Interview with Friedrich Glasl

Conducted by Inessa Guseva

Friedrich Glasl was born 1941 Vienna, he studied political sciences and psychology. Since 1967 he has been a consultant and mediator in organizations, civil war and international crisis situations.


How did you start meditating? Who was the first person you've met that you knew that he/she was meditating?

I think I started when I moved from Austria to Netherlands with NPI (Netherlands Pedagogical Institute, which worked with organizations and individuals to help these realize their economic, social and cultural goals). When I became a member of NPI, I knew almost nothing about anthroposophy. Of course, I knew something about meditation; because of my commitment for the peace-movement I was interested in Buddhism and Hinduism, mostly because of Gandhi and his attitude and philosophy of non-violence. However, I was not practising meditation before that.

In 1966/67 I came in contact with anthroposophists. There were, at most, about twenty colleagues surrounding me. I knew that in anthroposophy a special type of meditation is practised. Not just for our own personal development, but also to make it fruitful for professional life and for research work. Even when you're working with groups or individuals, or consulting, you can base your interventions, you can base your diagnosis of the situation on meditation, which, in turn, is deepening your understanding.

So that's when I came in contact with anthroposophy. Then, of course, I started reading some of the basic books, like Knowledge of the Higher Worlds. We started this in a group; my wife, and six other persons, at home. We practised what we read, for example, the well-known six subsidiary exercises. We did them, we shared our experiences, we've talked more about how we did it, the difficulties of it and how to overcome them. And it as was less about the insights we've obtained, of course we've also shared it, but in a very modest way; we have focused on the optimisation of the methodological side of the meditation.

With this basic book, I entered the field of meditation. By doing it, meditation became more and more related to Karma exercises. For me personally, but also in my work as a consultant in conflicts. As a mediator, my work is very much based on meditation and on Karma exercises, which are given especially in Steiner's volume two of the five books on Karmic Relationships: Esoteric Studies. The interest started because there was a real need for it. You got an insight, an understanding of social situations: small ones of a pair of people or big group dynamics, or even for huge organisations. So you get an understanding of a deeper meaning of those struggles, and how this can be supported by me as a consultant or as a conflict mediator.

Why did you choose anthroposophy as the basis?

Well, I was interested in Buddhism and Hinduism, because of the prevailing non-violence. As a pacifist, I studied intensively how Gandhi worked. It all was part of peace movement, International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), in which Martin Luther King was a member, as well as five other Nobel Prize winners. It all was based on non-violence, long, long before Marshall Rosenberg developed the Non-violent Communication in more micro-social relations. But peace-work was on a political level.

I got to know a bit about the image of man in Buddhism and Hinduism, but I was less interested in the meditations. Of course, the same meditations and yoga, for example, are very attractive for many, many people. But I was not attracted by this way of spiritually exercising. For me, it was more about the philosophy and the background.

So, why did I choose the anthroposophical way? Simply because it crossed my way. Because I became an active member of the community in which anthroposophy played an important role. It seemed to be very, very fruitful and very effective.

What is the uniqueness of the anthroposophical meditation, if you can compare it with other methods?

Maybe I should compare it with something which became very famous nowadays: Mindfulness.

I appreciate very much that this movement is going around the world, because it's a first step in a good meditation. It always starts with concentration, centring yourself and creating self-empathy; observing what is going on in your body and in your mind, your soul.

However, the anthroposophical meditation is going much further. This is why I recommend to many people to start with mindfulness, with some very good, very practical books like that from Chade-Meng Tan “Search Inside Yourself”. It's practical, very humane.

But the special thing about anthroposophical meditation is that you can develop organs to observe things behind the visible world, which are deeper sources, deeper roots of what's going on. And therefore, the very special thing about it, the very special thing, which I do: exercises which help you to develop a sense for changes in time. So, development in group, for instance: how does a group change from the very beginning, going through different phases and crisis and getting more and more mature, and how their organisation changes and develops. It was the main working area of NPI, which does not exists any more. I became a member in '67, working with Bernard Lievegoed, Hans von Sassen, Lex Bos, Leo de la Houssaye, Coen van Houten and other colleagues.

