from the book

Strange Fire

- the Death, and the Resurrection,

of Modern Civilization -

mi-fa: consciousness finds the Light of Itself, "I am the Door"

discovering individual insight

We live in a time that some call: the Information Age.  Intense and constant media stimulation surrounds us.  We swim in a virtually endless sea of visual, auditory and data experiences.  No one can absorb it all.

In response to this assault, people set limits by self-selecting bits and pieces of the total energetic flow.  One becomes a member of one or more various sub-groups.  What was once tending to a unitary Culture fractures into thousands of micro-cultures.  This fracturing process emerges most obviously in the social chaos of the 1960's, and has been steadily accelerating.  For example, where there once was a more or less single stream of popular music, now there are hundreds of sub-genres, something special for each individual taste.

Commercial interests now find they have to target these sub-groups.  Television, which once was only three major channels, more or less showing the same fare, is now cable with its hundreds of options including the remarkably unique public access channels.  There is a similar explosion in magazines, with hundreds of tastes now being catered to, and the internet allows anyone to publish their own "zine".

There is something more to this, for this almost insane flow of information contains a great deal of content.  It doesn't just seek to grab our attention, it seeks to form us, to pursuade us, to tell us who we are and what to do - eat this, think that, wear those, watch this, believe that, feel this, do that, want this, imitate them, follow that, and on and on and on.

Amidst the chaos are the usual suspects, the dominating influences: parents, family, church, school, scientists, priests, and politicians.  The information blizzard offers a great deal of advice.  In fact it contains a single peculiar, but uniting  theme, hidden just beneath the surface: the idea of expertise.

Someone else always knows best.

However, this idea of expertise is a remnant of the dying civilization.  Its power as an artifact of social existence belongs to the past, when communities assumed they ought to form the individual, the individuals character, and the central elements of what the individual thought.

But as modern individuals we want to self determine, to decide for ourselves what is best.

We can see in much of modern social phenomena this struggle between the old habits of dominance of the individual by the community, and the refusal anymore of the individual to be so formed.  The chaos and deluge in information disables the old habit of dominance by diluting the content.  Only those communties, who manage to some degree to close themselves off from the onrush of the information age, can still effectively continue to coerce their children's formation.

All over the world, traditional societies struggle to refuse the social forces riding the horse of the information age, recognizing within these forces extraordinary tradition destroying powers.

The reality is, however, that this is an impossible task.  One cannot hold back the future.  One can only pass through the trials of a this remarkable time.


What does this mean for the individual; and then after him or her, for the communties that arise as this age of social chaos passes.?

At the very beginning of this book I noted that the central difficulty of modern culture - the root cause of social disturbances - was the absence of meaning, of true human meaning.  Let us consider this problem more closely.

Over the last few hundred years, many ideas have dissappeared.  For many this has been called "progress".  At the core of theses ideas was a certain sense of the spiritual origin and destiny of the human being.  But, as science grew in stature, contrary ideas appeared.  The human being was no longer a divine creation, but instead an accident of blind evolutionary forces.  The Earth was no longer the center of meaning in the cosmos, but just a small backwater in a vast uncaring emptyness.

Today, the human being is no longer being described by science as a free, self determine individual, but is now a composite of evolutionary induced, and DNA remembered, biological urges and patterns of behavior.  A great determinism now arises from science, defining the human being more and more as a creature of fixed genetic and electro-chemical rules.

Granted, many still hold to faith and belief.  The idea of God is preserved and worshiped.  A romantic vision of a once past moral social order is hungered for.  Creationists oppose Darwinian biology, even to the point of using political power to coerce school boards into changing school curriculums.

Along side this understandable resistence to the new determinism, the so-called New Age arises with great force, and many turn away from` science, finding it empty of soul - of that spiritual something for which they quite reasonably yearn.  A famous scientist, Carl Sagan, even writes of this escalating war of ideas in his book: The Demon-haunted World.  Here, Dr. Sagan expresses his fear that the light, which science has been shinning on world, is in danger of going out.

Clearly a battle rages over not only what is the true meaning of being a human being, but over how one is to come to knowledge of such truths.  Against this onrushing, and spiritually empty future, seeming to come out of science, many hold ever more strongly to the past, and some even seem to want to go backwards, past the no longer viable Christian paradigm of the middle ages (before the appearence of science) and resurrect all the old pagan gods.


Amidst all this confusion, one particular fact stands out.  Deep in the soul of the individual lives a power, which manifests first as a desire - a desire to determine for one's self what is true and what matters mean.

Against this power, this desire, stands another - the ancient, and not quite dead, power of the social order itself - of the community - to force conformance with some pre-determined value or idea.  A child can be raised to think for him or her self, or be raised to accept a community ideal.  Our individuality can be allowed to unfold, or it can be molded, as if it was nothing more than a piece of clay.

