Affirming the human being – Nurturing the soul – Trusting the body
The conference title of the World Teachers' Conference 2023 «Affirming – Nurturing – Trusting, an Education for Today and Tomorrow» from a new perspective.
Thou hast given me a body,
Wherein the glory of thy power shineth,
Wonderfully composed above the beasts,
Within distinguished into useful parts,
Beautified without with many ornaments.
Limbs rarely poised,
And made for Heaven:
With celestial spirits:
Veins wherein blood floweth,
Refreshing all my flesh,
Sinews fraught with the mystery
Of wonderful strength,
These words were written nearly 400 years ago, by the metaphysical poet and priest, Thomas Traherne. Born in Hereford, he lived just 37 years before his death, in London, in 1674.
We tend to take for granted the idea that, as human beings, we each have a body – a physical, material, visible body – a body that is synonymous with life, and inseparable from who we are. Yet, the body-mind partnership has been a subject of philosophical debate and argument for centuries.
In his lectures on education, Steiner identified the primary educational task of bringing «the Soul-Spirit into harmony with the Life-Body.» [ii] This statement moves beyond the body-mind framework, indicating a richer and more differentiated picture of the human being.
In searching for a contemporary expression of this partnership between the living body and the soul-spirit, there is a degree of resonance in a statement made by Jean-Dominique Bauby (1952-97): «I am alive, I can think, and no one has the right to deny me these two realities.» [iii]
Bauby was a journalist who, at the age of 43, suffered a catastrophic cerebrovascular seizure. He was in a deep coma for 20 days. When he woke up, he was locked-in, unable to ‘do’ anything, except blink his left eyelid. Over the course of two months, assisted by an intrepid speech therapist, Bauby wrote, or blinked a memoir. He died of pneumonia two days after the book – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – was published.
For much of his life, Bauby had sentience. Then, he lost just about all of it. Yet his consciousness remained alight, and his life continued to flicker. The ebb and flow of life, the light of thinking – these were the fundaments, the essence of Bauby’s existence, after his life of sensation was more or less snuffed out.
Three more pictures: When I go to visit my mother, 92 years-old with advanced Alzheimer’s, much of the visit consists of her enquiring which day of the week it is. The question might be asked 2 or 3 times a minute. Another theme is her trying to figure out whether anyone else is coming that day. It took me some time to realise that although my mother is always happy to see me, she thinks I am one of the agency carers, and so she is simply trying to establish how many more visits will happen that day. Recently, my sister and I made a joint visit, and my mother was surprised that there were two of us. Of course, the team of carers usually turn up one at a time, and never as a duo! When we asked her, she matter-of-factly declared that she had a daughter and a son, yet she had lost the connection between the people standing in front of her, and her ‘present’ memories of her children.
At the other end of the scale of life, my newest grandchild is just about 4 months old. On recent visits, he has begun to smile and gurgle when I pick him up. Then he might just crash out or spend some time reaching out and grabbing hold of one of my thumbs, as I rock around the room, my body retrieving memories of the old, and sometimes trusted, rhythms. He doesn’t have much memory – how could he? – but he is all-sentience!
In September 2021, there was a report in the Hindustan Times about the death of a 14-year-old boy in Pakistan. Having performed some extremely dangerous stunts as a street performer since the age of 10, including walking over red-hot coals and lacerating his arms with knives, his life ended when he jumped off a roof. Congenital insensitivity to pain is a rare genetic condition, present from birth. Essentially, the person affected lacks the ability to perceive physical pain in the body. [iv]
In general parlance, the term ‘body’ is straightforward at first glance and then, on further consideration, the concept begins to grow in complexity and richness. Likewise the mind, or cognition. In dictionaries, ‘body’ derives from a notion of the ‘main part’, or something that is essentially material. Yet, in a car manufacturing plant, the body of the car is not regarded as the whole car, while Beethoven’s body of work can take on a visible format, although, essentially, his music is not material.
Rather than closing down the idea of body as something contained, material, fixed and self-evident, a broader sense of body includes the concepts of form, part, field and layer. The term ‘body’ can infer a totality, but it can also point to constituents of an integrated whole, as the Greek seers and philosophers indicated with concepts of the four elements and the four humours. Steiner incorporated these insights and understandings into his research into the nature of the human being and the world.
In recent decades, the question of whether the mind needs a body has begun to re-emerge in the context of robotics, cybernetics and AI. In terms of incorporating technology to assist and enhance the body, humanity has been on this journey for some time. We only have to think of the technology of spectacles, hearing aids, prosthetic limbs to see that technical additions, replacements and enhancements have been part of human culture for centuries. One of the first pair of glasses on record were made in 1284 by Salvino D'Armate in Italy.
