Animism: An idea whose time has come?

I’ve been writing about animism for years, and I sense that it’s an idea whose time has come. Animism has never gone away for Indigenous peoples, of course; it’s those of us in the Global North who lost the plot. But perhaps there’s an animist awakening coming.

Earlier this month, I read the news that Traditional Māori and Pasifika leaders had signed a declaration that granted legal personhood to whales. Crucially, this opens the way to discussion with governments across the Pacific to create a legal framework of protection for whales and a $100 million fund backs that. Reactions in the media have been positive. The reason, I suspect, is because animism makes sense to us. The evolutionary psychologist Bruce Charlton suggests that we are born animists; it’s “the ‘natural’ way of thinking for humans”.

Orion magazine recently hosted a conversation between Sumana Roy and Mary Evelyn Tucker about how spiritual traditions can reconnect us to the more-than-human world (The Rites Of Nature). Sumana Roy, author of the non-fiction book How I Became a Tree, explained the importance of inviting plants to a traditional Hindu wedding. Roy emphasises that we exist in a living earth community. She referenced the work of scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, who, in the 1900s, argued that plants may be sentient. More recent research supports this idea, with some leading plant scientists claiming that plants can distinguish between ‘self’ and ‘non-self’ (Witzany & Baluška, 2012).

Rachael Petersen contributes a different perspective in her article Zen Mind, Vegetal Mind. Reflections on Buddhist practice and plant science. Petersen considers contemporary and traditional discussions in Buddhism about plants. Are they sentient? Do they have Buddha-nature? Petersen concludes that “not only do plants have a spiritual life, they are the spiritual life”, adding that “through deep practice that we may hear the voice of plants ‘with our eyes’.”

That intriguing suggestion echoes a recent experience of mine. I’ve been experimenting with super-slow-motion videos of water, including one of a river on Dartmoor. As I watched one of these videos, it occurred to me that the spirit of this place – the genius loci – was communicating through the mesmerising patterns of light and shade. Is this the voice of the more-than-human ‘speaking’ through an image?

Watching the river reveals the Spirit of Place

Psychedelic group psychotherapy

Just over a year ago, I wrote about the power of community to support psychedelic journeys. It’s well established that psychedelic experiences are characterized by a sense of connectedness, but sharing that journey with others can enhance those feelings. Community is fundamental to indigenous psychedelic healing, and it’s fundamental to the ACER integration program.

Seating in a circle: Room set up for a group psychedelic integration session.
Group psychedelic integration

Two recent research articles move the discussion forward. The first, ‘(Dis)connectedness, Suicidality and Group Psychedelic Therapies‘ (McAlpine & Blackburne), notes that social disconnectedness is a significant risk factor for suicidal thoughts or behaviours. They consider the “potent synergy“ of psychedelic group therapy and suggest that “such a collective space … has the potential to not only awaken a renewed awareness of social support but also to establish a sturdy framework of communal care”.

The second one takes a different route but comes to the same conclusion. ‘Psychedelics and neonihilism – connectedness in a meaningless world’ (Plesa and Petranker) highlights the tension between the “contemporary neoliberal” context most of us live in and the connectedness at the heart of psychedelic healing. The predominant psychological model reinforces this neoliberal ideology because it’s “based on the individual as self-contained, as atomic – a self which fashions itself as separate from the other” (Bhatia, 2020). Plesa and Petranker suggest that psychedelic group psychotherapy could help us overcome modern experiences of meaninglessness. It may offer “a collective confrontation of meaninglessness as a radical departure from individualizing therapeutic practices that further reinforce neoliberal forms of individualization, responsibilization, competition and self-governance”.

I’ve focused on psychedelic experiences here, but any of the embodied pathways of connection can disrupt the alienation fostered by neoliberalism because they reveal that we are fundamentally interconnected.

The Neuroscience of Interconnection

Western culture has a curious habit of rediscovering what’s already known. Typically, spirituality comes to a profound understanding first, and a philosopher gets it next. Sometime later, psychology catches up, and neuroscience finally ‘discovers’ it with a brain scan.

