The Animistic Soul Re-Emerges
Therefore, we may consequently state that: this world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence ... a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related. ~ Plato, Timaeus, 29/30; 4th century BCE
Greenwoman at Findhorn
We have become painfully disconnected from the conscious knowing and perception of our participation mystique in the living processes of Earth. Our animistic, shamanistic ancestors had this awareness of symbiotic relatedness with the natural world. Through listening and reflecting on their ancient stories, we may be able to awaken the nature goddesses and gods slumbering in the inner recesses of the collective unconscious. – Ralph Metzner
After I finished writing the long essay on Psycho-Spiritual Evolution for this site, I had a strange, unprecedented experience. My intention was to go directly to writing the last essay on Sustainable Communities, then tidy up the links pages, and finally launch this website. But as I was working on the Sustainable Communities essay, I came across a couple of things I’d written on eco-spirituality for deep ecology courses, and I thought, ‘Oh! Of course, a sustainable community needs to have an eco-spiritual basis as a binding factor. I’ll just edit these into a new piece and place it before that last essay on community.’ Little did I know what I was getting myself into.
That seemingly innocent realization began a long, slow process that I can only characterize as a labyrinthine psycho-archaeological excavation. Each time I wrote a draft, and there were many, something inside me would jump up and down, insisting I hadn’t quite gotten to what it was trying to direct my attention to, hadn’t quite pulled the story together in a way that satisfied it. What was ‘it’? The Muse? Whatever ‘it’ was, it was holding me, and this website, hostage! It wouldn’t let me finish until it was satisfied.
I wrote a long essay on eco-spirituality (now titled Dharmagaian Practices for Spiritual Sustainability and not so long), which my Dharmagaian readers liked, but ‘it’ still wasn’t satisfied. I must have written eight drafts, trying to get to this essay. Not until I focused exclusively on ‘the animistic soul,’ a phrase that popped up repeatedly, did ‘it’ begin to settle, as if to say, ‘Okay, now let’s unpack this.’ And I finally realized that ‘it’ was my own animistic soul that was guiding this journey, which was a like a downward spiral into the collective unconscious of our species – definitely not a linear process.
I spent many months writing and researching during this psycho-archaeological digging process. Not only did I have to unpack my own ecobiography and bring to consciousness the steps that led me to recognize and acknowledge my own animistic soul, but I also had to unpack the history of how the animistic soul has been relegated to the collective unconscious of Western Civilization, and why it needs to be brought to consciousness. I also realized that my animistic soul was urging me to tie this entire website together in this essay. I wondered whether there would ever be any fruition, any end to it, or at least an end to the writing and the technical work on the website, so that the site could be launched.
Then I remembered a dream I had during a six-day solo rite of passage in the wild Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado in 1988. I have called it ‘the basement dream’ ever since:
I had settled into the retreat and was feeling a deep level of relaxation and contentment. The dream began with a scan of the outside of a sterile institutional structure, a building that expressed a linear mindset, like one of the schools I had attended in the 1950's. The basement of the building was crowded with indigenous women — Native North American, Latin American, Black African, Australian Aborigine women, and others — all dressed in traditional costumes and speaking very fast in their native tongues. They were very agitated, gesticulating and expressing their feelings vehemently. Among these women were two other kinds of creatures: huge serpents and large cats. King cobra, python, boa constrictor and other enormous snakes were coiling and hissing and arching in strike poses. Black panther, cougar, jaguar, leopard, tiger and other great cats were pacing and snarling and roaring. None of these beings were in conflict with each other; they were all feeling the same entrapment in this awful structure and expressing their frustration. The basement was seething with the tremendous energy of these colorful women, snakes and cats. They wanted out!
When I awoke from this dream early in the morning, I thought, "No wonder they're all riled up, being trapped in that institutional structure. I would be, too." Then I fell asleep again and forgot about the dream until I was back at home.
This was one of several dreams during and after the solo that signaled a psycho-spiritual turn in my heretofore strictly Buddhist path. The story of that wilderness rite-of-passage is told in Creating Space for Nature, published in 1990. The story of the dreams and their significance in my life is told in My Bush Soul: the Mountain Lion, published in 2007.
