Animism and Earth Reconnection FAQ

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Animal People

A few years ago, I learned from ‘core shamanism’ by Michael Harner that power animals are really important and if they leave us, we attract ‘misfortune’. What is your reflection/opinion on that?

I try to have a generous attitude toward the work of others, and respectfully, I don’t share this specific view. There are a few areas of difference.

One, and this may be a bit semantic, the language of ‘power animals’ causes me to feel concerned about a way of relating with the animal kin that may see them only through a lens of how they can benefit us rather than as elders, kin, teachers, and also friends, companions on the journey.

Two, I perceive (real or imagined) an underlying construct of fear of being left/abandoned that could be playing into this idea. That belief, when present, tends to go well with a view of ‘Am I worthy?’ and a host of other constructs that for me at least don’t feel necessary when approaching the spirits.

On the flip side, I do agree that it’s good to not take the support of the powers for granted insofar as they’re not a part of us, not something that can be just assumed. That doesn’t mean we need to give way to fear, but not just assuming the support of any people in our lives, human or otherwise, is also respectful.

Finally, I have found there are truly so many different spirit kin who are willing to lend support to our lives. I don’t personally live in fear of the spirits withdrawing their support. But if I acted in harmful ways toward others, I also wouldn’t really expect the powers to back me in that. So yeah, they have choice, that’s also true.

But mostly: Life is tough as it is, don’t add this to the list of fears or possible problems. And if in doubt, ask the powers themselves about it.

I learned from you that ancestors can act as ‘converters’ or regulators of intensity between us and the Deities. Is the same true for animal spirit teachers and kin?

Possibly, yeah. There are a few things to tease apart here. Although I don’t think you mean it this way, it’s important to not relate with one relative as just a means to relate with another. About the ancestors, it’s like asking them when needed to assist with intensity by helping to filter or regulate in that way, like a helpful chaperone when the ancient unfiltered powers are present.

Now can the animal kin assist in a similar way? Yeah, I think they do. I could imagine Tiger also being able to convey messages from Shiva in a less threatening way, Deer a spokesperson for the Cailleach, Fishes among the ambassadors of Yemoja. In my personal experience with Ant for example, Ant seems very connected to Solar energies, Hawk feels a bit like that to me also but differently, and that massive energy seems present in the backdrop with each, but it’s certainly different than trying to interface with the Sun directly. In some ways we’re always interacting with a whole field of energies when we think it’s an individual. The main thing is to respect each power on their own terms when also noticing how the presence of one beneficially impacts our experience of another. Both/and.

I have had what I’d call ‘Medicine Encounters’ with wild ones during waking time.  The way I have engaged these is two fold:  1) Attempting communication in real time in a way similar to how you set up the initial animal spirit teacher communication, and 2) going to a mentor who asks questions to help me surface the medicine gifts I received.  Do you have comments about engaging what feel like more than fun naturalist mode encounters with live wild ones in waking states – say out on the trail, at heightened moments when I’m already either walking with a question, or facing a challenge in life, or just surprised and the animal showed up in medicine way with warning, with some other gift? Since I put my body almost daily in geo locations where wild encounters in naturalist or daily life mode are common, and since I cultivate intentional lay naturalist skills as well as interspecies communication and medicine way with the wild ones – I’m wondering if I can rely equally on the live encounters as much as the calling in the guide in prayer space as you taught in Part One Episode 5 or if you have any weight of ratio to recommend in engagement.

Yeah, good question. In a general way, all of the above, follow the energy, stay flexible and notice how each encounter plays out as not all of them will occur along the same perceptual channels. More specifically what I’d suggest (and this is off the cuff as it may be an element you’re not currently focusing on) consider when an animal relative presents to you, what are some of the important kin of this animal relative. For example, when you see Woodpecker maybe you see implicit: Oak, Lightning and Ant. Some traditional cultures actually see the people whose bodies are (other-than-human) nature as groups of what we think of as individual species. Like an encounter with Raven or Ash may be an encounter with Odin whose body includes those ones and others. Don’t reduce one being to another, but be curious who is implied by the specific face that appears. This softening of the starkly individual lens of different species can be one inviting way to soften our cultural conditioning and can yield new insights.

Otherwise, no I wouldn’t feel like you need to rely only on physical encounters with the animal kin. Trust your instinct on what’s getting results and leading to real sense of felt contact and deepening intimacy. I’m reluctant to give any guideline as it will vary from person to person, but do see these others in their own local context and relational web.

I have a question about giving back bones and feathers, snake skins and stones. How should I go about this in a respectful way? I have all sorts of pieces that I have collected over the years, but lately I’ve been feeling an urge to return them. Some are Wallaby bones, some are Turtle bones, some are Bird bones and feathers. Do I give the land people’s bones to the land? The water people’s bones to the ocean? I have been a compulsive collector who didn’t even think about asking permission, but it just doesn’t feel right now.

Yeah, totally following. It’s great to return these sacred bits and detritus and also feels lighter to me as well. Mostly I let it be instinctual, like greeting/thanking each item and then letting myself be drawn to where those ones may be returned to, perhaps with a further offering of thanks to smooth things over (remember offerings can be simple like clean water). I don’t assume they get returned, really like no way to put a wallaby bone back in the wallaby, and you’ll know. In a sense, even the one returning is the Earth moving Itself around. Another challenge: let the entire process be a joyful release, like butterflies or doves, without any trace of the guilt of those Earth magics choosing to ride with you for a time. Thanks!

Animism & Cultural Healing

How do I balance the imperative to work for social justice and cultural healing while at the same time really enjoying spending time with the other-than-humans out in the wilds? Do I have an obligation to use my privilege to leverage change in more tangible ways? 

This is a good and important question. I would start by inviting: What would the Earth and ancestors have to say of this? All the human troubles are also the troubles of the Earth.

Working for the greater good can look many ways and looks can be deceiving. Meaning some solitary ascetics off meditating in caves have become the shape of the world, all the troubles now live in their hearts. They have done anything but abandon the Great Work. And some activists are avoiding tremendous inner conflict and showing up in the world in ways that create more division and work at cross purposes to their stated mission. So there is not only one way to stop running from life. When we say that all people must express their service in a specific form, this is another kind of ideological tyranny.

Also, each person has their own unique destiny or form of accountability with respect to the spirits. If one person needs to be spending their days lobbying for an end to the prison-industrial complex and they’re out doing shamanic drumming with butterflies, then there’s a problem. If activists need to be in devotional practice with the Holy Earth more often, then that’s great to do. Here’s one piece on honoring sacred difference that speaks a little to this. There is not only one correct way to be but you could say there is a correct or at least more aligned way to be for you in particular.

That said, of course vote if you are permitted to, try to work out your cultural baggage and be self-responsible about your position in society. Be ethical to those in your life, speak out for greater justice, and if you feel haunted that you’re not doing enough, listen carefully to that voice and the voices beneath that and consult also with the stones and the dead and the elk about it. Just remember that if we all must be activists in one certain kind of form then the oppressive forces have already won.

Animist Fundamentals & Practices

Can I trust that gentle increase in repetition of basic ritual and relationship building as we are learning in the course – added to what I was already doing before the course – might grow, or at least build a deeper foundation/roots from which to grow into even more potent Earth healing and particular, applied medicine?  Context: I feel like a reasonable metaphor is like learning a musical instrument.  In this course we are doing fundamentals.  Core routines which are like scales in music.  I have some sense of needing to be strongly embodied and integrated in the fundamentals before learning more elaborate, challenging pieces of music.  Long before this course – I had been doing other routines and Nature sourced ceremony, some similar to those Daniel’s been teaching.  Wondering about bridging to more challenging, directed ones at some point?  

Yes, probably and it’s hard to say really. I mean I hope so, that’s the idea, and there’s no practice that’s the right fit for everyone. My basic formula goes like this: get really well with your own ancestral lineages. That should help work out or at least temper childhood funk. Then ask your ancestors to get help you get really well with the land where you’re at. And once that’s happened and really all along the way be asking about your specific path of destiny, your original instructions as it were, because that’s what you need to be doing full-tilt. Your practices should support that. And yeah, it’s helpful get enlightened and stuff too. That’s good and useful.

Bodhisattva Spirit vs Annoying Savior Mode

A couple of times I’ve heard you say that coming into right relation with the beings closest to us—the ones we eat, or the spirits of place where we live—will convince them to put in a ‘good word’ for us with the entities that it is implied we *really* want to connect with, like mountain spirits or tigers, or whatever, and in that I hear a whisper of competitive Protestantism/achievement enculturation come out as hierarchical thinking. Can you clarify?

Yeah, great to clarify here. Totally not meaning to imply that less domesticated or human-shaped beings/spirits/people like rare jungle orchids or deep sea fish are somehow more/better/above domesticated kin like beets and bovines. I do think the wilder kin can be inspiring teachers and carriers of a kind of freedom or wildness that is a beneficial to also cultivate in ourselves, and in noticing that I’m not suggesting they are better in any kind of existential or inherent way. The domesticated kin have different inherent medicines including how to embody the holy in everyday life, in the messiness of human spaces, and about profound generosity. But where we place value is totally just a function of where any given person finds affinity, or less generously a function of our cultural conditioning.

About the other piece I don’t know that I said ‘convince’ but fair question, good to unpackage this some. In Buryat Mongol shamanism there’s a concept of windhorse (hiimori or buyanhishig, ref: Sarangerel Odigan). The basic idea is that useful service and/or ethical behavior increases your windhorse or usable energy and being an ass and/or hypocrite and/or harmful person depletes your windhorse. Ritually speaking, it really pays to be ethical, as intuitive people (human or otherwise) can sense this in your field. That’s more how I mean it. It’s more like, “if you think you can ignore and snub the beings in one aspect of your life and not have that impact other aspects, good luck.” I see an analog when politicians or spiritual teachers or any public figures have atrocious personal lives. One could take that as a nudge to relate strategically with people (human or otherwise) in one’s personal sphere in an ethical way, which is not really the heart-level conclusion, but also not a horrible take-away in the sense that doing the right thing, even for selfish reasons, is better than not doing the right thing. But yeah, don’t relate with any people as object or tools to get more cred in other areas of life, that’s rude.  And super good to clarify, thanks for asking.

You mentioned the notion of steeping our lives in our times, being willing to run into the burning house. I’m wary of striving, and especially of pretending not to be striving (after many years of Eastern based meditation practice)….I understand that the sweet spot is somewhere between not-enough and too-much, and I left the do-nothing/accept side of the spectrum because of the times we’re in and a deeper need to engage with social + earth justice. My understanding is that with any viable spiritual path you have to be willing to gamble and to come out what looks like “empty handed,” with no guarantees that anyone will vouch for you, or make your life easier/better, or give you what you want, etc., once you’ve been a ‘good’ person. And yet, here we are, hoping and reaching out.

Yeah, great. I’m admittedly influenced by Mahayana Buddhist teachings on boddhisattva ethics/vows and similar teaching exists in other traditions. For example, in West African Ifá (Yoruba culture) in the odu of Irosun-Iwori, people are asking ‘when will people stop coming from heaven/spirit to Earth/form (implying it’s kind of exhausting)?’ and Orunmila replies ‘this will keep happening until everyone attains the good position’ and the dialogue unfolds about what that entails. So the basic sense is that we’re all intrinsically interconnected, dependently arising in dharma jargon, and therefore individual enlightenment is a selfish fiction at the end of the day. Not saying we can’t be blissed out and have a loving, successful life, only that we’re inseparably bound up in the fate of others. I would add that Buddhism has expressions that are more animist (esp. in Asian settings) and expressions that are more judgmental about who’s a sentient being and who isn’t, so not idealizing Buddhism, only valuing the ethic of non-abandonment that is the bodhisattva spirit.

For me it’s kinda like: 1)Deeply accept that your long-term trajectory as a soul requires participation in the well-being of others, full stop. 2)Seek clarity about your specific expression of that. 3)Do that like crazy until you die. 4)Repeat. The second step is really important here because for me, it’s possible that what looks like working my ass off, striving, and hustling may be really in alignment with my destiny and temperament and expression of non-abandonment. And for the next person, they may be really really good at restoring stained glass windows and being a good auntie and making sure their cats are well groomed while drinking mimosas, and something about this first gear, artistic, articulation of their spirit anchors that quality of the sacred in this world in a really precious way. And to an outsider who’s hustling it could look lazy or privileged. Animist sensibilities foreground the reality that we really truly have different destinies/medicines/soul-level trajectories, and for the colonialist mindset that would police others, this is a great relief. Sure there are core values, I’m not saying be a total relativist or that harmful people get a pass because it’s their destiny to be damaging, only that there’s not only one awesome way to be or to be service.

