Article Stewardship

Thomas Berry on Intuition

Note: For ten years, Carolyn spent many hours in deep discussions with Thomas Berry about his transformational thinking for healing the human-earth relationship through recovery of a sense of the sacred. Her memoir is based on her personal notes, practices and reflections from these conversations.

It was a languid fall afternoon as I drove to Thomas’ modest dwelling on the outskirts of Greensboro; I had been there before but had never paid close attention to the surroundings until that day. One of his nieces had remodeled an old stable on her land when Thomas decided to return to North Carolina after his years at the Riverdale Center in New York. He moved in contentedly and named his new abode “The Hermitage.”

To reach his place one had to drive over a slightly unstable bridge, turn right off Four Farms Road onto a gravel drive, which twisted and turned past a lake, and then park opposite an open field under an old oak tree reminiscent of his favorite red oak at the Riverdale Center.

As I parked my car and walked up the thirteen carpeted steps that led to Thomas’ apartment, I remember my quiet anticipation, thinking that the day held a kind of grace.

He greeted me with a cheerful, “Come in, come in, how’s everything out your way?” and told me to look around while he made us each a cup of tea. His place was simply furnished with a couch, a large chair, a coffee table, and a dining table stacked with papers and books above which hung an assortment of framed awards along with an array of dried leaves Thomas had collected on his walks.

Around the doorframe to his study I noticed a large number of Post-it notes with numbers and messages on them, and I called out to ask him what they were for. He responded with a chuckle, “Oh, they are reminders of things I have to do!”

I said, “How do you know which one to tackle first?”

He grinned and said, “I just close my eyes and pick one!”

He brought the tea into the living room and placed it on the coffee table and we sat down together on the couch. “Now,” he said, “how’s yourself?”

I explained that I had several journal entries on soul that I wanted to read to him. He settled back to listen, and when I was done, he provided a thoughtful and measured response: “We have the capacity to awaken to the inner life of things. It is about another way of knowing, an ‘origin-al’ way of knowing, you might say. It is a knowing that is connected as a tendril of the heart to the heart of the universe. It is a numinous awareness, an intuitive consciousness, a second voice, that resides beneath the rational faculties and is actually the approach to transformation.”

As usual, I waited while he paused before enlarging upon his topic. When he went on, I again felt the depth and breadth of the Asian influences that he had integrated so deeply into his own thinking.

“The ancient Chinese had a definition of man as the hsin of heaven and earth,” Thomas continued. “The word itself is written as a pictograph of the human heart. It means that ‘man is the understanding heart of heaven and earth’ or ‘man is the psyche or the soul of the universe.’ We are now awakening to the inner life of the heart in the human and the heart in the interior life of the universe.”

By this time, Thomas was standing up and fully into his subject. To my great chagrin, I had run out of paper in my small notebook. Thomas noticed, walked over to his dining table, picked up a notepad and handed it to me while continuing to speak.

“Now, as we said before, the universe has soul in all its living dimensions; every creature has a deep psychic life, an intuitive connection to the Divine that was lost when our perception of the Divine became historical rather than immediate.

“Through the new story of the universe that we now acknowledge to be both physical and spiritual, we are beginning to see through new eyes, through a new, yet very old intuitive awareness that has been lost and is now being recovered. We are recovering an inner way of knowing which is a way of being that is desperately needed at this time when we can no longer bear the loss of the sacred within ourselves and within the earth. It is a distinctive way of knowing, separate from science; the two do not negate each other but they are not the same.

“In science, thought is organized around separateness and differences, parts are dissected, analysis and judgment prevail; with intuition, thought leads to synthesis and vision. We need both kinds of awareness, the inspiration of the intuitive and the critical faculty of the scientific intelligence, but science has been overdone in reference to the intuitive consciousness. Only through intuition can we experience a sense of the sacred.

“You can’t understand the universe simply through science—it is one way of knowing directed toward analysis and use. The intuition is another way of knowing through the heart—the song of the birds, the sky at night, the magnificence of mountains and seas.