In the short term, I recognized that the women, snakes and cats in the dream represented repressed archetypal energies that I needed to bring to consciousness and integrate into my life. However, it took me two decades to gain a larger view of the meaning and significance of the ‘basement dream’ for this moment, this turning point in the history of our species. That is, just as powerful wild animals and indigenous people are traumatized and diminished by being captured and imprisoned against their will, deprived of their autonomy and cut off from their naturally evolved ways of life, so have we ‘civilized’ humans been caged, traumatized and diminished during the history of domestication in Western civilization. At the same time, likewise, the Earth has also been traumatized and diminished, especially since the beginning of industrialization.
This story has been told from different angles throughout this website, and is explored in depth and detail in Demons in Our Midst and Psycho-Spiritual Evolution (PSE), where I discuss the psychic fragmentation in Western culture and introduce the concepts of the predator archetype and the predator culture. However, in the writing of PSE, I apparently didn’t go deep enough to satisfy my animistic soul. It had more to say. So, in this essay I take the idea of psycho-spiritual evolution a bit further with some ideas, based on my own experience, for reintegrating the animistic soul.
Why would anyone want to reintegrate the animistic soul? I suggest that the animistic soul has more integrity, resilience and resourcefulness than the deeply fragmented psyche or soul that most of us have learned to live with in our frantic, alienating culture – and that many people hunger, at least subliminally, for the wholeness of soul that has been lost in Western culture. I believe this hunger began to manifest in American culture in the 1960’s, and it has taken various forms ever since. I will return to this proposition before suggesting that the reintegration of the animistic soul could be a decisive factor in enabling people – especially Dharmagaians – to make it through the breakdown of our civilization and to finally (or again) establish sustainable ways of life. But first, I offer a few definitions.
In Psycho-Spiritual Evolution, I used the term ‘psycho-spiritual’ to connote the perspective of depth psychology, but I did not say much about soul. Perhaps that is why my animistic soul clamored for my attention after I wrote that essay. It seemed to want me to give soul its proper place in the Dharmagaian ecocentric perspective. However, the subject of soul is actually quite challenging, for there is a wide range of opinions in the world about what the soul is. In the West, the word soul is widely used, but with different, sometimes contradictory, meanings and connotations. For example, in Wikipedia:
The soul, in some religions, spiritual traditions, and philosophies, is the immaterial or eternal part of a living being, commonly held to be separable in existence from the body—the metaphysical part as distinct from the physical part. The soul is generally conceived as existing within humans and sometimes within all living things, inanimate objects, and the universe as a whole. In some cultures, non-human living things, and sometimes other objects (such as rivers) are said to have souls; these cultures hold a belief known as animism. The soul is often believed to live on after a person’s death, and some religions posit that God creates souls.
The soul has been deemed integral or essential to consciousness and personality, and may be synonymous with spirit, mind or self. Although the terms soul and spirit are sometimes used interchangeably, soul may denote a more worldly and less transcendent aspect of a person.... The words soul and psyche can also be treated synonymously, although psyche has more physical connotations, whereas soul is connected more closely to metaphysics and religion. [The Greek ψυχή psychē means "spirit, breath, life, animating force, or consciousness."]
For another example, this is a sample of the many meanings for soul from the Oxford English Dictionary:
• The principle of life in man or animals; animate existence.
• The principle of thought and action in man, commonly regarded as an entity distinct from the body; the spiritual part of man in contrast to the purely physical. Also occas., the corresponding or analogous principle in animals. Freq. in connexion with, or in contrast to, body.
• The seat of the emotions, feelings, or sentiments; the emotional part of man's nature.
• In various phrases; also to have no soul: to be lacking in sensibility or right feeling;
• Metaphysics: The vital, sensitive, or rational principle in plants, animals, or human beings. Freq. with distinguishing adjs., as vegetative, sensible or sensitive, rational or reasonable.
• Of things: The essential, fundamental, or animating part, element, or feature of something.
• The soul of the world [after L. anima mundi, Gr. ψυχὴ τοῦ κόσµου], the animating principle of the world, according to early philosophers.
Jungian psychologists, in writing about soul, often distinguish its qualities from those of ‘spirit.’ While acknowledging that the two are connected, they tend to see spirit as ascending and soul as descending. However, when it comes to animistic experience, I am skeptical of the implied dichotomy between soul and spirit. Western dualisms can be misleading and confusing, as with the dichotomy between body and soul, which I will address later on.
