Embodied Animism

Last year I gave a presentation on ‘Embodied Imagination and New Animism’ at a seminar organised by The Alain Daniélou Foundation. I was inspired by this topic and took the opportunity to develop my presentation into an article for Transcultural Dialogues, the journal of the Foundation. I had more space to develop my ideas and my article – Embodied Knowing, Imagination and New Animism – took my thoughts in a new direction. I begin with a critique of the disenchanted world of Modernity, the dominant worldview of the Global North. Such critiques are common, especially as we face the growing climate emergency, for this is the worldview which has ushered in the Anthropocene Epoch.

Some of those seeking an alternative turned to animism for inspiration. David Abram is a good example. David spoke at the same seminar I attended, so while I drew from his work for inspiration, I needed to take a fresh perspective on animism. My PhD research into embodied knowing (2008) has proved to be a deep well of inspiration, and again it nurtured my thinking. I mentioned animism in my thesis, noting a relationship between embodiment and animism but I didn’t follow the thread. Curiously, animism kept cropping up in my subsequent work. The spirit of animism was stalking me, appearing like a shadow glimpsed in the forest that vanishes when the sun emerges from the clouds. Animism features in Embodied Eco-Paganism (2013) and crops up again in The Knowing Body: Eco-Paganism as an Embodying Practice (2016). It’s also a theme in my conversation with the improvisational movement artist Stephanie Gottlob (2022). But in all these previous engagements with animism, I’d missed a profound insight: “Animism isn’t about what is believed but how the world is experienced”.

bare trees in the early morning mist

The idea that animism is a belief system comes from Edward Tylor, an anthropologist working in late 19th century England. Tylor invented the term ‘animism’ to describe a ‘primitive’ type of religion, a childish and mistaken worldview that confused inanimate matter with living beings. Tylor couldn’t have got it more wrong: what he called ‘animism’ isn’t a primitive religion and certainly isn’t confused! Most importantly, animism isn’t about what you believe; it’s about how you relate to the world. Tim Ingold characterizes animism as “a condition of being alive to the world, characterized by a heightened sensitivity and responsiveness, in perception and action, to an environment that is always in flux” (2006).

I concluded that it “can best be understood as an embodied way of knowing that underpins how people live practically in the world; hunting, farming, navigating etc.” (Harris, 2023). Once we grasp that animism is an embodied way of knowing, our perspective shifts 180 degrees. Tylor wasn’t capable of understanding animism because he was blinkered by the intellectual framework of 19th-century England. There’s a lot to value in that tradition, but like any viewpoint it’s restricted, which brings us back to my critique of Modernity. My main issue with Modernity is that it believes it’s the only framework that can make sense of the world, so it literally can’t see any aspect of reality that doesn’t fit within its confines.

Animism helps illuminate many of the themes I’ve explored in this blog: ecopsychology, ecosomatics, embodied ecology, the power of place, psychedelics, activism and more. It offers a powerful alternative to Modernity and if we can drop into an embodied animist way of knowing we may yet find our way through the Anthropocene.

Psychotherapy – doing or being?

There are dozens of different approaches to psychotherapy. My bookshelves overflow onto the floor with books about ACT, CBT, ecotherapy, Gestalt, psychoanalysis and more. But are all these approaches just the decoration on the cake?

Not long after completing my initial training in psychotherapy, I became aware that most other therapists had been taught specific approaches to many of the most common mental health challenges. They’d done modules on what we call ‘presenting issues’ like bereavement, anxiety, depression and whatever else. I felt somewhat confused, as my extensive training – a Masters degree and then Focusing-Oriented Therapy – hadn’t covered any of that. We’d considered some of the key approaches, but in each case highlighting their limitations and the danger of a theoretical ‘frame up’; fitting the client’s unique experience into the frame of a theory.

a big pile of books about psychotherapy

Keen to be a better therapist, I started to learn about all the things I thought I’d missed. I learnt about the techniques I might use to help with specific presenting issues. Then I ‘caught up’ on classic CBT and some of the newer approaches that have emerged from it. But the curious thing is I don’t use techniques very much and I’m beginning to suspect that my original training had it right all along: Psychotherapy isn’t about doing but simply being. What I remember most from my training are the hours we spent in group work and the years of personal therapy. We were being developed as people rather than taught techniques because theory, though fascinating, is just the icing on the cake.

