Interview with Terje Sparby
Conducted by Inessa Guseva
Terje Sparby is born in Norway. He has a PhD in Philosophy with a focus on German Idealism and is currently doing research on anthroposophical meditation in cooperation with the Bender Institute of Neuroimaging at the University of Giessen.
How did you start meditating?
The first time was actually through meeting a Vietnamese refugee, who came to my class back in Norway when I was probably around 8 years old. For some reason we started talking about meditation, and he showed me how to meditate. We were sitting in a forest. I remember it very, very clearly. Afterwards, I went to the library to find literature about meditation. The interest was definitely there already back then. That was the first time as far as I can remember.
I didn’t continue to meditate at that time. I started again in my teens. But the time in the forest was the first. I can’t remember the specific reasons for it, but I think it was maybe just curiosity or something that I can’t explain.
Why did you choose anthroposophy as the basis?
That’s a good question. I met anthroposophy when I was around 14-15; at that time I was searching a lot, I spent a long time in the library, reading through literature I found there. My main interests were philosophy, esoteric literature and also anthroposophy. I started with Lectures on the Apocalypse, which is highly esoteric. Right away, it resonated really well with me, very deeply. I started meditating again around that time, also doing anthroposophic meditations. For me at the time the main questions were: Is this true? Can I come to know this myself? I was definitely searching for some kind of connection to the world that was described in the books. It was really important for me at the time. It still is.
It can be hard describe the ways in which anthroposophic meditation can be distinguished from other forms of meditation if you look really carefully, but there are certain characteristics that are more in focus in in anthroposophic meditation. You start with the mind, with thinking, the thought process, the imagination or power of representation, but there is also a focus on the self, on freedom, intellectual activity; having that as a starting point and moving on from there. It really speaks to me as something coming from Europe in the 21st century, a culture and tradition that I’ve grown up in.
But I also see it very clearly only as a starting point, because there is also this other aspect that is sometimes underplayed: surrender. After you’ve strengthened your thought process, your focus, when the meditation object has stabilized, when you have to a certain extent liberated yourself from material processes, there is second step, which is surrender. Sometimes it’s also called empty consciousness, where nothing should be present in consciousness. You let go of your self, rather than continue to strengthen it.
And, of course, there is the first step, when something comes back or you reach out into the divine world, that’s not only in heaven, so to speak, but is also in nature, in other human beings, the social environment. I think of this step as a unification.
So I think anthroposophic meditation as a very comprehensive form of meditation, which initially focuses on the self, the thought process, develops inner capacities, including devotion, letting go, and then finally reaches out into a world that somehow lies beyond ordinary human cognition; but it is also about bringing something back from this world, from this extended cognition and experience, that can be useful to the human world and to all beings.
What is the basic anthroposophical meditation and exercise to you?
I have worked with many different forms of anthroposophical meditations throughout the years and it’s hard to pick certain exercises that have been the most important ones for me personally. In the recent couple of years I have done a study of anthroposophic meditation. There I found that there are two forms of practices that are representative of anthroposophic meditation. These are mantra practices and the six subsidiary exercises. Those are very common and I’ve been working on those a lot as well. Mantra practice can be used in so many different ways with different focus. You have those practices in some other traditions as well, but there is something in relation to how you work with them in anthroposophical practice that is unique. It has to do with the way that you activate both the mind, the thought processes, feelings, visual elements, rhythm, tone, the quality of the words, and so on. Those things are somewhat unique, at least.
And then there are the subsidiary exercises. I think they are very interesting, very particular to the anthroposophical tradition, in the way in which they support the meditator. They also help develop virtues, soul capacities, like inner strength, which is a necessary foundation for deep spiritual practice. Indeed, one of the reasons why you see hardly any negative side-effects of anthroposophic meditation may be because of the six subsidiary exercises. They really strengthen you and keep you grounded. And at the same time, they are an essential part of meditative development.
Where do you see your focus within the anthroposophical meditation? Would you please outline your inner practice and your research field?
