Practical Training in Thought
The lecture is slightly abridged. Headings, section mementoes and two notes are added. - T. K.
From a foreword by Gilbert Church
Dr. Rudolf Steiner talked to a group of friends in Carlsruhe, January 18, 1909 about how to train one's thinking along very practical lines.
Steiner presents thoughts as actualities and offers various exercises for improving one's memory, observation, thinking habits and powers of concentration. They are definitely as valid now as they were when they were originally presented.
Steiner informs how the physical and spiritual spheres can be brought together through schoold thinking where methodical training for the development of thought is employed. By the exercises one may in time rise to get able to grasp physical and spiritual reality. When practised consistently, such training yields a firm basis for practical considerations, and further study can be built on the enlarging results.
Being aware of thoughts
What we are concerned with here can guide us in the most ordinary affairs of everyday life, transformed at any moment into sensation and feeling, enabling us to meet life with assurance and to acquire a firm position in it.
"Practical thinking" generally contains little that can be called practical.
Following the example of some authority whose ideas are accepted - Anyone who thinks differently is considered impractical.
The modern postage stamp was not invented by some practical post office official, but by someone completely outside the post office: Rowland Hill. [Abr]
When in 1837 the first railroad in Germany was to be built, the members of the Bavarian College of Medicine were consulted on the advisability of the project and they voiced the opinion that it would be unwise to build railroads. They added that if this project were to be carried out, then at least a high board fence would have to be erected on both sides of the line to protect the public from possible brain and nervous shock.
We must clearly distinguish between genuine thinking and so-called "practical thinking" that is merely reasoning in traditional ruts of thought.
He who is able to study human nature intimately, knows that a large number of thought processes are by deluding oneself somehow. [Abr]
True practice in thinking presupposes a right attitude and proper feeling for thinking. How can a right attitude toward thinking be attained?
He who would acquire the right feeling for thought must say to himself, "I extract various thoughts from some things." [Mod]
◎ Getting aware of one's thoughts can be trained.
Get sensible thoughts from experiences
The comparison between the human organism and a watch is often used, but those who make it frequently forget that the wheels have not united and fitted themselves together of their own accord, but that there was the watchmaker who put the different parts of the watch together.
The works and phenomena of nature must be viewed in a similar way.
The works of nature are the result of spiritual activities and behind them are spiritual beings.
The belief that the world has been created by thought and is still ceaselessly being created in this manner is the belief that can alone fructify the actual inner practice of thought.
The denial of the spiritual in the world produces malpractice in thought. Similar errors of thought play a great part especially in science. [Abr]Mod
Thoughts can be drawn from a world in which they already exist. [Abr]
The world is built by thought, and thought can be extracted from it.
Thoughts are concealed behind the things.
Actual facts of life take their course in obedience to thought.
Let everyday thinking be greatly based on truth and reality. [Mod]
Someone who resolves to fructify his thinking to such a degree that it will always take the right course in life, must be guided by the following actual, practical and fundamental principles. If he will try again and again accordingly, certain effects will result. His thinking will become practical even though at first it may not seem so. [Abr]
◎ Things you see are at least in part deeply perceived thoughts of things anyway.
Look at the sky, get impressions and refrain from conclusions
Somebody tries the following experiment. He begins today by observing, as accurately as possible, something in the outer world that is accessible to him, for instance the weather. He watches the configuration of the clouds in the evening, the conditions at sunset, etc., and retains in his mind an exact picture of what he has thus observed. He tries to keep the picture before him in all its details for some time and endeavours to preserve as much of it as possible until the next day. At some time the next day he again makes a study of the weather conditions and again endeavours to gain an exact picture of them.
If in this manner he has pictured to himself exactly the sequential order of the weather conditions, he will become distinctly aware that his thinking gradually becomes richer and more intense. For what makes thought impractical is the tendency to ignore details when observing a sequence of events in the world and to retain but a vague, general impression of them. What is of value, what is essential and fructifies thinking, is just this ability to form exact pictures, especially of successive events, so that one can say, "Yesterday it was like that; today it is like this." Thus, one calls up as graphically as possible an inner image of the two juxtaposed scenes that lie apart in the outer world.