To a large extent, the research backs this up. The Dodo bird hypothesis claims that all bona fide therapeutic approaches have much the same outcomes: “Everybody has won and all must have prizes,” just as the dodo insisted in Alice in Wonderland (Wampold et. al 1997). In fact, the therapeutic relationship is more important than the approach we use: It’s more about who you are than what you do.

Given all that, I’m wondering about the constant flow of new approaches. Almost every month I hear about some new technique which will transform my therapeutic work and will give my clients a unique healing experience. Do I need to sign up for the latest course or would I be better off spending more time just developing my capacity to be present?

Science, Imagination and Animism

I recently gave a presentation on ‘Embodied Imagination and New Animism’. I explored my usual themes, but from a different angle and concluded that imagination can open the Western mind to a deeper awareness of the animated world.

As part of my preparation, I read Allan Frater’s Waking Dreams: Imagination in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life, which combines theoretical chapters with practical exercises. While the theoretical chapters were helpful for the presentation, it’s the practical exercises that prompted this post.

I’d just finished his chapter about the Waking Dream Walk and remembered that I needed to get some groceries. I decided it was a good moment to take a break from studying and get some shopping in.

It started as I was walking to the supermarket; the clouds loomed, dark and mysterious over the roof of the nearby University building, which had a distinctly mythic look. The trees were unquestionably watching my progress. I smiled. ‘It’s working then!’

Back home, what struck me was how quickly and dramatically my awareness can shift. I didn’t deliberately try the Waking Dream Walk on the way to the supermarket; it just slipped in. Evolutionary psychologist Bruce Charlton suggests that animism is “spontaneous, the ‘natural’ way of thinking for humans”. It takes “sustained, prolonged and pervasive formal education to ‘overwrite’ animistic thinking with the rationalistic objectivity typical of the modern world” (2002).

Bee feeding on yellow flowers

We’ve benefited enormously from such rationalistic objectivity: Thanks to a vaccine, I barely noticed a recent close encounter with Covid. But Max Weber suggests that such progress comes at a cost. Science tends to describe the world through a “process of disenchantment” that banishes “mysterious incalculable forces”. Weber claimed that meaning and value must also be relinquished in such a scientific worldview: “the belief that there is such a thing as the ‘meaning’ of the universe” must inevitably “die out at its very roots” (1962 [1917]).

Animism and science seem to be in opposition, but if we step back from an ‘either/or’ approach, there’s space for both. The pioneering work of Barbara McClintock is a classic example. McClintock won a Nobel Prize for her pioneering research on the genetics of maize. She came to such profound understanding by becoming “part of the system” and developing an intimate “feel for the organism” (Keller). McClintock didn’t think of herself as an animist, but arguably the same quality of relationship with the more-than-human informs her work.

Imagination is a fundamental part of McClintock’s genius. As the philosopher Peter Strawson notes, this kind of imagination is involved in activities ranging from a “scientist seeing a pattern in phenomena which has never been seen before … to Blake seeing eternity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower” (1974).

What if Weber was wrong? Maybe animism need not be opposed to scientific objectivity: Perhaps imagination, a fundamental way of knowing that informs them both, can open a fruitful dialogue.

The Power of Community

I woke up this morning thinking about my 2008 PhD research (Harris). I spent months living on a road protest site and I recalled how bonding that was. And then it dawned on me; I’d missed a fundamental aspect of the research; the power of community. Living together and working to save the land from a road project united us in a deep and powerful way; it created an embodied connection. That brought to mind an online psychedelic integration meeting I was in last week. Over 50 people came together for ten days of psychedelic training and experiences, and one of the key themes that emerged from our first integration meeting was the power of the community we’d created: There were even suggestions that it was more important than the psychedelic experience itself.