How does an organisation, a school, an anthroposophical group, a bank, a ministry, a church, a hospital, any organisation, how does it develop after the founding, as it is going through different stages of maturity? Can one develop this ability to see the forms, the dynamics which are causing the change of form? The dynamics which are actually driven by a change of the paradigms.

So, the basic paradigms of pioneering phase are quite different from the second phase, the differentiation phase or the third phase, the integration phase, or the fourth, the association phase. It is a spiritual driving force, when you can observe the obvious change of forms and structures, in the way people behave, their patterns of behaviour. If you can observe this, the driving force, the interests, then you can provide effective help to support their change in a good direction, or you can help people if they get trapped in some of the conflict traps and they can't understand why they are struggling now, because they are still bound to the old paradigms and they feel that the new paradigms should be developed. They are insecure that the new paradigms are clear enough or supportive enough.

When they feel insecure, they'd rather stick to the old paradigms or the old principles, therefore they enter a process of regression, which is a conflict process. In the 70s I started with systematic research on the process of conflict escalation, which is one of my main research and working areas. What are the patterns you can observe? What changes there? Which is, for ordinary observation, invisible, but which is the real explanation for the dynamics which cause the changes.

Now, for the special exercises. I haven't seen them in any other meditation school. For example, imagine a triangle and in your imagination change this triangle to a circle. And this circle — change it again to a quadrangle or any other shape. Do it in your mind, within your soul. Become aware of the metamorphosis, of the process, the in-between steps. Or, in another example given by Rudolf Steiner, the exercise is to study clouds. Now, at the moment, it's grey here, in Salzburg. Yesterday, though, there was beautiful blue sky and clouds and the shape of the clouds changed again and again. These are some very simple and famous exercises, which Steiner gave us: Look at the forms of the clouds. Just, let's say, for five seconds. Close your eyes, reproduce them in your memory. Then, open your eyes again, look at the change of the forms, again, for five seconds. And then, after these five seconds, close your eyes. Keep the new picture in mind. And then after 10 seconds, open your eyes again. Now close your eyes again, and then transform the 1st picture to the 2nd to the 3rd to the 4th. And that's what you are doing in your mind, by transforming the pictures into one another. This is actually getting pretty close to the real dynamics which caused the change of the clouds. This makes you aware of subtle changes, for example, in patterns of behaviour of people. And again, you can make the same kind of “photographs” or images, and you can keep them in your mind, and look at them. And then again, transform them in your mind. You get close to those invisible changing, driving forces.

There are many, many exercises like this, which I also recommend to my students, clients, to get fit for observation of changes in time. This is one of the basic working areas for the development of groups, organisations. And so I studied the escalation of conflict, how a conflict gets worse step by step. Systematic empirical research was depended by this kind of meditation. So I discovered how to get out again, what changes when my interventions and mediation are effective? What are the changes in the healing direction again, what are the subtle difficulties?

What is the basic anthroposophical meditation and exercise to you? 1-2 examples.

Look at the reality precisely, look at a plant or a seed. Look at it precisely, no fantasy, no projection, no change from reality. Then try to erase in your mind of what you have seen. What you are creating now, in your imagination, is an inspirational spiritual activity. So you can observe this spiritual activity and you can do it either by the example of the plant, different phases of growing up a plant, for instance, and, again, looking at the precise manifestation, physical manifestation and then trying to get rid of it, out of your memory, and then repeat by using a different form of it in creating a new memory. This is then the spiritual reality, and you can do it with things you have observed the forms of, physical objects, clouds, steaming forms of a river, living objects, behaviour of people, groups, etc.

Now, if you succeed in getting rid of the real sensation you had first in your mind by really getting it erased from your memory and your mind, then something comes up in your mind. These are, if you're not trying to force it – you have to wait for it – and, most of the time, nothing happens; or something very, very subtle happens and you're not aware of it. Do it again and again. And wait and wait and wait.

