Between Our Demons and Our Gods: Human Encounter in tthe Light of Anthroposophy – Elan Leibner

Between Our Demons and Our Gods Human Encounter in the Light of Anthroposophy Elan Leibner

AWSNA Summer Conference

June 26, 2017

When Melanie Reiser asked me if I would speak at the opening of this conference, she read me AWSNA’s Shared Principle #7. It begins with the words “Waldorf schools are self-administered. This work is strengthened by cultivating a shared anthroposophical understanding of social interactions.” She said, “Talk about what that means.”

My mind quickly turned to my earliest days as a Waldorf teacher. There were two teachers in the school I joined, and every week during the faculty meeting a strange ritual would unfold: some topic or other would be up for discussion; sooner or later, one of the two would take a stand, usually in strong, confident words. With the predictability of a Swiss watch, the other would take the opposite point of view. It didn’t matter whether we were talking about a child, a festival, or where teachers should park their cars in the morning. Sometimes it even seemed that one of them would try to take the point of view that the other was usually espousing, as if to make nice. No matter: the other would contradict his usual approach just for the occasion, as if saying, “I usually stand for X, and you stand for Y, but today, since you suggest X, I must advocate for Y.” It became clear to me that the topics   were not really what mattered; rather, it was the encounter between these two that had its own special signature gesture. Two consequences of these weekly events were that the meetings often felt both predictable and exhausting. I can even say predictably exhausting. I would like to leave this little image, surely not one that is entirely unfamiliar to many of you, as an example of one kind of encounter.

The other example I want to present is from a College of Teachers meeting several years later. The context is a review of the work of the College during the previous school year. A colleague said something deeply significant: “Two things really strike me about our meetings: the first is that they always surprise me. We find new ideas and solutions that no one seemed to have when the meeting began, and I personally often leave feeling that I have more energy than I had when I came in.” So that’s a different kind of encounter, with radically different results. I would like to posit that surprise, in the good sense, and renewed energy are two hallmarks of the encounters we should foster.

Back to Melanie and the shared principle: I pondered the wording, particularly wanting to focus on the “anthroposophical understanding of social interactions.” In the end, it struck me that anthroposophy has one essential contribution to make to the study of social interactions. It is strikingly simple to articulate: spiritual beings interpose themselves between us as we meet. Whatever techniques, practices, policies, and structures we can find helpful from the world outside of Waldorf education, this essential insight will always form a dimension that must be taken into account. Spiritual beings interpose themselves between us as we meet.

Mainstream psychology and sociology books that have looked into the area of social interactions have not been able to explore this possibility, for three reasons: first, because the requisite conceptual framework that would allow for this contribution is missing. Second, therefore the language that would allow for an articulation of insights is missing or ignored. And third, the capacities that would need to develop in order for meaningful research to unfold are nowhere to be found, since no one recognizes that they are needed in the first place.

When we undertake the task of leading an organization as a team, clarity about, and a conscious cultivation of the relationship with spiritual beings is an ever-urgent pair of challenges. We will first look at the historical development of our relationship with certain spiritual beings and then consider   a few suggestions   for cultivating healthy human encounters in light of the presence of those beings.

Soul Encounters as a Particular Challenge

The image of the human being in anthroposophy is of a threefold being: body, soul, and spirit.

Physical encounters are not usually overly challenging in the context of a Waldorf school. Our body odors or sloppy attire don’t commonly rise to existential levels of crisis. Spiritual aspects can sometimes create crises, for example around differing interpretations of pedagogy, but it is not very common. In this article I will focus on the third aspect of the human constitution, namely the soul.

Because they are often shrouded in the miasma of emotions, difficult soul encounters challenge us in ways that can feel overwhelming and insurmountable. They lack the clarity of spiritual principles, so they remain nebulous, but they carry a powerful surge of emotional intensity.

