by Signe Schaefer
What is it about inner work that seems so daunting? The very idea elicits feelings of inadequacy, of discouragement, of longing. Caught up as we so often are – especially as parents of young children – in the requirements and the rush of everyday life, we can imagine inner development as something that could happen only on a secluded mountain top. Or, maybe it is only the privilege of others: single friends, students on a spiritual path, our spouse.
What image do we hold of inner development? Is it practicing meditative exercises, working with mantra, stilling our buzzing mind? Or is it growing inner wakefulness, attentiveness that lives in ever more moments, consciousness that begins to permeate our life experiences and penetrate to ever deeper levels of understanding? Do we define it a something outside our sphere of possibility, requiring a retreat from everyday life, something reserved for others or do we see it as a process of growing and learning that can be entered wherever we are, in whatever phase of life we find ourselves?
Many years ago a friend shared an experience with me that vividly captures the tensions that I and so many women friends have felt around the question of focused inner work. She had asked her husband to watch their infant daughter while she hurried though a variety of household chores. The baby was gurgling and kicking happily on their bed, and so the man though this would be a good time to do some meditative exercises. While he was concentrating on his meditation, the baby fell off the bed. Fortunately, she was not hurt, by my friend, who was daily feeling spiritually inadequate in comparison to her husband because she could not seem to find time or energy for inner work, was aghast that her husband was oblivious to the immediate situation around him while ostensibly seeking ʻhigherʼ knowledge. She knew, from a place deep within her, that her encompassing attention would never have let the baby fall. And ye ti was just this encompassing attention, this sense for dimension in all that was going on around her, that made focused inner work so difficult.
I share this example not to bind the experiences within gender differences – I know many men with identify with the woman in this story, and many women who could have acted as this man did. Yet, there is something objective about the nurturing role that asks for a certain wholeness of consciousness – and I call this a feminine awareness whether it manifests in a woman or a man. This is qualitatively different form a determined sense of self, a directed feeling of individual identity that can close off the impressions of the surrounding world and concentrate on its chosen focus. This latter capacity is connected, I believe to a masculine consciousness whether it is being exercised by a man or a woman. (1)
Often when one is busy with young children, with the multi-sided responsibilities of caring for family life, it is easy to lose dight of oneself as a distinct individual. I speak outof my experiences as a mother who was for several years the ʻat homeʼ carrier of our developing family. I do not want to exclude wither men, or women who are not mothers, from my comments, but I am aware how much the daily realities of my life have colored my thoughts. Each of us will know our own particular struggle to find balance between that in us which inclines toward the needs of others, which seeks to nurture and attend and carry the totality, and that other part of us which yearns for self-expression and individual achievement. In the years since the Womenʼs Movement brought so many of womenʼs, and menʼs, previously accepted roles into question, this challenge for balance had become an ever more pressing question of consciousness. I can imagine that readers of this book know this challenge and are seeking ways to bridge the growth that comes through attending to the needs of others – particularly through the responsibilities of parenting – with the equally real growth that is the fruit of consciously pursued self- development.
Our culture has long undervalued the role of nurturer. The assertive self-starter has tended to be the one to receive attention and praise. We have depended on nurturing of course, and are in fact now suffering its lack in myriad ways both individually and as a society. But it is only fairly recently that we have begun to see the tremendous developmental possibilities available to those who take nurturing seriously, who enter ti with all the energy, enthusiasm and attentiveness usually reserved for oneʼs career outside the family. Quite the reverse of being a detour on oneʼs path of individual becoming, parenting offers us so many opportunities for real, tangible self-development. I know that it has been one of the most profound gifts to my inner and outer becoming.
A modern path of inner schooling, such as the one articulated by Rudolf Steiner, includes many exercises to awaken reverence, foster inner quiet, promote self- knowledge, and activate observation and focused attention. These exercises are to be practiced again and again in order to enhance oneʼs soul capacities, in order to develop heightened perception and an ever greater possibility to know the dimensions of reality. As responsible parents we are daily doing the work that these exercises suggest. We may feel we have no time for spiritual exercises, but if we look carefully at what is asked of us everyday, we will find how often we are practicing just what a student on a spiritual path seeks to exercise. However, we do not necessarily pause to notice and appreciate what we are doing. We often overlook the opportunities for conscious self-learning that stands before us. How can we come to know and work more consciously with these opportunities so that our daily tasks become substance for our evolving inner life?
