Challenge and Inspiration at the Goetheanum

A Report on the International Annual Conference on Anthroposophic Medicine

September 13-16, 2012, Dornach, Switzerland

By Leah Walker

I never anticipated there would be nearly a thousand people in attendance!  Physicians, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, pharmacists, nurses, rhythmic massage therapists, therapeutic eurythmists, art therapists, naturopaths, biography workers.  To be in the company of so many devoted to anthroposophy was a joy!

Also a joy, and also not anticipated:  so many familiar faces!  Colleagues I’d met at Emerson in 2011 at the Worldwide Biography Conference:  Leo from Holland, Julia from Rome, Zina from Moscow, Karl-Heinz, Elaine, Anita, Fumiko, Carine, Christopher Bee, Margli Matthews and perhaps twelve or more of her current and former students.  The very first person I bumped into, coming up the hill to the Goetheanum, was Keiko, a pharmacist from Japan with whom I shared several meals at Emerson.  Such pleasant surprises when one travels so far!  And of course, I happily made new acquaintances as well.

I chose to attend the conference in Dornach for the express purpose of following up on my experience at Emerson.  In England, in 2011, Signe Schaefer had encouraged me to participate in meetings scheduled with Michaela Glockler, where the role of biography work in healing illness and more specifically the relationship between physicians and biography workers were discussed.  It is my understanding that our conversations at Emerson led directly to the inclusion of biography workers—for the first time—at this year’s conference of the Medical Section.  The topic of the conference—“Understanding, Treating and Preventing Mental Disorders”—came, at least in part, as a result of our meetings at Emerson as well, and was also a first for the Medical Section.

Below, following an overview of the conference itself, is news of the evolving movement among biography workers worldwide.  There are real concerns, concentrated in Europe, about who decides how and to what extent biography work may be practiced.  The US may or may not feel the impact of this controversy, but by association I am deeply interested in its unfolding and resolution.  I hope you will feel similarly.

Each day of the conference of the Medical Section started and ended with a real gift—a eurythmy performance, every one exquisitely prepared, beautiful and moving—and between eurythmy performances came lectures, panels, research presentations, workshops, meals, walks, naps.  Dawn to midnight there were people in the café, on the terrace, at picnic tables, holding meetings and enjoying conversation.  In the foyer, a trade show scene, perhaps 100 tables, hosted by booksellers, Weleda, the local metalworker, etc., various professional associations—one dedicated to the International Forum for Professional Biography Work!


Michaela Glockler, a physician and the current head of the Medical Section, was our host and MC.  She lectured, too, as did several others.  With apologies, I cannot begin to offer a full review of these talks, six all together at 90 minutes each!  However, William Bento of Rudolf Steiner College compiled a generous and thorough review of each of these lectures; his report may be found on the college’s website.

As for my part, I’ll share just a thought or image from each that lingers with me, perhaps to contemplate:

  • Henriette Dekkers’ lecture yielded this:  “How can we help people learn to ask questions about karma?”
  • Ad Dekkers argued we must learn to love the battlefield in which we exist, between Lucifer and Ahriman.  Repeatedly he returned to a quote from Rudolf Steiner:  “If you think only joy brings you forward and pain down, then you see only the day and not the year” (GA 40).
  • Wolfgang Rissmann spoke twice, deeply—and clinically, about psychosis and psychosomatic disorders.  This is with me still:  “Without touch the human being can have no sense of God.”
  • I felt the highlight of the conference presentations was Peter Selg’s talk.  I couldn’t write fast enough!  He brought one inspiration after another about the light of thinking and its vital role in “gaining I-ness.”  He offered this potent and lovely statement:  “Through thinking, we deepen Spirit in its own realm through its own activity.”
  • Michaela finds the Mystery Dramas the most salutogenic work known, in that they portray a number of psychological illnesses and provide indications of cure.  She noted Johannes’ ability to bear his difficulty as a true mark of soul-spiritual health.  She pointed out that anthroposophy contributes something highly specific to the psychological literature:  an understanding of karma.

I admit I found it a bit curious, perhaps unfortunate, that these lectures—given to the full, widely international audience representing a dozen or more disciplines—were all delivered by German physicians.  I can only imagine that drawing from a larger pool was possible and, had that been accomplished, might have enriched the experience for everyone.

The international quality of the conference was really wonderful.  And yet, working, learning and participating via translation presented a significant challenge.  I was “plugged in” at least three times a day for lectures and panels, which were translated simultaneously.  The English translator struggled, perhaps due to the difficulty of the content (leaving gaps from time to time and having a direct affect on the continuity of my notes).  Nonetheless, I found it a real gift to hear such accomplished thinkers in anthroposophy and human development.

