Trevor Button was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in Botswana and South Africa. He studied architecture and later Waldorf education, and then taught English at Waldorf schools in Germany and Switzerland for 15 years. He has now returned to the country of his birth to help build the small Waldorf-inspired school in Kufunda. Gilda Bartel met up with him in the Southern Hemisphere, speaking to the adventurer about his thoughts on intuition.
What is intuition? What are your thoughts on this topic?
Intuition is an important thing for me. When I first read the ‹Philosophy of Freedom›, I was struck by the fact that Steiner says in the fourth chapter: We have concepts, but we aren’t able though to define what a concept is. Words that we express as concepts only show us that we have concepts. But the words themselves are not concepts. This fascinated me and also made sense because in each language a concept is expressed differently: ‹Baum› in German, ‹tree› in English. Other languages have different words for ‹tree›, however the concept is the same. How someone experiences this concept in their soul is the same, so to speak. And this concept is intuition, but we don’t realise it.
In German we use the word ‹Begriff› for it. Is that what you mean by ‹concept›?
Yes, I think this is what ‹Begriff› means. I don’t know exactly what Steiner says about this in German. In English it means ‹concept› or ‹idea›.
Does intuition come from what lies in a kind of spiritual life behind the term or concept?
That is intuition. If I see a tree and I have the concept ‹tree›, I cannot express that without using the word. But the word only shows that I have the concept, but what a concept is, we cannot say. So, we have these concepts, but only through words can we express them. I think that’s really beautiful. And if we are unable to say what a concept is, it comes into the soul intuitively, and therefore it’s an intuition. We don’t have to work for it, it is given to us. When I see the tree, I have the concept ‹tree›. That isn’t a word yet. Only when someone says, ‹That’s a tree›, do I know: oh, this thing is called a tree. But before that I have the concept without words. I can only express it with words. Our first experience of the world is via our senses. We smell, taste, hear something and have concepts for it. They are intuitively poured into our soul. We have to use language to show that we have concepts. This is what Steiner describes in the fourth chapter of the book.
The way I see it is that ideas are spiritual entities that are connected to things out there. So, the spiritual concept ‹tree› is spiritually connected with the thing out there that I see and later call ‹tree›. When my senses say that there is a tree out there, my spiritual-mental activity gives me the corresponding mental part, namely the concept. This is how we learn about the world. But the concepts are given to me by intuition. I don’t make them up. I don’t have to think that a tree is a tree, I already know.
You are a Waldorf and kindergarten teacher. When a child grows up, it settles into these intuitions, which then congeal into words. So, the child intuitively takes in what it finds in the words ‹tree›, ‹animal›, ‹sofa› because their waking consciousness, their intellectual consciousness, doesn’t yet work in that sense. Would you say that a child is more strongly connected to this intuitive level and that this fades away as the child becomes more awake and more conscious?
No, it is still there. But the small child lives very much in this intuitive world, but very unconsciously. Only when the parents or the teacher says: «There’s a tree, a cat, a dog» does the child learn the language. But the child already has the concepts for this within him or herself, but unconsciously. Steiner said in the ‹Philosophy of Freedom› that this, the activity of thinking – and concepts are thoughts – is the unobserved element in our normal soul-life. We learn a great deal when we realise that this element is there, and we can speak the concept consciously. When I think consciously that which has come to me unconsciously, I expand my understanding of the world immensely. Just like us, a child absorbs unconsciously and intuitively. The difference is that the child is still learning the language. As a kindergarten teacher, I was always amazed that children understand everything when we tell them a highly complicated story. A child intuitively picks up terms and understands the meaning as an intuitive conceptual experience. The don’t ask: «What does it mean that the princess has to spin straw into gold?», the child just understands it intuitively.
What then is the difference between imagination and inspiration for you?
