I had a student ask me for a working definition of animism the other day and I realized that much of the talk regarding animism, or an animistic perspective, is sort of quartered in the Spiritual Ecology section of the bookstore, and doesn’t get the consideration and discussion that it deserves.
As an animist, the world is vitally alive. As for how an animist thinks, I will share that on my walk the other day I said “hello” to a particularly friendly looking bush, apologized because I sat down on a patch of dirt too abruptly, and considered (and still am considering) why snow and I have a rather bad relationship.
I also have been thinking a lot about technology, specifically Facebook, as an energetic entity and how it is an energetic dampener (as in, notice your energy before you go on and after you have been on there for a period of time). I have acquiesced to being on Facebook (you can find my page here) against perhaps the more Luddite or introverted (or appreciative of peace) aspects of my nature, and so share a lot of cartoons and things I find to be interesting on my facebook page in order to hopefully lift and inform… but from my perspective it is hard to look at Facebook, and most of the internet, as anything more than a lot of unhelpful and entropic noise (despite its good points in facilitating communication in some regards and allowing me to find esoteric information a lot easier than the card catalogue at my library did) that highlights our wounding patterns personally and collectively.
Generally if you look at even something as seemingly “non-cuddly” as Facebook (we typically start an animist path with cuddly, and understandably so) you can see and sense that it too, has a life cycle (and has peaked a few years ago, actually) and what sort of energetic presence that it has… and that it is an energetic grid, or presence, that can be worked with and spoken to, just like in an animist world all things are alive and can be spoken to.
You can carry on a much easier conversation with a tree, that is vitally alive, than a chair, however. Not all things in an animist universe are equal, or have the same vitality… and just as in talking to humans, there is a lot of nuance in what information may be helpful, or helpful to you, and some things speak a much different language, or have a much different context or way of being than you, and those take some effort to commune with (and to not project on). You will also have a much more in depth relationship with a hammer you have used every day for fifty years than a tool that you have only utilized once. Bringing consciousness to this relationship deepens it even more.
To an animist, the human is part of a spiritual ecological system.
To non-animists, their spiritual ecological system would be a pyramid, with humans on top. Humans have dominion over pretty much anything and everything in that pyramid– from the natural world, to the cosmos, and over every archangel, spirit, being, and demon.
To the animist, spiritual experiences and direct communion is a thing of wonder. It is a feeling of being smaller and smaller in a larger and larger and more magnificent universe that is vitally alive. It is the silent and receptive state that one comes to before hearing an orchestra begin. It is being in a dynamic relationship with another being– be that being human, plant, rock, spirit, or being (and the wide variety of etc.) It is an engagement with respect and humility, as well as discernment, knowing that the Other is all around us (and is not separate from our daily lives, or elsewhere in Peru, or with someone who has a specific romanticized “other” background), and that much like our physical world and living humans, the animistic universe is highly nuanced– both dark and light, but often a mixture of the two.
The way that spirit comes across is not mental, or psychological, but pure feeling and communion. Our lack of connection, the emptiness felt within, cannot be solved by the mind. It is solved by moving beyond the mind, and by connecting directly– to one another, to the Earth, to spirit/the divine.
To the animist there is wonder and recognition of the pure vastness of what spirit, the divine, the intelligent universe, or even what lies within us at our depths, truly is.
One does not need to be a priest, or “called”, or be told they are special to be an animist. They simply need to be willing to listen, to quiet their minds, and to be willing to engage with spirit through being a part of things. A small child, an elder, and someone just realizing that a feather on the ground may have meaning can all be animists.
A chef, a teacher, someone who works in retail, and an office worker can be animists, and can connect to nature, to the natural world, and carry on conversation and reverence for what surrounds them. Animism is not a religion, it is a way of being. It is a way of listening, and of knowing that the world goes far beyond the surface level physicality of it.
Our house, our land, even our morning coffee we can begin to know on a deeper level, to be in a relationship in a deeper way. Animism is about connection, and learning how to connect in such a disconnected world, a world that in fact numbs any sort of feeling and connection to its deeper levels, is always the challenge. But once such a barrier has been broached, there is no other way of being for the animist.
While there is a sense of humanness in the physical form (as in, I need to ensure my survival and a basic way of life that suits my purposes and get me to where I need or want to be, and yes, I can be an animist and live indoors, eat meat, and enjoy television), an animist perspective would perhaps simply be described as a circle.
This could be described as a “everything gets eaten” or an “I eat you, you eat me” perspective. We are born and eventually return to the earth.
