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 dictionary.com, 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.