Frustrated by Western definitions, I turned to Tibetan Buddhism because Tibetan and Sanskrit seem to have more words for mind, mental phenomena, and states of heart-mind than the English language – or any other languages that I know of. My teacher Chögyam Trungpa said that the ‘eternal soul,’ as spoken of in the Christian tradition, does not exist. In the Buddhist view, nothing is eternal; everything is in flux, impermanent, including the ‘self.’ In the Tibetan Buddhist view, the ‘mind’ resides in the heart, not the brain, and mind and body are not separate.
But is there a Tibetan word for soul? Yes! The word la is translated variously as life force, spirit, soul, or vital essence. In Healing with Form, Energy, and Light: The Five Elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra, and Dzogchen, the Bön master Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, translates la as “soul, basic human goodness, or the fundamental virtuous capacities of a species.” (Bön is the ancient, indigenous, animistic-shamanistic tradition of Tibet.) Wangyal Rinpoche elaborates la in this way:
La is usually translated as “soul” but, more accurately, the la is the depth of who we are. On the deepest level, it is the balance of the five pure lights, the pure elemental energies. On the level of ordinary life, the la is the capacity to experience the five elemental qualities: groundedness, comfort, inspiration, flexibility, and accommodation.
… Our la is a human la. The la of a tiger is a tiger la. The la determines which kind of being we will be as well as much of our individual identity and capacity.
The la underlies our vitality, our inner strength as an individual. It can be damaged or enhanced, stolen and retrieved. … If we act with integrity it is made stronger. If we betray ourselves, it loses vigor.
This definition made sense to me, and I found this book helpful in many ways. Beyond effective practices for personal healing, it provides insights into the animistic roots of Tibetan Buddhism. I realized that I may have been attracted to Tibetan Buddhism in the first place because it provides a profound, highly refined, and coherent path for cultivating the animistic soul, even if it doesn’t use that terminology. My own practice of Tibetan Buddhism enabled me to experience the unity of mind and body, heart and soul, although the teachings tend to emphasize awakened mind and heart.
However, for a definition of soul per se for this essay, rereading Thomas Moore’s 1992 book Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life was useful, for his use of the term soul resonates with my own experience of it. Here are a few excerpts from Moore’s Introduction to Care of the Soul:
It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway; the soul prefers to imagine. We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth…. When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars – good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart. Soul is revealed in attachment, love, and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy….
I have also taken the Renaissance approach of not separating psychology from religion. Jung, one of our most recent doctors of the soul, said that every psychological problem is ultimately a matter of religion…. A spiritual life of some kind is absolutely necessary for psychological “health”; at the same time, excessive or ungrounded spirituality can also be dangerous, leading to all kinds of compulsive and even violent behavior….
Fulfilling work, rewarding relationships, personal power, and relief from symptoms are all gifts of the soul. They are particularly elusive in our time because we don’t believe in the soul and therefore give it no place in our hierarchy of values…. It is commonplace for writers to point out that we live in a time of deep division, in which mind is separated from body and spirituality is at odds with materialism. But how do we get out of this split? We can’t just “think” ourselves through it, because thinking itself is part of the problem. What we need is a way out of dualistic attitudes. We need a third possibility, and that third is soul.
In the fifteenth century, Marsilio Ficino put it as simply as possible. The mind, he said, tends to go off on its own so that it seems to have no relevance to the physical world. At the same time, the materialistic life can be so absorbing that we get caught in it and forget about spirituality. What we need, he said, is soul, in the middle, holding together mind and body, ideas and life, spirituality and the world….
Soul is nothing like ego. Soul is closely connected to fate, and the turns of fate almost always go counter to the expectations and often to the desires of ego…. Soul is the font of who we are, and yet it is far beyond our capacity to devise and to control. We can cultivate, tend, enjoy, and participate in the things of the soul, but we can’t outwit it or manage it or shape it to the designs of the willful ego.
Moore’s Care of the Soul is an approach to psychology that incorporates Western history’s idea of a “soul-centered world,” which puts soul at the center of our lives. The “loss of soul” in our contemporary culture, Moore says, shows up in the “emotional complaints” and symptoms that people take to therapists: emptiness; meaninglessness; vague depression; disillusionment about marriage, family, and relationship; a loss of values; yearning for personal fulfillment; and a hunger for spirituality.