My meditation practice at the moment is a mixture of certain Buddhist elements or Asian techniques and anthroposophic meditation. My focus is really on how to get anthroposophic techniques to work, to work deeply, or just simply to get them to do what they are supposed to do, so that they consistently can help you realise the potential that you have for higher knowledge. And I mean that in a really definite way, in a sense of full out-of-body experience, where the sensory world is left behind and you can enter into the beyond, through your own strength and with the help of the beyond, so to speak.
For me, some of the instructions that you get are not necessarily unclear, but it is unclear to me how the progression is supposed to look. How do you deepen the meditation into an out-of-body experience, where you have total sensory pacification? Sensory pacification in the sense where you shut off your senses completely.
That’s something that I recently have found in the Buddhist tradition. The progression is outlined very clearly, how you can stabilise the mind and refine attention so you can focus really closely and exclusively on the object for an extended amount of time without the mind drifting off for even a micro-second, unaffected by hindrances. To me it seems that such a level of concentration really is necessary in order to shut off the senses and move into the spiritual world as described in anthroposophy. Of course, anthroposophy also aims to uncover the spiritual in nature, the spiritual element that is all around us all the time, but before you can go there, I think, complete sensory pacification must be within reach. And I think there are good grounds in Steiner for claiming that.
So I’m basing my practice at the moment around what I find to be very clear instructions about calming the mind, focusing more clearly, using your intention or will in order to really suppress the hindrances, like thoughts disturbing you, distracting emotions and so on. I’m using that in combination with anthroposophical mantra practice. Interestingly, I am finding that with mantra practice, you can go deeper more quickly, but it is more demanding on you, it requires more energy. That’s an outline of my current practice.
How has the meditation helped in your development and life?
It helped me in so many different ways. It’s hard to describe. Meditation enters into all areas of life. And I think there are some general patterns of development. Recently, I’ve done a study on motivations for anthroposophic meditation and I see a definite pattern there, that is also represented in my life. In the beginning meditation is often about self-regulation or it is about responding to something that comes to you from the outside.
I mentioned this case with the Vietnamese refugee who made me curious about meditation. Later on for me meditation became a way for me to respond to a deep longing, an existential longing. It was a way of dealing with a sense of emptiness in life that I felt in my teens and early twenties. I was reaching out through meditation to something that was more meaningful in life. I was dealing with emotions, difficult emotions, unhealthy thought patterns, and basic human concerns and challenges ranging from relationships with other human beings to professional life and studies. Meditation really has had a beneficial impact on all those areas of my life.
Once I had a gotten a grip on these matters, meditation became more about realising the classical aims, in the sense of knowing higher worlds. Doing what I am supposed to do, what I feel is my task in life beyond personal development. Meditation is deeply connected to that for me.
There are many more things meditation helped me with. Concrete examples, like insights that come to me, which for instance became part of my PhD thesis. I often use insights that come in meditation as part of my research as well. There are too many cases to mention. It can also influence daily life. The insights gained from meditation are often healthy, wholesome insights that can really help support whatever you are doing in life.
In my case it’s a bit specific in that meditation is really a central component both of my personal and professional life. For me, my development is completely tied up to meditation. I feel that meditation is more about my own personal aims now, my deep beliefs, attaining knowledge and doing what I am supposed to do, what I am here to do, rather than dealing with basic issues such as becoming a grounded, solid human being that can feel relatively at home in the world as it is. But there are also these issues, which are more related to my professional life, for example, doing something for other human beings or the world. This includes things like meditation teaching, finding some ways of sharing what I feel is so incredibly valuable in meditation.
In a sense, this is a completely different field. There are specific skills that connect to that, which you have to develop as well. That’s my edge now, finding ways of bringing fruitful insights from my own practice into the world. In any case, I think there is this general pattern of being led to meditation due to some external reasons, this then leads to becoming internally connected to it, before one finally finds ways of serving others through meditation.
Do we need one another? What role do people who practice anthroposophical meditation play for each other? What are opportunities and challenges of shared meditation? How is the situation now for you? How should it be?
