The Sense of Life
Last month, I began writing about the twelve senses recognized by Rudolf Steiner. The first four form a group known as the Foundational Senses. Upon the strength or weakness of these four senses, the human being will meet the world with certainty or hesitation. To review, these Foundational Senses build three capacities in a child: Body Geography (knowing where the parts of your body are), Spatial Orientation knowing where you are in space) and Dominance (having an established preference for one side of the body to do tasks). These three capacities are basic in order for children to perform many practical activities in school and at home, from brushing teeth to writing words on a page.
Following the sense of touch, the second is the sense of life. It informs us about our well being. We are not so concerned with the life sense when we are well; it is when we have an ache, an illness, are tired or hungry or foggy that we think about the life sense. Some of us feel the life sense the day after consuming alcohol, sugar, or foods that we don’t digest well. When we feel unwell, we are reluctant to get up and face the day; we want to stay curled up in bed. What we may learn is that the trigger, be it lack of sleep, the wrong food, the overbooked schedule, the loud music, etc. does not promote health. Feeling unwell is not pleasant! The pain or discomfort signals us that something is not right, so we might take steps to avoid a repetition. The life sense schools us- it teaches us to pay attention to discomfort and in the best scenario it helps us to get enough sleep, to eat well, exercise and to rest if we are sick. From this, we know how to help our child get back on track.
The life sense also teaches us about appropriate suffering, which is important. Without these experiences, we could not develop fully as humans. We do not have to engineer adverse situations for our children-don’t we all know that life itself brings us opportunities to experience suffering? By letting our children experience the bruised knee, the fall off the bike, the toy we will not be buying, the dessert we will not serve, and sadly, the pet who died, they learn to handle life’s disappointments. We learn to ride our bike more safely, to be more patient when we want something, to deal with sadness. We become wiser. This is the hidden gem in classic fairy tales from every culture: we meet with adversity (holding our breath), we courageously overcome it and then we can let out a sigh of relief.
The life sense needs much attention in our world today. Before industrialization, we lived by the rhythms of nature. We rose with the sun and went to bed at dark. In many cultures families gathered together to eat wholesome foods, sing and tell stories at night and rest when they were tired. If you were a baby boomer, you can easily recognize that the 21st century is not so friendly to the life sense. Today, we try to stretch the day, to tamper with the rhythms of time, and overload ourselves with information. It’s not unusual in our culture to find children at sports practice until 8 pm on a school night several times a week. What happened to family time and down time for children? Children suffer from always being on the treadmill, and the adults driving the children around are sacrificing their evening time to breathe out also. If a child has trouble falling asleep, consider if too much scheduled activity is the cause.
Rudolf Steiner stated, “Rhythm restores power.” We must attend to the rhythms children need: daily rituals and routines, physical warmth, and tending to when they are sick (which means temporarily giving up our work or our plans). Children need to play, do chores, move and rest, and… they need to experience quiet and boredom- for out of boredom rises creativity. They need to become so physically tired that they fall asleep easily and wake bright eyed, bushy tailed and hungry the next morning. Once, I had a bright eyed and bushy tailed eight year old boy come to me in the morning. Later, I asked his mother what his bedtime was. She said 7:30–8 at the latest. Let me tell you how rare it is for school teachers to see bright eyed and bushy tailed children in today’s world! You cannot believe what a difference it makes when children go to bed at 8:30 or 9 pm. It seems harmless, but their life sense is off the next day, and cumulatively this is counterproductive to health and well being.
Nutrition plays a huge part to support the life sense. Almost all children are very intelligent; the more we can support nerve fiber myelination, the more their brains are able to expand the pathways. Many children today do not get enough protein, vegetables, fruits or proper fats -we live in such a carbohydrate laden society and a fat phobic society. But our children need the right fats for brain development. Every time a new task is learned, the nerve pathways get coated with myelin- a white, waxy, fatty coating. The best fats are fresh butter from raw milk, coconut oil, good quality olive oil, palm oil, cold pressed sesame oil, flax oil, and animal fats-lard, chicken fat, etc., plus whole milk. If a child has skim milk and boxed cereal for breakfast and went to bed at 9, she will likely be dragging in school.
