Saturday, November 8, 2008

Finding wonder in the everyday world...

I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the finding wonder in the everyday world.

Two of the many hats I wear from time to time are that of wildlife photographer and wildlife observer. I would argue, you can not really be one without being the other. Both can often be subject to the whims of cultural biases, even regarding wildlife observation.

For instance, in the region of the Puget Sound where I live there are many common species found in urban and suburban areas, which might include: American crows, feral pigeons, European starlings, mallards, Canada geese, house sparrows, ring-billed gulls, glaucous-winged gulls, raccoons, Norway rats and a handful of others. These species are generally ignored by people, and it might not surprise you, also generally ignored by wildlife watchers/naturalists and wildlife photographers.

It is easy to understand why if you consider how people in western culture view the natural world. If the creature in question does not inspire awe or fear or if the animals importance in the natural world is not immediately clear and of obvious benefit to humans, it gets ignored or worse.

Let us take Canada geese as an example. Though Canada geese have been native to the region for long before the white settlers arrived, a majority of the population you see around the greater Puget Sound that is present throughout the year is introduced by humans in 1968. Unlike the Canada geese that migrate through the region in Fall and Spring, this population stays put. It so happens that the urban/suburban areas around the Puget Sound with their plentiful waterways and adjacent mowed green spaces are very much to the liking of the geese. With few predators, lots of food and nesting sites the goose population has increased considerably.

People complained about the noise of the geese, and largely about the scat they leave behind on lawns, playing fields and walkways. The city of Seattle had so many complaints that since the year 2000 over 5,600 geese have been put in gas chambers and killed. The geese are still seen by many in Seattle as over-sized rats with wings.

Not many wildlife watchers in the Seattle area pay much attention to these geese, and some times they are even not mentioned when people are out doing bird species counts.

I have had the pleasure on many days to get to hang out with - and sometimes among - a flock or gaggle of Canada geese. As with many of the other species I mentioned as being largely ignored in urban areas, the geese have provided me with some of the most amazing wildlife encounters in my life.

From Urban Wildlife

From Urban Wildlife

The photos of a Canada goose drinking happened during one of those wonderful moments where things just come together beautifully. If we are observant and attentive, those moments are to be found all the time.

I was practicing a Taoist-inspired meditation in which you mindfully observe everything around you without judging. In this case, as I sat near the edge of an urban pond, several geese came slowly swimming towards me. One of them started to bob up and down in the water, and throw water over its back and wings. Like so many pearls of silver, the water drops rolled over and off of the goose's back. It took my breath away. Time seemed to slow down.

I was in the middle of getting my camera adjusted and did not capture that moment. Also, I did not want to be looking at nature from a "what can I get out of this" attitude that is often assumed as a necessity for successful wildlife photography. Instead, I wanted whatever came to me of its own accord to be what I would photograph.

As I slowly pointed the camera at the geese, one of them started drinking the water right in front of it's chest as it floated placidly. The light was perfect, and the camera allowed me to capture what I saw, exactly as I would have liked. The shimmering drops of water falling from the gooses bill are frozen in space. The painted ripples stopped in their graceful path. The moment is captured, as is the feeling that expresses so perfectly the simple wonder in the everyday world.

This photo is one that often brings me into a relaxed meditative state. It always reminds me to pay attention to the things close at hand, the seemingly common and everyday.

When I look at this photo with the eye of an animist, I can see easily how everything in this universe is alive and how it dances and moves together in such perfect harmony.

I feel that the spirits of the place: the spirits of the geese, the water and the light came together so seamlessly and gave me a gift. Even more than that, I was left feeling like I was truly part of that same fabric.

And that, is perhaps the greatest gift we can receive.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Virtue of the small

The contented man can be happy with what appears to be useless. He can find worthwhile occupation in forests and mountains. He stays in a small cottage and associates with the simple. He would not exchange his worn clothes for the imperial robes, nor the load on his back for a four-horse carriage. He leaves the jade in the mountain and the pearls in the sea. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he can be happy - he knows when to stop. He does not pick the brief-blossoming flower; he does not travel the dangerous road. To him, the ten thousand possessions are dust in the wind. He sings as he travels among the green mountains.

He finds sheltering branches more comforting than red-gated mansions, the plow in his hands more rewarding than the prestige of titles and banners, fresh mountain water more satisfying than the feasts of the wealthy. He acts in true freedom. What can competition for honors mean to him? What attraction can anxiety and greed possibly hold? Through simplicity he has Tao, and from Tao, everything. He sees the light in the "darkness," the clear in the "cloudy," the speed in the "slowness," the full in the "empty." The cook creating a meal with his own hands has as much honor in his eyes as a famous singer or high official. He has no profits to gain, no salary to lose; no applause, no criticism. When he looks up, it is not in envy. When he looks down, it is not with arrogance. Many look at him, but nobody sees him. Calm and detached, he is free from all danger, a dragon hidden among men.

- Taoist alchemist and herbalist,
Ko Hung

The Taoist ideal is living in simplicity, in the most direct relationship with nature that is possible. It might be argued by some that this life style is perhaps not fit for everyone. Though, it seems to me that there is much to be gained from understanding this way of life, this perspective.

The Taoist mind is the mind of a child. Children respond to the world much more directly, simply and honestly than most adults. The word being alive is simply WHAT IS to a child. Communication with the natural world is engaged in often with joyous abandon by children who are presented with the opportunity.

So why does any of this matter?

