In the study that preceded the current inquiry,1 I considered a range of different textual sources for Rudolf Steiner’s view of the peculiar inner experience Steiner describes as a confrontation with the ‘guardian of the threshold’ (hereafter simply ‘guardian’). It was shown that in different areas of culture, such as religion, myths, and literature, the figure of a demonic or evil adversary is prevalent. Examples presented include the ‚devil‘ in Christianity, the character of Mara in Buddhism, and the ferryman Charon in Greek mythology. It was shown that Steiner’s concept of the guardian draws on such imagery and develops it in a unique direction. The experience in question is described in two aspects, namely as an encounter with a ‘lower’ and a ‘higher’ guardian, whereby the former is interpreted as a representation of one’s own lower nature, which on the one hand protects against an early confrontation with one’s ‘true self’ but on the other hand also can have a psychologically destabilizing effect. It was shown how, according to Steiner, a certain spiritual practice and lifestyle can bring about a conscious encounter with the guardian. A spiritual practitioner goes through a process of disembodiment, Steiner states, and must cross a so-called ‘abyss of nothingness’, before finally standing before the guardian. Not confronting the guardian in the proper way may lead to illusory experiences in the spiritual world, while encountering it in the right way and transforming one’s lower nature is seen to bring truthful experiences in this realm. This process is also dependent on developing a certain form of ‘justified’ egotism and can lead to insight into the connection between life and death. A person experiencing such a process is seen to face the choice of receiving liberation for themselves alone or renouncing such salvation and continuing to work for the perfection of all human beings, a choice embodied by the ‘second’ or ‘greater’ guardian of the threshold.
The study briefly summarized above focused on conceptual issues related to how one can conceive of a being that is both ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ at the same time. How can, for instance, experiences of fear, desire, and hate protect a person? Some interpretative suggestions were made that may help to resolve the apparent contradictions. The focus of the inquiry at hand will be experiential perspectives on the guardian, drawing primarily on research on nightmares and sleep paralysis as well as meditation reports. Given that the guardian concept is complex and potentially contradictory, there may be cases where it is either hard to judge to what extent an experiential report is an example of a ‘guardian experience’, or it could easily be the case that the reports, when compared to each other, are contradictory. The aim here cannot be to resolve all contradictions but rather is to give an account of the complexity inherent in the phenomena under consideration. This complexity is something the guardian concept has in common with its historical predecessors. For example, the role of the ‘devil’ in the Bible is far from simple. Previously, he was the ‘most eminent’ among the angelic beings, but after the ‘fall’ he is the ‘worst’. And even though the devil is evil, God uses him to test and strengthen someone’s faith. Some of the narratives pertaining to meditative experiences I will consider present similar complexities. We will hear one report from a meditator who faces a monster-like apparition of himself that blames him for a series of evil deeds he has done since his childhood. This experience starts to intrude into the person’s experience outside of the context of meditation. Hence such psychologically challenging experiences may put a person at the risk of reduced functionality in daily life, making the experiences pathological. However, being blamed for something morally bad that one has done may be both destabilizing and helpful. Understanding the relationship between destabilization and helpfulness is indeed not a simple matter, and reducing the complexity may remove the nuance necessary for fully understanding the phenomenon.
In order to try to connect concept and experience, I will look more closely into a few different places in Steiner’s work where he describes how the guardian appears experientially. As sources of experience, I will, as indicated, draw on sleep research, especially research into nightmares and sleep paralysis within the fields of anthropology and psychology. In Section 2, I will argue that the phenomenology of certain nightmare experiences and sleep paralysis strongly resembles Steiner’s account of the phenomenology of the guardian. In Section 3, I will present some previously unpublished data from a study I have conducted on Anthroposophic meditation experiences. The methodological framework and general experiences of the participants have been described elsewhere.2 The project was based on semi-structured qualitative interviews with practitioners of Anthroposophic meditation. The reports presented here will be connected to recent research on challenging meditation experiences. The experiences reported by Anthroposophic practitioners are interesting, especially since they align with typical traditional perspectives on meditation challenges and provide examples of how a person may grow through difficult experiences in the context of meditation.
In addition to perspectives from anthropology and psychology, I will, in Section 4, briefly consider a possible phenomenological interpretation. Phenomenologists argue that self-consciousness is deeply intertwined with being conscious of others. Furthermore, there are indications that social anxiety may be connected to the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, which may again be connected to a view found implicitly in Steiner’s work, namely that the guardian not only relates to fear but also is essential to the process of becoming aware of oneself as separate from the environment. The potential of encountering a sensed presence (that is evil, dangerous, or threatening) may be part of the condition for experiencing self-consciousness.
The core question of this article is as follows: Are there experiential correlates of Steiner’s concept of the guardian? My suggestions will come from the field of sleep and meditation research. Given that there are experiential correlates, how can such ‘guardian experiences’ be understood? As indicated, I draw on anthropology, psychology, and phenomenology to approach this question. In a broader perspective, one may also ask: How does this correlation bear on the interpretation of Steiner’s work as a whole? Stating that there are experiential correlates of the guardian concept is not the same as stating that the guardian exists. The concept of a ‘phlogiston’ had correlates in human experience before the discovery of oxygen, but ‘phlogiston’ turned out not to be a real chemical substance. And yet the research and related critical discussions about it furthered scientific progress. I will therefore suggest that Steiner’s work may represent an interpretative framework that provides orientation when attempting to make sense of human experience in general and spiritual experience in particular, especially in the context of meditation challenges.