I think the first experience of spirit is in the form of intuition. This has to do with spirit as such, but not consciously. That is why Steiner’s ‹Philosophy of Freedom› is a kind of step into the spiritual world. When he says we have concepts but do not realise what concepts are, he is making a step from the unconscious into the conscious experience of the spiritual. That seems quite logical to me. So, this intuition that I have just spoken about now is the first experience of the spiritual, but it is given. I don’t need to work for it. Imagination and inspiration also come partly as a gift. But in all three areas we have to start working as adults. We have to try to consciously create images, that is, to work imaginatively, or to be consciously inspirationally creative or to think intuitively. But that is our work as human beings on ourselves. We have to develop that ourselves. But the basics are given.
That’s a beautiful thought and it hasn’t been that clear to me until now. You also called it ‹the first experience of the spirit›, which is given simply as spiritual substance.
Every tree is also a spiritual being. It is a being, not just matter and an etheric body. I don’t have to know the word ‹oak› when I see an oak. I know however that there is a being here. Someone then tells me that it is an oak. The essence in the tree tells me that itself. So as human beings we are connected to the spiritual in the world from the beginning. We are not separate. The more we learn about the world, the more we seem to separate ourselves from the spiritual. Then, as adults, we look at the world and say, «I don’t understand anything about the world. What is the world? Who am I?» These questions must arise because only then is liberation from connectedness possible. The natural connectedness has been lost through growing up and waking up.
If I could still know that I have a natural connection to intuitive, purely spiritual things, I would feel safer and more at home. Can we experience this kind of connection as adults?
Yes. That’s something beautiful about Steiner. In the ‹Philosophy of Freedom› he basically says that. He says we have concepts, only we don’t realise they are concepts. They are the spiritual reality, hidden behind them, that we experience. But we have to wake up to this. To do that, you first have to get to the point of not understanding anything. And then comes the threshold into the spiritual realm. There you start a new development that has nothing to do with intellect. It has to do with a new experience of what was given before, on a higher level. The free soul can develop this itself, freely.
The idea of intuition that we commonly have, for example when someone says: «I intuitively decided on red as a wall colour,» does that mean the same kind of thing as the intuition you are talking about?
You could also use the word ‹inspiration› for it when choosing a wall colour. It’s a bit imprecise. What happens in this example is not very clear. One could perhaps even use ‘imagination’ for it.
Can you name what intuition really is then, to characterise it more clearly and distinguish it from the fact that it could also be imagination or inspiration?
The three steps of Anthroposophical spiritual development are first imagination, then inspiration and then intuition. Intuition is there then where one consciously encounters spiritual entities. Intuition is actually a connection between the human spirit and the spiritual entity. That is a very high-level spiritual experience. Then on a lower level there is inspiration, where one hears the spiritual entities speaking or singing or whatever through the inner ear. On a first level is imagination, where one has images of the spiritual which go beyond regular fantasies or dreams. They correspond to the spiritual development of the human being, but they come from the spiritual world. They are totally precise. Before that, you can also talk about the three stages, but on a lower level, like in the example with the wall colours. Or that someone feels they have to take a trip to America, although that doesn’t have so much to do with a higher level of spiritual experience.
Do we nevertheless have unconscious intuitive encounters with spiritual beings all the time? It’s not something that doesn’t exist if I don’t perceive it, but it’s part of how these worlds work together, interact?
Yes, exactly. When we sometimes say, «I have a good idea»: that can come from a spiritual entity as a suggestion, and we call it ‹having a good idea›. We meet our angels and those of other people every night. When I wake up and have the thought that I want to ask Gilda something, it may have been carried from your angelic being to mine.
The standard sometimes seems so high to me, even within the Anthroposophical community. One doesn’t actually trust oneself to be able to perceive this. Spiritual beings are active all the time, whether I can see them or not. And my idea of what a spiritual encounter would look like is still so strongly defined by assumptions, as if I could see an angel, as though it were in the material world. I only have a vague idea, that maybe it’s more like a doing-something-together. But my idea of what spiritual experience is, is still partly shaped by a great reverence on the one hand, which can also prevent me from entering the spiritual realm. And on the other hand, it is shaped by a certain image of how one can ‹look› into the spiritual world. But I am not the kind of scientist who stands on the outside and just watches.