Final thought: even in Buddhism there’s a nice dialogue around helpful actions building up good energy (discussions of merit, etc.), kinda what I’m suggesting above and at the same time, whatever, doesn’t matter. The classic exchange of Bodhidharma (first patriarch of Chan/Zen) where the emperor is like “hey I did all this good stuff, doesn’t that count for something?” and Bodhidharma blows his mind a little by being like, “meh, whatevs.” Despite having the most experience personally with Zen practice, I kinda see both angles, like if the Emperor doesn’t know the discipline of actually being a good and ethical person, then he’s not in a position to really have his mind blown about nobody (human or otherwise) really caring about that. So yeah, we can make a problem out of even very adaptive identities. Grow, molt, grow, molt, etc. (and if we’re taking a cue from our insect kin, consider eating the molt, there’s useful bits to integrate in there as we move along).

Boundaries, Consent, & Receiving ‘No’

I’ve been thinking a lot about other-than human beings who do not want to be in a friendly relationship, and not, like, wanting to fix or change that right away. You’ve talked a little about redressing historical wrongs and coming into a better relationship with other beings, but I am a little wary of the savior idea creeping in here. Can you speak to those who don’t want to be in relationship?

Yes, it’s an important counterpoint to being all mindful and respectful; some beings just wish to be left alone. Like probably at least 98% of all the not-us beings in the vast universe; maybe 1% would harm us and 1% would assist us/be friendly. For the other 98%, of course the mature thing to do is to leave them alone. And yeah, there’s a nuance in there around discerning when ‘fuck off’ means ‘I am so hurt and angry at you and if you can receive this then perhaps there is another layer of interaction that can arise’ (occasionally like that) and when ‘fuck off’ means ‘no really, go right the fuck away and don’t look back’ (mostly what it tends to mean). And even pausing for just a moment to notice if it’s the first kind of communication still risks being overly pushy depending on the interaction.

All this terrain is the focus on Lesson Four and it’s hard to overstate the way in which even something as seemingly innocuous as being a helpful/conscious/spiritual person can become a more or less problematic stance or savior mode. I’ll speak to that in a different FAQ, but as for those who wish to be left alone, the full expression of love, wisdom, and relational ethics looks like leaving them right the fuck alone.

Can you say more about consent with the other-than-human ones? I feel a sense of unease at presuming that I can reach a place of clearly and accurately interpreting YES from beings whose language I have forgotten. And I hear a warning at introducing the idea that consent is possible — especially for us human ones deeply steeped in the culture of empire and colonialism. I’ve been engaging in a conscious relationship with the other-then-human ones for many years and I still feel that it is not yet my place to interpret YES. It feels important to me that we are finding ways to live WITH the discomfort that comes with choosing to be alive in the time of empire, to see the sacrifices made without consent and without relational exchange, and not bypass this discomfort through a doorway called consent. I am sincerely seeking your thoughts on navigating my own human arrogance with a willingness to trust the messages received — especially when those messages seem to grant consent.

Yes, good churning here. There are at least three interlocking questions I hear in your share….Is consent ever possible between humans and other-than-humans? If so, is arriving at consent possible for folks deeply entrenched in cultures that dismiss the personhood of the other-than-humans? And what are some of the risks of concluding that you indeed have received consent from the others?

First off, it’s my understanding based on my life experience and anything I’ve learned from various elders (Indigenous and otherwise) that yes, it is possible for humans and other-than-humans to actually communicate in conscious, self-aware ways, and by extension to consciously give permissions for different kinds of interactions to proceed. People steeped in these sensibilities may see folks not raised with this to be insensitive, ill-mannered or lacking in a kind of cultural sense, but I’ve never heard the view that because of a person’s ancestry or culture of origin that they are incapable of learning such manners (and the communication skills they require). So, it’s not innate. I don’t think you’re saying that, but good to clarity as some folks could start to create a perception that goes something like, ‘people with mostly Native American blood ancestry are inherently more animist than WASPy suburban Americans,’ which is false. Raise a Native person in the suburbs with no connection to traditional ways and a white person in a traditional Native setting and you’ll see who turns out to have manners; it’s a learned thing, step one. To suggest otherwise, is a kind of weird racial essentialism that’s dehumanizing. So, I’m saying yes, it’s possible for people of any background to learn the basics of communication with the others. And if it’s possible to learn the basics, then we can learn the intermediate stuff, etc. etc.

I think the heart of your question is about the risks here and yeah, there are risks. One is that you misunderstand the communication (or lack thereof) based on your own conditioning. Let’s say you picture in your mind, ‘yes, you can hold your ceremony in this sacred natural grove,’ but you didn’t ask in a really mindful way that was open to hearing no, you don’t know any other protocol, etc., and so the energy is still off, it’s still an overstep. One example like this I can think of in our tradition with Ifa/Orisa ways is when people don’t actually know what they’re doing with a ritual and so they divine on how to do the ritual. No, that’s skipping steps. You don’t divine on whether or not you can practice medicine without a license and the spirits may just spin you around a give you a yes if you ask that dumb question of them. So there needs to be a bigger framework of relationship, ideally community, and at least humility, love, ability to hear no, and ideally community and folks around you to temper weird results.

Another risk is that one fails to be sensitive to different scales of interaction. For example, if I want to pick a sprig of lilac from one of a few bushes full of lilac blossoms in our front yard and I pause and really sense the fullness of this relative, greet her, and feel a warm connective ‘yes’ in response, I’m good with that. The stakes are modest. If I seek and believe I have received permission to establish a personal or small-private-group longer-term shrine on one of the local mountains for ritual work with the land spirits, I would see that as a more medium-level ask (provided it’s not a place where Cherokee traditionalists are actively tending). There are implications, it’s not so huge, but it’s a bigger ask. And then there’s asking if I can clear let’s say 10 acres of land to build a sub-division of new homes. That’s a larger ask yet. I’d still rather have developers grappling with these problems, but the ask is a larger one than a spring of lilacs. When considering the topic of consent, it’s important to try to understand how many others are impacted by the actions and when it’s a bigger deal to bring in even second and third opinions and careful protocol.

This doesn’t mean even all Indigenous traditionalists will agree. Or that they will always consider the full implications. For example, the whale-hunting controversy among the Makah people: From what I understand many Makah people support this revival of an older tradition (albeit in somewhat modified form). And also there are Makah elders with standing who oppose it. It’s complicated. And there are implications for international whaling rights for much larger nations like Japan, Norway, etc. I don’t presume to know if the Makah people feel an obligation to consider how their personal efforts to honor this tradition include consideration for how their actions may get leveraged by others with very different motivations. Should that factor into consent? And who does speak for Gray Whale here? Which Makah people (if we assume they are better at navigating the communication) do we listen to? Do non-Makah human people have a say in these matters?

And yet, there’s an imperative to grapple with these questions. As we’ll get into later in the course, many (myself included) are advocating for a view of the other-than-humans that extends to them personhood (or concedes it’s always been there, it’s the humans who don’t always bring manners). This follows animist and many indigenous cultural principles (generally speaking). And yet it begs the question of who speaks for the _____ ? Imagine Bear trying to figure out who speaks for Human, lol. Personally, I’d want to hear from a variety of voices but especially people who have lived in multi-year sustained relationship with any given community of other-than-human people. Not only traditionalists but also botanists, wildlife biologists, etc.

OK, this reply is getting long. You named another risk which is jumping to a conclusion that you have permission as a way to avoid the uncomfortable feeling/reckoning of the larger culture mess, etc. Yes, it’s possible to do that. It’s possible to get married to reduce anxiety around being uncertain if you want that. It’s also possible to stew in a kind of ‘this culture/we/white people/colonizer people/etc. are terrible’ mindset in a way that unconsciously centers those experiences and fails to actually connect with the others all around us. Because we’re already embedded in all of it, I just see the imperative to relearn relationship, and to do our best to learn to listen. I see that as much more unsettling and in fruitful ways, much more challenging to show up with self-love, self-esteem, and a capacity to listen clearly…that’s the tougher practice. We’re already in these relationships, so trying our best in a clumsy way to bring them more conscious to me feels more fruitful than opting out of that messiness because there are legitimate risks (of which a few but certainly not all have been named). And not saying that you’re suggesting we opt out of the messiness, but yeah, it’s clumsy and community/traditions/teachers can be so important in tempering all that. Great question, layers with it all, keep speaking up, glad you’re with us!

Does consent play out differently within different ontological realities? Western dominant cultures, animism, totemism, etc. Might consent look different or be less centralized if/when relational spaces/agreements are repaired (because it becomes inherent within the relationally defined space, rather than a method needed to re-create the space from scratch). 

OK, so these are great questions and they’re new thought pathways here for the most part, so I’ll give it a go.

Yes, I believe how we think about consent is informed at least by how we think about 1)who is a person (who warrants consideration, who do we need to ask for consent/permission 2)who is a person of standing relative to us in the larger community of persons (so the power dynamics one projects into the world which may or may not be accepted by others and if not accepted, may not be contestable) and 3)a maybe more subtle thing you’re getting at is the ways in which self-other boundaries and how they are understood inform when consent is needed or not. I’ll try to touch on each in turn.

Who is a person. An assumption of this course is that there are advantages to considering a wider field of persons than just incarnate humans, and that once we expand who is included then we have to reckon with them as we would other community members (thereby triggering considerations of consent as an aspect of ethics and accountability). This is a very simplified formula of person = need to consider consent.

Who is a person of standing. This is important. Of course there are all the obvious ways that there are power differentials among humans based both on systems of oppression and also on differing capacities (e.g., children do not have the same standing when making decisions as parents). This extends to other than humans, for example I don’t feel guilt when I swat a mosquito on my body. I might say sorry or I might not. Maybe that makes me a bad animist, and just being honest.

But what if I am a devotee of Thor and oaks are sacred to Thor and I need to cut down an oak before I build a home. Perhaps I cover my bases and ask permission from both the individual oak and Thor, but I may just ask Thor. And I think according to the article that’s a more totemist than animist move on a day to day level. To amplify what might be a slight difference into a big difference in order to explore this, we can ask: How does Oak experience this? How does Thor experience this? How is consent working here?

My sense is that as long as Oak and Thor are as close as they seem to be and as long as you’re actually contacting Thor, then you should be fine as ostensibly Thor would not bypass the will of Oak to give a different answer, but maybe that’s a stretch and of course this overlapping of persons into other persons can be tricky. For example, God in the Holy Bible gave us permission to harvest the fruits of His creation…that feels quite different than addressing Thor at the base of an oak I may harvest.

Flip back to human realms: How often does our consent assume a singularity of voice from other living humans when the reality is much more complicated? How many times have some aspects of what I am given a yes to, while others had no yes to give, or were silenced due to cultural conditioning? Yes, I’m saying we’re multiple and that consideration of consent ideally takes this into account. I tend to view the others that way too. Can we ask only Seal and not Polar Bear when hunting for Seal? And if not, are we not justified in asking The Land, The Ancients, the Ones Whose Jurisdiction is Polar Bear, Seal, and also Arctic Fox and Human Ancestors? See how tricky and intimate it gets when the underlying structure/power/deity we would ask also includes us? When the person asking the Oak is also a priest of Thor and a dedicant to his mysteries?

So yes, who we include and how we think of people will inform who we ask and what level of consensus among those voices serves as proper consent. And it’s tricky when we and the others we’re asking are part of the same underlying structure. Which of course we are.

Those are a few initial thoughts.

Children & Animist Values

I’m curious about my children. It’s not a stretch for them to believe in an animate world and yet they wouldn’t hesitate to yank a sword fern out of the ground to play pirates or pull up every daisy for crowns. They are quick and impulsive and though they are well supervised, there isn’t time to intercept between their impulsive thought and their actions. How would you share this material with children in a way that helps them develop the awareness and sensitivity that they will need to understand to listen for and respect consent? Consent is such a huge and relevant topic in the news right now. Nature feels like a very meaningful place for children to begin to understand its importance. I want to make it clear for them. Any ideas?

These are great questions with of course no one correct answer besides to grapple with them and notice what sticks. A few things that may be helpful to keep in mind. One: animism is learned not innate. Meaning we aren’t born with good manners necessarily, we have to learn that. It’s good news because it means most anyone can, and it also implies that elders know more than children. I hear people say how wise children are sometimes, and I’m like, ‘do these people have kids?’ I mean sure, kids have a kind of openness and disarming directness and some are old souls, but they’re not particularly refined and tend to be terribly selfish, which is totally developmentally appropriate. Meaning, don’t expect them to already get it.

I find that a lot of young ones learn from imitation and so if they can see you doing a thing, it may actually sink in better than personally getting them to do it. Things like having a simple food prayer before some meals or you giving an offering or a prayer to a large tree or talking out loud to the ferns, etc. Sometimes modeling a thing until it feels really normal and they start asking what’s up is a good way to go. This is probably the most traditional way to learn, by having the kids just be around when the adults do ritual together so it’s normalized.

Another way which is quite traditional is to weave in stories, and then as they become more able, see if they can grasp elements of the stories. Many traditional cultures communicate the values in this way. To really get the stories, often what’s needed is the ability to toggle between different perspectives. That’s a very specific skill that’s good to encourage. For example, what do you imagine the frogs think about? How about the ferns? If you could hear them talking what do you think they might say? And model how the more you know about the actual frogs or ferns the more you might imagine what they might say/think/etc. Encourage the perspectival shifting. And it comes with time.

