The Essence of Human Health

Human health is a reflection of the dynamic state of equilibrium between the multitude of polarities on the physical, soul and spiritual level. Every illness is the manifestation of a disruption of the right balance between any of these polarities that exist in the human being who is moving through various phases of his life. The task and responsibility of each individual is to develop skills and forces which enable him to maintain a healthy balance.

Health as a Balance of Polarities of the Human Existence

The human being is, in his inner constitution, a meeting point of a great number of polar forces, activities, tendencies and strivings. Health is a dynamic state of harmonious equilibrium, which can vary inside particular limits. We need to know that we can frequently cross these healthy limits without becoming ill because we have inside us the ability of continual restoration of a healthy balance. Inside us exists a power which is endlessly striving towards harmony. This ability can sometimes demonstrate surprising strength – for example, in the cases of so-called 'spontaneous healing'. Usually we become ill when we develop a specific habit which causes us to overstep the same healthy limit again and again, while along with this the ability to restore the healthy balance is weakened.

If we look for the reasons behind an unhealthy habit or weakness in maintenance of healthy balance, we come to the level of soul and spirit. Then we can understand that health is not just the healthy state of the physical organism, but also the healthy state of soul and spirit. Every illness is due to a combination of imbalances on these three levels. There is never just one reason for an illness to emerge!

Homeostasis: Regulating on a Physical Level

Medical science describes balancing on the physical level as homeostasis. It is the dynamic, ever-changing state of the internal environment of the human body (e.g. body temperature, blood sugar, blood pressure, acidity or alkalinity of body fluids, etc.) which has to be maintained within narrow limits. Homeostasis is maintained partly by the autonomic nervous system and partly by the endocrine glands through the regulation of metabolic processes. [1]

If we observe the human being on the physical level we see "how he stands before us in his entirety within a polarity. Wherever, in every single organ there is an upbuilding process there must also be a breaking-down process. If we look at any one of the organs, be it the liver, lungs, or heart, we see that it is in a constant stream which consists of building up and breaking down.

This balance can be disturbed. It can be disturbed to such an extent that some organ or other may have its correct degree of anabolism in relation to too slight a degree of catabolism, and then its growth becomes ram­pant. Or contrariwise, some organ may have a normal process of catabolism against too slight an anabolism, in which case the organ becomes disturbed, or atrophies, and thus we come from the physiological sphere into the pathological. Only when we can discern what a balanced condition signifies, can we also discern how it may be disturbed by an excess of either anabolic or catabolic forces. So in every normal human being there exists a state of balance between anabolism (integration, upbuilding) and catabolism (disintegration, breaking-down), and in this balance he develops the right capacity for the soul and spirit." [2]

Our life on earth depends on the proper balance between these two antagonistic sets of metabolic processes. When homeostatic balance is for whatever outer or inner reason outside healthy borders, it will cause the bodily weakness or an emergence of physical illness – depending on the intensity and time-span of disturbance.

Soul Composure: Balancing on a Psychological Level

In our daily life we are constantly encountering things, beings and events which stir inside us feelings of sympathy or antipathy – we either like something or dislike it. These feelings can be moderate or stronger, and sometimes can go to extremes and throw us out of healthy balance. But for the sake of our wellbeing "we must achieve a certain balance in life or serenity. We should strive to maintain a mood of inner harmony whether joy or sorrow comes to meet us. We should lose the habit of swinging between being 'up one minute and down the next'. Instead we should be as prepared to deal with misfortune and danger as with joy and good fortune." [3]

The majority of people would probably agree that too much suffering and misfortune leads towards extreme feelings of sadness that can end in the pathological state of depression. However, this is not so evident in the case of happiness and fortune. How can it be that too much joy can be dangerous to our health? This can be clearly seen in the case of psychological disorders. For example, besides people who are suffering with pathological states of depression, there are also those who are suffering because of various sorts of mania (i.e. the state of an extremely intensive mood of joy). In such cases "in psychiatry one speaks of excited and productive disorders – extravagances of fancy, of impulse of mania. Enhancement (of feeling well) not only allows the possibilities of a healthy fullness and exuberance, but of a rather ominous extravagance and aberration – the sort of 'too-muchness' or feeling 'dangerously well' – as patients, over-excited, are tending to disintegration and uncontrol" [4] of their own personality. There are even people who oscillate between states of depression and mania. Here we see two polar moods, sadness and happiness in their extreme, pathological states, and consequently the great significance of the need for proper control of our feeling moods.

The ability of suitable control of our life of feelings is especially important if we are on the path of self-development. In such a case we need to persist in our striving "to hold oneself at a distance from moods which continually vacillate between being 'over the moon' and 'down in the dumps'. Man is (in such a case) driven to and fro among all kinds of moods. Pleasure makes him glad; pain depresses him. This has its justification. But he who seeks the path to higher knowledge must be able to mitigate joy and also grief. He must become stable. He must with moderation surrender to pleasurable impres­sions and also painful experiences; he must move with dignity through both. He must never be unmanned nor disconcerted. This does not produce lack of feeling, but it brings man to the steady centre within the ebbing and flowing tide of life around him. He has himself always in hand." [5]

Here we can see how our soul life has a great effect on our physical organism. Among many impacts, feelings have also an important role by the fact that "health consists in the inner balance in the human being between forces of sympathy which lead to inflammation and forces of antipathy which lead to sclerosis. Thus health is essentially a problem of soul balance." [6] Of course, this does not refer to short lived feelings which can change like weather, but to the deep-seated emotional attitudes towards life and to their subtle physiological effects. [7] We can get an idea of this influence if we know that "the nerve system is the expression of the astral body. Here the astral body is the motivator, the constructor. We can imagine that just as the clock or a machine are constructed by a watchmaker or mechanic, thus the nerves are also constructed by the astral body." [8] The astral or the soul-body "is the bearer of feeling, of happiness and suffering, joy and pain, emotions and passions; wishes and desires, too, are anchored in the astral body." [9] If this fact is linked to the task of the nervous system in the partial maintenance of homeostatic balance, we can start to understand the influence of soul life on the state of the whole organism. Of course, this does not mean that health is dependent only on our soul balance, for this would be contrary to the holistic approach. The right approach demands that in the case of any internal disease we need to take into account also the person's soul life, especially those deeper one-sided moods of the soul which have contributed to the development of a specific illness.

