New Series: The Spirit in Health

39coverBy Walter Alexander, LILIPOH Senior Editor
Issue: Spring 2005, SPRING CLEANING - Issue #39

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet

At LILIPOH we ascribe to a view of life, health and illness that’s spiritual at its core. But how does one recognize and trust that an approach to medicine is actually spiritual? You know those glossy magazine pharmaceutical ads with white-toothed models, both young and old trying to show off their zest (and lack of need for pharmaceuticals)? And for that matter, ads with the same cheesy smiles in the natural supplement and remedy ads, maybe a little toned down, beaming out to us: “Feel and act young forever, don’t miss the party, stay sexy till you’re 90?” All of these ads appeal to our very human wishes to avoid suffering, and to be attractive, accepted and even lovable. It’s a kind of materialism—understandable and apparently innocent in its intent, but materialism nonetheless. A health paradigm that just substitutes natural ingredients for chemicals but keeps up this kind of emotional manipulation is still steeped in materialism. Materialism in Birkenstocks. So what would constitute a health perspective free of delusive cultural obsessions? And how would it differ from what we’re accustomed to? In the LILIPOH series we’re introducing here, we want to explore these questions very seriously.

The acid test for spiritual medicine, Hamlet might say, is the thinking behind it, the picturing and understanding behind it. I remember a remarkable preface to a book (please forgive my not being able to remember the title or author) on Camphill, the spiritually-based movement for residential community care of “developmentally challenged” individuals. The intro author recounted an experience: he had been on some Camphill outing with a stop at an inn for a meal. In the dining room was an old upright piano, out of tune and missing some keys. Someone began to play, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, I think it was. Despite the out-of-tune piano and missing keys, the off-tones and melodic gaps, he could tell that the playing was by a fine musician, a true artist, and the piece, though compromised outwardly—well, it was unmistakably itself and magnificent still! All of which led him to think about the human beings cared for in the Camphill community. The standard view would be that they are somehow compromised, damaged or disabled. Not that the body as instrument is somehow flawed and the human beings inhabiting them are struggling to live and manifest through imperfect devices!

Something like this, though, emerges when we take into account an anthroposophical view of ourselves. It is a view that accepts the physical side of us, but sees us as not altogether identical with it. It sees us, at conception, as beginning a process of gradually incarnating from spiritual realms into the body we get from our parents through heredity. At birth the process of inhabiting the body is far from complete. Our growth and development ensue from the process and continue as we take hold more completely of our physical instrument and emerge more fully into the world. The analogy of the music, player and piano can be extended usefully to that of an orchestra. The analogy allows for problems. The conductor may be “out-to-lunch” or maybe is a bit overbearing or even tyrannical. The woodwinds may not be getting along with the double basses and the brass section may be too loud, and so on.

What’s important about this picture is that it extends the canvas of our thinking. The body is the field of action, an instrument engaged by an individuality. While the performance is the outcome, to really understand it you have to know something about the wood of the cello, the mood of the concert mistress, the temperament of the conductor and the composition being played, not to mention the composer!

Symptoms show up in the body, show up in combinations. Any good medical diagnostician, conventional or otherwise, when confronted with headache, clammy palms and general malaise knows that this group of “notes” can occur in countless compositions. He/she needs to know much more to diagnose and treat. With a physician working out of our spiritual paradigm, the orchestra analogy shows that an important aspect of the paradigm is its verticality. If the orchestra’s sound is off and the problem is with the conductor, you will not solve it by talking to the piccolo player. The orchestral society’s board of directors may need to get involved. On the other hand, the stage manager can remedy a squeaky chair. The principle is that a solution has to start from a level above the problem.

We are vertical in this sense. The mineral body, the part that decomposes and is given over to the earth when we die, is at the bottom. But above that we have a body that bears our life forces, the plant-like part of us (sometimes called the ether body). Above that is our “animal” nature with its awareness, higher sensitivities and powerful urges (the astral). Our most human part, the ego, stands above that (please disregard the sense of the word that includes “egotistical”).

Quentin McMullen, M.D., co-founder of the Rudolf Steiner Health Center in Ann Arbor, MI, in an interview, discussed disorders arising when the incarnation process is “misguided” and the astral body is unable to fully permeate an organ and therefore doesn’t recognize the organ as “self.” Here’s a snippet from that interview, a preview of the type of clinical vignettes we will include in future installments of this series.

LILIPOH: Allergies are a recognition problem?
QM: Yes. The astral body isn’t able to distinguish proper borders of the organ, the thyroid, for example. It says this thyroid doesn’t belong to my human body because it hasn’t made it its own. It seems foreign and what results then is autoimmune thyroid disease.

LILIPOH: And how do you treat that?
QM: The pedagogic law says that the therapist works on the next higher body, which in this case is the ego, or warmth organization. So you have to strengthen this warmth organization to boost the astral body’s ability to distinguish self from “not-self.” There are remedies that will help with that. Compared with conventional medicine, we work less with the chemical imbalances, but instead try to strengthen the field where the problem exists—then the situation tends to improve.

LILIPOH: Is there a reverse problem?
QM: Yes. It might occur that the astral body is interacting too deeply in an organ and bringing inflammation where there is no need for it.

LILIPOH: Hypersensitivity?
QM: Right. When the astral body is too sensitive, you get an inflammatory process—even chronic infection can come in secondarily. The allopath will treat the infection but ignore the problem with the astral body. We would so-to-speak tell the ego organization that your astral body is not acting appropriately and you need to do something about it. In acute thyroiditis, for example, the organ is cranking out thyroid hormone and you just get sick from it. We have to remove the thyroid from the circuit, relieve the organ of its task temporarily.

LILIPOH: How do you do that?
QM: We apply an external paste that quiets down the interaction with the astral body.

As this series proceeds, we’ll continue to explore this spiritual paradigm for health and healing. We’ll offer discussion of remedies and various adjunctive therapies including eurythmy and artistic therapies. Before I close this introduction, though, there is one more dimension that can’t be left out. Physicians who are committed to urging healthier lifestyles for their patients are prone to complain about the too substantial percentage who say in effect: “Doc, clean out those clogged arteries and give me some pills so I can keep eating all that cheesecake while parked for endless hours on the sofa in front of my large-screen TV.” While lifestyle abuse is admitted sometimes, illness is still seen as a meaningless inconvenience, or in other cases as a tragic misfortune.

Our paradigm has a different slant. Most of us know the tradition that the great Greek orator Demosthenes overcame his speech impediment and stammering by practicing his speeches with pebbles in his mouth. He took on an intentional obstacle to strengthen a capacity. The taking-on by an individuality of an imperfect or diseased instrument can be viewed as a misfortune or it can be seen as an intentional act, a taking-on of “pebbles for the soul” by the individuality for its own perfection. Illness or disability can then be seen as a task, a challenge to the soul to develop specific capacities in a particular life. And, with this view the challenges of illness and disability need to be seen in a larger social context (i.e., family, community, society), a very important and clearly related topic.

Please don’t ascribe to this outlook any undermining of the physician’s high mission of relieving suffering! And, please, also, don’t look at any analogies here, or at others we’re likely to employ as we speak with other physicians and therapists, as strict schemas or formulas. A true science of living beings needs equally living and multifaceted pictures. We’ll do our best. It promises to be an interesting journey.