The person experimenting ought not to draw any conclusions immediately or to deduce from today's observation what kind of weather he shall have tomorrow. He must confidently feel that the things of outer reality are definitely related to one another and that tomorrow's events are somehow connected with those of today. But he must not speculate on these things. He must first inwardly re-think the sequence of the outer events as exactly as possible in mental pictures, and then place these images side by side, allowing them to melt into one another. This is a definite rule of thought that must be followed by those who wish to develop factual thinking. It is particularly advisable that this principle be practised on those very things that are not yet understood and the inner connection of which has not yet been penetrated. [Abr]
◎ To get impressions and reproduce them to your ability for kenning some inner connections, be regular and refrain from speculating.
Letting some ideas come to the fore after some time, on top of feelings
The experimenter must have the confidence that such events of which he has as yet no understanding - the weather, for instance - and which in the outer world are connected with one another, will bring about connections within him. This must be done in pictures only while abstaining from thinking. He must say to himself, "I do not yet know what the relation is, but I shall let these things grow within me and if I refrain from speculation they will bring something about in me." – If he forms exact inner images of succeeding events and at the same time abstains from all thinking, something may take place in the invisible members of his nature.
The vehicle of man's thought life is his astral body (see Note). As long as the human being is engaged in speculative thinking, this astral body is the slave of the ego. This conscious activity, however, does not occupy the astral body exclusively because the latter is also related in a certain manner to the whole cosmos.
Now, to the extent we abstain from arbitrary thinking and simply form mental pictures of successive events, to that extent do the inner thoughts of the world act within us and imprint themselves, without our being aware of it, on our astral body. To the extent we insert ourselves into the course of the world through observation of the events in the world and receive these images into our thoughts with the greatest possible clarity, allowing them to work within us, to that extent do those members of our organism that are withdrawn from our consciousness become ever more intelligent. If, in the case of inwardly connected events, we have once acquired the faculty of letting the new picture melt into the preceding one in the same way that the transition occurred in nature, it shall be found after a time that our thinking has gained considerable flexibility.
This is the procedure to be followed in matters not yet understood. Things, however, that are understood - events of everyday life, for example - should be treated in a somewhat different manner.
◎ Some renowned scientists have learnt from dreams; also major scientific discoveries.
A different procedure for everyday ocurrences: follow a selection of them in thought by imagining and checking
Let us presume that someone, perhaps our neighbour, had done this or that. We think about it and ask ourselves why he did it. We decide he has perhaps done it in preparation for something he intends to do the next day. We do not go any further, but clearly picture his act and try to form an image of what he may do, imagining that the next day he will perform such and such an act. Then we wait to see what he really does since he may or may not do what we expected of him. We take note of what does happen and correct our thoughts accordingly. Thus, events of the present are chosen that are followed in thought into the future. Then we wait to see what actually happens.
This can be done either with actions involving people or something else. Whenever something is understood, we try to form a thought picture of what in our opinion will take place. If our opinion proves correct, our thinking is justified and all is well. If, however, something different from our expectation occurs, we review our thoughts and try to discover our mistake. In this way we try to correct our erroneous thinking by calm observation and examination of our errors. An attempt is made to find the reason for things occurring as they did. If we are right, however, we must be especially careful not to boast of our prediction and say, "Oh well, I knew yesterday that this would happen!"
Suggestion: There is an inner necessity in things and events, in the facts themselves there slumbers something that moves things. What can be working from one day to another are thought forces, and we gradually become conscious of them when meditating on things. By such exercises these thought forces are called up into our consciousness and if what has been thus foreseen is fulfilled, we are in tune with them. We have then established an inner relation with the real thought activity of the matter itself.
◎ At times it is good to wait and see what is working.
Train the thinking to go back to check possible causes of this and that too
Note: A river that ends in the sea, may have several large tributaries, and many small ones. Similarly, disease symptoms (at "the river mouth"), may consist of many contributing factors. That may happen. They may also form clusters.
But our thinking can also be trained in other directions. An occurrence of today is also linked to what happened yesterday. We might consider a naughty child, for example, and ask ourselves what may have caused this behaviour. The events are traced back to the previous day and the unknown cause hypothesised by saying to ourselves, "Since this occurred today, I must believe that it was prepared by this or that event that occurred yesterday or perhaps the day before."
We then find out what had actually occurred and so discover whether or not our thought was correct. If the plausibly true cause has been found, very well. But if our conclusion was wrong, then we should try to correct the mistake, find out how our thought process developed, and how it ran its course in reality. [Mod]
◎ Sometimes the immediate causes of the happenings today lie embedded in yesterday, and at other times they lie in days ahead -
Time for thinking practices is to be recalled. Interest helps
To practice these principles is the important point. Time must be taken to observe things as though we were inside the things themselves with our thinking. We should submerge ourselves in the things and enter into their inner thought activity. If this is done, we gradually become aware of the fact that we are growing together with things. We no longer feel that they are outside us and we are here inside our shell thinking about them. Instead we come to feel as if our own thinking occurred within the things themselves. When a man has succeeded to a high degree in doing this, many things will become clear to him.
Goethe had developed this way of thinking to a remarkable degree. More than once it occurred that, when he had planned to do something, he would go to the window and remark to the person who happened to be with him, "In three hours we shall have rain!" – From the little patch of sky he could see from the window he was able to foretell the weather conditions for the next few hours. [Abr]
Much more can actually be accomplished through practical thinking than is commonly supposed. When a man has made these principles of thinking his own, he will notice that his thinking really becomes practical, that his horizon widens, and that he can grasp the things of the world in quite a different way. Gradually his attitude towards things and people will change completely. An actual process will take place within him that will alter his whole conduct. It is of immense importance that he tries to grow into the things in this way with his thinking, for it is in the most eminent sense a practical undertaking to train one's thinking by such exercises.
There is another exercise that is to be practised especially by those to whom the right idea usually does not occur at the right time.
An exercise: Stop thinking along the common ruts - do it of your own free will, and if nothing happens too
People should try above all things to stop their thinking from being forever influenced and controlled by the ordinary course of worldly events and whatever else may come with them. As a rule, when a person lies down for half an hour's rest, his thoughts are allowed to play freely in a thousand different directions, or on the other hand he may become absorbed with some trouble in his life. Before he realises it such things will have crept into his consciousness and claimed his entire attention. If this habit persists, such a person will never experience the occasion when the right idea occurs to him at the right moment.
If he really wants this to happen, he must say to himself whenever he can spare a half hour for rest, "Whenever I can spare the time, I will think about something I myself have chosen and I will bring it into my consciousness arbitrarily of my own free will. For example, I will think of something that occurred two years ago during a walk. I will deliberately recall what occurred then and I will think about it if only for five minutes. During these five minutes I will banish everything else from my mind and will myself choose the subject about which I wish to think."
He need not even choose so difficult a subject as this one. The point is not at all to change one's mental process through difficult exercises, but to get away from the ordinary routine of life in one's thinking. He must think of something quite apart from what enmeshes him during the ordinary course of the day. If nothing occurs to him to think about, he might open a book at random and occupy his thoughts with whatever first catches his eye. Or he may choose to think of something he saw at a particular time that morning on his way to work and to which he would otherwise have paid no attention. The main point is that it should be something totally different from the ordinary run of daily events, something that otherwise would not have occupied his thoughts.
If such exercises are practised systematically again and again, it will soon be noticed that ideas come at the right moments, and the right thoughts occur when needed. Through these exercises thinking will become activated and mobile something of immense importance in practical life.
Let us consider another exercise that is especially helpful in improving one's memory.