But “the aim of soul work,” he says, “is not adjustment to accepted norms or to an image of the statistically healthy individual. Rather, the goal is a richly elaborated life, connected to society and nature, woven into the culture of family, nation, and globe. The idea is not to be superficially adjusted, but to be profoundly connected in the heart to ancestors and to living brothers and sisters in all the many communities that claim our hearts.”
Ficino and Moore’s idea of soul – as that within the human psyche which binds together mind and body within a heartfelt, sacred relationship between humans and with nature – is close to the definition I was seeking. And I can certainly agree that soul resists management by ego and often has its own ideas! But, as a Dharmagaian, I want to emphasize that soul also connects us to landscapes and the nonhuman community in the places that claim our hearts.
Bill Plotkin’s definition of soul on the What is Soulcraft? page of his website provides a good, up-to-date, Western perspective on the subject:
Your soul is your true self, those qualities that most deeply define and express who you are and the unique gift that you were born to bring to the world, a world so much in need of the socially transforming contributions of initiated, actively engaged adults. To encounter the soul is to discover the mystical image you were born with, which reveals the path to your greatest personal fulfillment as well as the essence of your true service to society. (The cross-cultural wisdom traditions say that fulfillment and service are one and the same).
This definition is elaborated in his groundbreaking 2003 book Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche and his 2008 book Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World, both of which are thoroughly Dharmagaian. In Soulcraft, Plotkin says,
Your soul can also be thought of as your true place in nature…. You have a unique ecological role, the way you are meant to serve and nurture the web of life…. At the level of soul, you have a specific way of belonging to the biosphere…. You can count on wild nature to reflect your soul because soul is your most wild and natural dimension. Nature gives birth to your soul – and that of all other animals and plants on the planet. Your ego, on the other hand, is not born directly from nature, but rather from the matrix of culture-language-family. (p. 41)
This describes the knowing of my animistic soul, but Plotkin, like many other psychologists, doesn’t use the words animism or animistic in relation to soul. These words are not even in the indexes of his books. The “What is Soulcraft?” page defines Soulcraft™ as “a synergistic set of nature-based practices designed to evoke the life-shifting experience of soul encounter…. Soulcraft practices spring from nature-based cultures, modern depth psychology, the poetic tradition, and wilderness rites of passage—to comprise a truly contemporary Western path to soul discovery and soul initiation.” Although I have not participated in any of the Soulcraft programs at Plotkin’s Animas Valley Institute, the origins he gives for Soulcraft have been among the elements on my path that led to the discovery, or recognition, of my own animistic soul – which still insists on using ‘animistic’ in relation to ‘soul.’
The word animism is derived from the Latin word anima, meaning soul or life. According to Wikipedia, animism is “a philosophical, religious or spiritual idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in other animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment.” The only quarrel I have with that definition is that animism isn’t just an “idea,” it is the experience of the animistic soul. As the slogan of the Bioneers conferences says, suggesting the animistic experience of the natural world, “it’s all alive, it’s all connected, it’s all intelligent, it’s all relatives.”
By animistic soul, I mean the whole, complete soul that each human is born with,which contains our unique purpose in this life – the purpose for which we are alive at this time – as well as capacities that are our human birthright. Those birthright capacities include spiritual perception, psychological insight, empathy and compassion, intimacy, foresight, the mytho-poetic imagination, and ecological awareness. The activation of these birthright capacities brings a sense of belonging, interdependence, awe and wonder within the entire web of life.
Although the animistic soul expresses itself in mystical experiences - the sense of enchantment, oneness, bliss, and the perception of synchronicity, energy and magic - an awakened animistic soul also possesses a good bullshit detector and a moral compass that is oriented to truth and the conscience of the whole. When it is fully embodied – rooted in our animal senses, our instincts, our emotional and energetic bodies, and the Earth – the animistic soul confers integrity, presence, authenticity, groundedness, depth of feeling and insight. It intuits the connections between things and the symbolic meanings of situations and synchronicities. And it is wild, untamable by the ego. I believe the animistic soul is what Trungpa Rinpoche meant by the “basic goodness” of humans, all living beings, and the natural world. In Buddhism as well as Ficino, it is the mind that needs to be tamed, not the soul.
