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

The Power of Ritual

How did your holiday celebrations go? Whether you marked Hanukkah, Yule, Guru Gobind Singh’s Birthday, Christmas or something else, ritual played a key role. Even those who count themselves secular have their rituals around this time. It could be decorating the Christmas tree, baking a special cake or lighting a candle. 

Rituals include a wide range of practices from the everyday to the esoteric. They’re a fundamental part of human culture and one of the embodied pathways of connection. But how do rituals work? More importantly, why do they sometimes fail? Most of us have endured an ’empty ritual’, an old tradition that’s lost its power. A graduation, wedding or funeral marks a transition, and such rituals function as social markers however the participants experience them. But the real work of a ritual lies in its impact on us. Did the wedding serve to change the new couples’ perception of themselves? Did the funeral contribute to the process of grieving? Such changes happen below the level of conscious experience, changing the what or how of our embodied knowing.

This is the aspect of ritual that inspired me to study embodied knowing. Through my ritual experience, I came to “a deep knowing of the sacredness of the Earth that is more than just an intellectual awareness of the facts & figures about species decimation & habitat loss” (Harris, 1995). By allowing us to think “through and with the body” (Raposa, 2004: 115), rituals can provide access to what I call the ‘deep body’, a level of awareness where embodied thoughts and thinking function.

We create new rituals all the time, and if we do that with thought and clear intentions, they can be transformative. The transformative power of ritual is part of the inspiration behind a project I’ve just launched. 

The Element Festivals logo. Graphic representation of Air, Water, Fire and Earth.

The Element Festivals

Many people use the classical Greek Elements of Air, Water, Fire and Earth in their spiritual or psychological practice, and our lives depend on them. The Element Festivals provide an opportunity to celebrate these archetypal forces. Each Element has one day a year dedicated to it, a time of honouring and celebrating its power and our relationship with it. Individuals or groups will mark each Festival with rituals, creating artwork, having a party or simply enjoying that particular Element. I’m especially encouraging people to bring an environmental dimension to their celebrations, but even if participants choose not to explicitly do something to help the planet, the ritual of celebration will help deepen their connection to nature.

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.

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.

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.

John Danvers on “Interwoven Nature”

John Danvers is an artist, writer and poet whose work emerges from over fifty years of Zen meditation practice. John gave a wonderful presentation at The Embodiment Conference last October called “Interwoven Nature: relatedness and identity in a changeful world”. There’s a link to a recording below, but before you listen I’d like to highlight and contextualize what I see as a few key points.

I came across John’s work though the Exeter Meditation Circle, a group I’ve been attending regularly for several years and which he facilitates. I was intrigued by John’s ideas so read his book, Interwoven Nature: relatedness and identity in a changeful world (Danvers, 2016). The book Is excellent and it’s enriched my ideas, notably about the embodied pathways of connection (EPoC). John was an obvious person to invite to speak at The Embodiment Conference and his talk is located at the intersection of embodiment and ecology that I’ve rather dramatically claimed is the best way to save the world!

John’s talk ranges across topics that include Covid, ecology, narcissism and politics, but I take his core message to be that mindfulness meditation can enable us to realize how interconnected everything is: there is a “kinship and fellowship between all beings”. This is an ecological and relational understanding of the self.

Wind-broken pine.
Mar-April 2019 13 x 18.75ins Graphite & wash on paper.
John Danvers (http://johndanversart.co.uk/art-2019/)

For those with little or no experience of meditation, it might seem extraordinary that zazan can be so powerful. It’s deceptively simple, requiring nothing more that just “sitting quietly, paying attention to whatever arises in our embodied minds and in the world immediately around us”. But this practice can reveal that the self – that oh so precious center of the Universe that Western culture has deified – isn’t a thing at all, but a process.

“we are mistaken if we believe and act as if each ego/self is a fixed and essential centre of the universe; we become wise when we act on the belief that the self has no fixed essence and is woven into the universe and inseparable from it” (Danvers, 2016).

This is a recurrent theme of this blog; you’ll hear the same refrain in the work of Eugene Gendlin, David Abram, Philip Shepherd and many others.

John eloquently describes what happens when we slip back into habitual thinking. He can feel fragmented, “divided within myself”. He can fall into the Illusion that “my mind is divided from my body”. This sense of fragmentation can lead to him feeling disconnected from the world and alienated from everything: “I’m so locked into my divided self that I feel separated from what’s around me”.

Our minds seem to habitually fall into this state, even after decades of zazen practice. I think there may be good evolutionary reasons for why this divided self seems to be our default mode of being and I’ll say more about that another time.

This isolated self tends to see the world as threatening and too easily finds danger where none exists. In this habitual state of separation “we can be too easily swayed by popular rhetoric”. Recent events in the USA are just the most recent example of what happens when people feel alienated and threatened, but every page of history tells the same story.

We habitually identify with what we’re feeling – “I’m angry!” – and with our opinions – “They’re wrong!” Mindfulness allows us to loosen these attachments and “can help us distinguish between habitual reactions and how things actually are”. We can learn how to open a space between our emotions, thoughts and opinions and our awareness of them. We gain the freedom to distance ourselves from habitual reactions and respond in ways that lessen rather then feed conflict.

The illusion of separation doesn’t only feed political unrest; it forms the foundation of consumerism. Consumerism depends on our tendency to “chase after novelties in the hope that our desires and wants will be fulfilled”, but these can no more satisfy us than a mirage can quench the traveler’s thirst.