Much that appears on the front pages of our newspapers reflects the struggles within modern societies between these contrary powers.  When children bring weapons to school and kill and wound their peers, a common event at the time these pages are being written, this whole debate becomes inflamed.

Just here one can see quite clearly the Strange Fire of the Day of Purification.  But, as suggested above, our need is to pass through these alchemical social trials.

From what source can we find the light to shine on these most terrible problems?

If we are to place ourselves within the stream of time, within the real tendencies that can be perceived as active in modern societies, we must look not to the community, in which the old that is passing away is preserved, but to the individual, in which the future is slowly being born.  A choice confronts us, and only one side of this choice is consistent with the real living streams of modern life - the choice to look to the individual for the needed insights.

Yet, given all the wisdom that tradition has preserved for us, how can we justify this view - that we must now look for wisdom from the individual, rather than from the community?

It is our good fortune that the necessary path, to appreciating why the above is true, has already been discovered and mapped.  Groundbreakers of remarkable gifts of genius have laid out the basic issues.  We will consider this next.


The basic question is somewhat similar to that which we approached previously in the essay: pragmatic moral psychology.  Here we will go into this matter from a whole other direction.

Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in his essay, Nature:  "Nature is a thought incarnate and turns to a thought again as ice becomes water and gas.  The world is mind precipitated and the volatile essence is forever escaping into the state of free thought."

Rudolf Steiner writes in his book, Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception:  "What takes place in human consciousness is the interpretation of Nature to itself.  Thought is the last member in the series of processes whereby Nature is formed."

The human being experiences two processes as separate.  One process is the experience of the senses, the experience of an outer world, and the second process is the arising of thought within the own soul, within the own inner life.  What the above two groundbreakers tell us is that these two processes are in fact not separate.  They are a single reality, which is only divided in human consciousness.  When we think, we have the possiblity of reuniting that which only appears to be divided.  Thinking is not outside nature, divorced from it through our natural error and subjectivity.  Rather, thinking is of nature, just as we are of nature.

There is but one Whole, and the human being and all that occures within our souls - our inner life - is a necessary and important part of that Whole.

Modern science approaches the world as if this division was reality, rather than a confusion of the cultural moment.  The scientific method is a remarkable invention, intended to overcome the limits of this apparent division, and discovers, nevertheless, much that is true about the world of outer experience.  We can be very grateful for the genuis of many scientists, whose wonder and love of seeking after the mysteries of Nature has discovered so much.

At the same time, we can also be very grateful for Steiner and Emerson (and others), who saw that what appeared divided had nevertheless still to be part of a Whole.

When we think we complete something, we bring forth into the world what is yet a part of it, but which needs our human activity for its manifestation.  Even so, we know that we are capable of error.  Life teaches us this all the time, in the most painful ways.  So what does it mean that error arises in thinking, and how can we deal with this difficulty?


It will help our considerations at this point to consider that between the ordinary human error prone thinking, and a pure intuitive perception of the truth, lies a spectrum of intermediate qualties and steps.  It is not a matter of either/or, but of refining our inner processes so that our individual insight begins a path of becoming.  Remember, the title to this essay is: discovering individual insight.

Emerson puts it this way in his essay Intellect: "You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then knowledge, as the plant has root, bud and fruit.  Trust the instinct though you can render no reason.  It is vain to hurry it.  By trusting to the end it shall ripen into truth and you shall know what you believe."

It will also help, for example, to appreciate that such a remarkable personality as Gautama Buddha, who sat under the Bodhi Tree for years during his seeking after enlightenment, began this journey assuming that he knew nothing, and would have to discover everything, he was later to learn, out of his own efforts and considerations.

Moreover, let us also remember what we know of ourselves, and our own desires as individuals to determine for ourselves our views of the world - our moral choices and the course of our own lives.

Discovering individual insight is a path we walk because of the given and necessary elements of our nature.  We are already on this path.  The essential matter to recognize is that individual insight has to be exercised in order to grow and develop.  It is first instinct, then skill, later craft, and finally, art.

A second essential factor is that the world itself, the social world in which we move, and breath and find our way, this world carries, as a necessity, the quality - the capacity - to educate our individual insight.  This is a reciprocal relationship.  Our desire to grow, to develop, is intimately integrated with the patterns of our individual life path. Each human biography is work of art, whose common motif is the education of the spirit for the mastery of the soul (the training of the "I", or ego, to self determine our life of thoughts, feelings and impulses of the will).  Our own particular life is the perfect environment for those aspects of individual discovery appropriate to who we are, and where we individually stand on the spectrum of growth between error in thought and deed and the pure intuitive perception of truth.