And when there is an overstep, you can bring it back to ‘how might you feel if this happened to you?’ (affirming the personhood of the others in that way along with the perspectival shift) and some of that’s way too heady for younger ones. In that sense just have them around when you’re in community with others who see the world in these ways. And let things be mysterious. I think it’s great for kids to appreciate that not all things are knowable, reachable, etc.

Those are a few thoughts, and keep speaking up on this, they’re great questions and critically important. When I let our five month old daughter smell the lilacs recently I totally moved her back before she grabbed a handful and shoved them in her mouth, so yeah, the manners come in time.

Communication with the Others

I appreciate the directive to speak prayers out loud. I notice the focus and intention it provides as opposed to the wandering, often abstract nonsense that can happen when prayer is just thought. However, I also notice that in general, when my spirit is grounded and feeling genuinely prayerful, the act of speaking often brings me back into my head, away from my center. I feel a disconnect between what’s in my spirit and the words and tone that are coming out of my mouth. Any advice? 

Yeah, of course. More accurate, I could say: Be able to pray aloud or silently and in the moment to notice which is more connective. The risks are, as you say, both with praying aloud or silently (which doesn’t necessarily mean internally as we’re not the only kinds of people who are empathic/psychic/intuitive). The skill of praying aloud in a connective way is also important in group ritual spaces. And allowing for pockets of silence even during the aloud prayer can be great too. Mostly just have as many ways as possible that work for you to tend to a connection and you’ll have more to fall back on if one or another isn’t working in the moment.

Please again speak to how to work with doubt and worry?  Like how to trust what pictures and sense of guidance I receive and not just dismiss it as something I’ve made up?  I have begun to intuit some trustable metrics for if the ‘hits’ are authentic messages from Spirit, as well as using divination that is not Daniel’s or Malidoma’s but which is I Ching. Please speak more to the ways to filter out thought and build receptivity to receiving the messages and guidance and requests/instructions as well as to building trust in those.
This is a major, common, important subject. Again, it’s a bit different for everyone, but some strategies include: trusting your body sense, cross-checking the impressions with other guides/teachers in spirit, just double-checking with your intuition, cross-checking with some form of divination (careful with doing that too much), just experimenting with trusting the first time and see how the results are, zooming out to make sure your practice feels dynamic/transformative/helpful (like are you getting good results with your life?), and remembering that it’s a cultural healing/decolonization process at work, so be patient and kind with yourself. You can also work with various medicines to enhance intuition and it’s good to have some kind of exercise/physical practice and care for health well. As you’re sharing, notice over time if things are tracking in a gradually more confident direction.
(Useful rich context here)…the theme of projection in our relationships with the other-than-humans. Just to fill you in, it was prompted by reading Stephen Jenkinson’s new book ‘Come of Age’. Reading his book reminded me of my first time in a wilderness vigil in Northern California around fifteen years ago. I had all sorts of ideas at the time, intentions and prayers and the like, and after the vigil I took away certain gifts shall we say. All that is left standing at the remove of fifteen years, is the memory of standing in Death Valley and feeling in my bones that the wilderness had somehow returned me to my correct size (i.e. very small in the more-than-human scheme of things). At that time I was very aware of the sentience of the world around me, but it did not really occur to me to try to strike up conversations with them. In fact, I would say that it was precisely the silence and indifference of my surroundings that mirrored me most faithfully… and helped to kill off a certain childlike sense of being the center of it all. It didn’t kill it off for good, however. And this brings me to the theme of projection and initiation. It seems to me that when I first started the course and followed your promptings, my initial overtures to relationship with the non-human others around me were still coming from that childlike place, and assuming that those non-humans would take an interest in my welfare as if I were still the center of things and the somewhat sentimental emotional tone was there as well. (It was the summer after all and perhaps I was well into the South shield, if that means anything to you). As the year turns, and the course winds up, I find myself more comfortable with relating with the surrounding world wearing it’s silent and indifferent face. What I find is that instead of relating to the non-human-shaped world as a refuge from the human world and all it’s agonies, the indifferent face throws me back onto myself (at my correct size) and tells me to leave it alone and return to the human-shaped world and get on with my proper work there. Another way of saying it is that I come to see a certain misanthropy and escapism in my longing for the wild, a refusal to take up the challenge of the burdens of the human culture I am born into (and they are many). What’s the question? Well it’s more a query about you and the course you designed (if you did). Where do you find yourself in this spectrum of relating with the other-than-humans? Are they more ‘personal/interactive’ or are they more ‘indifferent/aloof’? does it change from day to day or season to season? What do you make of it all?

Great question. Short answer: allow for all of the above. Like your living human family there. Simultaneously they are the complex people you know and love, they are mostly empty particle/waves of stardust moving at 80,000 miles per hour around our local star who is also mostly empty nuclear fire, they are the resounding specific body of the Buddha demanding your full awakening and presence, they are primates, instinctual flesh and bone dancing. There are ‘levels’ if you will (no value judgment) happening at once even in what we take as the most stable of spaces (e.g. family with other humans). All this applies to the others as well and once you can toggle between the levels then it’s a question of where is the energy at, because you can use that awareness to avoid or increase intimacy.

Personally, for whatever that’s worth, I find myself on assignment with the humans which is awesome and also sorrowful at times. And I remember myself enough to not get lost in the density, but it’s not like a vacation (which I don’t really take anyways, feels like a capitalist idea). I don’t experience it all seasonally so much. And really everyone has their own temperament. And it’s still evolving for me. I don’t know when maybe 10 or 20 years ago in this life but earlier really, I just kinda let the Earth (like this planet) swallow me in a devotional way. It doesn’t mean I’m all enlightened or whatever, only that it means I know where my loyalties are, so like in a decent to great marriage you can have a tough day and not think about divorce, it’s like that for me, we’re just in it for the long haul and I strive for an ethic of friendship, companionship with the others as my usual center of gravity with it all.

Compassion & Human Differences

How did people in indigenous cultures treat people with disabilities? I teach special ed… people with severe disabilities. I know survival was key back then and if you couldn’t physically keep up, you probably didn’t last long. My daughter has a disability and has insulin dependent diabetes. She got it was she was 10, she is 28 now, if she were born 50 years ago she would be dead. So, I think one of the good things our culture does today is take care of their disabled… but that was not possible long ago, so spiritually, do you know how people dealt with their disabled?

Good question! Detail thing: remember to speak in the present of indigenous cultures when it’s in a generalized kinda way. And there are sooo many indigenous cultures, but I’m following you. In general I’d say that because many animist cultures recognize a diversity of different kinds of people and sacred energies, they more often see physical differences as an indicator of special qualities, as welcome and perhaps a challenge to the community to understand what is the unique gift/medicine of this person presenting differently. Like, everyone has a role to play, so if the community can’t figure out the role/medicine of the person, that’s a problem of the community, not the person.

Yoruba tradition, to reference one example, speaks of Obatala (or variably other deities) shaping human beings and getting a little drunk in the process so folks came out a bit different. Obatala felt terribly remorseful and has become the patron deity of anyone with physical challenges and such. They’re seen as sacred, touched by the powers in this way.

And yeah, for sure about utilizing the available technology to allow for life to flourish. I’m pretty certain that if traditional indigenous folks had the more developed insulin tech in the past that they would have used it. Good to give thanks also the medicines and humans who developed them, also sacred gifts of the Earth.

Connection with the Land

What if I don’t really connect so well with where I live? Original question: I hear you saying how you bonded really deeply with the land of northern California – which is where I am. Every time you say it I get a little pang, because try as I might, I just don’t really love the landscape here. I travel to other places, moister places like Oregon and get more of a stirring in my body. Or dryer places like the deserts. But the landscape around here leaves me feeling a little meh, and I feel secretly bad about that. I still take a lot of hikes in the hills, and spend time in other less human neighborhoods, but sometimes this area feels like that person you really wish you wanted to be closer to, but just don’t resonate with on some level. How do you work with that?

If you’re able to do so in a way that’s good for your life, relationships, and destiny, consider moving. If it’s not, and it’s often not, then it’s so complicated. So many people are in marriages that are just OK or don’t especially like their children or work at jobs that feel just OK at best. I struggle with that here in Western North Carolina a bit. I still really miss the Bay Area, the land really, it’s kinda confusing and painful and makes me feel like a poser animist a little living here. The mama bear and three cubs in our front yard yesterday don’t seem to be guilting me about it though. So that’s really what I’d say is to notice which specific powers there in the Bay Area do speak to you. Maybe it’s the mosses and the seals and the sword ferns. Maybe you find a way to visit the waterfalls on the north side of Mt. Diablo or take the ferry out to Angel Island and hike up to see the bay all around. It’s such a deeply personal and nuanced and also sorrowful thing, this question of land and belonging. I think another thing you might try is just confessing to the land this feeling which you carry, to speak it aloud like you would the awkward ‘I’m not sure I love you like I think I should’ confession that might happen in a marriage. Speak true words to the land directly. It’ll at least get the energy flowing. Oh and consider a hike at Castle Rock on the loop trail if you haven’t been down that way, Santa Cruz Mountains have some amazing spaces, just sayin’. :-)

Cultural Respect & Earth-Honoring Traditions

Can you speak to cultural appropriation a bit? More context: Recently it has gotten to the point where I feel guilty if I am doing simple things like burning sage, and question whether there is any way I can practice elements of indigenous traditions without it somehow upholding aspects of white supremacy and colonization. Over the years I have developed genuine relationships with plants (such as sage) or practices that connect me to the natural world, but then wonder if I am still crossing a line that I shouldn’t be. This is coming up kind of intensely right now because I just saw that a Shipibo elder was murdered in Peru, and for many years I drank medicine with an elder from that tradition without thinking of all of the plants being killed to satisfy Westerners, the strain that puts on indigenous communities and healers, the lack of attention on indigenous rights, and just wonder if there is any way to do any of this the right way. As I am typing this, I am realizing the importance of getting right with my own ancestors and their traditions, and I know a lot of this relates to that work.

Big and important questions. The dialogue around cultural appropriation has gotten a bit hijacked by young rigid white America activists not actually steeped in Indigenous ritual themselves, so let’s start by asking: What can help me to embody deep cultural respect and mindfulness in any given situation? Are there some guiding principles here?

Notice I say ‘in any given situation’. Because the protocol from one place to the next is different. Some cultures are open about sharing their ways with people not of their ancestry (e.g., Yoruba traditions) and others not so much. I’ve had white America activists offer to explain to my Yoruba teachers why they should not share their traditions with non-Yoruba people, and I’m just like, Are you serious right now? So…there is a need to bring nuance and an ethic of relationship and listening to this overall topic of cultural respect. Put another way: if you bring a colonialist mindset to the topic of cultural respect, you’re already starting off on the wrong foot.

Yes, getting to know and love your own ancestors is a big part of this, it truly helps. It doesn’t mean you must practice their traditions but it’s good to have their backing for whatever you decide to do.

You will never make everyone happy about the cultural appropriation topic. If you want to, for example, burn aromatic plants like California white sage. Most important, get to know that plant and the cultural information around it. Sure you could write a letter to the Chumash Nation asking them if they care if you burn sage but I think they have other things to worry about right now. You’re not presuming to represent those tribal ways at all and you’re not launching a website Is it ideal to seek aromatic plants from your own bioregion and/or your own ancestors’ traditions or traditions you practice to use in ritual? Yes, sure, that’s a good move. And most importantly respect the plants themselves, be in relationship with them.

This is a big layered topic, it’s one I’m sensitive to and have done a good deal of reflection on as well as lived experience. Seek the heart-centered middle road on these topics and listen closer to the elders of any given tradition who have standing to talk about it than people not of that tradition. There is a great essay in lesson three included in the resources, so that’s coming. Here is a talk on the subject in the meantime, a lot of what I might say here I also name there (July 2017):

A personal question, if it feels right to answer it: How do your ancestors feel about you practicing a spiritual tradition not directly of your recent blood lineage? What are some of the ways you feel about that? What are your observations about what makes practicing non-blood-lineage traditions in more or less integrity?

This is a big and good set of questions.

I guided a talk on this in July 2017 (link here: The short version is something like: If the tradition is open to outsiders… if you’re well with your own ancestors so you’re not running from things… if you’re willing to accept that most traditions run more like families with all that entails… if you’re willing to accept that it takes years to train in a thing… then it’s probably alright to proceed and take it one step at a time, knowing that a lot is at stake in terms of cross-cultural trust if you mess it up or don’t show up well. And when it does work out, it can be really healing and beautiful all around. And the histories and power dynamics and all that really vary from place to place. American social justice warriors sometimes make the assumption that the rest of the planet is like North America and it’s just not. To assume that is arrogant (not suggesting you’re coming from that angle with the question).

