Practicing Animism: Back to the Future

Practicing Animism: Back to the Future

Picture of Chris Parish

Chris Parish

Picture of Chris Parish

Chris Parish

Practicing Animism: Back to the Future

How might we begin to experience ourselves as being inherently part of Nature? Not as some disembodied observer taking a stroll through the woods or along the riverbank, but rather as being within nature, fully embodied and interwoven. There is enormous value and benefit if we can come to feel this to even a marginal degree. An important part of our lack of response to our global predicament is due to our estrangement and dissociation from the living world. It’s not our fault, it’s just the way we’ve been encultured in our modern world. 

Many progressive people recognise that we are part of nature, but it usually remains a largely intellectual understanding rather than a bodily felt emotional reality. Although we may go for walks in the great outdoors and are soothed and replenished by these encounters, unfortunately it usually doesn’t tend to shift our deeper default position of estrangement. And to be clear, I’m not here talking about a romantic or aesthetic appreciation of Nature – lovely though that can be. I’ll explain what I mean.

Over the last few years, I have discovered that this deep relationship (actually an inseparability) with the living world can actually be activated, cultivated and practiced.

But in order to experience it ourselves as a living felt reality, it involves reawakening our senses so that our attention begins to gravitate towards our sensuous experience prior to the categorisation and labelling of our habitual mental rational mindset. We’ve been trained to perceive the world as being one that is full of inanimate objects, stuff. No wonder, our wonder has gone since we’ve been conditioned to withdraw into an almost exclusively human cocoon of a mindset.

So the simplest way to practice what I’m speaking about is to go for a walk outdoors and look and listen and touch and feel and smell. You don’t have to be in an especially beautiful ‘natural’ setting. The weather is democratically available everywhere. I walk around my urban London docklands. I feel the breeze on my cheeks and swirling between my fingers; the invisible yet palpable element of the air caresses and invigorates my cheeks and my skin starts to breathe. The wind is moodiness personified and today the wind is gusting fitfully and alternately calming down. The intermittent gentle cool rain freckles upon my cheeks. Standing still, I feel the solidity and support of the ground energising my feet. My feet feel rooted in the ground, rather than on the ground, while at the same time the ground seems to press up into my feet. I step off the path onto damp green grass and the softness, even through the soles of my shoes, instinctively makes me tread more carefully, eliciting reverence for the living sward I am palpably in contact with. 

I touch the wonderfully smooth paper white bark of a birch tree with its softness and yet strong density. My fingers feel the bark, and doesn’t the tree feel my fingers at the same time?  The lilac leaves are beginning to unfurl, and I gently touch these new-born delicate green leaves, enjoying the tactile quality; and those new leaves are simultaneously sensing me through their pores. I come upon a pair of impossibly white swans on the waters of my nearby docks, and they gaze at me as I gaze at them; we are held in each other’s gaze. It’s a reciprocal exchange. The herring gulls glide effortlessly high above in the wind, riding the shifting air currents of their three-dimensional aerial home with grace and intelligence distributed through their whole outstretched wings. The familiar raucous cry of the herring gull fills the air and always hearkens to the sea, their ancestral home.

This is what I’m calling the practice of animism. First, I should explain what I mean by animism as I realise many people today have very little sense of what it means, and it can sound weird or like some kind of retro pagan notion. Basically, animism points to the understanding, almost universally held for most of our human species’ existence, that everything in the world, whether humans, other animals, plants, rivers, mountains all have at least some degree of life, of agency – of being animated. For thousands of generations over millions of years in our long mammalian and hominid evolution, this would have been the well-honed and time-tested approach to living, otherwise we wouldn’t have survived. It’s only for the minutest blip of recent time that we have withdrawn psychically from our living surroundings into our modern rational minds.

From the human body’s point of view, just to perceive something – anything- is already to enter into a reciprocal encounter with that being. Animism is a way of being in accord with our sensing organism. There is no utterly inanimate, inert substance from our body’s perspective. Animism can perhaps best be understood as the instinctive experience of reciprocity or exchange between the perceiver and the perceived and is at the heart of all human perception. 