A pattern suddenly appeared, like seeing saltwater suddenly crystalize as it reaches a critical point of saturation: the liminal space of protest camps, communitas and millennia of human experience all highlight the power of community. I’d completely missed that in my PhD thesis – written fifteen years ago – because it’s so obvious. It’s like the imaginary fish who doesn’t notice water because it’s all around. While this is an exciting revelation, it’s a huge subject and will slow down work on the book I’m writing on the embodied pathways of connection. For now, I’ll just highlight a few of the threads I’m following.

Community is fundamental to indigenous healing and “the traditional use of psychoactive plants can help to enhance it” (Ona, Berrada & Bouso, 2021). Despite the importance of community for psychedelic work, it’s frequently lacking in recent approaches. Jules Evans said it well: “At the moment, psychedelics offer a very modern sort of religion – long on ‘experience’, short on community. That risks exacerbating the loneliness and isolation that cause a lot of our suffering in the first place” (Evans, 2021).

However, the ACER model of integration created by Ros Watts has community at its heart: “It is this collective aspect that, although proven to be of great benefit to overall wellbeing, is often missing from the Western model of healing” (https://acerintegration.com/). Ros is ahead of the game: She recognized the central role of community early on and made it the foundation of her work. This is a radical move in the Global North, where the psychedelic substance is typically the star of the show.

Maureen O’Hara and John Wood observed some extraordinary experiences in the person-centered ‘conscious communities’ they studied. They found that individual participants often became “deeply attuned to themselves as individual centers of consciousness” and “interpersonally attuned to each other in an ‘I-Thou’ relationship”. Yet at the same time everyone was “attuned to the group as a whole entity”. People tapped into “deeper levels of empathy and intuition”, accessing “extraordinary” levels of perception “that went beyond ordinary Western ways of knowing”. Members of these communities “frequently attained spiritual trance states usually achieved only after decades of meditative practice”. There seems to be the kind of expansion of individual consciousness “beyond individual ego-boundaries” (2005) that I’ve modelled using the cognitive iceberg.

A 2021 research paper on psychedelic communitas concluded that we may need “to question some of the fundamental cultural assumptions from, and into which psychedelic therapies are emerging – so that psychedelic treatments may not merely remain a “chemical holiday” … but instead, foster meaningful connections within relationships and communities” (Kettner, et. al. 2021)

The profound power of community highlights a tension within psychedelic research. The Western psychological approach typically studies an individual’s psychedelic journey in a clinical setting. This is rooted in a psychology “based on the individual as self-contained, as atomic – a self which fashions itself as separate from the other” (Bhatia, 2020).

But this idea is deeply flawed and psychedelic research is widening the cracks. Sometime soon there may be a crisis, a paradigm shift driven by new scientific evidence. The notion of the autonomous individual, so precious to the ideology of the Global North, will become exposed as nothing more than a hollow ideological myth.

Mindfulness of Nature: An interview with Claire Thompson

Gautama Buddha spent most of his time in nature. He taught in nature, meditated in nature and, most importantly, became enlightened in nature. So how come most mediation today happens indoors? We’re missing something crucial and in my interview with Claire Thompson – author of Mindfulness and the Natural World and The Art of Mindful Birdwatching – we begin to unpack what’s so special about practising mindfulness in nature.

Research from the University of Derby suggests that simply being in nature is enough to produce a more mindful state (Richardson and Hallam, 2013). Claire’s experience helps explain why that might be:

“there’s something about being outdoors in nature that holds us within our own bodies a little bit more, because it’s stimulating our bodies with natural scents and sounds and sights. It’s almost like that’s what our bodies evolved to experience or to be taking in, in terms of a sensory experience. I guess to be put back into that environment can feel quite holding for people, because it holds us within our own physical experience a little bit more, which actually naturally takes us out of the narratives of our mind and our thinking and into the body”.

Our human minds label and judge in a way that nature doesn’t: Nature just is and makes no assessment or allowances. That provides a space where you can be whoever you are without labels. Claire found that facilitating mindfulness workshops in nature had a significant impact on the participant’s experience:

It felt like being in nature opened people up and because of the lack of judgement in that space it felt like people were more able to be themselves and more able to trust that whatever experience they were having, it was okay and opened up a curiosity about their experience in a way that perhaps in some of the indoor spaces where I’d practiced mindfulness, for example, I didn’t feel the same thing. It didn’t feel like the same thing happened, or there was just something – maybe an authenticity about it as well, like people feeling allowed to be themselves more when they’re out in the wild or out in touch with the natural world”.