Opportunities awaiting consciousness
In describing the basic conditions for a path of spiritual schooling, Rudolf Steiner speaks of a fundamental mood of soul upon which all genuine inner development depends; he calls this an attitude of reverence, a devotion to truth and knowledge.(2) He acknowledges, as we all must, how genuine feelings of reverence, of awe and wonder, have been severely undermined in the modern age. Since childhood we have been taught to look critically at the world, to find the flaw, the missing piece. Indeed, it is hard not to feel cynical in the face of much that confronts us in society and even in our personal relationships. Right judgement certainly has its place and must be cultivated; but if feelings of admiration and veneration can find no room to grow within us, we close ourselves off to so much that would otherwise be ours to see.
When my children were young, I would go into their rooms at night before I went to bed. Sometimes I would stand there in the quiet, listening to their gentle breathing, remembering the fullness and activity of the day, and I would be filed with the mystery of these mighty beings who were now in my care. In those moments, I knew they were so much more than ʻmy little childrenʼ. I do not mean to imply that I could see into their previous lives, but I knew beyond a doubt that they had had them, and that somehow we had agreed that in this life, I would care for them a smother. The truth of this agreement, with its enormous responsibility and its unparalleled gift, was tangibly present for me. Whenever I read in Rudolf Steiner, “….one knows that every feeling of true devotion unfolded in the soul produces an inner strength or force that sooner or later leads to knowledge”(3), I know that he is right.
In conversations over the years on the subject of reverence, I have again and again heard people bring examples of experiences with their children. For many, childbirth was a moment of profound awakening; the wonder they felt in the face of this mystery opened quite unexpected dimensions of knowing. Here was truth; here was being. Life would never be quite the same again, for in that moment a veil had parted, and although it closed again, the living experience could never be denied.
So many moments as parents invite our reverence. For example, we watch our children take so many steps – from walking, to discovering what their hands or their minds can do, to falling in love. We stand daily in front of the truth and the mystery of development. Material to inspire our reverence is never lacking; it is we who are too tired, too burdened or pre-occupied to notice. Can we try to recognize each day the feelings of devotion which hover in our subconscious? Can we make more space for them, allow them to become conscious, to resound within us?
Often the reverence so naturally present in our child can open our eyes to what we would otherwise have missed. How many wonders lie beyond a whispered “Look, Mommy!” : rainbows of light in an oily puddle, a beetle rich with prehistoric lore, flower petals of a color we cannot name. I am so grateful to my children for opening my eyes – and my heart – in such varied directions. I remember their eager young faces as we would light the candles on the Advent wreath. The light in their eyes invited me into an experience of growing anticipation and inner preparation that I had never before known at the approach of Christmas. Through the children, many festivals took on new dimensions of inner experience for me. I must say that as the years went by, I also realized the temptation to depend on the children to inspire my own reverence in such situations. Luckily, children do not stay the same and so we too are challenged to keep growing.
Even when they were teenagers – not generally a very visible reverent age – I found myself often feeling genuine awe for the ways they chose to assert their individualities. The courage of self-expression behind my daughterʼs green hair, the self-protecting shut-down my son imposed on my maternal questions … absolutely right and appropriate this behavior was for this particular child (and I do not mean to suggest that this was easy!), then doorways of understanding for human development opened within me. Ever and again, I experience that the key to such opening is my attitude. When I can allow feelings of reverence to accompany my encounter with others, or with ideas or natural phenomena, I inevitably meet more that what is only on the surface.
Another condition that belongs to a path of inner schooling is the exercising on oneʼs capacity of observation. Plant studies, working with simple man-made objects, observing natural processes or human social behavior: these are but a few of the many suggestions to foster more acute and objective observation skills.(4) we are told to choose an object and then to stay attentive to it, taking in its details, opening ourselves to what makes it what it is, to the particular thought that underlies its being. We try to allow ourselves to experience more than a generic or automatic identification, more than a scientific analysis, to really meet this particular object and how it reveals whatever archetype may lie within it.
Students on a spiritual path must seek out objects for observation; conscientious parents are in fact doing this work of careful taking in of phenomena all the time. I think it is the rare parent who cannot be interested in his or her child, who is not drawn to notice a myriad of details – the tiny miraculous infant toenails, the concentrated scowl as chubby fingers tie a show lace, the “I can do it!” joy of jumping off a wall. What mother is unable to discern the different dries of hunger, wet diaper, crankiness or a wish for company? We are observing all the time and even skillfully and with confidence determining behavior. But do we recognize this developing faculty, and could we work with it more consciously?