Phenomenologist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty held that perception is inherently participatory. To illustrate this fact, he used the simple example that your hand is able to touch things only because your hand is itself a touchable thing. When I touch the paper white birch bark, it’s an experience of my own tactility and simultaneously I feel myself touched by the tree. And it’s the same for all our senses: we touch, hear, see, and taste, only because we are entirely a part of the sensible world that we perceive. In our direct sensuous experience, everything has life and moves, even if some things move infinitely slower than others. The turquoise damselflies who appear in summer and flit around my pond move on a very different scale to a local rock that I know which always touches me with its perfect poise through all the seasons; I think it’s some kind of ancient granite, and when the sun touches its surface, its flecks of quartz sparkle in the light. This rock is always an anchor of stable persistence. We habitually think that rocks merely exist and imagine that the verb ‘to be’ is a passive affair, yet my rock demonstrates how simply to exist is a very active thing to be doing. 

Just to mention a few practical pointers in the practice of animism which I’ve found helpful:

Go for a walk outdoors regularly. You can practice indoors of course, but within our homes we are surrounded by such a multitude of human artifacts, that it offers a far lower variety of sensuous experience. 

Alternatively find a favourite spot outdoors to regularly sit down and just be present (a ‘sit spot’, as they are now termed).

Walk by yourself unless you are fortunate to have an unusually tuned in walking companion.

Don’t try to use walks or time spent sitting outdoors as occasions to solve problems or think through anything. 

In the words of Thoreau, “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

Gently keep coming back to your immediate sensory experience. 

Do this over time and you find yourself being more and more drawn to direct unmediated experience; you feel more alive, invigorated; it’s more mysterious, often wondrous. Your interest increases, it becomes more satisfying; it has its own meaning.

It’s best to put away the smartphone for your walk and obviously no headphones or music; there’s more than enough going on outdoors without adding to the synaesthesia.

Natural history knowledge is not at all necessary, but it can help to open up more in our sensory experience as long as it is not primary i.e., providing your first impulse is not to label and categorise. (After all, Indigenous people have deep and detailed knowledge of all their local species and their behaviours; it’s needed for their survival).

In these matters, I’ve been greatly inspired and informed by the work of the eco philosopher David Abram which led me several years ago to begin to experiment with practicing this different orientation when I was out on my daily walk. Abram was the first contemporary philosopher to advocate a reappraisal of ‘animism’ as a complexly nuanced and viable worldview; a perspective which anchors human cognition in the sensitive and sentient human body, while affirming the ongoing entanglement of our bodily experience with the uncanny sentience of other beings.

I know it can sound complex and philosophical when attempting to put all this into words in the English language. Yet when we are not hypnotised by our dissociated and abstract rational mindset, we can find that animistic perception is utterly normal for the human organism. Our immediate experience is that there is nothing which is devoid of animacy, expressive agency, or life. And the more-than-human world is speaking to us, if we have but the ears to listen, rather than concluding beforehand from our unwarranted position of human exceptionalism and superiority, that it’s all inanimate, dead or dumb.

Animism has been an almost universal way of being for indigenous cultures all around the world, as far as we know, for upwards of 95% of our human existence: so much so that traditional indigenous peoples don’t even have words for it in their languages. It’s only from our hyper-modern Western perspective which has so divorced us from the actual world we are immersed in, that ‘animism’ sounds naive or even superstitious to our ears. While we can never hope to enter into the worldview of indigenous peoples, we can begin to consciously reactivate our bodily senses and cultivate a different relationship to the world to quite some degree. Young children instinctively talk with animals, and we humour this propensity when they are young, with books where the animals all converse with each other and with us. Then before too long, we iron these childish habits out of our young ones, as they join the adult world and learn that only human animals talk and have intelligence.

