The Six Fold Path: Basic Exercises for Spiritual Development

<< back

By: Joop van Dam, M.D.
Introduction and Exercises (pages 10 through 52)
Translation by Otto Koene; editing and copy-editing by Dirkje Koene.

Joop van Dam

The six fold path
Basic exercises
for spiritual development

3rd revised edition 2007
© 2007 Uitgeverij Christofoor, Zeist

An increasing number of people feel the need to work at developing their inner self with a certain method, by way of exercises or meditation. It sometimes makes you wonder what motivates people in taking the extra effort this requires. 

Looking for how to gain a firmer grip on yourself is often caused by feeling uncomfortable about the way you function in certain areas. You notice for instance that your thoughts are a reflection of other people’s opinions, while your own ideas have already stopped flowing for some time. Or you observe that you find it hard to control your feelings; they drive you along with them so fast that you are unable to retain them long enough to understand what they want to tell you. It can also happen that in the area of doing, in our actions, all we do is reacting to what is happening around us. Together this can create such discomfort that you decide to start doing something to become like a captain in command of the ordinary faculties it takes to navigate the ship of your soul.

Not just your own inner world, also the way you relate to other people can prompt questions in your mind. In doing so it may occur to you that there is some room for improvement where it concerns how you respond to others and that you respond in an adult way in all situations. Or you notice how hard it is to deal with people at work in such a way that nobody feels excluded. In family life a certain routine can develop, while each day you would like to experience new things together. In today’s world, living in a community with others has become almost impossible without giving this extra effort.  

A third element inducing the will in people for inner schooling is the growing sense we develop for experiences which are metaphysical. Particularly in young people this is progressively the case. This leads to the question of how you can school your soul to become an objective instrument to perceive and prevent yourself at the same time from entering into a world of illusion, fantasies or of your own wishes.  

The six fold path is not always easy to embark on in a way that your practicing is effective. There are numerous circumstances which can prevent you from doing so and the exercises will not always succeed as planned. How can you keep fueling the fire of the activity needed during a longer period?   
One way which is helpful is to practice together with others. That way you will see that you are not the only one who has difficulty in sticking to the exercises and you can be of support to each other. It also helps to look at your early and often clumsy developmental steps from a wider perspective.

It was not until early in the 19th century that the whole concept of development started to dawn on people. Initially it was the English geologist Lyell, to whom it occurred that planet earth in the course of time went through different phases of development. Darwin applied the idea of evolution to the kingdom of the plants and of the animals. Only during the 20th century the thought arose that there is such a thing as psychological growth where it concerns human beings. In the sixties this awakened the consciousness in people that each person can take up this developmental process which is mobilized in our early youth by our environment.

These days’ people all over the world decide to take the path of inner development. The thought that you embark on this relatively new road with so many others can be of help in fueling your enthusiasm and energy and the persistence you will need to walk this path of exercise.   

The first exercise - Thought Control
The first exercise of the six fold path aims at the control of our thinking. It is advisable before you start the exercise that you read the description given by Rudolf Steiner in ‘An outline of occult science’. The highlights are given at the end of the exercises. 

It is really quite evident why the exercises start with thinking. In doing so you depart from the area in your consciousness where you are most awake, where your presence happens to be the most active. Only after you have become lord and master here, can you descend to the deeper and less conscious layers of your being. Like a miner who has to gauge his lamp before he enters the mine.

Generally speaking, the quality of our thinking in our daily life is not very focused. If you look closely, you will find that your thoughts often consist in a lot of rambling. What we see around us and the memories that keep coming to us lead us from one association to the other. The essence of the thinking exercise is that you stick with one specific subject. You then verify if you have successfully managed to do this.  When you perform this exercise over a longer period of time, let us say for a month, and you do this five minutes a day, you will notice that your power of concentration and the objectivity of your thinking will increase.

How does this first exercise work? Rudolf Steiner recommends that we focus our thinking on ordinary utensils; concrete, earthy objects which serve a specific purpose and allow us to easily verify the correctness of the pictures we have of them. We are speaking here of a cup, a spoon, a paperclip, a match, that sort of thing.  

For some people it is helpful to choose a fixed moment of the day to perform the exercise. Others manage to employ the ‘empty’ moments of the day, the time when you are waiting for the bus or the train, making that time useful.  At such a moment you withdraw from daily life for a short while, literally and figuratively you close a gate that is between you and the outside world and you enter your own inner workshop. Now you can switch on your thinking light and aim this at the object you have chosen.

You can do this in two ways. Either you place the object of your choice in front of you, or you call it up in your mind from your memory. In the second case, when looking at the object in reality at a later point in time, you will often be surprised how much more there is to observe regarding the object involved.  

So you have chosen a certain object, like for instance a spoon and you now observe carefully its characteristics: its size, its color, its form and so on. To make your observations accurate and concrete, for starters what you can do as an aid is to pretend that you are describing the object to a blind person.

The next step is not just to observe the object, but to develop thoughts about it. To this end it is necessary that you ask questions. Asking questions helps to lead your mind from associative thinking to focused, creative thought. I could ask myself, staying with the object we’ve chosen: ‘Why does a spoon have this form? What material is it made of? Sometimes, to answer a question, it will be necessary to consult with others, or a dictionary or an encyclopedia. This is not part of the actual exercise, but obtaining information forms a contribution to making your thought life sober and to the point.    

