Thomas Berry and the Evocation of Participatory Consciousness

by Geneen Marie Haugen

excerpted by permission of author from Laszlo, Ervin. and Allan Combs eds. 2011.  Thomas Berry, Dreamer of the Earth: The Spiritual Ecology of the Father of Environmentalism. Rochester; Vermont: Inner Traditions.

Participatory Consciousness – pdf

To the children who swim beneath

the waves of the sea, to those who live in

the soils of the Earth. —Thomas Berry[i]

There is simply no other way to begin writing about Thomas Berry and the evocation of “participatory consciousness” than with a bow to ancestor galaxies and blue-green bacteria, and a bow to esteemed teachers—especially to Thomas Berry himself, an uncommon man in communion with the universe, a man who was moved to dedicate books to “the children who swim beneath the waves of the sea, and to those who live in the soils of the Earth; and to the “Great Red Oak, beneath whose sheltering branches these pages were written”[ii]. His poetic words summon forth our kinship with the Others, bring mindful our interdependence with Earthly companions. By honoring the wild presences, Thomas collaborates in enlivening the world, in reawakening anima mundi from its long, human-induced sleep.

Thomas Berry’s acknowledgement of the “Others” may seem archaic or romantically idealized to contemporary Western people, or perhaps even superfluous. His words may seem innocent of, and irrelevant to, the urgency of our times, much as the Dalai Lama’s hopes for teaching children about compassion may seem hopelessly naïve to Western minds. But the Dalai Lama is not looking through the same lens of consciousness as most of us, and neither was Thomas Berry. He inhabited a magnificent, animated world, an ensouled universe. His offerings to the other-than-human beings were not naïve, but rather, deeply informed by the body of Earth and by the cosmic mystery – and intentionally reciprocal. He expressed a consciousness of participation – as if gestures such as acknowledging the more-than-human community actually matter.

***

In her preface to Thomas Berry’s Evening Thoughts, Mary Evelyn Tucker beautifully notes Berry’s “pathbreaking contribution” in recognizing that human beings are “between stories – namely, between a scientific description of evolution and a Biblical account of creation.”[iii] In addition to apprehending that these old stories are no longer sufficient to guide us and that a new story is emerging, Thomas also discerned that these stories are not just happening to us, but that, aware or not, we are participants. And further, our common future depends on intentional participation. He writes, “This we need to know: how to participate creatively in the wildness of the world about us. For it is in the wild depths of the universe and our own being that the greater visions must come.”[iv] The visions needed to guide us are not secreted in the human creations of sciences, politics, educational systems, business institutions or even religions, but in a far more wild – and more-than-human – terrain into which Thomas not only ventured, but participated, and brought forth his own immense vision, the Great Work.

***

In the wild depths of the Western world, a new mode of human consciousness presses its soft prints into the ground and across the sky, leaves a scent, a faint trail for us to follow. Some have called this new mode “final participation” (Barfield), or “future participation” (Reason). For this writing, I will simply call it “participatory consciousness,” or a heightened, world-reshaping awareness of participation with the visible and invisible; embodied and numinous; past, present and future beings, relationships and energies among whom we dwell. This mode contrasts with the Cartesian bifurcation – or mind/matter and subject/object separation – into which most Western people are indoctrinated. It is a more porous consciousness, a felt-sense of interpenetration and reciprocity; a psychic and somatic openness to the Others and to the mysterious terrain of imagination and dream; openness to what Joanna Macy calls “deep time” – or an awareness of connection with both ancient and future beings and events.

To the Western mind, participation with the non-human Others and with the numinous might suggest mysticism, or something unavailable to ordinary people. Yet this kind of participation is, even now, an everyday mode of being for at least some people – indigenous and others – who have not entirely succumbed to the age of reason.

In openness to deep time, this emerging mode of consciousness is not a return to our presumable primal mode of consciousness. That early mode of human consciousness was likely participatory but perhaps undifferentiated into a distinct sense of self and other, and almost certainly had no sense of what we currently understand as unrepeatable developmental movement over immense expanses of time.

Participatory consciousness emerges in relationship with an animate world, an ensouled universe with both a past and an unfolding future. Rivers and mountains, galaxies and microbes are physical and psychic presences with their own stories and longings. I believe that Thomas Berry not only expressed participatory consciousness, but that he helped evoke it in others, and that this evocation was one of his finest of many gifts to Earth and to the human species.