But you asked a more personal question, which is fine, and I appreciate the mindful way that you asked it. My ancestors encouraged me to get involved with Yoruba traditions. They see that initiatory work like stepping in as I have to Egúngún priesthoods or Ogboni society will, at the end of the day, make me a better ritualist. And that there’s nothing quite like it left in our own lineages. Which is totally fucking sad. And then the sun rises again. And I’m a ritualist and I need the training and elders and they get that. As do my Yoruba elders.

There’s another piece around ancestral indebtedness. It’s tricky and I don’t have a super formulated story about it and don’t tend to lead with it, but it goes something like this: As a child of European settler-colonialists who directly and indirectly benefitted from the enslavement of Africans in the Americas, there is something corrective about spending important aspects of my precious life traveling to West Africa to value the traditional wisdoms and elders there, including sending them not inconsequential amounts of money as is customary when people are family (and hosting them here also) and generally being invested in very specific ways in one another’s lives. There is something historically corrective about these choices in ways that I don’t speak about a lot, and my ancestors also have some hand in this.

And it’s complicated. We’re in a weird historical moment where so many things are fractured. We’re improvising. There’s beauty and new magic in it all and it’s also a hot mess. And nobody’s outside all that really.

Decolonization & Land Ownership

My question is more about the activism side of the animist impulse. It is one thing to talk of decolonizing the mind, but how about decolonizing the land? I am thinking here of the political, economic and legal facets of taking land out of human ownership. Here is the context: it seems to me that so many of the dysfunctional power relationships that exist in our cultures have roots in land ownership and all that flows from that. I’m sure you are aware of the history of the ‘enclosure laws’ in England that put an end to ‘common land’ dating from the 13th Century and lasting until the 17th and 18th. The class structures in this country and all the grief surrounding them were forged in these centuries. I am wondering what would happen if some parcel of land was legally taken out of ownership (i.e. it could no longer be bought or sold indefinitely) and was held in some kind of trust with a charter that the people who lived (and farmed) on that land would be beholden to the surrounding community in some kind of novel economic (or ancient economic) model. What influence would this have on the power dynamics between the humans and between them and the other-than-humans? Can you refer me to any resources that you know of where people are attempting this kind of subversive rearrangement of the legal footing of the land. I’m not so interested in folks heading off into the back woods and going totally off grid, and more interested in people willing to grapple with the surrounding institutions of the culture.

Yes, there are important and depth questions and considerations. There are people more knowledgable than I about alternative models and how to implement them. Socialists when they’re not being tyrants get a lot of things right but they tend to be boring materialists. And there are so many diverse indigenous models, some friendly than others.

Consider starting with this challenging, fruitful read: ex.php/des/article/view/18630. I suppose I would reply something like ‘colonization is not only a metaphor’ or rather that to view colonization only through a material lens is to internalize the cynical and reductionistic frames of the colonizers. And their main ideas and points are well taken.

But what’s a Brit to do with all this talk of decolonization when you’re at ground zero of the Empire and colonization happened there with the arrival of early Celts followed by at least four other waves of settlers since. For a sweet musical rendering of one facet of what you’re speaking to as it manifests more recently in England, I prefer Casey Neill’s version of Manchester Rambler inspired by the Kinder mass trespass. Or the old stories of the king/leader (also you) and the land being one (see Parsifal, Grail legends and such).

I think the operative term is folks actually living it. It just takes so many different angles to gradually reel in the beast that is modern industrial capitalism and consumer society. I think there are some nation-state sized experiments like Sikkim going organic, but the topic of land ownership being softened into a commons, that’s a big nuanced topic with a ton of theory on it and I’m not actually sure who’s living what.

And at the risk of being cheeky, I think one decolonized way to come at this question (seriously) is to ask the land and the elder powers whose bodies are the land. And remember that your body is also the land. Another hint: so much depends on how we relate with our food and follows from that. If everyone ate bioregionally many new possibilities would open up here.

The Earth & the Erotic

After just listening to your video Praising and Feeding the Earth as Deity I noticed that there wasn’t really mention of earth as sensual/sexual (as an assumption or as a cross cultural theme), and yet I feel this is, or maybe has been becoming more prevalent in certain movements (i.e. ecosexuality). I am curious to your thoughts on whether you consider this another projection onto Earth, or if it is a more clear seeing perception? Similar to your comments about leaving sexual violence language to the human realm – are we projecting human sexual intimacy language and longing onto Earth when we engage with this elder deity as a lover or as a focus of our desires and pleasure?

Yeah, great question. Short answer is that it was an oversight. I’m generally aware of and certainly supportive of contemporary movements to foreground the way in which we can experience erotic with the other-than-human realms in general and with the Earth as deity in particular.

And there’s a way in which the erotic is so terribly compartmentalized in modern Western cultures in recent centuries that the (important/necessary) work to correct this sometimes seems like it foregrounds the erotic but still maintains a category of erotic/not-erotic. And in this way I think communally focusing on the erotic per se can sometimes still look odd to cultures that don’t tend to compartmentalize the erotic to begin with. I hope that makes sense.

Also I’m not sure that Earth is more erotic per se than other powers, kinda depends what you’re into. Some experience shapeshifting into animal form during sex or erotic communion with the spirits of animals. Some find pollen, fruit, seeds, and flowers to seethe with eroticism, the robust veriditas of trees an uprising of life force. In Egyptian lore, the winged sphere of Hadit, the star, the sun is consort to Nut or Nuit, she whose body is the night sky. Many traditions speak of Earth and Sky as lovers, mountains and rivers the same.

Which is to say that if I were to suggest that Earth is more erotic than Sky or Lightning or Sun or Mongoose or Elderberry or Ancestors or the Gods (as if they’re different than these other powers) then I’d just be sharing my own bias. So yes, to your question. And also.

Eating Plant & Animal People

I think that it is the (perceived) higher degree of suffering that animals experience when they are raised and slaughtered vs. a plant being farmed and harvested (killed). I realize that I have no idea what a plant is feeling or if they experience pain and suffering… obviously factory farms and their brutality are huge issue all on their own, but I am curious if any of the traditions you have studied speak to suffering and how that is experienced between different non-human people? And should that really even be a factor in the way that we view this?

These are good and important questions. I do think seeking to not indulgently contribute to suffering is very important and also it’s good to have a very systemic/not individual and informed view on what constitutes suffering. For example, I’ve visited Alaska and eating meat from a moose who dies a quick death by rifle or even a salmon who has a chaotic last few minutes of life likely brings about less suffering than importing really tasty guacamole grown in an area of land cleared for this purpose a thousand plus miles away with pesticides and petroleum to transport the guac, etc. So the first layer is to see all the hidden killing/suffering/etc involved in our food choices to have a more objective measure of a thing and not be reacting only in the moment.

A second layer is to do a sustained inquiry (rather than assume) with the plant people on at least three fronts, all important: 1)How is your experience of being killed/eaten by humans with respect to the suffering piece? 2)What is your group-level experience of domestication by humans (of course different plant kin have had different journeys with this)? and 3)When eaten do you also have an experience of the human eating you? If so, what’s that like? Of course we can also ask these questions of the animals. Big point here: because we can actually communicate don’t assume anything about their experience but be willing to ask.

About the suffering, both a good life and a quick/clean/mindful kill are both important. Fear hormones aside, I’d rather eat and animal or plant that was loved well and had a good life and then killed in a clumsy way than an efficiently killed plant or animal that had a factory farmed or monocropped life. And in reality, I’m pragmatic and will eat fast food when I’m traveling and cookies and french fries. And they are also sacred, so this isn’t about being a purist. The Earth also eats grouchy and unhealthy humans.

What I’m most interested in is suggesting that plants are also smart, sentient, relational, ‘people’ as it were and from that stance, grappling with the reality that we kill and eat them. And removing the shame around this because that confuses the intimacy of it. In general from what I’ve studied people see the taking/killing/eating we do as creating a kind of natural and unavoidable indebtedness (thinking of Martin Prechtel’s work) and affirming our connectedness with the others and a responsibility to not waste our precious life. This is not a bad thing. It’s not shameful to eat but we kill to eat, so this requires a fresh look at what it means to kill as a conscious person. Those are a few echoes from your question. And mostly ask the plants and animals in your home/diet about it. They’ll tell you directly, and probably appreciate actually being asked.

Could you share if you have any thoughts on how to come into relationship with the violence and depersonalization of animals in the industrial food system? How do we relationally handle this horrific amount of intentional harm when eating the animals because by doing so, it makes us economically supportive of a system that horrifies us? I’m wondering if there is some shame-based stuff here I can’t quite see because it is so emotionally evocative, especially the idea of thanking the agents that do the killing for us in such a brutal ways. I’m a bit lost in how to approach that.

Yes. This is a complex and layered and really fair question. As a general comment there is enough suffering happening on Earth at any given moment to completely flood one’s psyche and nervous system in a way that you collapse and never get back up. To name just one thing, the millions and millions of children without clean drinking water, ok, you get the idea….all that’s happening all the time. So in a big sense you could be asking ‘how do I have a life when I’m also aware of horror unfolding on Earth?’ and yeah, in that sense, it’s actually important to be able to shift focus also to spend time in collective states of love, ease, joy, and other states if possible, to allow for all of it and also, provided your circumstances and body conditions allow for it, not get stuck in one spectrum of experience.

But you’re asking how to reconcile the invitation to embrace/love/thank even the very domesticated animal and plant people we eat with the reality that they are often treated very poorly in a depersonalizing system. That’s a fair ask. Of course we try to eat consciously sourced animals (if we eat them at all) and beyond that my general answer is that we seek to remember and see what is holy in factory farmed animals anyways. How do you honor a pig that’s never known a life outside a factory farm and whose body you just ate? My sense is that you don’t feel sorry for them but you face them and see the thread of connection with the ancient Boar Mother and hold this in your heart when you eat them. You see what’s holy in them anyways, perhaps especially, and say thank you.

It’s an unreasonable ask of the heart, but we are being asked to bear witness to the holiness and perfection (or maybe completion is a better word) of the world even while working to address injustice and suffering. If we can’t find the first experience, we’ll never be truly at home and (here’s the kicker) *our work to end suffering will be less effective*. Seriously. It’s a both/and operation.

I’m not suggesting factory farming is wholesome, it’s horrible. And sometimes when I’m on a road trip and I haven’t prepared, I eat fast food and when I do, I make a point to enjoy it. I think that’s part of the gratitude. My father served in Vietnam (for which he resents the U.S. government) and when he and others returned they were shamed and seen as outcasts. This perception of them was not helpful or necessary for the anti-war cause. The butchers who work at factory farms are working class people typically seeking to provide for their families. It’s messy, demanding and often physically dangerous work. I’m pretty sure no one takes these jobs because they love them,  and most soldiers are working class people who don’t love killing strangers. These folks are finding a vocation and way to advance through providing food or protection. Even politicians who start wars or CEOs who run factory farms at a high level probably believe they’re doing the right thing.

Final thought (on a big layered topic)…it’s ok to recognize there are certain issues that you just can’t emotionally see straight on and for that reason you either need to mobilize around it or focus on other things to be able to function. I feel this way about food scarcity when I’m made aware of it. Or abuse of children. Or active harm to intact Indigenous cultures. As soon as that’s the topic I’m full of fire/grief and less likely to be diplomatic or effective. If I focused only on those topics directly all day, I would have a tough time sustaining myself in a well state. In that sense, bring your grief and caring to the helpful powers (ancestors, allies, the Earth) and ask them what they see about your specific role to play in all of it and honor their support and guidance.

In Peru they have a tradition / belief that some animals have an individual soul but most have a ‘group’ soul…I’m wondering if you’ve come across this idea and if that impacts any ceremonial/ritual/prayerful/thankful aspects of taking a life for ‘eating’?

It’s an astute question and some of Viveiros de Castro’s writing to speaks to how especially pronounced animal people, at least among some Amazonian tribes, are understood to be advanced sorcerers/big spirits whereas others are not related with in the same way. I’ll aim to include something from him in the resource section of upcoming lessons although it’s quite dense/technical reading.

In Buryat Mongol tradition (as taught by Sarangerel Odigan) animals have both a suns and amin soul, but not a suld soul (meaning they have two souls whereas humans have three, so we differ in that regard). I never asked her if this applied both to bears as well as fleas or only to the larger more charismatic animals.

In your question I’m wondering if the implication is that animals with an individual soul are more like humans and ones with a collective soul organization are let’s say like ants. Like do humans have individual or collective souls? I’m not sure. I think that most humans would opt for the former and we’re not nearly as coordinated as ants most of the time, but that doesn’t mean we’re not organized like them as some level.

Personally, for what that’s worth, I don’t tend to resonate with any differentiating of animals (or anyone really) into any kind of innate hierarchy based on their innate soul/spirit level organization. I’m practical in the sense that I want to reference all these interesting lenses and sacred maps back to the question of: which way of approaching relationship in this moment is the one that gives rise to greater love, accountability and healthy community? (Meaning that seeing the group soul of an animal relative in one moment may feel connective and in the next breath, the next line of your prayer, honoring the individuality of that one may express love and connection.)