Like with the repair of a tire, it is handy to have the necessary tools ready before you start and it is helpful to have a few questions ready before you begin the exercise, like: How is this thing made? When was it made? Was it used previously for the same purpose? Does its name carry any significance?

When you have done the exercise a couple of times with the same object – let us just stick with the spoon for the moment – you will notice just why the spoon has a given size and form and exactly what type of material it is made from will become clearer to you.  

The ‘idea’ spoon is becoming visible behind its external appearance. By sheer observation of the object you arrive at last at a state of clear thinking. You will notice when you have chosen the same object a few days in a row that you can arrange your thoughts in a more logical way.

In the beginning, if you have difficulty in developing thoughts that come from your observation, it is often better to chose for a start a more complex object, like for instance a bicycle, which consists of several components, each with its own purpose. This way you can initially think with a wider focus. Only later can you then resort to a simple paperclip.

The important thing in doing this type of exercise is to stay with it for quite some time. When you begin this is not that hard, because the discoveries of such an ordinary object lead to offer sufficient joy and energy to create the concentration needed to progress your thinking step by step. The object itself causes the interest and it will keep you focused. When the important finds are over and no new thoughts arise about the object, it becomes more difficult. You may feel tempted now to choose another object. However, the exercise becomes all the more meaningful when you stay with the same object a few more times for several attempts at the exercise. In some way, the exercise now really begins, because now the concentration must come out of yourself; creating the interest becomes your own activity.

Another problem you will have to face after some time is that your thoughts become a routine. This expresses itself in speaking certain words automatically and without your hearing them anymore, for instance hard, soft, hollow, sharp, without giving this any further thought. It may be helpful then when you replace your more or less dreamlike producing of words into think movements. Let me explain. Taking a sharp knife in your hand, you can say aloud the word ‘sharp’, but you could also perceive the quality of something being sharp in your mind as a motion. You can occupy your mind with ‘sharp’ as a process, as motion: sharpness separates, it cuts, it divides, thus carrying out as an inner action what the word indicates.

Which inner experiences can you gain by doing this exercise? In the first place you will notice that your power to experience your own inner world, to ‘live’ as it were more in your inner world, will become stronger.  In a way you will feel less dependent on the outside world and more self supporting. As for your physical and mental state, you are better incarnated and thereby more awake. Since you will be able to take active control of your think movements more firmly, each time this will result in your feeling comfortable and at ease.  The will in your thinking has been mobilized.  

The second exercise - Controlling the will
The aim of the second exercise is that we learn to manage the impulses of our own will. Putting it in a different way, the purpose of this exercise is to strengthen our striving towards taking the initiative ourselves in what we do. Just as our thinking can be strongly directed from the outside by things we happen to hear or see, or by memories which spontaneously surface, to a large extent our actions form an automatic response to inner or outer stimuli.  

Often you can be very busy dealing with questions you have been asked by others, by events you became involved in and to which you must respond, by your diary which rules your way through the day and the week, just to mention a few.  So many things we do without these originating from our initiative. A lot of our actions are reactions and not actions we have undertaken ourselves. There are situations where it calls for willpower to exercise restraint, consciously to decide against doing something. Having finished reading the newspaper we could for instance decide very consciously against watching the television news. Conversely it can take a lot of effort to decide to actually do something for which we have to overcome some resistance, like going to a difficult meeting. In both cases we have been consciously working to control and guide our will from the inside.

There is an exercise which (like the previous one set out in Rudolf Steiner’s own words at the end) requires that you decide at the start of the day or the previous evening to do something at a given time. What type of action can this be? Rudolf Steiner talks here of an ‘insignificant’ action. What he means by this is that the less the reason for taking the action comes from the outside, the harder it is to get into motion. It concerns an action that originates from your own initiative. There is no need for the action to have an external effect, but that does not mean that the action must be meaningless – a misunderstanding that often comes with this exercise. On the contrary, because of the thoughts you have when performing the action, the action can become exceptionally meaningful. For instance, you can have the intention to cross your arms at ten past three – in itself a meaningless action – inspired by the thought that such a crossing motion causes you to be wide awake. In a lecture Rudolf Steiner offered the example of somebody who at a given time each day took seven steps forward and seven steps back again, thereby imagining evolution and involution. Also here it is the thought that gives meaning to the action.

In practice it shows that many people have difficulty in finding a suitable insignificant action. Rudolf Steiner once gave the following example of this exercise: watering the plants at a given time of the day. Soon after this, when he visited a house where several anthroposophists lived, he saw people actively involved in watering plants at given times. He was disappointed that his example had been carried out to the exactly as he had given it and that people had not been able to come up with their own action. With this exercise it is important that you find your own way as it has to do with using your own initiative. 

You can take the word action in a strict way; something you carry out by using your hands. The point is that you must do something where you will need your limbs to be able to carry out the action. Also if you were to plan on reading three lines from a certain book at a given time, we are talking about an action, because you have to take up the book and open it to be able to read the lines you have chosen. By means of the action you take, you deliberately have your sense of self penetrate your body, thus having it carry out a personal command and that has an ‘incarnating’ effect. (The other exercises are also aimed at your doing something earthy. When doing the thinking exercises you take basic utensils as your starting point. Also the third, fourth and fifth exercise are woven into daily life. Life itself offers the material that enables you to carry out these exercises).