Rudolf Steiner describes two phases in the relationship of the “I”, the Self, to the lower members of the human constitution. The first phase entails an unconscious, the second a conscious set of transformations. The first phase produces an elaboration of the lower members (developed for us by spiritual beings) into three soul layers. The second phase produces three layers of spirit. I would like briefly to describe the stages of the first phase, and to characterize the resulting soul layers. In anthroposophical nomenclature, all of these layers have particular names. My language here, as possible, will avoid these names in favor of signature gestures. This is not to deny the validity of the usual terminology, but in order to encourage both you and me to avoid familiar  words that we, too easily, assume we understand, perhaps more than we actually do.

Historical Context

At the outset of the transformational process just mentioned, the human constitution included three facets that Rudolf Steiner called physical, etheric, and astral “bodies,” as problematic as that English translation can be for the second and third of them, since they lack obvious physical characteristics. (The German “Leib” is not as problematic; it is used as the word “body” is used in expressions such as “body of knowledge”.) The first was a physical body. We can think of it as the material level that we share with all mineral, living, and sentient beings. The second was the life “body,” which we can think of as the level we share with living organisms that grow and reproduce, namely plants and animals. The third Steiner called the astral or soul “body.” It is the level we share with all sentient beings, namely animals. Its signature gestures are movement, both inner (as in a response to stimuli and circumstances) and outer (in autonomous movement such as plants cannot achieve); another way of saying it is that beings endowed with an astral body exhibit some degree of consciousness.

When the human Self, or “I,” was introduced into evolution, it began interacting with the existing “bodies.” These interactions were completely unconscious initially. And although they have produced increasingly conscious results, as we shall see, they only recently began, themselves, growing more wakeful within us.

The Desiring Soul; The Spirit of Fun and Freedom; Illness, Suffering, and Pain

At first, during a period that Rudolf Steiner calls Lemuria, the Self began interacting with what we have termed the astral body. The mere instinctual, animal-like responses to stimuli grew more individualized. People could begin to like and dislike aspects of their environment in ways that differed from their peers. Rudimentary personality began emerging. At this point, an important spiritual intervention took place. Up until then, only benevolent spiritual beings were involved in earth evolution. But now, spiritual beings of an adversarial level equivalent to what Western traditions call angels developed a different relationship with humanity. Collectively, we can refer to these sprits in the singular as The Spirit of Fun and Freedom. Genesis depicts it as the serpent; elsewhere it is called the Devil, or also Lucifer. It introduced the possibility of error into human conduct. The result was, on the one side, a greater level of separation from the divine origins of humanity, and therefore freedom for the human being, and on the other the development of desires, cravings, and lust for sensations. It was the first elaboration of the human soul, and we can call it the Desiring Soul. Think of the moment when you meet a person and feel either an irresistible desire or an equally strong repulsion towards that person. On a more trivial level, you open a catalog that just arrived in the mail, or surf the website of a merchant, and suddenly you cannot live another moment without owning an item that five minutes earlier you did not even know existed. Or you see something that someone else has and you really, REALLY want it.

An important characteristic of the Desiring Soul is that it is inherently insatiable. No amount of goods, food, or pleasure is ever enough for more than a brief interval of time.

In order to mitigate the results of what The Spirit of Fun and Freedom wrought, the benevolent spiritual forces had to introduce illness, suffering, and pain into the life of humanity so that we would not utterly succumb to the temptations of the senses. This may sound cruel to the modern mind, but we can also think of it as being given the opportunity to learn to live with consequences. Other terms for that are growing up, or maturing. Like a young person coming into adulthood, one has to learn there is a price for bingeing on anything, and sometimes even for trying just a little taste. A hangover after a night of drinking is one small example of how our desire for sensations can result in adverse consequences.   Addictions of all kinds are further examples.