***

Thomas Berry did not write about the nature and evolution of participatory consciousness directly, in the manner of Owen Barfield, Peter Reason and others, but he left a trail of words that helps bring into consciousness our on-going participation: “At this moment . . . we participate in the intimacy of all things with each other.”[v] And, “We renew our human participation in the grand liturgy of the universe.”[vi] He makes visible the web between participation and psychic vitality: “The excitement of life and the sustaining of psychic vigor are evoked by our participation in this magnificent process.”[vii] And he suggests that sometimes we participate in a greater dream than ours alone: “Perhaps on occasion we participate in the original dream of the earth.”[viii] And who can say but that Thomas Berry’s participatory life was not the dream of Earth and cosmos, expressing through a human being?

His assurance that the universe is a “communion of subjects” – often repeated – suggests that he experienced the universe as a communion, as a sacred process in which he participated. In other words, a communion of subjects was not just an idea, an abstract concept, removed from his felt-sense of the particulars of everyday life. There is no communion without participation.

Most children with access to wilds places experience deep participation and a sense of belonging to the world unless they are taught to fear nature, but for many the physical and psychic enlivening evoked by the natural world is eventually eclipsed by the demands of culture. We forget how we were once entranced by the translucent wings of butterflies, how we were transported into a magical kingdom at the sight of a deer in twilight. But Thomas Berry didn’t forget. A “magic moment” at age 11, with the lilies and the crickets and woodlands in “the meadow across the creek” profoundly informed his life work. A seed of a life-long project took root: “Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; whatever opposes this meadow or negates it is not good.” This simple, clear sense of the importance of tending the body of Earth deepened and ripened into recognition of the inherent rights and interiority of nature: “These evolving biosystems deserve the opportunity to be themselves and to express their own inner qualities.” Biosystems, and the beings who comprise them, are not without their own essential natures, but rather ensouled expressions of the mystery: “We might think of a viable future for the planet . . . as participation in a symphony or as a renewed presence to some numinous presence manifested in the wonderworld about us. This was perhaps something I vaguely experienced in that first view of the lilies blooming in the meadow across the creek.”[ix] Once again, Thomas reminds us of the necessity of participation with the great symphony of life, participation with the numinous presence glimpsed in the fantastic and wild expressions of a flourishing planet.

Not only did Thomas experience deep participation with the phenomena of the natural world – evident in his eloquent words of communion with the night sky, rivers, mountains and songs of birds – he recognized, as well, that human beings participate with the universe not only bodily, but also in the trans-material realm of psyche, imagination, dream and vision. While he often writes with heart-wrenching clarity about the perilousness of our time – as in “The human community has become a predator draining the life of its host”[x] – his language for the mysteries of psyche is often poetic, and thus his meanings are softly elusive – shifting, shading and flaring forth, glorious and slippery as the dawn. His language is often the language of dreams, the lexicon of a dreamer, coherent within the dream, challenging to translate into rational thought. His is the language of a mystic: “We might say that the simplest atomic structure, the hydrogen atom, already expresses a radiant intelligibility, a psychic as well as a physical aspect of reality. It is a numinous and mystical being as well as a physical measurable being”[xi]. And, “Not only can two psychic forms be present to each other in the same psychic space but an unlimited number of forms can be present. Indeed, the entire universe can be present”[xii]. If the entire universe can be present in the same “psychic space,” then we must participate with the universe in the psychic dimension at every moment. Such conscious permeability to trans-material dimensions might be regarded as mysticism, and Thomas Berry as a participatory mystic. Yet his attention was not directed solely to a transcendental realm, but to the relationship between the psychic-spiritual dimension inherent in the cosmos and the human expression of that dimension in re-creating our relationship with Earth – the “great work” of re-inventing the human presence to be mutually-enhancing and participatory with the Earth community.

***

The two primary stories that have guided Western people – the Biblical and scientific accounts of creation and of evolution – are lacking sufficient complexity and nuance to guide our way into what Thomas calls the Ecozoic Age. Neither story suggests the participation of human beings in the outcome of the story, as if we live in a universe where everything happens to us. Thomas notes that a profound reorientation has emerged. He writes:

A decisive transformation has taken place. The human had nothing to say in the emergent period of the universe before the present. In the future, however, the human will be involved in almost everything that happens.[xiii]

The human species already is involved in altering the biosphere, whether or not we allow awareness of our actions. Much of the human community, it would seem, unconsciously participates in the unraveling of life systems by “improving” our own position of comfort in the world to the detriment of even our own kind, as well as the other-than-human communities. We helplessly follow the life-brutalizing directives of our invented economic systems,

Unable or unwilling to recognize . . . that our entire modern world is . . . inspired by a distorted dream experience, perhaps by the most powerful dream that has ever taken possession of the human imagination. Our sense of progress, our entire technological society . . . is a pure dream vision in its origin and in its objectives [xiv].

