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.


Curt said...

Filip T,

It would sure be nice if you lived closer to me. Reading about your: tracking adventures, philosophy, and viewing your photos really makes me think I would want to spend some time just hanging out with you. Like I said before, there just are not many people out there who share the same worldview as you and want to poke around in the woods. I think it would be blast to do so.

Take care,


Willem said...

I absolutely agree with your sentiment in not regarding animism as a "belief" system. If anything, I suppose you could call it an "experience" system! Much like you indicate.

"Belief" requires faith in an outside authority dictating fables from on high; animism requires attention and curiosity in the ongoing present moment, and all whom it involves.

Pretty different.

Anyway, your whistlepig looks as cute as the devil perched on his little rock! I love the picture.

Roy said...

Hi Filip,
The main points I had in response to your animism piece have been made already by your two friends Curt and Willem. Especially the distinction between belief and experience.

Technically, in philosophical terms, I'm not sure we can make this argument without some caveats, but that's all head-stuff and only interesting for mental games. If you're interested in playing them...My thoughts hinge around something like this: First, we'd have to define 'belief' very precisely. Because in one sense, it means to me an act of faithful assertion about a proposition, eg, 'I believe in God', despite the fact that I may have no experiential evidence for God. Nonetheless I may choose to 'believe', ie have faith that God is there anyhow. On the other hand I think it's possible to argue that a belief is not this, or not only this. If I have evidence for the existence of Ghosts, for example, I can still choose not to believe in them, even if I have experience of them, or experience that supports the proposition of their existence. If a ghost comes up and taps me on the shoulder and I turn round and see him, I could still choose to deny that it was as ghost, find some other explanation, choose to think it was a hallucination, etc. So I'm not sure that we can strictly say that experience eliminates or obviates belief or the need for belief or our choice whether to believe.

Similarly, if I have direct experience (which I do) to suggest that (eg) spirits exist, I can choose what to do with that information. To others, eg. some of my 'scientific' friends, the evidence that I have isn't conclusive and wouldn't lead them to change their minds about the random, logical, spiritually empty worldview of science. However, for me, if I take this evidence and my experiences seriously, then belief in the sense of needing to make a faithful jump becomes pointless, because I have seen enough for myself; for me it becomes not belief but knowing, experiencing. However, I think that's still a choice I make: what to do with my experiences, how to frame them into a worldview. What I have done is used my experiences as evidence for what I /want/ to believe...and I'm sure that's just what my scientist friends do all the time, too. Whether something is synchronicity or coincidence depends on this, I think. I want synchronicity, so I try to interpret things that way. In this way, I think that beliefs--what we want to believe--can help shape and create experiences. Beliefs create evidence for themselves and can then become experiences. And then of course there's the power of visualization: visualizing a random, logical world brings you that experience, as plausibly visualizing a magical, animistic and synchronistic world brings us that experience. Which is real? I don't think anyone can say for sure, because what's real for one person isn't real for the next. So, having struggled with this kind of thing for a while, I came to the conclusion that while I don't have a choice about whether I experience the world, I do have a choice about how I imagine the world, and this creates how I experience the world. I want the world to be a magical place, and thus I am particularly open to interpreting the way it speaks to me in terms of that framework. With practice, it indeed becomes real. (I'm sure you've seen 'the Secret'.)

Anyhow. These are clearly minor points as I liked and agree with what you said about animism; I share those same kinds of experiences and consequent worldview. I guess I just like mental games, too.

Did you ever read 'The Spell of the Sensuous' by David Abram? I forget whether we talked about it, I think we may have. Some of it came back to me, reading your piece. One of my favourite bits is a profound philosophical underpinning of an animist reality from an amazing, and well-respected, Western philosopher. And interestingly, it's entirely logical, not requiring any 'belief' whatsoever...

OK this is getting a little long so I'll stop.

Love from Roy

Roy said...

Oh Fil, I just saw lower down that you have a big quotation from Spell of the of course you must have read it.

Take care brother,


Roy said...

Hi Fil, this came to mind during the night. One of my favourites.

Earth Dweller
by William Stafford

It was all the clods at once become
precious; it was the barn, and the shed,
and the windmill, my hands, the crack
Arlie made in the ax handle: oh, let me stay
here humbly, forgotten, to rejoice in it all;
let the sun casually rise and set.
If I have not found the right place,
teach me, for somewhere inside, the clods are
vaulted mansions, lines through the barn sing
for the saints forever, the shed and the windmill
rear so glorious the sun shudders like a gong.

Now I know why people worship, carry around
magic emblems, wake up talking dreams
they teach to their children: the world speaks.
The world speaks everything to us.
It is our only friend.

little lightening bolt said...

have you read animism respecting the living world by graham harvey?
his definition of new animism is really changing the old definition.
i think you would find it illuminating...
i agree with you though it doesnt feel like the suffix ism really belongs... it doesnt feel like a belief system at all any more then preception is a belief system...
its a relational system honestly, not a belief system, a way fo relating that is some what independant of belief systems, but can work really well with other belief systems... for example there are buddhist animists and hindu and catholic and mainstream christian animists, even islamic animists...
which goes to show how it interacts with beliefs systems...
nice page!