My friends were always absolutely essential for my meditative development. Through them you can get different and perhaps unexpected perspectives on your own practice — that’s immensely valuable. You get important pieces of information and different views on things that can help in different ways. For example, if you have a problem, you can get help with getting out of it. Or if your practice isn’t working properly, you can get some information from others who’ve been working on that. So I think sharing information that people have is very important and can be helpful in the sense of providing support and ensuring that progress is happening. I feel like people who are doing the practice are, in a sense, explorers. You can move forward more quickly and avoid pitfalls, if you share information and experiences with each other; what works and what doesn’t work.
It is an exciting time within the anthroposophical movement, in a sense that it’s opening up, and different people are taking different steps forward, sharing experiences and insights. This is basically very, very good. It might create a tension or a challenge in that it may be unclear how we are supposed to make assessments. What do we do if we have disagreements? How do we continue to talk with each other? How does this relate to the basic works of Steiner, of anthroposophy? Are we talking about the same thing, when we talk about imagination? There are different understandings of what imagination is. I think that is a theme that should be developed at the moment. Clear distinctions should be made for different forms of imagination, and for what is required for lower or higher forms of those. Criteria for assessing the truth of different claims to imaginative experiences should be developed, and for the other higher forms of knowledge as well, without judging too strongly
The connection to the works, to literature, should be maintained and deepened on one hand. And more open communication about what people are actually achieving, and relating that to each other, on the other hand. And, of course, as an extension of that, I think relating anthroposophic meditation to other traditions is important, for instance since there might be other things that you can find in them that can provide support. I mentioned my own practice, influenced by Buddhist meditation, which I find very effective at a certain stage of development.
The ideal of anthroposophic meditation, as I see it, is some kind of a universal type of meditation, which would include other traditions as well, or at least aspects of them. So I think it’s good to have a thorough knowledge of other traditions as well. And also why not have other forms of meditation as part of your practice? Then it doesn’t become exclusive. And in that way you can actually provide a scientific or at least experientially based perspective on other traditions; a perspective which remains open and non-exclusive.
Where are we now as an anthroposophic community and what future wishes do you have?
Since I have in a way answered that already, I’ll try to answer from a different angle. There’s been this development, where the community has opened up, people share their experiences more. There are some tensions, that I also mentioned. How do we view the results that come from meditation? How can we assess them? I think we need to be even more open in this. There should be more critique. It should be possible to describe all aspects of your practice in a way that’s really personal to you, while at the same time, remaining objective.
Maybe some new forms of communication and assessment need to be found for that. I’ve seen throughout the years, in my own life and in the community, that there needs to be a balance between opening up and judging what’s going on in practice and still remaining committed to further progress. It needs to be recognized that it’s alright to make mistakes, and that things that you have thought were mistakes actually aren’t. So you need a balance and continual assessment.
For example — and I’ve written about this as well — there is the phenomena of sleep paralysis, when you wake up at night without perceiving your physical body anymore. For me, it was very hard to judge what that was about. Was it a simple side-effect of meditation? Or is it a sign of progress? In the beginning I tended to think that it was a side-effect, that should be avoided, if possible. Then, later, I went on thinking that this is a sign of progress. Both are true, in a sense, and I think it’s important to see those perspectives. It can be a side-track if it takes you into a dream realm without clear consciousness, if it unsettles you in your daily life and so in – which it initially did in my case. Later I came to recognize that many of the signs that are typical of the state are also connected to excarnation and deep meditative realization. I explored getting into that state while lying down, but found that the attempts of leaving the body gave inconsistent results; sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, and often it resulted in falling asleep or led to some dreamy, fearful state. The trick seems to be to do it while sitting up in a regular meditation position. But then the concentration and devotion, in the sense of both letting go and being fully dedicated to practice, need to be exceedingly strong. These are things that I’m working on; the progress is slow, but it is happening.
My hope for the future is that there will be a very deep, comprehensive anthroposophical practice that’s offered as some kind of training, which will be very effective in a sense that it can, within a set amount of time, help you make very definite progress, gaining new capacities, maybe even initiation, within a few in years or perhaps a decade or so. And you should be able to assess where you are at the moment and what you need to work on. You would be able to see whether you are going slowly or not. And at the same time everything would remain secure, not creating problems for yourself.
