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Practical Animism FAQ Page

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% o