The physical and etheric bodies, when separated from the higher members, have the opportunity to replenish themselves.
The ego and astral bodies exit and enter in rhythmic patterns throughout the night.
What an interesting phenomenon happens every night. Darkness descends, activity decreases, and most of the human beings fall asleep, floating freely somewhere above this world in a land of vivid images and quiet transformations. I have often pondered upon this fascinating human experience and wondered why we spent half of our lives in an unconscious state. While natural science provided some small explanations, it was not until I encountered the teachings of Rudolf Steiner that I actually began to grasp the importance of sleep.
Esoteric Physiology of Sleep
Steiner asserts that the human is a four-fold being made up of a physical body, associated with the mineral world, an etheric body associated with the plant kingdom, an astral body that is represented by our animal nature, and and ego or I that is our spirit self. The physical and the etheric are often referred to as the lower members, and the astral and the ego as the higher members.
Our higher members bring increased consciousness into our organism. The more we are exposed to, and work with, the higher members throughout our lifetime, the more our consciousness increases and the wiser and more spiritualized we become. These higher members are also in charge of chiseling and structuring our body and organs. While some shape and structure is essential, too much of this breaking down gesture causes hardening, sclerosis, and depletion of the physical bodies and the organs. That is because the higher members have a breaking down effect upon the physical body. This is why when we are young and less conscious, our bodies are soft and juicy; as we age, after increased cumulative exposure to the higher members, we become harder and more sclerotic, depleted and more illness prone. We trade increased consciousness for the price of youth and resilience.
Since the activity of our higher members is taxing on our physical and etheric bodies, we need some sort of regulation. We need to allow an anabolic, or building up process for the physical and etheric to regenerate. In order for this to happen, the lower members need a break from the higher members. Sleep is one of the main activities of the human organism that allows for this regeneration to happen.
When we fall asleep, our higher members (the astral and the ego) detach and go back into the spiritual world to renew. The etheric body is left with the physical body in order that it may keep it alive. If the etheric body detached, our physical body would die. The physical and etheric bodies, when separated from the higher members, have the opportunity to replenish themselves. This separation is necessary in order for all our bodies to be able to renew themselves. If we don’t sleep, or don’t sleep sufficiently, the higher members continue to work continuously on our physical and etheric bodies, wearing them down. Furthermore, the home of the astral and ego bodies is in the spiritual world, and this separation allows the higher members to resource as well, by allowing them to return to their home.
However, this separation only happens in our thinking pole: the brain, the nervous system, the skin, and the bones. In our will pole the higher members dive deeper into the metabolism and circulation, where they work in a widespread way to help restore the etheric and the physical of our entire body.
Therefore, we need sleep so all our bodies can regenerate: astral and ego by separating from our head and going back to the spiritual world, physical and etheric by remaining here on earth (without the drain of the higher members). In our metabolism, the higher members dive deeper in, to build and restore our bodies from the inside out.
The Stages of Sleep
From an external scientific observation of the natural processes, sleep is divided into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. The cycle starts with non-REM sleep followed by REM sleep and each period lasts about ninety minutes. These sleep cycles are rhythmically repeated three to six times during the night in what is called a ultradian pattern.
During non-REM sleep the heart rate and breathing decrease, blood pressure drops, and brain activity is significantly reduced. Non-REM sleep has three stages: N1, N2, and N3.
Stage N1 is falling asleep. Brain waves and muscle activity decrease; people might experience muscle jerks during this period. We suspect this is the stage when the higher members pass fairly quickly through the etheric body on their way out to the spiritual realm.
Stage N2 is a period of light sleep without eye movements. Brain waves are generally slower and muscles are relaxed. These periods are intermixed with spurts of rapid brain waves and increased muscle tone.
Stage N3 is characterized by slow brain activity with the presence of delta waves interspersed with smaller, faster waves. Blood pressure, breathing, and temperature drop even lower and the body is immobile. This is the deepest sleep, when it is difficult to awaken someone and children might wet their bed. This is also the most restorative sleep and likely corresponds with as much of a complete separation of the higher members as we can experience in a healthy state.
During REM sleep, there is intense brain activity; rapid, irregular, and shallow breathing; rapid eye movement; and increased heart rate and blood pressure. In the anthroposophical context, these are all signs of intense astral activity. However, the body and limb muscles become paralyzed. The paralysis indicates that the ego is disconnected from the limbs. The ego and astral bodies exit and enter in rhythmic patterns throughout the night. Dreaming indicates that the astral has re-entered through the etheric either on the way in or on the way out, but the ego is still not fully connected. This is reminiscent of dreams when one tries to walk or run, but the physical body does not cooperate.