That can be profoundly liberating and can help to free us from our habitual attachment to the ‘self’. Our intuition – that the self is an identifiable thing, a unique and irreducible nugget of selfhood – is simply wrong; neuroscience and mindfulness agree on that. It’s not that you don’t exist! Of course you do, but the self is a process, not an object. Calling myself ‘Adrian’ helps maintain the illusion, but my ‘self’ is more like a verb than a noun: ‘I’ am the process of ‘selfing’ that extends beyond the envelope of skin around my body. John Danvers writes of how “[m]indful mediation enables us to experience the self as a process that extends out into the world”. (2016; 164).

Pool surrounded by lush green foliage
Tucker’s Pool, Lydford Gorge, Devon

Mindfulness practice facilitates the experience of awe and that powerful emotion has been very significant for Claire.

It’s an experience of going beyond myself, as in beyond my sense of being a separate self and being taken into something that is greater than that, and connects me to something bigger”.

The experience of awe can reveal that we are, in truth, part of “a dynamic web of interdependence” (Macy, 2007; 32). In the industrial North, it’s very easy to forget that, but the longing for connection doesn’t go away. Claire describes how the feeling of awe can feel:

“… like a longing for a connection that I’ve lost, or, arguably, we’ve lost. And in those moments of awe you get a glimpse of reconnecting with that. And there’s a sense of abundance that comes with that feeling. … a feeling of generosity and more openness to others and more creativity, and kind of takes you out of that kind of fixed separate sense of self, which sometimes can keep us a little bit stuck”.

We tend to think of ‘enlightenment’ as an event that happens to a few special individuals, but it’s not that simple. Perhaps it makes more sense to think of enlightenment as an experience anyone can taste for a moment. Claire suggests that enlightenment comes in “those moments of connection to something greater where our sense of self disappears or it feels like our sense of separate self disappears”. That resonates with me. I’ve certainly had moments like that and even though they quickly pass, you are changed forever. Crucially, these experiences of deep connection happen “in our day to day lives – you don’t have to be in the middle of a beautiful rain forest in Cuba, it could just be with somebody you love, or it could just be on the way to work noticing something that kind of takes you out of yourself or a piece of music that you’re really taken by.”

These sacred moments can come to anyone. At the time – and in our faltering attempts to articulate them – they seem otherworldly: “It feels otherworldly, but it’s also very human”.

Solidarity or conflict?

The nineteenth century bequeathed two opposing models of how nature works. The most influential version is a certain interpretation of Darwin’s Origin of Species characterized by Herbert Spencer. It emphasizes individual competition and frames nature as like a gladiatorial battle for survival, “whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day” (Spencer, 1888). Spencer was influenced by Thomas Malthus, who mistakenly predicted that population growth would lead to global catastrophe. Common to both ideologies is an assumption of scarcity rather than abundance.

Peter Kropotkin offers a very different way of understanding nature. Kropotkin is probably best known for his anarchist ideas, but he was also an influential scientist. He did extensive fieldwork in Siberia and North-east Asia and identified many examples of cooperation between animals. For Kropotkin “survival of the fittest” didn’t refer to the toughest and meanest individual, but to the community that learnt to work together. He called this mutual aid, and he concluded that it was empathy that underpinned this behaviour. Mutual aid sprang up spontaneously across the globe during the Covid-19 pandemic and at the time of writing, there are 2065 groups listed on the UK mutual aid website.

Cover of the book, 'Mutual Aid'

These two very different ways of seeing the world seem to be playing out on the world stage: On one side we see Putin’s imperialist war which implicitly assumes that might is right. Meanwhile, Berlin is preparing beds for 20,000 Ukrainian refugees. Which wins, solidarity or conflict?

Kropotkin didn’t deny that competitive struggle has a role in natural selection but argued that mutual aid was more important. Although there is conflict amidst various species, “there is perhaps even more … mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence … Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle” (Kropotkin, 1902).