To experience parenting as a path of conscious inner growing requires us to move beyond instinctive behavior, however effective it may be. Interest that is simply there – because of our innate fascination with everything about our child – needs to become more aware, more self-directed and objective. Learning about child development is enormously helpful – just as study belongs to any path of schooling; but the information can only be helpful if we also school our observing. Then we will be able to experience the truth of what we have learned, and we will find confirmation through our study of what we have seen for ourselves.
As we observe our child, we can notice what characteristics seem to belong to the phase of development he or she is in, what gestures are present through imitation of family members or friends, what habits indicate temperament (5), and what qualities seem to belong uniquely to this child. Distinguishing the sources of a particular behavior can be so helpful in determining how we respond. It often takes a long time to understand what lies behind certain ways of being, and we sometimes interpret things quite inadequately; but the learning from looking back at our mistakes, and looking again and again at the phenomena before us, becomes the substance for real growth in both our parenting and in our inner development.
My eldest child was quite a late walker, I puzzled over how she would support herself round and round a low table, or seem quite tireless toddling along holding my hand but would never venture forward on her own, not even to my husbandʼs or my open arms. she seemed quite resolute in what looked like a refusal to take that solitary step. And then one day in a large room full of people, she freely stood up in the middle of the floor, looked around, took sixteen steps, looked around, and sat down with obvious satisfaction. Luckily I was there to see this, and it filled me with both joy and questions. What need in her refused to take a less than perfect step? How had she mastered this without the build-up of two-steps, four-steps? Had she been secretly practicing? Or, were these very questions more a reflection of how I might have approached the task?
Some years later when we were living in Holland, she would actively refuse our suggestions that she greet the milkman or a neighbor with the simple Dutch phrases we were learning. I would find out from her kindergarten teacher what story was being told each week so that I could tell the same one at home in English. Nevertheless, her teacher said she never spoke any Dutch although she seemed happy enough chattering to herself in English. And then one day – perhaps five or six weeks after we had arrived – when I went to pick her up at school, the teacher greeted me with great excitement and announced: “She speaks fluent Dutch! She started first thing in the morning and has hardly shut her mouth since.” Suddenly I remembered how she had begun walking and I knew there was a connection and that I was observing something essential about her individuality. Many other puzzling – and at times frustrating – moments with her came to my mind and I saw with new clarity that she simplyhad to do new things her own way. She needed our help to be led gently toward what she did not know, but her fierce independence had to be respected. I had been observing isolated phenomena for years, but only gradually could they reveal to me this central gesture of her being. This insight was incredibly helpful over the years – when I was awake enough to remember it – and through it I learned a bit more about trusting my observations sooner or later, to yield me greater understanding.
In a very helpful lecture entitled Practical Training in Thought (6), Rudolf Steiner describes several exercises to strengthen our power of image-making, to build confidence in our ability to know consequence, and to trust that we will have the right thoughts when we need them. All these exercises are based on accurate and careful observation of phenomena – whether in nature, in human interaction or in memory. They encourage activity that as parents we are engaged in all the time.
For example, two of the exercises deal with observing some aspect of human behavior and either building a very concrete mental picture of what will follow on from the observed phenomena or reflecting on what has caused it to manifest. In the one case, we are imagining into the future, in the other into the past. As parents we very often engage in similar though processes: we see the children disappearing our the door with pillows and a bedspread, the broom and the mop… we imagine they intend to make a camp. Will it be a peaked tent by the woods or a furling canopy above the picnic table with cushioned thrones at either end for king and queen? Our ten year old comes home from school under a cloud. He wonʼt speak beyond monosyllables and looks on the verge of tears: did his best friend go off with someone else, or was the teacher cross with him? Did something happen on the bus ride home? Parental interest or concern quite naturally causes us to speculate from the present into the future or the past. But are we thorough in imagining the pictures? And do we follow through by checking out what does or did in fact occur? These are the critical steps in the exercises Steiner describes, and even further he advises us to correct the inner pictures if the ones we first made were proven wrong. This step, I think, we do not so readily take naturally, yet for our inner growth, it is fundamental. The act of self-correction in the face of reality heightens our attention into the future, encourages us to confront inappropriate pride in our insights, and strengthens our capacity to admit consequences as part of any process.