As for practices, I’d say to experiment with addressing both levels or aspects of these others (and explore speaking from both aspects within yourself) and follow where the energy is at, let it be embodied field work around gratitude and connection.

I am greatly intrigued by this idea that came through one of the more academic readings, that predation and procreation are intimately tied. Put another way, that when the gods eat a human person they ‘make room’ for another human person to be born. It is a deeply foreign notion to me and yet it seems potent and respectful to life and death. It seems to offer a corrective to the Western idea that nature is an infinite resource that we can plunder without limit, for it recognizes that life is profoundly finite. I know that it doesn’t seem to fit with a materialist understanding of ballooning human population growth. How could that happen if, somehow, our people are from a finite pool and one must leave for another to arrive? Can you comment on whether this point of view informs the way you behave toward the food you eat and how you bless it, as well as if it informs your practice of ancestor reverence, specifically the mysterious connection between death and birth?

This isn’t a question I’ve ever been asked in this way nor something I’ve reflected on much, so let me try it on for a second and see if I might find anything interesting. I feel the principle of mirroring that’s very compelling. I take it as a truth that a human birth here is the departure/death of an ancestor but that’s more about the status change of a single being. Going there (the ancestral realms) is likewise a death here. That’s a given to me and something I teach to, so wait, maybe I am familiar with this, only that I haven’t extended the implications to the other-than-humans and human eating habits.

As an aside or maybe it’s not, some cultures don’t really think of a ‘natural death’ in the sense of that someone can die without being killed/eaten. Even if it’s the unseen powers, somebody is always eating somebody else. It’s kind of compelling really and feels deeply true and also welcome to me that the Earth/elementals will get to eat this body in time.

In Yoruba tradition when someone initiates to Ifa priesthood and someone gets the divination signature of Ejiogbe one message is that a (known, nearby) person will die that day. Might be someone in the community, not seen as something bad, only that someone is also going home just as another is being born. The implication is that through the portal opened by the initiation, someone also takes the opportunity to return home. The animals offered during initiation (they’re also eaten by humans, etc) on those particular days tend to have the feel of intentional exchanges for the birth of the initiate. Ritually induced coming and going.

About the math, remember Earth is not a closed system, not to mention that we’ve been tinkering with electricity and other more visible-beyond-Earth tech for over 100 years which can especially attract other off-planet people (I don’t focus on it much, and still). Which is to say for some of those beings, this may be their first go at human form. There is inter-species migration of souls (remember most indigenous systems recognize multiple souls, often in other-than-human animals too) and Earth is not a closed physical/spiritual ecology, both are important in the math.

So yeah, it’s a compelling idea that feels instinctually useful/true. Explore how if you really took this to heart it might alter your feelings, thoughts, or even your choices. Be curious if anything about this frame would encourage you to show up in more kind and relational ways. If so, give it a go for a while to notice the implications. It’s truly ok to try to on viewpoints to learn what gets good results and to just notice the perceptual shifts. Good question!

Grieving with the Times

Can you speak to the encounter with grief of the burgeoning animist, and give any advice for we who imprison, for we who use, for we who take, and for we who also love and cry and howl for cause of that imprisoning and using and taking?

Yes. This is a prominent theme in Part One: Lesson Six and also Part Two: Lesson Four, so we’ll be expanding into this and of course there’s so much to say but perhaps a few principles here can get things started…

Implicit in your question is one: The price of entry for returning to more conscious relationship is to be touched by the horror of our times and the powerlessness and the loss, all of it. To be willing to feel this, full stop. And also to not collapse into ‘human = horror only’ or to fail to also see the resilience and joy and daffodils that survive the early spring frost. Holding contradictions and not getting glued to one story, that’s one skill in the terrain.

Another is settling in for the long haul, like if you’re approaching the grief of the world in a way that isn’t sustainable for your nervous system then good to readjust. The Earth needs humans who can overhaul the problematic structures (in 1,001 ways) so to not idealize a state of overwhelm at the state of affairs (not suggesting you’re doing this in your question). Wangiri Maathai (very inspiring human) has good words on this point. There’s a lot to be said for learning your window of tolerance, not grieving so hard, so often that you’re really paining your nervous system, to find way to interrupt that (when possible) while still being in your full authenticity.

A third is to learn to grieve with, to track for the feeling of being companioned in our grief. This is explicit in the future lessons too, but to not add an additional layer of “I’m also alone in this”. Especially if folks had a miserable childhood it can be easy for grieving to get colored by this other story/experience/pain. So, notice at least the other-than-humans present with you when grieving. Grieve with. This is especially important in the context of our course as so many look only to living humans and if none are skillfully present, to default into an experience of alone-grieving.

A fourth for the moment, and it’s not the usual thing I say but it’s what is occurring here, is to love specifically and in doing so to grieve specifically too. Maybe not always but also some. Meaning it’s the very specific people, human and otherwise, whose suffering we come to realize as our own. In allowing for this, we also come into existence. Through the experience of the stones in the asphalt and the metals of the car and the dandelions in the yard, they experience not just Human but specifically you or I. Something about the specificity is so important in our grieving less we become only the shape of things and sever from our full inhabitation. Walk into and be consumed by form, by the world. This is one part of the story of being the times.

And keep asking, keep speaking up. We’ll be sinking into all this more formally as the course unfolds.

I had the misfortune to come across an ‘animal rights’ documentary on youtube the other day that pulled no punches and showed all the most awful footage of animals being mistreated in all variety of mundane ways. It was traumatizing for me to watch and at a certain point I turned it off. I find much of what passes for entertainment these days traumatizing: the sheer volume, intensity, and sensory overload of many movies for example. Ok. What I would like you to muse on are the psychological pitfalls that one may interpret as individual ‘issues’ but which are really the psychological hangover of 2000 or more years of Abrahamic monotheisms. Do you hear where I am going? If Abraham made trauma into the God that is still worshipped in our culture, how do we with this baggage, address the very real magnitude of the troubles of our time and yet wrestle them down to human and soulful proportions? What about victimization? And what of guilt? They all smell suspicious to me. But I don’t want to throw them out without a certain diligence and duty of care. What have you learned in cultures beyond the reach of Christianity to shed light on these perplexities?

Yeah, lots of good questions and grappling, so I’ll just type for a few and we’ll see where we get. For clarification, I don’t see Abrahamic faiths (e.g., Judaism, Christianity, Islam) as monolithic or inherently troubled despite differing in important ways with a lot of theology and a bad historical track record with respect to earth-honoring and animist values. There are deeply ethical and kind people tending the holy Earth who identify with any of those faiths. So just a plug for nuance around the temptation to want to find one historical villain (e.g., agriculture, writing, patriarchy, monotheism). Consider a lack of nuance in some ways it’s own kind of villain, or rather look for the origins of the trouble in the present (what recreates it moment to moment) rather than the past. Or even better, look for the antidote and just live that, it’s more sustainable.

About guilt and shame it’s tricky. To generalize, the dominant culture (including some of those faiths and others) way over indulges those experiences in a control-based way and so people understandably are like, “Oh hell no, guilt and shame are bad news,” and to a degree they’re spot on. For example, I have a strong ethic of sex positivity, body positivity more generally, proactive celebration of LGBTQ folks, appreciation for diverse gender expressions, love of making mistakes, and gratitude for life’s messiness. That’s pretty contrary to an uptight, fearful, guilt/shame based view toward desire. So overall, I think guilt and shame are powerful medicines that most people need to detox from.

Having said that, poisons are useful medicines if carefully applied. When people act like harmful, terrible human beings, it’s not a bad thing to feel guilty or ashamed of that; that’s related to conscience and remorse, what’s good about ethics and morality. Some people could stand to feel a bit more remorse and shame but honestly their ego structure is too fragile to sustain it, so they blunder along causing harm. I think hanging out in guilt and shame is mostly something that’s useful for a brief amount of time in order to catalyze useful changes. White guilt for example. It has a function to trigger awareness of historical and ongoing racism but it’s not particularly useful as a regular state; better to seek to embody an anti-racist ethic with diligence, humility, and open-heartedness. Shame can be useful too and again, it’s a strong poison and some people already have systemic shame overload so as a teacher I find that you can’t use even one drop of it with those folks as it doesn’t catalyze anything useful.

Learning to love your family and the humans around you really well is not separable from loving the other-than-humans, otherwise you’re still in the split. The face of conservative politicians is still the face of the Earth. I think so-called inner/personal work is actually critically important, in larger part, so that we’re able to relate more effectively with the people (of all sorts) in our lives. I’m still in therapy after years and years. I still drag my lazy ass to the gym and try to eat healthy despite liking junk food. I quit smoking for good at the end of 2016. I emphasize ancestral healing as a base for relating with the other-than-humans in part because it’s so important for us to inhabit well this human form, otherwise we end up idealizing the other and downplaying our own worth.

And yeah, lay off the factory farming documentaries, that stuff will give you bad dreams. Just slowly get more educated and make choices that are good for your health and the land and your particular needs and say thank you. We all kill and eat.

Harmful Forces and Such…

I have a question about evil. It seems you acknowledge it but don’t want to get into it. ….so when beginning an interaction with other than humans/ancestors we are to look for protection, make a safe spot… And in one of your conferences you mentioned going somewhere…and you had to bring tobacco to ward off bad stuff…I think it was the conference with the thunderstorms…and you said something like yes this bad stuff is out there, but then it seemed to be brushed off. I am very aware organized religion has used the idea of evil for it’s own purposes, with horrible consequences. I live Idyllwild…that promotes healing, love community, reiki, new age shamanism, zen, ‘…the edge of a healing circle…’ But nobody talks about Taw kwish. I happened to have a student in my summer school class who is Cahuilla. Her dad came in to share bird songs with us. I asked him about the legend, and he said Taw kwish was a good powerful shaman that looked over the land from the mountain to the valley. He was very powerful but he wanted to be bigger than the creator. The mountain is the creator. So the story was about how there is good, but there is also evil. That was exactly how her dad put it. His father was a medicine man and they used to go up the mountain, with tobacco for protection, to keep the spirit of Taw kwish in the cave up there. They don’t do that anymore because they can’t get on the land. And I thought well that explains a lot. This is more of a vent than a question, why can’t we just say it like he did… we gloss everything over with I just need to feel good about myself…it is such an industry…and it hides abuse.

Yeah, there’s so much that could be said. I did a talk on the subject June 2017 and tried to say a few things (link here: and I’ve been posting on this on Facebook if you’re inclined to engage there. In brief, yes, just as in the human domains, there are many forces/people/powers along the other-than-humans whose intentions are nowhere near the spectrum of love, wisdom, and kindness that we’d ideally like to be relating with. I don’t tend to frame them as evil because of how stigmatizing that can be and some of them are just that potently harmful and/or hateful and entirely dangerous, so yeah, all that’s super real, full stop.

Consider taking a more ecological lens for it all, that everyone needs to eat and some just happen to eat humans or the fear and confusion or other things they can get access to through humans. And in a sense, those ones, just like mosquitoes, ticks, or tapeworms, are just doing their thing, just is. On a personal level it’s helpful to not cross paths with them and to be skillful and safe and disengaged if you do (when possible). But having a basic framework for those ones? Yeah, absolutely that’s helpful, especially depending on the nature of your work and how much you end up crossing paths with them. Respect on just naming and appreciating the importance of this aspect of ecology.

Hierarchies of Personhood and Experience

I notice that killing a deer feels like a bigger deal than killing the kale I grow, yet I love them both. I notice killing an ancient tree feels like a bigger deal than killing a mouse in my pantry. How do I think about this experiential hierarchy without replicating problematic structures that deny personhood to some? Help me sort through this.

Yes, great questions (paraphrased), totally following you. It’s like that for me too. If we make big categories of ‘human’ ‘animal’ and ‘plant’ I could easily paint scenarios where I would value one over the other (e.g., killing a mosquito < killing an endangered orchid, killing a whaler < killing a grey whale, etc.) and reversals of those. This is totally the lived experience of pretty much everyone I know who even bothers to question who we see more or less as people; it’s messy.

Partly I’m overstating the case in the course videos to shake up assumptions and specifically to encourage dislodging the way English language and cultural assumptions box us in. In reality I think any given person (human or otherwise) can be a focal point for intimacy and connectivity. There’s an exchange in one of Graham Harvey’s books about someone asking an Ojibwe person if all the stones are alive. The Ojibwe person gives an answer (in my memory of it) not of ‘yes, of course, I’m an animist’ but rather, ‘no / wrong question’…it’s more like any given stone in any given moment may relate, which is what you mean when you ask ‘is it/are they alive?’ Which is to say that personhood is more like a potential rather than a fixed quality.

Like I enjoyed the crust on the chicken pot pie I ate today, it was savory. I didn’t make a prayer about it I just ate it. I didn’t tune in with the spirit of Wheat. I’m not even sure that I really have before, I’ve done this at depth with others like Coffee and Black Bean. But I could, it’s so available if we come with the right spirit. So in some ways we’re surrounded only by other people, most of whom are not focused on us, but if we ask then they may turn their attention (or not). Anyways, I digress, that point is more about how personhood is not fixed, it’s situational, experienced.

