The Lost Language of Animism: Studying The Living Wisdom of Nature

What Is Animism?

Animism is an ancient worldview at the root of spirituality and religion that see human beings as existing in an interconnected web of life and living in a great mystery that goes beyond our conception.

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 Great Spirit spoken of in many Indigenous traditions.

Celtic Druids call this spiritual lifeforce Nwyfre, the Algonquians call it Manitou and the Haudensaunee people call it Orenda.

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

It is only in modern times and the form schooling that arise from Enlightenment rationalist that we have learned to see the Universe as an indifferent machine-like entity or  simulation.

Animism is ultimately about relating to the world as a living being infused with sentience, reverence for the web of living relationships that sustain our existence and a respect for the land.


The Experience of Animism

To make more sense of my experiences meditating in the rainforest, I asked lots of questions that I would research on Google.

One day I stumbled down the Internet Rabbit Hole and landed upon the concept of Animism.

It instantly struck me as an excellent description for this uniquely human connection to and

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.

Ultimately, Animism is about the cultivation of experience and a love of nature that is referred to as Biophilia by the 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 is an exploration of the natural elements that give us life and developing our 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 that goes beyond the compulsive labeling, comparison and judgement of the analytical mind.

When we begin to explore the world with more childlike lenses 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 intuitive knowing of our interconnection with all living beings through spirit.

All living things we experience through our senses breathe and create subtle electromagnetic fields that we can interact with by challenging the "sensory gating" of our culture and developing the perceptual acuity of our senses.

The God Head And How I Got Into Studying Animism

While studying at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, 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 and nearby Stanley Park.

My interest in Animism 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 and tranquility in the forest, I began to make regular pilgrimage to meditate and contemplate my connection with nature.

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 has become a powerful symbol of duality and how life is a balancing act and interplay between the opposites of life 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 domesticated
6. Reality and illusion
7. Matter and spirit

The Modern History of Animism

The scientists and 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 alienation from nature 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 people’s hearts or mobilize the kind of collective action we need to save ourselves.

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 the consciousness and global biodiversity collapse happening today.

To challenge this aging worldview, there is an awakening of people who are learning to perceive through the heart again and embody ancient teachings that set them free from the limited abstractions of the 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 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 essential 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 indigenous 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 and ever-present 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 lost in the process of Western schooling.

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

Animism challenges the Western scientific worldview that emphasizes the quantitate over the qualitative and a tendency toward denial of the existence of natural forces that can't be 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.

The Animate Earth

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.

The Ancient History of Animism

Incredibly, human beings have been animists for most of human 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 the Mesopotamia 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.

While the monotheistic cultures that revere the written word of their scriptures are a very recent phenomenon in human history.

The militant literalist of modern fundamentalists and evangelicals is even more recent at less than 200 years old and it has largely grown out of a reaction against the changes of modernity that have disrupted rural life and lead to mass 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 as young people are well-aware of the historical atrocities committed in the name of God and also the scale of our planetary ecological crisis.

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 that is embedded in a vast and mysterious cosmos of awe-inspiring power and beauty.

The Animistic Worldview Explained

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

What Is Animist Ecology

A return to the mythological Garden of Eden? The rise of a new regenerative culture of active participation in our planetary ecology.

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 indigenous 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 abstractions.

It is typical in highly-developed countries today for both children and adults to spend 90% of their 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 inspire 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.

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

We have now have technological tools and power to create self-organizing, grassroots movements that will 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 meaningful ritual that enchant this world and help us live in harmony with nature.

Want to learn more about Animism from philosophers, author and adepts throughout time? 

Read some of my favorite Animism Quotes.

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