Moments of inner quiet
Another challenge of parenting that belongs to any path of inner development is learning to discern the essential from the non-essential. We can so easily get lost in the details of a day, in the needs for scheduling, in the endless tasks of cleaning, washing, shopping, cooking; we can sometimes forget that these activities are there to serve life not to consume it. Or, we can see our young teenager with what seems to us like too many holes in her jeans, or in her ears, or perhaps he is shrouded all in black, his hair cropped off or pony-tailed. How are we to know if what we see is a warning of some deep problem or simply the going style, or the need to hide a bit, or a message that if we will know them, we must go beneath the surface?
Rudolf Steiner suggests that in order to practice distinguishing the essential from the non-essential, we should create for moments of inner quiet, times when we pull away from the ongoing requirements of our day. (7) How shall we find these times when some person or task seems to need us every waking moment? And not only parenting but much else in modern life works against the possibilities of inner tranquillity: we are bombarded by ever-changing sense impressions through the media, Muzak, traffic, and what can feel like a kind of universal rush. When if we catch a moment for ourselves, we often feel an inner buzz continuing; or we fall asleep from pure exhaustion. Yet, because it is so hard, I think we know how important it is to find those moments apart, those times when we can consciously let our experiences reverberate and reveal their deeper meaning, when we can collect ourselves and allow a healthy transition between activities.
Steiner encourages us to take the time – five minutes he says will do – to review each day before we go to sleep.(8) Instead of getting caught up again in feeling through our experiences he suggests we try to stand outside the flow of the first day and view it as a stranger. Or we can think of ourselves looking down on the day from a higher place, where what was important stands our and the non-essential falls away. The fruits of such a review will be enhanced if we go backwards from evening to morning – for this we must be more active, more awake and so we will be less likely to slip into an automatic replay. Most people I know who have made this review a part of their lives, find it invaluable; it helps to bring the day to a close, to prepare us for a deeper sleep. To be honest, many have fallen asleep in the process of doing it, which, of course, is not the aim! As with all inner work, perserverance does help, and so dies sitting up while doing the review. The temptation to do this when already lying in bed is very great and is an invitation to instant sleep.
A counter exercise to this daily review, and one again that is so helpful in parenting, is to take a few minutes in the morning to listen to the mood with which we enter the day and to preview what the day will bring. Acknowledging the basic challenges in front of us can give us strength. Of course, we know that the unexpected will also meet us, but a momentary look at what we do know lies ahead can give us pivotal points to work with, can create anticipated breathing spaces and allow us to return in memory during the rush of the day to this moment when we felt centered and attentive. Perhaps it seems impossible to imagine even two minutes in the morning for such a daily preview – the babyʼs cry or a bouncing child is our wake-up call and itʼs full steam ahead from then on. But we do take time to brush our teeth; is two more minutes for soul hygiene any less important?
I would now like to describe a group of six exercises which Rudolf Steiner emphasized as particularly important in fostering and balancing inner growth. I think of them as practices in centering ourselves; they help us to be more attentive in our thinking, feeling and willing and encourage us to look beyond our all too frequent automatic reactions of criticism and dismissal. Steiner describes them as essential accompanying activities in the development of a conscious spiritual life, but they are also incredibly strengthening for a more wakeful and fruitful participation in everyday life. As exercises they can seem surprisingly simple on first hearing; perhaps it is this simplicity that makes them so difficult to sustain. Yet, it is the dedicated effort of working with them that builds confidence and inner equilibrium.(9)
In our roles as parents, we are challenged to develop qualities like positivity, openness and balance. To take up these centering exercises would be to engage more consciously in a structured working on these qualities. We are working on them everyday anyway, but often in a quite haphazard way; we confront a situation and respond most often our of instinct – sometimes wisely but also many times in ways we later regret. We see all this happening. We want to become more centered, and yet it is so difficult to take five minutes to work on inner exercising.
I think back on my years as a mother of young children and remember how each year as summer approached, I would somehow find time for leg-lifts and sit-ups – at least a few minutes everyday. Was I only motivated by the imagined shame of my winter white self exposed on a beach? This seems so shallow; surely I also wanted to feel more fit. But where did time for this come from? And what about my more energetic friends who found regular time to jog or do aerobics? Why is it so much harder to find five or ten minutes for inner fitness?