Workshops, translated spontaneously, were offered in the afternoons over the three days of the conference.  I chose to attend Making a Start towards a Psychotherapy based in the Spirit-Self—a topic I was excited to delve into—with Drs. Klaus Herbig and Achim Noschka.  (It was presented in German, English and Russian, which was a feat in itself.)  They began with the question:  What is needed in order to break through to the level of the Spirit Self?  Wrestling with this question is important and necessary now because humankind is beginning to experience movement toward the Spirit Self.  Without right expression this movement will lead to disease.

They worked with Raphael’s Transubstantiation, particularly the ill boy who, looking up, says, “I see a light” and the implied response of the physician who insists the boy is deluded.  Showing no interest in the boy’s experience of the light, the physician insists it must be brought to an end or “cured.”  Dr. Herbig asked us to reflect on “the experience of being in the presence of someone who shines.”  This can help us understand the development toward the Spirit Self in our time.  The phenomenon that accompanies this development includes a loosening of the etheric from the physical, portrayed so beautifully in Raphael’s painting, in Christ’s ascension.  This loosening allows greater awareness of the super-sensible—development of Intuitive Knowledge, which provides access to the Spirit World.

Dr. Herbig referenced Georg Kuhlewind’s work with attention and asked us to reflect on the increasingly fragmented nature of our lives today.  “We’re conditioned to distraction; nothing is deepened.”  Meditation is the work of deepening our attention, of overcoming gravity, i.e. resistance, also portrayed in Rafael’s painting.  The goal in interpreting the painting, Dr. Herbig suggested, was “to break through to a new level of power,” to break through to the spirit realm of light, to an experience of the Spirit Self, in other words, “to overcome the old consciousness.”  This is, first, the work of the physician or practitioner, to come out of gravity into light.  From here, one may know the way to assist patients and clients in doing the same.

Challenge and the Future of Biography Work

As preface to this section of my report, please remember that biography work is formally recognized by the General Section of the Anthroposophical Society, and as such has a home.  However, the role of the biography worker, within anthroposophy and in public service, is questioned by many in the Medical Section.  In Europe, limitations on biography workers are strict.  It is not uncommon for various anthroposophical activities to come under attack in Europe, and because of this many tend to be quite cautious, particularly where legal matters are concerned.  For example, in the German-speaking countries, generally, only medical doctors can meet one-on-one with individuals in a counseling or psychotherapeutic relationship.  It is different in England because the Biography and Social Development Trust, under Margli Matthews’ administration, sought its own designation as a certified counseling program.  Still, Margli and several of her graduates told me they definitely feel the mood in Europe that would perhaps have biography workers severely restricted.

Following our meetings with Michaela Glockler at Emerson in 2011, Anita Charton took the lead to see that biography workers were included in the 2012 conference of the Medical Section in Dornach.  Two afternoon meetings were scheduled, one to include another conversation with Michaela.   We had a specific agenda:  membership in the Medical Section for those biography workers who desire it and are qualified and, further, greater recognition and respect for biography workers (whether members or not) within the Medical Section.  Karl Heinz Finke put it this way:

Is biography work within the anthroposophical therapeutic movement acknowledged and seen as a personal development and healing instrument?  We may perceive ourselves as doing healing work, and our patients/clients as well, however, the question is:  how are we perceived by others within anthroposophical circles?…  We need to be clear that there are two issues to be considered here:  recognition from the outer world (legal, governmental bodies) and reciprocal acknowledgement in the internal world of anthroposophy.

The central problem, as I understand it, is this:  physicians and biography workers approach the individual in fundamentally different ways, and physicians, not understanding the fundamental difference, feel strongly that biography workers are not adequately trained to do what they do (and perhaps this is valid where mental illness is concerned).  However, the matter is mute so long as biography workers meet with individuals who are striving, who wish to follow the ancient charge strongly supported by Rudolf Steiner, “Man, Know Thyself.”  For this, biography workers are well-suited!  Leo Beth stated it so beautifully:  “As biography workers we meet the striving individual I-being to I-being.”

Michaela spoke to the unique contribution biography work is poised to fulfill:

There is a modern need to bring together two ancient mystery streams, which in the past worked separately with the heavenly (formative) and earthly (elemental) realms.  The heavenly (formative) aspect of the anthroposophical esoteric work has been widely developed.  But the situation is becoming one sided. There is a growing need to pay more attention towards the earthly (elemental) realm.  When we work with the human being, we are working with the “primary substance” of Earth evolution, and that is fortifying to the earth, a potentization of the “I.”  There is a real seeking for this today.