Systematic exercise for improving the memory: Fill in what you cannot recollect, to get reliable too
One tries at first in the crude way people usually recall past events to remember something that occurred, let us say, yesterday. Such recollections are, as a rule, indistinct and colourless, and most people are satisfied if they can just remember a person's name. But if it is desired to develop one's memory, one can no longer be content with this. This must be clear. The following exercise must be systematically practised, saying to oneself, "I shall recall exactly the person I saw yesterday, also the street corner where I met him, and what happened to be in his vicinity. I shall draw the whole picture as exactly as possible and shall even imagine the colour and cut of his coat and vest." Most people will find themselves utterly incapable of doing this and will quickly see how much is lacking in their recollections to produce a really lifelike, graphic picture of what they met and experienced only yesterday.
Since this is true in the majority of cases, we must begin with that condition in which many people are unable to recollect their most recent experiences. It is only too true that most people's observations of things and events are usually inaccurate and vague. The results of a test given by a professor in one of the universities demonstrated that out of thirty students who took the test, only two had observed an occurrence correctly; the remaining twenty-eight reported it inaccurately. But a good memory is the child of accurate observation. A reliable memory is attained, let me repeat, by accurate observation and it can also be said that in a certain roundabout way of the soul it is born as the child of exact observation.
But if somebody cannot at first accurately remember his experiences of yesterday, what should he do? First, he should try to remember as accurately as he can what actually occurred. Where recollections fail he should fill in the picture with something incorrect that was not really present. The essential point here is that the picture be complete. Suppose it was forgotten whether or not someone was wearing a brown or a black coat. Then he might be pictured in a brown coat and brown trousers with such and such buttons on his vest and a yellow necktie. One might further imagine a general situation in which there was a yellow wall, a tall man passing on the left, a short one on the right, etc.
All that can be remembered he puts into this picture, and what cannot be remembered is added imaginatively in order to have a completed mental picture. Of course, it is at first incorrect but through the effort to create a complete picture he is induced to observe more accurately. Such exercises must be continued, and although they might be tried and failed fifty times, perhaps the fifty-first time he shall be able to remember accurately what the person he has met looked like, what he wore, and even little details like the buttons on his vest. Then nothing will be overlooked and every detail will imprint itself on his memory. Thus he will have first sharpened his powers of observation by these exercises and in addition, as the fruit of this accurate observation, he will have improved his memory.
He should take special care to retain not only names and main features of what he wishes to remember, but also to retain vivid images covering all the details. If he cannot remember some detail, he must try for the time being to fill in the picture and thus make it a whole. He will then notice that his memory, as though in a roundabout way, slowly becomes reliable. Thus it can be seen how definite direction can be given for making thinking increasingly more practical.
◎ Keener observation could be followed by improved recall too.
How to form a rewarding decision: Defer action if you can, consider the salient options under the circumstances, and sleep on the matter if possible
There is still something else that is of particular importance. In thinking about some matters we feel it necessary to come to a conclusion. We consider how this or that should be done and then make up our minds in a certain way. This inclination, although natural, does not lead to practical thinking. All overly hasty thinking does not advance us but sets us back. Patience in these things is absolutely essential.
Suppose, for instance, we desire to carry out some particular plan. There are usually several ways that this might be done. Now we should have the patience first to imagine how things would works out if we were to execute our plan in one way and then we should consider what the results would be of doing it in another. Surely there will always be reasons for preferring one method over another, but we should refrain from forming an immediate decision. Instead, an attempt should be made to imagine the two possibilities and then we must say to ourselves, "That will do for the present; I shall now stop thinking about this matter." No doubt there are people who will become fidgety at this point, and although it is difficult to overcome such a condition, it is extremely useful to do so. It then becomes possible to imagine how the matter might be handled in two ways, and to decide to stop thinking about it for a while.
Whenever it is possible, action should be deferred until the next day, and the two possibilities considered again at that time. You will find that in the interim conditions have changed and that the next day you will be able to form a different, or at least a more thorough decision than could have been reached the day before. An inner necessity is hidden in things and if we do not act with arbitrary impatience but allow this inner necessity to work in us and it will we shall find the next day that it has enriched our thinking, thus making possible a wiser decision. This is exceedingly valuable.