Sometimes I think we resist this inner work because we know how life-changing it will be. Perhaps we already feel so inundated with responsibilities that we shy away from what will lead us to be more responsible. We know somewhere that if we are more centered, we will perceive more around us; we will experience more joy but also more of the worldʼs pain. As our capacities of perception grow, so too may increase what is asked of us. And we are already so tired. I think this field of conflicting desires and fears, competing demands for our time and energy, is known to most conscientious parents. The paradox I find again and again is that whenever I overcome my resistances and give myself those few minutes to attend to my inner life, quite the opposite of what I had dimly worries about actually occurs. Yes, my increasing perception brings with it new responsibilities, but rather than draining my forces, I find that even a few minutes of regular inner work gives renewed strength and an unimagined source of energy with which to meet what life asks.
For many modern people it is difficult to stay concentrated on a particular thought. We start out thinking about something but become easily distracted by an association, a memory, a worry, or a physical sensation. We feel scattered, unfocused and confused. Modern life seems to present us with such complex issues, and we easily doubt our capacity to penetrate the layers of phenomena to real understanding. Thought cliches, often borrowed unconsciously from the media, permeate our inner meanderings and our conversations with others. We observe ourselves wandering around with our thoughts and yet feel quite mystified by how we can be thinking or saying such a thing. All of these experiences can leave us wondering: is anyone at home here?
The first of Steinerʼs “six exercises” helps us to become centered in thinking activity. The aims of the exercise are to develop more objectivity and inner firmness and to help us enter the thought processes which inform our world. We choose a simple everyday object (cup, button, paperclip, needle…) and inwardly try to concentrate our attention on the thoughts which belong to it. We may begin, for example, thinking the shape and color of the object, its straightness or concavity or texture. We resist the temptation to dart from impression to impression but try to enter carefully the living thoughts which the object makes manifest. Through our own power of determination, we thing through, as factually as we can, the different aspects of the object (form, method of manufacture, function, etc.)
In this exercise, we do not observe an actual physical object in front of us, but rather reflect on the object in our thinking. It generally helps to do this with closed eyes. We are trying to strengthen our inner activity and to gradually release our dependence on the sense world. We use man-made objects because it is easy to see that they are embodiments of ideas – that thought underlies their creation. And we use simple objects in order to resist relying on attraction or outside interest as a motivating force. Steiner suggests that we might stay with the same object for several days. The challenge is to think freshly and actively each time, not to rely on thoughts from yesterdayʼs exercise. We might, in fact, think the same thoughts, but each time this must be an activity of the present, not an act of memory.
There are obvious difficulties which arise with this exercise. To keep your thinking focused for five minutes on one object asks for real wakefulness. It is incredibly easy to drift off and find your attention on last summerʼs holiday or making a grocery list. If you find yourself far from the ʻbuttonʼ (and I can assure you that your will!), just go back. Donʼt waste time berating yourself or wondering how you ended up in eight grade math class or braiding your daughterʼs hair; this would only be a further indulgence in distraction. It is, however, useful after finishing the exercise, to look back and see where and how you wandered off. You may notice re-occurring weak spots where you tend to free associate, for example, whenever you make a transition from thinking through the form of the object to considering its origin. After this kind of review you may be able to focus more attentively in future exercises. Yu may also notice things about how you think – in dialogue, in images, in concepts – and so be able to intentionally practice what is less natural to you.
For parents this exercise is particularly helpful in our efforts to discern the essential from the non-essential and to trust our abilities to meet the challenges we face each day with a heightened sense of self-control. We are so inundated with advice about parenting that we can begin to doubt our own capacity to know what our child needs. Doing this exercise over time fosters living thinking activity and builds confidence in our capacity to penetrate reality. It helps us to see through the thought cliches that deaden us and our culture. This living thinking is critical to an awakened inner lie. It gives us access to the world of spirit activity as a freely participating individual human spirit being.(10)
After we begin to feel more active and centered in our thinking, we can add and exercise for the will. I think it is easy to see why we might benefit from attending to our will activity. How often have you set out to do a task and found yourself in the midst of something altogether different without any consciousness of having changed your plans? Do you ever part from a chance encounter with an acquaintance saying, “Letʼs get together….Iʼll call you”? How many of your “to do” lists begin with perennial intentions (clean the toy chest, write to Aunt Sue, sort through the laundry room…) that never quite get done?
So much of our daily activity is motivated by outside requirements. We respond to what we must but are often unable to follow through on aims that arise within us. Perhaps we are unsure of what we want to do, or we feel cramped in our efforts to be self- determining. It can be very useful at the end of a day to reflect on the following questions: How centered was I in the working of my will today? What moved me … outer obligations, inner intentions, the needs of others, my own desires…? Did I have a plan? Was it realistic? Did it become a prison? Did I follow through with my real intentions? Was I flexible in meeting the unexpected? Was I aimless or scattered?