To me, the child's mind is our original mind. It is a state to which we as adults can not only strive for but also reconnect with in a pragmatic, daily way. The world, the universe at large, is a wondrous and mysterious place. How much that is overshadowed by our fears and concerns as adults? Our concerns about being someone and about doing something important. Children know that what they are doing is important, whether that is eating ice cream on a hot summer day and having it run down their hand or its jumping around in the mud catching frogs or imitating them. The small things are important. The small things have virtue. These small things are really vital in life, yet so many adults have forgotten to experience them.

The virtue of the small, the weak and the dark are often ignored or looked down upon in our culture.

One interpretation of the TE in the Tao Te Ching is virtue. As Benjamin Hoff describes it in the Te of Piglet:

Te is not, as its English-langauge equivalent suggests, a one-sized-fits-all sort of goodness or admired behavior that can be recognized as essentially the same no matter who possesses it. It is instead a quality of special character, spiritual strength, or hidden potential unique to the individual - something that comes from the Inner Nature of things. And something, we might add, that the individual who possesses it may be quite unaware of - as is the case with Piglet through most of the Pooh stories.

How many people in western culture seek to be somebody? Or be somebody different? From teens to adults who never really matured, never really grew up fully because they never had a chance to get to know themselves. To get to know their te, their own personal, individual virtue.

So many adults I have met, no matter what age they might have written on their birth certificate still act out the drama that they never really faced as they transitioned from teens to young adult years.

Our culture lacks significant rites of passage for people in the major stages of life changes. Getting a driver's license. Reaching legal drinking age. Graduating high school, then college. These things are almost meaningless on the truly individual, personal level.

It lacks a way to truly acknowledge the sacred cycles in our lives.

So much time it seems is spent seeking youth, seeking to stay youthful. Yet in "becoming adults" people rarely seem to grow up, really. They bury their child's mind under fantasies, fears, and masks. For all their age, they seemed to have gained little that can be called true wisdom.

An truly matured adult might be described one who takes care and fosters a healthy relationship to the child's mind within them.

We have forgotten the virtue of the small to such an extent, that many of us worship BIG. We love powerful things, powerful people and personalities. Even when we look at nature, we tend to focus on the fastest, biggest, most dangerous, most frightening. When and if nature is talked about, we spend most of our nature discussions talking about these creatures.

Yet so much of the natural world depends on the work of the small. The bacteria, insects, spiders. The fungi that help break down the soil and decaying matter into nutrients usable by plants. Even the smallest mammals are mostly ignored for their true virtue.

Bats are one of those creatures that are so often recognized for the fear they inspire: for the way they suck blood (though only 3 out of several thousand species actually feed on blood, and they lap it up and don't actually suck), the way they can get tangled in long hair (thought many species can see even in pitch blackness something as fine as a single human hair using their echolocation), the harm they can cause by spreading rabies (which is rare and they generally die from the disease too quickly to be able to spread it to humans) and so on. What seems to often to be missed or ignored is the great care with which they use to tend to their young. They way that bats in a colony will groom themselves and sometimes each other. The acute awareness with which they experience their world. The longevity with which they can live, despite their small size... likely a testament to how well they take care of their bodies and especially, their teeth. Some small species can live for over 30 years. That's incredible, if you consider that another insectivore of comparable size like a large shrew generally does not live long enough to have its first year birth day celebration...

There is much wisdom to be gained in studying the virtue of the small...

From Bat Species Survey of Olympic National Park 2004

Monday, September 15, 2008

Fundamental difference between the Western and indigenous ways of life

I have been reading, and thinking so much on what I have been reading that I have not posted here for sometime. Stumbling on an interview I had bookmarked some time ago, I spotted something worth sharing here. This is an from an interview between Derrick Jensen and well-known Native American author Vine Deloria.

Jensen: What would you say is the fundamental difference between the Western and indigenous ways of life?

Deloria: I think the primary difference is that Indians experience and relate to a living universe, whereas Western people - especially scientists - reduce all things, living or not, to objects. The implications of this are immense. If you see the world around you as a collection of objects for you to manipulate and exploit, you will inevitably destroy the world while attempting to control it. Not only that, but by perceiving the world as lifeless, you rob yourself of the richness, beauty, and wisdom to be found by participating in its larger design.

In order to maintain the fiction that the world is dead - and that those who believe it to be alive have succumbed to primitive superstition - science must reject any interpretation of the natural world that implies sentience or an ability to communicate on the part of nonhumans. Science insists, at a great price in understanding, that the observer be as detached as possible from the event he or she is observing. Contrast that with the attitude of indigenous people, who recognize that humans must participate in events, not isolate themselves.

Ironically, although science prides itself on being a search for knowledge, Indians can obtain knowledge from birds, animals, rivers, and mountains that is inaccessible to modern science. And Indians can use this knowledge to achieve better results. Take meteorology. Scientists know that seeding clouds with certain chemicals will bring rain, but this method of dealing with nature is wholly mechanical and forces nature to do our bidding. Indians achieved the same results more peacefully by conducting ceremonies and asking the spirits for rain. The two methods are diametrically opposed. It's the difference between commanding a slave to do something and asking a friend for help.

Being attuned to their environment, Indians could find food, locate trails, protect themselves from inclement weather, and anticipate coming events thanks to their understanding of how all things are related. This knowledge isn't unique to American Indians. It's available to anyone who lives primarily in the natural world, is reasonably intelligent, and respects other life-forms for their intelligence. Respect for other life-forms filters into our every action, as does its opposite: perceiving the world as lifeless. If you objectify other living things, then you are committing yourself to a totally materialistic universe - which is not even consistent with the findings of modern physics.