“You can see a forest at twilight with its changing light forms and appreciate it without knowing its science; you are experiencing ‘another way of knowing’ as you do. Our gesture toward the universe should be toward one of supplication for greater understanding through this other way of knowing that is really beyond words. In these present moments we actually discover our transformative nature.”

I remembered reading an interview that Thomas had with poet Thomas Rain Crowe in 1990 in which Thomas had said: “I am constantly in an aware, analytical frame of mind, but also simultaneously, in a dream state of mind. We need both kinds of awareness. But the more we can function out of the immediacy of our arational responses, the better off we will be.”

When I quoted this to Thomas, he nodded and replied,“With rationality we are never completely satisfied. Expansion of rationality is different from the expansion of intuition, which can bring a depth of understanding and a sense of the sacred.”

Thomas paused then and sat down briefly to collect his thoughts and determine how to continue. I waited with great anticipation, feeling that with the strength of his comments he had moved again into what was deeply foundational in his thinking. He sipped his tea briefly before going on.

“Intuition is the unique quality of the human that is also the consciousness of the earth and the eventuality of the universe because it can reflect on the reality of the universe, its origin and it’s history. You might say that intuition is the foundation of reason that is laid down first in a child before the rational faculties are added on like grace notes.” He smiled, pleased at how his words had come out in the immediacy of the moment.

“Every child carries this deep intuition but then loses it within a culture that doesn’t understand or honor the intuition. It can remain lost forever. When the Chinese philosopher Mencius spoke of the need for recovering the heart of the child in later life, he was speaking of this inner knowing that we are talking about which is our real authentic nature and the goal of all our searching. Once rediscovered and practiced,” he put great emphasis here on “practiced,” “this ‘indwelling’ can give amazing value to our lives in the midst of all we experience.

“The natural world activates the intuition in the mind—what we see in the rocks and trees and flowers—and from this we very gradually begin to see the whole universe as a manifestation of the Divine. The comprehensive and the particular come together, as I like to say. Everything and everyone can be seen as both whole and part of the whole of the entire universe, and a sense of the sacred—” (here Thomas waited for the right word to come to him, and when it did, it was the same word he used when we first spoke about a sense of the sacred) “affixes—a sense of the sacred affixes itself within us in response to the natural world. We are able to ground ourselves in our own experience and reclaim our inner subjective knowing. As we add to our inner knowledge, we become more conscious of what was there originally. It is a healing both for ourselves and for the earth, for only a sense of the sacred can save us.”

Thomas,” I asked him, “how do we recover our intuitive awareness?”

“It is an emerging process we are talking about,” he said.“There is a great need to understand the sequence of universal emergence—the shaping of the galaxies, the shaping of the earth, and the refined shaping of human consciousness. This story is our personal story. We begin where the universe begins. Our souls, as well as our bodies, began to be shaped at that time.

From the beginning, the universe has been spiritual as well as physical. From the beginning there has been, on a universal scale, a psychic and spiritual as well as a material process unfolding and developing.

“In past centuries the intuitive and visionary dimensions of the universe have been omitted in favor of the mechanistic and that has been tragic. Today these are emerging again as part of the evolutionary process and we can recover them if we can learn to see and work in the realm of immanence, for our real hope lies in the inner dynamics of our own nature. We must learn to recognize the promptings that emerge from our own depths.”

Kosmos Learning Journey to Timberlake Farm Earth Sanctuary

Boyd and Carolyn Toben purchased Timberlake Farm in Whitsett, NC in 1967 as a way of exposing their children to woods, lakes, pastures, and farm life.  Although they had no previous experience in land stewardship, they longed to raise their children in a place where they could retreat from 20th century consumer culture and, as a family, connect and develop a relationship with the earth. Following Boyd’s death in 1999, the family began understanding how fully their relationship to the earth had transformed them.  In 2000, Carolyn, inspired by Thomas Berry, her dear friend, created an experiential nature program at Timberlake. A year later, a commitment was made to put the entire 165 acres into an easement with the Conservation Trust of North Carolina to protect it in perpetuity from the ravages of overdevelopment. Now, an event venue and welcoming retreat center, Timberlake remains true to its original vision, bringing more people into a sacred relationship with the earth. Kosmos editor, Rhonda Fabian spent a day this summer with Carolyn and friends, touring Timberlake and exploring future collaboration.