After reflecting on questions like the above, we may feel more motivated to attempt the exercise for becoming centered in the will. Steiner suggests that we determine to do some small unnecessary act (re-tie a shoelace, scratch your ear, look out the window) at a certain time in the day and then when the time comes, do it. This is to be repeated day after day. An apparently insignificant action is chosen because it is the self- determining nature of the act that is important. Feeding the dog does not count because the dog needs to be fed; and something particularly interesting would pull us toward it. The central requirement in this exercise is that we consciously follow through with our own intention.
Often after a few days of remembering to do the chosen deed, people will forget they ever meant to do it at all. Perhaps days will go by and then you remember with shock and frustration. What is essential is to deep trying. If what is to be practiced were easy, we would have no need to do the exercise. As it becomes more possible to fulfill the chosen task, it is good to ad on further ones. In accomplishing these small acts of initiative, we gradually strengthen our will for more significant activity, not only in those intentions which are required by our outer life, but also those which arise within us.
For parents this exercise can be particularly beneficial. Too often we feel pulled through our days by a force that seems to have little to do with us. We may feel as it we are on ʻautomatic pilotʼ; we function through our many tasks but feel barely present. We may set ourself clear goals: I will get the children to school on time. I will sort through the summer clothes, I will say no to that extra project at work. But, often our many goals come into conflict, and at the end of the day we are tired and discouraged by our lack of follow-through. We may, at first, distain this ʻsmallʼ exercise to become centered in our will, out of the sense that we have much bigger tasks to accomplish. But, it is precisely the regular practicing of these small deeds that strengthens the inner capacity of will for when we really need it.
The exercise for becoming more centered in oneʼs feeling life often arouses controversy and resistance. In our psychological age, we worry that somehow this may be an invitation to repression; do we even want to control our feelings? Donʼt we want to be able to truly express what is on our mind or heart? It is, in fact, just this that Steiner encourages us to work on doing – but to do it knowingly and in a way that fits the situation. From a foundation of inner calm can we become our own “ruler over expressions of joy and sorrow, of pleasure and pain”?(11)
I have often experienced that in the midst of an intense feeling, I too easily lose myself. Later, I find myself wondering: “What happened then? Where was I?” I know that I lost my sense of being centered, that I was, in fact, “beside myself”. It fascinates me how much our language has to tell us about the domain and the importance of this exercise.
Why would we ever want to be in a state of “blind rage”, or “panic stricken”, or “racked with grief”? So we really want to be centered in a moment of genuine feeling, and let its expression be appropriate to the moment, how much richer is our experience. We are awakened and our feeling can reveal unexpected truths beyond the merely personal.
But, how to practice such an exercise? How to catch the habits of snapping back at a whining child, or sinking into depression at anotherʼs (perhaps unintended) slight? As with the exercise for the will, it helps to bring attention to oneʼs feeling experience by reviewing at the end of the day. Where was I in my feeling life? What threw me off center? When did I feel an inner enlivening? Were there moment s when I felt hollow, stone-like, volcanic or dull? When did I feel authentic, when false in my feeling expressions? Were there times that my feeling expressions brought forth consequences that were very different from what I intended? In reflecting on a particular situation that occurred, can I also imagine – in living inner pictures – a more centered feeling participation than actually occurred? Do I see patterns of how I become beside myself, or particular situations that produce this state?
Of course, the aim of this exercise is not merely to review where one was or was not centered; the real purpose is to bring feeling consciousness into the present moment. Through reflection we can often realize where we stepped away from appropriate and genuine expression. Gradually, our attending can wake us up in the moment of slipping off, and then we have a choice to become more centered. We might, for example, catch ourselves about to lash out in anger at our childʼs ignoring our request to pick up toys. We know from previous experience that our expression of anger will lead to tears, to guilt, to toys still scattered on the floor. If we can center ourselves, we may recognize our irritation, or tiredness, and know that to put this out on our child is useless. Then we may find the inner strength to seek another method of encouragement for the task.
We have so many habitual feeling responses, echoes of our own parental edicts or religious commandments, memories of social pressures that may play into even the simplest situation. How are we to know what is ʻappropriateʼ behavior? This question can suggest to us why Rudolf Steiner introduces this exercise after the ones for thinking and will. We need to have some control over our thoughts and intentions to be able to discern our own feeling responses with equanimity and let them find authentic expression in ways that suit the moment.
