The Etheric level is intermediate between the Physical and the Psychic world. Due to the gradational nature of reality, ac-cording to which everything can be conceived of as a vast spectrum or continuum, every vertical level or world can be considered intermediate between the two worlds which border it on either side (i.e. above and below).
Steiner referred to the most primary form of etheric substance, from which the original "Old Saturn" stage of the Earth was formed, as Warmth-Ether, that is, substance that consist of "heat" or "warmth". Now, according to physical science, there is no actual substance called "heat"; temperature is simply the result of the motion or speed of vibration of atoms and other particles. The faster the particle vibrates, the "hotter" it is. According to Steiner, "heat" is an actual substance, which stands in the same relation to gas as gas does to liquid. It would seem that Steiner adhered to the old idea of phlogiston
Now, I for one think we can take the word of physicists when they say there is no such substance as "heat". This does not mean that Steiner was wrong though. It only means that he was not describing something which is actually physical, but rather something which precedes the physical.
On the scale of levels of being (table ) one finds that above the physical is the etheric level. Now, all these levels can be divided into sublevels, so we can speak of an etheric level which is just above the physical, and call this the heat- etheric. In fact, Steiner elsewhere does just that, for he distinguishes between the "four ethers", the first and most primitive of which he calls "warmth ether". The three other ethers evolve sequentially from this one. An important Anthroposophical writer, Guenther Wachsmuth, gives this table:
|Spatial tendency||direction of force||Form tendency||State induced|
|Warmth ether||Expansive or centrifugal
|Chemical/Sound||Suctional, centripedal (towards centre)||Fluid||Fluid|
It is not often that experimental physical confirmation is found for subtle esoteric-occult concepts, but Dennis Milner and Edward Smart, working with high voltage (Kirlian type) photography, not only detected "auras" of objects, but also, much more interestingly, the four Steiner ethers. These are described as follows:
Warmth - formation of warmth spheres (spherical shape)
Light - raying out luminosity
Chemical - drawing inwards, circular, disc-forming
Life - individualising, planar, square or cubic forming
Not all of the ethers were equally accessible:
"...because light ether devolves to warmth ether and warmth ether evolves to light ether, information has been obtained [using these high-voltage photographic techniques] about warmth ether activity. Since chemical ether devolves to light ether and vice versa it might be expected that under suitable conditions it would also register...and some of the results...suggest this. Life ether, being two stages removed from light ether, is less likely to register with the present photographic technique..."
In any case, some of the results of this technique are shown in the following figures.
Milner and Smart conceived of the ethers as being in a kind of sequence from the chaotic state of warmth ether, which is pure spirit, to life ether, which immediately precedes matter (fig ). The trouble with this theory is that one would expect warmth ether, being the most subtle, to be hardest to photograph, and life ether easiest, with the other two occupying an intermediate position. In fact, the exact reverse is the case. This would seem to support the position of Steiner, who seems to indicate (although for some reason he is never very clear on this point) a dual evolution, beginning with warmth and going on the one hand to solid matter and the other to life-ether.
On a more occult level, Rudolf Steiner describes Etheric reality as the region of the "nature-spirits", or "elementals", to use the term coined by Paracelsus. Steiner sees the elemental spirits as dynamic forces intimately connected with biological forces and the rhythms of nature; and especially with the growth of plants.
In this respect there is an interesting connection with the early claims by the Findhorn community; a "New Age" (in the positive, rather than the sensationalist, sense) centre in Northern Scotland who based their work on the interaction between the human and the nature kingdoms, especially the nature-spirits or elementals concerned with plant-growth. Much of the early publicised Findhorn community material [e.g. The Magic of Findhorn by Paul Hawken, and The Findhorn Garden, a group work] is concerned with the interactions between the humans working on this project and the various nature and angelic beings. The na-ture spirits are considered directly responsible for plant growth. According to R. Ogilvy Crombie, one of the four founding figures of the Findhorn community: "The elementals or nature spirits...use the energy channelled to them by the devas [angelic beings; the archetypes of species] to build up an etheric body or etheric counter-part for each plant, according to its archetypal pattern....
Both Steiner and the Findhorn community would agree that when we move beyond physical reality, we come to a formative existence which is neither physical nor psychic, but rather something inbetween; the principle of Life, or the "etheric" principle as Steiner and the Theosophists term it. It is this formative reality which constitutes the locus of growth and life in the physical world.
A great deal more could be said here regarding the nature of this reality. One could launch into a discussion on such phenomena as dowsing and earth energies, radionics, kirlian photography, acupuncture, and Reichian therapy, for all, despite their physical aspects, relate in greater or lesser degree to the Etheric reality. Even phenomena such as UFOs relate ultimately to the Etheric rather than the physical. Then there are the scientific hypotheses of Rupert Sheldrake regarding the subtle and non-energic formative fields, analogous to the "etheric for-mative forces" of Steiner and his successors; and physicist David Bohm's distinction between the "Explicate" or manifest physical reality, and the "Implicate" or enfolded, latent, reality. For all these observations and techniques relate not to the purely physical world of matter and energy, nor the purely non-physical, non-spatial psychic world, but to an intermediate reality, neither physical nor psychic, which could be termed the Formative, and which Theosophists and others call the "Etheric".
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