The Explaining/Planning Soul; The Spirit of The Machine; Karma The next step in evolution involved the Self-penetrating and unconsciously transforming the life body. This took place in the period that Steiner terms Atlantis. Living organisms grow in lawful ways, which shows us that there is an intelligible pattern governing their life cycles. This pattern is coded, so to speak, into the life body. When the Self-finished “working through” the life body, the result was a second layer of the soul, one that we can designate The Explaining, or Planning Soul. To get a feeling for it, we can imagine that the Desiring Soul wishes for some item or experience. It is the role of the Planning Soul to figure out how to satisfy the wish of the Desiring Soul. For example, we can plan on buying it, stealing it, or killing our neighbor in order to get it. All three would achieve the desired result, and for the planning soul there isn’t yet a particular preference for one over the other, except expediency. In the realm of knowledge acquisition, the Explaining Soul does just that: it explains things, which means replacing mysterious phenomena (e.g., nature’s) with models that are easier to comprehend. The entire edifice of natural science is the glorious, and problematic, triumph of the Explaining Soul, essentially replacing the mysteries of nature with mathematical formulations. It is immensely satisfying to feel that we know what something “really is,” even if, for example, we are not much closer to understanding the nature of pleasure when we say that pleasure “really is nothing but” the body secreting certain hormones (e.g., serotonin, oxytocin, or dopamine). We have just turned our gaze to where the street lamp is lighting a section of the sidewalk, though it isn’t where we lost the keys, or at least not most of them. But we are left with the satisfying illusion of knowing. In effect, we made the world into math, and now a blind person understands color as well as a seeing person because “color is nothing but an angle of refraction, or a wavelength, that can be expressed mathematically.” The same goes for all other senses and even for consciousness itself. We think that we have explained them, but we have really only explained them away. The world disappears, and all that’s left is math.

When the Explaining/Planning Soul came into being, there was a second intervention of spiritual beings, this time of the adversarial level equivalent to that of the archangels. We can name them, in the singular, “The Spirit of the Machine.” The Persians, and anthroposophists,   name it “Ahriman.” Others call it Satan. Initially, this spirit’s influence led to the possibility of what we call sin. Sin differs from error in being deliberate. Human beings could now know in advance that they were violating the intended order of the universe. A second consequence of the presence of the Spirit of the Machine was that knowledge of the spiritual origins of existence was gradually lost, and people could not see beyond the senses. We can see, therefore, how materialism could develop.

To mitigate the influence of the Spirit of the Machine, the benevolent forces introduced death and the law of karma. We shall return to death a little later. But karma is really a wonderful thing! We usually think of it as the source of all manner of difficulties, but we should be eternally grateful that it exists, for it allows for the balancing of sins. Imagine if your sins were written into your being in such a way that it would be impossible to make matters right. Next time you find yourself in a karmic knot, be glad and thankful for it. You may not be able to untie it yet, but at least you have the opportunity to try.

The Understanding/Empathetic Soul; The Spirits of Darkness;


The third chapter in the Self’s unconscious transforming of the lower members was its penetration of the physical body. It is still ongoing, and has been bringing a third soul facet into existence. This facet we can designate “The Understanding or Empathetic Soul.” Its chief attribute is that it can serve as a moral compass. In the example I gave earlier, the Planning Soul can find different ways of satisfying the cravings and wishes of the Desiring Soul. How would one choose which of these ways is best? For the materialistic-thinking Planning   Soul, expediency is the only arbiter. But what of ethics? If the former can say “true or false; fast or slow,” the Understanding Soul can tell, and FEEL, good from evil. It is the soul facet that can understand, rather than merely explain, and that can empathize with another human being. After the increasing distance from the phenomena that the Desiring Soul and Explaining Soul produced, the Empathetic Soul can re-connect with phenomena, this time without disappearing completely into a dreamy or sleepy state of consciousness. “I” can understand “you,” rather than merely feeling attraction or repulsion, as with the Desiring Soul, or explaining you (using extrinsic measures) to myself as with the Explaining Soul.