This cycle is not the vain pretense of avoiding death, or disease, but of understanding that birth and death are a part of life, and are strikingly similar energetically and physically. We are born from the void, are infantile, grow and thrive and provide for others, enter into another infancy where we are rich in wisdom but lose our physical capacities, senses, and strength, and eventually move back to the void, becoming mulched and cycled by the earth. There is no fear in this, no avoidance, but a simple understanding and appreciation of the life cycle, and the cycle of being human.
In this circle, there is an understanding that the world around us, and what is contained in that world, has a voice. It has a perspective, a type of wisdom, and is something that can be communed with.
All things have consciousness.
Our bodies have consciousness. Each cell. Each organ. Each part of us has a voice. That is, if we are willing to listen. Our bodies contain what is unhealed, what has been sectioned off and fractured, and if we are able to inquire within, to really listen to what is being said within and what is being held within our tissues, we can heal and understand ourselves on an individual level (for more on this, my Body Deva book!)
All things are consciousness, if we want to get at the key perspective here. All things make up a part of the whole, and if we connect and communicate with one another, working together, things will go a lot easier.
To an animist, they can walk outside their door and have 10,000 things to chat with. An intelligent and pragmatic animist will pair their education (such as learning about herbs from more formal resources or apprenticeship) with what they learn from the herbal spirits themselves to utilize them.
This is a communion with the world to the extent that other voices can be heard. To the animist, communion is a two-way street, with respect offered, connection created, and a willingness to listen.
To really hear what the world, what the tree in your front yard, or even what the spirits and beings that inhabit your home have to say to you.
To hear what the ancestors whose strength comes through you have to say.
An animist can sense a wind coming in and realize that it is going to bring sickness, such as a flu or other outbreak.
An animist is often sensitive and connected enough to realize when a large earthquake, or other natural disaster is going to hit. Knowing where, or what exactly, is typically not known in such circumstances other than perhaps a vague sense of knowing and a general dis– ease at such events.
I do not wish to romanticize with those last sentiments, but as an animist I wish to describe such sensations as a thing of beauty, and with the appropriate nuance to recognize what such a connection, if never experienced, or only experienced a few times, can bring.
Many of you reading this may be well aware of these sentiments, of course, and know how vitally sustaining a connection to the earth, and to nature, can be.
How we cycle our energies with the earth throughout life, and when we experience life, we are nourished by the earth and are intended to nourish the earth (a two way street), and how when we die we nourish the earth yet again. How really animism, or even shamanism, is really about death.
We have such fear of death, that the idea that animism or the shamanic path is a process of katabasis– a descent into the underworld, a continual letting go, an interaction with what is “dark” (subconscious, wild, free, sexual, animalistic) has been lost in favor of rigid and dogmatic christianized notions of the “light”. The notion that our power, our dynamism, our creativity, and our roots lie in earth and so-called “dark” energies is not able to be understood by a culture that is so separated and fearful of anything other than an illusory and puritanically derived “light”.
To those called to be of service to their communities (I no longer use the word “shaman” so I will say “spiritual worker”), the process of katabasis must be understood and deeply felt to connect with the earth, before any type of “rising” up the world tree. We heal, we connect, we deeply know who we are and what lies within not by rigid constructs that are societally deemed appropriate, but through examining and becoming conscious of our most atavistic instincts.
This is how we heal, how we integrate what has been lost to us through trauma. It is by integrating, by listening, by hearing with compassion and regard even the darkest parts of ourselves so that they are no longer separated and fractured from us. It is by accepting ourselves, and the animist universe as it is, and seeing how we are relational beings that are meant to connect, that we can commune clearly, and deeply, and finally receive the nurturing that we so long for.
To the animist, such communion is personal. It is freeing. It allows for us to know that we are not alone. It is an act of prayer, a relationship built between two forces, two being.
But I have my way of praying, as do you. What the tree in my front yard says to me might be different than what it says to you. What the tree in my front yard shares with me after communing with it for six months, and bringing it offerings and sharing my gratitude for its teachings will be different than what it shared with me the first day.
What we can learn in silence in the woods, through personal gnosis, and by listening to even the most suburban of yards, can allow for us to connect, to Earth ourselves, and to become relational beings.
It allows for one to approach all things through connection, through communion, through listening. It is in this silence, in this listening, that deep healing occurs.
Mary Mueller Shutan is a spiritual healer, teacher, and author. You can find more information in her book The Body Deva: Working with the Spiritual Consciousness of the Body.