In Writers and the War Against Nature, Gary Snyder describes very well the wild quality of what I am calling the animistic soul:
There is a tame, and also a wild, side to the human mind. The tame side, like a farmer’s field, has been disciplined and cultivated to produce a desired yield. It is useful but limited. The wild side is larger, deeper, more complex, and though it cannot be fully known, it can be explored. The explorers of the wild mind are often writers and artists. The “poetic imagination” of which William Blake so eloquently spoke is the territory of wild mind. It has landscapes and creatures within it that will surprise us; it can refresh us and scare us; it reflects the larger truth of our ancient selves, both animal and spiritual….
The wildness gives heart, courage, love, spirit, danger, compassion, skill, fierceness, and sweetness—all at once—to language. From ancient times, storytellers, poets, and dramatists have presented the world in all its fullness: plants, animals, men and women, changing shape, speaking multiple languages, intermarrying, traveling to the sky and under the earth. The great myths and folktales of human magic and nature’s power were our school for ten thousand years.
The animistic soul is the "larger truth of our ancient selves," and it contains the sanity that we are born with, although we have been made afraid of it, ashamed of it, by centuries of social conditioning. However, although social and religious taboos within the predator culture have driven it into the unconscious, it is the source of our authenticity, power, confidence, and courage, and it can be re-integrated. When it is re-integrated, it enables us to sustain our sanity in the midst of unpredictability and even danger. The animistic soul has the self-possessed awareness and the sense of vision that enable us to see new possibilities and introduce new options to solve problems, rather than merely react reflexively.
Although it may seem redundant, I specify the animistic soul to distinguish it from the Christian concept of soul, which is ambivalent, if not hostile, towards our animal senses, wildness, and the Earth. As deep ecologists have recognized, Christianity has disembodied and sanitized the idea of soul with centuries of anti-body and anti-Nature beliefs and attitudes. These beliefs and attitudes have created a truncated and abstracted idea of soul, which has fragmented the human soul by alienating it from body, Earth and many of its own psycho-spiritual functions and powers. This split in the soul has had profoundly detrimental consequences for the Earth as well as for human maturity and sanity. The study of these consequences and how to heal that split in the soul is a major focus in depth psychology and Ecopsychology, although neither field seems to identify the animistic soul.
Even though I’d long been a Buddhist, I might not have been able to recognize my own animistic soul had I not studied the Romantic poets, Deep Ecology, Ecopsychology, and Jungian archetypal psychology in the course of my unconventional path. In 1986, philosopher Arne Naess, the father of Deep Ecology, introduced the concept of the “ecological self”:
Traditionally the maturity of the self develops through three stages--from ego to social self, and from social self to metaphysical self. In this conception of the process, nature--our home, our immediate environment, where we belong as children--is largely ignored. I therefore tentatively introduce the concept of an ecological self. We may be in, of and for nature from our very beginning. Society and human relations are important, but our self is richer in its constitutive relations. These relations are not only relations we have with humans and the human community, but with the larger community of all living beings. …. Now is the time to share with all life on our maltreated earth by deepening our identification with all life-forms, with the ecosystems, and with Gaia, this fabulous old planet of ours.
Empathic identification with all life forms, with ecosystems and with Gaia seems to me to be a basic signature of the animistic soul – and a distinguishing characteristic of Dharmagaians.
|Creation 2005 © Gerald McDermott|
In 1992, historian Theodore Roszak took the idea of the ecological self further in his ground-breaking book The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology, where he introduced the concept of the “ecological unconscious.” Drawing on Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, deep ecology, the new physics, and systems theory, Roszak suggests a radical reinterpretation of the collective unconscious:
It might then be regarded as the repository of an evolutionary record that ties the psyche to the full sweep of cosmic history. Mind, far from being a belated and aberrant development in a universe of dead matter, connects with that universe as the latest emergent stage on its unfolding frontier….
The collective unconscious, at its deepest level, shelters the compacted ecological intelligence of our species, the source from which culture finally unfolds as the self-conscious reflection of nature’s own steadily emergent mindlikeness. The survival of life and of our species would not have been possible without such a self-adjusting, system-building wisdom….
