“I am confident that the education they have received will make them individuals who can and will take the time to think for themselves and inspire and lead others.”
One of the most important contributions Rudolf Steiner made to spiritual science was that of the twelve senses. Steiner saw that the human being is utilizing a much more complex system of sense impressions in his interaction with the world than the traditional five senses allow for. The traditional five senses only provide for a very superficial understanding of the human experience, and if we wish to gain a deeper insight into humanity, then it is necessary to expand our knowledge of the human senses and how they work.
The first four of these twelve senses are known as the lower senses, or the foundational senses. They are the senses of touch, life, balance, and self-movement. These four senses are of the utmost importance to parents and educators alike, as they provide the foundation children need in order to achieve academic, social, and emotional success. We regularly see children in the grades that are struggling academically, socially, or emotionally and we may be at a loss as to how to help them. Whether you are a parent or a teacher, you should first look to the lower senses. The lower senses build three capacities in children:
Spatial Orientation – knowing where you are in space, and how to relate to it.
Body Geography – knowing the geography of your own body and how to use it.
Dominance – established dominance on either the right or the left side of the body
These three capacities are the foundation for all academic, social, and emotional growth. Any type of learning requires the acquisition of skills, and skills cannot be acquired without foundational capacity. The four lower senses provide the capacity from which all skill learning is built. Over these next four issues, I will be giving an introduction into each of the lower senses, starting with the sense of touch.
An Exploration into the Sense of Touch
The sense of Touch is one of the four lower senses, which are primarily developed during the first seven years of life. All of the lower senses are related to the physical body, to the metabolic-limb system, and to the will. When properly developed, they allow us to have an objective experience of our own subjectivity.
The sense of touch is not merely about the sensations that we feel when we touch something. For instance, when I touch an ice cube I think and feel many things. I think, “This is cold!” or I feel how the ice is wet, or hard. I may even feel pain if I hold the ice for too long. However, none of these thoughts or feelings are derived from our sense of touch. The sensation of cold actually comes from the sense of warmth (or temperature). The awareness of wet or hard has more to do with our own sense of self-movement than with actual touch. The experience of pain is linked to our life sense. So, what then, do we mean by the sense of touch?
When I hold the ice in my hand, the ice and my physical body come into contact with one another, and I experience the ice and myself as two separate things. It is not the sensations that I experience when I touch the ice that represents the sense of touch, but the boundary I come up against. It is the sense of touch that informs us that we are all individuals, separated from the outer world, with our own evolving consciousness and self-awareness. The sense of touch is the inner sense of where I end and where the outer world begins. It allows us to understand our own individual place in the world, and also to understand that others have their own individuality as well. The sense of touch provides the human being the ability to understand it’s own uniqueness, and therefore the uniqueness of others. It is the only reason that an “other” can exist at all, because it provides a barrier between ourselves and everything that surrounds us. It is the sense of touch that separates us from each other and separates us from the world.
Paradoxically, it is the same sense of touch that we use to seek connection. When we want to feel closer to others, we reach out and touch them, and it is this touching of an “other” which allows another layer of intimacy to be reached. Whatever I touch also touches me and I feel a connection. The sense of touch is what allows us to be in a constant kind of exchange with the external world, while at the same time, being completely self-contained within the boundaries of the skin.
Touch is the foundation of the other senses because what we experience through touch is also felt in the other three lower senses; life, movement, and balance. When we touch something an experience is had, and life, movement and balance then interpret this experience. So we see that touch is a kind of space where we can experience and interpret the other three, either separately or in combination. Again, to use the previous example of touching a piece of ice, we can see that we are using many of our senses as our hand comes into contact with the ice, but it is our sense of touch that provides the contact and is a place where the totality of the experience can be had.
Prior to birth each child resides in a watery world of warmth and comfort. Every need is instantaneously met. Because the child is not responsible for any of her own needs, she is able to remain in a plant like existence, separated from both her astral body and Ego. There is no experience of gravity or boundaries. She is at one with the cosmos, and one with her mother. Everything changes as the birth process begins.
As the child prepares to enter into the physical world, the astral body begins to join with the physical and etheric bodies for the first time. A consciousness that was not possible before this moment is born. The child can now be an active participant in her own birth process.