What then is the meaning of fixing a particular point in time for doing the exercise? The significance of this is exercising restraint. You have to hold back from carrying out the action until the time is there. Holding off makes our consciousness grow stronger, like water held back by a door in a lock is ever climbing to a higher level. Generally speaking, when we carry out an action in the course of the process of the will, there is a drop in our level of consciousness. You submerge if it were, in the life of the will. The will is ’dormant’ as Rudolf Steiner expresses. Only after having completed an action can you judge whether what you did was good.). By setting a point in time for this exercise when you have to carry out the action, you have to keep the light of your consciousness burning until the moment the action is there. Having to wait is of crucial importance in the exercise to control the will. When the time is there, in full consciousness you can be present and proceed with all your dedication in the execution of the action. It is as if you make an ’act ‘of it. This also helps overcome the resistance our ordinary consciousness may show because on the face of it, it concerns insignificant actions. 

The difficulties that present themselves while doing the various exercises are related to people’s constitution. Some people have a remarkable talent for the will exercise. For others this means a hard task. Whatever they do, they do not manage to think of their planned action at the right moment. When that happens to you, do not make it too hard for yourself and particularly in the beginning use a shortcut. Doing inner exercises is just like physical training. When you overextend yourself the first day, you thereby put yourself out of action for quite a while because you have to recover from the muscle damage you have inflicted. It is the same with the inner will. By setting an objective that is too ambitious, your will gets frustrated or even becomes lame. For starters you can better choose something that is not too hard whereby you give yourself a fair chance that you will succeed. Many people who fail to do the exercise in the afternoon succeed when they set a time in the morning. What you can also do is to choose a time which coincides with a transitional moment, like the beginning or the end of a break, prior to or after dinner, getting on the train on the way home, things like that. Only when that works can you begin to choose points in time that go without external aids to alert you, for instance in the middle of a lesson, or while you are in a meeting. In such a situation it is helpful if you imagine the specific point in time ahead of time and in what type of a situation that could be. Moreover, think of making some pre-arrangements to facilitate carrying out the action. Like making sure the booklet in which you want to write something is within hand reach.

Experience shows that succeeding in the exercise is something enjoyable. At the same time our physical vitality gets stronger. If the exercise does not succeed and you forget the time you have set time and time again, the will may get paralyzed. In that case it is recommended that you carry out the action anyway, even though it is after the fact, thus using your will anyway. As time goes on, you will see that you will get ever closer to the point in time you want. Moreover, you finish what you have planned to do and finishing something is energy giving. Joop den Uyl was once asked where he found the strength to do everything that went with the office he held. “My energy comes to me from the things I finish”, he replied.

The will exercise is an appointment you make with yourself. In general it is much easier to keep appointments with others. As much as you keep appointments with others out of respect for them, you can find the motivation to keep your appointment with yourself by experiencing that your will can work independently from the outside world. When that starts to happen, the will has started to become autonomous.

The third exercise - Controlling our feelings
The point of the third exercise is that you seek control of the world of your feelings and that you don’t become your feelings, but to have feelings and to learn how to use these as a way to perceive yourself and the world. While doing the first three exercises you are looking as it were over your own shoulder to the way you are using the faculties of your soul. You look – as an outsider – at your own thinking, willing and feeling. With the first exercise it comes as a surprise to discover how inconsistent one’s thinking can be. Doing the second exercise makes you wonder, while you have a full and busy life, how few actions you perform using your own initiative. Looking however at the world of your feelings is the hardest to endure. While working with groups of people, I have noticed that this exercise gives rise to an inner protest: Is that really necessary, to control your feelings? Is it wrong to have your feelings run freely? Would such an exercise not dampen feelings? When you look at your feeling life, it first seems as though you hardly have any feelings. Shortly thereafter many painful, if not negative feelings appear to live in our soul; the number of harmonious, positive feelings we can identify is only very small. Observing this is what causes the protest. It is worthwhile sticking this out. It increases your self-knowledge.    

A first step in the still unknown area of feeling is to make an inventory of the type of feelings we have on a given day. In doing this, it is helpful to take a sheet of paper and literally chart the feelings you had in the course of the day, as if it were a garden: a large field of irritations; a valley of doom, a little cluster of gratitude, a small bed of respect and so on. The map that evolves can vary from day to day, even though specific elements will return time and again. When you have observed your feelings in this way for some time, you may discover that there is still another, a secret garden inside you that hosts feelings which you have, but which are obscured by more powerful feelings which stand in front of them. This garden consists almost entirely of tender feelings, like the mood the blue of the sky evokes in early spring, or the feeling that you may get when you enter a room with an open fire in winter.