We sat silently for a long time as we both contemplated the enormity of the words that had come to him.

I finally asked, “Thomas, are you saying that in this present time, for our survival and the survival of the planet, that we must be about recovering this intuitive awareness, this interior, inner soul dimension that has been lost?”

When he replied, he repeated the words he had used in our earlier discussion about relationships: “We are being changed. We are being adjusted to see everything in its true proportion. We are being driven down to the heart with its radical interior tendencies.”

Thomas stood up then and said: “Come back next week and we’ll talk more about this in regards to children.”


It was several days before I could resume my walks in the woods, so powerful was my last visit with Thomas that I needed time in stillness to absorb his words. When I did go out, I seemed to see all things in a new light: the way one fallen tree was held in the embrace of another, the overhead flight of a red-shouldered hawk, a flotilla of geese making a six-point landing on the dark waters of the pond, everything announcing itself in the “family of things,” as the poet Mary Oliver has written.

 “To be in rapport with the uniqueness of things,” as Thomas had said, and yet to see that, “everything is bonded to everything else,” helped me see how the natural world could activate a sense of the sacred. I began to see with my inner intuitive eye that the natural world was teaching what I needed to learn … patience from the enduring qualities of the oak trees, gentleness from the tiniest forest plants, softness from the grove of loblolly pines. Change, transformation, it was all before me and I was part of it all.

 I saw that I had always been in search of an outer reflection of what was within and that now in my moments in the woods I was finding it all around me in every living thing. I realized from within that there was indeed a psychic-spiritual inheritance … a love of the earth that came to us through the ages from the universe that was in great danger of being lost in this time. I allowed myself to go deeply into the grief.

 As if to bring consolation, the resident blue heron landed in the top of a close-by tree to tell me that the natural world was offering to help … that the “mutual-enhancing relationship” between us was bringing us into a participatory experience with one another.

 When one notices in a particular moment—the word “notice” comes from “to know” as in an inner way of knowing— a very special relationship comes into being. In that moment with the heron I felt a direct experience of the sacred and I knew that the natural world was trying to come to our aid, if we could only learn to listen to it and trust it.

 And as part of the universe, if we could only learn to listen to our intuition, our soul’s knowing, and really come to trust it, perhaps the human-earth reunion, so long overdue, could finally take place.

By Carolyn Toben
Timberlake Earth Sanctuary Press, 2012
Recovering a Sense of the Sacred: Conversations with Thomas Berry is a thoughtful and poignant memoir by Carolyn W. Toben recounting her spiritual journey with renowned scholar, author and cultural historian, Thomas Berry.
About Carolyn Toben

Carolyn Toben, M.Ed. is an educator, author and creator of new social forms with a spiritual dimension that foster cultural renewal. Her background includes degrees from the University of North Carolina Greensboro, extensive post-graduate studies in spirituality, world religion, depth psychology, and teaching in both secondary and college settings with an emphasis on interior education. For many years she served as a seminar leader in the field of teacher renewal at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching in Cullowhee and for the Advancement of Renewal for Educators in San Francisco. In 2000 she founded Timberlake Earth Sanctuary which offers programs, retreats, and workshops on a new understanding of the human-earth relationship based on the inspiration of Thomas Berry. Carolyn is the author of Recovering a Sense of the Sacred: Conversations with Thomas Berry, and Cultivating a Sense of the Sacred: Practices Inspired by Thomas Berry. In 2014 Carolyn was the recipient ot the Sacred Universe Award from the Wellspring Spiritual Center in La Grange, Illinois.

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