You’re asking about the hierarchy. Mostly I’d say to let it be a flowing hierarchy of the heart and not a dogma of any sort. I like gulls and pelicans and sandpipers but I love woodpeckers and flickers and am not a ‘bad animist’ for it, just is. Think of the invitation of the course to get even more skillful at love, who these hearts can welcome. Your love of the deer you hunt is morally necessary to be a good hunter as you’re hunting also yourself in the bigger sense. Gardening is similar and different. Plants are differently organized than deer which doesn’t make them less or more.

There’s a really technical article we’re including in Part One Lesson Four. If you can tolerate the sheer academic density of it there are things of use in there about the perspectival shift being a quality of animism. That’s the interesting quality we can intentionally cultivate (e.g., really getting to know Kale or Mouse) in a way that also expands our love and appreciation for the others. And that’s worthwhile.

Not sure I answered your question, but mostly don’t worry about being a good animist and focus on what you notice moves you in particular toward an even more messy and inter-related kind of love.

I notice that despite having years of experience relating with the animal spirits that I don’t tend to ask them for help or rely on them for things. Any insight on that?

Great question. First question/thing to consider with dynamics with the others is: Am I like this in other aspects of my life (meaning like with living humans)? If you are then you’re looking at a self-reliance pattern that informs both your relationships with humans and other-than-humans. That’s common. If it’s just showing up with the other-than-humans then it could be that 1)you don’t fully see them as people, as persons worthy of taking your troubles and/or 2)you see them as people but not as elders, wise and capable enough, so it’s like an elder/junior thing and/or 3)you see them as both people and elders but don’t realize that with elders that it’s the etiquette to let them help you (good to check if you bring real vulnerability to human elders of whatever age).

Invitation: trust your sense about what it is from those possible things or others and then bring that to your respected powers and ask them to help you with this, including to understand the roots of this pattern of self-reliance.

In light of the exploration of hierarchy in Lesson Seven, it occurs to me to ask if there are any non-human people (stars, rivers, plants, you name it) that you relate to as youngers? Aside from puppies and maybe seedlings, I can’t really feel it that way, but even they participate in some old forces. Can you elaborate a bit on this for me?

It’s a fine question. Partly I tend to view other-than-humans as elders because I’m often interfacing with the collective spirit through the individual form. This is partly because often their consciousness is a bit more like that anyways and partly because it’s a perceptual habit I have and partly it’s a strategic stance that pulls for more interesting encounters. For example, the lilac bush in our front yard. I’m not entirely convinced the individual lilac bush is my elder (or the inverse) but I know that Lilac as the collective spirit of the plant is a bigger more senior feeling presence than the individual lilac person in the yard.

Flip this with us. Do I feel senior to Lilac (capital L like collective spirit)? Nope. But does the collective spirit of the human ancestors, the hive that is the group consciousness of our species, Human as it were? Perhaps. Certainly doesn’t feel junior to Lilac to me. So part of this organic thing about power differentials depends in the moment how much any given individual organism is embodying the collective wisdom of that form. And also we can approach others in that way anyways, partly as a strategy to bring out their highest good (staying mindful it’s not always going to work that way). So I guess what I’m saying is to be willing to try on different stances (highly junior, senior, chill/peer) and notice which has the most energy and aliveness. It’ll vary, keep it fresh and flexible, even with people close to you.

History of Animism and Other-than-Animism

Do you have a story about the origin of the colonial ordeal of our European peoples? As a shorthand, you point to the Roman empire and the Christian empires that followed. How did the imperial impulse emerge from people with animist values? What was the beginning of the trauma that has been passed down ever since?

Because my own ancestors of blood are from Northwestern Europe, I tend to grumble about Roman Empire (which colonized Germania and parts of the British Isles even before Rome became Christian) and then the later Holy Roman Empire that reconstituted under Charlemagne. My ancestral grudges if you will (not saying that’s mature) are really a function of the geographic origins of my specific people.

Certainly Greece had a great deal of influence on the rise of Roman Empire. And diverse North African and Near Eastern cultures on the rise of Greek empire and values, etc. So it’s possible to try to track cultural influences back in that way; however, at every single stage of this kind of meta-story there are animist or relational elements that are present. There are anti-racist white people even in the American South in 1791, just not enough of them. There is German resistance to the Nazis even in the early 1940s. There are what we might describe as animist people or elements all over the place/time and also if we’re talking the breakdown of those values on a larger cultural level, yeah, it’s possible to track that.

And the timeline of this disruption will vary from culture to culture, which is to say from lineage to lineage. If you are a quarter Aboriginal Australian and 3/4 European settler/colonizer or half Xhosa and half Dutch colonizer by ancestry, then along part of your lineages it’s been centuries and centuries since animist values were out in the open and along others it’s been anywhere from a few generations to zero generations because living family still has retained traditional knowledge. So timelines vary in the same body/person. The ancestral reconnection in Lesson Three aims to bring some awareness to this and also it’s a bigger topic.

But as to how it got all messed up, I don’t have some coherent story on it. Honestly, I think it’s a lot of little things compounded over time. Some people blame it on agriculture or the written word or language or mining/metals and if in the right mood, I can be a little convinced of all of those. And there are animist agriculturalists whose cultures don’t suck. And people who work responsibly with metals. And animists who are sexist shits (and people who use written language who aren’t). So, it’s not compelling to me to blame it on any one thing. I think if the well-being of our souls and cultural behavior is not really proactively tended then there are so many ways we can go hay-wire and start to behave poorly. Cultures that are more relational and more successful on these topics seems to devote a great deal of energy to proactively befriending and appeasing and dancing with the horror that could overtake things at any moment. When all those beautiful rituals to keep life in dynamic balance break down and when they don’t get quickly rebuilt then things certainly can get out of hand. And here we are. Still living out beautiful complex lives alongside and within the times.

Honoring Ancestors, Honoring Elders

Can you offer any reflections on being in relationship with elders who are embracing their role, generally being really positive forces, but who have problematic behaviors or beliefs? Most relevant to me would be experiences with those who are, or are becoming, elders in our own non-intact culture. The elders I am in relationship with are generous and loving and have skills and longstanding spiritual practices that they are willing to share, and I see them as long-term mentors in all areas of my life. But they are also shaped by the same culture that I am, a couple of generations back, and I don’t feel like I can defer to them on all matters. In some areas, our relationships have a healthy bi-directional flow of respect, ideas, knowledge, but other topics are fraught. Cultural appropriation, anti-trans feminism, internalized patriarchy… it’s uncomfortable to push my elders on these things, and I tend to do it in more gentle, sensitive (ineffectual?) ways than I would do with my peers who are working from frameworks more similar to my own. How does this work in intact cultures? And what are the interim steps to getting there? Does respecting my elders, and the role that we all want them to have, mean keeping my mouth shut and just internally filtering out what feels unhealthy? Or do we acknowledge that our culture is healing and that it is not yet possible for elders to have the same role that they would in an intact culture?

So yeah, this is like a good book’s worth of timely and nuanced questions, and let me try to say a thing. In the context of this course and in particular in the context of Lesson Three on honoring the ancestors, the idea can take root that we should just honor our elders, period, end of story. And as you’re suggesting, I personally think the path of wisdom and relationality lies somewhere between A)I must defer to all real or imagined elders and B)I seek to destroy (esp. on social media) all who oppose my views.

I’m not sure personally if I’ve ever had any of my teachers also share all my views/values and each time it’s been hard/sad/etc. and each time it’s a judgment call on whether this means I break from them or not. Sometimes yes, sometimes no or not at that time. In general when I have broken from them, I mostly just walk away and stay open to talking with others in a similar situation but don’t try to otherwise ruin their lives or anything. For me at least, policing to that degree just doesn’t hold my interest. So yeah, I think it’s fair to hope/expect that a teacher can hold quality values and/or be open to thoughtful engagement on why they don’t hold those values, especially if it relates directly to the topic you’re learning from them. And if you’re learning how to be wise and kind, then yeah, those things are important.

I think it’s important to not see modern American culture as fundamentally incapable of producing quality elders or to see more traditional/tribal/animist cultures as always doing a good job at that. In traditional settings the lack of feedback from younger people can lead to stagnancy or rigidity when change is needed and in modern/Western settings elders about to truly listen and adapt with the times can really become useful people because of it. One strategy is that in relationships that matter you try to respectfully bring up something on your heart that’s important and see where that leads. I’ve done that with my Oluwo (teacher in Ifa from Nigeria) on the topic of LGBTQ folks, not something that they tend to speak of in Yorubaland much, and it’s been a fruitful discussion. And I’m mindful when and how I bring it up out of respect for the student-teacher dynamics. And I’ve been glad that he’s receptive.  So yeah, speak up and remember you can ask them for how they would like you to bring things up first, start with giving someone the benefit of the doubt and escalate from there if needed… or just walk away… or decide you can live with them having a certain amount of blindspots… all of those are possible ways of holding your center in the complexity of learning, at least sometimes from other humans, how to be an even more skillful, wise, and loving person yourself.

I’m currently working through my understanding of ceremony and memorial…ritualized remembrance of those who have once been. It’s my understanding that an important responsibility for an individual, and a community, is to honour one’s ancestors — to ‘carry’ them if you will, by relating to them, praising them, giving them offerings, etc…It’s also my understanding that as a recently deceased person, it’s extremely beneficial to you if you are ‘carried’ by the living – if you’re memorialized often and well. This is said to ease one’s transition into ancestor and be ‘well seated’ among the collective ancestors. So far so good? So, here’s my question: how does ritual memorialisation by the living actually *benefit* the dead and the living — what exactly is the nature of the relationship being practiced here, and how does it work? Rationally, eventually everyone who has died will cease to be consciously remembered and memorialized by the living once enough time has passed, or family lines fizzle out, or the species as a whole expires, etc. So…what is the point of doing this? Given enough time, do all the dead sooner or later become ancestors regardless, while being memorialized simply ‘speeds up’ the process? If so, is this not parallel with the Christian notion of purgatory? And if so, is even this understanding I’ve outlined above actually deeply influenced by Christian metaphysical beliefs? OR — could it be that Christianity actually retained an ancient and animist/pagan metaphysics despite itself?

Yes, that’s how I see it, regarding the first paragraph. I don’t focus so much on memorializing but rather staying in relationship in the present. Like my ancestors aren’t so into the black and white photos I have of them, being a bit like, “come on, that’s so 1940, you know we change too.” And generally yes, following.

There are several big questions here really, but I’ll start with: Do the dead eventually become ancestors? And if so, why go to all the trouble if it’s automatic? So I think the very ancient dead become more and more composted, gradually collective in their consciousness. That’s not quite the same as becoming an ancestor and not totally different. This is crass but what comes to mind is an interaction with my mom when I was maybe 10 years old and told her, “I don’t want to clean my room because it’s just going to get dirty again,” to which she replied, “you wipe your ass don’t you?” Silence. I had nothing on that.

One reason we seek to ancestralize the dead is a kind of cultural hygiene. The unwell dead can be a source of all manner of problems so tending to their ancestralization prevents many troubles. To fail to do so would be analogous to being like, “hey, this person is angry and aggressive but if we just send them out of the house, no problem, it’ll sort, we all become stardust anyways.” They don’t cease to be a part of community just because they step out of the flesh suit; to the contrary the recent dead can have the strongest ties to the living and because of this be the most likely to interfere. So it’s selfishly in the best interests of the living to care for the not-currently-incarnate ones.

This is such a large bundle of questions, mostly I’m taking a swipe through a few of them to see what might land….so continuing….remember my approach to the ancestors is lineage rather than individual focused. I want to see the recent dead become seated in lineage and I favor relating with lineages more than individuals as they are direct currents of archetypal beauty and potency that take human form which is critical for our sense of magic and wholeness, and that in turn encourages good behavior toward self and others as low self-esteem more or less obviously is at the root of a lot of human horror toward the Earth and each other (who are also the Earth).

The recent dead are like the visible stretch of a long pathway by which the collective wisdom of humanity+ takes expression as these specific bodies. We honor the ancestors also as a practice of somatic tending. I think it’s part of why the ancestors honor and memorialize us with their ongoing attention is to work at the health of the overall organism, we and they are one body so caring for the ancestors is also a bit like the right hand caring for the left.

The thing about the dead eventually being well, if we unplug the linearity of the story we can say something like, “isn’t the stardust already-one-perfection strata of our being present at all times rather than just at the holy bookends of form?” (you know what I mean) and the answer is yes of course, but it’s how to apply that. Like, if you’re in a painful breakup and your partner is kicking you out of the house (cue Lesson Four on boundaries) you could make a passionate case that we’re all stardust or all going to get cosmically composted into one seamless Godbody eventually (or even already), but it probably won’t save your relationship in that moment (even if true).

