The threefold human being

Und im Grunde genommen würde es gar nicht so schwierig sein, die Lehre vom dreigliedrigen Menschen populär zu machen, wenn sich die Menschen heute ihres musikalischen Empfindens bewußt wären.  GA 283, side 145

davinci manWhat is this doctrine of the threefold human being? In the previous posts I have looked at the musical elements of melody, harmony and rhythm/beat as expressions of the three main forces of the human soul; thinking, feeling and will. I believe that by entering into such meditations it is possible to experience thinkings movement, the dynamic life of will and feeling as engaged by these musical elements, and to some degree awaken them as forces of the soul. In this way music can become part of a process of self-knowledge and expansion of consciousness.

The teachings of the threefold human being that Steiner refers to above explains how the soul-forces incarnate in the body to produce earthly consciousness and soul-life. What is revolutionary in Steiner´s account is how he connects an account of the various degrees of consciousness – from total lack of any consciousness to wide awake daily self-consciousness – with thinking, feeling and will, and show how these forces are incarnated in the human organism as a whole. Instead of dividing the human into consciousness and biology, and placing everything that has to do with consciousness and experience in the nervous system and brain as is done today, Steiner understands normal soul-life as happening on a continuum between awake consciousness and unconsciousness related to the body as a whole. Soul-life is in a continuum with the human organism, it is not a dualistic epiphenomenon. Everything physiological has its spiritual side. But further, this spiritual anthropology also can explain how a consciousness emerges which is released from the forces of the real spiritual cosmos, and as such makes freedom possible. And thus, this form of consciousness, which is the only one we know in our current materialistic scientific paradigm is in a sense an epiphenomenon, i.e. something produced by means of the brain. However, because this is only one form of consciousness and one part of the soul, it is only a small part of the story, and by developing the other forces it can connect itself to a vast field of life and consciousness, and thus include what otherwise remains unconscious into the earthly consciousness and identity. Then the dualistic split that the human physiology creates will begin to be gradually transformed. The physiology of freedom will give rise to a future physiology of love in which the heart unites our spiritual will-being with earthly consciousness, thus connecting human actions with the source of morality that lies in the spirit.

These two — the moral and the physical — which run so independently and yet side by side for modern consciousness today, are found in their real union when we learn to understand all the configurations of the human heart. (RS, 26 May, 1922)

In the future this will give a concrete and very real experience of how our actions relate to our Higher Self which is and will be experienced as the Self of the Other, and thus we can understand how an snowballing development of kindness and love can be possible in the future. Self-actualization will become self-overcoming and self-less love. Steiner tells us this through the anthroposophical understanding of human evolution in the cosmos, but I believe it can also become a deep conviction based in some experience by working with this material together with others.

In the following I will try to give a brief outline of the very complex anthroposophical anthropology of the threefold picture of the human.

The threefold human organism, the soul-forces and the three states of consciousness

The three soul forces have their respective physiological systems in the body, and these constitute three distinct but mutually interpenetrating system complexes. They are the incarnation of the soul, and the form of consciousness that is produced by them is the incarnated earthly soul-life.Fludd brain nerves

The brain and nervous system are, as is well known from modern physiology, the system that constitutes the bodily organ of thought and awake daily consciousness. The senses also belong to this system. Through them we are in a cognitive relationship with the external world. Steiner used the term “nerve-sense system” about this system complex. This system is has its centre in the head, and these organs, especially the brain which swims in fluid, must stay in calm rest. Producing inner movements of the soul, the outer physical organ is like a mirroring surfaces that must be kept still to be able to reflect


Davinci circulatory systemThe life of feeling has its bodily foundation in what Steiner calls the rhythmic system. This has its centre in the heart and lung activity, the circulation of the blood and the breathing, but is spread throughout the whole organism in all rhythmic and circulatory systems, such as the important cerebrospinal fluid. In this system a rhythmic interaction between “outside” and “inside” unfolds, something we see physically in the breathing, and inwardly in the feelings of sympathy and antipathy, where we either receive and sympathise with or reject what we are facing. The physical centre of this system is thus found in the chest, and Steiner sometimes speaks of the “chest man” as another name for the rhythmic system.