It is significant that Rudolf Steiner cautions us as much about too little feeling engagement as he does about too much. The person who cannot laugh or cry is as in need of centering activity as the one who giggles or weeps uncontrollably.(12) We each must discover our own challenges: we may become too quickly angry, or fearful, impatient or detached. When our feeling moves almost automatically into outward expression, its genuine message to our soul can be dissipated. Where we must struggle to develop equanimity, we build inner strength which will serve us well for our spiritual development. In How to Know Higher Worlds, Rudolf Steiner speaks of letting a feeling become “a messenger, instructing us about the world.”(13) Far from distancing us from the wold around us, a consciously attended, calm and centered feeling life opens us to ever richer and deeper realms of experience and inner knowledge.
The fourth exercise is to seek out, even in the most difficult situation, something that is good or true or beautiful. As previously stated, we live in an age when a critical faculty is highly valued: we are schooled from early childhood to see ʻwhat is wrong with this pictureʼ. All too easily we take the good for granted and focus on the flaws – in another person, in a relationship, in nature or in social phenomena.
How many times do we catch ourselves inadvertently running through the inadequacies of our spouse, our childʼs teacher, our town, or the weather? Even with people with whom we clearly have a deep and loving connection we can fall into times where all we take note of are their less than desired traits. Here we are challenged to expand our thinking and guide our feelings in order to seek our qualities we can admire. This does not mean ignoring the bad, or the ugly, or what needs improvement; it simply asks that we also notice something good.
In describing this exercise, Rudolf Steiner referred to a legend about Christ and some of his followers encountering a dead dog lying by the road. The others were all repulsed and turned away from the decaying corpse, but Christ admired the dogʼs beautiful teeth. (14) This story captures very graphically the challenge of this exercise: can we discover the “beautiful teeth” in what otherwise presents itself to us as flawed?
As with the previous exercises, we can become aware of how positivity lives in us by reviewing our day to see where we exercised it, and where we were caught in criticism. Should we begin to feel depressed about how readily we fall into negativity, it is important to remember that we could not freely develop positivity – as a conscious accomplishment of our “I” – if we never felt critical. Automatic positivity lacks individual consciousness. It is in the effort to see clearly through what is difficult to what is also good that we refine our capacity for right and responsible judgment.
To practice positivity, we can consciously look for what we may have initially missed. For example, we can stop to notice what our otherwise lazy and self-centered teenager did today that was right, helpful, or kind. Perhaps we may even be able to appreciate something developmentally appropriate in his or her self-absorbtion. If we have become aware of slipping into negativity in a careless conversation with others, we can resolve next time to bring a more balanced picture, even praise if it is due, and so lift a future conversation from the grip of gossip.
Another way to practice this exercise is to try to think even one positive thought about something that is distressing us, such as pollution, a difficulty at work, or a friendʼs illness. Many years ago I found myself becoming increasingly obsessed with all that was wrong with a colleague. I could see nothing worthy about him and so asked my husband if he could help me. I could agree to the positive qualities my husband would mention, but each time I would reply, “Yes, but….” finally, my husband said, “Just stop at the ʻyesʼ, leave the ʻbutʼ for some other time. Gradually I came to see much more deeply into my colleagueʼs virtues and to appreciate how the difficulties I still perceived were, in fact, important clues into the riddle of this particular human being.
This practice in looking for the positive can also be very helpful in trying to accept some of our childrenʼs interests or friends. Often we can be aghast at their choices; we wonder where we have gone wrong that our daughter seeks out such a friend, that our son has such taste in music or in reading matter. These situations can make us despair for the future, or we can face the challenge to look deeper: to appreciate her initiative or compassion, to value that he is reading at all. We grow in our capacity to understand, and to bring helpful balancing forces, when we can expand our attention beyond negative impressions to encompass the good as well.
The fifth exercise is to practice being open and receptive to new experiences, to things one does not yet know. Often, we go through our days with an attitude of dismissal toward anything that might contradict our previous experiences. Again, our use of language can alert us to how we close ourselves off to what might challenge our sense of security. Have you ever found yourself thinking, or saying: “Thatʼs ridiculous”. “I never heard of such a thing”, “I canʼt stand that person, she is always so…”, or “Thatʼs not how I do it”?