There is also a third intervention of adversarial spiritual beings that is beginning, and this one has a particular twist. These beings are       the adversarial equivalents to the spiritual hierarchy designated        in Christian esotericism as the “Archai.” The benevolent Archai are the ones that bestowed the Self on humanity, while these adversarial counterparts work in precisely the opposite direction. They encourage human beings to use the understanding capacities that the Self has been developing in order to manipulate others in purely egotistical ways. Sociopathy and psychopathy are examples of this type of action, and orgiastic behaviors, for example, point towards a future in which some people will arrange their entire lives to gear towards incessant sensual pleasure. The sociopath has a keen understanding of others, but does not care about their wellbeing. The psychopath is similarly insightful, but goes even further by actually enjoying the pain he can inflict. The twist in the narrative here is that, according to Rudolf Steiner, the benevolent spiritual powers cannot help us find redemption for acts committed under the influence of these new adversarial forces, which he names (using an old term for the Archai) the Asuras; every time we choose the path of pure egotism, a sliver of our divine Self is lost to darkness. This is a new reality in human evolution, and means that we are now increasingly capable of self-annihilation. It is darkness, the likes of which humanity has never encountered before.

But where great darkness appears, a great light must also be present. This light I would like to designate AHAVA, as the acronym for the “Archetype of Human Amity, Verity, and Altruism.” Conveniently, AHAVA means, “love” in Hebrew, and we can think of “the archetype of the human capacity for love” as another name or designation for AHAVA. I will use “the Love Impulse” to describe what AHAVA is trying to help us develop. Rudolf Steiner referred to it, in a term that was less problematic for his milieu than it is for our time, as the Christ Impulse. According to Steiner, there was a moment in history when AHAVA joined the earthly, human stream of being for a brief period. It penetrated the lower sheaths, or bodies, of a human being and, as a human being, shed blood into the earth as it died. This love- infused blood turned into life forces (ether), and the earth itself began, for the first time, to radiate light into the cosmos. AHAVA moved its sphere of action into the sheaths surrounding the earth, and the light associated with Love began radiating as the earth’s own emanation. This light was not yet physical, but if human beings take this Love Impulse into themselves, it will increasingly condense into physical light until the earth itself will become a new sun!

The Etherization of Blood and the Love Impulse

As if the idea of helping to make the earth into a new sun is not inspiring enough, Rudolf Steiner also says that every human heart turns a portion of the blood that passes through it into a fine stream of life (or etheric) forces that flows upwards into the head. When human beings take up the Love Impulse into themselves, the individual stream of etherized blood joins the etherized stream of the Love Impulse, and completely new capacities can arise in the soul. Those capacities are key elements of any potential progress for humanity, and, I suggest, for the potential survival and success of Waldorf schools. They entail, among other things, direct perception of spiritual realities and an ability to act out of the highest moral ideals.

.Human Encounter on the three levels; Proposed Practices

Thus far we have surveyed an evolutionary process and followed the appearance and influence of various spiritual beings, both benevolent and adversarial. It is time to “get down to brass tacks,” as it were: what can we do in  a school context in order to facilitate healthy human encounters, knowing that our demons and our gods, as the title suggests, are both eager for our cooperation?

I would like to take each of the three soul facets, or members, characterize its typical appearance in human relationships, and propose a salutogenic approach.

The Desiring Soul

The two archetypal gestures of the Desiring Soul are attraction and repulsion. A new colleague or parent comes into view, and one feels a strong attraction towards this person, or perhaps a strong revulsion. In our culture, it is not acceptable to express these sentiments. I don’t think that school communities would benefit by encouraging verbal expression of the animal-level desires and revulsions that we feel towards one another. The point here is not to externalize that which is ordinarily expressed only in anonymous online chat rooms. There are not only humane grounds for the idea of restraint but legal ones as well.

But I also think that suppressing the lower impulses of the Desiring Soul is not a good practice if it remains the only thing we

  1. Suppression leads to repression, and repression leads to illness. You can sit in a faculty meeting and find yourself wondering why on earth tensions run so high when the topic is seemingly so benign. The same two or three individuals seem intent on clashing with one another regardless of the topic, as in the example with which I started. The opposite can also happen: people agree with one another based on sympathy, or even attraction, and yet the root of their agreement is not the topic at hand or the wellbeing of the school. And when people manage to sublimate their attraction and repulsion completely, that, as noted above, can lead to physical and/or emotional illness. We don’t overcome a lower aspect of ourselves by pretending it does not exist.

