The ways in which thinking, feeling and willing relate to the physical body and the three main phases of Waldorf education.


Thinking, feeling and willing form an archetypal schema which allows us to view the human condition, its body and its activities, from three fundamental perspectives, those of the craftsman, the poet and the scientist. And surely in our endeavour to raise the most fully-human young people we can we must attempt to nurture each of the three aspects in each individual so that the scientist will know something of what it is to dream and build; the poet will find that he can turn his hand to a craft or a profession if need be and the craftsman will be able to appreciate both art and logic. One of the failures of modern life is that the prevalent culture of scientism lacks feeling and lacks empathy.

Thinking, feeling and willing relate to the body in that thinking relates to the head, feeling relates to the rhythmic organs in the torso (ie: the heart and lungs) whilst willing relates to the limbs and digestive system.

Thinking and willing represent a polarity between the physical stillness of the head and the movement of the limbs; the closed-ness of the head and the open-ness of the limbs; the consciousness of the brain and the unconsciousness of the limbs; the wilful creation of the future and the thoughtful contemplation of the past.

The feeling element embodied in the heart and lungs exists as a bridge between the poles. The heart is what brings action to our thoughts and purpose to our movement. Thoughts divorced from will are practically useless whilst actions divorced from thought can be destructive. The heart and the breath mediate between the physical realm and the thought realm and are the media through which balance can be found. The feeling world is the (lucid?) dreaming between waking and sleeping and the experience of now between past and future.

Another polarity involved with the three-fold nature of the human is that between sympathy and antipathy. Sympathy being associated with the limbs and antipathy being associated with the head. Both of these attributes are essential to a healthy individual and community. One must want to reach-out, to help people in need and one must also have the ability to take a step back and consider things impartially or from another perspective. Empathy, from the heart, is the bridge again between these two extremes. The heart allows us to connect with people, it brings compassion into our actions and into our thoughts. Without the empathetic heart, we cannot truly meet people where they are at, we can practically support them or analyse their situation but the empathetic heart creates that feeling of community which is essential to human survival.

Thinking, feeling and willing relate to the phases of Steiner education in a similar way. The will is being developed in Kindergarten, the feeling during the class years and the thinking in upper school. This relates to the phases of child development as envisaged by Steiner. There is a journey from Kindergarten to graduation which is from physical levity to physical gravity; the body slows down and the mind quickens.

The kindergarten stage allows the child to really fully develop the will aspects of their personality. This stage has become important for me as I have two children, one who has just finished kindergarten and one which has just begun. I can see how important this stage has been for my first child to allow her the time to develop her confidence and I can see how important it is for my second to allow him the space to find his own equilibrium between his body and the space and people around him. I constantly compare the situation to mainstream education and am so grateful that we have had this opportunity as the emerging human only really has one opportunity to do this properly and a child who has not fully developed their will may find life that bit extra challenging as they get older. Having had the opportunity to fully develop the will away from the pressures of academia, tests and targets, we instil a sense of entrepreneurship in our young people. Confident young people can follow their own intentions without needing to follow the rules, guidelines and instructions of others.

The kindergarten offers the emerging human so much. It allows the child to develop self-regulation, a love of action, socialisation, attentiveness and perseverance. The free play with natural toys stimulates the imagination and allows creativity to flourish. Meanwhile, the utmost care is taken not to overstimulate the child; we take care of their senses. The sympathetic nature of imitation in kindergarten is essential for the development of the proper empathetic relationship between class teacher and pupil in lower school. An analogy to the human body arises where the sympathetic nervous system requires no conscious thought in order to function, just as the young child tunes into an adult chopping vegetables and begins to imitate sympathetically. As the child matures we must meet them on an additional plane, the feeling realm, with empathy. The rhythms set during kindergarten will play out throughout the child’s life, building emotional resilience, good habits and routines, aiding memory, recall and learning later on. The kindergarten allows the young person to build a positive relationship with order and logic. I feel that a Waldorf education is able to grant people the serenity to accept the things that they cannot change, courage to change the things that they can and the wisdom to know the difference.

During classes 1-8, the child is developing the feeling aspects of their being. Rhythm is very important and main-lesson teachers think very carefully about the learning cycle and the rhythm that they are going to implement in their classrooms. In order to attune the learning to the frequency of the child, stories are told and topics are taught through narrative. This is not to say that rhythm was not important in Kindergarten or indeed in upper school, but there is an appreciation by the teacher that there will be an optimal outcome if rhythm is incorporated in the right way. And similarly, the will and the thinking are not excluded from classes 1 – 8. In fact, the empathetic, heart-centred rhythm of the class years allows for the ebb and flow between willing and thinking on a daily (or hourly) basis and these cycles are contained within the overarching journey between the willing of kindergarten and the thinking of upper school. And one might imagine the balance between willing and thinking changing subtly over time so that class 1 is only a wafer away from the wilful and blissful ignorance of kindergarten, whilst class 8 is only a wafer away from the cool-headed analytics of upper school.

In this way, class 5 could be thought of as the tipping point, the point of no return, where the children become aware of their past in a new way and begin to look forward too as they are no longer trapped in the now but begin that process which allows them the antipathy to take a perspective on the world, to reminisce (or ruminate) about the past and fantasise (or worry) about the future. Perhaps then, moving to middle school, class 6 offers a mini step forward towards adulthood, still very much under the wing of the class teacher but all the time growing more independently minded, always questioning more but equally still gaining so much from the rhythm of the school day.

Ant then, once in upper school, with puberty in full swing, and the rising antipathy of the teenager, Waldorf education must adapt again to the emerging consciousness. We are entering the thinking realm where academics and rigour truly have their place. With the will and the feeling fully nurtured, our young people can confidently go forth and explore the thinking realm.

An education lacking in connection to the feeling realm, such as many experience in mainstream, is exhausting for children as A. C. Harwood explains in The Way of a Child:

“In education, we find that intellectual work tires the children, and then, to give them relief, we exercise the opposite pole of the body by introducing violent games and sports, which exhaust them in another way. But we do not have the imagination to think that if we taught them artistically and with feeling, that is rhythmically, they would not become so tired in the first place, and so would not need violent outlets for their energies in another direction in the second.”

By connecting the willing and thinking realms with the rhythm of feeling, a Waldorf education allows the young person to fully develop all three aspects of their being so that their physical and spiritual bodies are in the best possible shape when they embark on the rest of their life journey.


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