Nightmares and Sleep Paralysis
Being confronted with terrifying, unnatural beings is not as uncommon as one may think. If one considers nightmares, which are often filled with monsters or other threatening beings or presences, it seems that such confrontations both are widespread and occur rather frequently. But do we have any reasons to believe that nightmares are examples of guardian experiences as described by Steiner? I will claim here that we do and that Steiner’s descriptions of how the guardian appears are closely linked to a special kind of nightmare experience, namely the one that happens during sleep paralysis. This connection will be shown below. We start with considering a few textual passages from Steiner’s work before we go into anthropological and psychological research on nightmares and sleep paralysis and show how the findings in this field of research relate to Steiner’s statements.
In the German language there is the expression ‘Alb’, which in folk tradition was understood to mean an elf- or dwarf-like being. According to this etymology, a nightmare is actually a dream caused by a supernatural being that is sitting on the dreamer’s chest. We will discuss this idea below in relation to certain experiences sometimes described in the context of research on sleep paralysis as perceiving an ‘evil presence’. In German, one also finds the expression ‘Albdruck’, which likewise means ‘nightmare’ but has the connotation of ‘pressure’ (‘Druck’) as well. The experiences of pressure and suffocation are further aspects of sleep paralysis that will be considered below. Interestingly, Steiner connects these kinds of phenomena to the (lesser) guardian of the threshold. In a lecture held in Berlin on October, 22, 1904, Steiner states the following:
Before this, man himself was an elemental being. Not everything physical about man is destined to be transformed. A kind of slag remains. This remaining slag is constantly present in a human being, as a result of which we are under the influence of certain astral elemental beings; an elemental being is as it were attached to us. Consequently, human beings are in constant contact with something that functions as obstructing enemy, a disturber of our development. In German mythology, the beings attached to humans in such a way were called Albs. They appear in an indefinite form in the so-called nightmare. These dreams express themselves in such a way that one believes that a creature is sitting on one’s chest. When one develops astral sight one sees these beings for the first time (The Dweller on the Threshold in Bulwer’s ‘Zanoni’). This experience is the reflection of man’s astral acquaintance with his alb, a defense mechanism against his enemy. This being is the projection of an astral being in ourselves. It is the [lesser] guardian of the threshold. He who cannot overcome the fear of his inner enemy usually turns back at the gate of initiation.3
I will not go much into Steiner’s statement that the human being once was an ‘elementary being’ here but only mention that, in an earlier passage of the lecture, the elementary beings are said to have an inhibiting function in evolution.4 According to the statement above, the elementary beings are connected to the ‘Alben’, which are attached to the human being and disturb and hold back the human’s development. These kinds of beings are said to appear in an indeterminate shape (‘unbestimmte Gestalt’) in nightmares. The being that appears to be sitting on one’s chest is not only a projection of an astral being but also a projection of how one resists, rejects, or struggles with the enemy or troublemaker (‘Störenfried’) in oneself. It is stated straightforwardly that this is the guardian of the threshold.5 Note also that Steiner here connects the guardian to Bulwer Lytton’s work and the process of initiation (which was treated in the first installment of this study). One may perhaps think that the connection between the guardian and the nightmare experience is a strange, one-time occurrence happening in the initial stages of Steiner’s formulation of Anthroposophic perspectives, still under the influence of Theosophy. However, 14 years later, in a lecture on November 29, a similar statement can be found:
In the Guardian of the Threshold, we experience in two ways how something that is rumbling in our instincts, something that is not ourself – for only what we consciously grasp is ourself – appears before us. Those things that instinctively take posession of people have two forms; they have two forms before the Guardian of the Threshold. That is, when we approach the threshold, it turns out that we are instinctively possessed by something that has either one shape or the other. One form can be described as the form of a ghost. What we are posessed by instinctively appears before the Guardian of the Threshold in such a way that it is like an external perception. Even though it is hallucinatory, it still appears as an external perception, announces itself just like an external perception. This is the ghost character. In this way, something that lives instinctively in us, something that rumbles inside us, can come forth if we consciously get to know it as we meet the Guardian of the Threshold, where all instincts stop, where things begin to become fully conscious and to integrate themselves into free spiritual life to the Guardian of the Threshold: here such an instinctively living being appears as a ghost. And in this case, it no longer is an instinct. We should not be afraid of an experience like this where something appears to us like a ghost. For the only way to get rid of it is to see it objectified outside, when what is rumbling inside us really appears in front of us as a ghost. That is the one form. The other form in which such an instinct can appear to us is as an ‘Alp’. In this case, it is not a perception from the outside, but an oppressive feeling inside, or an after-effect, manifesting as a vision of what is oppressing us, an imaginative experience that occurs to us at the same time as an ‘Alpdruck’.6
Steiner states that the guardian of the threshold appears in two forms: (1) as an external hallucination of a ghost-like being (‘Gespenst’) and (2) as a heavy, depressing sensation or a sensation of pressure on the chest (‘Albdruck’). Both are appearances of the instinctual nature of the human being. Steiner notes that one should not be afraid of this ghost, which implies that the experience in question can indeed be scary – as most nightmares are.7