So the two extremes of repression and expression are not healthy for us or for the school. What I would like to suggest is that ther is a way of processing the impulses of the Desiring Soul that can be healthy: engagement with the arts, specifically in what I would call chamber arts: eurythmy, chorus, speech chorus, drama, music making, and so on. There is a whole field of artistic endeavor, some extent and some waiting to be developed that would allow teams to work through the impulses of the Desiring Soul so that beauty can emerge out of the process. Since The Spirit of Fun and Freedom is also a key inspiration for artistic creativity, we would be using his gifts to neutralize his malevolent influence!

Another essential benefit of chamber arts is that they provide a strong impetus for recognizing the spiritual in our fellow human being. Artistic processes, when done well, move people through obstacles and long-established patterns, and allow them to grow. When we witness someone growing we know that we are in the presence of a “human becoming” entity. This experience should always leave us hopeful: what is problematic today may change in time. As long as we are hopeful, progress is possible. The main problem with our patterns of desire and revulsion is that, especially with the latter, we assume permanence. But when our “enemy” has overcome an artistic blockage or, better yet, helped us overcome one of our own, a layer of enmity is shed. Over time, enough of those layers can be shed so the two of us can see the better aspects of each other that were hidden from our view before. Real conversations, verbally or through correspondence, are another way of overcoming these impulses. They are seeds of the future social art of conversation. A striking and very moving example is the late-life correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. So I would like to throw down something of a gauntlet here to my art-teaching colleagues: there is a whole field of exercises that you can develop to help teams process the lower impulses of the soul healthfully. I want to be clear that individual artistic work can also be helpful. I have written a lot of poetry to process my life’s events. But individual work helps an individual. Chamber work helps those who are in the chamber, which in our sense is the relevant group within the school. It helps, in part, by inviting the spiritual beings that support harmony and collaboration to be active for the time people strive together artistically.

The Planning/Explaining Soul

The signature gestures of the Explaining Soul have in common that they are past-oriented and replace genuine encounter with analyses and prescriptions of all kinds. Since the birth of the Explaining Soul was accompanied by the possibility of sin, policies, and procedures are introduced in order to prevent sinfulness. This leads to a safer environment, but also to a stilted and warmth-less one. Every bureaucrat says, “That’s the policy; I did not make it, I just administer it.” The policy was no doubt created because someone did something that had the “flavor” of sin, so there was some justification for it. I do not suggest that policies and procedures have no place in a school. But they do present a new kind of challenge in that they eliminate the human being as a complex and individual reality in favor of a species-wide, one-size-fits-all approach.

A second common gesture of the Explaining Soul is the dissection of another person in psychoanalytic language. This language is invariably past-oriented. Parents or food or some trauma are held responsible for something that a person did or is doing. Again, there is some justification for this approach, but it comes with the danger that we distance ourselves from the other, and most importantly that we feel superior. Since we think we know why she behaves in this particular way, we could respond with empathy, but all too often we remain with the self-congratulatory mood of seeing the other “from above.”

I would like to suggest three practices that can help us work with the gifts of the Explaining Soul in order to neutralize its deleterious aspects:

  1. The first is enlivened study of inspired texts. The hallmarks of enlivened study are that it is experiential, context-rich, and deed- oriented. When we merely read a text in a faculty meeting, the effect is minimal and sometimes even negative. Study is best begun by bringing an experience, just as we know from the classroom that beginning with the will and proceeding through feeling to thinking is the best way to go, so also in the faculty study.

Secondly, healthy study is context-rich. It arises out of and in turn creates context and relationships. Anything, even anthroposophical concepts, studied in isolation is a lie. For example, the cultural, political, and location-specific circumstances of Steiner’s lectures are important; we can also follow up a reading with a discussion of how the themes he develops might need to be articulated in our own circumstances. It is inconceivable to me that Steiner would be saying the same things in the same language a hundred years later. He was the consummate innovator and revitalizer of culture; how would he develop his themes in light of what has transpired since he first brought them forth?

Thirdly,   the study should be deed-oriented. We should ask ourselves what is indicated by this study for our work. How do we translate the inspiration of the text into action?

