An Anthroposophic View: Cultivating Our Naturopathic Conferences

 In Education, Practice Building

Robert Kellum, ND, PhD, MSOM/LAc, LMT

Becoming Custodians of Spirit

Rudolf Steiner felt that an anthroposophic understanding of “spirit” must not merely be a theoretical view. Rather, it should act as an actual power in life, which, when it truly comes alive within us, links our souls with its spiritual concepts such that we become custodians of a human evolutionary process.1(paragraph 1)

For Steiner, this idea of becoming a “custodian” for human evolution carries with it an invitation in freedom (1) to observe and acquire an understanding, through focused science, of what is going on within this process as it shifts over time, (2) to engage a conscious effort to create a bridge of equanimity to carry it, and (3) to optimize one’s social relations, through an impulse of warmth, in universal brotherhood. This 3-fold balance of focused science in freedom for the spirit, equanimity for the soul, and brotherhood for the bodily life was for Steiner the spark most capable of fostering further human development and healing.1(paragraph 27)

Freedom of Choice

In translating how spiritual science might engage this process in everyday events, there are a number of insights to be gained from the structure and dynamic of a typical anthroposophic medical conference that we as NDs might find useful to incorporate for our own group events. Obviously, any approach to creating a conference is not an experience that can be forced on people. Each of us must have complete freedom to be who we are, do what we want with our free time, and take the actions we need for ourselves in any given moment. But conference organizers can provide a deeper conscious structure that encourages and allows something akin to this 3-fold dynamic to evolve. Whether it will or not is of course not a function of structure alone, but without a nurturant, facilitative consciousness, its odds of unfolding are even less. Also, obviously there is no one “way,” anthroposophic or otherwise. It is rather a matter of having a vision of a method that each of us in our own way can cultivate and engage and which by no means is limited to anthroposophy; it just happens to be where I have seen it developed well and from which I am choosing to draw examples in the interest of filling gaps that I have seen in our own conferences.

Sharing a Sense of Common Movement

Each morning of a typical anthroposophic medical conference begins after breakfast with a common movement activity. So, for example, all participants in the conference might come together in a circle or nest of circles, depending upon the size of the group and the space available, to engage in a eurythmic or spatial dynamics exercise designed to heighten a group connection. We used to do something similar to this in our qigong retreats in the Classical Chinese Medicine program at National College of Natural Medicine (Portland, Oregon). In both cases, it is not a marginal event that a few decide to brave in the early morning hour; it is instead very much a part of the program, something to which everyone looks quite forward and indeed does not want to miss. From the beginning of the day then, people are brought together in a common somatic consciousness. Additionally, at the end of the movement activity, before a keynote speech or breakout sessions, one or more of the organizers of the conference will usually give an outline of the day, with perhaps a theme in mind that we all might carry with us as we weave in and out during the day, and which we will also return with as we gather together again communally at the end of the day.

Nurturing the Sacred Through 3-Fold Consciousness

Seminars are unquestionably opportunities to gain new insights about our profession. We find out who has the most up-to-date knowledge on any given subject and who is most efficient and organized with the latest technology, and so forth: all this is of course important and often fascinating but not in itself enough. This form of valuable competitive-based relations, which assure cutting-edge practice for all of us, benefits in turn by being nested within 2 other realms, in approximately equal proportions: the second entails the extent of care taken to regard each and all as equally worthy of professional nurturance and respect, regardless of inevitable personality differences that invariably arise in any large gathering of people, and the third is the conscious development of a sense of fraternity and cooperation with each other. I think typically in a conference we tend to think of these latter 2 aspects as perhaps a bit more peripheral to the primary dynamic of an educational seminar—as dimensions that might be more central to a gathering more properly labeled as a retreat. I would like to put forward the suggestion, however, that we could greatly benefit by consciously integrating them more fully into all our conferences.

There is a sacred quality in our work as physicians that has been at some level an important determinant in the decision each of us has made to take up the practice of medicine in the service of humanity. Our conferences should be opportunities to celebrate this sacredness by providing a venue where we can begin to feel it as a group with each other as well—not just as epiphanies to share regarding our patients, nor simply lone events on our own, nor only among a small circle of friends once a year, for which the conference is more of an epiphenomenal excuse to meet—even as these aspects of interaction are crucial parts of a successful conference also.

Rhythmically Pulsing Breaks as Opportunities for “Breathing” Together

In anthroposophic conferences I have attended, I have found that providing breaks in between breakout sessions, for brief informal congregating in a common area, perhaps with a beverage or light snack as a focal point, can engage a conscious way to regularly return individual breakouts back to a group immersion, in a continual rhythm of contraction and expansion throughout the day. The breaks then become not simply a distraction from precious intellectual time but crucial events for nurturing and sustaining interactive dialogue and play. I daresay there are many who use the breaks as such already, but the conscious structuring of breaks to facilitate this process is an act beyond this that raises its status to a group level.