Steiner describes the encounter with the guardian as something that happens in an altered state of consciousness. During a nightmare, one is usually asleep, that is, in a dream state, and hence not conscious. As an experience in the state of consciousness that Steiner calls imagination (see the last line of the above quote), the meeting with the guardian should also be conscious. This is where the sleep paralysis state becomes interesting. It shares characteristics with the sleep state and overlaps with typical nightmare experiences. During sleep paralysis, however, one is aware that one cannot move the body, hence the mind is awake. This in and of itself can be a disturbing experience. Additionally, there are certain phenomena connected to sleep paralysis, such as the sense of an ‘evil presence’ or experiencing that one is attacked (threatened, smothered, choked, etc.) by that presence.8 While it is not always the case that one remembers that one has had such experiences – they often disappear from memory in the way dream experiences generally do – according to one study, up to 40 % of people may have had an experience of sleep paralysis at least once during their lifetime.9
As the anthropologist Shelly Adler has shown in her in-depth study of sleep paralysis, the phenomenon is reported across cultures. The experiences related to it seem so widespread that they have become part of many languages, and it is not only in the German language that the smothering creature hides in the respective expressions. In Icelandic, nightmare is Martröd, meaning to be pressed or ridden; in Japanese, one speaks of Kanashibari, meaning to be bound or fastened by metal (which is, of course, heavy); in Botswana, it is called sebeteldedi, which means ‘someone who presses’. Many more examples could be given.10 Given the widespread reflection of these related phenomena (a being who presses, rides, sits on, or binds someone) in languages across the world, it seems likely that they are based on shared experiences. A large study with 4.959 participants conducted by J. Allan Cheyne mapped the different relations between the phenomena connected to sleep paralysis.11 There are three basic phenomena: (1) the incubus (the sense of pressure, pain, choking, breathing difficulties, and death thoughts); (2) the intruder (a sense of an evil presence); and (3) vestibular-motor hallucinations (the sense of floating, flying, falling, etc.). The former two basic phenomena are more fear-related, while the latter one is related to erotic feelings and bliss. What we see then, is a complex phenomenon related to basic instincts, appearing as a threatening being while one is ‘outside’ the physical body – quite likely the same phenomena that Steiner has in mind when describing the guardian in the above quotes.
Numerous different explanations for these phenomena have been offered: disturbances of the vital spirits or energies, problems with the metabolism, stress, repressed memories of abuse, psychological conflicts, and attacks by extraterrestrials or demons.12 Studies within the field of sleep research have suggested that it is possible to be awake during REM sleep and that during this phase, the body is paralyzed.13 During REM sleep, the amygdala and related brain structures are active, and it has been hypothesized that the amygdala is part of a threat-response system in the brain.14 One may also experience difficulties breathing during REM sleep (hypoxia, the lack of oxygen in the blood; hypercapnia, excess carbon dioxide in the blood; blockages of the airways).15 The chest contributes less to breathing during REM sleep than during non-REM sleep.16 These physiological facts point to the bodily basis of sleep paralysis, but the phenomenon as such remains a riddle: For some reason, the mind can wake up during REM sleep, while the body remains paralyzed. This is a disturbing experience in itself and one of the explanations is that, perhaps, a person in this situation, supported by ongoing processing of basic emotions and memories, starts to hallucinate threatening beings and scenarios to make sense of what is going on. Experiences of suffocation, too, can give rise to hallucinations of being pressed on or choked.
Both Steiner and contemporary psychology describe what seems to be a basic phenomenon that has been part of human existence for enough time to be encoded in language and folklore. While there are numerous explanations for what happens during sleep paralysis, research on human physiology has uncovered only part of the physical basis of it. We will return to the significance of this physical aspect and how it may relate to other explanations in the discussion section below. To the extent that we may count nightmares and sleep paralysis as encounters with the guardian as described by Steiner, such encounters seem to be rather common and not a rare occurrence among advanced spiritual practitioners. As we will see, Anthroposophic meditators cultivate states in which sleep-paralysis-like experiences can take place and understand them as guardian encounters.
Challenging Meditation Experiences
Meditation is often presented as having a range of beneficial effects, especially on mental health and well-being. However, recent studies are uncovering a range of potentially negative or challenging effects, as well as investigating how prevalent such experiences are and whether meditations in some cases may be harmful. One study conducted with 60 Buddhist practitioners discovered a number of different challenging effects, such as depression, perceptual hypersensitivity, and anger.17 Such experiences also seem to be quite prevalent. A study of 1.264 regular meditators showed that approximately 25 % of them had had at least one very unpleasant meditation-related experience, such as anxiety.18 Anxiety, re-experiencing past trauma, and emotional hypersensitivity seem to be among the most typical challenging effects.19 In a few instances, meditation may indeed seem to be harmful, either in the sense of increasing symptoms or of the person being worse off in any way after having practiced meditation.20 It remains an open question, however, to what extent reduced functionality or being worse off due to meditation is part of larger developmental trajectories that ultimately lead to growth, increased well-being, or spiritual growth.21
Assessing which meditation-related events are truly harmful, which are unpleasant but necessary by-products of processes of personal growth, and which are simply unnecessarily unpleasant is difficult. Furthermore, what is truly ‘harmful’ must ultimately be assessed with the whole of a lifespan in view.22 Psychological studies are often limited to weeks and months, and the connection between such challenges and long-term progress in regard to meditation has hardly been investigated. Still, as the aim naturally should be to reduce and eliminate unnecessary harm, research on such matters seems essential. This kind of research can benefit from taking traditional sources into account, as these sources can provide valuable information about how to assess meditative progress.