About the third exercise, Rudolf Steiner says that this concerns the expression of our feelings. This helps to resolve the misunderstanding that this exercise would result in suppressing one’s feelings and removing spontaneity. It goes without saying that it is good to cry in case of sorrow and to laugh when there is joy in our heart. These feelings should not be pushed aside, but you can direct them in such a way that you do not drown in your tears or lose yourself in laughter. What matters is that you acknowledge the feelings that exist within you and identify them and give them a name. That way they become part of you and accessible. When you then take your feelings to the outside, you can be their companion and guard. This way you can not only express your feelings but ‘impress’ them also. That is to say, you can try to observe what it is that the feeling wants to express. You notice for instance that there is unrest in your soul and you try to look for where this is coming from. You retain the feeling as it were and seek to look through it as if it were a window. 
It is our feeling which connects us with the world. Once you have discovered this bridging role of our feeling life, you will soon notice that a dual way runs over this bridge. An impression coming from outside of us evokes a feeling in our inner self. A skipping child for instance can give rise to a feeling of lightness. Thus a message of the world is carried onto the soul. Conversely, it can be the soul to start with that tells us something. The memory of a teacher you had difficulty getting along with as a child and who was often wearing the color green  can cause the color green to arouse a feeling of antipathy in you. In other words, a feeling can tell us not only something about the world outside of us, but also about ourselves. If we manage to keep these two aspects apart, feelings can lead to knowledge of the world around us and also to knowledge of self. 

Becoming conscious of your own world of feeling makes some of us discover that he or she is a person of strong emotions and others that their inner experiences are weak and take a long time to surface. In both situations there is something out of balance. Probably each person carries both aspects within himself and it depends on which small part of the outside world you encounter which aspects show up. In doing this exercise, particularly the strong emotions catch our attention and it is the expression thereof which we seek to control. But it is at least as fruitful to foster the dreamlike and hardly noticeable feelings. Often it takes a while for this process to grow and you have to create the inner space for it. Placing this in the perspective of the ‘feelings garden’: some forceful feelings ask to be trimmed; conversely the tender feelings only develop when the seeds are being planted. Many strong feelings announce themselves and are unmistakable; you cannot possibly overlook them. Of other feelings you have to become attentive, listen to them as it were, like the mood the snow evokes in you, or a rainbow, a spring shower, the beginning autumn. But also the sphere at certain places, how different the sphere is in Groningen compared with that in Amsterdam and how different the sphere is at a nursing home compared with that at a school.            

When you perform the feeling exercise for a longer time, you can take several steps. The first is to map the ‘feeling garden’ set out above. The second step is to be the gardener of your soul and trim the feelings that are too loud and plant the seeds of your quiet sensations. Having done this for a few weeks, you can take the next step: expressing feelings.   
We are not accustomed to utilizing feeling as a means of communication. In most cases what we experience is ‘packaged’ in the form of a thought. Not: ‘I am sad’, but: ’the way you say something to me makes me sad’. With the first you have someone else share in a feeling. The second calls for taking a stance (in thoughts).                                                          
A feeling that has not yet gelled into a judgment but is worded as a pure experience, presents an inner movement which can grow. An expressed feeling is always in statu nascendi (in a stage of growth). In taking it outside of us, deeper levels of our feeling can be born. Another person can understand you better that way and with less bias. In doing so a fourth step becomes visible. The way you can help yourself to become better aware of your inner motions by expressing them carefully, is by assisting another person in expressing his or her feelings by listening without prejudice, move along and perhaps ask some open questions. It will be clear that this last step cannot be taken until after the preceding steps have reached a certain skill level.       

There are few areas so conducive for feelings to thrive as the realm of art. That goes as much for performing in an artistic way as experiencing art. Actively experiencing art always occurs through feeling. When you have looked for fifteen minutes at the Jewish bride of Rembrandt, you will be able to notice that very distinct feelings have awoken in your soul. Also when you are an artist you will be guided by your feelings. When playing a sonata of Chopin your feeling will tell you at what speed you should play and where the focus points lie. Feeling will become this way, in the true sense of the word an instrument.   

The feeling exercise is a matter of finding the right balance. When Rudolf Steiner speaks about ‘equanimity’, this does not mean that you will have to temper your feelings or suppress them, but instead, in spite of the rolling waves of emotions, you stay upright and in balance. With feelings you always have to deal with polarities: with comfort and discomfort, joy and sadness, sympathy and antipathy. One carries the other; one also enables the other to come to fruition. The tender beauty of a birch makes it possible to experience the robust power of the oak. This mutual balancing also applies to the relationship which exists between powerful emotions which arise without effort and have the tendency  to become exaggerated and the ’silent’ side of your feeling life, for which you have to create space and time. If you succeed in tempering somewhat the forceful and rapidly rising feelings, you save as it were energy for the hidden and tender motions of your feelings. And the reverse also applies: religious feelings or perceiving nature can put enough weight in one scale to see to it that the powerful emotions in the other scale do not upset the balance.       
Contrary to the two previous exercises you cannot fix the feeling exercise at a particular point in time. What matters is that you grasp the moment at which the feelings announce themselves and to make sure that you not only express these feelings but also ‘impress’ them. At the start of the day, just before you step into the morning, you can hold back briefly and plan to perform the exercise during the day. Looking back at the end of the day shows you the moments where you succeeded, or where you missed an opportunity. Looking as an outsider at the feelings that presented themselves during the day is an aid to have the presence of mind needed to catch the precise moment when it presents itself. By exercising you will learn to live in the present. Your communication with the world, the breathing between the inside and the outside world is being strengthened.  

The fourth exercise - Positivity  
The basic exercises of the initiation school are described by Rudolf Steiner in a specific sequence. Experience tells us that it is fruitful to observe this sequence. The preceding exercises are beneficial for the ones that follow and it becomes apparent that the sequence makes sense.