I’m saddened that Kropotkin’s insights aren’t more widely implemented. Instead of emphasizing the value of mutual aid, the prevalent ideology of the Global South prioritises individualism. This doesn’t nurture our well-being or indeed our basic humanity. Moreover, it may ultimately lead to total climate collapse. But we have a choice and mutual aid is both intellectually satisfying and life-enhancing.

Becoming another: connected selves

Anne Game is an academic – a sociologist – and a keen horse rider. One morning her horse, KP, became inexplicably paralysed and had to relearn how to move. A key part of KP’s healing process was being ridden; the horse wanted to experience the special relationship with Anne that came from that. At first, both KP and Anne found it hard. Anne was fearful of hurting the horse – or herself – and progress was slow. But a dramatic shift happened when Anne let her body move as if she and KP were cantering: “To help her to remember canter, my body had to take up this movement. The between horse and human movement canter had to be generated for KP to entrain with it, to get in the flow” (Game, 2001).

We might say KP learnt to canter again through Anne’s movement. But that’s not quite it; the horse/human, the centaur that is KP/Anne learnt to canter again. As Anne puts it, “I propose that we are always already part horse, and horses, part human: there is no such thing as pure horse or purely human. The human body is not simply human”.

For this healing process to happen, Anne had to let go of her self-consciousness and forget the illusion of separateness. She was able to drop into this altered state through “relaxed concentration, a very focused and meditative state”. I’m reminded of the work of John Danvers, who writes eloquently about how Zen meditation can reveal our fundamental interconnectedness.

From this perspective, it became clear to Anne that her own fear had been holding back KP’s initial efforts. “The protectiveness I felt was more likely to have been self-protection, a consequence of identification. And identification is clearly inappropriate in the circumstances, for it involves being too close, too attached to be able to be with the other and feel what they need. When I identify with you, your situation becomes mine: closed off in separateness, I thus lose the capacity for the other to be called up in my self”.

A horse looking at the camera

Becoming horse is not about identification. It requires something more subtle. Anne proposes “a forgetting of human self in a between-human-and-horse way of being” that however retains “a fearless capacity for otherness and difference”. Anne suggests that this models the way that effective therapy needs to offer a “non-attached holding of self and other”. Anne doesn’t say much more about that, but it’s a profound insight that I hope to unpack myself in future posts.

If we take ourselves to be self-contained, autonomous beings in a world of others, then much of what happens in therapy is mysterious. If, however, we understand subjectivity as a phenomenon that emerges from a complex flux where bodies are not discrete, then our therapeutic work – and many other, otherwise inexplicable phenomena – become clearer.

Embodying Nature: A conversation with improvisational movement artist Stephanie Gottlob

Most dancers work in a studio, but Stephanie wanted to see what happens when she went out into the wild. Stephanie spends weeks living in some of the most remote parts of North America: she’s visited rain forest, deserts, tundra, lakes and swamps.

I interviewed Stephanie for the first episode of my new podcast series, Embodied Pathways. We explore art, nature connection, embodiment, dance, relationship, activism and spirituality. There are many crossovers with the themes of this blog, but one is foundational: where we are has a profound impact on who we are. Stephanie describes the mythic power of the ancient rainforest she visited and the powerful impact it had on her “unconscious imagination”. She concludes that “We need the forests to be human”.

This reminds me of Christopher Preston’s work. He concludes that “the physical environment is not just a site in which mind operates; it is a characterful place that influences the products of the mind” (Preston, 2003: 88).

David Abram says much the same:

Each place has its own mind, its own psyche. Oak, madrone, Douglas fir, red-tailed hawk, serpentine in the sandstone, a certain scale to the topography, drenching rains in the winter, fog off-shore in the winter, salmon surging in the streams – all these together make up a particular state of mind, a place-specific intelligence shared by all the humans that dwell therein … ”

Abram, 1996

Relationship is central to Stephanie’s work. Sometimes there’s a merging, a blurring of the self/other divide, but at other times there’s a clear engagement with an animate other. In the guest post Stephanie wrote for this blog, she writes: “Landscape and I… always a duet, at least a duet”.

Towards the end of our conversation, we touch on the environmental crisis, It’s an emotional moment for me, but Stephanie’s experience has taught her well; in the face of fear and immense challenge, she finds a place of trust and engagement.