I understand what you mean, and I also believe that it is a problem in the Anthroposophical world. Anthroposophists certainly have an idea of what the spiritual world is like. But this idea is not always correct. It is only an intellectual concept of it. It can be easily misunderstood if one doesn’t have the whole picture. If you have a preconceived idea, it may under certain circumstances block your access to the spiritual world. I block my own possible experience with my imagination, even to the point of blocking the path to the spiritual. Steiner says often enough that we can’t actually describe what the spiritual world is like with the words we are given. He gave hints, he attempted to describe how it is.
Words are like something coagulated, like when one avoids giving definitions in Waldorf education. Our way of speaking has not yet developed enough to have sufficient quality to characterize something precisely and yet leaving it open enough. Would the intuitive realm rather be something process-like, where there are dynamics and movements, from the spiritual substance? And that is why it is so difficult to name it with one word, and our language would have to change into something that can remain more process-like, where there is no ‹end›?
The spiritual world is one of movement and constant creativity. Nothing remains, everything is constantly changing and moving. This is difficult to imagine. We have the opposite in our world. The tree remains. It grows but it remains.
How then can one anchor and insure oneself in the spiritual world? I wonder if the anchor isn’t exactly like my physical ‹Gilda-being-word›? Just as we have the concept of the tree and its word ‹oak›. If everything is in motion, in constant creativity, how do I know who I am?
That is why inner development is so necessary. On the one hand, this makes the soul strong, but it also makes it mobile. I prepare my soul so that I am strong and mobile in the event of an encounter with the spiritual world. It is the art of being an earthly person and a spiritual person at the same time. We are the bridge between the two worlds. This is our task. Meditation, concentration and so on are there to build that bridge so that we can get there without getting lost.
Are these exercises, meditations and so on conditions of having intuitive experiences?
The first level of spiritual experience is imagination. What I have described is exactly this. In imagination there is something very concrete. Imagination is itself in motion. This first level allows me to experience the spiritual world pictorially. Because it is pictorial, I have a concrete image of it, but it is constantly changing. A film is a good example of this. The images are constantly changing, every second, but belong to a whole, a story. But I create the new, in comparison to a movie – as a pictorial example – in the imagination itself. I am in control. With the film, I have no control. Whether I go along or not doesn’t matter for the film. But in the spiritual world it does matter. I should get out quickly if I notice I’m being tossed around like a cue ball.
When you evolve, you can go further. Through inspiration, one begins to hear.
Does inspirational consciousness run more through hearing and sound level than image level?
Yes, it is inner hearing that is meant. Physically, too, it is like this. Our ears are more developed than our eyes. If we use them properly, we have more possibilities of experiencing the world. I hear the other person in their soul. I hear the animal in its soul. I see the bird. That is one thing. But when I hear in my soul, not only with my physical ears, how the bird sings, something comes into my soul that is on a higher level, also for the animal. Because the animal communicates with its fellow species through its song. It is also a higher level of being for the bird.
Which sense then corresponds to intuition? Touch?
Yes, I would say touch, but on a higher level. Touch is a good expression for it. It is also a progression in the physical world. When I see a bird, I can find it beautiful. When I hear it, I experience it on a higher level. And when I meet it, I meet the essence of the bird. It is still there, otherwise I have no experience, but the experience takes place on a higher level. I have learned something about this being. My being and theirs meet.
Within Anthroposophy, sleep consciousness is associated with the digestive tract and the will. It is difficult to make it clear to people that sleep consciousness is also a consciousness. Dream consciousness is still at work. Perhaps I can approach sleep consciousness by understanding what is going on in my unconscious bodily processes. Can this open up an understanding of the spiritual world one is dealing with, in intuition?
