An Expanded View of Nutrition
Anthroposophy, which means the knowledge of man, also known as spiritual science, was inaugurated by Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925). Anthroposophy comes from the European culture, as Steiner was an Austrian philosopher, and it builds on the spiritual teachings of the East. Steiner was actively involved in spiritual research, giving lectures, writing books and laying the foundation for many practical arts. His work was the original inspiration for the Waldorf school movement, biodynamic agriculture, Anthroposophic medicine, eurythmy and more. The international center of the Anthroposophical Society is in Dornach, Switzerland and the American society is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Rudolf Steiner Library in Ghent, NY offers a wealth of related books, manuscripts and resources.
Anthroposophy offers a path for cultivating spiritual-sensing faculties that begins with building forces of attention, equanimity and an attitude of wonder and gratitude. Daily exercises and practices are given to help awaken faculties that otherwise lay dormant. From his spiritual investigations, Steiner gave far-reaching insights into the evolution of humanity and human consciousness, the evolution of the other natural kingdoms, reincarnation and karma.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Stella Natura 2003, a planting guide published by the Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association.
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“Live with it.” This is the advice I have often received from others with regard to making sense of the insights coming from Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual research.1 Steiner’s descriptions often seem so “otherworldly” as compared to the common understanding of the physical world. And, in fact, they are so precisely because that is our true nature: to embody spirit from the “otherworldly” realm within this physical being of ours.
When it comes to the topic of nutrition, Steiner encompasses the broadest imaginable scope and looks at the effects of food not only on our health but also on our thinking and on our capacity to develop higher spiritual faculties.He speaks of a form of nourishment that we take in from the cosmos in conjunction with our taking in of foodstuffs, our earthly form of nutrition.We owe the building up of our body’s form and substance to the co-working of these two nutritional streams, the cosmic and the earthly.
A cosmic, non-food nutritional stream? To me this was, and is, an amazing thought, and yet I find that it completes what I was taught about nutrition at Cornell University. I have lifted out some aspects of this bigger picture of nutrition as found in anthroposophic writings and share them here with the hope that others will be similarly inspired to take up a study of this subject.
The living realm which encompasses plants, animals and humans, proceeds according to the laws of life.A strictly chemistry or physics-based approach can help explain some of the mechanisms of growth and nutrition.However, to more fully approach the dynamics of the life process, a “living thinking” - one that works in pictures and movement - as opposed to abstract formulas and molecular models is beneficial.Goethe’s work with plants, based on observing and then reconstructing the image in your mind, is one example of this method.In my opinion, one of the most strenuous mental-imaging workouts you can get is to follow the nutrition theme as it is presented in morsels here and there in Steiner’s lectures and books. I regret that there was no persistent nutritionist tugging at Steiner’s sleeve to request a lecture cycle devoted specifically to the cosmic and earthly nutritional streams.
One of the most gratifying aspects of working with this question is that it has given me a better understanding of Anthroposophy in general.I have to continually apply the basic anthroposophical concepts and make these more active and alive in me.
For instance, our nutrition needs to be considered within the context of the fourfold anthroposophical “anatomy” of the human being:physical body, etheric (life) body, astral (soul) body, and ego organization. Not only is our physical body involved in nutrition, but the unique nature of our etheric body is that it lives in communion with the world ether.The world ether includes the specific warmth, light, chemical and life ethers, which correspond to the four elements of the ancients - fire, air, water, and earth.According to Steiner, the ethers stream in through the sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, skin) and through our breathing.2 This ethereal cosmic stream of nutrition builds up the substance of our bodies, yet it is dependent on the quality (forces) of the earthly nutrition, or food, in order to be distributed throughout our body.This condensing of ethers into human substance is dependent on the vitality of the food we eat.
Now lets describe the earthly stream of nutrition.What really happens to our food once it has been fully digested in the intestines and is then absorbed and becomes part of our interior?(If you consider our gastrointestinal tract to be a part of the exterior world that runs through us, the gut lining is considered our inner “skin”.)Steiner speaks of how food from each of the three kingdoms — mineral, plant, and animal – must be brought to its respective transformed state in us.In this sense, we provide the means for these kingdoms to evolve within our human metabolism.For example, the minerals that we consume are raised to the warmth ether state and then can be imbued with higher spiritual influences.