The central idea of science, as it has been developed and applied, is to get machines or nature to do the work human beings don't want to do. This is immensely practical, but in a shortsighted way.

As Deloria states, this kind of way of knowing and being in the world is not limited to Native Americans. It is the birth right of all peoples of the Earth. It is unfortunate that many carry the attitude that such a life is a pipe-dream. That such ideas are mere fantasies of those suffering from middle class guilt or an obsession with tribal peoples.

Deloria and Jensen continue with:

Jensen: How so?

Deloria: Developing the automobile, for example, allowed people to get quickly from place to place, but at what cost, both in terms of accidents and of damage to the natural world? And what effect have automobiles had on our spiritual life?

In a capitalist system, whoever supplies the money de-termines the technology. This means that science, as it's applied, is never really for the good of humankind, but instead for the good of the financial elite or the military. It also means that science will be dominated by the authorities who have found institutional favor, whether they have the best evidence for their beliefs or not.

When beliefs and knowledge harden and become institutionalized, we turn to institutions to solve all our problems: people purchase food grown by others, settle their conflicts in courts and legislatures rather than by informal, mutually agreed-upon solutions, and wage extended and terrible wars over abstract principles instead of minor battles over the right to occupy land for hunting and fishing. Similarly, beliefs about the world are processed into philosophical and rational principles rather than anecdotal experiences, and religion is reduced to creeds, dogmas, and doctrines.

Now, every society needs educated people, but the primary responsibility of educated people must be to bring wisdom back into the community and make it available to others. Because of hierarchies, European thinkers have not performed their proper social function. Instead, science and philosophy have taken the path already taken by Western religion and mystified themselves. The people who occupy the top positions in science, religion, and politics have one thing in common: they are responsible for creating a technical language incomprehensible to the rest of us, so that we will cede to them our right and responsibility to think. They, in turn, formulate a set of beautiful lies that lull us to sleep and distract us from our troubles, eventually depriving us of all rights - including, increasingly, the right to a livable world.

Rather than trusting our own experiences and senses, we often look to scientists for explanations of the world. In giving explanations, these scientists defer to the dogma and doctrine they learned in universities and colleges. It's gotten to the point where almost anything anyone with a Ph.D. says is taken as gospel, rather than as someone's opinion...

We can be blind to the limits of the scientific perspective on the natural world as the only perspective. Okay. Obvious enough, I suppose. But what does he suggest is an alternative?

Jensen: What are some better ways of perceiving and living in the world?

Deloria: I would say one alternative to forcing nature to tell us its secrets is to observe nature and adjust to its larger rhythms. This alternative is practiced by many other cultures, but it scares a lot of people in the West because it derives information from sources that may be tinged with mysticism. For example, many centuries ago, three sisters appeared to the Senecas and said they wished to establish a relationship with "the two-legged people." In return for the performance of certain ceremonies that would help them to thrive, the sisters would become plants and feed the people. The three sisters became beans, corn, and squash. And the soil of the Seneca farmlands was never exhausted, because these three plants, in addition to sharing a spiritual relationship with one another, also formed a sophisticated natural nitrogen cycle that kept the land fertile and productive.

The white man came later, planted only corn and wheat, and soon exhausted the soil. Then, after conducting many experiments, scientists "discovered" the nitrogen cycle and produced chemical fertilizers to replace the natural nitrogen. But now we know that these chemicals have unpleasant side effects that may be even worse for us than they are for the soil.

The point is that, for every scientific "discovery," there may exist one or more alternative ways of understanding natural processes. But we can't know what these alternatives are until we absolutely reject the idea of forcing nature to reveal its secrets and instead begin to observe nature and listen to its rhythms.

With this blog I am attempting to encourage the accessibility of another way of looking at life and seeking understanding. Perhaps our connection to that knowledge never ceased, even among our best scientists...

Jensen: I've heard about South American tribes who can take a poisonous plant and, by some complex process - boiling it three times, skimming off the froth, and so on - turn it into medicine. Usually, the tribes are assumed to have arrived at these processes through trial and error, but this seems ludicrous to me, because the original plant is a deadly poison. By contrast, you've written that "getting information from birds and animals regarding plants is an absurdly self-evident proposition for American Indians."

Deloria: There are plenty of Indian stories where a plant will appear in a dream and speak to someone, or a person is walking through the forest, and suddenly a plant will say, "I'm edible, but you've got to do these various things in order to eat me."

When I was much younger, I would bring Indian plant knowledge to scientists for them to investigate. But they always wanted to take the plant apart, break it down to see what its constituents were. Their efforts were pointless, because that's not the way the medicine men use it. They use it whole, and then they get the natural product out of it by making a tea, or a poultice. You can't chemically disassemble it, because it's the whole of the plant that cures, not any one ingredient.

Jensen: This seems to get at the heart of the fundamental difference between Western and indigenous cultures: seeing the plant as a whole and letting it literally speak to you, versus putting nature, as Francis Bacon said, "on the rack and extracting her secrets from her."

Deloria: That's true, although most of the greatest scientists dabbled considerably in spiritual matters and believed that mystical and intuitive experiences provided them with knowledge. This is true even of Descartes, the first materialist, who is famous for articulating the mind/body, human/nature split. He said an angel came and explained things to him. Heisenberg, Einstein, and Bohr all had sudden insights. What's the difference between that and the Indian performing a ceremony and hearing the plant say, "Do this"?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

An Inuit Poem

At the end of the movie NEVER CRY WOLF, there is a poem. It touched me in a powerful way I can not put into words. It is an Inuit poem who's author is unknown. It is a good one to contemplate.

