The Will to Change

Upon beholding the vivid and uncompromisingly truthful experience of my being, a tendency arises to turn away from the spiritual world and the reality of myself, back towards the material world. Often this tendency is more powerful than the will forces which are available to me.

How satisfying it is to know that the first and most important meeting with a being of the suprasensory world is a meeting with the full reality of our own being which will, in turn, lead us onward in our development!

—Rudolf Steiner, The Threshold of the Spiritual World 1

If I put on a magician’s cloak and asked people to perform the craziest exercise, like running up some mountain at midnight to do something nonsensical, believe me, they would all do it! Everyone would be chasing after me. But to spend years of effort to overcome and set aside perhaps just one character weakness or bad habit – that’s just not interesting, is it? People simply don’t believe that a single change in their own character – such as a vain person admitting his vanity and becoming ashamed of it – could possibly have more impact on their spiritual progress than listening to hundreds of lectures or committing all of my lecture cycles to memory […].

—Adelheid Petersen, Reminiscences of Rudolf Steiner2

Rudolf Steiner advises us to cognize the tendency to turn away. When faced with a shadow that is seemingly impossible to illuminate, cognition is a pathway to engage the will to change. It is a new theory of change beyond force, abstention, or compulsion—call it cognition or attention, or call it love.

Inspired by these quotes I put this question to myself: where do I find myself falling short of my best intentions? How can my will become more strongly engaged? When does my aspiration meet an immovable force? For my independent study project at the Anthroposophical Studies program at the Goetheanum, I decided to experiment with controlling my thoughts because the concentration exercise recommended by Steiner was the most difficult that I had ever tried. I had been consistently failing in my attempts at it for eight years. Every time I dedicated five minutes to it every day for one month, I would repeatedly and pathetically avoid it. Meanwhile, I thoroughly enjoyed the strengthening experience from the other “basic” exercises: controlling the will, balancing sorrow and joy, open-mindedness, and positivity. But this control of thinking exercise was really difficult for me, even to the point of being undoable.

The exercise requires setting time aside from everyday life to concentrate on one object. The length of time suggested depends on the capacity of the individual and their life circumstances: it is important to find an amount of time that is doable yet still challenging. Even thirty seconds could be a start, and the amount of time dedicated can increase as capacities are strengthened. Also, when we are too tired or distracted to perform the exercise, it is better to abstain until better conditions present themselves than to perform it poorly.

As a rule, the object should be as simple as possible, say a spoon or paperclip. When the object is not interesting, only our inner decision and effort are what maintain concentration. A human-made object is preferable to an object created by nature because the creation of an inorganic object can be more confidently cognized.

The essence of concentration is to stay on the theme. All daily concerns, sense impressions, and unrelated concepts are distractions from the exercise. I found that, initially, the distractions are intense and overpowering from two directions: above and below. Thoughts appear which are so fascinating that they pull me up into their realms of spiritual light. In contrast, my body suddenly manifests urgent needs to shift, scratch, or relax. I must look through, or over, these distractions, back into the theme. Distractions are aspects of ourselves that we have not yet mastered, coming into conscious experience. We cannot master that which we are unconscious of, so we can become grateful for distractions.

Georg Kühlewind suggests doing the exercise as if sitting down to practice an instrument.3 This changed my approach and reminded me of a similar activity that I had positive associations with: I realized that the concentration exercise is like the imagination games I played as a child. I would spend hours imagining conversations, battles, and dramatic events. I remembered the level of uninterrupted concentration that I achieved during my childhood imaginations. This realization brought me confidence through self-recognition and gave more levity to the practice.

Every day I changed the focus, alternating between shape, function, and idea. For “shape”, I began by working through the different physical aspects of the spoon imaginatively, cognizing every angle and detail. For “function”, I considered the manufacturing of the spoon, the experience of its use in the hand, the utilitarian purposes for different aspects of its design, and the impulse behind the original creation. Why have a spoon anyway? Finally, for “idea”, I moved in the direction of contemplation, which involves thinking through the theme directly rather than thinking around the theme, as in concentration. Here, the particulars of the object are transcended into the general formative idea: I imagine different spoons and dissolve the image over and over again until the archetypal idea of the spoon begins to resonate within me as strongly as a sense-perceptible object.

The focus on the idea itself is a half step from concentration to contemplation, or thinking the theme. I attempt to access the essence of the idea itself beyond its manifestation as a physical object or its representation in a word or image. To do this, I have to step outside of space and time and into creation. It’s the same “place” in consciousness that the child experiences when they take in a new idea or that the inventor experiences when she realizes an idea from potential to manifestation. This is an unusual experience, to go “back” to the beginning of cognition and experience an idea that I’ve already known. I simultaneously create and perceive in light.

When these exercises began, they were filled with words and fast-moving imaginations that held my focus together, but as my capacity for focus increased and the nature of distractions became better understood, the words started to dissipate and the images simplified. As my attention-giving capacity increased, the content decreased.

By keeping the same theme of practice over a long period of time, the differentiation between remembering past thoughts and thinking in the present became more and more evident. Remembering past thoughts is a distraction from the exercise. The objective is thinking as both activity and perception, which happens in the present and not as a memory exercise. When I can think the same thoughts every day without the use of memory, it actually becomes fun. I begin to play.

After a time, thanks to Kühlewind, I became aware of the bridge to monism that this exercise presents. To perform the exercise, we often fragment ourselves into one who has willed the thinking and another who actually performs the concentration. It is a subtle but powerful realization. Is there a self who has stepped back from the theme to compel the execution of the exercise? The aim of the exercise is not willed thinking, but the will living in the thinking. As Georg Kühlewind said in The Schooling of Consciousness, “The more I notice what I do, the less I do it.” One way to achieve this is to bring attention to this aspect of the exercise by repeated false starts until we can experience a unified consciousness performing.

This seemingly excruciatingly dull exercise became a pathway to developing treasured capacities. I came to know thinking as an act—not as a means to an end but as an end within itself. It wasn’t easy, but it was achievable once I came to face the self who couldn’t do the exercise. Every day, as I sat down to the exercise, I experienced two beings: the one who had never wanted to do this and the one who had already decided to do it.

I was seeking to understand how attention itself is given, no matter the theme. At the same time, I was running away from the concentration exercise, which was the very activity that could give me a living experience of attention. What we seek is veiled in the very thing which we struggle to face.

Cognition is the key to shadow work. Here is a potent theory of change, especially when the tendency to turn away overpowers the will. The world “becomes” through love, not force. When I give my attention, I begin to consciously relate. From intimate relationship arises new depths of understanding. After understanding, we are graced with forgiveness. Here the threshold to love is opened. When love is present, the will is effortlessly available. Then, I marry the self to the world, and become.

Giving attention,

Image Sunrise King/unsplash

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Rudolf Steiner, “Chapter 8: Concerning the Guardian of the Threshold,” The Threshold of the Spiritual World, CW 17.
  2. Adelheid Petersen, “Dornach in den Jahren 1914/15”, in: E. Beltle, K. Vierl, Wir erlebten Rudolf Steiner (Reminiscences of Rudolf Steiner), Stuttgart 2001.
  3. Georg Kühlewind, From Normal to Healthy: Paths to the Liberation of Consciousness, Lindisfarne Books, 1988.

Letzte Kommentare