The third soul force, the will, has its physiological basis in metabolic processes. All transformation of substance is an actualization of spirit in matter – and this is the reality of the will. This system-complex has an inner and outer Davinci abdomenaspect, where the inner lies in the digestive system and the abdomen where matter is broken down, energy created and material for rebuilding the body produced. The outer aspect is the muscles that move our limbs, as what makes possible our action in the world. All cellular processes are metabolic processes, and so also the contractions of muscles. When we move we produce warmth; the muscles get warm. The spiritual will-being of the human therefore works in all bodily processes as incarnated power of substance-transformation. Because we perform conscious actions with the limbs Steiner calls this system the metabolism-limb, sometimes also the movement-human because the will is actualized as motions.

This brings us to an important point, namely that we live in different degrees of consciousness in the different soul-forces. As is universally accepted, our soul-life is not the same as our consciousness. A lot goes on half- or unconsciously, and when thinking, feeling and will are mixed – as is always the case in normal consciousness – there is an overlaying also of different states of consciousness.

This also explains “why” we can feel so much more is going on between people simply in a conversation for example. Learning to distinguish these layers in oneself can hopefully also makes one more perceptive to this dynamic as well as one´s own reactions and have a cleansing character in social life.

During the course of 24 hours we undergo three main states of consciousness; the wide-awake daily consciousness, the dreaming consciousness, and the deep dreamless sleep from which we have no recollections of consciousness – but which, even if it sounds like a contradiction can still be understood as a form of consciousness as long as we don´t model this concept solely on what we know from experience.

However, these three modes of consciousness do not only exist separated in time, but during the day the other two states are constantly at work, as large parts of our Earthly being function in these states of consciousness.

Our normal daily wide-awake consciousness is constituted by the interplay of thinking and sense-perception. They give us clear conception of phenomena, and a reflective awareness and recognition of the world. In this sense these are the main ingredients that keep us awake and through which we navigate our relation to the world and others.

If we then look at the opposite pole we have the will working in and through the body corresponding to the state of consciousness we are in when deep dreamless sleep. The actual metabolic processes are completely outside consciousness(obviously we would say, but why should it be obvious?). There is no trace of consciousness of how a substance is broken down or how the blood is created out of our bone marrow and the various organs co-operate in such wonderful processes. But then what about when we act, which after all is what we normally refer to with the concept of will? Aren´t we conscious of the will then? In fact, this is an example of how we misinterpret the perception of ourselves. As Steiner says, when we act consciously, when we perform a willed action, an idea or mental-image which contains a will-element “shoot down” into the organism, and a limb is moved by means of metabolic processes. We are conscious of the intention, which belongs to the everyday consciousness seated in the brain-nervous system, and we are conscious of the body and its movements. However, we lack any consciousness of this relation and the metabolic processes that makes the muscles contract etc and brings about a change of the body. We are awake to the thinking intention and to some degree also the underlying desire and to the result seen and felt as bodily movement, but completely asleep to the real will-force actualized in the world. How does ones´ intention to move one´s arm become reality? We have no clue, it lies as a black spot within consciousness – and therefore this question also feels strange.

Between these two states of consciousness lies the life of feeling. Our awareness of the true life of feelings and are similar to the state of dream consciousness. We usually can´t control the feelings nor the dream in the way we can with thinking and sense-perception. The emotional life also resembles the dream consciousness in the degree of clarity; a feeling is less contoured and delineated than a thought or a perception, but in turn more content-filled and “speaking”. When we meet a person, we perceive him or her clearly with our sense-perceptions and we hear what is being said, but a whole world is also received in feeling. We know this reality is there but we don´t have a clear and awake perception and conception of what we are facing. We dream into the deeper being of another person.