John Davy spoke of this exercise as practicing a “readiness to learn”(15), and I find this a very helpful term. The world offers us endless possibilities to grow in consciousness, but are we ready to learn? Are we open to new impressions? Of course, the new must be weighted against our previous experience; this is not an invitation to ignore what we know, but rather to allow it to expand. We need to use our clear thinking and also our will to stay open to the unexpected.
We can become familiar with the challenge of this exercise by asking ourselves as part of a daily review: were there times when I closed down today? Can I get in touch with why? – Habit, fear, lack of awareness of being closed…When was I open to something new? What prompted this – a surprise, anotherʼs insistence, my own effort…?
We may be closed to new ideas because they create new responsibility in us. For example, if we hear that television has detrimental effects on children, we may react with” “It didnʼt hurt me” or “My child doesnʼt watch much” or “ The children love to play Power Rangers – TV stimulates their imaginations.” We don not necessarily want to hear something that might push us to look deeper into other experiences we also have, such as that the children often end up fighting after a stint of TV watching, or that they sit around a lot with glazed eyes, acting bored when the TV is turned off. Can we find the courage to open ourselves to new ideas knowing that we may be changed in the process? Can we welcome these opportunities for self development?
At times we shut down because our sense of identity is challenged by something new. How often do we thing: I canʼt draw…or sing…; I donʼt like guitar music…or big cities…or spinach? Often our actual experience contradicts these narrow self-definitions, but we cling to them out of a need for security. Can we be open to our own possibilities to grow, to become more than we are at present? And can we grant the same possibilities to others? So we meet the people in our lives with ever-renewing interest, ready to experience something unexpected in them, open to their small or large steps of development?
This exercise asks us to seek daily opportunities to learn something new: new ideas, capacities, impressions of others or of the world. In our experiences of nature, we have endless possibilities to meet newness, to release ourselves from the fixed boxes of learned concepts: the sky is blue (except when it is white, or pink, yellow or grey…); tree bark is brown (and red, green, white and black…) So many miracles of expanding awareness greet us in every flower, in water babbling over rocks, in falling leaves. As parents, we have the gift our our childrenʼs open-heartedness to the world to invite us along on a journey of discovery. By nature they bring wonder and fresh perspactives to what they meet; if we are receptive and will consciously attend to whree they lead us, we will find neverending opportunities to grow.
The final practice of these ʼsix exercisesʼ is to bring the previous five together as part of daily life. If each exercise has been practiced daily for at least a month, and earlier ones are not completely dropped as new ones are added, then eventually we are challenged to balance these different evolving capacities: centeredness in thinking, will and feeling, as well as positivity and openness. For me a helpful image for this balance has been the five-pointed star. Each point is important in its own right, and when the five are brought together, something quite new comes into focus, begins to shine and radiate new force. This coming together a a star is what the sixth exercise allows – a harmonizing and enlivening consciousness. Over time this kind of attention can foster self-confidence, inner tranquillity, objectivity, interest and strength with which to meet lifeʼs challenges, with which to grow in spiritual perception.
All our life experiences are substance for our inner development. The question is: will we let ourselves be overwhelmed or dulled, made hopeless or violent or apathetic by the troubles of modern life and, more specifically, by the challenges of modern parenting? Or will we take up the opportunities for inner work and school our attention to meet the world, and ourselves, and our children in ever deeper and more responsible ways? I think that many of us have come to feel that taking our inner lives seriously is actually a matter of survival, both for ourselves and through us for our children. If we are not to be mercilessly buffered by the pace and the complexity of modern life, we need to strengthen our inner core, our ability to perceive the real needs around us. and our capacity to be self-directing. Furthermore, earnest attention to our own self- development is not only about ourselves; it will serve our children and it is also essential for the earth and for a heathy social future. Rudolf Steiner often expressed the idea that to truly find ourselves we must look into the world and to know the world around us we must look within ourselves.(16)
Steiner presented his spiritual science as a path of knowledge that can awaken in us an appreciation of our full human nature and responsibility. One way of translating the name he gave his work – Anthroposophia – is awareness of our humanity. It captures something of the path we go as human beings, a path toward the conscious recovery of Divine Wisdom, known to the ancients as Sophia. As parents we are allowed to witness and to guide the process of our childrenʼs human being. We are truly on a path of mutual development: their needs for care ask us to grow, and our love and attention nourish their unfolding. As adults we can go this journey with ever more inner attention, and in the process come to know not only our children and their needs, but also ourselves in our own evolving.