I think over again my small adventures,
My fears,
Those small ones that seemed so big,
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach;
And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing,
To live to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.

Anonymous (Inuit, 19th century)

Saturday, August 9, 2008


A few more quotes from Derrick Jensen's book.

As is true for most children, when I was young I heard the world speak. Stars sang. Stones had preferences. Trees had bad days. Toads held lively discussions, crowed over a good day's catch. Like static on a radio, schooling and other forms of socialization began to interfere with my perception of the animate world, and for a number of years I almost believed that only humans spoke. The gap between what I experienced and what I almost believed confused me deeply. It wasn't until later that I began to understand the personal, political, social, ecological, and economic implications of living in a silenced world.

Attitudes about interspecies communication are the primary difference between western and indigenous philosophies. Even the most progressive western philosophers still generally believe that listening to the land is a metaphor. It's not a metaphor. It's how the world is.

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Langauge Older Than Words

Per recommendation from a friend, I picked up Derrick Jensen's book A LANGUAGE OLDER THAN WORDS from my local library. It is an intense, powerful book that speaks of the challenges of helping heal this planet, and more specifically our relationship to it.

I feel I will post at least a few times with quotes from this book, because there is so much good stuff found in it.

One section that particularly struck me as profound was early on in the book were Derrick is remembering a conversation with Jim Nollman. They are discussing why the animist view point is so hard to accept for people from western culture.

I stepped away from the conversational fire, and asked, knowing well the answer, why the notion of communicating with coyotes, whales, plants, is threatening to the culture.

"If the Earth is dead, it feels no pain. If the Earth weren't considered dead, we couldn't build the Empire State Building, because we couldn't bring ourselves to hurt the planet so much just to make a big building. The entire culture is based on the belief that the earth is inanimate."


"We need to distinguish between listening and hearing. I believe I listen better than many people, but I still don't hear very well. I have a lot of friends around the world who are able to actually hear the natural world. Still, whether or not we hear, listening is important. Until we start to listen - and, I hope eventually hear - the natural world for ourselves, nonhumans will be regarded as objects. Just the act of trying to listen can change a lot of our perceptions about nature, and that can change the way we live."

I found these words a great thing to meditate on...

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Communicating with insects

I just wanted to share two quick stories about communicating with insects which has happened in the past 2 days.

The first occurred while my wife and I were up on a forested hill, in a grassy meadow over looking a nearby lake here in the Seattle area. She was feeling very sleepy and had put her head down in my lap as I read. I asked here if she would like me to read to her out loud. She agreed, so I started reading some paragraphs from the book in my hands which was Derrick Jensen's A LANGUAGE OLDER THAN WORDS. It is essentially a book about the animist experience and having conversations with nature that are beyond the limitations of language and words. It is an excellent read.

Just as I began, a beetle that had been flying around us for several minutes landed on my wife's shoulder.

My wife was concerned it would crawl into her shirt and she might squish it or otherwise harm it, so I nudged it gently a few inches away from her collar. I offered the beetle to stay there and listen to the story if it would like. Then, I continued reading.

The beetle remained waiting there barely moving at all except for occasional waves of an antennae or subtle movements with its mandibles. I read slowly, paragraph after paragraph. At least 25 minutes passed, and the beetle remained. It had taken two slow steps forward, but was clearly not going anywhere.

I read on until I reached a point where I needed to digest what had been shared in the book. I looked out over the forest, at the nearby stinging nettle and sword ferns and finally down at the beetle. It waved its antenna once more and then popped its black and yellow wing-case open and its wings sprang forward. Then it lifted off into the air and did not return again. I felt a strong intuitive understanding that not only was this beetle curious to hear what was being said and enjoyed being welcomed to listen in, but that there was another side to its visit.

This might sound strange to you but, I felt that through this little beetle the whole forest was scrutinizing us. It was one of the forest spirits coming to see how we were progressing in our work in communicating with nature as an equal partner. If you are open to the possibility that the planet as a whole and everything on it is alive, aware and responsive then this is not so far fetched.

Ever since I dropped the idea that the natural world is dumb and mechanical, other possibilities have made themselves visible. You could say that over time, in place of that view I accepted the idea that the world can communicate with us, and we with it. Now, I have had so many experiences that demonstrate to me personally that this is so that I no longer feel the need nor see any necessity in having to believe that this is so.

It simply IS.

The second story took place today at work, as I was instructing a group of 11 kids at summer camp. During snack, one of my kids plopped his bag down near a small hole in the ground and ran off to play. I had not noticed, until one of the kids pointed out all of the "flies" flying around this particular bag. They were not flies, but were ground nesting yellowjackets swarming into the air angrily!! If you have ever worked at an outdoor summer camp, you know that young kids and wasps don't usually mix well. More to the point, they can lead to some of a summer camp instructor's worse nightmares.

Well, my assistant and I scramble to move the kids out of the general area as quickly as possible. Thankfully, none of them got stung in the process.

There was still a problem though. The wasps were still swarming around the now abandoned backpack, which to make things more interesting was opened and had a open lunch bag in it! I chose to leave the bag there for sometime to see if they would calm down. But they did not stop flying around the bag and buzzing intensely.

It was at this point that I had a feeling it was time to put my money were my mouth was, and see if some direct communication with the wasps would be effective. I have talked with ravens, lizards and other animals so why not? The memory of the beetle from the day before helped give me a bit of confidence.

