A children’s prayer: Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep; If I should die before I wake; I pray the Lord my soul to take. We might wonder why anyone would send children off to sleep with a prayer this dire. Yet something about sleep is revealed by contemplating this simple prayer: the fact that in sleep (and in death) our soul is released to the spiritual world. Did praying at bedtime once carry a reverence for the soul’s nightly sojourn that we have since forgotten?
Steiner says that spiritual research is living consciously into the world which normal people live into unconsciously every time they go to sleep. As we further explore what is happening when we go to sleep, we need to become acquainted with the way spiritual science views the human being: body, soul and spirit. In our contemporary culture we keep looking for answers to the complexities of life in the physical realm observable through our senses, but believing that our physical body is the sum total of who we are will never explain what happens while we sleep, let alone how we can say “I” to ourselves and know what that means.
Let’s see what Dr. Steiner has to say:
… [The] complete human being consists of the physical body, the etheric body or body of formative [healing] forces, the astral body, and the ego.
In the part of man perceptible to the outer senses … we have first, according to spiritual science, only a single member of the human being, the physical body, which man has in common with the mineral world. That part which is subject to physical laws, … the sum of chemical and physical laws, we designate in spiritual science as the physical body.
Beyond this, however, we recognize higher super-sensible members of human nature which are as actual and essential as the outer physical body.
As first super-sensible member, man has the etheric body, which becomes part of his organism and remains united with the physical body throughout the entire life; only at death does a separation of the two take place… During the entire time between birth and death this etheric or life body continuously combats the disintegration of the physical body… *
The third member of the human being we recognize as the bearer of all pleasure and suffering, joy and pain, instincts, impulses, passions, desires, and all that surges to and fro as sensations and ideas, even all concepts of what we designate as moral ideas, and so on. That we call the astral body.
Thus we already have three members of the human being, and as man’s highest member we recognize that by means of which he towers above all other beings…: the bearer of the human ego, which gives him in such a mysterious, but also in such a manifest way, the power of self-consciousness.
Man has the physical body in common with his entire visible environment, the etheric body in common with the plants and animals, the astral body with the animals. The fourth member, however, the ego, he has for himself alone… We recognize this fourth member as the ego-bearer, as that in human nature by means of which man is able to say “I” to himself, to come to independence.
Excerpt from: The Mystery of the Human Temperaments, Public lecture, Karlsruhe, January 19, 1909.
In Steiner’s sketch of the human being, we are asked to grasp in clear terms the larger part of ourselves that cannot be proved by natural science. If we can allow this idea to enter at all, we can also imagine that dreaming, dreamless sleep, transitions between the various stages of sleep, all occur because our four bodies are in a different relationship with each other than when we’re awake. Spiritual science tells us that when we sleep our physical and etheric bodies stay behind in bed while the astral body and ego enter into spiritual realms. When the etheric body leaves the physical body along with the astral and ego bodies, we die.
If we remember the Steiner quote from Occult Science, Chapter III: Sleep and Death in last month’s post, we may now understand a bit more about his references to the astral body returning to the spiritual environment when it is freed from the body. We fall asleep as the astral body and ego leave our physical and etheric bodies and awaken when they return. Our dream pictures, taken from ordinary life, arise in these transitions. We will discuss dreaming in next month’s post.
*A modern definition of the etheric body (and the difference between sleep and death) by Dr. Adam Blanning: