Anthroposophic psychotherapy and the problem of materialism today – a single case study

John Lees

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Published: 06.05.2024

Author information

Dr. phil. John Lees

UKCP Registered psychotherapist, BACP senior registered counsellor

Anthroposophic psychotherapist in private practice, chair of the International Federation of Anthroposophic Psychotherapy Associations (IFAPA). Served as Associate Professor of Psychotherapy and Counselling, the University of Leeds/UK for many years.


This single case study describes how a client who was unfamiliar with anthroposophy nevertheless displayed a capacity for insight which resembled anthroposophical research principles. His parents separated in his second septennial and this childhood experience disrupted the development of his rhythmic system. This led to problems in relationships in adult life. The problem was treated solely with anthroposophic psychotherapy.


The current materialistically dominated world takes many forms. One aspect of this is the principle of scientific management originated in the late nineteenth century by Frederick Winslow Taylor which aimed to improve industrial efficiency. It is an intellectual abstract system which affects all areas of working life. In a previous co-authored article on scientific management, we remarked that it involves ‘the enforced standardization of methods, the enforced adoption of the most efficient working conditions, and the enforced cooperation of the workers’ (1). In the field of healthcare, an example of this is the medical protocol which is used to manage and standardize medical practice as opposed to allowing to practitioners to exercise their free clinical judgment. The aim is nevertheless to protect patients and deliver high quality care.

In the article we also made the following points:

The observations that led to scientific management have been developed further into abstract systems. These systems fail to link our thinking and feeling with our conscience and our will power with our morality. Scientific management thus fails to connect our thinking, feeling and will to the spiritual qualities and realities open to us.

Illusionism goes hand in hand with scientific management. In the face of an inhuman system, it gives us an escape from the materialistic nightmare. It results in stimulating us to create fantasies about reality (1).

These two principles – scientific management and illusionism – are illustrated in the case of Thomas.

Working with Thomas


Thomas was 54 years old and working in Information Technology (IT). He was a devoted worker and family man with a wife and son. He was intelligent and logical but also creative. It soon became apparent that there was a huge gap in his life between humdrum day-to-day life and his creativity with the former being dominant. Consequently, he felt lonely, inadequate, lacked self-esteem, described himself as having an ‘anxious attachment’, a ‘fear of rejection’, and was frustrated at the limits of his life. There were no overt problems at work and in his home life, but he was dissatisfied with both. Although acknowledging these problems my ‘diagnosis’ emphasise three other elements. First, a struggle to deal with the scientific management principles of his job. Second, an inability to integrate his creativity with the rest of his life. Third, a difficulty for his I organization to take command of his life and direct it from within.

Thomas’ began the sessions by telling me about his personal life. Whilst walking the dog, he got to know a woman. He felt attracted to her but was not sure how to manage this since he did not want to destroy his family. But it preoccupied him and had an obsessive quality. His narrative then went on to describe his interest in music. He was urbane in appearance and so it surprised me when he spoke about hallucinogenic drugs and a song called Welcome to the Machine by Pink Floyd. From another point of view, it did not surprise me. He was seeking ‘escape from the materialistic nightmare’ of scientific management which pervaded his life by creating a world of illusionism. To further this, he also composed electronic music, but there was no possibility of making a living from this.

In anthroposophical terms our soul life has three elements – thinking, feeling, and willing which correspond to three bodily systems – nerves-senses, rhythmic and metabolic. Thomas’ soul life was determined by thinking and willing. His thinking and willing were well developed but the middle realm of feeling/rhythmic system was undeveloped. The early sessions reflected this problem.

Early sessions

My approach to the therapeutic work was underpinned by a therapeutic attitude which viewed that every human being has a healthy I organization, eternal spiritual self, or individuality. I also asked for the details of the events he mentioned to understand how he was dealing with them. My aim was to establish coherence in the sessions and ultimately his life.

This was significant because, at first, the sessions were confusing. I could not follow the detail of all he was saying. But this soon began to change, and the sessions developed a distinctive rhythm. Thomas’ description of events focussed on his working life which was pervaded by scientific management principles; in particular, team meetings with managers in which they discussed the development of IT systems. Such meetings inevitably had an intellectual and systematized nature.

His narrative soon developed a clear and specific quality in which events were clearly ‘segregated from each other’ (2, p. 35). Given the competitive working environment we focused on events which were orientated towards developing his capacity to act to ‘safeguard’ his ‘existence’ (2, p. 47) since he seemed threatened by life in general and, in particular, by managers in the work environment. In-between the sessions he worked with the issues we discussed in the sessions and, in the next session, reported how he had changed his behaviour. The confusion disappeared.

As already indicated Thomas’ capacity to think and act was well developed but his middle realm of feeling was weakened. It meant he had good willpower and became a proactive client. This was his natural way of being. Before coming to see me, he had been constantly active in trying to understand and explain his experiences. For instance, his interest in the music of Pink Floyd provided him with a powerful social critique of scientific management and illusionism in many works such as Welcome to the Machine. When he mentioned this song, I imagined this was because it expressed his concerns. It was as though he had read the article we wrote about scientific management since these lyrics emphasize the two elements already discussed – the logical aspects of scientific management and the escape into illusion.

Welcome, my son, welcome to the machine
Where have you been?
It’s alright we know where you’ve been
You’ve been in the pipeline
Filling in time
Provide with toys
Welcome, my son, welcome to the machine
Where did you dream?
It’s alright we told you what to dream
You dreamed of a big star (3)

In addition to this he had been active in researching his experience and had explored such concepts as limerence, romantic or non-romantic feelings for another person, ethical non-monogamy and polyamory. Finally, there was the composition and playing of electronic music.

Our focus on his working life was determined by its manifestation of the scientific management problem. I saw the other elements of his presentation – the limerence fantasies about a woman, the drugs and the music – as expressions of illusionism.

Session 5 seemed to me to be a turning point as it introduced a new element. Thomas was talking about difficult meetings which were concerned with introducing new systems so that the different computer systems could ‘speak to each other’. He felt intimidated by others in a situation where everyone ‘wanted to star’. (He did not, as far as I am aware, use this word because of Pink Floyd’s reference to a ‘big star’ but it was nevertheless an interesting connection.)

Another aspect was now emerging. He remarked that few were able to ‘see the whole thing’ as he did. At first, he was inhibited to make the ‘whole framework’ visible. But this gradually changed.


At some point in a psychotherapeutic relationship the therapist needs to make a clinical judgment about whether the client’s insights are truly insights into reality or are fantasies and distortions of reality. Over the period of the first few sessions, I came to the former view and concluded that Thomas was creative and insightful but that these capacities were unutilised in his working life because he was ‘modest and not confident’, had a ‘fear of not being liked’ and felt that his mind was ‘driven by people’s perception of me’. So, from the point of view of rigour in research the rest of this research project must be seen as my considered view – a working hypothesis rather than an objective analysis of what happened.

Thomas’ holistic perspective reminded me of Goethe’s notion of the archetypal phenomenon. But perceiving this is not easy to manage as Goethe stated and Thomas experienced: ‘The direct experience of the archetypal phenomenon ‘creates a kind of anxiety in us’ (4). Nevertheless, perceiving an archetypal phenomenon follows a clear sequence and all of the steps were followed by Thomas.

First, Thomas observed the phenomenon (the IT systems) with his senses. Second, he lived with the observations of the phenomena over time rather than making hasty judgments about them or instantly applying theories to what he perceived. Third, after a period of reflection and contemplation, including within the therapy, he lifted himself to a connection with a much greater archetypal idea or to ‘something objective-subjective’. Fourth, this helped him to become conscious of the holistic nature of his experience in the physical sense world. He implicitly recognized ‘the interplay of the material and the spiritual in a unity precisely in sense perception’ (5, p. 103).

Thomas did not consciously see his experience in terms of the ‘interplay of the material and the spiritual’ but he was in my view engaging in a process which unconsciously recognized this. In anthroposophical terms it had two aspects. First, he unconsciously connected with the ‘cosmic thoughts’ which ‘work into us’ from the outside. Second, because of his willpower and proactive response to our discussions in the sessions his will was able to work ‘from inside’ to ‘outwards’ (5, p. 102).

Without having studied the work of Goethe – or indeed a holistic anthroposophical understanding of phenomena – Thomas naturally had a sense of the ‘qualitative unity of all forces of nature’.

I linked Thomas’ hesitancy and lack of self-confidence with the fact that his parents separated when he was 12. His mother walked out of the household, and this led to lingering difficulties in their relationship so that when we first started meeting, he ‘did not feel much’ for her. But there was light as well – for instance, his relationship with Fred, a family friend: ‘whatever I did Fred made me feel good’. Anthroposophic psychotherapy takes the view that, at this age of childhood, in fact between the ages of 7 and 14, we are developing a connection with peers and forming the basis of our social life as we move out of the parental ‘nest’ and interact with peers. Our capacity to move between our inner world and the outer world of social life is developing. Put differently our soul life (or astral body) should connect with our body or more specifically the rhythm of our lung and heart is developing and if this process is disrupted then problems develop. Rudolf Steiner refers to ‘mania depression hypochondria; volatility of ideas and lack of cohesive thought’ (6). Thomas displayed these problems. He tended to put himself down, thereby precipitating a low mood and withdrawal, followed by a hypochondriac’s sense that he was unwell in comparison to others and, initially, an inability to express himself coherently in the sessions leading me to feel confused.