Cutting-edge neuroscience has found that the brains of social species like mice, bats and humans tend to synchronise, creating what neuroscientist Thalia Wheatley describes as “a single überbrain that isn’t reducible to the sum of its parts”. Like when oxygen and hydrogen combine to make water, what emerges is qualitatively different.

The researchers studied what happens when two people create a story together. Starting with the prompt “A group of children encounters aliens”, each person took turns to tell the next part of the tale. Caitlyn and Lorie set their account in a strange landscape, and during one of her turns, Caitlyn told of how the ground started to rise up beneath the feet of the children. A moment later, Lorie took her turn, saying that “It felt like the creature took a breath.” This is exactly where Caitlyn planned to take the story: the kids were walking on the alien itself. Caitlyn felt that they “were on the same page”, while the research neuroscientist concluded that this was synchrony at work.

I’m always pleased when new research upsets the myth of an enclosed, Cartesian individual, but social psychologists came to a similar conclusion a while ago. Take, for example, the phenomenon of ’emotional contagion’. You may have noticed how the mood of people you’re with impacts your own, how we tend to unconsciously ‘catch’ other people’s moods. You may also be familiar with the ‘contact high’ phenomenon, where simply sitting with someone on a psychedelic journey makes you feel like you’ve taken the substance too. Although this goes against the Western model of the enclosed individual, the evidence for this kind of connectedness is overwhelming.

Decades before psychologists came to this realisation, a few philosophers grasped that we are profoundly interconnected. In 1945 Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote:

“as the parts of my body together compromise a system, so my body and the other’s are one whole, two sides of one and the same phenomenon, and the anonymous existence of which my body is the ever-renewed trace henceforth inhabits both bodies simultaneously.” (1962)

Each of us is woven into the rich tapestry of existence. As the philosopher of consciousness, Christian de Quincey wrote:

“We are constituted by webs of interconnection. Relationship comes first, and we emerge as more or less distinct centres within the vast and complex networks that surround us” (2005).

The spiritual traditions knew this long ago, and Zen Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh echoed the wisdom of the ancients when he said, “We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”

Psychedelics and nature connectedness

Can psychedelic experiences enhance our connection to nature? So far, the evidence is a resounding ‘yes’, and some philosophers suggest that careful administration of psychedelics could be a valuable way to catalyse the development of environmental virtues (Kirkham & Letheby. 2022).

‘Nature connectedness’ is much more than simply spending time in the park: It measures how strongly a person identifies with nature and can be defined as a sense of ‘oneness with the natural world’ (Mayer and Frantz, 2004). Nature connectedness is very beneficial for humans; it helps give our lives a deeper sense of meaning and supports personal growth. People who deeply appreciate our connection to the wider natural world are more likely to protect it. So nature connectedness isn’t just good for us; it’s good for the planet.

Earth seen from space in a psychedelic style.

I often saw evidence of a deeper nature connection in my work on psilocybin retreats, and that’s been backed up by the research (Gandy et al., 2020). There’s some evidence that psilocybin is especially powerful in this regard and can elicit robust and sustained increases in nature connectedness (Forstmann et al., 2003). Psychedelic experiences and nature connection are woven together like threads in a tapestry. The weave is tight, but I’ll tease out a few of those threads.

Both psychedelic experience and nature connection can catalyse feelings of awe and increase our capacity for mindfulness. Many Indigenous peoples use psychedelics as a sacrament. In most cases, they are animists with a profound respect for the more-than-human world. Robert Greenway is a pioneer ecopsychologist who used to take people on ‘wilderness’ treks. After many years of leading these adventures, Greenway concluded that extended time in nature could engender an altered state that closely parallels the psychedelic experience. There are several aspects to this altered state, but fundamentally it involves “feelings of expansion or reconnection”, which Greenway unhesitatingly describes as “spiritual” (Greenway, 1995). (See The Wilderness Effect).