Carmen Flores added this to the dialogue:

I am a medical doctor and also trained in biography work.  Doctors need biography work.  As a physician I do biography work and also treat [my patient] with anthroposophical medicines.  Those who receive both feel the results of the physical treatment are significantly better when combined with biography work, especially for patients who have a great deal of childhood trauma.  I would like to tell the Medical Section about the importance of biography work.  Other doctors do not have this tool and it is needed.

Michaela confirmed that biography workers with a medical credential of some kind may apply and be admitted as members of the Medical Section.  She called the moment historic!  However, our meeting did not alter in any way the view of those current members of the Medical Section who discredit biography workers.  That issue remains largely unaddressed.  I suspect that only we who do the work professionally can influence, over time, the view of others, and then only where interest is shown.  Forging mutually supportive working relationships with physicians remains a work for the future, arguably here in the US as well as abroad.

The following day, when the biography workers met among themselves, a review of the meeting with Michaela was given and next steps considered.  It became evident that we might benefit from more continuity within our own ranks, across our various ways of working (such as greater shared nomenclature).  I will close this section of my report with the comments of Rainer Schnürre (as translated by Karl Heinz Finke):

It seems that our work as an organized body is some 22 years old.  Now we are grown up.  Yesterday the issue of how to work with the realm of rights was raised.  However, before negotiating a pathway for the further development of biography work, we must first ask whether biography work wants to become a profession.  If we decide it is a profession, then our work in the free spiritual realm will give us strength to achieve and establish this.  Some professional organizations already exist, and this can further energize all our initiatives.  We need to clarify what we mean by professional.  If this is a new profession, then we don’t want it to follow an old way.  It belongs to the realm of rights that we can announce ourselves and the profession.  (We do not come begging the attention of the Medical Section or anyone else.)  It is only a question of how we bring it.

Ways to Support this Movement

  • Do your work!  —with individuals, for your community, in the world;
  • Apply to the Medical Section if you are able, i.e. if you are hold a certificate in biography work and possess a medical credential;
  • Look for news of preparations for a conference for biography workers and physicians; volunteer to support it and/or make plans to attend;
  • Join the International Forum for Professional Biography Work;
  • Attend the Worldwide Biography Conference;
  • Attend Michaela’s Renewal course (see below).

One further note:  we now know Michaela Glockler will once again attend our Worldwide Biography Conference (Emerson, June 27-30).  She will present what she feels biography workers must be made aware of through her workshop Interplay of Body, Soul and Spirit in the Human Being, and we will continue our dialogue with her about the therapeutic and professional contributions of biography work.  Michaela is also teaching a Renewal course this summer at the Center for Anthroposophy:  Destiny and Illness (Wilton, NH, June 30-July 5).

Closing Thoughts

In preparation for attending the conference of the Medical Section in Dornach, I chose to take with me a set of lectures by Rudolf Steiner entitled Broken Vessels.  I’d been looking for an opportunity to explore them, and I imagined they would correspond nicely with the conference topic.  They did.  In these lectures, Steiner speaks of pastoral medicine, the cooperation of physician and priest.  His ideas respond powerfully to the very questions raised at the conference regarding cooperation among doctors and biography workers.  Since reading these lectures, I now see biography workers, whether working one-on-one with clients or with groups, as something akin to priests (for a new age, particularly when ordained priests within anthroposophy are few in numbers).

I also grabbed a copy of “being human” (Fall 2011) on my way out the door because it contained “Introduction to Anthroposophical Medicine” (by Christopher Bamford).  Little did I know it would provide a picture of pastoral medicine from Goethe’s biography.  When he was in his late teens and very ill, his physician prescribed “certain powders and a powerful medicine to encourage efficaciousness,” as well as study with a trusted mentor (who for Goethe was Katerina von Klettenburg) “to excite and strengthen his faith.”  Goethe recovered while exploring the teachings of Parcelsus and The Golden Chain of Homer, among other incredible resources in his time on the human being, heaven and earth.

Study inspires me, especially when I find its expression in my living experience.  Pastoral medicine is an idea I have continued to live with since my trip to Dornach.  I see more clearly than ever that biography workers have a vital role to play in warming the social realm and helping individuals grow and heal.  Out of a deeply spiritual picture of the human being, we meet the other with reverence, interest and insight.

I began this report by acknowledging the colleagues among whom I found myself, some by name.  There are hundreds of us worldwide!  I find it so incredibly inspiring and supportive to think of myself as a member of this huge family, all of whom love biography, understand its gifts, know the work, and want to see it grow.  I am honored to be a part of this movement.

(March 2013)

















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