Animism For Our Times
by James Nichol, a repost from his Blog, Contemplative Inquiry
This post looks at Animism as the guiding principal of my Druidry. The term itself comes from nineteenth century anthropology, and is somewhat problematic. Scholars from European and North American backgrounds , formed by a mix of Christian and secular ideas, were studying, and labelling, the traditional practices of other people. The people themselves were mostly in the process of becoming colonial subjects and living in cultures under stress. So ‘Animism’ started out as a top-down classification, which gave Animists a lowly position in the hierarchy of cultural and spiritual life. A stigma persists to this day.
Despite this dubious history, the word ‘Animism’ is now being turned around by people from the global north itself, spiritually hungry in our now palpably faltering 21st century world. Some years ago, research by Graham Harvey distinguished two positive uses of the term Animism among modern western Pagans. “Some Pagans identified Animism as a part of their religious practice or experience which involved encounters with tree-spirits, river-spirits or ancestor-spirits. This Animism was metaphysical. … Other Pagans seemed to use ‘Animism’ as a short-hand reference to their efforts to re-imagine and re-direct human participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community. This Animism was relational, embodied, eco-activist and often ‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical” (1).
My Animism draws primarily on the second of the two accounts above. But it is deepened by a Buddhist influence, especially that of the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh: “There is no absolute dividing line between living matter and inert matter. If we took the so-called inanimate elements out of you and me, we would not be able to live. We are made of non-human elements. This is what is taught in the Diamond Sutra, an ancient Buddhist text that could be considered the world’s first treatise on deep ecology. We cannot draw a hard distinction between human beings and other living beings, or between living beings and inert matter. There is vitality in everything. The entire cosmos is radiant with vitality. If we see the Earth as a block of matter lying outside of us, then we have not yet truly seen the Earth. The Earth is also alive” (2).
Thich Nhat Hanh follows an old tradition. In thirteenth century Japan, Zen Master Eihei Dogen had taught that enlightenment is just ‘intimacy with all things’. Elsewhere in his own text, Thich Nhat Hanh says: “Just as a wave doesn’t need to go looking for water, we don’t need to go looking for the ultimate. The wave is the water. You already are what you want to become. You are made of the sun, moon and stars. You have everything inside you”. Thich Nhat Hanh explains that a flower is made only of non-flower elements. We can say that the flower is empty of separate self-existence. But that doesn’t mean that the flower is not there. “When you perceive reality in this way, you will not discriminate against the garbage in favour of the rose” (2).
This Buddhist wisdom doesn’t seem to me to come directly out of the four noble truths or eightfold path. The Buddhists of south-east and east Asia were at ease with the traditional Animism of their cultures, and the views expressed above appear to me to be at least partly a cultural gift from the Animists. Japan, for example, was intensely influenced by Buddhism without any thought of displacing Shinto, and the traditions readily interwove.
It was otherwise in the west. Already, In the first century CE, the Roman philosopher Plutarch wrote of the death of Great Pan, after the time of Jesus but before the rise of Christianity. James Hillman comments: “With Pan dead, so was Echo; we could no longer capture consciousness through reflecting within our instincts. … The person of Pan the mediator, like an ether who invisibly enveloped all natural beings with personal meaning, with brightness, had vanished. Stones became only stones – trees, trees; things, places, animals no longer this god or that, but became ‘symbols’, or were said to ‘belong’ to one god or another. When Pan is alive, then nature is too – the owl’s hoot is Athena and the mollusc on the shore is Aphrodite … Whatever was eaten, smelled, walked upon or watched, all were sensuous presences of archetypal significance”.” (3).
James Hillman, after service as Director of Studies as the Jung Institute in Zurich, went on to develop his own form of archetypal psychology. He was a strong proponent of Panpsychism, a world view very similar to forms of Animism being articulated today. Panpsychism literally means the ensoulment of everything (from the Greek), though the sound ‘Pan’ also associates us with the god. At the same time this view broadly fits with the understanding of Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, described above.
‘Animism’ is for me a word, not a thing, or a another religious banner to raise. It points to a wide range of experiences, understandings, and articulations. Pinned down to a single, dictionary definition, it would lose its power and energy. Yet Animism has become the word that best describes my way of being a modern Druid, both as view and as practice. I find it grounding and regenerative to have decisively adopted this word.
(1) Graham Harvey (ed.) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism London & New York: Routledge, 2014 (First published by Acumen in 2013)
(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017 (Rider is part of Penguin Random House)
(3) James Hillman The Essential James Hillman: A Blue fire London: Routledge, 1989 (Introduces and edited by Thomas Moore in collaboration with the author)