All we have to do is to wake up to what is happening in our inner life simultaneously with our outer social existence.  If you will recall what Emerson and Steiner said above, about the relationship between thought and Nature, then it is not so great a leap to realize that the social world of our daily experience contains the same relationship.  Our immediate life draws forth from our inner activity necessary responses.  The more we awake to these inner processes and master them, the more we integrate self and nature into a great whole.  However, there are certain subtle matters that must be appreciated in order that we do not create confusion about what is meant here.

First of all, most of us already have a great deal of given thought content about both Nature and the social world.  In fact, for some it is clear that Nature needs to be included in the social world, for just as we have relationships with each other, we also have relationships with the natural world.  What Rudolf Steiner discovered, and toward which he directs our attention in the above noted book, is that depending upon what aspect of experience is being apprehended, different qualities of activity in thought are called for in order to arrive at knowledge.

Before we proceed to examine this problem, let me remind you, dear reader, that over against our discovery of individual insight stands a long tradition of expertise.  All of us have absorbed into the total thought content of our souls much that is derived from the work of others - others who have often made a life's work of investigation into a particular subject matter.  We are right to ask: Who are we to believe that our own thoughts could be better or more accurate than that produced by an expert?

The answer to this problem is to realize that we can hold in mind various thought contents, and that they do not have to be consistent with each other.  We can quite consciously hold an idea, for example Darwinian biology, at a certain distance and say to ourselves: "This is the work of others, and I can respect all that effort of soul and spirit that they have given to its production.  At the same time I can examine its foundational elements for myself, and draw my own conclusions."

Or, to consider something closer at home.  Suppose someone tells us certain beliefs they hold about another human being.  We do not have to accept these beliefs as fact, or not as fact.  We can hold them at a slight distance, as tentative conclusions about the world.  Then this too can be a matter we struggle to have knowledge of by ourselves.

Expertise, or any apparently more intimate knowledge of a matter, does not have to be determinative of what we strive to discover out of our own insight.  In the absence of our own developed thought content, we can use any other thought content as a temporary point of view, while we work at producing our own.

Let us now turn to Rudolf Steiner's idea of the need for different kinds of thinking according to the object - the subject matter - about which we wish to discover knowledge.


Certainly this is presently not an aspect of the scientific method.  Let me just sketch it as a theme, without attempting to prove it.  Steiner's book, noted above, has all within it that is required in order to know that this idea is correct.  For purposes of this book, for purposes of understanding how this relates to the Strange Fire of the Day of Purification, it is only necessary to understand the idea.

The idea basically is this:

Each object of our experience falls within certain limited general categories.  Nature, in the widest sense, can be divided into four kingdoms: the mineral kingdom, the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom and the human kingdom.  This division is due to each of the kingdoms bearing different complexities.  The mineral kingdom has only physical matter as a member of its organization.  The plant kingdom adds the quality of life, of growth and reproduction.  The animal kingdom adds the element of inwardness, of consciousness, of a wisdom filled instinct.  The human kingdom adds the crowing glory, that of self awareness, and the freedom fully conscious self awareness implies.  The human being is a complex arrangement of physical matter, life, inwardness (soul) and self-aware freedom (spirit).

It is Steiner's experience that knowledge of the mineral is natural to our normal state of thinking activity.  Yet, when we apply this quality of thought activity to the world of living organisms, we encounter a limit.  Ordinary thinking (abstract, cause and effect) can't take hold of the living, of the organic elements of existence.  If we wish to have real knowledge of the organic, our thinking has to have a sympathetic quality.  It has to have a like nature.  For the same reasons, neither ordinary thinking, nor organic thinking, can take hold of inwardness or the real implications of self awareness.   These characteristics of existence are soul/spiritual in nature, and therefore our thinking needs to again have the relevant sympathetic quality.  One student of Steiner (Valentin Tomberg) called this kind of thinking - moral thinking.

So we have three types of thinking: ordinary; organic; and spiritual or moral.  Of course these words, ordinary, organic and spiritual, hardly imply what is the nature of our experience should we learn to create the right qualities of thinking activity.  These words are only fingers pointing in a certain kind of direction.

For our purposes it is only necessary to understand the possibilities involved in discovering individual insight.  We can, through our own efforts, evolve the given nature of our inner activity in new directions.  If we wish to have real insight into the world of the living we need only to bring out of our own souls a new thinking.  If we wish to have real insight into the inner world of of consciousness (soul) and self-consciousness (spirit), we need to have an even more different kind of thinking.

Now having said this let me recall something pointed out above.  It is completely unnecessary for anyone to believe what is written here.  Hold these ideas at a distance, as mere possiblities, that you are going to check out for yourself, through your own effort and insight.