This can be clearly demonstrated when considering the Persian legend Rudolf Steiner tells us to clarify with the exercise in positivity. On one of their journeys by foot, Christ and his disciples see on the side of the road a dead dog. Christ’s pupils shy away with horror from the cadaver which is in the process of decay. In doing so they respond adequately to the feeling which arises in them (the third exercise). Christ however goes a step further. He does not turn his head away from the dog, but continues observing and perceives the shining white teeth which are not subject to decay.

This exercise illustrates that first the disintegration of the dog’s dead body is experienced. It is because of this that the integrity and purity of the teeth could be seen and appreciated. The fourth exercise builds on the experiences of the third exercise and means a new, next step we can take.   

The first activity which unfolds when doing the exercise in positivity is to persist and intensify the observation. You seek to strengthen your interest in the world and make this independent from the primary feelings that arise in you. Very easily, these feelings, particularly when they are negative, will detract us from further observation. You will no longer want to have anything to do with a situation or something which arouses such feelings. The corresponding English expression is ‘Stop the world, I want to get off’. Experience shows this attitude is unfruitful. It calls for initiative to direct your attention to this part of the world to look for something which is positive. There are teachers who are able to find, in a child’s drawing which is a mess, just that tiny little part which is beautiful and has come out well and by which also other parts of the painting are lifted to a higher level. Here is another example; when you look at a notorious troublemaker in a group, you will often discover that this is just the person who contributes most to transforming the group to a community with a collective will.

It is not intended with this exercise that you no longer notice what is negative, but instead that in a situation you experience as being negative you seek to identify the positive element. Walking through a heather field in Drente, you are disturbed by the sound of an overflying jet, but after this you can ‘hear the silence’. This exercise strengthens your capabilities of perception. A new and joyful voyage of discovery commences.

Next to this situational positivity exercise, which is practiced at the moment itself, there is yet another form that is practiced in the long term. In this day and age there are many circumstances and events in the world - and also perhaps in your own life – which cause abhorrence and which you’d rather not face. It often takes much effort before you are able to identify something positive in such a situation to which you can say yes inside yourself. In the Old Testament there is the image of the battle by Jacob with the angel, whereby Jacob says: ‘I won’t let you go before you have blessed me’. This blessing often comes only when in a given situation you have discovered something which inspires you, something that has a positive side to it. Then you can enter the world again with conviction.

But also in more common experiences the positive cannot always be found forthwith. The battle with the angel seldom lasts a short while. Possibly you will find the positive only at the end of the day, when you make it a point to be looking back through the day, once again you encounter the moment which prompted those negative feelings. Often what is upsetting your daily program and which annoyed you at the moment itself, happens to result later on into something new developing. In some situations it can last days and even years before you perceive the positive and experience this as a ‘blessing’. It helps you understand that you must learn to oversee a longer time perspective.

Part of the ‘technique’ of doing the positivity exercise is looking back through the day when you come to the end of it. This is necessary in order to see in the situation which you experienced at the moment itself as being negative, the new, fresh point of view which lets you get on with it. Having found what you did after further reflection often creates a feeling of gratitude. It offers a new value to the past situation and at the same time energy for the future. Experience shows that you will employ this extra activity gradually ever more at the moment itself.   

Rudolf Steiner calls the positivity exercise a basic exercise for thinking and feeling together. Feeling, which has gained in equanimity by the third exercise, is now applied to enter the world with a higher level of interest. One could also say: after the negative aspects in the outside world have caused you antipathy, you now endeavor to make a conscious sympathetic move by commencing with high expectations a journey of discovery towards the positive. The moment you have found this, thinking has gained a new vantage point. It is the connection between thinking and feeling which opens a new way of access to the outside world.  

By finding such a new entrance, situations which have turned sour can start to flow again and you can move forward. What has been found this way gives a feeling of gratitude. It adds a new value to a past situation and creates energy for the future. The way to the future has thus been made free. A wonderful example of this was demonstrated by Gorbatsjov, when he was asked during the major mine strike during his presidency how he felt about the action by the miners. His reply was: ‘They are right, considering their circumstances. And I am glad that they are striking. It means that the glasnost is gaining momentum. People become independent.’’ Catastrophic as it was for the economy, Gorbatsjov had seen the positive side of this action. Thereby an opening was created for a meeting with the strikers and a discussion about the future.

In The knowledge of higher worlds1, the fourth basic exercise is described as learning to put up with something, exercising tolerance. The positivity exercise gains thereby a social dimension, because to tolerate comprises an inner bearing. You can endure somebody for all intents and purposes, meaning to accept his negative characteristics, if you have learned of a positive quality in him or her. The essence of the other is not in what he misses, but conversely in just what he ‘has’. Instead of disentangling yourself from a situation because it annoys you, you can try to relate to it. In a relationship conflict for instance you can try to find an area where you can meet each other. In doing so you take the situation as it exists seriously. The reality consists of the others, the circumstances and yourself. The positivity exercise is an inclusive exercise (translated literally). You take the situation which you encounter as a question that you are asked. And by starting to look for an answer, you begin to relate to the situation. You show that you feel responsible.

This exercise has a liberating effect. No longer will you be drawn so easily into a difficult situation because you counter it with a free, inner deed. The extra activity you deploy creates the atmosphere whereby also others can be liberated from their being locked into the situation. Often some humor breaks through. You have found a point of view at another level.

