Study Group Guidelines
Anthroposophic Study Groups
Above all, anthroposophy depends on the inner work of individuals who feel the necessity and commitment to reach beyond the ordinary, perceived limits of human knowledge. Rudolf Steiner wrote:
Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge to guide the spiritual in the human being to the spiritual in the universe. It arises in people as a need of the heart, or feeling life. It is justified only to the degree that it can satisfy this inner need. To truly appreciate anthroposophy, one must find in it what one feels inwardly impelled to seek. Consequently, to be an anthroposophist, one must experience — as an elemental need of life, like hunger and thirst — certain questions concerning human and cosmic nature1.
It is this burning desire for answers to our deepest questions that justifies anthroposophic study groups. As Paul Margulies2 describes in the following essay, the key is the inner activity of those who come together to increase their understanding. To experienced such a group — when it truly works — is to realize that the combined effects of the shared effort is not simply added together but compounded. We are changed by such an experience, because our thinking is enlivened to the point of real “spiritual activity.” And we gain true knowledge and self-transformation only through spiritual activity.
Information About Study Groups:
To locate an anthroposophic study group in your area, contact the closest branch of the Anthroposophical Society or your local Waldorf school. Resources may be found in the Directory of Initiatives on the website of the Anthroposophical Society in America.
Books for a Study Group:
When a group of people join together to study a particular book and wish to purchase that book in quantities of five copies or more, SteinerBooks will give a 20% discount for that order. You must purchase five copies or more of a single title, and payment in advance is required. Order by calling 703-661-1594 or online using offer code STUDY at checkout.
Guidelines for a Study Group
The first study group that I attended was in New York City, working on Rudolf Steiner's Philosophy of Freedom. We were all pretty much beginners and chaos reigned. After a year of wrestling with the book the only thing I knew for certain was that I didn't understand it. By the look of puzzlement on everyone's face during the last meeting, when serious questions were raised, I felt no one else understood it either. I can't remember what the format of the group was. I do remember two negative aspects: discussions tended to wander aimlessly, and far from the material at hand; and, all too frequently, feelings raged. They were bouncing off the walls of the room where we met. Members of the group clung desperately to preconceived ideas. They contradicted one another, and expressed their disagreements in no uncertain terms. When the "study" ended, I felt that studying anthroposophy was quite helpless. I felt completely thrown back on myself. And my self was completely inadequate to the task.
After a significant period of struggling on my own, I was privileged to discover the study group of George and Gisela O'Neil2, which met one Sunday a month at their home in Pamona, New York. This was an all-day-bring-your-lunch affair, and we had George's amazing outlines to work with. These outlines were based on his unique capacity to see the forms of Steiner's books reflected in the various members of the human being. There would be, e.g., a physical aspect, the "what" of a book; a life aspect, the "how" of a book; a consciousness aspect, the "why"; and an I–being aspect, the "who". This part of the O'Neil study groups would not be relevant for most groups just starting out, but I would like to describe the essentials for any study group, essentials that would avoid the dangers I first experienced.
To avoid any confusion, let me just say that we are talking here about study groups, and not the founding of a branch or a working group such as a group of teachers or farmers, though some of these principles would apply to those situations. And let us limit ourselves to the study of books by Rudolf Steiner. The best material for a study group is the written works of Steiner as opposed to the lectures. And of the written works, nothing beats the five basic books3. Steiner himself says that "if the contents are read with the heart and experienced with deep inwardness ... if they had been so read... the lecture courses could have been written or given by someone else than me. EVERYTHING, REALLY, IS CONTAINED IN THESE BOOKS, ONLY PEOPLE DO NOT GENERALLY BELIEVE IT."4 I have been working with study groups in the United States and in England with just these books for twenty–five years and I find it continually rewarding.
The size of the group is immaterial. I know of a study group that began with just a mother and her son in an area where there were no anthroposophists. From that humble beginning there is now an active branch of the Anthroposophical Society. Meetings should follow a rhythm. I have found that every other week seems to make the group accessible for most people, meeting from 7:30 PM to 9 PM. For another group, where the members are dispersed, we meet one Sunday a month from 1 PM to 4 PM.
The key to the success of the O'Neil study groups can be summed up in the phrase "inner activity." Each member of the group, according to his or her capacity, should endeavor to bring as much "inner activity" as possible in trying to comprehend the chosen material. This inner activity is easily focused if each member of the group takes on an assignment, a page, several pages, or even a paragraph. In other words, a chapter is chosen. Everyone reads the chapter at home. Then each individual in the group is responsible for a section of the chapter to be expressed to the group in the participant's own words. If this is too difficult, the passage assigned could simply be read aloud by the member whose responsibility it is. Another aspect of "inner activity" is active listening. This means completely silencing the self. (We can picture making ourselves into a gigantic ear.) The "inner activity" necessary to express an anthroposophic idea leads us to the higher self; "listening" evokes a selflessness, moving from the lower self to the higher self.