Steiner, in a lecture given in Dornach on March 24th, 1922, spoke about the Three Stages of Sleep. These three stages are similar to the thinking, feeling, and willing of the waking life, but they are three states belonging to the night consciousness. These are cosmic imagination, cosmic inspiration, and cosmic intuition.
In the first state of night consciousness, cosmic imagination, one can remember dreams. Dreams represent the inner drama through which the soul passes. These dreams are made of cosmic formative forces behind the dream that clothe themselves in pictures (which are taken from ordinary consciousness). These dreams are formed when the astral body passes through the etheric (either upon leaving or entering), as upon awakening. This first realm of cosmic thoughts during sleep corresponds to the thinking aspect of the threefold waking experience, as this stage of sleep is mostly concerned with the experiences of waking consciousness. I suspect it represents what natural scientists define as REM sleep and light non-REM sleep.
In the second state of night consciousness, cosmic inspiration, human beings are concerned with a world that is common both to the body and the soul. This occurs when (in the space between when dreams fade away and before they rise up again) a certain feeling occurs. This coming and going of the dream stage creates a harmonious rhythmic process that allows us to tap into a feeling space between where the cosmic music of the spheres occurs. This is the realm of the spiritual beings who guide and direct the world out of the spirit; the cosmic music represents the deeds of the higher beings. This second stage of sleep, the world of the revelation of the spiritual cosmic beings, correlates with the feeling stage of threefold waking life and probably the N2 stage of non-REM sleep.
In the third state of night consciousness, cosmic intuition, there are no dreams. Of this condition one has no awareness except that upon awakening one feels one has slept well or not. This is of great significance to the human being; for in this stage, something within the human being has become mineral (the salts of the body are especially strongly deposited in the physical body). Further, this third stage of deep sleep is so essential to our physical health as it correlates with the fact that this is when growth hormone is secreted (which in turn helps calcium form and maintain the bones). In this state of sleep, the higher members entirely lift out of the physical body and live within the spiritual world itself; we then live inside the spiritual beings. As a consequence, without the presence of the ego within the nervous system and the bones in our lower bodies, our physical bodies can restore their most mineral nature.
Sleep and Chinese Medicine
Our bodies function on a circadian rhythm that is related to the sun and the planets. These rhythmic patterns have since long been recognized in multiple cultures. Chinese medicine related the times of the day with the function of the organs (from a Chinese medicine understanding of organs as opposed to western modern medical understanding). According to Chinese medicine, let us begin in the evening. From five to seven o’clock is the regeneration time; it is the time to eat dinner and rest, but also the time when our body stores nutrients and makes bone marrow. Seven to nine o’clock is the time related to the pericardium of the heart, when we are supposed to be social and connect with other people. This is the time for socializing with friends or family time. At nine o’clock we move into a time for transition, when our temperature changes and melatonin starts to be secreted, preparing us for sleep. This is the time to relax, read, and unwind. Eleven o’clock takes us into the gallbladder time, according to Chinese Medicine, the time to rest. The gallbladder also oversees how we manage stress in our life, so if the gallbladder is overtaxed (from managing too much stress), it might be difficult for us to fall asleep. At one o’clock in the morning we enter into liver time. This is the time when much blood flows into the brain to regenerate this organ. That is why this could be a time of great creativity. Many wonderful literary pieces are composed during this time. However, that is done at the expense of nourishment for our brain. When done repeatedly, it depletes our brain and can lead to ailments like dementia in old age. From an anthroposophic perspective, if our higher members continue to imbue our physical and etheric bodies during this time of night, yes, we might come up with wonderful creations of our increased consciousness, but at the expense of depletion of the lower members. If we overdo it, this increased activity of the higher members leads to sclerosis in the physical body: hence dementia occurs as we age if we don’t respect the balance (dementia can be a result of sclerosis of blood vessels in the brain and atrophy of the brain).
By three o’clock in the morning, we move from liver time to lung time. At this time, if our liver has been taxed and did not get the needed nourishment and resourcing, we tend to wake up. From an anthroposophic perspective, when an organ is damaged for any reason, the astral body unites more intensely with that organ, trying to repair it. Therefore, if a more intense union of the astral with the lower members exists in an organ, like the liver, it hinders its detachment from the physical and etheric, which is necessary for sleep. We can address this three o’clock awakening with an anthroposophic remedy that nourishes the liver, called Hepatodoron. Yarrow compresses over the liver are also helpful.
