Practical Animism FAQ Page
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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: https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=90125&page=1. 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 oth