I say this, because of the Karma exercises, which are really important for my work. The purpose of it is, really, first, to look precisely at the manifestations, behaviour, patterns, structure, then erase it, which is described in the Karma exercises. Then you should be silent and wait. Something may turn up or not. If it doesn't, just try again next time.

This is something which is different from the everyday-intellectual interpretation, explanation and understanding. You're really at the source of what is the spiritual power or force, or energy, which is there in the situation. You will not find it in any other school of meditation. In most cases you will only be told to bodyscan yourself, search your feelings, etc.

The basic exercises are vital. It is, of course, also important, to get control of your thoughts, control of your feelings. You become self-determined, self-managed, self-governed. Then the real use, the real purpose, the real benefit of anthroposophical meditation starts from this onwards. Because you develop your inner organ and then you start seeing, discovering things which are in or behind the physical manifestation.

We were talking about mindfulness training exercises and I appreciate it very much that people start with it. Once they have practised it, then, if they are interested in it, you can recommend to, well, try that exercise and this, to get deeper inside in what is the other aspect, the other side of the physical manifestation of this world.

Why do you meditate?

Well, at the beginning it was just to be inquisitive. To see how you would experience this, what you would get from it. It was very important, in the first study group we had at home, reading and practising on Knowledge of the Higher Worlds. We thought, oh, that’s interesting, it’s nice, maybe we’ll see an angel or an elemental. And then later the interest shifted to how to do it, getting more and more and more modest, and being very modest and careful, respectful for the first subtle experiences. But sometimes, sometimes it's amazing how quickly you may obtain some results.

And, I think it was one of your questions, right, what role do people who practice anthroposophical meditation play to each other? Is there an exchange possible; is it possible to share experiences? The method of it, and if you do it in a modest way, results you may have achieved? If I use anthroposophical technical terms, then the meditation leads to imagination, inspiration, intuition, it helps to develop imagination, inspiration and intuition.

And for the personal purposes — it is actually to do with my work, which is for people, the social organisms, groups to do it more effectively. If you want to help them to be more effective, you can offer it to people.

If people just try to meditate, you get in a balance and get centred and you can reduce all the stress. There exist good programs for stress reduction, like those from Jon Kabat Zin. This is okay, but you can definitely do more. You can do something of a more meaningful work, to do this for your life, to do it in a more effective way.

So the main purpose for me is really enhancing my professional life. Research on one hand, also based on meditation, imagination, inspiration, intuition, but also by intervening, offering help to people who suffer from conflicts, problems.

Do we need one another in meditation? What role do people who practice anthroposophical meditation play to each other? Is there an exchange possible; sharing experiences? How is the situation now? How should it be? What are opportunities and challenges of shared meditation?

For me it is very important to have good friends and to be able to share, especially the how of it, the way to do it. When you read Steiner, he is describing exercises, a lot of exercises and when he gives mantras, for instance, it is very important to do exchange with other people, who also seriously work with them; really practice this: How did you understand this? I got into difficulties by doing it my way – but how could you manage this difficulty? And this is tremendous. It is serious. I am working on meditation and not just pretending that oh, yes, I am an initiate, a guru. We need each other to help to clarify our differences, out of the various different understandings of what you read and what you are experiencing. Applying it to actually get rid of misunderstandings and to get on a deeper level. To understand what Steiner may have meant by giving these exercises.

So I discovered it again and again, that I interpreted it in this way and you did it differently. It’s interesting. But again, the basic condition is that people really, seriously work, practice on this. I must say, that this is even difficult with class members, very often it is. I'm also a class reader now for about 15 years, and it is very important to exchange experiences among class readers when you meet.

We had in Austria, for twenty years, in August, one week, where all Austrian class readers met together with some people from Hungary, Germany, Switzerland. It really all was to exchange experiences and to experiment with modern forms of working with new formats and not just listening to class number one, two, etc.