The core of the mind is the ecological unconscious. For Ecopsychology, repression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society; open access to the ecological unconscious is the path to sanity….
Just as it has been the goal of previous therapies to recover the repressed contents of the unconscious, so the goal of Ecopsychology is to awaken the inherent sense of environmental reciprocity that lies within the ecological unconscious…. The ecological unconscious is regenerated, as if it were a gift, in the newborn’s enchanted sense of the world. Ecopsychology seeks to recover the child’s innately animistic quality of experience in functionally “sane” adults.
Roszak’s ideas about ecopsychology fueled my imagination and my dreams, and inspired me to teach Deep Ecology and Ecopsychology. After many years of experiencing and contemplating the ecological self and the ecological unconscious in various ways, my own animistic soul finally emerged from ‘the basement’ and announced itself. As it gained my attention, I began to realize that, in my own case at least, the animistic soul as I experience it is the ecological unconscious re-emerged into conscious awareness.
Like Roszak, I believe that animistic sensibility is at the very core of the collective unconscious. The animistic soul is where we find the “natural indigenosity of the human spirit,” as the Mayan shaman Martín Prechtel puts it. That natural indigenosity of the human spirit is what unites the human family, but it has been repressed and fragmented by civilization. At some point I realized that in order to name and write about the animistic soul I had to confront the taboos that have kept it in the basement of Western culture for so many centuries.
Fighting Eagles © Antoni Kazsprzak
Deep ecologists and ecopsychologists have been circling around the subject of animism for decades, trying to express animistic insights and intuitions without inviting attack by the scientific and religious paradigm police; for both science and Christianity have taboos against animism. Christianity has a long history of persecuting animists, and now, ironically, anything suggesting an animistic sensibility is condemned by scientism, “the view that natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, or humanistic explanations.” The irony is that in the current effort to advance a paradigm shift towards holistic science, scientists who oppose this shift by taking the stance of scientism repeat the dogmatic, authoritarian role that the Church took toward Copernicus and Galileo at the beginning of the Scientific Revolution (16th – 17th centuries).
In Nature is Not a Paradigm, Morris Berman, a historian of science and culture, describes the socio-cultural and psychological impact of the mechanistic paradigm that the Scientific Revolution empowered:
The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries represented a major metapolitical shift; the whole mode of discourse changed. The biggest factor was the demise of the magical world view, the loss of an affective and symbolic mode of communication. Nature was now seen as dead – a perception historians of science refer to as the "mechanical philosophy” – and this perception was quickly extended to everything. In the work of Rene Descartes, mind and body, subject and object, were taken to be radically disparate entities, and the world itself to be nothing more than a huge machine….
At the same time, and not by accident, a political shift took place during the early modern period that was "congruent” to all this: the rise of large standing armies, even in peacetime, and of the nation-state as the typical and most desirable political entity; the emergence of a cash/profit economy, especially in the wake of the Commercial Revolution of the sixteenth century, and later the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth; the formulation of an ideology of progress, and an ethos of exploiting the Earth for material gain….
There has been, as part of this mode of discourse, a very dramatic impact on the human psyche. To succeed in Western industrial society, it pays to behave mechanically, to ignore feelings and concentrate on appearance and behavior. This involves a repression of your dream life and of the life of your body, of your capacity to love.
In the mechanistic paradigm, humans are presumed to be the only creatures with souls, and all nonhuman life is presumed to be soulless, mechanical, without feeling or agency. This anthropocentric paradigm appealed to the predatory instincts in humans because it gave us permission to dominate and exploit the Earth – and other humans who are regarded as ‘subhuman’ or ‘enemies’ – for profit. However, by cutting humans off from the rest of life – from the ensouled cosmos we had inhabited throughout human history – this paradigm cut our souls adrift in a supposedly dead, indifferent universe, and drove our animistic capacities deep into the unconscious. I believe this may be the deepest, most unacknowledged cause of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the predator culture – or, as Roszak put it, “the deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society.”