The notion that meditation and spiritual processes can be deeply challenging is already present in traditional narratives.23 Even in Steiner’s work, one will find a nuanced view of meditation challenges. Some of them, such as the increase of egotism24 and temporary decrease of the capacity of memory, are seen as temporary changes.25 If they were not, they could easily be viewed as instances of harm. Indeed, egotism may be seen as a persistent theme, and it can, in Steiner’s view, not fully be overcome until the meeting with the greater guardian. Hence, the narrative of the transformation of egotism is deeply connected to the narrative of the guardian encounter. To understand the nature of meditation challenges more fully, it can be fruitful to take such narratives into account. In fact, the idea of adverse or challenging meditation effects may be seen as a result of removing spiritual narratives and perspectives from the practice of meditation and replacing them with contemporary clinical and psychological perspectives. It has been shown that (mindfulness) meditation may in some cases negatively impact memory by increasing the susceptibility to false memories, at least memories relating to semantic content.26 This result may be connected to a propensity for seeing things without being influenced by preference, that is, in a more truthful or at least neutral, non-subjective way. Again, the topic of seeing reality as it is, rather than in a way that is influenced by fear, desire, hate, etc., is also an overarching topic related to the guardian. Without taking these broader epistemological and metaphysical aspects of meditation seriously, one risks missing essential parts of it that are central to practitioners. Investigating the experiences of Anthroposophic meditators more closely may yield a better understanding of the growth-related and philosophical or spiritual aspects of meditation.
The material that I will be drawing on here consists of reports from practitioners of Anthroposophic meditation. This material was gathered in connection with an exploratory study of Anthroposophic meditation experiences. A description of the methodical framework and different findings, such as the general typology of experiences, motivations for meditation, and experiences with Anthroposophic meditation and spiritual practices like mantras and the subsidiary exercises, can be found elsewhere.27 The interviews, which were conducted with 30 participants, also explored the concept of the guardian and related experiences.
Several participants described becoming aware in the dream state. While some of these experiences may be understood as lucid dreams, others have the character of nightmares or sleep paralysis. One participant described being looked at by an eagle head while falling asleep, without it doing anything more than looking at him. At another time, however, the participant experienced being attacked. The context of the experience was that he was sleeping outside on the grounds where indigenous people had lived. The participant stated:
So, as I was falling asleep, I suddenly realized I was surrounded by all of these beings. And it was like, you know, the kind of picture that you get in like cartoons where there’s like this kind of hovering, you know, shining, shape of you know yellowish… I was like surrounded by them and they were really unhappy. And they tried to strangle me. And so, I was there like just sleeping. I couldn’t move. And I was being like strangled by these beings.
The participant understood this experience to mean that he was being attacked by the spirits of the indigenous people of the area, who wanted him to leave, which he did.
Another participant noted having had a nightmare experience as a child and that as an adult the same experience came back, though in a purer form. She stated that when the increased attention to sensory experience that is cultivated through meditation was brought into the sleep state, the same nightmare experience came back again:
Something that happened in my childhood is this dream: there was a corpse lying in the garden, in the grass, and then it woke up and followed me. And then I usually woke up before that corpse, that living corpse, had caught up with me. And I am connecting this, well, emotionally, this feeling of fear of being persecuted, with the feeling, which had occurred a few years ago, and a few times since then: that feeling of waking up at night without really waking up. I have a feeling someone comes into the room. And I don’t know how he got in there, but the presence in the room is frightening, because apparently he has no good intentions, but evil intentions. Anyway, I’m scared. There shouldn’t be anyone there. There shouldn’t really be anyone. But someone is there, and he is orientated towards me, comes closer, and that can go so far that, if I don’t wake up in time, or do not live through this experience so consciously that I can relate to it, then it goes so far that I am being touched. And that gives me a cold feeling that runs through me like ice. Very uncomfortable in the body. Then I usually notice it, at the latest in the moment of waking up from it, and then I know immediately: this is the experience I am so familiar with.
Note that the participant describes a kind of struggle of consciousness between, on the one hand, lack of consciousness and being touched by the evil presence and, on the other hand, gaining consciousness and distance from the evil presence.
Another participant described something similar, that is, childhood experiences of an ‘evil presence’ that reappeared in adulthood in connection with meditation:
The ‘evil presence’, which had not shown itself for years, appeared several times in rapid succession during a phase of intensified meditation. It was like waking up in the bedroom where I sleep, but in the dark, apparently triggered by the entry of ‘someone’ who doesn’t belong there and who approaches me, even wants to touch or actually touches me. It’s like cold fear running down my neck and back. The difference to before is that I recognize this experience in the middle of its occurrence, and as a result I can calm down, relatively speaking, (I can tell myself, it’s ‘just’ that). The entity levitates around, very close, and I just have to focus my attention on it to once again feel those cold, very physical waves, but I can get out of it again.
As in the previous quote, there was an experience of a cold feeling, cold angst. The participant was also able to calm himself through cognitive reorientation, thinking that it is only a felt evil presence, and retained some degree of control over the situation.
Not all the experiences contain descriptions of evil presences and attacks. One is simply of a vestibular-motor hallucination while sleeping (“I experienced that I actually stood up without the physical body and in a way could move around”). However, some of the experiences are directly connected to meditation sessions. One participant stated that she experienced exiting the physical body while conducting a mantra meditation. This experience resulted in intense fear, “die Angst davor im Nichts irgendwie zu verschwinden oder so”. Another participant described how he attempted to go deeper in meditation, that is, into a disembodied state:
And then, as if half felt, half heard, a voice comes: ‘If you want to continue there, then you have to become much more radical.’ In other words, anthroposophically speaking, a guardian of the threshold. Clearly conscious, there is this… there is something that has the character of a being, I can’t say alien entity, it has an aspect of me, but it says, ‘here is the real threshold’. And if you want to cross over there, you have to leave everything behind. It’s a death, a kind of death experience, so there’s nothing left of the [name of participant] that I know. […] I can’t take with me what I’ve experienced so far either.