My instinct about Christianity (in part from having just spent a week in ritual with a highly educated Catholic sister who’s also a student in the ancestral healing work) is that it’s an older thing that got woven in, that it’s just a human thing to recognize we’re more than the body only and that what continues warrants ongoing relational consideration. I’m clear that my approach to ancestral tending isn’t sourcing from Christian views just because I’ve vetted/squared it over the years at least with root teachings in Buryat Mongol, Mayan, Dagara, Yoruba, Lakota, Taoist/Chinese, and Yoruba perspectives on the ancestors, just to name a few. Not saying that to imply the view is totally universal but there are contours enough for it to be pretty darn close. In that sense Christian models that allow for the ancestors to continue to change after death align with how most other traditions see it even if ideas on purgatory and all that can get moralistic or narrow.

There is the eloquent piece you articulated about a certain deference to human elders and the ubiquitous impulse for equality and flattening of hierarchy in our time. My sense is that in my own life part of the impulse to knock supposed elders down to my size, was that they were really misguided people who didn’t really get what elderhood entails. It was a function of broken trust in those who presented themselves as elders but who were in various ways manipulative and on the take from those they purported to serve. Can you speak a bit to this dynamic and how you have come to discern these things among the humans?

Yeah, for sure, not all people in roles we associate with elders (be they by age, title, position, etc), not all of those people are capable of responsibly filling those roles. I’ve certainly fired numerous teachers and in less diplomatic moments, have a list of older-than-me teachers who I think are kinda full of it and/or dangerous people. Discernment about who’s who takes time and steadiness and inner work and trial and error and being willing to do the research and have the conversations and be slow and steady. And also it’s possible to learn useful things from people with rough edges. And also there’s only so rough I want those edges to be before it makes it hard to learn a thing from someone.

Mostly you want to try to find at least a few living human people you can trust. Besides having some awesome friends on the path and a handful of truly good teachers, I also hire a therapist still and that’s helpful. And then there are the relationships with the deities and land and ancestors and all that. Whether it’s with living humans (there are folks who can meet you well and track your growth, even if you need to hire them) or with the other-than-humans, at least find a few powers who can hold that for you. Then if others are full of it, no problem.

You can also see some previous thoughts in this area above.

Honoring Ancestors of Place

I know very little about my own ancestors of blood, so how can I authentically introduce myself by way of them to the ancestors of the land where I’m at?

Good and common question. The long-form answer is to get to know your blood ancestors in spirit for a cycle of time (that’s my other/main body of work) and resources for that include the book or the practitioner directory. That type of deep dive doesn’t require historical knowledge of your people; that’s not always going to be possible and does not have to function as a hindrance to getting to know your ancient (and also more recent) ancestors directly. Seriously. It’s not contingent upon historical data; that’s helpful but not critical.

The shorter answer is to imagine them. To picture that there are ancient grandmothers and grandfathers who are deeply well in spirit backing you. You don’t have to know details or see imagines, just to know there are such ones in your blood lines at some point. And from that place of imagined and perhaps felt connection seek to make a gesture of respect to the local ancestors who are receptive. Remember not to pressure or expect any response from the locals, more like: take a few minutes to gather yourself and try something like “Hello, I’m _____, child of ______ and _______. My people come from _______ and we come here by way of ______. I currently live _____ and I’m coming to acknowledge the earlier ones here whose spirits and presence continue as part of this land. On behalf of myself and my people, I offer you this _____ as a simple gesture of respect and appreciation.” And then whatever else is on your heart and then make your offering and allow space for whatever needs to happen next (if anything, often it’s just to give space). It’s also OK to speak that you don’t know a lot about your people; be authentic and trust that will be received how it needs to be.

I live in the U.S. state of Georgia and the ancestors of place include generations of enslaved Africans. I’m concerned as someone who is not of African ancestry that seeking to acknowledge them could put me in contact with an energy that is not yet well in spirit due to the difficult history here, and I’m concerned that’s not really the intent of the exercise. Can you help me to know how to think about this possible tension between ritual safety and honoring ancestors of place who may not be at peace?

Yes, good question. The intent of this exercise is not really to enter into sustained conversation with the ancestors of place (although that may be possible). To do that would require greater discernment about who is well and spirit and who is not, an examination of motivations, consideration of any local etiquettes for engaging, making sure it’s coordinated with your own ancestors if at all possible, etc. In short, it’s kind of a larger subject. The intent of the exercise in Part One: Lesson Three is more about a gesture of basic greeting and respect, followed and tempered by Lesson Four (they may decline this gesture/say no to you…they may accept and you may say no to further engagement). So there is choice at each stage of interaction.

With that context, it’s important to not assume that any given ancestors are other-than-well in spirit due to the adverse conditions of their life. They may or may not be troubled in the present. Your own trusted guides and allies in spirit (who may of course include your own ancestors) are great in helping to discern through that. As there were 200+ years of African slavery in the area that is now Georgia of course there may be ancestors with widely varied level of continued presence with the land, overall wellness, and level of interest to engage with current inhabitants. In that sense if you believe that they or any other ancestors of place who you are not related to by blood are approaching you from their side, be discerning and also stay open to what the nature of that approach is as it can run the full spectrum. People are people (whether they’re of your same background or not, incarnate or otherwise, human or otherwise) and motivations for that contact will vary.

Practically speaking, I’ve been guided to offer the ancestors of place a baked good and I’m a bit concerned about just leaving something of substance out where others may see it. Thoughts on this?

Sure, there are really two concerns here. First, you don’t want to offer anything that you believe could be harmful to the local creatures and their digestion. Most perishable foods are probably fine and I’d just tend to avoid things that are highly processed or won’t break down easily when leaving offerings out. About location, yeah, you can place what you’re moved to share in an out of the way area or, if needed, even bury it. Remember it’s not necessarily about quantity, like if one is guided to offer a piece of fruit and honey then ten pieces of fruit and a gallon of honey doesn’t necessarily up the stakes and could be awkward for those on the other side of the intended diplomacy. But yeah, be sensible about offering practice, respectful of other humans in the area, and you should be fine.

In Lesson Three you encouraged us to ask our ancestral guide what an appropriate offering would be to the human ancestors of the land. I felt like I received an answer. Later that day my mom and I were going to go foraging for the first time in the woods where I grew up. I felt like the impression I was given was to not take anything back with me that day. To offer whatever I found back as an offering to the ancestral spirits of the place. That seemed good, except it turned out we didn’t find anything we were looking for that day. That left me with two questions. 1) Does that just mean I heard wrong? Listening to the ancestors in this way is super new for me. I felt good about the image of giving back what we’d collected but when we didn’t find anything, I assumed I hadn’t heard what I thought I’d heard. If that’s the case, any more advice on listening better? 2) I did do my best to greet the human ancestors of the land, but I didn’t know what to give. It didn’t seem right to take something that was already there, like picking flowers (it felt different than what I described above), so I picked up trash, sang a song, and gave my greeting. It was the best I knew to do. Can you give some more examples of what some good offerings might be? Especially being early spring, I had nothing yet that I’d grown myself to give. Would like to go less empty handed next time. Similarly, what to do if you don’t have anything on hand because you’re unexpectedly in a situation where you feel compelled to make an offering?

The fact that you’re struggling with it means it’s working. Seriously, we bring our patterns/habits to relationships that matter. Wondering if you’re doing it right, wondering what you have of value to bring, etc. In general, if you have no other tangible things and want to make a gesture of offering tangible I’ve seen folks offer a little saliva or a piece of hair. May seem odd but both have your DNA and in another sense are more intimate. A little water if you have it with you on your hike. Remember, they often want to know/feel your heart more than anything. Mostly we would rather have that from the human people in our lives than things. And also the things can be sweetening too and their own kind of medicines. And don’t let that detract from the direct heart-level connection, or in other words your song and heart can be the offering.

One thing that’s important is to return if possible. To seek to engage this kind of practice multiple times on different days, perhaps in different places, and to notice how it feels to slowly come into basic relationship with different local communities (e.g., ancestors of place, plant people, animal kin). The repetition with spontaneity and heart can be important here.

And don’t be discouraged by struggling a little to hear the message or things not clicking at first. Like any craft (e.g., pottery) not every piece or effort is going to work out or fall into place. Just return, give it another go and learn in the doing. Sincerely, it’s like that for me and pretty much everyone I know. This whole terrain is messy so bring kindness, patience, and tenacity.

Honoring Traditions

Is it okay to cherry pick/patchwork weave from multiple traditions, some of which I am not initiated into, which are intact, and add elements here and there, using English which is a less Earth connected, less Spirit connected language as I go?  I have sense of integrity only to pray in languages I am fully initiated into, using words and/or melodies I’ve been expressly given permission, invitation or initiation/teaching to use.  I have three core ones and a few prayers in a few others.  I tend to default to English a lot of the time out of humility or ease.  Just wondering about language and how much it matters since it shapes vibration and bringing things into being… Anyway – the main question is:   at some point – will there need to be a real deepening and focusing of path work in ritual to have more ceremony impact?

These are big questions really. I’ve certainly done both in my time (be eclectic about things and also be quite traditional/conservative about adaptations). In general, I tend to favor going deeper with one or at least not a lot of different forms, but that’s not how it is for everyone, so it’s hard to generalize. Traditionalists are not always purists and the idea that they are can source from unconscious conditioning derived largely from aspects of Protestant Christianity. So really it’s such a personal question. Consider the talk here on ‘Practicing the Traditions of Other People’s Ancestors’ (July 2017) as it touches on some of these themes a bit. But more specifically: there are ways to deepen without picking one or really any tradition and it can be harder. But also traditions themselves are a pain too, so it’s all quite messy and beautiful and complicated and different for each person.

Others are Humans, Humans are Others

Do you think anthropomorphism is a danger to avoid? Or a helpful tool for relating? Or something else? I’m thinking about how to have relationships with other than humans, and I don’t want to assume that talking with them as I would with humans is a way of relating that even makes sense to them. But at this stage… I don’t really know where else to start, in these relationships. I don’t even really know how to ask this question. Is spoken English language an appropriate way to communicate with a tree? Or are the specific words more for my own benefit (establishing my own intentions, for example), while the communication happens on a nonverbal level?

There are many good questions here, so let me engage with a few. Anthropomorphism isn’t a term I use much but let’s assume it means projecting human qualities onto the other-than-humans. I think this usually is a way in Western academic circles to call out a perceived confusion of attributing human qualities to others. First thought = not all bad. Yes, of course we don’t want to assume that all of the others are going to relate like us. Their communication styles may be different, personalities, needs, etc. And also I guess I’d say there is a language beneath language which also doesn’t rule out language. If Nettle comes in the dreamtime and is like, ‘hey you should come see me at the river this week’ does it mean Nettle speaks English? Yes and no.

Consider it this way. If Crow wants to get your attention is it problematic for them to engage in corvidomorphism to try to reach the human people in their area? Meaning, is it problematic to assume humans can engage with the same level of complexity as crows? Not really, it’s the starting point for a dialogue and we find our way with it.

One animist angle is that there are many kinds of people and all people have culture. So Mole and Nettle and Reishi all have their homes, their language, their families, their protocol and ways of doing things; their respective cultures. To the mole people there are other-than-mole people (including us) and some among the mole people may be skillful at bridging into dialogue between Mole and Nettle or between Mole and Human, for example.

If we’re going to say our cat, for example, is human-like as a way of really saying we legitimize them as a person then cats may also think that upstanding humans are honorary cats. The problem happens when we assume that all people are human. Or when cats see Cat as the pinnacle of personhood and start acting like shits toward us because they believe no humans can be honorary cats (a.k.a. full people).

So consider an approach something like this: the other-than-humans are also people. I know some things about what help interpersonal relationships to go well among living humans, let’s see what happens if I bring these same values to interpersonal relationships with people who are other-than-human. As for the how of it, bring your open heart and spend about half the time listening and half communicating and trust your instincts and often that’s enough to get things rolling.

Can you speak on the difference between speaking to another in a diminutive way versus as a respectful other? For example, many, many people talk to their companion animals, but I feel like that often takes the form of baby talk–it feels useful as a starting point, but it’s different from the way I’m trying to talk with other beings, now. A friend spent the weekend with me and we discussed this… she made a request of my cat that he not wake her up in the middle of the night, and she commented on how different that felt from how she had ever communicated with a cat before.

Great question and yes to this distinction. In general, approach other-than-humans with the same respect and curiosity that you would bring to a respected human you are just introduced to. You don’t know the depth of that person or their story or how the connection will unfold. You stay responsive to what the dance will be. You listen and feel for what supports connection and what diminishes that connection. I think of the recent film Arrival (worth it if you haven’t seen it) and the challenge of communicating with off-planet visitors. We need to feel our way through the exchange.