The fifth exercise - Being open-minded
Being open-minded is a capability little children possess in a natural way. Infants and toddlers always offer a rich display of the spontaneous power to experience every moment of the day as new. What is a natural thing when you are young must be practiced later on with much effort as a virtue.   

The open-mindedness exercise is not an easy one. The more knowledge and skills you generate during your life, the harder it becomes to have an open mind. You have to acquire once again ‘the innocent eye of the child’, as the English art critic Herbert Read recommends, when looking at art. It is a gift to be able to see something new each spring when you are looking at a snowdrop. Abraham Maslow calls this ability ‘the continuous freshness of appreciation’.

Rudolf Steiner characterizes this fifth exercise in the series as an exercise for thinking and willing combined. Out of both something new must be born. In other words, what you know (thinking) and what you can do (willing) you seek to set aside for a moment, in order to be completely open for what may come on your way.  

Knowledge, judgments, opinions, but also the skill you have developed to carry out specific actions can lead to a form of imprisonment: they can prohibit you from perceiving things differently, from making fresh judgments and taking a different approach. Often we barely realize how our judgments are colored by concepts and events from the past. Neither do we notice how much past experiences have condensed into habits and control our present ways and actions, for instance the way we react to people we know well. When you become more aware of this, it shows that in many situations your thinking and you actions stem from a certain pattern. Having an open mind means that you set yourself free from such imprisonment.

You can also describe this in a different way. As we are generating more insight, and as we have our own experiences and develop skills, our self consciousness is growing. In this internal processing of our experiences, the I has its fundament. Having our own frame of reference offers inner security. Understandably as time passes you get attached to these reference structures. The open-mindedness exercise demands that we have the courage at some point in time to set aside this frame of reference. This may call for a little self sacrifice.  

How does this exercise work in practice? To start with, having an open mind means holding back your judgment. The teacher, when seeing a new child in his class, puts the thought about the child’s temperament aside for a moment. Or, to give another example, when you meet somebody who is unemployed, do not immediately start guessing what has caused his or her being unemployed. Endeavour with all that you encounter, and to preserve for as long as possible, an observant attitude. This attitude will allow for ‘the world’ to be able to express itself as completely as possible before you begin to say something yourself. This attitude is reflected by what Willem Zeylmans van Emmichoven once said: ’If people were to find a little less of things, how much they would find’. (the Dutch verb ‘vinden’ is used here with its twofold meaning of forming an opinion, judging and subsequently of finding, coming across something new). The phenomenologist Dick van Romunde advised the world to learn ‘bezwijgen’, i.e. be actively silent. Holding back one’s judgment forms part of the thinking component of the open mindedness exercise.

The will component lies in what is called confidence in The Knowledge of Higher Worlds (see page 88). ‘The student approaches every person, every being, with this type of confidence. And when doing so, they allow themselves to be filled by this confidence’. The open mindedness of the small child expresses itself in the urge to imitate. With absolute confidence the child imitates everything in its environment. When it becomes six or seven years old, this natural imitation urge diminishes. With the awakening of the ability to perceive one’s own inner world an early form of self confidence is born. Much later, starting from the middle phase of life, a different relationship with the world starts to grow: confidence is coming back in a new form.

You can speak here of confidence in life, in confidence in destiny. This is based on the inner conviction that in the encounter with the world, also if this does not happen harmoniously, there is always something new which can be discovered and developed. Already with controlling our feelings and also with the positivity exercise, it showed that looking back at the events of the day is an aid in becoming more awake for the moments when these two things are needed. Also in regard to being open minded, looking back can be a valuable aid. You can ask yourself for instance which ‘wonder’ has happened the day that is about to end. Surprisingly enough there is always something that can be harvested. People who have a tendency to take life too seriously often develop a new confidence in life’s destiny by discovering the wonder that occurs every day. By recognizing at the end of a day that you are connected to the world, you can enter the following day with a more open mind.    
The art of being open minded as the last separately described exercise is usually experienced as the most difficult to carry out. Three access ways can be mentioned here, which can offer the first experiences in doing this basic exercise. The first door which you can open is that of perception. What is it that purely sense driven experiences can tell us, an odor for instance? Here we must seek not to link indiscriminately experiences from the past, like the memory of a smell, to an object, and say: this has the odor of a rose. By doing so we acquire nothing that is new. It is as if we would say: poverty is caused by not having any money. What can work as an aid here is that we make a pencil drawing of what this specific odor ‘does’. Lavender brings about a different gesture than the odor of rosemary. Lemon presents an entirely different gesture again. And the interesting thing is, when there is a group of people and each person in that group draws a picture, the characteristics of the various odors show a resemblance. There is indeed an element of objectivity in the perception. Likewise you can find out what impact colors have on your soul. What ‘does’ the purple of amethyst, the red of carnelian and the blue of aquamarine? Also there one will find objectivity. The qualities people experience and catch in one or two words, are very close together and complement one another. Sometimes even a profession can be named where these qualities are exercised.       
The second doorway to open mindedness utilizes another human soul power. Perception stems from the upper end of the head. In the human lower part, doing and willing are vested. Open mindedness can express itself there in spontaneous acts. To this end in The Netherlands the expression was coined: ‘the unintended successful act’. When you look back at the end of a day you may discover that, particularly in the midst of a difficult situation, you acted in a way you had not thought of. An example: a teacher crosses the road with his class to play a game in the park. An overactive boy does not stay in line but instead runs all over the place. The teacher decides if this should happen again on the way back, that he will interfere. This appears necessary and he picks up the boy and places him on his shoulders. The boy immediately becomes quiet and he says: ‘Master, here I can see everything. I can already see the school and if one of the children steps out of line, I will give you a wink, and then you will also know’. Later on it occurs to the teacher that it was having the overview that relieved the boy of his unrest. It became a permanent pedagogical principle for this child. When you begin to become aware of these types of unintended successful acts which occur regularly in life, you can harvest them.

