We Are Our Attention: Motifs and Themes from the Spiritual Psychology of Georg Kühlewind

The foremost exponent of Anthroposophy in his native Hungary, Georg Kühlewind travels worldwide giving workshops, seminars, retreats, and lectures. He is a chemist by profession and a lifelong musician. His research in consciousness studies encompasses psychology, anthropology, linguistics, epistemology, the philosophy of science, and religion, especially New Testament studies and Zen Buddhism. The focus of his most recent work is the challenge of rightly meeting today’s children, especially those with autism and other increasingly prevalent so-called disorders. He is the author of 24 books, including From Normal to Healthy (an eminently practical guide to the anthroposophical inner path), Becoming Aware of the Logos, The Life of the Soul, Stages of Consciousness, Star Children, and Feeling Knowing: Collected Essays.

The spiritual psychology of Georg Kühlewind is a rich source of insights for the healing of anxiety and depression, the most common mental illnesses of our time. It provides a new vocabulary and enlightened guidance for dealing also with ADD (attention deficit disorder), autism, phobias, neuroses and developmental disabilities. 

And Kühlewind’s work has universal applicability. People in the best of mental health, who are following an inner path of individual self-development (regardless of spiritual tradition), find his guidance valuable. Neither religious nor mystical, his approach is eminently and essentially practical, based on an individual’s experience and development of the human faculty of free attention. 

There is no substitute for careful study of Kühlewind’s writings or for the meditative practice that can confirm his insights. Here I offer only selected highlights in my own words, from notes taken at his Therapists’ Working Group seminars (open to non-therapists) that I attended from 2000 through 2005. Full presentation of these themes can be found in Kühlewind’s From Normal to Healthy: Paths to the Liberation of Consciousness. 

Dualism and the Separating Robe

Kühlewind’s metaphor for our everyday consciousness is the bathrobe, the me-feeling or sense of separate self that begins to develop at about age 1 1/2. Until this time, the child lives in a state of un-selfconscious identity and intuitive communication carried over from the spiritual world.

Our separating robe thereafter creates our increasingly strong experience of dualism: me here – world there. The experience of separation – from the spiritual world, from each other – is the normal condition today. Dualism is the condition essential for making possible full self-consciousness and, through inner effort, a fully self-conscious individual overcoming of the separation. 

The dualistic view, however, is the beginning of anxiety and the source of illness. We try to find reasons for anxiety, for example, in the outer conditions of our lives, but the real meaning of anxiety is our separation. 

But from what are we separated? What the spiritual world is cannot be said in words, for it is not a place but an experience. It is the experience of our original and always true nature of absolute identity with everything, as individuals yet without the boundaries that separate individuals in the physical world. We can verify our spiritual nature through experiencing it, by becoming aware of and developing our spiritual faculties.

Overcoming Dualism – the Schooling of Attention

The basis for Kühlewind’s insights is his own spiritual research. He describes in great detail a schooling of the attention which elaborates on the indications of Rudolf Steiner, and from his research he builds a picture of the human being, a kind of anatomy of our spiritual faculties. 

We are always using our spiritual faculties without noticing them. Their schooling begins with the conscientious practice of exercises in concentration and perception that enable us to experience our own attention, usually dispersed and caught up in our robe. Schooled attentiveness is awareness plus direction.

We can, with practice, experience that our free empty (not dispersed) attention is the source for all our other experiences. Without it we experience nothing. It is who we are, our true I: someone has to be there for there to be experience. 

The path – recommended by Kühlewind for people who are well – proceeds to text, word and image meditation and then to wordless meditation on the meanings behind the text or image and finally – the goal of every spiritual tradition – the experience of form-free emptiness or pure light. Emptiness is the fullness of the potential of all forms. Sometimes called the “I am” experience, it is the experience, however momentary, of the unity of witness, witnessing, and thing witnessed. It is self-forgetting (the everyday self of the robe) and the overcoming of the separation of dualism.

The Forms of Attention – Free and Half-free Forces

Attention is comprised of our faculties for thinking, feeling, perceiving and willing. In their original given state they are free and without content, that is to say form-free. Kühlewind calls them superconscious. They exist in their realization. 

As pure, free forces they are cognitive or Logos forces; they are meaningful, they are that through which we communicate and understand. Thinking, feeling, and willing are a continuum. Cognitive feeling is feeling that knows, without words, like the feeling of evidence, of logic, that always is present in our thinking. Cognitive will is the receptivity in our attention, as when, in order to understand what you say, I inwardly imitate your thinking.

If not used consciously, our free forces become non-cognitive forms: associative thinking, emotions, habits, addictions, psychological forms – captured in our separating robe. They range from the transient forms of sense perceptions to the irreversible, meaningless (and therefore pathological) forms that build our subconscious.

