Spiritual Ecology: The Living, Breathing World of Animism

What Is Animism?

Animism is an ancient worldview at the root of spirituality and religion that sees human beings as part of an interconnected web of life that invisibility connects the seen and unseen worlds.

The word Animism derives from the latin root Anima, which means breath, spirit and life.

Anima is similar to Prana in the Vedic tradition, Chi in the Taoist tradition and the universal spiritual force referred to as the Great Spirit  in many Indigenous traditions.

Celtic Druids call this spiritual lifeforce Nwyfre, the Algonquians call it Manitou and the Haudensaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) call it Orenda.

The Greek philosopher Plato called this universal spiritual force the Anima Mundi in his philosophical treatise Timaeus on the origins and workings of the Universe:

"This world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence, a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related."

Throughout human history, nearly every society has had a cultural mythology and cosmology that revered this universal spiritual force found in all living beings.

It is only in modern times in the secular churches we call schools that things have fundamentally changed through indoctrination in strict materialism that disconnects people from a sense of the sacred.

The hyper-rationalism and mechanistic reductionism of the Western Enlightenment prevailing today is unique in world history with a strange "soulless" materialistic view of the Universe as an indifferent machine-like entity or code-based simulation.

The result is our collective sense of the sacred has been severed and replaced with an insatiable drive for scientific progress and material prosperity without any sense of limits or responsibility.

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The Spiritual Ecology of Animism

Animism is not an abstract concept but a direct way of feeling and experiencing life.

The revival of the living, breathing language of Animism is vital for reversing climate change and building a regenerative culture where young people believe in the future again.

Animism is a deeply rooted value-system based on respect for the land, reverence for all life and relating to the more-than-human world as a living being infused with sentience. 

The practice of Animism is about cultivating a relationship with what Plato called the "Anima Mundi" or the world soul. 

The world soul is, according to several systems of thought, an intrinsic connection between all living things on the planet, which relates to our world in much the same way as the soul is connected to the human body.

Animism provides a spiritual ecology to re-orient people for earth stewardship and building a regenerative culture. 

Spirit can be conceptualized as all the invisible threads and that connect people with the more-the-human world and nature elements that make the miracle of life on Earth possible.

Using the breath, we can experience this spiritual ecology directly through our hearts.

Breath awareness and rhythmic breathing offers a powerful gateway to open our sensory gating channels to see through the heart and move past habitual patterns of thinking.

Through practices of conscious breathing, we can ground ourselves in the "felt presence" of our immediate experience.

This allows us to start to feel , communicate and develop a heartfelt connection with this living, breathing spirit.

The Animistic Worldview Explained

This 4-minute video does a good job of describing the general Animistic worldview.

The God Head in Stanley Park

Animism, Biophilia And Enriching Sensory Experience

Animism (from Latin anima, “breath, spirit, life”) is defined on Wikipedia by Anthropologists as:

1. The attribution of a spirit to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena.

2. The belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.

This is a good definition by and for modern minds. But Animism is something much deeper and profound.

Ultimately, Animism is about the development and enrichment of sensory experience and the cultivation of a love of nature that is often referred to as Biophilia by the famed ecologist E.O. Wilson.

Animism doesn't necessary describe a belief system although every tribe and culture with an animistic cosmology has a different mythology and belief system rooted in the unique characteristics of their land.

The practice of Animism involves developing an embodied connection with the natural elements that give us life and the development of a direct heartfelt relationship with the other living creatures in the web of life.

At its core, the practice of Animism is about the cultivation of direct perception of reality that goes beyond the compulsive labeling, comparison and judgement of the analytical mind.

When we begin to explore the world with more child-like lenses and expand our awareness beyond the limitations of language and the pre-conceptions of the analytical mind, nature becomes much more alive to our senses.

Over time, the practice of animistic perception through forest meditation and mindful awareness practices develops an inner intuitive knowing of our interconnection and kinship with all living beings.

All living things we experience through our senses breathe and create subtle electromagnetic fields that we can interact with through our hearts. Developing this feeling sense starts by gradually expanding the "sensory gating" of cultural conditioning and developing the perceptual acuity of our senses.


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The God Head And How I Got Into Studying Animism

Growing up with Cornish ancestry, I've always been fascinated by the animistic myths and legends of the ancient Celtic priesthood called the Druids.