I took a few deep breaths, and started by apologizing out loud to the yellowjackets about this disturbance. I told them of my plan to walk up slowly, peacefully and remove the offending bag from the spot right near their nest. I had some flashes of violent retaliation from the wasps, and had some rather vivid pictures of big welts swelling up on my bare legs and having one of my eyes swell shut from their stings. I couldn't continue with that kind of imagery. So, I immediately rewound the mental movie and gave it a peaceful ending, free of stings or wasp grudges.

Next, I started towards the nest at about 9 meters distance. I moved very slowly, all the while speaking to them softly about my peaceful intentions and asking them not to sting me. As I near to within about 2 meters from the bag, I hesitated a little. Surprisingly I was not feeling any fear, but I had a sense that I needed to take some deep breaths right then and there in order to relax my body even more. As I did so, a few of the wasps flew away from the nest and circled near my bare calves, then flew on. As my hand tightened around the bag, I slowly lifted it up and back away from the nest. Then took a slow step back and tossed the bag at good 10 meters to my right. Meanwhile, I took some more rapid steps in the opposite direction away from the nest. I checked my person carefully. No wasps and no stings.


Then, I gathered some long sticks and made a wide circle with them around the nest. Lastly, I contacted the camp director and told her to spread the word about this nest. When all was done, the bag was retrieved without mishap. The wasps were happy, and all was well again.

I can tell you honestly, I have never had an experience like this before. I felt in good report with the yellowjackets. I have been stung by them in the past. The communication was clear both ways. Until today, I did not know it was possible. But, today I could not have afforded to be close-minded about it being possible either.

Insects are generally seen as more simple minded and mechanical than almost all of the other "higher" animals. Even by those people in our western paradigm who are open to the idea of animals being more aware than mainstream culture might believe. But from the animist perspective, neither size nor physical structure limits the awareness of an entity in the natural world. Insects are as aware as dogs or parrots or dolphins or people. They simply have their own individual ways of experiencing the same world that we might take for granted.

There is no hierarchy or superiority of species in the fundamental animist world view. All are on an equal playing field.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Animism is a belief...?

More and more everyday, I feel convinced that animism is not a belief or belief system.

Rather, it is a form of experience that springs from being present in and with the natural world. If I say to you that yesterday I felt the trees watching me, and could feel their warm care surround me as I walked slowly through the forest you might be inclined to think I was being poetic. If I told you the story of the time a raven flew in front of my mom's old jeep and told me in no uncertain terms that the car was going to break down and that we were in danger, you might think that was weird and even fantastic. The car did break down very shortly afterwards, and because of the warning I was watching out for it and therefore kept my family safe.

Do I experience the natural world that I am part of in this way, because I believe that it is aware and can communicate with us? I do not think so.

Let's stop and consider some definitions for a moment...

According to, animism is defined as:

1)the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena, and the universe itself possess souls.

2)the belief that natural objects have souls that may exist apart from their material bodies.

3)belief in spiritual beings or agencies.

The first two definitions show a strong bias by the Judeo-Christian world view. Generally, peoples around the world who see the world from the animist perspective would not say that the universe and the things or beings in it have "souls." The concept of a soul is generally viewed as an entity or essence separate from the body. It is the Western world view which separates the world into parts and bits, like pieces of a machine.

Tribal cultures don't see the universe or nature or human beings as machines, rather they seem them as vital with life. They see life itself as a energy full of awareness. In Hawai'i for instance, Pele' is not the "spirit of the lava" rather, she IS the lava. There is no separation between her and the lava. It is not a possession for her, it is rather one form she manifests in. It is the western conceptualization that separates essence from form.

All things considered, I think it is our conviction as westerners that the natural world can not possibly be aware and responsive that keeps us from experiencing it as such.

The 3rd definition of animism also has interesting implications. People in many tribal cultures have regular, often daily, interactions with what in our culture we might call "spirits." If you asked those same people - say for example people from the heart of the amazon such as the Shuar or from a tribe in Papua New Guinea whether they believed in these spirits, they would look at your like you were crazy or stupid. Using the faculty of belief is not necessary for them to speak with the natural world and all the beings that make up that world. They simply do it. Tribal peoples have an equal need to speak with the natural forces and entities around them as we have a need to speak with other human beings in our communities, be they large or small.

I'd like to try a little exercise in awareness. I don't know what the results will be, but give it a try and let me know.

Play along with me for a moment... pretend for this little instant in time that you are not certain that the world is already predictable, pretend (although you might be sure you know better) that nature and everything in it is not dumb and mechanical, play along with me now and drop the assumptions you have that when you know the name of something you can ignore it as unimportant. If you already see it otherwise great, if not just humor me for a moment. Consider this a fun little meditation, if you like.


Look into the eyes of this animal. Imagine yourself being were I was when I took this picture, hanging out on a rocky cliff side above the Lamar River. Notice how it considers you with its eyes.

Set aside your preconceived notions and just look. Enjoy the quiet exchange. That is where the animist experience blossoms from.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The World Transformed

A little more on the animistic vision of the world...

For those of us who were not born into an animistic culture, often what awakens us to this perspective are world-shifting experiences. Those experiences are as individual as each of us, but there are certain threads of consistency and similarity that can be found in all of them.

Daniel Quinn shares just such an experience in his book Providence.

I went last, stepped over the threshold, turned around to close the door, then turned back to face the sunshine.

And the god spoke.

I put it this way. I could put it other ways. I could say that, when I turned to face the sunshine, the veil that clouds our vision was gone from my eyes, and for the first time I saw the world as it is.

