The Karma of Vocation


The Karma of Vocation

A Review of the Lecture series given by Rudolf Steiner in 1916, first published in Lilipoh Magazine in 2004.

"Healing in the workplace" seems like a contradiction in terms. Many circumstances of modern work, life, or vocation are opposed to all that is healthy and life-giving to the individual. Given the inhumanly fast pace of the work day, stale air pumped into buildings, dead artificial lighting, electronic bombardment by cell phones and pagers, how could the concepts of healing and the workplace come together?

It all depends on your view of the human being. If the human being is viewed as only a physical body, and only physical health is considered, then it is very unlikely that a case can be made to view vocation as healing. Bill Gates once said, “There’s not much difference between a human brain and a computer chip…one is carbon, and the other is silicon.” This very limited view of the human being denies the possibilities for human development and healing which have existed for a very long time.

A broader view is that healing and human development are one and the same effort. Progress on a spiritual path of development often involves a struggle with physical illness. The cure for illness often involves a change in lifestyles or vocations. We realize that to heal, we must evolve. From a spiritual perspective, Rudolf Steiner indicates that the human being evolves through repeated earth lives, and every choice she makes contributes to her development. From this view, we come to this earth equipped with the lessons learned from many past attempts to get it right. All of us have a particular family, race, and nation chosen by virtue of our birth. In addition, we bring with us attributes we have created for ourselves out of our vocational work in a past life. Some of the impulses are very mature, having been carefully sculpted over many lifetimes. Other impulses are quite young and new. If you compare these impulses to the plant, some are like a seed, full of hidden potential and others like the fruit, ripe, mature and nourishing. We all have both these impulses within our souls.

How do we recognize these impulses? The mature impulse is an enhanced capacity of some kind, often measured by recognition from other people. The latent impulse, or seed-like quality doesn’t manifest at all. For example, let’s examine the destiny of a man who is an award-winning photographer. Like the skilled craftsman, who was commonplace hundreds of years ago, he is able to joyfully imbue his photography with his heart and soul. He brings a certain wisdom and grace through the lens of his camera and enriches the soul life of those who view his work. He combines many different impulses and brings them into the world through photography. By contrast, this same man goes to work everyday to earn his living at an automobile assembly plant. Most of his day is spent repeating the same task of joining together parts that eventually become part of an automobile door. The parts he makes bears no resemblance to the finished product, and thus, he is unable to connect in any tangible way to the finished vehicle, much less impart any of his own forces or wisdom to it. This seems at first like a Sisyphean punishment, but on further examination, it is much more.

In the Greek Myths, the Titan Prometheus is chained to a rock to have his liver gouged out by a vulture every day, only to have it grow back at night to be gouged again the next day. He is being punished for the noble deed of bringing fire to the human race. In this ancient story, we see a reflection of this photographer/autoworker’s biography. Like Prometheus, he gives a gift to the world through his photography. His talents show a fiery ripeness and maturity or Promethean forethought, as they manifest through his art. At the same time, in the automobile plant, he experiences what can be described as a feeling of isolation and longing caused from being unable to share in the fulfillment of his task. A part of him is gouged out time and time again as his soul tries to connect to the work through his assembly plant job, but cannot. Many people have this experience today from a variety of simple, meaningless repetitive jobs. By recognizing the experience and working consciously with it, we then become co-creators of our destiny rather than unwilling or unconscious participants, reacting in ways that are harmful to ourselves and others. Unlike Prometheus, we are not chained to the rock or to a task. We perform our tasks as free individuals, making a free choice to work at a repetitive job. For this reason, according to Rudolf Steiner, something new can be formed, something that will only, in the far distant future, become recognizable in the world as a gift or blessing. We create something for the future as we bear the isolation and longing. For today, the universe, partly in our souls and partly as subtle imprint with the angels, only records these forces. Those forces with which we once connected are held back and put at the service of mankind for the distant future. Thus, vocation becomes a vehicle for human development and healing. The human being encompasses the forces of both the seed and the fruit through his vocation, nourishing not only himself, but others with his service. 

Healing through vocation becomes deeply connected with human evolution instead of one particular individual. The question of healing becomes not one limited to the narrow scope of one individual, or one physical body. The question becomes not “how to heal”, but “what is healing? Is it an impulse from the past? Or is an impulse being created which will heal in the future?

In November of 1916, Austrian-born philosopher and seer, Rudolf Steiner gave a series of ten lectures in Dornach, Switzerland on the “Karma of Vocation.” If these issues of vocation are ones that resonate with the reader, these lectures can perhaps offer new perspective and guidance.

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To attain knowledge, add things everyday.

To attain wisdom, remove things every day.

Lao Tsu, Dao de Jing




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