I very much enjoyed our conversation, and I think you will too! Let me know what you think. Embodying Nature: A conversation with improvisational movement artist Stephanie Gottlob.

Stephanie has created videos of her work:
Rain Forest Video-dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ey0azYbqUTo
Rain Forest stills video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0al-qIgTec

The Embodied Pathways of Connection: A Presentation

The Embodiment Conference was a huge online event that took place in late 2020. I was the Manager of the Ecology and Research Channel and I also gave a presentation about the Embodied Pathways of Connection. While there have been a few days of free access to the Conference recordings, most of the time they’re behind a paywall. Fortunately, I’m able to share my presentation here. Although you can read an introduction to the Embodied Pathways of Connection in a couple of my blog posts, this 50-minute presentation allows me time to go into more depth. I refer to some of the other presentations from The Embodiment Conference, but you don’t need to watch those to understand what I’m talking about here. However, the Conference organisers will be delighted to sell you lifetime access to all the recordings if you’re keen!

In this presentation, I’m proposing that there are numerous ways of altering consciousness that can enable us to access our embodied knowing and awaken from what Thich Nhat Hanh called “our illusion of separateness.” These are the Embodied Pathways of Connection (EPoC). I talk about several of them in this presentation: mindfulness, psychedelic experience, nature connection, dance, ritual and Focusing. These are the EPoC that I identified when I was doing my PhD research, but are others I haven’t explored yet – art and sex are probably the most obvious.

Since I gave this presentation I’ve been working on a book about the EPoC and my ideas have developed a lot and changed in some ways. I’ll say more about that in future blog posts, but for now, I hope you’ll enjoy this. There’s a short introduction to the Ecology and Research Channel and I open with a reference to a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness”.

Ecotherapy and psychedelic experience

Many indigenous peoples have an ancient tradition of healing with psychedelics. Best known perhaps are the Mazatec, who conduct ceremonies with psilocybin mushrooms, and the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, who draw on the healing power of ayahuasca.

In every case, these healers hold the psychedelic experience within two containers or baskets. Ritual is fundamental and forms the inner basket. The healing ritual is itself held within a broader basket of a culture and community that’s seamlessly integrated into the natural world. In the West, we tend to overemphasise the psychoactive substance itself, but these two holding baskets cannot be separated from the healing power of indigenous psychedelic journeys.

The importance of set and setting is fairly familiar in the West: Your state of mind (mindset) and the location you’re in have a huge impact on any psychedelic experience. In most cases, less attention is paid to preparing for and integrating the psychedelic journey. Because indigenous psychedelic work is held within the two baskets, preparation, set, setting and integration are seamless aspects of the whole process.

It’s sadly no surprise that the Western pattern of using psychedelics is usually fractured and piecemeal. We’ve applied our usual pattern of taking those aspects we find most exciting and ignoring the deeper context. I suspect that was part of the reason why the ‘60’s psychedelic revolution went wrong: Leary’s injunction to ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’ lacked a strong holding container.

We may be at the start of a psychedelic renaissance, and it’s vital that we learn from past mistakes and the wisdom of indigenous healers. In the West, we’re pretty good at ritual, and a decent psychedelic guide will provide a simple ceremony to support a journey. But our connection with nature is often neglected. Kile Ortigo’s recent book on psychedelic integration (2021) barely mentions nature. However, a paper on the same subject by Sam Gandy and colleagues (2020) notes that “Spending time in nature may be one of the most effective practices for maintaining the benefits of psychedelic sessions”.

I don’t think it’s appropriate for our dysfunctional but dominant culture to try to copy – which is nice way to say ‘appropriate’ – indigenous practices. We need to find our own way, and ecotherapy provides an ideal framework to rediscover nature connection. Ecotherapy can play a crucial role in how we manage the power of psychedelic experiences and I’m exploring ways in which it can serve as part of the holding basket for psychedelic healing. This isn’t straightforward, as psychedelics are illegal almost everywhere. But it is vital if the much-hyped ‘psychedelic renaissance is going to be more than another failed experiment.

This post draws on my research for the Synthesis Institute, notably their pioneering Psychedelic Practitioner Training.