There are no words for it.

Someone blind from birth can't imagine what the sighted mean by color, can't fathom what this property might be. If all language were the product of a blind race, the word color would not exist, and if one of that blind race were suddenly to become sighted, he would be unable to describe what he saw; the words would simply not be there for him to use, and this is the way it is for me: The words are simply not there.

But I can put it other ways, and I will, because that's what I can do.

I turned and faced the sunshine, and the breath went out of me as if someone had punched me in the stomach. That was the effect of receiving this sight, of seeing the world as it is. I was astounded, bowled over, dumbfounded.

I could say that the world was transformed before my eyes, but that wasn't it--and I knew that that wasn't it. The world hadn't been transformed at all; I was simply being allowed to see it the way it is all the time. I, not the world, had been transformed.

I'm trying. Be patient. We've reached the single most important hour of my life, and I have to get it right, have to come as close as I can to getting it right.

I gasped, literally gasped. I lost my breath, seeing that.

Everything was on fire.

I can say it that way, but when you say that something's on fire, you think of the fire as being on it,--as a substance that is on the thing.

That wasn't it.

Everything was burning. Yes, that's better. From within, everything was burning.

Every blade of grass, every single leaf of every single tree was radiant, was blazing--incandescent with a raging power that was unmistakably divine.

I was overwhelmed. In a single second of this, of seeing this truth, tears flooded my eyes and poured down my face as I walked along behind the novices. It was strange to see fence posts sitting dead and silent and cold in the midst of this tremendous, thrumming effulgence.

In this vast, scintillating landscape, my nearsightedness was of no account at all. For as far as I could see, for hundreds of yards, thousands of yards, I could distinguish with absolute clarity each leaf, each blade of grass--no two alike anywhere. Each was crackling and trembling and all but exploding with the raging power that animated it.

Again I describe that power as raging. Look into a furnace blazing at its top capacity. Look into the heart of a nuclear reaction perhaps. The power that I saw thundering around me makes all our stock images of power seem feeble. But there was no violence or hatred in this rage. This was a rage of joy, of exuberance. This was creation's everlasting, silent hallelujah.

You know the sparklers they sell around July 4th. The world was ablaze with sparklers. Every blade of grass, every leaf of every tree wascharged with energy--packed, jammed, evanescent with energy, which radiated forth into the air irresistability. The whole landscape pulsed, breathed, moved, was made iridescent with this energy. I think, with what can be done in film today, I could produce a cinematic approximation of what I saw. It would be magnificent, but you would of course know it was just a trick. What I was seeing was reality, was the world as it actually is, every moment of every day....

No, no, I wasn't in a trance. I wasn't in anything remotely like a trance. I was gathering kindling, for God's sake! I had trailed the novices for awhile, walking through the madly radiant land, then had been signed[The novices only used sign language] to head off into the brush to get started. So there I was, stooping and picking up sticks, and breaking them across my knee or leaning them up against a rock to stamp them into smaller lengths, and making pile that would later be loaded into a cart, and all the while tears were pouring down my cheeks like a waterfall. I was lucky I was working alone, though I don't think I would have felt the least self-conscious about my tears if there had been dozens around me. Who could have cared? Certainly not me.

It lasted for about an hour. The radiance just faded away, gradually subsided, and the world resumed its normal appearance. The rest of the crew came along, and we loaded up the kindling and headed back.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Supernatural

All of the quotes below are from the same source, David Abram's SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS.

The primacy for the magician of nonhuman nature - the centrality of his relation to other species and to the earth - is not always evident to Western researchers. Countless anthropologists have managed to overlook the ecological dimension of the shaman's craft, while writing at great length of the shaman's rapport with "supernatural" entities. We can attribute much of this oversight to the modern, civilized assumption that the natural world is largely determinate and mechanical, and that that which is regarded as mysterious, powerful, and beyond human ken must therefore be of some other, nonphysical realmn above nature, "supernatral."

Our modern ideas about the realm of the spirits being some how separate from nature, are actually relatively recent ideas in history. They stem from our largely Judeo-Christian perspective, in which heaven is a realm above and separate from nature. Such an uncoupling is not observed in most oral cultures.

Nevertheless, that which is regarded with the greatest awe and wonder by indigenous, oral cultures is, I suggest, none other than what we view as nature itself. The deeply mysterious powers and entities with whom the shaman enters into a rapport are ultimately the same forces - the same plants, animals, forests, and winds - that to the literate, "civilized" Europeans are just so much scenery, the pleasant backdrop of our more pressing human concerns.

When indigenous people talk about the land being alive and aware, they are not using metaphor. To them it is alive and aware. That has been true in my own experiences.

Magic, then, in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives - from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself - is a experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.

The Matrix

I'm writing out some quotes from The Matrix Trilogy and also some thoughts about the ideas shared in the movies and why they might be significant and/or useful to expanding our awareness of life and reality.

Morpheus: I imagine you that right now you're feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole?

Neo: You could say that.

Morpheus: I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?

Neo: No.

Morpheus: Why not?

Neo: Because I don't like the idea that I am not in control of my life.

Morpheus: I know exactly what you mean. Let me tell you why your here. Your here because you know something. What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You felt it your entire life. That there is something wrong with the world, you don't know what it is, but its there. Like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I am talking about?

Neo: The Matrix?

Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?


Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world which has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you can not smell, or taste, or touch. A prison, for your mind.

Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix have to see it for yourself.

This is of course part of one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history... The scene with the blue pill and the red pill.


It is that seemingly insignificant little thing that Life presents us with when we seek to know the truth.

