Heilkunst medicine is informed to a large extent by Rudolf Steiner’s dynamic physiology. He recognized the importance of addressing more than the physical body in human health. He had various ways of conveying his dynamic understanding of the human body, which include the two-fold, three-fold, and four-fold bodies.
The Two-fold: The primal polarity of all Being is that of the force of levity and gravity. All substance is created through the tension between these two poles and emerges in the borderland between their respective realms. As creatures, humans are also comprised of this polarity, which bears expression in the two-fold man. Just as color, as Goethe teaches us, emerges through the interplay between the polarities of light and darkness, so too does our physiology emerge, in all its dynamism. The Upper man holds the fort at one pole: responsible for all catabolic forces. It breaks things down, draws distinctions, separates us from nature, and through this separation, thought and consciousness are born and freedom is possible. At this extreme of the borderland, coldness and rationality predominate. At the other pole, we find the Lower Man, which is the hot bed of anabolic, growth forces. It is responsible for the metabolic activity that produces heat and movement in us. But without the separating tendency of the Upper Man, it remains largely unconscious (reflected in the fact that our metabolism is unconscious unless disturbed by a disease process). To Steiner, this polarity was the basis for all life, and foundational for understanding all other dynamics at play in the living.
The Three-fold: Steiner also understood the body in terms of interplay between three systems: the nerve-sense system, the metabolic-limb system, and the rhythmic system.
In the “nerve-sense” system the locus of activity is, not surprisingly, concentrated in the head and spine. It is here that we find the center of all thinking and sense experience. This system is characterized by a state of coolness and rest. The senses for example, are employed to carry sense data without changing it, like a steady camcorder that gets the clearest footage. They provide the spherical containers within which sense experience is possible, but themselves do not move a single sense datum out of place. Our heads too are relatively stationary. The brain and spinal cord are constructed to minimize movement and absorb shock. Our bodies are designed to keep our heads cool. Psychically, this phenomenon holds true as well. Our nerve-sense system really is not equipped to store e-motion, which is literally energy in motion, which is why the appropriate term to describe people in whom this system predominates is sense-itive rather than e-motional. THEY spin around neurotically rather than allowing their e-motion the room it needs to pulsate fully while they can harness the charge.
The “metabolic limb system” as the name suggests, is where metabolic activity predominates. Accordingly, it is the system responsible for heat and growth. In contrast with the nerve sense organs, which do not mix with the data they convey, the primary organs of the metabolic-limb system, such as the liver and muscles, as well as the kidneys, interact with, change, and transform the substances that pass through them as much as possible. This system provides the limbs that carry us through life; it is a powerhouse of metabolic activity. And as we know, our metabolism operates below the level of waking consciousness. Appropriate to its name, the metabolic limb system is the unsung hero that keeps us on the course.
The rhythmic system has perhaps the most appropriate name of all: it is produced by the interaction between the two poles, the rhythm that emerges from the oscillation between light and dark. This system is made up of our rhythmic organs: the lungs and the heart. Our respiratory and circulatory systems express the rhythm of expansion and compression, that is, the rhythm of life. Rhythm, and with it, life, is the result of something in motion meeting something at rest. Accordingly, it is through our rhythmic system that we experience orgonotic pulsation and can engender new life like the life created when the spirit moved over resting waters in Genesis.
The Four-fold: Finally, Steiner broke down the body into a four-fold system, made up of the physical, etheric, astral and ontic bodies.
Our physical body is rooted in mineral consciousness. It contains the material of our biochemical bodies, which remains (before decomposition takes over) after death. Indeed, it is the body that brings us onto the same plane as rocks and minerals. Appropriately, disease at the physical level is often detected by mineral imbalances.
Our etheric body is what energizes our physical body and operates the functions that make life possible. It is the hotbed of growth and healing forces and constitutes the annobolic phases of metabolism (it does have a catabolic aspect, which is made possible by astral impulses). When we sleep and return to old Saturn, our etheric bodies are still present and carry on with their activities, albeit without waking consciousness. This is why we sleep when in healing mode. This body is one that we share with plants. But unlike plants, which must constantly receive cosmic forces, humans contain within them their own individual cosmic forces to draw on throughout life. It is our etheric bodies that hold the imprint of our inheritance. It keeps the record of what slips away from our consciousness when we incarnate into our physical bodies. When disease is expressed at the etheric level, we observe it as a disturbance of function.
Our astral body is the body of desire, which literally means “of or from the stars.” This is why we look to the stars to understand our destiny. Our astral body is holder of our desire function and contains the information of our life’s purpose. Our astral body is the body we share with animals who give us a relatively clean picture of this body because they don’t have any ontic organization. We get a good sense of our own astral operating when we look at our pets. Their modus operandi is: “I did it because I wanted to” only, without the “I.” There is still no separation: It is its desires, which we see very clearly with animals: there is no distance between my dog and the steak dangling in front of him. We recognize disturbances at this level by observing cravings, attractions, and feelings. Functionally, the astral body is where the death drive, our catabolic impulses are generated.
Our ontic organization is what distinguishes humans from all other life and distinguishes humans from one another. It is the center of the I, the self, the individual “I Am.” The organizing activity that arranges my ontic self – – my factual existence – – into something that is my very own. It introduces the I to “I am.” Without the ontic we would just be, without waking consciousness. It is the body that brings everything together into an individual identify that operates with integrity. We recognize disturbances at this level mostly negatively, through its weakness. A weak ontic is what lets all the other bodies run amuck.
Steiner’s dynamic view of health allows us to approach the body as a living entity rather than a cadaver. It takes a concerted effort to ground his physiology in concrete, accessible terms, but the rewards of doing so are great.