Thomas traces the human-caused harm to our glorious world to its origin in a distorted – and unexamined – dream, its origin in a trans-material dimension of the human experience. Thus, he suggests an intrinsic intertwining of trans-material and physical realities:

There is, I propose, an unbroken continuity in the creative process through this expanse of universe development. Both in our physical and in our psychic constitution, we are totally involved in that single vast creative process that reaches across all the distances of space and from the beginning of time to the present[xv].

Even psyche is “totally involved” in the unfolding story. Human dreams, even distorted dreams, are participatory in the story of Earth.

Our distorted dream experience, our technological rapture, our unexamined faith in “progress” have brought us to the perilous edge, but it is also true that our technologies and faith in progress have given us the very tools to tune in to the cosmic unfolding. Would we know what we know of the universe story without our sophisticated instruments that look backward in time or into the beings we call cells and atoms, or without our certainty that we are entitled to expand our knowledge and our presence in the galaxy? Yet our dream of technological and scientific progress has missed attending, or finding coherence with, the mystery that interpenetrates phenomena. Thomas writes, “The new origin story, the supreme achievement of the scientific effort of these centuries, must be completed by a sense of the psychic, as well as the physical, dimensions of the evolutionary process from the beginning”[xvi]. Until only recently, we have probed the physical universe as if it is devoid of psyche, as if the imagination and curiosity of human beings do not reflect imagination and curiosity inherent in the cosmos.

If psyche or consciousness interpenetrates the phenomenal universe, who can say with certainty that our sophisticated instruments and observations were the only way we could have encountered the story of cosmic evolution? Although Thomas wrote of the importance of entering the dream or shamanic realms to find guiding vision, it seems that he did not explore the possibility that the carbon atoms with capacity to “enter the processes of thinking”[xvii] might themselves be communicating with us, telling us the story of their own long journey, just beyond the reach of our ordinary perceptions.

Western minds chose to attempt to penetrate matter, but earlier and contemporary indigenous people have chosen to enter other dimensions of reality through the doorways of consciousness itself, assisted by plants – our distant kin and teachers – or by vision-evoking methods such as fasting, dancing, or wilderness solo. The ancestral totem poles of the American Northwestern people suggest the lineage of non-human Others from whom a tribe descended; other tribes of this continent commonly refer to Earth, Sun or Moon as Grandmother or Grandfather. Australian Aborigines listen for ancestor spirits in the dreaming of Earth. The recognition of reciprocity with the other-than-human community and lineage of ancestors is deeply embedded in at least some traditional peoples – a participatory relationship that yet eludes most Westerners despite our intellectual knowledge of ecological kinship. The question is not only how did people without silicon-based technology know, but how did they know so deeply – in a way that infused their very manner of being, in a consciousness of participation with ancestors and kin, in an ensouled and animate world?

We Westerners have benefited greatly from science – who does not tremble at the sublimely surreal photographs from the Hubble? – but what depths of experience and ways of knowing have we lost by exploring matter devoid of psyche, by severing the body from the dream?

***

Dreams live in the same mysterious terrain as imagination, visionary experience and psychic realities – a terrain to which Thomas points, or writes from, again and again, opening an awareness that these trans-material realms are themselves expressions of the cosmos, finding particular shape in the human:

In the beginning was the dream. Through the dream all things were made, and without the dream nothing was made that has been made.

While all things share in this dream, as humans we share in this dream in a special manner[xviii].

Our “special manner” includes not only self-reflexive consciousness and “a special power over the universe in its earthly expression”[xix] – even to the point of undermining life-systems – but also our ability to imagine, dream and envision.

The human species, as far as we know, is the only Earthly creature with both an ability to envision alternate futures – dream-visions that do not yet exist, possibilities that have never existed – and then to create them. The human imagination has birthed violins, spaceships, global communication, nuclear weapons; yet we remain largely unaware of the great mystery of imagination itself, and of the planetary transformations unleashed by that imagination.

The threshold crossing from unconscious participation to conscious participation – not only in our material expression, but also in our psychic, imaginative expression – is an evolutionary movement that accompanies the new story.

