Interview with Joan Sleigh
Conducted by Inessa Guseva
Joan Sleigh was born and grown up in South Africa. She did her Waldorf teacher training in Germany and then worked as class teacher and Teacher Trainer in South Africa for 18 years. In 2013 she moved to Dornach to take up a position in the Executive Council at the Goetheanum.
How did you start meditating?
I started meditating in my early 20s. As a child I felt spiritually connected and prayer seemed easy and familiar to me. I stopped praying in my teens, because it just didn’t feel right. Later, when I had a difficult time as a young adult in my early 20s, I started to pray again, when I felt I needed help, needed support I couldn’t seem to find in daily life. Through prayer I came to meditation, using verses and texts I read or had been given.
Who was the first person you've met that you knew that he/she was meditating?
My parents were Anthroposophists. They had a strong and clear daily rhythm, to whichtime for meditation belonged.
In this way I grew up with the experience of meditation as part of the daily life of the adults around. Growing up in Camphill Alpha, north of Cape Town in South Africa - a life sharing and working community forpeople with special needs, based on Rudolf Steiner’s understanding of curative education - it was just a part of life. I thought and seemed to experience that everybody was part of some contemplative inner path of development, and to me this included meditating.
The next people, apart from my family and surroundings, who spoke openly about a practice of meditation, were young teachers at the Waldorf school I attended in Cape Town. We often spoke about self-development and meditation with them. I was also exposed to a spiritual and contemplative way of life through the Christian Community, to which I belonged. So I can say that meditation and an awakening awareness of an inner life was very much in my environment while I was growing up.
Why did you choose anthroposophy as the basis?
I spent some time, when I was a teenager, looking at different religions, traditions and belief systems, often also in discussion with my father, who was a priest. I was interested in Buddhism for a while and felt generally attracted to the eastern attitude towards life. While attending the Waldorf High School in Cape Town I lived in various homes during the week as I could only go home on weekends. In those years I met Judaism by living with a Jewish woman, as well as a family of Reborn Christians, who spoke in tongues and were on a very particular Christian path.
I was quite open to exploring different religions, which is of course not meditation, except for the Buddhistic path. I had my first child at an early age and looking for inner strength and support, turned to what seemed familiar to me, and that was Anthroposophy.
Why do you meditate?
There are many reasons why I attempt to meditate. One of the important aspects for me is to regularly step out of the busy flow of everyday life, to stop for some moments of reflection, reconnection, solitude and inner quiet. This helps to gain meaning, to focus on a bigger interconnected picture of life in general, as well as the personal situations in particular.
I feel the need to nurture inner peace, balance and confidence in daily life. This is not so easy, but moments of tranquillity help to maintain a sense of being inwardly grounded andanchored - a place from which to draw a calm and constant attitude as well as a quiet energy.
Another reason is to reconnect my little self with a bigger, more real me which seems interconnected with all other element, kingdoms and levels of being. This interconnectedness can give much courage and comfort, in sensing the reality of a far greater truth and guidance than I can consciously grasp as yet, but can sense in a subtle and slow awakening of a new understanding. This can be reinforcing and energising, even if just for short moments in time.
Meditation helps to retain objectivity in the thinking process, to reflect on thoughts and perceptions. These are inevitably based on personal soul responses to perceptions and experiences, triggered by or developed in the surroundings, as well as in the state of psychic well-being. Going into a meditative space helps to clarify and objectify these effects, putting them into a bigger perspective. It objectifies what could otherwise be a purely soul response, not necessarily into a spiritual response, but creates a bigger and quieter view of things.
This different perspective on things adds another dimension to the personal, internal soul processes. It appears that through practising a step-by-step process of meditation, the process of thinking grows clearer, more defined through a first stage of concentration to an inner space of quiet openness. This seems to gradually strengthen the activity of thinking as an alive, creative and self-reflective process in everyday life. It nurtures the ability to follow a line of thought, as well as to open an active space in which newly awakened ideas and understanding can appear. This brings with it the recognition that in moments of quiet contemplation, the open space is not only created for the own self to find reconnection to its origin, but also an ‘eye’, or ‘ear’ can be opened for higher entities to access an earthly experience from which they are mostly excluded. In this sense, the process of meditation can become collaborative rather than self-absorbed.
What is the basic anthroposophical meditation and exercise to you?
Anthroposophical practice and meditation provides the time and space to try to grow through gradually awakening self-knowledge to universal-knowledge, to get to know and understand my own being in relationship and interaction with other beings, an attempt to grasp the meaning of expanding the self beyond its physical, earthly limitations.
The regular practice begins by opening a quiet space of tranquillity. Concentration on a particular verse and/or image can open this space in which image and word content are interconnected and enhance each other. This creative, imaginative consciousness can easily be compromised, through lack of time, focus or other distractions. The actual meditation can arise within the held, open, inner space created through concentration and contemplation of a content, without filling it with anything intentional. The process is a mystery: even though the steps are clear, what comes about in the process cannot be predicted, expected of intended.
What is the uniqueness of the anthroposophical meditation?
The uniqueness, as far as I am concerned, is the attempt to retain a conscious, self-reflective awareness, or mindfulness, throughout. The aim is to remain as objective as possible, not to be drawn into, or to project perceptions of fantasy or imaginary pictures, which can be beautiful, but illusionary. Developing discernment as an active, integral part of the meditative process, is as important as a conscious objective mode of seeing.