The third doorway lies in between both poles of head and limbs, in the middle area of our organism. With our lungs we exhale the world and make this enter again. In our heart lives the force of empathy, which creates a warm, inner bond with the world. From out of the centre encounters happen. It is an art to deal with what is coming on our way from the world and to do this with an open mind. The world constantly offers us situations whereby we can develop further. These possibilities stem from the ‘future’. The open mindedness of the centre lives in the ability to receive what destiny brings us, then to say ‘yes’ to this and get to work while being present. 

When doing the first three exercises, you are looking as it were over your own shoulder at how you handle thinking, willing (doing) and feeling as ‘instruments’. In doing so, not only do you exercise and refine these powers, but you also strengthen them. This increased strength is used in the fourth and fifth exercise in joining thinking and feeling, respectively thinking and willing. When it becomes hard to practice positivity and open mindedness, experience tells us that it is a big help when you resume doing the first three exercises. This way you increase within yourself the strength to improve carrying out the fourth and fifth exercise. You are giving it a new go as it were.

Like the positivity exercise offers a new look at the world, from a new vantage point, exercising open mindedness creates an openness for looking at things from all vantage points. Your mood toward the whole world becomes one that is filled with expectation. You are not just learning to see, but also to listen. Positivity relates to open mindedness as seeing does to hearing.

Open mindedness finds its source in the confidence that each day you can develop and renew yourself. In the true sense of the word you are curious (the Dutch equivalent ‘benieuwd’ which Van Dam uses means being eagerly interested in something new). The world starts today is the title of a book by Jacques Lusseyran in which this open and expectant relationship to the world is described. The courage it takes to embark on adventure awakens a rejuvenating power in the soul.

The sixth exercise - Harmony
In the course of outlining the five exercises that have been dealt with, we haven’t discussed for how long one has to keep doing a given exercise for it to have a fruitful effect. In his book ‘How to gain insight into higher worlds’, Rudolf Steiner writes that the inner activity these exercises require, ultimately will lead to acquire qualities such as positivism, equanimity and the like. He also used to say, after explaining an exercise: ’And in the course of time that must become a habit’. It takes about a month to learn a new habit. Consequently, to begin with, each exercise can be practiced best over a period of four weeks.

Having discussed and practiced the five basic exercises, there is a sixth exercise. This consists of joining the previous exercises into a harmonious whole. You can focus on practicing two exercises for a while, for instance the third (the feeling exercise) and the fourth (positivity) which are interrelated. Alternatively you can take the first and the fifth, the thinking exercise and practicing equanimity and devote a month to this. In the course of time, the combinations can be expanded and that way the exercising gradually evolves into a comprehensive whole.

When you want to understand the sequence of the exercises, it helps if you look at how the exercises relate to time. Within long a first structure becomes visible. The first two exercises, those of thinking and willing, form a relationship with the past. The thinking exercises focus on utensils which are complete. They originated in the past; at some point in time somebody designed them. With your thinking you follow as it were the track back to the moment where they find their origin. The exercise of the will has a relationship with the past. You agreed beforehand with yourself on a moment when you would carry out the action. The exercise of the will is foremost an exercise which works with the element of time. You will notice that you will experience the different qualities of the day in a different manner. You connect yourself, in carrying out decisions you took in the past, with the current in time that flows from the past to the present. That is the time which can be calculated and controlled.

The feeling exercise, the third exercise, focuses on the present. Of the three forces of the soul, thinking, feeling and willing, it is our feeling that lives in the present. Feelings cannot be caught up with. They arise and grow in the actual situation – or not. The feeling exercise is connected to this: you have to catch the actual moment at which the encounter with the outer world, feelings arise and begin to develop. Catching that point in time is vested in taking control of unduly strong emotions, or in creating the inner space where tender feelings can grow. It is now or never with this exercise.

In practicing positivity we step into the future. Negative feelings which occur at the very moment they do and which you are aware of can challenge you to endure them for a little while, to tolerate them. In the given situation, you seek to endure and look for supplementary, complementary experiences. If you have found the positive element, it is possible to perceive the situation in a new way and embrace it. The extra effort has opened the way to the future; you can move on again.

Doing the positivity exercise and even more so with the exercise to develop having an open mind, help you enter into another time stream: the time that is coming towards you. The time flowing from out of the future originates in eternity; it is time that has no boundaries, time in which everything is still possible. Suddenly something unexpected happens, which ruins all the plans you’ve made. Now it matters that we look at the opportunities this new situation offers us. An illness, an appointment which is messed up due to a traffic jam, a surprising encounter, or some other external interference can mark the beginning of a new direction in our biography. At such a time it is crucial that you have the open-mindedness and the presence of mind needed to perceive the chances you are given and that you subsequently have the courage to head into a new direction; confident that when needed you will find the next directional sign on your way.