The final episode that we will consider is the most intense. The participant described an encounter with what he understands as being the guardian:
I remember it very well when it appeared the first time. I’ll never forget that. I’d been meditating. I’d been meditating the rose cross. […]. And I’d had a very nice experience really. But it was more an experience of calm and of experiencing an inner light. […] So in a way I was done with that, and I had laid down on the couch to relax. While I’m lying there relaxing on the couch, my eyes are closed, and then I experience a presence in the room. And this presence in the room, is extremely intense. And then there is the smell of something burnt. Burnt horn or, yes, some burnt hair. That form of organic, burnt smell. And then I open my eyes, because I’m lying there with my eyes closed on the couch, and then I open my eyes. And then there is a face right in front of my face, a face that is my own face, but completely dark. And it scares the living shit out of me. It was really terrifying. And I start, I’m so struck by fear that I start to cry.
It may be noted that this event happened in connection with meditation, although the person was indeed relaxing at the time, perhaps accessing the sleep state. There was sensed presence, smell, and then a strong and unsettling visual impression that elicited a fear response. The participant elaborated on the visual impression and the fear:
I stare right at myself, but completely dark. And it was, I experienced just that, that it was myself but at the same time something foreign. Right? And it was just this foreignness that was so terrifying. I start crying and then a whole lot of memories come up, a whole lot of things that I remember from growing up when I hurt someone. And really I was lying there in terrible pain from a bad conscience. Every instance where I had hurt someone appeared. From when I was quite small. Things I… if I had been mean to a teacher at school or teased some boy at school, or some girl I had broken up with because I was in love with another girl, I mean, all these experiences where my behavior had hurt another human being. They came.
As the participant stated, the visual impression of the face and the fear were followed by de-repression of old, painful memories. This process of de-repression of memories lasted all night, as the participant relates, so he did not sleep:
More and more new images. And then, when I had to leave in the morning, I had to go to work, so I was going into the bathroom for a shower and to brush my teeth and so on. And then when I look in the mirror, I get a very strong sense that this being is right next to my face. And in the months after I work a lot on, in a way, embracing this side of myself. To not try to push it away, but to really work with the fear, with the bad conscience, and in one way or another embrace it in a kind of loving gesture. Then it disappears. [I understood] that if I repress these things, try to reject it, push it away, then it will really just come back in a kind of illness. It was very clear to me that this is something that can transform into an illness if I try to reject it. So, the only way to transform this into something that does not become an illness is to embrace it.
The experience was so strong that it influenced daily life as well. The fear and sensed presence started appearing whenever the participant saw himself in a mirror. The participant reacted to this experience with an attitude of loving embrace based on the notion of self-transformation. There was also an insight into the relationship between repression and illness. The work of self-transformation, which became part of meditation, continued for about two months:
The meditative transformation consisted in a way of that this being showed a different face rather than the frightening one. It was so that it changed into a teacher. At first it was very frightening and was experienced as an evil being, which in one way or another wanted to harm me. And it was the cause of all these horrible things I had done to others. But then, when I started to embrace it, then it… became something pitiful. It was as if it shrank. And I developed a kind of care for it. And when I started caring for it like that, it changed into a teacher. I understood that by transforming or embracing this being I would develop a stronger capacity for love or tolerance for the evil acts of other human beings. Right? But of course, I understand that some enjoy evil. So, there is a kind of seductive side to succumbing to this being. Because there is some power in it. But power is a dangerous thing, really, because power, power always separates you from other human beings. When you are in a position of power, then you have separated yourself from the other human being. So it was important to, in a way, yes, embrace it, simply to love it, in one way or another.
The being transformed into a teacher: Through the embrace, it became weak, which increased the love and tolerance of the participant. However, there was also a temptation of giving in to this being and becoming more like it instead, which would lead to more separation, rather than embrace.
Although this experience was very disturbing to the participant at first, he continued to go to work as usual. His overall assessment of the experience was as follows: “I considered it to be a very important experience. Even though it was terribly unpleasant, it was important.” The experience influenced his choice to become a therapist later.
Another participant described an encounter with the guardian that happened while they were on a vipassana (a form of Buddhist meditation) retreat:
And I had a real excarnation experience on the course. A very adventurous experience actually, […] a massive guardian experience. Actually a negative one… I would almost say an experience where someone mentally says to you: ‘So what are you doing here?’ […] Yes, not ‘You’re welcome’, but ‘What do you want here?’. […] It happened without words, actually, during the encounter with such a guardian. Which almost caused me to actually fall back into my body.
Guardian experiences or interpretations of experiences as related to the guardian are not necessarily limited to Anthroposophic meditation. In the examples given here, the guardian experience is related to sleep consciousness and nightmares, and its phenomenology is connected to auditive and visual experience and can result in the appearance of difficult memories and emotions, which again may initiate a process of personal transformation and development.
Phenomenology and the Development of Self-Consciousness
Psychological explanations of the sleep paralysis/guardian phenomenon tend to be reductive or constructivist, at least to the extent they seek to explain the phenomenon primarily based on aspects of human physiology. Metaphysical or realist spiritual explanations tend to ignore the physiological and psychological aspects of experience while positing spiritual entities outside the human being as the sole source of explanation. Phenomenological perspectives can be seen to stand between these two extremes, focusing on the fundamental structure of human experience, without necessarily contradicting either reductive or metaphysical views.