We might, for example, be asked to give our advice on a problem and to make a decision. But let us not thrust forward our decision immediately. We should have the patience to place the various possibilities before ourselves without forming any definite conclusions, and we then should quietly let these possibilities work themselves out within us. Even the popular proverb says that one should sleep over a matter before making a decision.
To sleep over it is not enough, however. It is necessary to consider two or, better still, several possibilities that will continue to work within us when our ego is not consciously occupied with them. Later on, when we return again to the matter in question, it will be found that certain thought forces have been stirred up within us in this manner, and that as a result our thinking has become more factual and practical.
◎ Hasty thinking tends to hamper us. It should be counteracted. Learn to consider, then.
Become a practical thinker by such exercises
It is certain that what a man seeks can always be found in the world, whether he stands at the carpenter's bench, or follows the plough, or belongs to one of the professions. If he will practice these exercises, he will become a practical thinker in the most ordinary matters of everyday life. If he thus trains himself, he will approach and look at the things of the world in a quite different manner from previously. Although at first these exercises may seem related only to his own innermost life, they are entirely applicable and of the greatest importance precisely for the outer world. They have powerful consequences.
◎ What is good for the soul must be wise to adhere to. There are many ways.
Refrain from merely guessing about causes and effects
An example will demonstrate how necessary it is to think about things in a really practical manner. Let us imagine that for some reason or other a man climbs a tree. He falls from the tree, strikes the ground, and is picked up dead. Now, the thought most likely to occur to us is that the fall killed him. We would be inclined to say that the fall was the cause and death the effect. In this instance cause and effect seem logically connected. But this assumption may completely confuse the true sequence of facts, for the man may have fallen as a consequence of heart failure. To the observer the external event is exactly the same in both cases. Only when the true causes are known can a correct judgement be formed. In this case it might have been that the man was already dead before he fell and the fall had nothing to do with his death. It is thus possible to invert completely cause and effect. In this instance the error is evident, but often they are not so easily discernible. The frequency with which such errors in thinking occur is amazing. Indeed, it must be said that in the field of science conclusions in which this confusion of cause and effect is permitted are being drawn every day. Most people do not grasp this fact, however, because they are not acquainted with the possibilities of thinking.
Suppose someone concludes that man as he is today is a descendent of the ape. – Now, to show the meaning of this theory in terms of thought, let us imagine that this person is the only man on earth, and that besides himself there are only those apes present that, according to his theory, can evolve into human beings. – Let him now try to develop the concept of a man solely from his concept of the ape. He will find this to be quite impossible. His concept "ape" will never transform itself into the concept "man."
If he had cultivated correct habits of thinking, this man would have said to himself, "My concept of the ape does not change into the concept of man. – There must be something else present that I am unable to perceive." –
For anyone capable of thinking correctly a large part of modern literature (especially that of the sciences) becomes a source of unpleasant experience [that] can cause even physical pain in a man who has to work his way through it. – This is not said with any intent to slight the wealth of observation and discovery that has been accumulated by modern natural science and its objective methods of research.
◎ A range of plausible, adequate and alternative possibilities had better be surveyed before important decisions.
Be on the outlook of possible causes behind adjustment-fit reasons - be sensitive to your hunches
Now let us consider "short-sighted" thinking. Most people are unconscious of the fact that their thinking is not factual, but that it is for the most part only the result of thought habits. The decisions and conclusions therefore of a man whose thought penetrates the world and life will differ greatly from those of one whose ability to think is limited or nil. Consider the case of a materialistic thinker. To convince such a man through reasoning, however logical, sound and good, is not an easy task. – Such a person [may have] formed the habit of seeing nothing but matter in everything and simply adheres to this habit of thinking.