This way the five basic exercises are instruments which support you on your journey from the past, via the present, into the future. At the same time they create, when you combine the individual exercises into one, the capacity to connect the time coming from the past in a breathing relationship with the time which comes on your way with all the challenging opportunities this offers you.

The composition of the exercises
Although experience shows that you are always called to order when you think you can carry out the exercises in a random fashion, it is hard to understand why the thinking exercise is followed by the exercise of the will instead of the feeling exercise. The feeling exercise would seem to be the obvious one. The discovery of John Davy (past chairman of the Anthroposophical Society in England) in 1979 casts an unexpected light on the composition of the exercises. Davy interviewed at that time, as journalist of the English newspaper The Observer, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the pioneer in the area of terminal care. She told him about the five stages everyone goes through when confronted with the prospect of having to die within a limited time. After denying the thought (this cannot be true; there must be a mistake in the outcome of the tests, it concerns somebody else) there follows a period of anger (why must this happen to me). The protest that surfaces out of the depth of one’s being is projected into one’s environment. Then there follows a phase of negotiation (I will start a diet, stop smoking, make a donation to the church), in the hope that a reversal can be made. Then comes a phase of depression in which everything seems hopeless. Finally almost everybody reaches the fifth phase; this consists of the acceptance: the inner preparedness to encounter death.

Once he had returned home, the steps Kubler-Ross had described seemed familiar to Davy. It made him wonder why, until he recognized the relationship with the working spheres of the five basic exercises. The exercise controlling the thinking helps one overcome the ordeal of the denial (which concerns the very thought of the idea that one is going to die). Likewise the exercise of the will helps to direct the anger about the helplessness one feels where it concerns directing the illness into the right channels. The feeling exercise behooves one from falling back into illusions when negotiating. The positivity exercise creates the strength to ignite the inner light in the phase of the depression. Having an open mind helps to regain again and again the resolve to accept which often weakens or is lost.  

The connection between the five stages of the dying process and the five basis exercises is very evident. They originate from the same sphere; they stem from one and the same reality. They show an order which must be inherent in the human being. Kubler-Ross indicates that the different stages are always experienced in the described sequence, whereby there is sometimes a fall back into a previous phase, but where a phase can never be skipped.

Who learns to live conscious of death drawing near, will be necessitated by fate to transform his or her inner self step by step. In performing the basic exercises we go in essence the same way, but now by using our own initiative: through inner activity we continually learn to dwell in other regions of our being in a new way.    

The connection with the constituent parts of our being
In a few short points Rudolf Steiner outlines to Nora Stein-von Baditz, one of the first teachers of the Waldorf School, how the exercises form a connection with the inner constitution of man. While on this exercise track you make as it were a journey through the human being itself. Rudolf Steiner connects the thinking exercise with the ‘use of the physical body’. By this he refers to the following. Utensils in particular are conducive for doing the thinking exercise. The physical observation leads to the thinking activity and that eventually leads us to the idea that rests at the base of the object. The utensil is the physical embodiment of this idea.  

The exercise of the will leads to becoming ‘conscious of the ether body’. The ether body is the bearer of life processes which take place in the course of time. With the help of the ether body the I develops a sense of time. Our memory is also a function of the ether body. In the exercise of the will, learning to work with time plays an essential role.

Doing the feeling exercise concerns ‘getting to know the astral body’. This astral body or soul body has many aspects. When describing the feeling exercise I have used the picture of a garden with plants and shrubs. By the same token one could use the picture of a zoo. “You must get to know well all animals that are inside you in order to be able to tame them”, the way ‘the little prince’ did with the fox in the story by Antoine Saint-Exupery.

To do the positivity exercise, the fourth in the series, you must appeal to your courage. The effort that is required to see things in a positive light becomes possible because the human being is an I-being. ‘Experiencing the I’ is how Rudolf Steiner typifies this exercise. When discovering a new perspective a light begins to shine in the darkness. From that moment on you hold the rudder in your own hand and you become the captain of the ship of thinking, feeling and willing. When exercising open mindedness, you still go a step further. Rudolf Steiner characterizes this as ‘preparation of the spiritual self (Geistselbst)’. Open mindedness is learning to live with what we have to face. Life on earth is not only determined by our customary I, also the world plays an active role in our biography. Recognizing this is the beginning of the awareness of karma. Part of our being encounters us from out of the future, waiting to be met by us. In the book Theosophy, Rudolf Steiner names the region in the spiritual world where we become aware of the karma the region of the spiritual self. Just like acceptance enables you to take the step through the gateway of death, open mindedness opens the gateway whereby the spiritual world can already be experienced during life on earth. Through the spiritual or higher self this objective spirit enters our conscious mind.

In the course of evolution new ‘layers’ have originated time and again in the human being. The basic exercises are aimed at the human being in its present constitution. With the sixth and last exercises the force is mobilized which brings the different parts of the human being into one harmonious interplay. At the same time an organ is thereby developed in us by which we can perceive and encounter the world in a new way.

<< back

Dynamic Content Management by ContentTrakker