The anthropology outlined here is the result of Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual research on incarnation, on how the spirit incarnates in and as matter to create a potential for freedom. Individualization, or the emergence of self-consciousness and the potential for individual moral creativity as the fundamental feature of human evolution, requires that consciousness is somehow served and independent from the active forces of reality. And that division lives in us precisely in the states of consciousness belonging to these system-complexes and the forces and processes active in them.

Blake_-_The_Temptation_and_Fall_of_Eve_(Illustration_to_Milton's__Paradise_Lost_)_-_Google_Art_ProjectMythologically this is depicted in the “fall” and the expulsion from paradise by eating from the tree of knowledge. When consciousness eats from this tree, it is expelled from the paradisiacal childhood life; it loses connection to the tree of life and has to direct itself more and more from independent judgement and perception; it has to live in and of the tree of knowledge, which is the nervous system.

Another way of saying that our consciousness is a result of the fall and expulsion from the divine life is to say that it is a consciousness borne by reflection. As is becoming more and more argued also in contemporary philosophy of mind, the hard problem of consciousness cannot be solved by viewing the relation between brain and thought as one of causal emergence, but rather as a Nervous-systemcorrelative process in which a filtering and reflecting process creates our form of consciousness. (Many other people have argued in a similar vein, for example H. Bergson, Huxley, W. James, G. Deleuze, and today perhaps the strongest proponent is Bernardo Kastrup.) The brain should not be regarded as a magic factory producing consciousness, but a filtering and individuating process (there are many observations and arguments pointing to this which you can read about here ). What is significant about this process is that it also releases the form of consciousness that is thereby produced from the real forces of the world. The brain severs our substantial and real continuum with the world by means of a reflection-process that creates normal daily wide-awake consciousness. We can think whatever we want and it still does not change the world unless we transfer our ideas into action in the sphere of the will (at least as far as we know in normal consciousness).

The waking consciousness we are during the day is a result of this reflection process. We awaken to everyday self-awareness through all the impressions of the senses that convey an image of the outer world. When these disappear, we fall asleep.

This nerve-sense system creates a mode of consciousness released from active forces of the cosmos by selection and reflection. It therefore has an inner substantial relation to death and dying life, and to the preservation of what is deadened and fixed as a past image.

To understand and perceive entities in the myriad sensory impressions that constantly surround us, we must as children “learn” to select and fix, organize together and eventually conceptualize them. Without this structuring process there would be no unity in the given “image” we have of the world at any given time and it would collapse into a chaos of colour, sound, pressure, heat, taste and smell etc. A small touch of this state – which is also the epistemological starting-point of Rudolf Steiner´s Truth and Science – has been observed in people who have gotten back the functionality of the eye through physical operation and yet did not experience seeing before learning to integrate these impressions in a conceptual framework fixating objects (see for example Bortoft´s Goethe´s Way of Science for an interesting discussion of this). In the sensory image of the world around us we live in we live in a mode of consciousness where we seize and fixes the diversity of impressions and sensations by permeating it with a conceptual content. But this also means that we therefore live in what is no longer a living present but in fixed re-presentations of the world; our experience of the present is in reality a past. Compared to our real living spiritual being our normal consciousness is already past.

In this system, we live in a wakeful and clear consciousness, but this consciousness is a mirror-image of the world; the waking consciousness is constituted by images without real being – there are no forces acting inside this part of the soul. When we see an object, we don´t experience our own light-being as part of the revelation of the seen. Instead of living in a continuum with the light of the world we have an objectified image of it, and from a confused mixing of other sense-impressions into it we construct our naïve realism: I am “here” (i.e. kind of inside the body whatever that may mean) and the thing is over there.