Lung time, from three to five o’clock in the morning is a time when our temperature drops to its lowest. The lung is the organ that is associated with the mineral kingdom, the earth, the physical body, and the furthest from the warmth organism (which comes from spirit). Five to seven o’clock brings us into the large intestine time, according to Chinese medicine. This is the ideal time to wake up, drink warm water (mostly processed by the large intestine in the digestive tract) and have a bowel movement. Seven to nine o’clock in the morning is stomach time, time for a hearty breakfast. This is also the best time to exercise. Upon awakening our higher members come back into the lower body. However, this incarnation process starts with the feet. Steiner talks about how it takes the entire day for us to incarnate into our head, since we start with our feet and gradually work our way up to the head. That is why, exercising (which is an incarnating process) early in the morning, helps us be more awake in our heads earlier and therefore perform better in our daily activities.
If we have rested and digested our food well (and we have exercised), we can have a productive morning. After lunch, our energy dips naturally again. In many cultures, this is a time to have a siesta. At three o’clock in the afternoon we have another small surge of productivity. However, if we have not rested well, or are not able to slow down and digest our food after lunch, three o’clock brings a lot of fatigue. This can be a time when many people reach for chocolate or a second cup of coffee or tea. This afternoon fatigue indicates that our circadian rhythm is out of balance, likely from too much stress. By supporting the gallbladder( the organ that manages stress and the circadian rhythm), we can help with the afternoon fatigue. This is when we often use an anthroposophic remedy for the gallbladder. However, while the remedies can help balance the liver and gallbladder (and support our circadian rhythm), if our lifestyle continuously overrides this rhythm, the remedies will only be minimally effective; we can’t fill a leaking jug.
Detriments Associated with Lack of Sleep
Most sleep experts recommend seven to nine hours of sleep daily. The average American adult gets about six point nine hours of sleep each night. Unfortunately, people who don’t get adequate sleep lose their ability to determine the effects that sleep deprivation has on their ability to function; sleep deprivation causes lack of insight into the fact that one is sleep deprived. Studies show that individuals who only slept four to five hours per night for a few days had decreased cognitive ability, worse behavior, decreased metabolism, and a less responsive autonomic system.
When we don’t get enough sleep, the physical body becomes taxed, and the aging process of hardening and sclerosis moves in much faster. While we can’t claim sleep is the fountain of youth, sleep deprivation is associated with faster aging, stroke, diabetes, depression, heart diseases, hypertension, cancer, PTSD, anxiety, kidney disease, dementia, and obesity. Adults who sleep less than seven and seven tenths hours nightly tend to be more overweight. This is because lack of sleep results in decreased production of hormones, that cause satiety and increased level of hormones that cause hunger. Lack of sleep also affects the ability of our immune system to work correctly. If we consider the physiologic and esoteric explanations above, we gain a deeper understanding why lack of sleep is so detrimental to our physical and spiritual bodies.
Approximately thirty to forty percent of adults have some form of insomnia in any given year and ten to fifteen percent of the US population has chronic insomnia. Insomnia is characterized by repeated difficulty falling asleep (longer than thirty minutes), decreased sleep duration, sleep interrupted by multiple awakenings, and poor sleep quality (despite adequate time and opportunity for sleep), all of which can result in daytime impairment.
Difficulty sleeping could be due to not having the right temperature in our environment, too much stimulation, or eating a heavy meal before bedtime. Being too cold (someone who has persistently cold hands and feet) can prevent the astral and the ego from detaching themselves because they are trying too hard to heat up the body. A well-insulated mattress, extra blankets, a hot bath before bed, and a warm water bottle on the feet or belly all could help. Excessive heat, hunger, low blood sugar, or excess food are other causes of disturbed sleep. A big meal can make us sleepy, but it will also prevent us from sleeping. That is because after a big meal we need to call down from the head and into our digestion those forces of the higher members geared towards breaking down the food. However, the increased presence of these members in the digestion, makes it harder for them to detach from the lower body in order for sleep to happen. Furthermore, eating a dinner heavy with protein will require even more work of the higher members, making it yet more difficult for them to separate. Protein also prevents our cortisol levels from dipping before bedtime. Under normal circumstances, cortisol levels dip at bedtime and rise slowly during the night; this helps us fall asleep at night and be more alert and energized in the morning.