Today it can generally be said that people are not prompted by reasons when making statements but rather by the thinking habits behind these reasons. They have acquired habits of thought that influence all their feelings and sensations, and when reasons are put forth, they are simply the mask of the habitual thinking that screens these feelings and sensations. Not only is the wish often the father of the thought, but it can also be said that all our feelings and mental habits are the parents of our thoughts. He who knows life knows how difficult it is to convince another person by means of logical reasoning. What really decides and convinces lies much deeper in the human soul.
The work in the various branches [of the Anthroposophical Movement] is not merely confined to finding logical reasons for things. A new and more comprehensive quality of feeling and sensation is also developed.
In working in the Anthroposophical Movement one not only learns to modify one's thinking, one also learns to unfold a wider perspective of soul life.
◎ To convince someone is hardly as fine as presenting relevant facts accurately. The latter approach is in fact scientific.
Adjust soon to what pops up from the depts forthwith
Our thoughts derive their colouring from far greater depths than are generally imagined. It is our feelings that frequently impel us to hold certain opinions. The logical reasons that are put forward are often a mere screen or mask for our deeper feelings and habits of thinking.
To bring ourselves to a point at which logical reasons themselves possess a real significance for us, we must have learned to love logic itself. Only when we have learned to love factuality and objectivity will logical reason be decisive for us. We should gradually learn to think objectively, not allowing ourselves to be swayed by our preference for this or that thought. Only then will our vision broaden in the sense that we do not merely follow the mental ruts of others but in such a way that the reality of the things themselves will teach us to think correctly.
True practicality is born of objective thinking, that is, thinking that flows into us from the things themselves. It is only by practising such exercises as have just been described that we learn to take our thoughts from things. To do these exercises properly we should choose to work with sound and wholesome subjects that are least affected by our culture. These are the objects of nature.
◎ When we have learnt to go about and be of a quite neutral mind to so many things, we may not get as easily fooled.
Train yourself by focusing on unblemished things of nature so as to stimulate your deep inner being, the soul
To train our thinking using the things of nature as objects to think about will make really practical thinkers of us. Once we have trained ourselves in the practical use of this fundamental principle, our thinking, we shall be able to handle the most everyday occupations in a practical way. By training the human soul in this way a practical viewpoint is developed in our thinking.
The fruit – must be to place really practical thinkers in life. What we have come to believe is not of as much importance as the fact that we should become capable of surveying with understanding the things around us. That spiritual science should penetrate our souls, thereby stimulating us to inner soul activity and expanding our vision, is of far more importance than merely theorising about what extends beyond the things of the senses into the spiritual.
◎ A practical viewpoint stems from the spiritual, says Steiner.
Compare Kurt Lewin's "There is nothing so practical as a good theory." (Aronson et al. 2016, 41)
Aronson, Elliot, Timothy D. Wilson, Robin M. Akert, Samuel R. Sommers. 2016. Social Psychology. 9th ed. Boston: Pearson Education.
Goldberg, Joseph. 2014. "The Effects of Stress on Your Body." WebMD Medical Reference.
Kottler, Jeffrey A., and David D. Chen. 2011. Stress Management and Prevention: Applications to Everyday Life. 2nd ed. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Shrand, Joseph A., with Leigh M. Devine. 2012. Manage Your Stress: Overcoming Stress in the Modern World. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Smith, Eliot R., and Diane M. Mackie. 2000. Social Psychology. 2nd ed. Hove: Psychology Press, 2000.
Steiner, Rudolf. 1909. Practical Training in Thought. A Lecture given in Carlsruhe, January 18, 1909.
See Theosophy, An Introduction to the Supersensible Knowledge of the World and the Destination of Man (Written 1904; GA 9) for further clarifications.
The book Theosophy begins by describing the threefold nature of the human being: the body, or sense-world; the soul, or inner world; and the spirit, or universal world of cosmic archetypes. A profound discussion of reincarnation and karma follows, concluding with a description of the soul's journey through regions of the supersensible world after death, The book closes with an outline of the path to higher knowledge.
Harvesting the hay
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