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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Broken Vessels
GA 318


by Michael Lipson, Ph.D.

A man who lives by himself, scavenging from garbage in New York's Central Park, walks into my office having already been diagnosed as a schizophrenic by the previous psychologist who treated him. He says he wants psychotherapy, and I ask him what his concerns are. He first asks if he may clip his nails into my wastebasket, then pulls out some clippers from one of the many plastic bags that serve him as a portable apartment and proceeds to cut his nails (frighteningly deep into the quick) as he ponders how to put his case. Finally, musing over the waste-basket, he comes up with the key points of his problem.

“Well,” he says as he surveys a newly bleeding fingertip, “Two things. First, I'm bothered by all this Muzak everywhere. You can't go into a public space anymore without hearing this junk. And second, I'm having a hard time understanding Shakespeare's play The Tempest. Can you help me?”

What kind of problem does this man really have? I agree with him that Muzak is pernicious and The Tempest demanding. Does he have an illness at all? The loose way he moves his limbs, the reekingly unwashed clothes he wears, the furtive glances he casts, and the abruptness of his responses — even if it were not for that self-harming behavior with the nail clippers — all suggest oddities of soul and body. In the actual encounter with such a person, labels like “schizophrenia,” “manic depression,” or “schizoaffective disorder” can seem painfully inadequate both to the depth of the problem and to the glimpsed health of some of his responses.

It becomes evident to caregivers, at least during our more honest moments, that we do not understand the immensity of the processes at work in this kind of condition. Not only our diagnostic labels, but the concepts behind them, can seem paltry in the face of intense psychic otherness. We can sense that both psychiatric drugs and standard psychotherapy are not adequate to the issues, even if they provide important relief at times.

In the eleven lectures that make up this volume, Rudolf Steiner attempts to reveal something about the invisible structure of health and illness as they are seen with the second sight of spiritual research. He delivered these talks at a time of furious activity — September of 1924 — during a month in which he offered a total of some seventy lectures on themes as various as dramatic arts and the Apocalypse of St. John. He also made room in that jam-packed schedule to receive over four hundred people for private consultations. It was a last, incandescent burst of generosity that many feel contributed to his death the following March.

This particular lecture course, formerly titled Pastoral Medicine, was given to a mixed audience of priests and physicians to show the interpenetration of medical and spiritual issues in caring for suffering humanity. While Steiner insists that the two professions should remain quite distinct, cooperating rather than merging, his exposition of the nature of human frailty occupies a middle ground of equal relevance to the priest and to the physician. This middle ground could be called psychology, except that it includes descriptions of spiritual principles, qualities, and entities that are as foreign to contemporary psychology as to medicine and theology. On the one hand, Steiner points out that “all processes in the human organism are spiritual”; on the other hand, “even the lobe of an ear can under certain conditions be clearly revealing of some psychological peculiarity” so that we can hardly keep these fields separate. He thus revives the ancient Greek understanding by which their word psyche meant both “soul” and “life of the body.”

As in many of his talks, Steiner here throws out hints about the nature of this theme that are enormously suggestive but not fully elaborated, or are elaborated elsewhere. One such hint suggests the developmental aspect of the soul-body unity: “The forces that build the physical organism in the first seven years of human life are the same forces by which later we think.” On such a view, what we normally conceive of as bodily and as mental are reenvisaged as facets of a single enormously complex, living process of incarnation whose components shift and interweave through time.

From the standpoint of promoting normal incarnation, Steiner takes up the developmental theme in those spiritual-scientific observations of child development that serve as the basis of Waldorf education (for example, in his Education of the Child). The current lecture cycle, by contrast, can be thought of as examining elements in this development as it occurs in adults who have not developed harmoniously. The lectures are, after all, addressed to those who work professionally with human brokenness. To meet inner frailty with truly adequate concepts (surely the necessary preamble to devising adequate therapies) Steiner must describe experiences that escape ordinary perception. In this lie both the promise and the pitfalls of what he has to offer.

We have a tendency nowadays, as spiritually inclined folk, to talk only in the vaguest terms about “hidden depths” of the soul. Steiner instead delineated specific inner structures in both healthy and unhealthy states. We have a related tendency, when we feel more materialistic, to ascribe spiritual experience to brain activity or even pathology — like those contemporary analysts who see Hildegard von Bingen and other visionaries as suffering from migraines. Steiner instead acknowledged such experience as real even if unbalanced from a certain standpoint. Thus in this book Steiner describes the extreme states of ecstasy achieved by the sixteenth-century Carmelite St. Teresa of Avila neither as merely pathological nor as exclusively healthy, but as a particular configuration of human inner structures.