Before closing, I want to touch on John’s art, which is informed by his mindfulness. Any art practice is “a form of relationship to the world around us and to the world within us … and those two things are very interpenetrating”. Art can be an act of “self revelation” and “opening up to the world”. Looking at art can reveal how other people see the world, allowing us to “look afresh” in a way that can be similar to zazen. John’s thoughts on art and mediation remind me of the work of Stephanie Gottlob, who comments that her mindful experiences in nature “are an integral part of the creative process”.

There’s much wisdom in John’s talk and his thoughtful responses to questions from the audience. I highly recommend that you listen to Interwoven Nature: relatedness and identity in a changeful world.

Five steps to mental wellbeing

As I was walking home one evening I saw a card lying in the street. I picked it up and realized what it was; the five steps to wellbeing developed by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). This little card is a brilliant reminder of the 5 steps so I now make sure I see it everyday.

The Five Steps to Wellbeing

The five steps are simple and powerful.

Connect – I’ve often written about the importance of connection; in fact I think it may be the most fundamental source of wellbeing. The NEF research concurs: Having less than four close relatives or friends puts you at high risk of future mental health problems. On the other hand, wide social networks “promote a sense of belonging and well-being” (NEF).

Try to connect with the people around you:

  • Talk to someone instead of sending an email or text;
  • speak to someone your don’t know yet;
  • don’t just ask how someone’s weekend was; really listen when they reply.

Be active – In Exeter, there’s no excuse! Walking, cycling, kayaking, climbing, swimming, football or, of course, rugby! You don’t have to take on anything too demanding; just find an activity you enjoy and make it part of your life. I often recommend physical exercise for clients who are experiencing depression: Exercise can boost your endorphins and moderate aerobic exercise can help with emotional regulation (Bernstein & McNally, 2017).

So why not go for a walk, try a sport, take up yoga or maybe tai chi? If you walk to a colleague’s desk instead emailing them, you get a bonus social connection!

Take notice – Research shows that paying attention to your immediate experience and ‘savouring the moment’ enhances wellbeing. It can also deepen self-understanding, thus helping you to assess and reaffirm your priorities. Taking notice is related to mindfulness which has been shown to promote positive mental states and facilitate emotional self-regulation.

  • Cultivate your curiosity; look out for the unusual.
  • Notice the changing seasons.
  • Just pause to notice your sensory experience: Really be with this moment.
  • Remember to check in with your self: How are you feeling right now?

Keep learning – lifelong learning promotes optimism, enhances self-esteem and improves overall life satisfaction. Learning new skills also encourages social connection and is associated with a more active life. Why not join a class, a book club or learn to play an instrument?

Give – Remember the injunction to “practice random kindness”? It seems the Hippies were onto something! Evidence from a range of sources suggest that giving promotes wellbeing. It doesn’t need to be much: Research found that just one act of kindness a week boosts wellbeing. A simple smile or a kind word can count. Start small and maybe you’ll be encouraged to do more, like volunteering for a local community project.

While the NEF research notes the importance of contact with the natural world for wellbeing., they don’t highlight it. I think they’ve missed a crucal step there as these five steps work beautifully in nature. You could easily weave all five steps into a bird watching walk with friends, volunteering for a local conservation group or helping out a neighbour with their gardening!

The Wilderness Effect

Ecopsychologist Rob Greenway used to guide people on wilderness treks and after years of research concluded that “civilization is only four days deep” (Greenway, 1995). When people go on long treks in the wilderness they start out enthusiastic: They’re feeling excited and looking forward to the coming adventure. But after a couple of days of hard walking, most begin to get uncomfortable. It’s not just aching muscles that are the problem; people start to miss the familiar civilized world that they’re habituated to. “There’s no fricking phone signal out here!” “When do we get to have shower?” “Damn, it’s quiet …”

But something profound happens after about 72 hours of being in the wilderness. Rob found that almost everyone experienced “an increased sense of aliveness” and “feelings of expansion or reconnection”. Rob calls this phenomena “the wilderness effect” and it’s one of the best established theories in ecopsychology.

I was hugely excited when I first read about the wilderness effect. It seemed to offer a powerful way to reconnect people with nature, and maybe transform our relationship to the world. My excitement was short lived however. The effect Rob had observed happened on extended trips into the American wilderness, so there’s no way to bring it to the millions who yearn for it.

But years later I had an experience that opened my eyes to another possibility. I was living on a road protest site and while it was far from being pristine wilderness, life there slowly deepened my connection to nature. Could it be that something like the wilderness effect happens when we spend a lot of quality time in urban nature?

A camp fire in the woods
Life in the woods

The short answer is yes; ecopsychologists generally agree that “simply spending meaningful time communing with nature” is beneficial (Shaw, 2006) and the full-on wilderness effect is a difference of degree rather than a difference in kind. I’ve written about this in detail elsewhere and I’ll be developing these thoughts in later posts, but for now I’ll close with a quote from Jim Hindle. Jim lived amongst the trees at the Newbury protest site and beautifully describes how his awareness was transformed by that experience:

“I became accustomed to the sound of the wind in the trees at all times. It wasn’t a thing I necessarily listened to, but the silence that fell whenever I stepped inside a building was eerie and disquietening. … It was like being connected to a great river, the source of all life … and years of separation between us and the Land were falling away like an old skin”
(Hindle, 2006).