Once the dominant culture of the British Isles, they were conquered by the Roman Empire and then overrun by the Anglo-Saxon warrior tribes from Northern Germany who colonized the British Isles in the 5th century.

It took nearly a 1000 years to subjugate the 6 Celtic Nations of the British Isles (Brittany, Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man) before this divide-and-conquer mass colonization strategy used by the English was spread out across the world.

I was always interested in the magic and mystery of the animistic language of the Druids and the history of how the modern world was formed through a war against nature and the oral storytelling indigenous peoples who are the keepers of the Earth. 

This lead me to study ancient history and the rise of the modern world at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada.

While studying at UBC, my refuge from stress and the boredom of lectures was in the Pacific Spirit rainforest that surrounds the campus.

As a young student, I would spend my free time mountain biking, hiking and explore the trails of Pacific Spirit Park, Stanley Park and the North Shore Mountains.

My interest in exploring deeper into Animism beyond myth and legend was sparked by the discovery of the God Head, a mysterious carving buried in the rainforests of Stanley Park.

Fascinated by this place of peace, beauty and tranquility in the forest, I began to make a regular pilgrimage to meditate and contemplate silently in the forest.

The God Head was carved by an anonymous Indigenous carver in the early 1970s. It is carved out of the stump of an old-growth Western Red Cedar, which in local Coast Salish culture is considered the “Tree of Life.”

The Western Red Cedar tree is highly valued and revered because of a natural preservative in the cedar wood that slows decay, which makes it ideal material for building longhouses, canoes, and many of the largest totem poles that still stand today.

On my regular trips to the God Head, I was continually awe-struck by this beautiful carving that combines human ingenuity and the living art of nature with different mushrooms, bushes, ferns and lichen growing out of it as the seasons change.

For me, it became a powerful symbol of the duality of life and how our existence is a balancing act and interplay between seemingly opposing forces that upon deeper inspection are closely interconnected:

1. Humans and nature
2. Art and science
3. Life and death
4. Growth and decay
5. Wildness and domestication
6. Reality and illusion
7. Matter and spirit

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The Modern History of Animism

The first modern scientists and cultural anthropologists that spread out across the world with European nautical explorers were perplexed by indigenous worldviews.

Animism actually has a long history in Western culture going back (and beyond) to the ancient priesthood known as the Druids in Western Europe and Plato’s philosophy of a World Soul in ancient Greece, which he called the Anima Mundi.

Today, Western science and Enlightenment rationalism have relegated Animism to the margins but it is making a comeback in this age of mass alienation from nature, relativistic nihilism and climate breakdown.

The avalanche of data, statistics and academic papers from 10,000+ scientific studies and tens of billions of dollars spent on climate change research doesn’t speak to most people’s hearts or mobilize the kind of collective action we need to save ourselves.

What we need is a new story.

The modern Western way of perceiving the world as a detached observer in a reductionist, mechanistic and meaningless Universe is at the root of the crisis of consciousness and global biodiversity collapse happening today.

To challenge this destructive worldview of materialism, there is an awakening of people who are learning to perceive through the heart again and embody ancient teachings that can set them free from  the limited abstractions and restlessness of the analytical mind.

The modern conception of Animism was first developed by German chemist, physician and philosopher Georg E. Stahl in 1708 as Animismus, which grew out of a branch of science called Vitalism.

Vitalism is the belief that a spiritual force is vital to life and that many diseases have spiritual causes.

In 1869, English anthropologist Edward Taylor read Stahl’s theory and coined the word Animism for the belief and value systems of pre-agricultural, nature-based tribal people.

It essentially denotes a belief systems where human beings are not separate from the environments from which they have evolved.

In Animism, all life is understood to have a personhood due to being alive and interconnected in a give-and-take relationship with other living beings.

In the last two decades, the traditional animistic worldview that all living things are our ancestors is being validated by evolutionary biology tracing back our DNA to the beginning of life on Planet Earth 3.8 billion years ago.

Animism has been recognized by cultural ecological philosopher David Abram as a phenomenological experience, which means to say a sensory experience that is often trained out of people by heavy reliance on written language, rote learning methods and hypnotic screens.

In 2006, Alf Hornborg, a professor of Human Ecology at Lunds Universitet in Sweden published data from anthropologists who are starting to explore the theory that Animism is a basic human psychological need.