Clinical material

Thomas continued to exercise his will at work, speaking out more frequently in meetings despite one of the senior staff seemed to want to exercise control over the situation – in one case saying Thomas was ‘out of his mind’. But Thomas was not fazed by this and remarked that it was ‘not a catastrophe at all’.

Because the problem originated in the 7-14 phase of life the focus of the sessions was on his relationships with others. But this was directed by Thomas. I took this to indicate that his healthy I organization, eternal spiritual self, or individuality was active. I asked him to focus on, and report, any changes. His doubts continued but so did the growing confidence. As regards the latter he reported in session 9 that he felt ‘real and strong’ and that he could be ‘that person without limit’. In session 10 he spoke about a manager who did things that did not make sense. In a team meeting the manager put data into the system and said ‘do we agree’ to which Thomas said he did not, and that the manager did not realise how complicated it was.

By session 14 he was talking about future life goals and the need to ‘grow in my sphere, my job’ and also the fact that he did not really know how to deal with his personal life. In session 15 he was the ‘captain of a ship in the storm’. But he also referred to how the ‘steering wheel was becalmed in emotional life’. At work he had a ‘sense of the underlying reality’ and now gradually began to apply this to his personal life. For example, there was a younger female colleague at work who he felt enjoyed speaking to him. In general terms he was able to make mistakes without being guilty or ashamed and, instead of being obsessed with the colleague he simply enjoyed flirting with her. There was not so much desperation, and he said the ‘hole in the heart’ had gone.


Thomas’ comment about the hole in the heart was insightful anthroposophically.

The comment indicated that the problem was in the rhythmic system which houses our heart and our lungs. The lungs are central to the gradual transition in childhood from our pre-birth existence in the spiritual world to our earthly existence; that is to say, they play a crucial part in uniting ‘the soul-spiritual being of man with the earth’ (7, p. 416). When we are born, we begin to breathe and when we die, we cease to breathe. They are ‘the organs of incarnation’ (7, p. 418) and regulate the relationship of our spiritual being or I organization ‘to the physical organism’ (7, p. 418). The child’s perception of its earthly surroundings is linked with the lung since the lungs engage ‘with the outer environment in a rhythmical and harmonious manner’ (8).

It is perhaps significant that Thomas experienced the trauma of his parents’ separation and his mother’s departure at the age of 12 when his heart and his lungs were developing as discussed. It is also significant that, as he began to improve, the therapy developed a good rhythm between the sessions and Thomas’ activity in-between sessions. The confusion of the earlier sessions dissipated and was replaced by coherent and meaningful dialogue. There was a good rhythm between inner and outer – between our discussions in the session and his everyday life in-between the sessions.

Conclusion: anthroposophic psychotherapy perspective

In general terms, problems are usually located in the body and the soul and, if the problems are in the soul ‘we must learn to treat mental diseases with physical remedies’ but, if they are in the body, it is necessary to obtain ‘a cure in organic diseases through treatment of the mind and spirit’ (9). Often both interventions are needed and so anthroposophic psychotherapy working alongside anthroposophic medicine is the most effective treatment. But, in the case of Thomas, he declined anthroposophic medicine. Consequently, we proceeded with a psychological treatment built on the trusting therapeutic relationship we had established. Yet changes did occur confirming that the primary nature of the problem was in his body, or more specifically, his rhythmic system. Thomas’ I organisation was healthy and became activated as a healing force in the therapy. The therapy had stimulated movement in the soul. I called this a Mercury gesture since Mercury is ‘the metal of the lung’ and its mechanism of actions – alleviating ‘disturbances in the rhythmic exchange between soul and the world’, ‘reducing ‘restlessness in obsessive-compulsives .… tormented by self-reproaches’ and bringing ‘stagnating …. processes back into motion’ (10) – were all addressed.


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  3. Waters R. Welcome to the Machine In: PinkFloyd (ed.) Wish You were Here. London: Pink Floyd Music Publishers Ltd.; 1975.
  4. Goethe JW. Maxims and Reflections. In: Naydler J (ed.) Goethe the Scientist. Edinburgh: Floris Books; 1996, p. 108.
  5. Steiner R. The Mission of the Archangel Michael. Spring Valley, NY: Anthroposophic Press; 1961.
  6. Steiner R. The Karma of Untruthfulness Vol 2. London: Rudolf Steiner Press; 1992, p. 97.
  7. Wolff O. The lungs and their diseases. In: Husemann F, Wolff O (eds.) The Anthroposophical Approach to Medicine Vol 2. New York: Anthroposophic Press; 1989. p. 415-448.
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