The mechanistic paradigm and the resulting PTSD have been utterly alienating, making us easy prey for manipulation by the predator culture, which quickly took political advantage of the mechanistic paradigm. The late activist Judi Bari described this process quite well in Revolutionary Ecology: Biocentrism & Deep Ecology. The predatory power that the Scientific Revolution gave to Western Civilization through technology can hardly be overstated. It is no wonder that our animistic souls shrink back like beaten dogs when the doors of their cages are left open.
But as Berman says, “Modern science is not merely an ideology, but a mythology.” This mythology – that the scientific method provides the only access to truth – has spawned the paradigm police of scientism. Some of the efforts to break free of the mechanistic paradigm are described in Deep Ecology, Paradigm Change, the New Cosmology, and Ecopsychology. But, meanwhile, those scientists who possess animistic intuitions – and want to retain their scientific credibility – have had to tiptoe around in a conceptual and linguistic minefield in order not to be attacked by paradigm police clinging to mechanistic-objectivistic-anthropocentric assumptions. That minefield is full of taboos against animistic insights into the living, intelligent, responsive, ensouled nature of the cosmos we inhabit; and paradigm police react reflexively to perceived violations of taboos with denigration, ridicule, demonization, and dismissal – if not more aggressive actions.
The acceptance of the term biophilia, or love for nature, which biologist E.O. Wilson popularized, is the closest that scientific orthodoxy has come to acknowledging that which the mechanistic paradigm has denied. In Wilson’s view, biophilia describes "the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” He proposed the possibility that the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology, with which I agree. But, with all due respect to E.O. Wilson, I regard biophilia to be merely the harbinger of – or a guarded response to nature from – the animistic soul that operates subconsciously only because it has been shamed and persecuted by our civilization. Biophilia does not express the deep communion with the natural world – with animals, plants and the elements – of which the animistic soul is capable.
Biophilia opens the door to an enormous psycho-spiritual territory, but it opens it only a crack. The predator culture’s taboos and our own PTSD are impediments to opening that door further. The animistic soul needs much more encouragement to feel safe enough to come out of its cage – out of the ‘basement’ in which it’s been trapped. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the heroic efforts of those scientists committed to advancing a holistic paradigm – such as Fritjof Capra, Brian Swimme, Rupert Sheldrake, Marc Bekoff, Bruce Lipton, Stephan Harding, David Suzuki, James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis and others who have had to run the scientistic gauntlet.
But even if one is not a scientist, writing about animism and the animistic soul is still very challenging, due to the dualistic nature of the English language, which has been so conditioned by the prejudicial assumptions of scientific materialism and the predator culture in general. Thus, in order to express an animistic sensibility, we are constantly trying to bridge the conventional conceptual polarities between head and heart, mind and body, humans and animals, culture and nature, mind and matter, etc.
As discussed in Psycho-Spiritual Evolution, there are both conscious and unconscious fears that prevent us from breaking social taboos, especially those erected in the predator culture, and taboos against animism are particularly potent. So the search for language to express animistic insights, intuitions, and experiences is fraught with the risk of dismissal and insult – especially by vociferous anthropocentrists.
As one reviewer remarked about Stephan Harding’s Animate Earth: Science, Intuition, And Gaia, Harding walks a “swaying rhetorical tightrope” in order to bring “the narrative to his destination, the mutual enhancement of vital scientific ideas and crucial ethical recognitions.” That ‘swaying rhetorical tightrope’ describes what I mean about the difficulty of finding appropriate (acceptable) language for animistic insights.
In David Abram’s review of Animate Earth, he says,
At such a precarious historical moment as this one we're in, such creative, interdisciplinary visions as Harding's are catalyzing a new and more mature kind of science. They provoke a new kind of intelligence - a rationality informed by our ongoing sensory experience of the world around us, and by the empathic heart beating within our chest - a keen and rigorous intelligence that places itself in service not to humankind alone, but to the wild, more-than-human community of life.
The ‘new kind of intelligence’ that Abram speaks of is the kind of intelligence – or sanity – that I mean when I propose the conscious reintegration of the animistic soul: a rationality informed by our ongoing sensory experience of the world around us, and by the empathic heart beating within our chest. In Buddhist terminology, animistic intelligence and sanity might be described as fully embodied mindfulness, discriminating awareness, and compassion, altogether.