The Different Ways We Learn

Beyond our intellectual engagement, and the importance of some conscious bodily activity as integral to the learning process, there are many other learning modalities that can be consciously integrated during a conference day as well: for example, a breakout exercise in the drawing of a plant remedy, time spent meditating upon the plant in nature, the actual making of a remedy, a group experience in the power of sound (as in a mantra, poem, or song), an experience in art as it applies to the treatment of a particular disease, a direct experience of receiving a bit of a particular modality such as a type of bodywork, or the application of a compress or poultice, and so forth. There are many opportunities for enriching a conference experience here such that it addresses a theme and speaks to its participants on many levels. Again, this calls for a different type of vision and presence. We know these modalities are of value for our patients; it has been my experience that we tend to neglect them, in our profession, as tools for developing ourselves.

Daily Group Sharing, Closure, and the Importance of Taking the Conference Into Our Sleep

At the end of a typical anthroposophic conference day, in an attempt once more to tie the group together, one person from each of the breakout groups may be chosen daily to give a 1-minute-or-less public expression of some pearl or inspiring insight that came to them in his or her individual experience. In this way, all the events of the day are once again woven together into the group’s consciousness, and greater opportunity for discussion can ensue throughout the rhythm of the days that follow.

Just as there is a common talk in the morning, there is again usually a main talk given in the evening, typically of much greater depth, bringing the group together in a common closure for the day, and for all participants to take with them into their sleep. As in the sleep temples of Asclepius, the importance of sleep time, for bringing the conference experience more fully into each participant’s being, is consciously integrated. The conference then does not end at 5 pm with dinner. It picks up at 7 pm or so and goes on until approximately 9 pm (and it is quite rare to see any empty seats at these late gatherings), and then it continues still as each participant carries it through the night. Free time can still be woven in as needed, but there is yet a recognition that the conference is a commitment to each other and the profession.

Overcoming Our Limitations

For years following all the meritocratic trappings of medical school—seemingly endless challenges to conquer, continually having to prove oneself as one’s performance is evaluated and contrasted and compared with peers, the various ego conflicts all of us get caught up with in the process—I daresay this important experience also serves to leave many of us on guard and still in a defensive or preemptive state around many of our colleagues, our patients, and our board, when as a healing profession what we all sorely need is the safety to open ourselves to a place of greater vulnerability with each other. Without this vulnerability, our capacity for sharing a spiritual scientific experience in conferences is minimal. I am imagining, at least, that at some level you all know what I am talking about. I am imagining that it is an experience each of us has had at one time in our lives, of physically being in a room among other people and yet for reasons of not feeling safe, not feeling reflected, or whatever, we “leave” the room: our body is there, but our presence is not, and through this device one can protect and defend oneself in an environment where one does not feel wholly comfortable. These are complex issues, but I do believe we need to make overtures toward healing ourselves as a group just as we aspire to facilitate healing for our patients. Finding ways in which we can encourage “presence” is a professional privilege and burden in which we all can share.

The last thing I want to do is to convey the notion that anthroposophic medical conferences have somehow transcended personality conflicts and petty bickering, and so forth. They have not. But I will say that they are consciously structured in such a way as to allow this transcendence to occur more readily, and in my 10 years or more of attending such conferences, I have witnessed such transcendent evolutions in many relationships and individuals, including myself.

Thanks to friends and colleagues Dr Alicia Landman-Reiner, Dr Paul Kalnins, Dr Philip Incao, and Donna Patterson, LMT, for their helpful feedback in editing and revising this article. Final responsibility for all ideas within it are solely the author’s.

Robert Kellum, NDRobert Kellum, ND, PhD, MSOM/LAc, LMT is a board-licensed ND and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, seeing patients in Portland, Oregon. With other interested colleagues, he is spearheading the development of the Society for Physicians of Anthroposophic Naturopathic Medicine, with the intent of its being part of an umbrella group within the Anthroposophic Association of Medical Therapies in America, for developing the cross-disciplinary seeds of an integrated spiritual science through the drawing together of NDs and like-minded colleagues as a conscious force in their professions. For more information, you can contact Dr Kellum at [email protected].



  1. Steiner R. The work of the angels in man’s astral body: a lecture by Rudolf Steiner, Zurich, 9th October, 1918. Osmond DS, Barfield O, trans. London, England: Rudolf Steiner Press; 1960. GA 182. Accessed March 9, 2013.
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