Therefore, having good sleep habits can help ensure a good night’s sleep. As indicated above, eating a light dinner and providing the right temperature for our sleeping environment are important. Other good practices include no caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol consumption after four o’clock in the evening; using the bedroom only for sleep and sex; no exercising within two to three hours before bedtime; keeping pets out of the bedroom; and maintaining a bedtime routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time everyday (including weekends). One of my favorite bedtime routines is a warm cup of tea made with an assortment of calming herbs: chamomile, passionflower, valerian, lavender, hops, etc. One can find such a concoction in most herb shops or buy a pre-made tea in most supermarkets.
One type of sleep disorder falls under the title Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome. This is characterized by a circadian rhythm sleep disorder of those who go to bed late and wake up late, resulting in daytime fatigue, insomnia, and daytime functional impairments. From an anthroposophic medicine perspective, this is more likely to occur when in certain individuals (because of their constitution) the union of the higher members in the thinking pole is too intense as this makes it more difficult for the astral and the ego to detach for sleep. Thinking activates at night for individuals with this syndrome. In the morning, the thinking is still active, but the ideas are scattered and the individuals are clumsy because they are not able to wake up in their will pole. This syndrome may be socially reinforced by culture and the use of media at night. Conventionally, this is treated with melatonin at bedtime and bright light therapy in the morning. With anthroposophic medicine, we can also use phosphorus as a treatment. Phosphorus is a light bringer. In low potencies, it can help in the morning with awakening by helping the ego incarnate deeper. At high potencies, it has the opposite effect; it helps draw the ego out into the cosmic spaces.
When anxiety seems to be the predominating cause of insomnia, Bryophyllum is the recommended therapy. One can find this by itself at True Botanica and in combination with other remedies at Uriel Pharmacy. When the anxiety manifests with symptoms in the rhythmic system, such as palpitations and trouble breathing, Cardiodoron from Weleda or Primula Onopordon from Uriel might be the appropriate remedy.
Many people resort to hypnotic prescription drugs to help treat their insomnia. While these can provide some temporary relief, they are also associated with tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms (such as rebound insomnia when the drug is stopped). Weaning off these sedatives can be helped with the use of a wonderful sleep formula that contains oats, valerian, hops, passionflower, and coffee in a potentized form (homeopathic) from Weleda, called Avena Sativa comp. In this case, coffee (Coffea 6x) in its potentized formulation has the opposite effect of the well-known form of coffee. It is indicated for people with mental hyperactivity with many fleeting thoughts.
Other types of anthroposophic therapies can also help with sleep difficulties. Therapeutic eurythmy exercises bring balance to the thinking, feeling, and willing poles so that the higher members can be exhaled out with more ease at bedtime. There are also specific eurythmy exercises that help with sleep. Rhythmical massage is an excellent antidote for stress and it can strengthen the etheric body, so the astral body does not have to hold on so tightly. Anthroposophic nursing therapies such as a form of massage (Rhythmical Einreibung) and compresses can work on the different organs (or treat the physical and etheric as indicated for each individual) in order to improve sleep.
Sleep is one of the most important activities in our lives, both for our physical and spiritual well-being. Sleep is a rhythmic process, both in the way we alternate sleep with waking cycles, but also within the sleep itself. During sleep, our physical bodies recover down to the innermost mineral and cellular level and our spiritual members return to their spiritual home inside the higher beings of the cosmos. While sleep difficulties trouble many people, anthroposophic medicine can offer many individualized treatments for these conditions.
- Ramar and Olson,. Management of Common Sleep Disorders, American Family Physician (2013 Aug 15: 231-238).
- Bott, Victor, An Introduction to Anthroposophic Medicine, Sophia Books(Rudolf Steiner Press, 2004).
- Steiner, Rudolf, An Outline of Occult Science, Chapter 3. Sleep and Death.
- Colten HR and Altevogt BM (ed.), Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem, (Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2006).
- Steiner, Rudolf. Second Medical Course (April 12, 1921).
- Steiner, Rudolf, Three Stages of Sleep (March 24, 1922).
- True Botanica Pharmacy. www.truebotanica.com
- Uriel Pharmacy. www.urielpharmacy.com
- Weleda Pharmacy. https://www.weleda.com/body/wellness
Daciana Iancu, MD is an anthroposophic internal medicine physician in Sebastopol, California. www.AnthroSonoma.com. She is a member of Physician’s Association for Anthroposophic Medicine (PAAM) https://paam.wildapricot.org and a board member for Association of Anthroposophic Medicine and Therapies in America (AAMTA) https://aamta.wildapricot.org/ .
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