Warmth is an overlooked issue in modern culture, but it also is critical in developing a healthy life sense. I once attended a lecture by an Anthroposophical doctor from Germany. He stated that for a newborn, the most critical factor is warmth, not food (mother’s milk). The newborn needs warmth immediately and for several months must be kept appropriately layered. Warmth for children ages 0-7 is a protection for the organs that will support them throughout life. Here in Vermont, it is not uncommon to see children from all social strata on a cold, damp winter day wearing no jacket, no hat and sometimes even shorts. The parents give in to their children or the children sneak away shedding layers. If only they knew the ramifications of this behavior-kidneys unprotected from the cold, more susceptibility to illness, and a child who is not well grounded in the physical body, and therefore not really ready for school.
Information overload is an issue confronting adults, with all the devices we have at our fingertips, and we must be steadfast in setting our limits around it. It is even more crucial to keep our children protected from all the media, screens, and news in the world today. The visual images and aural information settle into the soul of a child and cause disturbances for months and even years. I can still remember the black and white police sketch of a wanted criminal on the front page of the newspaper when I was about seven years old; it has never left me even after 50 years. These impressions are best left to confront children after they turn nine or ten years old, when they are ready to face the fact that the world is mostly good, but there are also bad deeds in the sphere of humanity. Until then, think of too much information as indigestion for the child, literally. Children should be wondering about crickets chirping in the grass, the sparkle of a raindrop on a leaf, and baking cookies for a person in need of cheer. Doing and observing, not cramming the intellect.
How parents can support a healthy life sense:
Warmth: Insist on layers appropriate for the season. Say this: “If you wear a jacket, you will use your body’s energy to grow. If you don’t wear a jacket, you will be using your body’s energy to stay warm instead of using energy to grow.”
Rhythm: It’s one of nature’s best kept secrets. Start with one ritual- stick to it every day without fail. Add more as you and your child are ready. Soon, the rhythm moves you both along. Rhythm and routine are security.
Protection: Limit media exposure everywhere you go (allow a movie at grandparents or with cousins the child rarely sees) and do not discuss sensitive topics about the world in front of children. Too much information fills the mind with clutter when children should be developing their bodies and their feelings.
Sleep: Always remember that sleep is like money in the bank. Try not to sacrifice sleep except on special occasions-holidays, visitors from out of town, a theatre performance, etc. and then try to fit in a rest the next afternoon.
Nutrition: Daily, serve good fats and other wholesome foods. Limit carbohydrates and sugar. Plenty of fresh fruits and raw veggies for enzymes-carrot sticks and edible pea pods at the very least. Small but regular protein portions.
Challenges: Age appropriate challenges are healthy for a child to experience. This can include roughhouse play, getting breathless and tired, physical work like household chores and outdoor chores. It also includes learning life’s lessons, big or small.
The sense of life is linked to the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. If there is stress in the system, it affects our breathing, digestion, our heart, and our sleep life. Pain, discomfort or unwellness is the Life Sense speaking to us.
Next article ~ The Sense of Self Movement
Connie Helms works in private practice as an Extra Lesson teacher in Vermont with children, adolescents and adults. She is a consultant to Waldorf schools in the U.S., mentors Waldorf remedial teachers and serves on the board of the Association for a Healing Education. Connie is the mother of three young adult children who attended Waldorf schools from nursery through grade eight.
Copyright 2011 The Wonder of Childhood
This is such a lovely and clear description of the sense of life! I am really enjoying your series and taking it all in. Thank you so much.
Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post on the Sense of Life. This is such helpful information for a mama. I’m really enjoying this whole series!
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