Here we will consider different phenomenological perspectives on self-consciousness in relation to the guardian. Some of these are non-empirical in the sense that they are based on conceptual analysis, while others are empirical in the sense that they draw on observational data. As we will see, Steiner’s ideas on the development of self-consciousness, in which the guardian plays an important role, are phenomenological in the sense of seeking to understand the genesis of the conceptual structure of self-consciousness. However, in contrast to phenomenologists, Steiner deals with what he calls ’spiritual perception’ and also develops models of an evolution of human consciousness in specific, clearly distinguishable periods of development. Hence his view represents a kind of empirical phenomenology, with the caveat that by ‘empirical’ one would mean observations gathered through spiritual organs in altered states of consciousness. Again, this conception of self-consciousness will be developed in more detail below. First, I consider typical phenomenological perspectives on self-consciousness, which include topics that are important in the context of the guardian, such as the basic phenomena of fear and desire. Then I consider developmental psychology, which also deals with basic psychic phenomena, for example with shame and the experience of being seen by others and seeing oneself. Finally, I relate these perspectives to Steiner’s ideas, especially his idea that self-consciousness can be described as an experience of being seen or stared at by a being outside oneself.
In the context of research on sleep paralysis, Solomonova et al. suggest that the phenomenon of a sensed presence should be understood as something fundamental in human experience:
We argue that felt presence constitutes a basic phenomena […] at the center of the interplay between intersubjective and intrasubjective self-expression. Felt presence can be seen as a cornerstone of religious and spiritual experiences, of creativity and of one’s self-identity in relation to others. There are a multitude of possible presence phenomena, subtle and extreme, menacing and comforting, but perhaps at the core of all of them there is a basic sensibility or vulnerability to such experiences.28
The authors of this study view sleep paralysis and nightmares as examples of felt presences. According to such a perspective, ‘felt presences’ cannot be reduced to mere imagination, since whatever perspective one chooses involves, explicitly or implicitly, some reference to self and other, perspective-taking, intersubjectivity, and so on.
Many phenomenologists have argued that self-consciousness is dependent upon the sense that there is someone else there, who sees us just as we see them. One can find such a view for example in Sartre, Levinas, and Hegel. For Sartre, self-awareness arises from the realization that we are an object for another subject.29 For Levinas, the face of the other is not only an object for us but also immediately another subject – staring back at us.30 In Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit, self-consciousness is presented as having a structural history, connected to desire, the struggle for life and death, master and slave dialectic, etc. Desire is fundamentally a desire to find unity with the other who equally desires oneself. However, at first, desire makes itself manifest as the desire to devour or possess an object. Devouring an object leads to an infinite process of satisfaction and renewal of dissatisfaction as the experience of satisfaction has dissatisfaction as a precondition. Only when a subject meets another subject can something new arise. However, as long as there are two subjects, they threaten each other in the sense that each may be reduced to an object by the other and hence must prove that they are a subject rather than simply an object, that is, they must prove that they have power over the other subject and can potentially turn the other subject onto an object. One way a subject may reduce the other into an object is by killing them. This approach, however, would mean that the desire is reproduced again. Only when someone surrenders and is not killed does something new happen: now the world has two subjects with a minimum of recognition of each other. As the story continues, one subject lives in fear of the other, but it is also shown that true satisfaction is found only in mutual recognition by equals. This genetical account of the structure of consciousness corresponds with phenomenological accounts that indicate how self-consciousness is interwoven with the consciousness of an other. What is important to note is that this analysis is not claimed to have happened at specific time periods but rather is, at most, a conceptual reconstruction of a historical development. As a phenomenological analysis, however, it does not draw on historical observation.
In contrast to such approaches, developmental psychology is strongly based on observation of human behavior and draws on other empirical disciplines, such as neuroscience. From this point of view, the development of self-consciousness can indeed be witnessed empirically as human beings develop in childhood. It is noteworthy that emotions such as embarrassment, shame, and pride arise at a certain age when children realize that they can be seen by others. As developmental psychologist Philippe Rochat states:
Prior to the second year, an infant placed in front of a mirror will typically smile, coo, and explore in apparent delight at the perfect contingency between acted and seen movements bouncing back at him or her from the polished surface of the mirror. By two years, the specular image is associated with radically different behaviors. Toddlers become typically frozen and sometimes behave as if they want to hide themselves by tucking their head in their shoulders or hiding their face behind their hands.31
Being watched by someone – even by oneself in the mirror – can be unsettling. Rochat continues to ask why the development of self-consciousness is connected in so many ways with ‘great anxiety’, ‘terror’, and ‘negative experiences’.32 Rochat’s answer is that the reason is
[…] a generalized fear of being ostracized and severed from the group, the fear of social rejection. It all boils down to the expression of the basic affiliation need (BAN) and its corollary, the fear of isolation, the separation from others. The tension between these opposite poles is a source of great anxiety, the generalized threatening experience of pending social disapproval and rejection. The force of such an experience is commensurate with the force of our basic affiliation need, a motivational system that is hard-wired with deep roots in mammalian evolution, as implied by current attachment theories […].33