We can also see this deadening process of disconnection expressed physiologically. The brain and nerve cells have the lowest regeneration in the body and is also a cold system; the brain has the lowest temperature in the body. Just as the water must be clear and quiet to reflect the sky, we must have a calm head to think clearly and reflect the (inner and outer) environment. Out of the tree of knowledge a consciousness is born which knows the difference between good and evil, but which is itself expelled from the influence of the real forces and beings of the cosmos. We experience the world as given, not as the living process or event that it really is.

If the consciousness of normal daily wakefulness is constituted from images without real substantial being, then the will is pure being. Will is the opposite pole; life, movement and warmth – which according to Steiner is the primordial force of creation; our cosmos emerged first as a pure “warmth” incarnation, and the I lives and incarnates in the warmth-organization of the body. Physiologically this come to expression in that the metabolic centre is the abdomen and reproductive system which is also the centre of warmth. This is what is responsible for the regeneration of the body as well as for the regeneration and continuity of humanity on the earth. If the nerves are expressions of sclerotization, hardening and death in the organism, then metabolism is the expression and activity of life. This is also the seat of chaos as opposed to the form-pole of the nerve-sense organization: metabolism breaks down matter in a dramatic and destructive chaotization which enables the continuity of incarnation.

While the nerve-sense pole of human being has to do with a preserved past, the metabolic-limb pole of the human has to do with the actualization of future: Actions are aimed at a future change of the world. In the will-power working there is no reflection and hence no conscious perception for the normal consciousness. Will is pure affirmation and participation in being. In this part of us we are one with the creative spiritual activity in nature, but consciously we are in deep sleep.

As will be explored later, by working meditatively with the process of thinking and sense-perception one can begin to wake up this will-consciousness. This is because also in thinking and perception taken as activities there is a subtle will at work. This is the unperceived lifeline connecting the “dead” image-consciousness seated in the nerve-sense system and the deeper spiritual will-being of our higher Self. This will in thinking is at first only experienced at the level of dreaming consciousness. If one works to strengthen this activity of thinking and experience the logical necessity and the connections between thinking as if it were an organism, the will-force that moves thinking, and which enables us to decide to concentrate on something for a span of time, can begin to be perceived. Then our experience of thinking changes radically, and goes from being merely subjective image and representation to become a real force – thinking becomes pure will, and this will is perception and participation at one and the same time. This is to begin with only a distinct-obscure participative perception which grows and expands more and more. It is pure thinking in which, as Steiner says, “man lives in a spiritual world also before he receives impressions from this world” (PoF). It is on the path of development it is one could say an intermediate between the preparation and purification and the real illumination. But it is a work which “will bear the most beautiful fruits for all times to come” (Geheimwissenschaft).

When thinking (and later perception) begins to be experienced as pure will-force, we bring the spiritual will-being into the earthly consciousness and transform it into spiritual seeing. By impregnating these with each other a totally new form of consciousness is created, one which is also different from the old spiritual illuminations of the past. A new experience of the supersensible is possible in which freedom and heightened self-consciousness is lifted into the spirit. This means a real evolutionary step for humanity, and in the emerging research of this process it is called the birth of the new Earthly-Human-Sun. It is a new earthly-, human- and a spiritual sun-being in which the transformation of matter into spirit happens in and through the transformed earthly self-consciousness as a gradual transubstantiation and resurrection.

The daily consciousness reflected from the nerve-sense system, and the life of metabolism and movement in which our spiritual will-being lives deeply unconscious, are two extreme poles of our incarnated being. The rhythmic system of the chest and heart is the balancing, harmonizing and mediating system between these poles. It is what enables us to bring life into devitalized and dead thinking consciousness, and moral awareness into the unconscious will. The rhythmic system integrates the spiritual soul into the earthly-bodily life and therefore it represents the physiological reflection of the centre of our being.

Physiologically speaking the rhythmic system has itself an upper and lower pole, tending towards the upper nerve-sense consciousness pole and the metabolic will pole respectively. Breathing and the rhythms and pressure on the cerebrospinal fluid resulting from breathing connects this system upward to the awake consciousness of the nerve-sense system, and the blood circulation downwards to the metabolic will-system.