Many of us are critical of and upset by the rampant destruction of nature by the dominant free market neoliberal culture which only sees profit, and the planet as but an oyster to be plundered. Progressive folk these days tend to be quite familiar with the various recent books and Zoom calls delineating all the problems which stem from the mechanical view of nature which still holds sway over Western thinking. This is of course informative and valuable but yet unfortunately doesn’t necessarily tend to change us that much. Often well-meaning sensitive people read up on this Western malady and the proposed solutions, but all too often don’t realise that some kind of praxis is vital or that knowledge can just become subsumed within our modern society’s left brain hemisphere domination. (As extensively researched and documented by psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist). We forget that the rational scientific stance of being a dispassionate observer is a valuable tool, but it is nevertheless just a useful fiction. In reality there never has been any outside observer. You can’t get outside nature!

Practice is needed to learn any new skill, and it’s no different if you are attempting to inhabit a new perspective. The practice of animism is a different focus and direction than what is practiced in many forms of meditation. Meditation can of course have great value but often involves going within and observing or having no relationship to our experience, rather than the total embrace of sensory experience and the living world. Ironically, in this regard, many meditation practices can tend to downgrade the importance of the outer living world, in a way that is not dissimilar to that of the mechanical modern Western viewpoint which views the world as essentially inanimate. The participatory relationship I am talking about is a different focus from the non-duality or oneness which many meditators are interested in.

As David Abram says, 

“It’s not a way into oneness. It’s not a way into oh, so it’s all alive. So, it’s all one. No, it’s actually a way into radical multiplicity because it’s as if the bifurcation of the world into animate and inanimate enables us to hide, not from the oneness of things, it enables us to hide from, from the irreducible pluralism of the world.”

Interestingly to me, panpsychism, the philosophical view that all things have a mind, or a mind-like quality has a huge overlap with animism. Panpsychism has recently become popular among analytic philosophers as a means to try to deal with and integrate what has been called ‘the hard problem of consciousness’. Yet this kind of panpsychism is usually a logical exercise which remains strictly academic, while animism is much more experiential and is motivated by an ethical imperative of wanting a full-bodied relationship with the actual palpable world. 

The increasing sense of alienation and lack of meaning that many of us are often plagued by, is bound up with this lack of feeling connected and nourished by the more-than-human world. The experience of nature and getting out into the great outdoors has become increasingly popular among many people, and for very good reason. We are instinctively soothed and replenished by a walk in the green woods or by the seashore. The benefits of ‘green’ immersion or forest bathing are well documented, leading to social prescribing of such remedies instead of medication for anxiety, depression, and general healing.

The practice of animism, as I have tried to illustrate, takes this a step further. The sense of lack of meaning and alienation begin to lose their grip when you start to feel experientially entangled in the more-than-human world. Meaning is simply experienced as inherent in the web of Life we are intrinsically part of.  

Such connection and expansion of identity also brings with it responsibility since the Earth is one’s own living body, and the myriad cuts and wounds inflicted on this larger body are felt by us more immediately. We become much more acquainted with grief, not for ourselves but for the precious web of life, and yet simultaneously we are more empowered to do what we can locally, in our immediate world.

I hope this gives some helpful pointers to experimenting with the practice of animism. I have found this kind of engagement to be deeply meaningful and enriching and a practical way to actually begin to change my relationship with everything in my immediate local world. And I feel that I am merely scratching the surface. Many people don’t know what to do about our global predicament and feel paralysed. Modernity has given us many wonderful gifts, but it has ceased to serve us well and its pathology has now become disastrously predominant. In her book, Hospicing Modernity, Vanessa Machado de Oliveira talks of the worlds worth working for in the time to come being ‘presently unimaginable,’ and in order for them to become imaginable, we would have to become other than who we are. 

I feel that the practice of animism is one important facet in becoming other than who we are and helping to weave that unknown way forward. 

“The assumption of a materialist world composed of ‘things’ is the greatest impediment we face.” Iain McGilchrist

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Picture of Chris Parish

Chris Parish

Picture of Chris Parish

Chris Parish