What is Animism?
Animism is a way of approaching life that emphasizes relationships. The term ‘animism’ has some historical baggage from ways that typically white, Western academics have often misunderstood and judged indigenous cultures; however, some people (including some white, Western academics) are reclaiming the term animism in helpful ways. Animists see the world as full of persons, both human and other-than-human, and they prioritize living in conscious and respectful ways with others. Some examples of other-than-human people include: animals, plants, fungi, mountains, stones, metals, fire, bodies of water, spirits of wind and weather, diverse deities, angels, ancestors, star people, nature spirits, and others we don’t have good words for in English.
Consider animism on a spectrum. If you look down on people from other backgrounds and see the natural world as an unintelligent resource for humans to exploit, you’re not very animist as your sphere of potential relationships does not extend beyond living human beings who are like you. If you appreciate humans of all sorts, bond deeply with companion animals, and respect that many wild creatures are intelligent and worthy of respect, then you’re more animist. If you relate well with all sorts of humans, bond with other forms of life, and comfortably dialogue with spirit guides, plants, animals, and other unseen forces, then you’re more animist yet. The wider your field of meaningful relationships, the more you fit the description of an animist.
One way to think about animism is to reference what we already know about human relationships. Social poisons such as sexism, racism, and homophobia hinge upon the objectification of non-male, non-white, and non-heterosexual people, seeing them as less than full persons, less worthy of respect. This objectification enables harmful behavior. To heal these and other intra-species poisons we need policies that affirm equality and justice as well as healing for the confused perceptions that give rise to the bad behavior. Ethical practices follow from seeing other humans as fully worthy of our respect and consideration.
From an animist perspective, non-animists tend to overlook and objectify our other-than-human relations in similar ways that also have deadly consequences. Our global ecological crisis sources largely from the tendency among modern industrialized nations to see the rest of the natural world only in terms of human needs and desires. When we see things rather than people, resources rather than relatives, we are no longer accountable to the rest of life. Conversely, when we view animals, plants, and others as extended family, we are morally obligated to relate with them as such. Contemporary animists, myself included, often feel passionate about humans coming back into conscious dialogue with the rest of the natural world, in part because relating well with our other-than-human kin supports a decrease in ecological devastation.
Animism and Earth-Honoring Traditions. Indigenous, tribal peoples tend to be animists; however, it’s difficult to generalize and not all of the world’s 300 million or so indigenous peoples see the world in animist ways. There are also many people, myself included, who are not indigenous by recent blood ancestry but who view the world in deeply relational or animist ways. People who identify with the revival forms of “shamanism” and “shamanic practice” look to indigenous traditions for inspiration and align to varying degrees with animist values and beliefs. Contemporary Pagan folks draw inspiration from older, pre-Christian European and Mediterranean cultures and tend to align with animist values. Animism is not a religion per se and many Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and other practitioners of well-known religions could be described as animist based on how they relate with the rest of the nature and the unseen worlds.
For years I used the term “earth-honoring” to try to refer to animist views and traditions; however, animists tend to also be sun, moon, and star-honoring. Remember that most people who could be described as animists could care less about that label and have no need for a Western academic term to describe their worldview. I’m an animist, but I don’t introduce myself that way at parties. Also, remember that animism is a generalized approach to life that is learned rather than innate or biological. This means that folks of any age or background can learn how to relate effectively with an ever wider field of relations.
Animism and the Ancestors. Any time we relate with someone different from us, we’re moving in an animist direction. This “other” may be a living human we previously objectified, a companion animal we deeply bond with, some expression of wild nature, or some type of spirit guide or force that dwells primarily in the unseen. All around the world one of the most common ways that folks act in animist ways is by relating directly with the spirits of their family and cultural ancestors. Nearly every culture on Earth has some expression of ancestor reverence and ritual, and I feel passionately about our innate ability to relate in helpful and nourishing ways with our family ancestors.
Family ancestors are a great place to focus one’s calling to indigenous or animist teachings as our beloved dead and older lineage ancestors are strong advocates for healthy families and much-needed cultural healing. Also, we all have ancestors who lived as tribal, earth-honoring people during their time on Earth, even if it’s been a few thousands years since this was the case along any given bloodline. By coming into direct relationship in the present moment with the spirits of our wise and loving ancestors, we access a source of tremendous vitality and support for fulfilling our potential while on Earth. Ancestral healing work also benefits our living families and calls in blessings for the future of our lineages and communities. For more information on ancestor reverence and ritual see the ancestors page.