Spiritual Balance: Development of Virtues on the Basis of Knowledge

What is the challenge with balancing on the spiritual level? Here we enter into the realm of moral values. Human beings have the ability of self-conscious examination of their own behaviour. This enables us to learn from the past experiences and thus change our behaviour. In this way we can develop new virtues which we did not posses before and thus avoid unhealthy extremes. In this process we need to find the balance between two polar tendencies. In the past "the pupils of the Mysteries were shown that human nature can bring about destruction and harm in two directions, and that human beings are in a position to develop free will only because of this possibility of erring in two directions. Life can take a favourable course only when these two lines of deviation are considered to be like the two sides of a balance: as one side goes up the other side goes down, and true balance is achieved only when the crossbeam is horizontal. On this account, at the head of the moral code in all the Mysteries stood the important dictum: You must find the mean, so that through your deeds you do not lose yourself to the world, nor let the world lose you. That is why Aristotle gives this curious definition of virtue: Virtue is human capacity or skill guided by reason and insight, which in relation to the human being holds the mean between the too-much and the too-little." [10]

Let's take one example, the attribute of courage. It can swing between two extremes: too little is cowardice; too much is reckless courage which doesn't give heed to dangers, so the person can easily harm himself or even lose his life. In the first case we are not of much use to the world, because we are not capable of doing what is needed. In the second case we are stopped from accomplishing the needed changes because of injury, which could be prevented if we were able to find the golden mean and thus develop the virtue of courage. Thus we are lost to the world in the case of cowardice, and lost in the world in the case of recklessness.

Another example is the attribute which expresses itself in our relationship to other people, in empathy. If this attribute develops only in one direction, it can become an excessive worry for others; the other extreme is indifference. The occurrence of indifference is an example when a person hardens inwardly in his own egoism and therefore he cannot benefit the rest of the world. However, excessive care for others is also an expression of an unhealthy relationship to people, for in such a case a person easily forgets about his own basic needs because he is so given up to others. If this attitude is of long standing it will lead to illness or complete exhaustion of one's own power – that is, to losing oneself in the world. Thus empathy becomes virtue only if there is not too little or too much of it.

Now, let's take an example of forming judgements about beings, things, and phenomena we encounter. For a healthy attitude "it is important to develop the quality of 'impartiality'. Every human being has had his own experiences and has formed from them a fixed set of opinions according to which he directs his life. Just as conformity to experience is of course necessary, on the one hand, it is also important that he who would (like to) pass to higher knowledge should always keep an eye open for everything new and unfamiliar that confronts him. He will be as cautious as possible with judgements such as "That is impossible!" or "That cannot be!" We have most decidedly to base our judgement of what confronts us now upon past experience. That is one side of the balance, but on the other there is the need to be ready all the time for entirely new experiences – above all, to admit (to ourselves) the possibility that the new may contradict the old," [11] the already existing. In this manner we establish balance between former experiences and insights that tends to ossify, and between complete openness towards everything new which enter through our perceptions and ideas. Thus we are developing a spiritual virtue of forming right judgement which is one of the basic conditions for true cognition of the world that surrounds us.


  1. According to science the regulation of metabolic processes or 'metabolic pathways' is achieved through 'switching' them on and off by two systems. The autonomic nervous system provides immediate responses. Endocrine glands provide slower, but more durable control.
  2. Rudolf Steiner, Arnhem, 17.07.1924; What can the Art of Healing learn through Spiritual Science?, Mercury Press
  3. Rudolf Steiner, The Third Exercise: Control of Feeling (quotation taken from Enlivening the Chakra of the Heart by Florin Lowndes)
  4. As above
  5. Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Picador, London, 1985. For another perspective see NUTRITION & MENTAL DISORDERS
  6. Rudolf Steiner, source unknown
  7. The links between soul life and illnesses are investigated in the branch of medicine called psychosomatic medicine (soul is psyche and body is soma). Its conclusion is that "while it is necessary to identify if an illness has a physical basis, it is recognized more and more that the effort to identify disorders as purely physical or mixed psychosomatic is increasingly obsolete as almost all physical illness have mental factors that determine their onset, presentation, maintenance, susceptibility to treatment, and resolution. In modern society, psychosomatic aspects of illness are often attributed to stress, making the remediation of stress one important factor in the development, treatment, and prevention of psychosomatic illness." Source: Wikipedia/Psychosomatic Medicine, March 2012
  8. Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, 17.12.1908; Nourishment of Man
  9. Rudolf Steiner, 25.05.1907; Rosicrucian Wisdom, Rudolf Steiner Press, 2001
  10. Rudolf Steiner, Norrköping, 30.05.1912; The Spiritual Foundation of Morality, Anthroposophic Press, 1995
  11. Rudolf Steiner, The Fifth Exercise: The Fulfilment of Thinking in the Will (quotation taken from Enlivening the Chakra of the Heart by Florin Lowndes)

The Essence of Human Health
By Brane Žilavec