The other key aspect of this scene is PERSPECTIVE.

There are of course countless ways to interpret this set of scenes from the Matrix. The way I understand it is that it is addressing the fundamental dilemma posed by enlightenment. That is, posed by a moment of world-shattering personal revelation the likes of which we are not likely to recover from again.

The world we tell ourselves about is an illusion... an illusion held up by our thoughts. When we have an experience of seeing life - not as what we think it is but instead seeing WHAT IS - our thoughts stop. They pale and shrivel under the power of that magnificence. It is unfortunate that our culture tends to view individuals who have had such experiences as mad or even as dangerous. Seeing outside of the shell of experience drawn out by our civilization is seen as sheer madness, but it may also be something we need now more than ever in our history.

Morpheus: As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free.

The way I have come to understand it, the Matrix is the thing we take so for granted, the thing that shapes the way we see everything in such a way that we are blind to the fog it puts before our eyes and deaf to what it constantly whispers in our ears. It is the great experiment that we call civilization.

Daniel Quinn, author of ISHMAEL, BEYOND CIVILIZATION and other titles has a name that encapsulates all the peoples that are part of this experiment. He calls them TAKERS.

It's easy to pick out the people who belong to "our" culture. If you go somewhere--anywhere in the world--where the food is under lock and key, you'll know you're among the people of our culture. They may differ wildly in relatively superficial matters--in the way they dress, in their marriage customs, in the holidays they observe, and so on. But when it comes to the most fundamental thing of all, getting the food they need to stay alive, they're all alike. In these places, the food is all owned by someone, and if you want some, you'll have to buy it. This is expected in these places; the people of our culture know no other way.

Making food a commodity to be owned was one of the great innovations of our culture. No other culture in history has ever put food under lock and key--and putting it there is the cornerstone of our economy, for if the food wasn't under lock and key, who would work?- from Beyond Civilization, pg. 5

There are also those people who do NOT belong to the TAKERS. Quinn gives them the name LEAVERS. Leavers are the indigenous peoples of the world, the people also known as "primitive" or "tribal." The Leavers take what they need from the world and leave the rest alone. Living in this manner, Leavers thrive in times of abundance and dwindle in times of scarcity. The Takers however, practicing their unique form of agriculture (which Quinn calls, Totalitarian Agriculture) produce enormous food surpluses, which allows them to thwart the gods when they decide it's the Takers' time to go hungry.

The Taker perspective on life is them against the world. That is why so much in our civilization is focused on conquering: everything from climbing mountains, building dams, to producing food and maintaining health.

So where does such an attitude come from in the Takers? Why do they view themselves as separate from nature? I think the following quote from Alberto Villoldo's DANCE OF THE FOUR WINDS book captures it very well...

"The Western world, the civilized nations, what is called the 'first world' cultures, rule the Earth by right of their economic and military might. And the philosophical foundation of the Western culture is based on a religion that teaches of the fall from grace, original sin, and the exodus from the Garden of Eden. This concept is fundamental to the mythology of the West, and represents Nature as hostile and man as corrupt.


"It is such a peculiar myth," Morales said, "The emphasis is not man's relationship to his environment, to Nature, to the Garden, but man's relationship to himself as an outcast, fending for himself, becoming self-conscious in a hostile world. The Westerner has accepted this tradition, has promoted this concept through art and literature and philosophy. Indeed, it has become ingrained and second nature, has it not?"

"I suppose it has," I said. "You can live your entire life in a city, for instance. It provides shelter, a controlled environment, and acts as a buffer between the individual and Nature. Even foods in supermarkets are treated before they are consumed, either artificially ripened, colored, or preserved, then packaged for consumption."

One of the basic assumptions in Taker culture is that we are separate from nature. It is a perspective of "Man and Nature" rather than "Nature includes Man." It might sound like a unimportant opinion about the human relationship to nature, but this view has devastating consequences. It allows us as Takers to act with absolute conviction that we are at odds with it, therefore, devastating the earth and sending countless species of to extinction without regret or remorse. Why should we? We are separate from those extinctions, separate from nature, so it won't effect us, right? This perspective allows us not only to feel that what we do as Takers is understandable, but also that it is necessary.

Friday, May 16, 2008

For the shaman, life is not limited to plants, animals, and humans, because life is defined as movement. Some things move very slowly, like rocks, and some things move very quickly, like light. For a shaman these are simply different kinds of life.

- Serge Kahili King

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Silent Exchange

Consider a spider weaving its web, for instance, and the assumption still held by many scientists that the behavior of such a diminutive creature is thoroughly "programmed in its genes." Certainly, the spider has received a rich genetic inheritance from its parents and its predecessors. Whatever "instructions," however, are enfolded within the living genome, they can hardly predict the specifics of the micro-terrain within which the spider may find itself at any particular moment. They could hardly have determined in advance the exact distance between the cave wall and the branch that the spider is now employing as an anchorage point for her current web, or the exact strength of the monsoon rains that make web-spinning a bit more difficult on this evening. And so the genome could not explicity have commanded the order of every flexion and extension of her various limbs as she weaves this web into its place. However complex are the inherited "programs," patterns, or predispositions, they must still be adapted to the immediate situation in which the spider finds itself. However determinate one's genetic inheritence, it must still, as it were, be woven into the present, an activity that necessarily involves both a receptivity to the specific shapes and textures of that present and a spontaneous creativity in adjusting oneself (and one's inheritance) to those contours. It is this open activity, this dynamic blend of receptivity and creativity by which ever animate organism necessarily orients itself to the world (and orients the world around itself), that we speak of by the term "perception."