  1. The second “cure” for the Explaining Soul is a study of nature as a text. In the works of our contemporaries Craig Holdrege and Denis Klocek, for example, we have instances of research into the meaning of natural phenomena. When we seek for meaning, as opposed to explanation, we learn to read nature as a text. A text implies a creative force, an author, and this sense helps us overcome an ailment that the Spirit of the Machine has infected us with: the estrangement from our divine origins.


  1. The third “cure” is the study of projective geometry. The Explaining Soul typically traffics in mathematical explanations that replace the phenomena with numbers. Projective geometry is a mathematical field that requires imaginative capacities to unfold. It is, if you will, the redemption of our relationships with mathematics.

The Empathetic Soul:

Encounters that originate with the Empathetic Soul are most easily characterized as the experience that someone else sees us. Beyond gender, race, age, appearance, status, and all the other veils that hide us from one another, we are, each one, a human being, a species onto ourselves. When another person can see us, we are neither simply attractive or repulsive, nor are we explained through some pre-existing model (not even the anthroposophical one). While these interpretations will, no doubt, play into what another sees, he or she can see something else. It is an exhilarating moment. It is also interesting that it is also exhilarating when we manage to see another human being, really see. On the few occasions in my life when that’s happened, I felt like Adam in the Garden of Eden. There is such simplicity and purity in an encounter that leaves your heart open and receptive, sans the veils that customarily come between people.

The question then becomes: what happens now?

When one person sees another, there are usually only two basic choices to be made: to love, or to hurt. I don’t mean sensual love; I mean that you have seen another human being, including his or her golden qualities and less-than-golden needs. To the needs you can respond with whatever it is you have to offer. To the other’s golden qualities you respond by calling them forth. Or you can put a hook into the need and begin to manipulate. You can also ignore, remain indifferent, but that is just another way of hurting. And you can try to undermine the golden qualities.

We have all met people of both kinds of resolve. In the presence of someone who has seen another and chosen love, we feel peace.

With those who lust for power and who utilize their insights for control and manipulation, we can feel helpless. They are far too clever and skilled to meet head-on. We can sense that ultimately only love can counter their power. It cannot redeem it, but it can serve as a countermeasure within individuals and communities. The opportunity for love to build momentum in our situation may take time. In the meantime, they can do a lot of damage.

As I mentioned before, there is no direct remediation of the dark impulses we are talking about. But if love is ultimately the antidote, there are a couple of practices that we can take up in order to strengthen our relationship with the Love Impulse. There are others, too, but we are focusing now on collegial relationships.

  1. The first is biography work. This is a fairly well developed field of study in our circles, with people who are skilled at facilitating excellent processes. Entering attentively into the images of another’s life and then taking those into our sleep life for several days can go a long way towards building a real feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood.
  2. The second is meditation. The path towards the Love Impulse needs to be taken up within each one of us. As Steiner develops this work, an essential aspect of it is that we first build up a picture, and then we allow what we have achieved to disappear, to die, as it were. Only the force we had built up in the process of forming the image remains. Apart from the value of meditative work as a spiritual path of knowledge, the practice of letting something die within us is a profound step towards Love.

When death is approached without fear, anger, or resentment, it can be the most amazingly graceful moment in the whole of life. We can “gift” our dying to those around us as their opportunity to care. In the realm of ideas, death means renouncing our ownership and attachment to what originally came to us, allowing it to be owned and revised by the group. And when we see another person, with their physical, emotional, karmic, or any other illness, we can ask ourselves: “Were she on death’s bed, would I love her?” If the answer is yes, and few of us would choose to attack or ignore a person on death’s bed, the next question is: “Why should I wait until she is on death’s bed to love her?”

We find, approaching our fellow human being with the mindset that “Love shouldn’t wait” that the twin experiences of surprise and invigoration meet us all the time. Just like a good College meeting!



The Deed of Christ and the Opposing Spiritual Forces (GA 107)

The Etherization of the Blood (GA 130)

From Jesus to Christ (GA 131)

The Gospel of St. John and it Relation to the Other Gospels (GA


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