A pattern is emerging in this tapestry; connectedness. In my recent interview with Sam Gandy, he suggested that we can see “connectedness itself being a fundamentally interconnected or interwoven construct” and that cultivating nature connectedness can deepen connectedness to self, others and the wider world (Embodied Pathways).

It’s quite common for people to have mystical experiences while using psychedelics, and nature mysticism is ancient and global. Are they the same? It seems so: Feelings of interconnectedness, unity, sacredness, and a transcendence of time and space characterise mystical experiences emerging from both psychedelics and nature connection.

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”.

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

I would quote Blake’s words in the introduction to the nature connection exercise I used to lead at psychedelic retreats. They are a perfect example of nature mysticism and could also speak of aspects of the psychedelic experience.

The conversation about psychedelics and nature connectedness is ongoing and may be crucial in these times of climate crisis. If you’d like an accessible deep dive into this fascinating subject, listen to my interview with Sam Gandy on Embodied Pathways.

The Psychedelic Connection

I’ve been very involved in work and research on psychedelics over the last year or so. I’ve mentioned psychedelics in a few of my posts here, but I wanted to flag up a couple of presentations. The first is online next week: I’m talking about Sacred Ecology: The Psychedelic Connection at the Embodied Spirituality event.

Back in 1996, I wrote Sacred Ecology. Now, nearly 30 years on, I’ll be exploring that territory through a psychedelic lens. Psychedelic experiences can be profoundly spiritual, often inducing mystical experiences. What does this tell us about the power of awe, nature connection and the future of therapy?

I started working as a Facilitator on psychedelic retreats in The Netherlands last year. This involved spending hours supporting people on their psychedelic journeys as well as helping them to prepare for and integrate the experience. Nature connection is widely recommended for psychedelic preparation and integration and as this is a particular interest of mine, I’ve begun to develop and refine this approach. In this presentation at the University of Exeter, I talk about the work I’ve done on psychedelic retreats and explain how we might apply ecotherapy to integration.

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.

The enchanted wood

Blackator Copse is a patch of ancient oak woodland on Dartmoor. Although it’s small – only 21 acres – this rare habitat is nationally important because of the exceptional variety of lichens and mosses. It’s a magical place and I was very grateful to be there again over the Bank Holiday weekend. I conversed for a while with the spirits of place that afternoon, and the idea came that Western civilization is in thrall to an evil spell. Perhaps it’s what the sociologist Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world” (1962 [1917]). Weber described how animistic beliefs become replaced by purposive-rational action. We gained scientific understanding and control from this Faustian pact with reason but lost something precious in the process.

Sunlight through the trees on Blackator Copse

I’d planned to camp at Blackator Copse and was sitting quietly enjoying the peace when the throbbing beats of banging techno came drifting across the green. I’m well up for some dance music in the right setting, but Blackator Copse most certainly isn’t one of them. Half a dozen lads wandered into the Copse, clearly delighted to have found this little piece of paradise. ‘It’s Bank Holiday weekend’, I thought with a shrug and headed up the hill to a quieter spot.

I came down again the next morning just as they headed off. I sat by the river enjoying the silence for a while and then wandered along the bank. There were a few scraps of rubbish lying about, which is pretty much what I’d expected, but also the remains of a fire. At this point, some context might be useful. Open fires are banned on Dartmoor. First, they aren’t safe as parts of the Moor get very dry. Second, people who light fires on Dartmoor don’t bring in a supply of supermarket bought wood. They collect whatever they see lying around, which will be covered in the lichens and mosses that are part of a unique ecology. Some of the species found here are threatened with extinction in Europe and people burn them. While this is partly ignorance, but it’s mainly due to a consumerist attitude to nature. For some people Blackator Copse – and every other natural place – is simply a resource to be consumed: Get there as fast as possible, use it and leave without paying.

I’m reminded of an occasion many years ago when a friend and I stood in front of a Renoir. I was lost in rapture, but he broke my reverie when he asked “How much do you reckon that’s worth?’ (Framing perception). It’s as if the guys who enjoyed that bonfire of ancient wood and rare lichens were in a different place from me: I wandered amidst magic and they sat in a disenchanted theme park.