Thomas wrote extensively and eloquently about the need to transform the human presence into a mutually enhancing relationship with Earth and cosmos, to reshape our political, economic, religious and educational institutions to reflect our embeddedness with the rest of life. The seed from which such metamorphoses emerge is a transformed and transforming consciousness, participating with the physical and invisible presences among whom we abide. He writes:

“Numinous and cosmic, as well as primordial human, forces are available in guiding the process of human development if only we will become sensitive to this guidance.”[xx]

Primordial, numinous and cosmic forces may be discernable only to the trans-rational consciousness, the very mode of consciousness that one enters at night, sailing forth into dreams, and in wakeful visionary experience or mystical perception. When we become sensitive to this guidance and act upon it, we become conscious participants in the cosmic unfolding.  Berry writes that this is familiar terrain for shamans, who journey:

into the far regions of the cosmic mystery and brings back the vision and the power needed by the human community. . . . The shamanic personality speaks and best understands the language of the various creatures of the earth. Not only is the shamanic personality emerging in our society, but also the shamanic dimension of the psyche itself[xxi].

The shamanic dimension of psyche is a primordial creature made of fur and feathers, seedpods and stardust—an unruly being who participates with the wild depths of the universe, howls with the invisible and visible Others, dances with numinous and cosmic forces. The shamanic dimension of psyche circles and beds down, waiting, so near, just beyond the gate of our ordinary minds.

***

Thomas Berry did not tell us directly how to cultivate a consciousness of participation, but again and again, he shows us. Speaking to a gathering in 2000, he said:

I would suggest that we go outside this building, that we go beyond all the light and noise of the city and look up at the sky overarching the Earth. . . . We would see the stars begin to appear as the sun disappears over the horizon. . . . A stillness, a healing quiet, comes over the landscape. It is a moment when some other world makes itself known, some numinous presence beyond human understanding. We experience the wonder of things as the vast realms of space overwhelm the limitations of our human minds.[xxii]

He suggests that we participate in the “great liturgy of the universe”[xxiii] by attending the transitional moments, the dawn and the mysterious twilight, the seasonal changes, the awe-filled hours of birth and death.

As I write, late in the afternoon, totally engrossed with the words on a screen, I jump up, suddenly aware that I have nearly missed the deepening pink sky, the slow darkening to lavender and purple. I run outside barefoot with a wooden flute, and play a simple melody for the sky and sandstone, for the pinyon and any creatures who might hear during this snow-blanketed winter twilight. It is a kind of vesper. At other times, the flute accompanies the Moon, or the Milky Way, or dawn. It is a kind of prayer. It is a soft song added to the great symphony of life.

A practice of celebrating the wild Earth and cosmos – like other practices – holds the possibility of re-shaping consciousness; the more our thoughts, words and gestures are intertwined with the beings among whom we abide, the more the world pulses with life, the more we hear the exuberantly singing Earth, and perhaps even the songs of starlight. Thomas wrote, “As we recover our awareness of the universe as a communion of subjects, a new interior experience awakens within the human. The barriers disappear. An enlargement of soul takes place”[xxiv]. With an enlargement of soul, with a new interior experience, we are no longer who we were. A new participation with the world begins to emerge, sending forth simple music, listening for the voices of rivers and clouds, carbon atoms and Moon, with numinous antenna attuned to the great dreaming of Earth and cosmos.


[i] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999).

[ii] Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra, 1988), p. x.

[iii] Mary Evelyn Tucker, in Thomas Berry’s Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. Mary Evelyn Tucker, ed. (San Francisco: Sierra, 2006),, p. 10.

[iv] Great Work, p. 51.

[v] Evening Thoughts, p. 137.

[vi] Dream, p. 215.

[vii] Ibid., p. 198.

[viii] Ibid., p. 223.

[ix] Great Work, pp. 12-13, 20.

[x] Evening Thoughts, p. 83.

[xi] Ibid., p. 64.

[xii] Ibid., p.40.

[xiii] Evening Thoughts, p. 21.

[xiv] Dream, 205.

[xv] Evening Thoughts, p. 59-60.

[xvi] Ibid., p. 69.

[xvii] Ibid., p. 55.

[xviii] Dream., p. 197.

[xix] Ibid., p. 198.

[xx] Evening Thoughts, p. 130.

[xxi] Dream, pp. 211-212.

[xxii] Evening Thoughts, p. 137.

[xxiii] Great Work, p. 17.

[xxiv] Evening Thoughts, p. 18.

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