Having said the above, let me suggest some practical methodologies for discovering individual insight.  These are offered not so much as definite ideas one should arrive at, but rather as a kind of temporary scaffolding, as a kind of aide during one's intial explorations.  Once one has began to observe one's inner life, in the terms one is most confortable with, then this scaffolding can be abandoned and one's own insights followed here as well.

In support of the reader's exploration of these matters I can only give what has evolved out of my own practice, which I have come to call: sacramental thinking. This kind of thinking is nether the error prone ordinary thinking, or the pure intuitive perception of reality.  Sacramental thinking is one of the possible inbetween states.

In this style of thinking there are two aspects: first the objective, as called forth by the willed response to our needs as we perceive them, which determines what I want to think about; followed by second, the process, by which I carry out this thinking in a fully conscious (self aware) way.  In what follows are only the barest indications. The reader very much needs to experience their own activity and its consequences, forming their own conclusions as to which objectives and what processes are most suitable for them.

a) Preparation: these are exercises, such as those practices in control of thoughts, developing inner quite (meditation practice plays a role here) and so forth. Its like the stretching one must do before beginning serious physical exercise.

b) Sacrifice of thoughts: letting go preconceptions; overcoming habitual patterns. Nothing will prevent new thoughts from arising, as easily as already believing one knows the answer.

c) Refining the question: the moral atmosphere, why do we want to know; fact gathering and picture forming. It is an artistic activity. What moral color do I paint my soul, what factual materials do I gather as I prepare to form an image - i.e. think in all that that act can imply.

d) Offering the question: acknowledging Presence, and not needing an answer. One practitioner (Valentin Tomberg) urges us to learn to think on our knees.

e) Thinking as a spiritual Eucharist: receiving and grace. We do not think alone. It thinks in and with me (Steiner).

f) Attitude: sobriety and play.

Having outlined this process, let me repeat that the reader can use the above only as initial exercises, as temporary maps needed only until ones own self confidence in charting one's own explorations of the soul has arisen.

The question can now arise: What do we do with our developing insight, as we discover its potentials?


The more one discovers the possibilities latent within the own insight, the more one can self determine the world's meaning.

Usually the question of meaning is put the following way:  What is the meaning of life?  Yet, when the realities are understood, meaning becomes a matter of human creativity.  We determine what life means.  Do you doubt this?  Consider:

When we begin to investigate the soul - the dynamics of inner life - in the manner suggested above, it then becomes clear that the lens of the thought-content through which we view the world is created in our own soul through a number of processes.  As discussed previously, most of what we think about the world is given to us when we are taught langauge and then educated in the traditions of the society in which we grow up.  As one discovers individual insight, more and more the given cultural content comes under review.  There is nothing we think we know that cannot be questioned, and later rethought and different conclusions uncovered.

At a certain point a kind of threshold is observed.  This is an area of the soul where it is clear that our freedom to determine how we view the world is paramount.  Before, we experienced this freedom as a right to our own opinion.  But, as one more and more discovers the relationship between thought and experience, then more and more it is clear that the name we give to experience, i.e. its meaning, lies wholly within our own realm of freedom.

There is one major difficulty here in understanding this.  It is the question of truth.  We could put the question this way: Is the name, the meaning, we give to experience, its true name?  All kinds of problems flow from this question.

First of all, we often seem to have the same experiences, and when we give different qualties of meaning to these same experiences, the question arises whether or not one is the true name and the other is not.  Our general discourse in modern culture on these kinds of problems has acknowledged the naturally given tendency of the human being toward subjectivity.  Witnesses to accidents are expected to give contrary points of view.  Members of families usually do not share the same ideas about what is going on at any particular time.  There is a whole set of disciplines in the practice of psychology directed at accepting these differences, and at the same time working the resulting confusion out.

Part of the problem of discovering individual insight is the problem of moving from subjectivity in our thought content to the true name.  In a sense we've come in a circle now.  Remember earlier when we spoke of moving from error prone thought to pure intuitive truth?

We bring about this movement - the movement from error and subjectivity toward pure intutive truth -  when we bring discipline to the soul through the activities of the self conscious spirit.

When we imbue this discipline with certain qualities, they will determine whether the created meaning is a true name.

Emerson approaches this problem from several interersting directions, of which the following is one of the best.  In his essay (lecture): The American Scholar, Emerson sets out certain criteria for his ideal of the life of the mind.

Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all.  Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier...

In this distrubution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect.  In the right state he is Man Thinking...

The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature...

The next great influence into the spirit of the scholar is the mind of the Past...Books are the best type of the influence of the past...

Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential.  Without it he is not yet man.  Without it thought can never ripen into truth...The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious is action.  Only so much do I know, as I have lived.

For the instinct is sure, that prompts him to tell his brother what he thinks.  He then learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds...

In self trust all  virtues are comprehended.

It is not possible to find a better example of the value of discovering individual insight, than in the life and work of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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