One line of argument goes like this: the body, in its ‘natural’ state, is moving towards its sell-by date; it’s clunky and needs a lot of care and maintenance. We barely bat an eyelid about ‘early’ forms of augmentation, such as pacemakers, laser vision-correcting procedures and cochlea implants. Emerging technologies – for example, robotic structures called exoskeletons [v] – will continue to extend and augment human senses and bodily activities. In the future, the relationship between the body and consciousness will loosen, and technology – cybernetics – will increasingly supplant the activities of the living body. The body is becoming less relevant to our existence, it may even become an encumbrance. In other words, the body is becoming a little anachronistic. In terms of its function as a vehicle or tool for consciousness, it lacks the sophistication of emerging technologies and is an inferior vessel for hosting the bandwidth of future-thinking.
Is there a line or a border between supporting, enhancing and restoring sensation – feeling, sense perception – and by-passing it altogether? In other words, will it be possible, one day, to upload the human brain, the human mind, human consciousness to some kind of ‘cloud’, or personalised data-hub? For now, there seems to be considerable scepticism and doubt concerning such a prospect. In a recent piece in The Conversation [vi], cognitive neuro-scientist Guillaume Thierry surveys the extraordinary, ‘jaw-dropping’ capacities and complexities of the human brain, and then returns to the mysterious riddle of life:
«Living things such as humans and animals exist because they are alive. You may think that I just stated something utterly trivial, verging on stupidity, but if you think about it there is more to it than meets the eye. A living mind receives input from the world through the senses. It is attached to a body that feels based on physical sensations. This results in physical manifestations such as changes in heart rate, breathing and sweating, which in turn can be felt and contribute to the inner experience. How would this work for a computer without a body?»
His interim conclusion is framed by two foundational questions: «Without interaction with the world, however subtle and unconscious, how could the mind function even for a minute? And how could it evolve and change? If the mind, artificial or not, has no input or output, then it is devoid of life, just like a dead brain.»
In another paper, addressing the question, Does the Mind Need a Body? co-author Alex McKeown [vii] argues that: «It is easy to overlook the role of embodiment and assume that the only component that is essential for moral status is mental sophistication.» He stresses that, in partnership with what is termed ‘mental sophistication’, embodiment plays a fundamental role in enabling «a person to self-reflect, have ideas and plans that are focused on the future, develop values, and be aware of personal drives, desires, and so forth.» At the root of considerations about the living, physical body, and the vital, connecting link between the ‘outer’ world – the world of things and phenomena – and the hidden, inner world of mind and lived experience are the senses.
The human being is sensible. We talk about ‘coming to my senses’, common sense, nonsense and making sense. If I lose my senses, I am deprived of the means by which I meet the world.Our senses, our sensory organs are like doors and windows. They open us to the world and also, close off and limit our experiences of the world. They permit layers and aspects of what we call reality; they also filter out, or fend off unknown dimensions and levels of reality, if that is not too oxymoronic a notion!
Via our sensitivity, our sentience, we eat the food of reality; we digest the world and are nourished through our senses. Sentience provides capacity for the life of the soul and enables the soul to experience outer phenomena inwardly. Activity, relationships and life itself are the flowers and the fruits of sensibility.
The poet and naturalist, Diane Ackerman [viii] put it like this, «The mind doesn’t really dwell in the brain, but travels the whole body on caravans of hormone and enzyme, busily making sense of the compound wonders we catalogue as touch, taste, smell, hearing, vision.» Put succinctly, we explore, get to know, and understand the world through our bodies and our bodily senses.
Many questions abound from the process of reflecting on the human body and the in-dweller. It becomes a regenerative exercise in which questions blossom into some answers, but more likely than not, the answers generate new and further questions. Steiner contributed to this process with his observation that each human being is a species unto itself. [ix] The notion that the human being is a ‘whole’ event – an entire, integrated approach to life and learning deserves deep and far-reaching thinking by educators and policymakers.
In the 21st century, a sure path for humanity is pretty much the same as a path that parents, and educators can choose to tread. If we place our trust and our thankfulness in the body – its deep-lying wisdom, its «useful parts», its «strength, stability, feeling» – this is how, through activity, experience and curiosity, we can nourish the soul. And in nourishing the soul, in diverse ways, we affirm the human being and care for the future – of humankind, and the earth.
Turning back to where we started, the praise and thankfulness for the body – «limbs rarely posed» and the activity of the blood, that refreshes «all my flesh, like rivers» – expressed by Traherne four centuries ago, echo down the years. The mystery of the body as vessel, as home, as hub for my emerging humanity is expressed quite differently in these lines by the Zen monk from Viet Nam, Thich Nhat Hanh:
«This body is not me.
I am not limited by this body.
I am life without boundaries.
I have never been born,
and I have never died.» [x]
Thich Nhat Hanh passed away in January 2022, at the age of 95. In 2014, he had a stroke that left him unable to speak and paralysed in the right side of his body. In 2018, he moved back to his home in Viet Nam and spent the last 4 years of his life in a monastery. The body was left behind, the boundaries were slipped, the life of the soul took flight, and whereto the spirit?