I am also confronted with these difficulties. When I move my arm, I see with my senses that I am moving my arm. But the will in it is asleep. I only see the external movement. In my work as an architect, I encountered this problem very early on. For example, a beam carries its load year in and year out without saying anything. ‹Carrying› is an activity. The beam is constantly doing, it is ‹willing› all the time. It does not rest, it is permanently in the action of carrying, but not consciously. For me, this is a bridge to understanding how the will works. Everything in the world ‹wills›. The chair outside there, the blade of grass, the tree trunk, the bricks. Everything does something, but all completely unconsciously. That is, will as such is unconscious. The challenge for the human being to bring consciousness into the will is precisely the challenge of spiritual development. One brings a human consciousness, or any kind of consciousness, into an activity that is normally asleep. That is tremendous. You have to do a lot of work before you can do that. If one can develop one’s own will, to the point of controlling one’s own digestion, at the same time one can also see the will in nature. I see the will of the tree, I see what it does, because I can now also see or experience my own will. At this point we come back to the connection with the world, but on a higher level. Everything that is out there is also within us. That’s why we have terms for tree, cloud, sun, and moon. We already have all that within us. When we wake up in this, we wake up in the world out there too, where the same will is active.
So, is will too ‹just› a tool or a being, which is everywhere? Sometimes it’s confusing and you say, «I don’t know what I want.» One attaches to will so much of one’s personality or individuality. But in that way, will is one of three activities that make up the world. I use willpower only to bring something into the world. But I don’t have to seek within my will, what my task is?
Yes. There are elements that are there, and I am also there in those elements. If I were a water being, I would also be in the water at the same time, always. What is outside of me is also within me. The elements in which we dwell are thinking, feeling and desire. That’s why we get ideas, given from the things out there, even as adults. The element is in both of us. If it were not so, I could look at the world as a strange thing that I can’t do anything with. But it isn’t. We can do a lot with the world because it is part of us and we are part of it. When I see a beam carrying something, it’s like I’m carrying something in my hand. Only I do it more consciously. I see it carrying, but I don’t see the doing of the carrying itself. It is the same with my will. I see my hand carrying the bag, but I don’t see the will in it. That is all done unbeknownst to me.
When the whole world is actually doing its thing, the chair is doing its thing, the beam is carrying its load: Is that another manifestation for what is happening spiritually? I still do not see what it is spiritually. Is the will a manifestation of the spiritual? When I see the beam carrying its load, I see its activity. Is it a manifestation of what it is?
I would perhaps add to that. Someone had a concept of a chair and built a chair. But the concept of it is still a spiritual reality. Everything that nature does naturally – just as the concept is already built into the tree – man does with his hands. Something spiritual is built into the chair, the essence of the chair.
Would you say that the person who invented the chair had an intuition for this essence? Would you say then that intuitions are something where I grasp the activity of an idea?
The chair makes sense because I sit on it as a human being. That is my activity. And this activity corresponds to something in the world that I need, namely the chair. The chair wills. And that corresponds to necessity in my mind. I need something that will help me to sit. I need to sit on something that offers the right activity. I need that for my will, but the chair also wills it. It offers its activity.
I’m just realising that I still assume the world exists outside of me. But as you just described: Because I want to sit, the chair and I can come together. I don’t automatically think that I am part of it. I don’t yet understand that things are always connected to me. But if I ask myself from there what the world needs next, why we need to develop intuition to perhaps also save the world, then that would mean: What do I need that is good for the rest of the world?
Or what can I offer? What does the world need from me that is helpful to the world, that I can create out of my will? That’s where harmony lies – when we can think like that again. Much of what exists is not actually needed. Something has been brought into the world that doesn’t always harmonise with people. There is much in the world that is out of harmony, which is why we have problems. Our task as human beings is that the chair (as an example) harmonises as much as possible with my will as a sitting human being. So, that it is beautiful, that it is well thought out, so that the feeling and thinking is also in the chair. That’s why art is my favourite area. It brings people into their new harmony with the world. If it is beautiful, it is well thought out and also harmonious regarding its part in the will.
Thank you very much for this enriching conversation.
Translation Eliza Rozeboom
Illustrations Collaboration between Adrien Jutard and Fabian Roschka, 2022