If God’s is the world of creative power and ours the world of created objects, the Middle Kingdom is the land of LIFE that lies between them, serving as a bridge for their interaction. It extends wherever vital processes are going on: upwards into sunlight and the warmth-realm called troposphere, sidewise with the spreading flow of water, downwards into the dark depths of earth where roots grow and veins of metal run.
All education should be about strengthening, healing and, ultimately, learning. Learning to be who we fully need to be. The Steiner curriculum addresses these aspects through the main lesson and other specialist subjects. Working together, these lessons offer opportunities for each child to stretch every inner and outer muscle preparing him/her for the challenges of adulthood in an almost unseen manner.
Craft is one of these subjects. I have been looking closely at how and why craft, and indeed all-artistic activity, contributes to this picture. How it builds and strengthens what in Steiner terminology is called the etheric body.
Some children seem to have a naturally strengthened etheric body. They have energy for when it is appropriate and are weary and tired when the rhythms of the day slow down. They may have been born with this disposition, genetically strengthened and karmatically lucky. Others may have come bearing all sorts of crosses and burdens which can manifest as adjustment difficulties, learning and behavioural difficulties. Even so, each child needs either nourishment or healing to help maintain or strengthen his/her etheric body.
The etheric body, sometimes called the life body, is an invisible sheath which stands around the physical body. It is like a receptor of all influences which are then passes into the physical body. These etheric receptors fall into four categories: warmth, light, tone and life. These are known as the four ethers; the upper siblings of the four elements: fire, air, water, and earth. The ethers could be said to be the celestial siblings: the elements of the terrestrial. It is the interplay of these ethers and elements which create, maintain and finally destroy all life as we know it. Each of these has its own process and each of these four processes is part of a whole process. We could call this the process of creation.
The ether, however, do not act out of themselves. They receive their directions and impulses from the cosmic forces of the universe: the zodiac, the sun and moon, and other planetary monuments. These are captured through the etheric body, where these life-giving processes help to shape and form the physical body and affect the other bodies, the astral and ego. Man, unlike plant and animal, has the capability to also shape and form his own life through his higher bodies, hence he has opportunities to help transform all life, his own included.
In consciously creating opportunities for all four parts of this life process, we open ourselves to life-giving energies. There are many aspects of how these processes work, separately and together. So I have focussed on how they might work into a classroom lesson, especially a craft lesson so we can gain insight into how these cosmic processes are emulated at a ‘grounds on’ level.
Firstly, to briefly mention the nature of the individual ethers and elements:
Fire as Substance, Warmth as Process
Fire is the element and warmth the ether. When the world was created, there was an evolution of all matter. Steiner describes that fire and warmth were the first pair to evolve (at this point they are not really matter as such), and that it was on old Saturn when this was so. With warmth, comes the idea of beginnings, incubations, strivings, blossomings, and enthusiasm. Only time existed on old beginnings and endings, comes the picture of a vacuum, a vessel for holding, maybe lined with a certain warmth.
If we see a lesson, a period of a certain time as this vessel, this is our opportunity to fill it with our own warmth and enthusiasm. As a teacher, we can ask “do we love our work, are we centred and in our ego strength, have we given our lesson sufficient preparation time, is the project we are presenting suitable for the whole year level, can it be extended and simplified to meet each child’s capabilities?”. This period could be just one lesson or, as with craft, it can go over a period of time. Can the children’s enthusiasm be maintained over a longer period? Other aspects enter here and as one looks closer at these processes, it can be seen how they interweave, as they do in all organic processes viewed in nature.
Light as Ether, Air as Element
These were the next two to evolve in the creation of matter at the time of old Sun. With these two came the birth of one-dimensional space and the idea of distance and centrality. Light stretches from one point to another, always going outward and our glance always going to meet it. Air is that which is in between and, in a sense, presses to a given point wherever it exists. So there is a going out beyond, but also a bringing inwards to a point.
As a picture, light can be seen as an imagination, intuition or inspiration for a lesson. That which is gathered from out of one’s understanding and hard work and then presented to the children. In the Steiner curriculum, there is a certain freedom for a teacher to present a lesson in this way, but also keeping to certain guidelines. This does enable a certain richness and freshness, which again, works through the warmth ether into the children’s receptiveness.
Water as Element, Tone as Filter
The next pair to evolve was water and tone, sometimes called the chemical ether and this happened in old Moon. Water is all about movement and coming together. Tone or chemical ether is about the separateness of the whole, the different aspects that make up that whole. It is the alchemic ether that invokes change and transformation. It brings order into chaos, creating rhythms, patternings and mathematics principles. Evidence of the chemical ether can be seen in every plant in its uniformity of structure and form. It can be experienced in music in the coming together of separate notes/tones and rhythms.
In a lesson, a craft lesson, it can be seen both in the will part of the lesson and the bringing together of learning new skills and techniques. From the chaos of not being able to grasp something, then through the varying stages of trialling and striving, the dawning of knowledge reveals itself. A new method is learnt. In a creative lesson, there needs to be time for reflectiveness: which colours to choose, which pattern to use. There is an aspect of dreamtime that belongs to this ether.
So we first have the vacuum of our lesson, lined with warmth. Then our inspirations and ideas are presented through the workings of the light ether. Taken up through the tone ether, new methods are mastered, new knowledge is gained and trailed. The children finally ‘get’ the many single steps of one crochet stitch!
Earth as Element, Life as Ether
And so we finally come to the last pair. With these comes the first stage in the creation of the matter and this evolved on Earth as we know it. This final stage of becoming is the culmination of all these processes, bringing to birth something of its own uniqueness. A project is completed. One crochet stitch is the template for a whole universe of stitches; a beautiful doll is completed. Something has happened to the child during this process. Can we ‘see it’? Can we ‘see it’ also when we look closely at the doll? Later the child completes a wooden carved object and something slightly different ‘is seen’. What was needed for the development of the child at 12 years is different than at 8 years. We are strengthening different aspects of his soul life, whether it is the feeling, the doing or the thinking element.
So it is through this etheric body that one opens oneself to these cosmic messages, to the gifts offered by the Gods. Taking part in these creative processes, we are helping to activate the etheric body, to bring aliveness, good health and balance into our lives and the lives of our children. As our world was and is shaped by these cosmic forces, we too as human beings have the capabilities to shape ourselves and the world around us, with the help of the Gods and our own strivings.
When we incorporate all aspects of this miracle of creation into our educating, we are offering nourishment and healing, hopefully helping to build a strong foundation for any growing child.
Is not life the most prized possession of all living creatures? And inner aliveness the most sought-after good? Does it not instantly put to flight those bugbears boredom, heaviness and gloom? Do not the aspects of life, physical and spiritual, always wear the glow of magic emanating from life’s power to quicken? Yes, life can be observed to cast enchantment on every single thing it touches. And whatever it touches blossoms, moreover into beauty.
- The 4 Ethers – Ernst Marti
- The Fairy world and Its Workers – Majorie Spock
- Art as Spiritual Activity – Michael Howard
- The Arts and Their Mission – Rudolf Steiner