How is the situation now? How should it be? Is there an exchange possible; sharing experiences

We stopped three years ago when we had broke through class number 19 and we stopped this as well. Perhaps we need a new initiative to do this kind of work, but as I understand, this was an exception. Actually, there are almost no regions or countries in which the class readers or class members together with class readers do this kind of work. Especially in giving direct, honest and respectful feedback. In most anthroposophical groups honest and direct feedback is almost a taboo subject.

A lot depends on the quality of the feedback and being honest and not being polite or flattering for no reason. This was really unique, that among this small group of people we were able to still do this. Some colleagues of mine were class members as well and also had the same idea of developing abilities for improving your professional qualities.

So this exchange of three or four people, of a group, is very important. It prevents you from one-sidedness and misunderstandings. It’s not a guarantee, but it's better to do it than not to do it. I myself appreciated it. But still, it’s an exception.

Where are we now as an anthroposophic community and what future wishes do you have?

I find this a difficult question, because where are we now? What is “we”? Who is “we”?

Generally, many, many people around us, not anthroposophists, other people, are really longing for some kind of meditative life. Therefore, they need Zen Buddhism, or other kind of Buddhistic activity: yoga, etc. And they do not know that anthroposophy is based on very systematic exercises and is about going much, much further than what people they may have met in yoga or any kind of Buddhist meditation or whatever else guru-oriented groups are practicing nowadays — scientology and other movements.

It is amazing that basic anthroposophical meditation is not that well known. I remember that a while ago, Heinz Zimmermann, member of the board in Dornach who started with Robin Schmidt wrote a little pocket book on first steps of meditation. I don’t know many examples of introductory courses in meditation based on the anthroposophical way. I think it is important for people to know much, much better what these actually are. In groups they can share experiences and ask questions without being indoctrinated and without some kind of a missionary attitude.

It should be something that could build up on the mindfulness training, not denying it, but saying that yes, it’s good, it's what the basic steps are. There are more basic steps and you can go much further and further. I think that if the primary motive of the people to start this meditation, if this is stress reduction, an attempt to create some kind of island in our time, to which you can withdraw to. It could be one of the motives for this. You can recognize this, that is okay, this is important, important to create the silence in yourself, to get the concentration and to be centered.

But it's not enough to just escape from the world to make an ego trip. I would never talk to people like this, but look at what your role in the world is, what the task might be. You create your purpose in life, it is not given to you, you create it. And meditation can support you and help do this in a more effective way.

Not just with regards to your professional life, but what your life purpose is. I would say that if people had opportunities to meet to do the basic exercises this way, they could rediscover what the added value of the anthroposophic meditation is. Once you start with this, it's obvious.

Do you have an advice for someone who would like to begin to meditate?

I think it's important to have self-empathy. Beware of what is going on in yourself. It is the very first step in self-consciousness, of course. I say this also, because very often I am disappointed by anthroposophists, who know that Steiner always says “feel” like so-and-so, “feel” like so-and-so; many, many mantras start this way. And yet the people think only of how they could feel, but they don’t start going into the feeling. And this kind of feeling is actually called self-empathy.

It is an important result of the empathy research, that you can't develop empathy for other people, if you have no self-empathy. It is the basis for empathy for other people and empathy is the basis for human social relationship and human social behaviour. So these are very basic things.

And the second thing what I would recommend is in terms of the polarity: First to start looking at observing, let’s say, the plant in your room. Here, in my study, I have no plants, but I have some in the living room. When you see something growing and growing out of a seed, rich and developed and looming, look at it and observe it. And if you do this with the exercises which are mentioned before, then you will develop some kind of spiritual muscles, fitness to be actually stronger in your life, because around you is this kind of nature, spiritual forces that surround you. And you are a part of them. And if you understand this, you can understand yourself better and you can understand your soul much better.

You can understand the world much better. Real knowledge of the world is obtained by honest interest for other people. Real, honest interest for people is developed by real interest in the world. But there are polarities. And the problem very often is that it's only the one side and it’s becoming an ego trip. So the second side of the polarity is using imagination or intuition for being able to deal with the challenges of life much better.