This brings us to the second principle for a successful study group, which the O'Neils described as "creating the mood of the threshold." The participants should be made conscious of the fact that the material we are dealing with takes us directly into contact with the spirit — the spirit in the world and the spirit in ourselves. We try to picture leaving our lower self outside the room where we are meeting. To create this mood it is helpful to begin and end each session with a mantram. This is one I have found effective:
May all who enter here bring love.
While here true knowledge we do seek.
On leaving we take with us peace.
(For the closing mantram we use the past tense: "... entered here ... brought love... we did seek...")
You will find that the ideas encountered during the study will raise millions of questions, and the questions raised are often, for the purposes of the group, more important than the ideas expressed. Most questions come from the heart. They have the power to move the idea from the abstract to the concrete, from the head to the heart. So I would make this the third principle: questions must be encouraged. There is no such thing as a dumb question. "Question" and "quest" come from the same root.
Ahh, but this leads to one of those dangers I experienced in my first study group, the aimless wandering that ultimately destroys the goal of the group which is, of course, understanding the text. So, now we come to the fourth principle: "focused attention", the discipline to stick to the text. You are blessed if there is someone in the group who is willing to be responsible for holding the discipline, who can sense when a question is relevant and when it is taking us too far afield. If there is a group leader, or guide, that is his or her prime responsibility. If there is no guide or group leader, then it would be wise to appoint a different member each session to take on that responsibility.
The inner effort to present the material, the active listening, the disciplined discussion focused on the material, combine to strengthen our "attentiveness", and it is precisely this concentrated attention, focused on universal ideas, that leads us to our higher self. What are we, in truth, if not attentiveness?
There is also a social aspect to any group that cannot be ignored. And this brings us to our fifth and final principle, which I would call "mutual recognition." I have found it important to take the time at our first meeting to introduce ourselves, to give each member an opportunity to express what is on his or her heart at the moment. This is not just saying names. This is who are you, what do you do, what are your interests, what brings you here? This moment of expressing our hearts is repeated every so often, for instance, after a holiday when we've missed a meeting. We also have an annual potluck dinner, which includes spouses, children, and pets, and an hour of entertainment provided by the members... there is always someone who plays the guitar, or does magic tricks, or who can get their kids to sing. These are moments of real joy.
What is happening, essentially, in a study group– On one level, we are increasing our understanding of anthroposophy. At a deeper level, we are immersed in a sense–free-experience. This could be our first experience of the spirit in us. We are elaborating universal thoughts, thoughts that proceed from the spirit and awaken the spirit in us. We are, for a time, living in a spiritual atmosphere in which the seedling of our spirit–self is being nurtured. In fact, the next cultural epoch will see the development of the spirit–self as the next phase in the evolution of humanity, just as the current cultural epoch is developing the consciousness–soul. Referring to the mystery centers of the ancient world, Steiner explains how during each cultural epoch human beings have gathered in groups where their activity together served as preparation for the following cultural epoch.
We may therefore picture to ourselves that by uniting in brotherliness in working groups, something hovers invisibly over our work, something that is like the child of the forces of the spirit–self — the spirit–self that is nurtured by the beings of the higher hierarchies in order that it may stream down into our souls when they are again on Earth in the sixth epoch of civilization... The thought that we do this work not only for the sake of our own egos, but in order that it may stream upward into the spiritual worlds, the thought that this work is connected with the spiritual worlds, this is the true consecration of a working group5.
One last thought: Don't be discouraged. Illumination is a mighty process, and it won't necessarily occur in one lifetime. But anthroposophic thoughts are like seeds. Plant them well and they will grow. Socrates has said, "The more a human being learns, the more he knows how little he knows." If you come to that conclusion during your work, you know you are making progress. Rudolf Steiner refers to "a great forerunner of our Spiritual Science" who connects the word striving with the word Redemption. Think of this as the Redemption-thought: "He who never gives up striving, he it is whom we can redeem"6.
- The first "leading thought," Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts, Rudolf Steiner Press.
- George and Gisela O'Neil are authors of The Human Life, from Mercury Press.
- The Basic Books: Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path (The Philosophy of Freedom), How to Know Higher Worlds, Theosophy, An Outline of Esoteric Science, and Christianity as Mystical Fact, all available from SteinerBooks.
- Occult Reading and Occult Hearing, four lectures given in Dornach, Oct. 3–6, 1914, Rudolf Steiner Press, London.
- "Preparing for the Sixth Epoch," Lecture given in Dornach, June 15, 1915, Anthroposphic Press (included in Reverse Ritual, from SteinerBooks).
- From Jesus to Christ, ten lectures given in Karlsruhe, Oct. 5–14, 1911, Rudolf Steiner Press, London.