In our culture, we tend to view nature as largely mechanistic in its actions. Even when evidence for the contrary looks us right in the eye.

When in California last Spring, I was exploring a restored salt marsh known as Bolsa Chica. Along a trail through the drier uplands, I spotted a western fence lizard in the leaf litter below some shrubs. With my camera, I squatted down to get a closer look. Fully expecting it to run off, the lizard did something very unexpected. It ran a little closer to me and snatched a bug, which it crunched down and swallowed quickly. With that, I sat down and started shooting pictures. The lizard posed, without fear. Then, it ran up to me in several spurts and hid under one of my crossed legs. From their it hopped onto my jeans and climbed up my leg into my lap, and stopped to look me deep in the eyes. There was a wordless exchange passed between us. I felt a strong feeling of acceptance, peace and even friendly warmth flowing from this lizard. For a moment, I felt I had a peak into the deep awareness that is "lizard." That very same lizard is in the photo below.

Such an experience may be passed off as a fluke of nature. An odd event that was a coincidence. Nothing more. I have had too many such "coincidences" in my life to believe that, though.

Intermittently, I began to wonder if my culture's assumptions regarding the lack of awareness in other animals and in the land itself was less a product of careful and judicious reasoning than of a strange inability to clearly see, or focus upon, anything outside the realm of human technology, or to hear as meaningful anything other than human speech.


It is a common western cultural assumption, that animals are less intelligent, less aware beings. Their ability to comprehend their experience in life limited by the development and size of their brains. And if they show themselves to act outside of the mostly mechanical assumptions, we excuse them to be motivated only by their basic functions, such as "Oh, that lizard was just looking for food, some bugs on your clothes." It is as if until the animals walk up to us and start speaking English, we won't believe that communication with them is possible. We won't believe that they can be just as aware of their world as we are, but in a different way.

Another event happened this past year with a raven in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park. A raven landed in a nearby joshua tree as I was walking back towards our car, along the trail. I approached it slowly, hoping for some close up photos. The bird started calling, in a low, soft voice. Soft, that is, for a raven. It would bow its head down and give a soft croak. I imitated this call as best I could, as I had a strange feeling it was aiming this call at me. Then we engaged in calling back and forth for several minutes, in which time I walked slowly closer and closer to the joshua tree it was perched in. Eventually, I was standing almost right under the tree and still the raven was calling. Its the same bird pictured calling in the photo below.

It flew out of the tree as another bird - probably its mate - came flying by. I believed that to be the end of it. But, once I had walked back to the car something else happened. The raven flew by, close to the windshield and looked in, right into my eyes as it passed.

These two very different animals engaged me in cross-species communication. Animals are not the only beings in nature that can communicate with us.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Rain is falling on the grass. Individual drops, dreaming their dreams together with their many brothers and sisters. Dropping. Falling. Joining together. Falling on the backs of little birds, and rolling off. Falling into the grass and soil below. Caressing and feeding each in turn. Still falling. Making little puddles. Joining and making little streamlets, streams, rivers, and seas. Oceans. Aren't oceans the dreaming of rain drops?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Dreams and Dreaming

I want to make it clear, that the way I am defining dreams is as something real and tangible on an experiential level.

Let's look at some of the dictionary definitions of the word, dream:

1) a succession of images, thoughts, or emotions passing through the mind during sleep.

2) an involuntary vision occurring to a person when awake.

3) a vision voluntarily indulged in while awake; daydream; reverie.

4) a wild or vain fancy.

The way I choose to define the word "dream" as I use it in the title of this blog, is different from the dictionary definitions. By dream, I mean the creative and inclusive realm and process in which we all manifest our lives through our focus, energy and thoughts. This is not a process of fantasizing or indulging in reverie, but rather in creating a particular path in the possibilities within the dynamic of cause and effect.

I know that in our western culture, we have a strong bias against taking the word and process of dreaming with any amount of seriousness. The view I am choosing to live with and share of dreaming is more along the lines of understanding practiced by many tribal peoples' around the world.

Let me use an example from a book to explain this process and act, a little bit better...

This quote is taken from the non-fiction book called Shapeshifting, by John Perkins. It explains the practice a member of the Bugi (tribe from Sulawesi) uses in making traditional wooden ship, called a prahu.

"Every prahu has a dream," Buli explained. "This dream exists before the ship is built. My grandfather showed me how to enter the dream of the prahu as I begin my work. I see where it will sail, what storms it will encounter. This tells me how to focus my work, the parts of the prahu that need special attention. Everything on our ships comes directly from nature; we use no metals or plastics. Once I understood the dream of the prahu - its future voyages - I journey into nature, into the dreams of the plants I need, and select those that are most suitable for this particular ship."

This is a view of reality and of nature that was once common throughout the world, and is still found among the remaining tribal peoples in many parts of our world. It is included as part of a world view that might best be described as "animist" or "animistic."

Dreaming our world

I came upon a blog written by a friend of mine, and it inspired me to write and share about the many books, authors, speakers, visionaries and ideas that inspired and continue to inspire me.

Here is his blog, if you are curious:

My intent on this blog is to share freely and encourage ideas and practices in the world, that I believe will help us to heal ourselves and our relationship to Nature.

It is my belief that we dream our world into being, along with all other forms of life around us. We can choose to do that consciously or not, but we are engaged in it all the time. It is my hope that this blog, in some small way, encourages others to dream more consciously and take responsibility for their part in the web that we all weave.