because of the trauma that I carried. I was perhaps bringing my own experience too much to bear upon my understanding of the situation of the children.
This work on retrieving visions from past lives is presented in the spirit of an experiment. The status of the results and of Steiner’s method are points on which I’ve yet to reach a conclusion. What the results have triggered so far, however, are some thoughts on the philosophical issues surrounding supposed past lives and karma. These I have written-up elsewhere.
 Steiner described this method in a lecture entitled ‘An Exercise for Karmic Insight’, which was given to members of the Anthroposophical Society at Dornach in Switzerland on May 9th, 1924, a few months before his death. This talk was part of a long lecture series on the theme of karma, and is included in volume two of Karmic Investigations (Forest Row: Rudolf Steiner Press, 2004). The lecture is also available singly as a small booklet, An Exercise for Karmic Insight (Forest Row: Rudolf Steiner Press, 2007), which is the edition I’m referring to here. At the time of writing there is no English translation available for free on-line.
 Compare this with Aleister Crowley’s assertion that the ultimate aim of magick is to discover the True Will. Crowley’s Thelema, like many other non-dualistic philosophies, implies that True Will lies beyond the mundane ego and personal experience.