Animism and Spirits of Place. In addition to ancestral healing, a major focus of my teaching and ritual work is greeting and relating well with the many beings who are local to our homes and everyday lives. Indigenous literally means ‘from a place’ and taking indigenous wisdom to heart includes coming to know and love the land and creatures with whom we share our particular ecology. Our more ancient ancestors were, by necessity, ecologically literate people who maintained conscious dialogues with the spirits of the animals, plants, rivers, stones, weather, and other natural forces upon which their lives depended. Contemporary indigenous peoples don’t have a monopoly on relational intimacy with the land; Earth reconnection is learnable, nourishing for our spirits, and an essential part of honoring our humanity.
Over the past fifteen years I’ve guided hundreds of place-focused rituals in the San Francisco Bay Area and now also in the Southeastern United States. Examples include: ceremonies to feast the mountain spirits including a five-day prayer walk on Mt Diablo, peace tree ceremonies and others to honor ancestors of place, five week-long wilderness quests near Mt Shasta and day quests in the S.F. Bay Area, grief rituals to welcome returning rains and salmon, healing rituals at past mining sites and other areas of ecological desecration, eight years of monthly earth medicine training in S.F. Bay Area, organization of five conferences featuring diverse indigenous and earth-honoring elders and teachers, and extensive ritual to engage local animal and plant relations. I am offering an online course in Animism and Earth Reconnection this year. More info here.
Animism and Personal Healing. All spiritual and philosophical traditions have their sweet spots and specific contributions to the collective wisdom of humanity. Two strengths of animist perspectives are respect for diversity and skills for working with many types of relationships, both of which have big implications for personal healing.
Just as there are many different sacred and necessary natural forces in the world around us, so there are also many beautiful and diverse kinds of people. Practically speaking this means that not everyone needs the same thing, not everyone has the same sacred role in community, and there is no one approach that is right for everyone. This also means that individual healing and wellness calls for folks to be understood and appreciated in light of their unique destiny, personal medicine, and specific soul-level gifts. Treatment of suffering follows from kind and accurate perception of one’s uniqueness. This is also the foundation for solid spiritual guidance and mentorship.
Animist traditions and healers also tend to understand personal healing in light of the web of relationships in which we are each embedded. When people ask for my support in a healing capacity, I want to understand the influence not only of important human relationships, but also the role of family ancestors, local land and Earth energies, and other spiritual guides and teachers (or lack thereof). For more information see personal sessions.
Animism and Human Relationships. Although we can relate in potent and joyful ways with nature spirits, ancient ancestors, and strange old gods, our most important relationships, even for animists, are often with other living humans. As anyone striving to be an emotional grown-up can attest to, these are also the relationships that tend to bring the greatest challenge and potential for nourishment.
Fortunately the application of recurrent teachings from indigenous and animist paths can lead to happier relationships with beloved family and friends. A few of these values and practices include: honoring sacred difference with respect to each person’s path of destiny, giving reverence to the spiritual forces that surround your beloved human folk, finding shared forms of reverence and praise, and making sure to draw on community support while simultaneously protecting your meaningful relationships from envy and jealousy.
For more information on ways to apply animist and ancestral perspectives to cultural healing check out the upcoming online course:
April 15 – August 5, 2018
“Daniel’s presence in my life is a wonderful blessing! I’m benefiting greatly from his workshops. Such honesty and integrity in a person/teacher is a rare find! His knowledge and leadership skills amaze me as he gently guides the class to discover valuable information within ourselves! Working with Daniel has deepened my spiritual connection to Life and to my homeland. I prayed for a teacher to come to help me to teach others, and I believe he is an answered prayer!” -Cheryl, Caretaker at Watersong Peace Chamber
“Working with Daniel and learning practices for tending and healing my ancestral lineages has been life-affirming, grounding, and rewarding. I feel more supported, guided, and self-aware. Daniel’s down-to-earth approach is super accessible, and he is one of the most genuine, kind teachers I have come across in my alternative learning pursuits. I highly recommend him to anyone who wants to feel more connected with with their own inner wisdom, the Earth, and a healthy human experience.” -Ela, Office Administrator & Healing Arts Practitioner
“I highly recommend the earth medicine training to anyone who is questing to increase their awareness of themselves in relationship with the land we live on and with the spirit that resides in that relationship. I can’t even begin to show the appreciation I feel for having had the chance to immerse myself in such an intense experience, and Daniel as a caring, knowledgeable, artistic, highly creative group leader/teacher, designed a program that was able to nurture and tend to our needs as humans.” -Lorie, High School Teacher