But this does not explain why someone would become frozen or unsettled when seeing themself – and the question remains how seeing oneself becomes a motivation for the devaluation of others. I would suggest that the matter is more complex. Seeing oneself looking at oneself is an experience of both recognizing and not recognizing oneself. The infinite consciousness, which can potentially identify with anything, is suddenly bound to one expression. Such a fundamental experience potentially triggers a plethora of negative emotions, not only shame but also, for example, fear (of being attacked, as one is physically located and vulnerable) or desire (for recognition). Again it may be noted that the propensity for having sleep paralysis, that is, of sensing an evil presence, is associated with social anxiety.34 It may also be noted that children have more nightmares than adults35 and that risk factors for having a nightmare include difficult temperament and anxiety, while emotional nurturance protects against nightmares.36 Childhood is also more strongly connected to the experience of threatening, monstrous presences as evidenced by the central role of fear-based monsters in children’s literature.37
For Steiner as well, there is a connection between fear and self-consciousness: “The sense of self”, he stated, “is actually transformed fear.”38 This fear he sees as connected to the guardian, which protects the human being from directly experiencing the fierce egotism of its instincts. Steiner also believes that human consciousness developed in the course of certain clearly distinguishable time periods or cultural epochs. Furthermore, he believes that self-consciousness arises at a time when there is a transition away from mythic consciousness. In mythic consciousness, Steiner claims, the experience of spirits, gnomes, elves, etc., were commonplace, and the environment was perceived in dream-like visual experiences instead of in the form of external, clearly defined objects.39 In such a consciousness, there was also a sense of being stared at, and the self-conscious being wants to transform into the one who watches:
Whenever that happened during the transition, the human being was dependent upon saying to itself: But I want to see, I don’t want you to see me, that you stare at me, I want to see. In those moments, what stood before man outside of him seemed to him something that he had to overcome. All the old tales, in which the hero wants to blind the being that stares at him, to overcome it so that it is no longer staring, have their origin here. In the story of Polyphemus, in the blinding of giants, in the wonderful saga where Dietrich von Bern conquered the giant Grim: everywhere this element of consciousness is represented.40
Steiner thinks that the mythic stories, the fairy tales, come from a time when humanity lived in an altered, dream-like state of consciousness that facilitated the experience of spiritual beings, and he considers these narratives an expression of these encounters. According to his view, other fairy tales connected to this transition of consciousness are the ones in which a protagonist experiences a temptation by a supernatural being. One example is the Lorelei legend. Steiner also states that nightmares are a remnant of such a state of consciousness and of a time in which self-consciousness was taking shape in the human being.41 However, he is open to a more naturalistic interpretation, in that he sees the appearance of nightmare phenomena as connected to disturbance of the breath as hypothesized by the contemporary psychophysiological research mentioned earlier. Hence Steiner’s ideas in relation to the development of self-consciousness are a kind of combination of a phenomenological, developmental, and genealogical (in the Hegelian sense) analysis of fundamental aspects of the human being (egotism, basic emotions, ability to understand oneself, and self-development) while also drawing on the results of spiritual perception. Furthermore, he sees the development of individual consciousness in the context of views about the general history of human consciousness that identify specific periods and transitions and remain open to (non-reductive) naturalistic explanations of certain phenomena.
I wish now to return to a quote that was presented in part I of this study, where Steiner describes the connection between meditation and the appearance of the guardian. Here I will add the part that describes the meditative process leading up to the guardian encounter:
So he [the meditator] must be able to feel something very specific when he has a crystal in his hand; as he must feel something specific when he has an octahedron in his hand. He gets a feeling that we can have towards the lifeless world. We then compare the lifeless rock with a living, blood-filled being and say to ourselves: this one has sensuality, but the water-white rock is desireless. When I am able to feel how in the stone desire has come to a death, how it has become pure and chaste, and when I can immerse myself in this feeling so that the world dies around me and when I allow only this feeling to live within me – be it the feeling from the crystal, from the animal or from the human being – and when I then can drop the object, go back in the same way as before and come into the state of Dhyana: then I notice that the feeling is not just a feeling, but that it is beginning to lighten up, that the feeling is beginning to become a phenomenon of light. And thus appears what one perceives as thought-form, but what might better be called the form of a feeling. […] When man learns to feel the objects around him and the objects take on colors, which then crystallize into images: at that point he beholds his own world of emotions around him. He needs to look at himself from as objective observers, then he crosses the threshold at the other side of which he perceives himself with all that he is – and with all he still is not. The first Guardian of the Threshold stands before him, showing him: That is you!42
We can break this description down and summarize the meditative process that leads to the appearance of the guardian:
- 1. First, a meditation is described where an object is connected to a feeling. In the example, the crystal is connected to a subtle or non-sensory feeling of purity. This approach intentionally connects something objective, a basic physical form, with something subjective.
- 2. One rests in pure awareness, which can be equated with a state where there is no subjectivity or objectivity, or a state where both have merged.
- 3. Within such a state, one may become more aware of subtle aspects and deeper structures of consciousness. This awareness has a more universal side, namely (i) that the structure of appearance may become more apparent (one sees more clearly how experiences arise), and a more particular side, namely (ii) that personal experiences, memories, subconscious patterns of reaction (habits and instincts), and other subconscious material may show themselves.
- 4. The universal and particular aspects of consciousness merge within the altered state of consciousness created by steps 1 and 2 and one gets the appearance of subjective content in the form of an objective figure. What is normally on the ‘inside’ now appears as something external to oneself, which at the same time is an aspect of oneself. This state shows a meditator what one needs to become aware of and transform (as described in part I).