As the very centre of this system as thus our whole being; the place where the upper and lower man meet and metamorphose, is the heart.

To be grounded in one´s heart means not to forget and loose the higher nor the lower aspect of our being, and this is what constitutes the heart of our moral life and mission. The heart enables us not to steer away from earthly life, experience and duties, nor to forget and loose the conscience and moral responsibility for our higher being, for the higher Self of Humanity that we carry within us. The heart Steiner tells us, is in reality an organ of perception: it perceives the balance and moral conscience towards our own human existence. It is the seat and organ of conscience, of moral creativity in our life. It is only the heart that can truly “understand” the open meaning of existential riddles; Why are we here? What is my task in this life, and what can I do (or not do) in order to contribute creatively to the Good for humanity in the cosmos?

In daily talk we use the expression “listen to your heart”, and this points to a listening Rembrandt Saint-Matthew-Angelkind of thinking which is in contact with our conscience, and which feels responsible for the judgements we make, for ourselves and our fellow humans and the earth.

When we connect our feeling heart with thinking, thinking acquires a slower, warmer and more listening quality that helps us not lose ourselves in intellectual speculations and abstractions. If we don´t forget to listen to our heart in our active life, we re-member our moral responsibility into the will-part of the soul. In the physiological system that generates the possibility for physical action and will-life on the earth – in the metabolism and sexual instincts – live the most powerful forces of procreation and destruction. If these will-forces emancipate themselves totally from the heart and wholeness of our being, they become pure desire, instinct and life without conscience, and the path can be opened to form a new human being by in which the will is connected directly to the pole of dead consciousness, leading eventually into very dark regions. The heart is the healing organ also of this complete forgetfulness the spirit.

If the nerve-sense system creates a consciousness that lives in images without real being, and if in the metabolic-movement system there is pure actualization of being without consciousness, then the rhythmic system brings the one into contact with the other such that being and consciousness can be united without losing our freedom. Here lives a dreamy consciousness of the will-activity in thinking and perception, and a dreamy consciousness of the moral quality or signature of our actions.

We thus have:

  • Thinking – nerve and sensory system; awake, but consciousness without “Being”
  • Feeling – rhythmic system; dream-like consciousness of balance, harmony and healing
  • Will – metabolic processes; no awareness but full actualization of Being as becoming

It is the living element of the heart, as the central organ of the rhythmic system, that can listen to the deeper truth of our thoughts, as well as discover the secret life-element of thinking, as was touched upon briefly above. It is the heart that perceives the greater wholeness and connections that our actions belong to. As Steiner says, the heart is an organ of our fate, it feels the consequences of our actions, what we will have to do in the future as fulfillment of our destiny and debt to the world. If we would be able with our thinking to listen deeply enough to the heart, we would hear the melody of our life and perceive the mission we are on. The heart shows us the golden path towards ourselves in the world.

With every step you take, a metabolic exchange takes place. That metabolism is not merely a chemical process to be investigated with the tools of physiology and chemistry. It is colored by moral considerations while carrying a moral nuance. That moral nuance is actually stored in the heart and carried over into the next incarnation… The heart system, as an organ, is connected to the elements of warmth. It is constructed entirely from warmth elements. Thus, this element, which is the most spiritual, is also the element that gathers up the karmic material into these uncommonly fine structures of warmth, which we also have in our “warmth organism”.

When you look into your heart, you are able to perceive rather well what you will undertake in your next life. You can see only traces, of course – not a fully executed likeness. One can thus say, and not only in general, in abstracto: what will take place karmically in the next life is prepared in this life. One can practically point out the volume [in The Book of Life] in which the karma is worked out for the time to come. (Rudolf Steiner, GA 205, quoted from Selg The Mystery of the Heart page 97f)

Steiner etheric heart.jpg