Interview with Fergus Anderson
How did you start meditating?
I started to meditate when I first started to read Steiner, which was when I was about 22 or 23. I had been to a Steiner School and my parents were anthroposophists, so I was aware of anthroposophy, but I had always been very sceptical about it. I became interested in philosophy in my late teens and I also began reading some esoteric stuff. At some point I remembered that Steiner had said something about these subjects and I began reading Knowledge of Higher World, much to my parent's surprise.
The more I read the more interested I became, and soon I was avidly reading anything by Steiner I could lay my hands on. At this time I also experimented with meditation, though in a rather chaotic and unfocused way.
Who was the first person you met where you knew that he/she was a meditant?
Well, the first person was a guy who I boarded with at school. I stayed with a family in Sussex in my last three years at school, rather than with my parents. The oldest son of that family – who was a fair bit older than me – was a meditant and very interested in occult and esoteric things, and we had long conversations about it. I was always taking the role of the sceptic, and trying to find holes in what he said. But somehow I was also rather impressed by him because he could meet my arguments well. So, yeah, I think he was the first meditant I came into contact with.
Why did you choose anthroposophy as the basis for you meditative practice?
To a certain extent it was in my biography, because anthroposophy was in my upbringing. However, there was a big shift when I actually began to read Steiner, because I found that what I was reading was very different in quality to what I had encountered in my upbringing. I could identify with it in a way that I could not identify with what I met through my parents. There was also a kind of recognition, as if what I was reading was in some way familiar, and I think it was this that attracted my interest.
Why did you begin to meditate?
As I said I became very interested in Steiner's ideas about philosophy and spirituality, and he talked a lot about meditation. So of course it was obvious to try it out. There was also a sense that if I wanted to validate Steiner's claims, then I had to begin to meditate. Otherwise it was all going to remain at the hypothetical level, which wasn't very satisfying. So I think I saw meditation as a way of testing Steiner's claims for myself, at least potentially.
What is the uniqueness of anthroposophical meditation, if you compare it with other methods?
I used to have various answers to this, but the more I look into other meditation methods, particularly Buddhism, the more I realise that, as far as pure method is concerned, it is hard to find anything in anthroposophy that you don’t also find in other traditions, with the possible exception of the Class material. I haven’t found anything quite like the Class material. However, I don't really work with the Class material personally. I also think that the direct connection to German Idealism through Fichte, Shelling, Goethe, Novalis, Hegel and others also gives Steiner's approach to meditation a particular quality that you don't find in the pre-modern traditions. But this is more at the level of quality and mood rather than specific method.
What is the basic anthroposophical meditation and exercise in your opinion?
As I’ve understood it, the basic principle of anthroposophic meditation is to create a clear inner space within which a latent development process can begin. Steiner uses the analogy of a grain of wheat: You can bake bread with it and that has a certain value, but then the wheat will never grow into a new plant. According to the analogy, we are 'baking bread' with our inner capacities when we use them for normal sensory cognition. So you could say that meditation has the aim of developing the inner strength to stop 'baking bread'.
There are different ways that you can develop this inner strength, but one way is that you can turn the thinking attention to non-sensory mental content. In Steiner, what’s emphasised is the active and creative aspect of this rather than the single-pointed aspect. Hence all the imaginative inner picturing exercises and dynamic thought exercises. The aim is that the creative and imaginative power of thinking gains the strength to remain actively awake even when there is no sense content to attend to. What arises from this, according to Steiner, is that thinking gradually begins to form into a new sense organ, which he compares to an organ of touch that can be used to 'touch' the life world. A similar process can also be carried out for feeling and will. That's roughly how Steiner describes the basic task of meditation as I understand it.
Where do you see your focus within the anthroposophic meditation?
In terms of meditation, my practice has been through different stages. In the past, I worked in a very determined and systematic way. I would set myself the task of working every day with this or that exercise, and I would carry it out with grim determination. I have to say that this led to not very satisfactory results, but it took me quite a few years to realise this.
My approach now is more relaxed and spontanious. I will often begin a meditative session without particulary knowing what exercise I will work with. I try to look for where the interest and energy lies and I take that as the starting point. I know Steiner says a lot about the importance of repetition in meditation, and sticking to a goal, but for me if meditation is too goal orientated and driven then it leads nowhere. But of course it's a balance and I don't mean that I have no continuity or structure to my meditative practice.
One exercise that I am currently working with is to explore the space of thought. There is no set rule or sequence for this, but it basically involves attending to the head region. This includes the brain space inside the head but also the area around, above and behind the head. There are lots of subtle experiences in this general region, and the exercise is simply to attend to these. People often do body scans as part of meditation, meaning that they attending to the body as a way of connecting with the body, relaxing bodily tensions, and so on. You also often do this in the jaw or scalp area, but it seems relatively rare to attend to the inside of the head, by which I mean within the actual brain cavity. One interesting question to pursue here is where is the centre of consciousness in the head region, and where is the periphery? If you haven't done this before, I can recommend it.
Something else that I have been working with is what Steiner calls 'boundary concepts'.
This is when you meet something in thought where you can't go any further, and you feel stuck or blocked. When you meet these kinds of boundaries, the normal tendency is to try to solve the problem, and if you can't do it then you normally move on to somthing else. But to meet a real limit to knowledge is also an opportunity to adopt another kind of stance. Steiner refers to this as 'intellectual virtue' and what he means by this is that rather than trying to solve the problem you rest in the experience of not being able to solve the problem. You renounce you capacity to find a solution and you simply accept your unkowing state and rest in that. But then you have to become awake to the quality of this being unable to know and explore that. It’s a lovely, subtle kind of process of letting go, that's also active at the same time. It’s the strangest thing. I take it as a thinking exercise, but it's of a particular kind.
Can you outline your research field and your dissertation?
My PhD is called The Dynamic Phenomenology of Conscious, Current Thinking: A First-Person Approach. What I do is describe thinking experiences, but not meditative thinking experiences, it's normal day-to-day thinking. My basic thesis is that there are four distinct stages in the experience of occurrent thinking, and I try to describe these stages in some detail and relate them to the literature in contemporary philosophy of mind. I also use a particular first-person research method called microphenomenology, which is designed to explore subtle, fleeting micro-experiences. Through the PhD I try to make a contribution to the contemporary understanding of thinking by showing that it's a dynamic structured process rather than a static representational state.
I remember you mentioned once that it’s part of your idea to link modern philosophy of mind with the ideas of Steiner. Can you comment on that briefly?
That was one of the aims of the PhD early on, but one of the problems is that Steiner is completely unkown in contemporary analytic philosophy, so the PhD would have had to be about making that link and nothing else. So I would have had to say goodbye to the more experiential first-person part and I didn't want to do that. Steiner still features in one chapter of the PhD but its not the central thing.
But I think that Steiner makes an important contribution and I still want to try to begin a dialogue between Steiner's ideas and contemporary analytic philosophy once the PhD is over.
Do you have an advice for someone who would like to be begin meditating?
Referring to what I said earlier, I would suggest to not do meditation exercises in a relentlessly and overly determined way. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't take on to do regular exercises. The point is to try to find a space of inner sensitisation and interest first, and out of this begin to do the exercise. I suppose my overall point is that meditative practice has to be interesting and enjoyable in the sense that you have to let it lead you, and not just form it through your pre-determined will. But how you go about that might be different for different people. So I guess there are no fixed rules.
Conducted 28 September 2017