The time has come to consider these “inner structures” more directly. Steiner talks not only about a physical but also about an “etheric” and an “astral” body, which can operate either more or less harmoniously and whose interconnections can be felicitous or dangerous. The terms he used were familiar to Steiner's anthroposophical audience, so that they needed no explanation during this lecture course. He had been writing and teaching about them for at least twenty years (see his discussions in Theosophy, published in 1904, and in An Outline of Esoteric Science, published in 1909). His audience in 1924 either knew what he meant or at least found itself on familiar ground when, for example, he said of certain mentally retarded persons that “the physical body remains comparatively isolated because the etheric body ... does not entirely penetrate it, so that now the astral and etheric bodies and ego organization are closely united with one another and the physical organism is separate from them.”

But what kind of thing are all these bodies? We are all too likely now to misread and misunderstand Steiner's real viewpoint. For as Steiner himself emphasized repeatedly, these aspects of the human being are only “bodies” in the sense that they are structured and limited, but not in the sense of having physical or temporal extension. They are thus not things, not bodies in our normal sense of the word. Elsewhere Steiner describes the etheric body (also called “life body”) as the formative, living idea of the plant, animal, or human form. It is not a ghostly cloud of thin matter waving about in the air around a living creature, but the divinely driven concept at its ideal root. Here is Steiner in Theosophy on just this confusion of tongues:

The term “body” is used here to designate what gives a being of any kind its form, shape, or Gestalt. It should not be confused with the sense-perceptible form of the material body. As used in this book, the term “body” can also refer to something that takes on form in soul or spirit.

With regard to the related topic of spiritual seeing, Steiner again indicated the ideal or conceptual nature of the process: “We must not confuse the experience itself with its expression in pictorial form.” He repeatedly emphasized that concepts such as the various spiritual bodies can be validly approached only through a schooled consciousness that thinks and feels its way into the world in a radically new fashion:

Living thinking must be achieved again.... Otherwise we shall all the time approach the situation — which we already know here and there — in which the knowledge, for instance, that the human being has a physical, etheric, and astral body will only be known in the form of dead thinking. But it must not be understood with dead thinking; for if it is, then it is actually a distorted truth and not the truth itself.

We can see this as amplifying this statement in Lecture Ten of the current volume:

Humans cannot be known by uncreative thoughts, because by their very nature human beings are creative. One must re-create if one wants knowledge. With today's passive thinking one can only understand the periphery of the human being, one has to ignore the inner being.

Using his experience of nonstandard inner structures and their possible misalignments, Steiner analyzes everything from sleepwalking to hyperliteracy to the visions of St. Teresa. At certain points he includes the perspective of reincarnation or “repeated earth lives,” and so extends the scope of etiology to causes of illness that contemporary medicine, theology, and psychology routinely ignore. Here too our normal thinking is inadequate to grasp the meaning of the terms. For it would take an enlivened sense of I (as well as an enlivened sense of You) to know even vaguely what reincarnation means, let alone to investigate the course of a particular personality through several earthly lives, as Steiner does here with the nineteenth-century Austrian playwright Ferdinand Raimund.

Discussing the possible disasters of spiritual structure in this way, Steiner points to the psychological truth that a broken human being is often a human being who is broken open. He can even call illness a kind of “superspirituality,” although it is in need of treatment (Lecture Eight). It was John Dryden who famously wrote that “great wit to madness nearly is allied.” Steiner's comments about the opening to spiritual worlds that can accompany severe mental retardation or illness foreshadow some of the most important alternative psychiatry of our own times. He anticipates elements in the work of R. D. Laing, the Windhorse movement of Podvall, and also the new practice of “facilitated communication” whereby some autistic patients have been aided in expressing a full and conscious inner life to which their bizarre outward behavior gives no clue. Another recent contribution that develops this theme appears in Oliver Sacks's story of the twin “idiot savants” who could “see” very large prime numbers although they were unable to calculate the simplest sums.

We can ask in this regard: Why should it be the case that our misadjustments, our unrhymedness, our brokenness, sometimes links us to a wider world of understanding or love that reaches beyond life's normal boundaries? The answer lies in the question, for it is indeed a matter of boundaries. When inwardly broken, we may emerge from the network of accustomed concepts that normally paralyzes the world for us. The writer Flannery O'Connor suggested a similar view in her reply to an interviewer who asked her why the best American literature was from the South. “Because we lost the war,” she said, meaning the Civil War. The assault on ossified structure led, in some cases, to fruitful openings.

