Animism is to see life in everything, to feel the pulse in everything. It’s not technically a religion, but it is a belief. Many shamanic cultures hold this belief. Like other beliefs, animism is a lens for perceiving life. Here’s a glance at how this viewpoint can be transformative and change the way we engage with the world.
If you believe humans have souls or that our consciousness consists of energy, I’ll call that the planted seed of animism. You may go further to believe animals have souls/energy and onward that plants do. Already, this gets a little wacky for people. I imagine a reader looking over at the succulent on their windowsill and thinking, “That? Do I really believe that there has a soul?” Same with the spider comfortably positioned in the ceiling corner of your bathroom.
Soul means something different depending on who you ask. You can apply your definition as you see fit. For the sake of clarity in this post, to me, a soul is pure energy. Energy is a more neutral term, so I’ll use it going forward. My assumption is that our energy is what makes us conscious and animates our bodies.
If other living things consist of energy, such as animals and plants, we recognize their energy as also animating their form from which they express their existence. For fellow pet owners, it’s often easy to recognize an energy similar to our own in our animal companions. Although some people may draw the line there. If you’re strictly a goldfish caretaker, maybe you’ve drawn the line well before. Anyway, perhaps our pets seem “human-like” probably because they’ve been domesticated. Can we accept an energy/soul in wild animals? How about that windowsill succulent again? Is there a line to draw?
There was a TEDtalk from maybe 2016 or 2017 that discussed what we know about insects. The speaker argued that certain insect behavior is so mysterious to us and we are unable to fully grasp their purpose because we have so much trouble relating to them. We try to make connections with the things we study. The easiest way for us to make sense of something, to justify its existence, is to project our human qualities onto it.
Many people regard humans as superior to everything here on Earth. This to me, is the opposite of animism. I attribute the superiority complex to, as stated above, being unable to see anything relatable in things. I think this was part of why historically people justified enslaving other humans. Differences create hierarchies.
When we begin to accept that living things have their own variations of intelligence used to pro-create and survive for however long they exist in that particular form on Earth, a shift happens. We don’t have to recognize human qualities in nature for it to be amazing, so we don’t have to recognize human qualities in nature for it to be energetic and alive.
Tuning into our own consciousness and what it feels like to be alive is the first step to understanding it all around you. A beautiful, impactful side effect of animism is treating other living things with respect. Going for a walk in nature to exchange air with the trees and to examine the natural processes operating like its own metropolis reminds us we are a part of the natural system.
This reminder breeds desire to restore our relationship with nature and to more deeply appreciate the fullness of life. Personally, I perceive consciousness energy flowing through all things. It’s what holds us all together. This is why I believe that once a body dies the energy that animates the body is not destroyed. I imagine the energy presents to living humans perhaps as a recognizable spirit, re-immerses in the collective, or takes a new physical form. Maybe it happens in that order!
In some cultures that believe in animism, even non-living objects have energy. I have more difficulty with this concept, but it’s worth a thought. I’m not sympathetic to the couch I sit on the same way I am to something that breathes. Though, when I think about the microscopic atoms that construct a given object, I’m more likely to consider it having energy.
Even further, animism accepts larger scale systems as energetic such as weather and perhaps even societal structures. Words have energy! Does this mean my computer, a shoe, and the “f” word have the same kind of energy as my dog Clem or me? Inconclusive. Should I be treating a slice of bread with the same respect as birds and trees? I probably won’t.
Animism is something I consider as part of my beliefs, but I can’t say that I live by its complete concept. I feel the aliveness of our natural living system, even in rocks and seas, and I understand words as energy in an ironically ineffable way. However, perceiving a vibration in non-living objects is something I have to concentrate on, and it’s a form of play that keeps me curious.
What do you think? Or rather, what do you feel? Do you sense energy in everything? How might it change the way you engage with the world?
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