It’s strange to put it in language like that – progress, effectiveness, assessment and so on – when we are also talking about initiation, which is a very deep, strong human experience. I think that tension is also something that can be dealt with. It is possible to teach people to play the piano, even at a decently high level, provided you have some basic talent and good teachers. Not too long ago, mathematics and even written language, was only available to a select few. Now everyone learns it at school. Anthroposophy was conceived of as something that should be offering a clear, effective, and secure method of initiation. I don’t think we are there at all yet. Still, that should remain our ideal. For the moment, having a clear view of where we are at and what needs to be done will help greatly in order to reach that ideal. On top of that, a good deal of humility is very healthy.
Do you have an advice for someone who would like to be begin to meditate?
Actually, one concrete result that I found in the studies on anthroposophic meditation recently is that it is necessary to become clear about your motivation. Why are you doing this? You could do it out of some sense of duty, for instance, which is not yours. And I think it’s essential to transform external motivations into internal ones, so you can do it because you really want to. Connect meditation with your deepest motivations in life. If you don’t do that, I don’t think you will create a stable practice.
I really think it’s a key to creating a stable practice: becoming clear about your motivation and connecting it to who you are. If you don’t do that, meditation can actually become a burden; something that you should be doing, but you aren’t really committed to it. You start to dislike the practice, subconsciously. I struggled with that myself for many years, as well. So I think it’s important to find the reasons for your meditation practice. Why do you want to do this?
For many people, it would be some very basic things. For example, you have some emotional problems or your life is too stressful. Using meditation as a way to get back to yourself or find your own basis, so to speak, is very good. It’s helpful. It’s a good start. You should go for it, if you want to. But you have to remember that there is much more to it.
The reasons for starting meditating and reasons for continuing to meditate are somehow connected. The reasons why you are stressed or having emotional difficulties may actually be because there is a deeper sense of lack or some underlying problem, that needs to be dealt with. I think, that it can be expected that somebody starting to meditate will somehow come to know these deeper reasons are. You can also have this sense of self-discovery. It’s a good thing that you have some problem in your life for meditation to deal with, because you can deal with exactly that.
Would you like to add something at all?
I’d like to stress this point about remaining strongly grounded in the works of Steiner, in anthroposophy. On the one hand within an academic setting, studying them critically, to really come to know the works deeply. There might be certain errors, inaccuracies, problems in them that need to be dealt with, as I did for instance in my recent article on Steiner’s idea of freedom. On the other hand, it’s important to do deep meditative practice. Finding out how the techniques really work, sharing information about that, and remaining committed to things that are unique to anthroposophic meditation.
You do this for other human beings, for society, in order to renew science and culture, things like medicine, agriculture. You work on all of that, at the same time. That needs to be emphasised.
As soon as progress is made in all those areas, anthroposophy will start to communicate better with other traditions. I see it in my own life, speaking with other meditators: the idea of anthroposophic meditation, the picture of it is very appealing. You have this discussion within the mindfulness field, about whether equanimity is really good or not; whether it really is good to have a non-judgemental attitude about whatever is going on in the moment. The critique here is that there are people suffering in the world, there are many problems in society, structural and economical, and it’s necessary to react to that in a way that is based on making judgments.
This is very different for anthroposophy. You do, of course, practice equanimity, very deeply, but there is also this clear idea of doing this for society, that you need to work on that as well, connecting that to the meditative practice. It makes me a bit surprised, even disappointed, to see that anthroposophic meditation isn’t developedfurther. I feel that it only presents an idea, a potential. I think it’s so important to make this practical, as practical as possible. Anthroposophy has very clear things that it can offer, in a discussion like that, but it does not take part in them.
Within the mindfulness scene, there is so much scientific research present. So who has studied anthroposophic meditation scientifically? Are there any clear results? Does that actually help improve society? There are hardly are any studies at all. That needs to be worked on as well. Actually doing or following the normal societal ideals or scientific norms — I think that’s important in order to facilitate communication and to test anthroposophic meditation. Anthroposophic meditation presents a very good, interesting, and unique ideal, but you can definitely ask some questions about it. Does it work in practice?