“…this mineral substance enters into man.Within man, passing through the fluid state, and so on, it is transformed into warmth ether.This warmth ether has a strong disposition to absorb into itself what radiates inwards, streams inwards, as forces from world spaces.Thus it takes into itself the forces of the universe.And these forces of the universe now become the spiritual forces which here imbue warmth-etherized earthly matter with spirit.And only then, with the help of this warmth-etherized earthly substance, does there enter into the body what the body needs to take shape and form.”3
Upon absorption, the earthly stream of nutrition is at first raised to a higher state of energy, it is rarified in the course of metabolism.To gain a sense of this change of state in the human being it may be helpful to think of the potentizing process used in making homeopathic medicines.In potentization, as the measurable substance is rhythmically diluted, the active, living essence of the substance is brought out. And so with our food after absorption, the earthly food is sublimated to a state of a higher order. It becomes “energetic.” However, we need to have the inner strength to accomplish this. (In the first years of life the organism is not fully prepared to raise the minerals to warmth, and so salt rightly plays only a small part in the diet of the young child. Infant formulas with inorganic mineral additives most certainly tax the metabolism.)At the level of warmth ether, the creative spiritual beings who work into the living world can join their activity with this “etherized mineral.” They bring the form-principle needed to begin the forming of new human substance.Only after the mineral element has been raised to this higher state can it meet what comes from the cosmic nutrition stream and then result in the forming of individual human substance.Again and again does Steiner stress just how unique our human substance is, how utterly different, for example, the calcium of our bones is from the calcium found in outer nature, due to the fact that it is “humanized.” What goes on inside us is so very different from how substances work outside!
Another pictorial key to the cosmic nutrition stream in humans is to be found in Steiner’s description of the two-fold streaming within the plant (lecture two of his Agricultural Course).The cosmic influences stream in from the universe. They are received through the silica in the earth, penetrate the roots, and then radiate upward in the plant. The earthly factor originates in the plant processes above ground and is then drawn down via the calcium (limestone) in the soil.This picture of the vertical descending and ascending streams of cosmic and earthly forces in the plants provide a framework to apply to the nutritional process in human beings.This is where the mental gymnastics come in.Rudolf Steiner explains that the human being has an inverse relation to the plant. (We can imagine a flowering carrot plant growing in the ground and a human being turned upside-down next to it). The processes in the root relate to our head in a functional way, and the seed-forming processes in the upper plant relate to our lower body, while the leafy part of the plant relates to our chest and rhythmic system.
Thus we can see the twofold streaming in humans. From above to below (in gross terms) is the stream of cosmic ethers, entering via the senses and the breath, becoming densified or condensed into the substance of our limbs and metabolic organs. From below to above is the stream of our food that has gone through digestion and then is raised up to a higher state (the warmth ether in the case of the minerals).Steiner indicates that it is the vitality of forces in our food that helps to drive this cosmic/ether stream of substance into our limbs and digestive organs. In this context, one can see the important contribution of the biodynamic preparations as a means of enhancing the vitality of the soil and the plants which are grown for food.The question is, does our food provide us with the forces we need to resonate with the cosmos, or is it just filling us up?
1. Just recently I have come across Steiner’s own advice to do the same: “…the meaningfulness of our judgments most of all requires the sound basis of maturity. We discover that we have to “live with” an idea we have received for a while so that our etheric body can come to terms with it before we form a judgment we ourselves can affirm.” fromThe Effects of Esoteric Development, Anthroposophic Press 1997, page 102.
2.see these references by Rudolf Steiner:Agriculture Course, lecture 8, June 16, 1924;Manas Symphony of the Creative Word, lectures 10, 11, Pastoral Medicine, lecture 7, The Bridge between Universal Spirituality and the Physical Constitution of Man, December 17, 1920
3. R. Steiner, Man as Symphony of the Creative Word, p. 165.
Betsy Cashen studied nutrition at Cornell University and has been a practicing dietitian since 1986, working in both conventional and anthroposophical settings.She also spent several years making a livelihood as co-manager of a biodynamic farm.Currently she contracts with the Early Intervention Program to do nutrition education in the home for families with young children with developmental delays. She lives in Claverack, NY. If you want to send her a message, use the Satya Center contact us form.
Note: Photo of Betsy and Drawing of the western Chakra System Zones in the Body by Jane Sherry, Satya Center Founder.