In between form-free forms of attention and forms caught in our robe are half-free forces of attentiveness. They are alienated from their source but not yet bound into some form of neurosis. Kühlewind calls them vagabond or “jobless” because we have not given them their real work. They can be menacing and unbearable. They have a tinge of egotism and appear as anxiety, depression, fear and what Kühlewind calls meaningless “noise.” 

Because they are almost – but not quite – detached from the true I, the half-free forces of thinking, feeling and willing are without the experience of the someone who must be there for there to be an experience at all. Thus, anxiety always has the color of “I am not.” Healing of anxiety will come only through a self-conscious re-experiencing (possible in meditation) of the true self, of presence and oneness. 

Meanings, Not Causes

Many therapeutic approaches ascribe meaning to symptoms and try to find reasons or causes for the symptoms in, for example, parent-child relations or traumatic experiences. In fact, subconscious formations are not communicative and therefore have no meaning. Therapy that works with causes can alleviate symptoms, which are a kind of noise made of associations, feelings, memories, but it can never heal. 

Many therapeutic approaches to depression draw on the trauma theory. This theory, as everyone knows, says that you have suppressed a traumatic experience because it was painful and that remembering in therapy brings relief. Kühlewind points out its illogicality – if remembering the traumatic incident brings relief, why was it suppressed? It is a contradiction to say that an experience is forgotten because it is painful and then to say that remembering it takes away the pain. What the trauma theory does is provide a label. 

Something becomes a trauma because we so name it. It is true that many people seem to find relief when the “trauma” is remembered (named), and this is because now there seems to be a meaning for the present suffering. But it is only a surrogate meaning. 

The trauma theory depends on a theory of memory that is equally invalid. The usual understanding of memory is the storage metaphor; when you remember something you pluck it from storage somewhere in the mind. But this cannot be what happens. If you are trying to remember something you know already what it is – in your feeling, though not in your thinking, not in words. That is why you recognize it immediately when someone says the name you were trying to remember; you must have known it before or you wouldn’t now recognize it. To remember is to imitate an original gesture of attention, without the object present. This reproducing gesture of attention is rooted in feeling – cognitive feeling. 

Many therapists working with ADD children do not even recognize the reality of attention as a free faculty, and seek environmental or physiological causes for the behavioral symptoms. What the behavior of children with ADD shows, says Kühlewind, is that they have weak or inadequate separation; they do not experience the dualism that is ordinary for us. They have weak auto-perception – thin robes or robes with holes. Without strong me-focus, they follow physically wherever their attention goes. These children have not a deficit but a surplus of attention but cannot fix it on one thing for very long. The meaning of ADD, he suggests, has to do with challenging us to overcome our own experience of extreme dualistic separation.

With free forces it makes no sense to ask about causality. We don’t ask why did Bach compose music or Rembrandt paint pictures. Free forces are text-like – meaningful – there is no cause-effect relationship. There is only beginning. 

Healing: the Power to Begin

What makes us human beings – the human feature – is that we can begin. The human being is not a causal system and cannot be understood without recognizing this feature. 

A client in therapy is often convinced he is the product of causes and has no feeling of autonomy. Looking at the past may be helpful in some cases, but of primary importance is that the therapist awakens the awareness of autonomy. (It goes without saying that the therapist must herself practice meditation and other techniques to develop the faculties of receptive attention and cognitive feeling in order to do this.)

The individuality of clients precludes, indeed would make counter-productive, the setting of therapeutic protocols. However, Kühlewind does make some suggestions for how a therapist can encourage a client to work with his free forces. The client’s freedom to begin is of course the essential factor in healing. 

First, the therapist can introduce a spiritual picture of the human being. To know: I am not an animal – this restores the dignity of the human being. To know: I am a spiritual being and I have cognitive faculties – this gives the client a hold or beginning point.

Second, the therapist can introduce a picture of when and how a human being is free. Kühlewind says that most people who are psychologically ill are sensitive to this topic and immediately “get” it. Therapists can reassure clients that they are autonomous and guide them in exercises that enable them to experience in some small way: I am free, I can attend where I will, I can begin – this brings true healing. If I am not free then the question of the meaning of life becomes irrelevant.

Specific suggestions for exercises can be made, tailored to the individual. Small beginnings are best. Very helpful, for example, is to memorize a poem or a sacred text. Memorization requires an exertion of inner attention during which we cannot fail to experience, at least for a time, the reality of our autonomy. 

Third, the therapist can encourage the client to meditate on the meaning of his illness. He will then come to the insight that neither the illness nor the healing is for himself, since every individual’s mission is to do the good. And beyond, the therapist can hint that the person’s real task will begin after healing; just knowing this is a healing factor. To be guided only by a notion of what is “good for me,” as is the case with many therapeutic approaches, is to have lost the thread of meaning in our life.

Everyone has a mission. It is not our profession or outer work and cannot be expressed in words. It is not to do something, but a how: we are the mission. Depression occurs when we feel we deviate from our true mission. In all healings, the original mission of the ill person is restored.