Interestingly, modern psychology going back to Sigmund Freud's book Totem and Taboo has studied Animism and today it is widely accepted by psychologists that children are naturally animistic but this way of seeing and interacting with the world is often lost in the process of Western schooling.

From consciousness and neuroscience research, there is also an emerging scientific theory of Panpsychism, which posits that there is an all-pervading sentience and consciousness at every level of the Universe from the Microcosm to Macrocosm.

Animism challenges the current Western scientific worldview that emphasizes the quantitative over the qualitative and exhibits a strong tendency toward denial of the existence of natural forces that can't be easily measured through current technological instruments.

Interestingly, many conventional scientists are coming full circle back to Animism with recent discoveries that the natural world is infused with sentience, intelligence and communication binding it into whole "networked" communities that operate as if self-aware.

This is starting to be reflected in the development of a more holistic science and the growing importance of systems thinking.

The Animate Earth: The Rise of A Holistic Science

You can learn more about the frontiers of animistic science and the development of systems thinking, emergent properties and holistic thinking in the excellent film Animate Earth.

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The Ancient History of Animism

Incredibly, human beings have been animists for most of our history.

What we call agricultural civilization with its strict hierarchies and organized religions with secretive priesthoods started in the late Bronze Age less than 6,000 years ago.

They arose out of the early Empires of Mesopotamia and the Far East that grew from the large agricultural surpluses that only intensive agriculture can produce.

Yet, beyond the time scale of written history, our ancestors have had the self-awareness and language to communicate with each other and use Stone Age tools as hunter-gatherers in the forests for nearly 2.6 million years.

The monotheistic cultures that revere the written words of their scriptures above all else are a very recent phenomenon in human history.

The militant literalism of modern fundamentalist and evangelical movements are even more recent at less than 200 years old. They have largely grown out of a reaction against the changes of modernity that have disrupted rural life and lead to extreme poverty in the countryside today. 

While the Abrahamic monotheistic religions have colonized animistic cultures throughout their history, today there is a growing reconciliation with indigenous ways of knowing. Young people are well-aware of the historical atrocities committed in the name of God upon innocent people and the scale of our planetary ecological crisis necessitating a new way of thinking and being in connection to nature.

Science and religion alone won't save us in this time of transition and crossroads for humanity.

We also need to experience the Earth again as a vital and sentient living being and explore the interconnected intelligence of nature. We are living miracles embedded in a vast and mysterious cosmos of awe-inspiring power and beauty.

Forest Meditation Circle

What Is Animist Ecology?

A return to the mythological Garden of Eden or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Exploring the rise of a new regenerative culture.

The word ecology was coined by the German biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel (initially as oecology) in 1866.

It derives from the Greek oikos, “referring originally to the family and its daily operations and maintenance.”

The term ecology is therefore intended to refer to the study of the conditions of existence that pertain to, and the interactions between, all the entities that make up our larger, cosmic family here upon earth.

The animistic worldview that all living creatures are ancestors has been validated by modern science and evolutionary biology. Yet as a society, we remain profoundly disconnected from the land and stuck in the mental clutter of anxiety and abstraction.

It is typical in highly-developed countries today for both children and adults to spend 90% of their lives sedentary indoors and 10+ hours a day staring at a digital screen.

I believe that a new way of seeing the world around us that inspires people with awe and wonder is necessary to cultivate the passion and biophilia to solve our current existential crisis.

Developing a stronger connection with living beings around us and experiencing the elemental air, water, fire and soil as sacred again can help reconnect us with the lost ancient wisdom of our ancestors.

Today it is has become very difficult to control information with secrecy and enforce dogmatic worldviews and there is a new generation rising that is self-educating themselves using the Internet.

We have now have the technological tools and collective power to create self-organizing and decentralized grassroots movements that can address the unique global challenges of 21st-century life.

I believe we are at the dawning of a new age of human ingenuity and creative possibility. This time of transition challenges each of us to shift our perception of who we are, where we come from and why we were are here.

With a different way of seeing we can develop the necessary habits and  rituals to re-enchant this magical world, live in reverence of the miracle we call life and work together in closer harmony with nature.

About The Author

Kyle Pearce

Kyle Pearce is an avid naturalist and learning experience designer who leads educational retreats and group storytelling adventures around the world.

You can follow Animist Ecology on Facebook, Instagram or YouTube.

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