So yeah, notice what assumptions we bring to the connection. If we met someone at a party and were like (in baby voice), “Oh look at you, how cute, you dressed up so nice and you’re able to hold your drink without spilling it and you even combed your hair, that’s so grown up of you”…yeah, pretty sure that would be a relational fail. But do we do it with young children (don’t worry they’re not full people yet) or other-than-humans? All the time. And it says more about us than those we’re speaking to. And hey, hope the cat listened. And if not, don’t assume he didn’t understand just because he didn’t listen :-)

Relating with Illness and Disease Spirits

Curious of your thoughts on approaching disease through an animist lens… I was just diagnosed with Lyme disease, and am aware that now my wellbeing depends on killing this bacteria, and also that many people deal with this disease in varying degrees of intensity and sometimes for many years. I know there are big lessons that come from working through illness, but there is something both interesting and scary about the explosion of tick-borne diseases that makes it feel like there are lessons on both a personal and a larger scale…. and also makes it hard to know where to start on the path to healing. Thoughts?

Great question. First thought: kill the bacteria. With respect, with clarity, without objectifying or judging the weird old power whose body is that bacteria, and kill them/it/him/her all the same. As an animist, if an incarnate human person breaks into my home and it’s needed for to protect my family I would kill them without hesitation. I’m currently getting over a cold and am taking the support of some plant and fungus allies in killing the bug and/or strengthening my immune system to do the killing, but the goal is quite clear; defend my body and health as a prerequisite for the fulfillment of my destiny here on Earth. Be willing to kill others if put in that situation because you want to be here and will defend your basic space. Kill the bacteria.

So moving forward from that, we can ask, “Is there a more conscious and relational way of killing here?” and “Is it possible to see the larger picture playing out and how I relate to that?” To the first question, yeah, I think it’s good to speak directly to the one currently posting up in your body and be like, hey, I’m not going to war with you in the big sense, you just can’t live here, it’s not good for me, so you’re gonna need to move along. If you have a lesson you want me to get, let’s do this in like the next week or two before the medicines really kick in.” And then to ask your other trusted allies in spirit what you need to be learning so you really do get the message so there’s not a psychological hole/need the disease spirit is filling. When I kill certain insects in my home I often talk to them and am just like, “Hey, it’s nothing personal, you (particular kind of creature) just can’t be in here, we can’t do it like this for these reasons” and then proceed to kill.

About the bigger picture of course people will give you 1,001 different interpretations and if you’re open to that you’ll need to really run it all by your own intuition as to what’s alive and relevant for you. Make sure you don’t set up a story that you need the Lyme in order to learn whatever the lesson in. But yeah the weird old powers/gods whose bodies are what we consider disease, they are a complicated and edgy and diverse bunch. For example, like about half of the world’s population, I’m a carrier of HSV-1 / oral herpes and will occasionally get a cold sore on my lip. This virus lives in the trigeminal nerve (basically the brain) and occasional does its thing. I’ve dropped in with this one before and it’s an interesting power to share space with and we’ve made a kind of functional peace as it’s not something that gets permanently resolved. Yes, we can consciously seek to meet and understand the spirits/beings who are pathogens. And also it’s edgy and slightly dangerous work. In the meantime, with all the love in your heart, kill the bacteria.

Responding to Suffering with Other-than-Human Folks

I wonder about offering Tonglen when relating with the wild ones. I have also done more pragmatic interventions, when I got a ‘yes’ from asking. Example includes planting dynamic accumulators such as comfrey, nettles, or lamb’s quarters in toxic, disturbed, poisoned soils. Would you please discuss a more varied palette of responses to suffering we may encounter in connection with wild ones? In another example, a scrub jay juvenile died outside my front door. I’d watched him as a nestling with two other siblings. I gathered up his body to honor but later his father pecked at my window urgently. I wasn’t sure what the adult male wanted from me. Finally, I just told him what I’d done with his ‘son’ and put the body back near the nest and the father stopped pecking at the window.

(reference on Tonglen)

Yeah, good. In general look to all the ways you would respond to suffering with other humans. In other words, you could ask, are there any important differences in responding to suffering with human people and other-than-human people?

My first thought is: just be with. Bring your presence, kindness and compassion without needing to change a thing. Not right away at least. I think other kinds of active caring follow from this. When I was like 21 I was walking on the beach in Santa Cruz and a medium-sized fish washed up on the beach, flopping out of the water. I was with two other friends. Me and one friend were just kinda hit with the implications of intervening or not. The other picked up the fish and tossed him/her back into the water. It’s possible two decades later that I would intervene more quickly depriving the gulls and other shore dwellers of the body of a tasty fish. And I’m not honestly sure. I also used to put insects into spider webs as a child, a habit I haven’t continued.

I’m reluctant to try to say much about the form of the love/caring/possible intervention as it’s such a personal/style question and as complicated as loving other humans. Mostly I want to say: notice what works in loving humans and explore transferring these strategies to the others. And do the same in reverse. And from there notice what remains of the question.

That and to let the expression of your love be both specific (like individuals be they jays, bear, grub, oaks) and also species-level, ecosystem-level. All of the above. Other-than-humans seems to have more ready access to group-level consciousness (generalizing there) which allows for loving effectively at different scales.

Seriously Philosophical Shit

In the Pederson article on Animism and Totemism, the author suggests that animism is reflected in more horizontal relationships in human societies and between humans and the other than humans and that totemism is reflected in more vertical relationships among humans and also among the others. If our society (dominant culture in North America) is more vertical in nature, how does that inform our work to grapple with animist values? Can you try to wade into this terrain and say some stuff?

Alright, so there’s a ton in that article and another ton in the questions you sent me that I just briefly touched on in the question, so I’m going to take a swipe at some things and see what happens. First, I’m pretty sure so many societies and also individuals have elements of animism and totemism (and I only generally have a handle on the differences) so let’s start from a kind of both/and approach and also I’m not clear that one leads to any given kind of social organization but maybe. So I’m wading onto thin ice to even say a thing, but will try…

Mostly we’re taking about how power dynamics come into play and if they get fixed in certain identities/people over time or if they’re flexible, more fluid. Just trying to anchor from something I know, Yoruba tradition has clear elements of animism (e.g., Ifa verses with so-called objects making rituals or stories between different kinds of plants or animals and just a very dynamic relational world) and also I guess what a person could call totemism or rather deities, bigger forces that run through the whole latticework of creation. For example, Oya is an orisa/deity of wind, storms, the Niger River, the marketplace, the African buffalo and a bunch of other things. But I don’t think anyone would say that Buffalo is Oya exactly, more Yoruba style might be that Buffalo is an initiate of Oya or that they overlap, perhaps not so different from Raven being a friend of Odin and that they can function as one mind. Again, this doesn’t mean that Buffalo is subsumed by Oya, but if Buffalo were staring me down in a menacing way, would I also invoke Oya to try to save my ass? I would, I would address them both and ask Oya to pretty please calm her child.

The article notes how the spirit/healer folks in totemism-heavy cultures perhaps work more often with human ancestral spirits (as opposed to the other-than-humans) and that’s interesting and an actual difference on where emphasis is placed. Like I’m an orisha priest also and when I’m working with Oshun let’s say, her body/consciousness includes the Oshun river (and rivers in general), bees/honey, vulture, all the ancestral priestesses of Oshun, and certain spectrums of energy and human experience. And other things. So does that make me a totemist by relating with a larger structure/force of nature including the ancestors or an animist relating with rivers and bees and such? The body of the gods is also us. I’m not really sure. I guess I value flexibility and full range of motion, options, pragmatism.

About the power dynamics, in general I find that because of how often power is abused, including in ‘spiritual’ spaces, that many more conscious modern Americans, Canadians, etc. are wary of things that look like hierarchy and for good reason (we’re actually going to touch on this in Lesson Seven). A shadow side of so-called horizontal organization is this flattening of actual differences in capacity and status. For example, a child does not negotiate with a parent about whether or not to get out of the street; to do so could be fatal. And of course there are times when children do know better. Some people (human or otherwise) are our elders and they warrant being approached with elder etiquette; to fail to do so could cause real trouble (including failing to embody your elder responsibilities with respect to a junior). Yoruba culture is very much like this down to the grammar and pronouns. Personally I don’t see this as a bad thing and it’s a relatively common organizational structure among group mammals, for example, that there are more senior ones in the group based on their capacities (and this can change). It’s just a different role, not better or worse. Which is to say that while I resonate deeply with the perspectival aspect of animism presented in the article, I’m also not like ‘horizontal is better than vertical’ as that’s not been my experience of human relationships; to the contrary I work with a lot of people whose learning gets impaired because they don’t know how to be the student and burn time/energy trying to equalize the connection when I’m not actually seeking anything in that moment from them, so it gets awkward. Just underscoring how horizontal/vertical feels like a false dichotomy, or rather I’m a fan of the integration and flexibility that results, otherwise we eat our leaders alive. It’s part of why communism failed, specialization wasn’t celebrated.

I’m not sure any of that speaks to what you’re asking. If you’re willing try to bring these questions whichever have juice for you, to the spirits directly, that’s the move here. There are so many different ways to organize and it’s ok to make use of more than one and different ones in different seasons, as you know. To use a practice from chaos magic, odd esoteric thing that it is, try one a deeply egalitarian perspectival horizontal frame for a week or two and then make a pivot to a more vertical totemic hierarchy emphasizing frame and notice how each feels in your system, pros and cons. I’m pretty sure I personally do a fair amount of half-conscious code-switching in ritual spaces to try to follow what’s alive and interesting. It’s such a weird multi-cultural mix that you kinda have to, so good goal to cultivate that flexibility. Like I could still flow in Muslim space if needed and put on the it’s-all-One-thing lens, although I find it a little harsh like fluorescent lights or something, it also has advantages.

I am curious if you would share thoughts and ideas around speaking Animism within the English language. Also, where does the phrase “other than humans” come from?

Although I speak Spanish pretty well, I haven’t really tried to teach of this or think routinely of animist ways in the language. I’ve studied but have less proficiency with Czech, Arabic, and Yoruba, so really I don’t have a lot to contrast with. And Yoruba is probably the closest I’ll come in this life to being able to think and speak in one of those old-school languages and I’m still a few years away from being able to think in the language at the rate I’m studying.

That said, I’m not a purist or fixated on the whole language shapes consciousness argument that a lot of grouchy advocates of ancient Indigenous traditions seem to take. Mostly because it’s a stance of despair because there are billions of people who aren’t going to learn one of those languages, so we work with what we have. English is a messy, inconsistent hybrid of a language and it’s what I know. Like flavors in a soup, I can taste sometimes the original ingredients. Plus we enjoy a massive lexicon, possibly the most abundant in the world, which is it’s own kind of non-linear delight.

I believe the phrase other-than-human comes from Irving Hallowell and was inspired by him time with the Ojibway. Graham Harvey’s work is how the expression came to me. I find it neutral, descriptive, accurate, hard to argue with, so I tend to favor it.

Violence Among the Other-Than-Humans

I was wondering about some of the ways you think about/engage with witnessing violence in other-than-human interactions (like, witnessing what often appears to human eyes to be non-consensual sexual relations between Ducks, or the pleasure Cats seem to derive in playing with Mice).

Yeah, I think the way we talk about consent doesn’t really apply very well to most of the other-than-humans. Or if so, it’s more a negotiation between the big spirits or species-level deities whose bodies are those animals, plants, etc. So I guess I don’t look to the other animals for how to handle human ethics so much, more to the human ancestors. I know that’s potentially full of contradictions. I’m not saying humans are better or above the others really, and also there are differences.

And also humans can be very cruel. Also that of course. Not saying I agree with all the assumptions but this is an interesting read (New Yorker article on cruelty). And to circle back to your question, I can wonder how sagely ducks and kinda gatos discuss humans and how they may be like, “But some of them are so helpful and loving and can even communicate with us and are all psychic….but others are so terrible!…can we trust them at all?” …it seems nuanced…

Working with a Sit Spot

When thinking about my sit spot (that’s the lesson I’m on), I’m having a concern that when I am out in the world and alone, my hyper vigilance tends to be pretty active. This is especially true lately, as I’m working through some really big capital T traumas with some EMDR and somatic experiencing and so stuff is close to the surface. I occasionally feel safe enough to go for a hike alone (granted, with pepper spray) in less human dominated regions, but my concern is that the animal instincts of my body are on high alert and tracking to a degree that it is actually pretty hard to tap in to the unseen world in a real way because my body doesn’t really relax. The other option I have is the tiny patch of land that I tend between my house and the one next door. I’ve planted a bunch of magical and hummingbird-attracting things there, but I’m on a busy street with lots of human noise and neighbor kids playing, so it’s distracting in a different way. Hoping you have some insight that might be of service.

Give yourself a pass and sit inside, maybe with a window open. Because really our homes (assuming we have one) are our primary sit spots. And in some ways to have an outside sit spot might play into the idea that the Earth is out there and we’re well…where else is there? Seriously, cultivate the awareness that your home, all those structures, those are also ‘nature.’ Notice the ancient beautiful living Earth beneath your home, and all the small creatures, including insects and even smaller kin, who share your home. Don’t let your home be an obstacle to the practice, to the contrary, embrace the whole of it.