Of course suffering does not necessarily promote creativity, any more than illness necessarily leads to insight, but it can do so at times precisely because the “doors of perception,” which Blake suggested we cleanse, have instead been selectively battered down, and let in sometimes disastrous quantities of light. In Lecture Two Steiner describes how a “so-called sick man” may come to a priest and reproach him from a position of greater spiritual authority:

“The things you pronounce from the pulpit aren't worth much. They don't add up to anything, they don't reach up to the dwelling place of God, they don't have any worth except external worth. One must really rest in God with one's whole being.” That's the kind of thing such people say. In every other area of their life they behave in such a way that one must consider them to be extremely retarded, but in conversation with their priest they come out with such speeches.

One way to think about the poor alignment of inner structures and the great variety of psychic difficulty Steiner describes would be in terms of blockages to wholehearted giving — just as here the man recommends to his priest that one must rest in God with “one's whole being.” Throughout his works, Steiner continually emphasizes the fundamental deed of the human being as giving attention to his or her chosen tasks. The more wholly we give, the more we are giving of our selves — and our essential self is precisely our attentiveness, for which another name is love. Steiner refers to this issue in innumerable places. Thus, at the end of Lecture Six in the present book, we are told that physicians must “observe these things with their whole being,” and that the patients can be helped only when they work “with their whole soul.” It is just this that can make healing into what Steiner calls “a divine service.” Later he will advocate deeper and deeper immersion in the spiritual beings that permeate and are our cosmos, saying in Lecture Ten that “this is a path of personal development that requires the effort of the whole human being. ... Not just the head can be engaged ... but the whole human being is needed.”

Such whole giving is, from the standpoint of spiritual structure, equivalent to a process of heightened wakefulness and heightened presence in the world, so that the various super-sensible members of the human constitution fuse together. It is a deeply incarnational spirituality. Development consists precisely in permeating life processes, and eventually the physical body as well, with a consciousness of eternal presence — not in escaping from this life or this world, but in more wholly entering it. Though in sleep and at death the “ego” (or spiritual self) and the “astral” (or soul) are said by Steiner to disengage from physical and life processes in order to receive nourishment from higher worlds, in initiation the ego and astral can be thought of as joining more intensively with these processes:

Let us consider first what the situation is when the astral body and ego approach the etheric body. In clairvoyance one can bring this condition about fairly easily, by strengthening one's thinking — strengthening it by very thorough, energetic meditation. Then it is easy to come to this condition; it is the beginning of initiation. One slips down into one's etheric body but is not yet able to take hold of the physical body; one remains in the etheric body. In this condition, it is possible to think very, very well. ... Thinking becomes wider. One knows clearly: now I am in the etheric world. Thus when one is in one's etheric body, one is truly in the world ether. One has the clear experience: I am in the spiritual world out of which the sense world comes (Lecture Eight).

To enter more wholly into one's body and bodies, to imbue the present world with the full grace of our possible creativity — this is, for Steiner, the ultimate path of both healing and initiation. Along the way, he will throw out further hints in these lectures about the nature of human breathing as a process of bringing in spiritual forces rather than oxygen alone, and about the esoteric nature of sense perception (for a much fuller elaboration of this theme, see Georg Kühlewind's Belehrung der Sinne). It is a profoundly Thomistic view in that Thomas Aquinas embraced the physical as divine creation, to be known intimately, rather than as something fallen, to be rejected.

The processes that we are accustomed to think of as physical, as merely chemical and physical and biological, can be understood both in the human and in nature as fundamentally meaningful rather than senseless and material. Applying this view radically to the giving of medicines, in Lecture Nine, Steiner can assert, “You can see that one must recognize the spirit in nature, the spirit that is in the mineral and plant kingdoms of the world. It is the spirit, not the substance, that one must know, because in reality one heals the human being through the spirit that is in the mineral and in the plant.” In this, Steiner is taking up a theme that the seventeenth-century pastor Angelus Silesius put in a verse (based on John 6:32-35) that has been adapted as a mealtime grace but can also serve as a closing epigraph here:

The bread does not nourish me.
What feeds me in the bread
Is God's eternal Word,
Is spirit and is life.

MICHAEL LIPSON, PH.D., is a clinical psychologist in independent practice in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He is the translator of Rudolf Steiner's Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path and of Georg Kühlewind's From Normal to Healthy, both published by Anthroposophic Press. Dr. Lipson's work combines the insights of Rudolf Steiner with those of Zen Buddhism. He teaches meditation widely, and writes on issues of consciousness, human development, and meditative practice.