These four steps constitute a suggestion for a phenomenological analysis of the basic structure of the meditative process that gives rise to the experience of the guardian. Step 1, where an intentional connection is made between an objective and a subtle feeling prepares for the increased awareness of both the structure of objective awareness and subjective, subconscious material and patterns of reaction, which is cultivated in steps 2 and 3 (it is well-known that meditation seeks to increase insight into how things appear within the mind43 and that it may lead to the appearance of subconscious material, such as long-forgotten memories).44 The combination of the awareness cultivated in step 1 (the connection between an external awareness of a thing with a subtle, internal feeling) with the awareness cultivated in steps 2 and 3 (the awareness within which there is no clear distinction between subject and object) may give rise to the guardian experience as described in step 4, where something internal, something within oneself is presented as a thing with subjective character, namely a figure, a monster, a ‘Gestalt’ in the psychological sense of the word. This meditative process may lead to an experience that uncovers deeper, more basic layers of human consciousness, layers that were formed in childhood and, in Steiner’s view, would be a kind of repetition of a specific, historical stage of human consciousness. However, this repetition is now fully conscious and is not a matter of the formation of self-consciousness but rather a matter of its transformation. This transformation, in the sense of a transformation of egotism, was presented conceptually in part I of this article and exemplified experientially in the previous section of the present article.
As was shown in part I, although Steiner’s concept of the guardian has unique aspects, it is also – as Steiner himself pointed out – connected to an archetypal image found in different religions, myths, and stories. In the present article, I have considered research on nightmares and sleep paralysis, the experiential reports of meditators, and phenomenological perspectives on the guardian of the threshold. Each of these perspectives offers different ways of viewing the experience that might stand behind all these images and narratives. As the research on sleep paralysis and nightmares shows, the experience of a threatening presence can be found across many different cultures and has different physiological correlates, ranging from changes in blood chemistry due to suffocation to activation of a hypothesized threat detection system in the brain. To the extent nightmares are induced by a reduction of the breath capacity during sleep, one may speak of a bottom-up process leading to a guardian experience. When the encounter is induced through meditation, it is, in contrast, a top-down process, although such top-down meditation processes may indeed result in suffocation and a fear response.45 Hence the guardian encounter seems to combine both kinds of processes.
In the view of Anthroposophic meditators, the guardian-related phenomenon is often interpreted within a realist framework, in the sense that the being encountered is seen as either an actual spiritual being or a projection of a being in oneself. As shown in part I, Steiner’s different descriptions of the guardian phenomenon give room for both realist interpretations. Additionally, it was shown that the guardian experience can have deep, personal significance for meditators, impacting everything ranging from their inner life to their occupational choices. Furthermore, the different reports of Anthroposophic meditators exemplify how meditation challenges may be interpreted within a spiritual growth framework. It has yet to be investigated to what extent such perspectives positively influence how a person responds to a challenge, but it has been shown, for example, that persons with a religious outlook experience fewer very unpleasant experiences than non-religious persons in this context.46 A challenging experience may indeed be less unpleasant on the whole when a person has interpretative frameworks and tools for interpreting the experience and for responding to it. What the Anthroposophic perspective offers is a way of understanding meditation challenges as something that is supposed to facilitate growth and development. When meditation becomes difficult and challenging, this development itself is seen as a sign of progress. Hence something potentially unpleasant is given deep, developmental, positive significance, a view that is likely to support a meditating person in navigating the challenge effectively. While research on growth mindset is controversial, the belief that a growth mindset can be acquired through meditation seems justified.47
The phenomenological perspectives revealed how the guardian experience may be interpreted in a social perspective, especially the phenomenon of being seen by another and how that may be constitutive of self-consciousness. This is a perspective that one finds both in developmental psychology and in Steiner. Such processes indicate that consciousness not only is a matter of the relationship between consciousness and its objects but also essentially involves the relationship between conscious subjects: Self-consciousness is not a matter of a ‘homunculus’, who experiences only itself in its globe of glass, but rather is the internalized gaze that another being has on oneself. In the guardian encounter, one is, in other words, becoming aware of the basic structure of self-consciousness, which, as shown in developmental psychology, involves emotions such as fear but also social emotions such as shame. Furthermore, I attempted to outline the phenomenological structure of the meditative process leading up to the guardian experience, which is based on a disintegration of the way feelings and objects are normally experienced and which is the appearance of basic, challenging emotions in the shape of a demonic presence (the lower guardian), which then becomes the basis of personal transformation or growth. Demons have been recognized as primary psychological phenomena, for example, in Buddhism at least as early as the Middle Ages (see reference to Machig Labdrön in part I). Contemporary phenomenological perspective suggests a way to better understand how such appearances are constituted and why they occur.
As it has been shown, one may indeed speak of the experience of the guardian of the threshold. This experience may be seen to be related to a complex interaction of human physiology, developmental psychology, and deep, cross-cultural archetypal imagery, giving rise to an experience of the self in the form of a threatening or evil presence. Steiner’s idea of the guardian offers a unique way of gathering and understanding these interrelated areas through a specific, spiritual narrative. His ‘guardian’ narrative is more than just a more or less consistent story told. To practitioners of anthroposophical meditation, it is a framework that makes their own meditative experiences understandable. But as it seems to provide support for the transformation and growth of these practitioners, it remains to be investigated under what conditions threatening presences encountered during meditation are simply negative experiences and under what conditions they lead to growth. This, furthermore, relates to the difficult issue of what constitutes human and spiritual growth. This issue cannot be defined by clinical and psychological perspectives alone. Spiritual practitioners sometimes break with what is conventionally considered healthy (one need only think of Julian of Norwich and her wish to become ill and then being an anchoress for the rest of her life). Spiritual ideas, such as a belief in the pre-existence of the psyche or the desire for a union with God, clearly conflict with the framework in which conventional psychology works. For a comprehensive and updated assessment of spiritual growth, it seems necessary to break with some of these conventions. Anthroposophy represents such a break, formulated about a hundred years ago, and the narratives it presents are worthy of inclusion in the difficult negotiations about the nature, biological foundation, and social realization of human experience and transcendence.