As the contractions of labor intensify, the child experiences the compressions of the uterine wall, activating the sense of touch for the first time. Next, the baby makes its descent into the birth canal, and must navigate the bony constraints of the pelvis, encountering a hard and definitive boundary for the first time. Finally, she emerges from the pelvic outlet, and must then force her way through the tight compressions of the vaginal walls. Throughout this entire process, the child is also experiencing the sensations of expansion and contraction, as the uterus contracts, and then releases.
The experience of birth is not only a birth into the physical world. Just as importantly, it is the birth of budding consciousness. It is the birth of the sense of touch, and therefore it is the birth of individuality.
This initiation into the physical world and into consciousness begins with this first experience of the sense of Touch. It is the foundation for all that follows. When this process is impeded, the child may require additional support in order for the sense of Touch to develop properly. Healthy development of touch can be obstructed in a number of ways.
The advent of medicalized birth has taken a significant toll on healthy birth and healthy Touch development. Use of certain medications to induce or augment labor produce contractions that are of a magnitude not realized during natural birth. This can cause the child to experience sensations that are much more powerful than what they would have experienced ordinarily, and may de-sensitize the child’s healthy development of touch. Essentially, it is setting the standard of healthy touch at a much higher level than what a more natural birth process provides, and what others around them require.
The outcome of this may be seen in children or adults who seek deeper amounts of pressure in order to feel a boundary, in contrast to their peers. A child may seek out excessive, rough contact with friends, or need big bear hugs to feel that they are being hugged at all. We can see this in an adult whose handshake may be so strong as to be painful, but seems to be appropriately firm to them. In contrast, the excessive pressure during the birth process may cause the child to be overly sensitive to the sensations of touch. Normal amounts of touch can invoke a fearful reaction in theses individuals, and they will avoid it at all costs. Certain clothing may even be felt as too restrictive for these children, and there may be other forms of sensory integration issues as well. We also see these symptoms in children who were born via caesarean section, or who experienced a very quick labor and birth, because the exposure to these first touch sensations are minimally experienced.
Allowing your child’s birth to unfold in a natural, unimpeded manner can go a long way in helping your child to develop a healthy relationship with her sense of touch. Often we cannot control many of the complications that can arise during the birth process, but we can control how we choose to receive the child after their journey. Creating a quiet, calm, and peaceful birth environment is essential if we want the child to feel safe in her new environment. Skin to skin contact, breastfeeding, no separation of mother and baby, and minimal sensory stimulation provide for the child’s physical needs, allowing new situations to unfold slowly, at her own pace. While the familiarity of the homebirth setting is ideal for implementing this kind of gentle transition, many of these factors can be achieved in hospital as well.
No matter what your child’s experience of initiation is, it is vitally important to create an environment that serves to further a healthy relationship with her sense of touch. Touch is experienced with our entire bodies through the organ of the skin, and therefore everything we come into contact with has a direct impact on our soul life. The infant has no filter in which to process the bombardment of sense impressions that are impressed upon her at all times, and so we must be vigilant in protecting her. Surrounding the child with soft and natural materials allows her soul life a gentle and harmonious communion with all that surrounds her. Course objects, bright lighting, and synthetic materials create discord. Objects made of plastic have no specific vibrations at all, and our souls experience oppression.
Additionally, the importance of sleep for the infant is not to be underestimated. It is necessary to understand that no matter what the birth process was like for the child that it was traumatic. Before birth, we are at one with all that surrounds us, experiencing no form of separation between the cosmos and ourselves. As we are born, our astral body joins with our physical and etheric bodies, and we are tossed out of this blissful, harmonious state of existence. This is a harsh reality for the infant to realize, and their astral bodies are not prepared to remain here full-time. This is the reason that babies “want” in addition to “need” so much sleep. They yearn for their pre-earthly existence and are not yet at home here. Sleep provides a much needed retreat for the child to connect with what was before.
Without the sense of touch, we would all feel totally at one with the cosmos, with no awareness of where we end and where anything else begins. Touch allows for the individuality of the snowflake amidst the storm of snow. The touch sense is expressed in the zodiac as Libra, the scales, representing the balance between our inner and outer consciousness. It is the balance between inner and outer worlds; our microcosm to the macrocosm.
1st grade teacher at the White Mountain Waldorf School