What makes anthroposophical meditation unique is, as suggested, the quality of presence of mind; that quality of really standing in the centre of one's being within the inner space, placing oneself into that inner, quiet space; not losing oneself in it, but standing completely present, fully grounded within the tranquillity which may emerge. It’s not about expanding in the inner space more than one is able to without losing the Self-awareness within it.
To mention a concrete example: the rhythms of the Foundation Stone Meditation, repeated in a weekly practice, can gradually give rise to a qualitative and relevant experience of human self-cognition in relationship to the universal flow of time and expansion of space.
Where do you see your focus within the anthroposophical meditation?
In daily life and human interaction, I find ample opportunity to practice the basic exercises as described by Rudolf Steiner in many different texts and lectures. In the actual time set aside for conscious inner quiet, I focus on deliberately chosen exercises, meditation and the mantras.
How has the meditation helped in your life and development?
I can’t answer that, honestly, because if I didn't meditate, I wouldn’t know how it would be different. How do I judge that question? However, if I take the me of 20 or 30 years ago and compare it to myself today, there is a clear development in attitude, self-acceptance and objectivity. I would say that this has come about through the challenges of daily life, dealt with through the help of meditation. I cannot disconnect the two. I think I can say that my way of interaction, approach and attitude have changed, not necessarily the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ in daily life.
What are opportunities and challenges of shared meditation? How is the situation now for you and how should it be?
I work with students at the Goetheanum on questions of developing an inner culture of self-knowledge in relationship to universal knowledge, based on Rudolf Steiner’s Knowledge of the Higher Worlds. Young people seem open and willing to discuss these questions freely. We speak openly about concentration exercises, contemplation of particular word, sentence or image content, as well as the process of meditation. As far as I am aware, one of the main intentions of the Goetheanum Meditation Worldwide Initiative was to open the practices of anthroposophical meditative practice to a more public dialogue and exploratory conversation.
Discussing such practices needs sensitivity and respect to the privacy and absolute freedom of all concerned. As soon as one suggests a practice found in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds the question of duty and freedom needs to be explored. Rudolf Steiner describes that meditation is one of the only truly free deeds that an individual can do, and yet the relationship of duty to oneself in freedom or in other words responsibility for oneself in freedom, can be discussed.
When I talk to students, we talk about the process of meditating, the different steps involved: preparation, concentration, contemplation into meditation, then integration and ways of coming to a proper closure afterwards. I am hesitant to talk about the actual inner experiences, first of all, because this could be treading on personal, private ground and secondly, because one can be so easily drawn into illusion.
How do we collaborate or support each other on this level of experience? I think we can share, perhaps even it is good to share one's personal attempts, struggles and limitations. This may support and encourage others to continue the challenge of overcoming the innate barriers that most of us experience. I would, however, caution against sharing actual inner experiences. I think it belongs to the intimate privacy of another human being. I don’t ask people to share what has moved them inwardly and I don't share my experiences freely, except in very particular circumstances. At the same time, I am open to share my struggles and what I have discovered, what works for me and from where I draw support.
Where are we now as an Anthroposophical community and what future wishes do you have?
As far as I can see, the Anthroposophical community has freed the subject of meditative practice from a secret, even hidden practice, to becoming part of the current dialogue in society. I feel this is healthy, as it puts one of the core element of Anthroposophy into the public arena, the international world conversation on meditation and inner practice.
The fact that this is based on cognitive thought activity, the process of developing one's thinking from logical through living to intuitive thinking, is a contribution, which anthroposophy can make to this timely topic of exploration and research.
These are some of the thoughts that have prompted the upcoming public conference at the Goetheanum, Dornach, from 7th to 9th July 2017 — to share this unique cognitive process of potential inner growth and development. We welcome all those interested to come and share what has been practiced and developed through the insights and knowledge of Rudolf Steiner, without wanting to present answers or final concepts.
Do you have an advice for someone who would like to be begin to meditate?
Only if they come with a question. As already discussed, this area touches on one of the most free, intimate and private sphere of a human being. I would then ask what has prompted the intention to begin a meditative path, as each person needs to be met at the place they are at. I would caution patience and honest objectivity, and focus on the practice of thinking and cognitive understanding. This could grow out of a practice of sensory observation, be based on thought exercises or practical activities, to name a just a few examples. Ultimately I would encourage each person to explore a variety of different well practised and documented approaches, in order to find what works best for themselves.
Would you like to add something at all?
Just to say that it seems that more and more people, especially younger people, sense with growing awareness the presence of a potential aspect, mostly hidden in their being. There is more than what we see and experience of ourselves and each other, in a sense of the perceptible world. What Rudolf Steiner often describes as a second self or the own true leader, is sensed as a reality by most people today. It has become evident through many traumatic and critical life situations, that this inner aspect can be the rudder and keel which steers and guides through the struggles and life challenges that so many people are faced with on a daily basis. Can it be recognised and accepted that each individual carries the potential strength and answers to all personal needs and crises? Can each person find the inner leader, guide, support and companion within themselves?
I want to encourage us all to trust our own abilities and capacities. It often takes an encounter, a conversation with another person to awaken to one's own potential self. That is how I would like to encounter and see people, in the recognition that each person is potentially complete, yet needs another human being to awaken that potential.