David Abram is a writer/philosopher whose own animistic soul has applied itself to the task of speaking and writing in terms that express and evoke the animistic sensibility. As he says in The Air Aware,
I suggest that mind is not at all a human possession, but is rather a property of the earthly biosphere—a property in which we, along with the other animals and the plants, all participate. Mind, in this sense, is very much like a medium in which we’re situated, like the ineffable air or atmosphere, from which we are simply unable to extricate ourselves without ceasing to exist. Everything we know or sense of ourselves is conditioned by this atmosphere.
Likewise, in Waking Our Animal Senses: Language and the Ecology of Sensory Experience, Abram says,
When we are really awake to the life of our senses — when we are really watching with our animal eyes and listening with our animal ears — we discover that nothing in the world around us is directly experienced as a passive or inanimate object. Each thing, each entity meets our gaze with its own secrets, and if we lend it our attention we are drawn into a dynamic interaction wherein we are taught and sometimes transformed by this other being. If we really wish to awaken our senses, and so to renew the solidarity between ourselves and the rest of the earth, then we must acknowledge that the myriad things around us have their own active agency, their own active influence upon our lives and our thoughts (and also, of course, upon one another). We must begin to speak of the sensuous surroundings in the way that our breathing bodies really experience them — as active, as animate, as alive.
Jaguar © 2009 Tom Shandy
In Storytelling and Wonder, Abram’s animistic soul speaks candidly:
Our animal senses know nothing of the objective, mechanical, quantifiable world to which most of our civilized discourse refers. Wild and gregarious organs, our senses spontaneously experience the world not as a conglomeration of inert objects but as a field of animate presences that actively call our attention, that grab our focus or capture our gaze. Whenever we slip beneath the abstract assumptions of the modern world, we find ourselves drawn into relationship with a diversity of beings as inscrutable and unfathomable as ourselves. Direct, sensory perception is inherently animistic, disclosing a world wherein every phenomenon has its own active agency and power. We are born of this animate earth, and our sensitive flesh is simply our part of the dreaming body of the world. However much we may obscure this ancestral affinity, we cannot erase it, and the persistence of the old stories is the continuance of a way of speaking that blesses the sentience of things, binding our thoughts back into the depths of an imagination much vaster than our own.
I am grateful to David Abram for breaking the ground of our rigidly mechanistic Western worldview by speaking of animism in terms of direct sensory perception, imagination, our ‘ancestral affinity’ with the animate Earth, and the relevance of the ‘old stories,’ the indigenous stories. I fully concur with him and appreciate his efforts, for he is encouraging people to challenge the old taboos from a rational, holistic perspective.
However, as I said before, I believe that the animistic soul began to break through the rigidity of the conventional worldview in American culture in the 1960’s, although it was unrecognized as such, and it has manifested in various forms ever since. For example, the wildly popular fictional books by Carlos Castaneda, Lynn Andrews, Hyemeyohsts Storm, and Jean M. Auel, published between 1968 and the 1990’s, took readers’ imaginations into indigenous and animistic ways of life and knowing, and also inspired fascination with Native American cultural traditions.
Personally, my animistic soul was more nourished and inspired by Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series than by the Castaneda, Andrews and Storm books. Auel’s novels, starting with The Clan of the Cave Bear, are set 30,000 years ago in Europe, during the last ice age. Because they are grounded in archaeological, geological and ecological research, these books have a sense of honesty and integrity rather than ungrounded fantasy. This groundedness enabled me to enjoy Auel’s imaginative visions of the hunter-gatherer lifestyles of the first modern humans. Unlike the other authors mentioned, Auel doesn’t claim to be passing on information from existing cultures. Rather, her storytelling seems to have been guided by her own animistic soul, based on known facts about our history.
By contrast, publicity for the more recent Ringing Cedars books about “Anastasia” – a blond, Caucasian, female shaman (supposedly a surviving member of an ancient Vedic civilization), who lives alone with her young son in the wild taiga of Siberia – sets off my bullshit detector. Anastasia’s ‘wisdom’ appears to convey an animistic sensibility, and seems to appeal to readers’ souls, but I don’t trust the hype about these books. Their marketing claims raise red flags for me. From the Translator’s Preface, I pick up the smell of dualism and anthropocentrism – the old paradigm. My ecocentric, Dharmagaian, animistic soul is skeptical, so I don’t plan to read them.
Fascination with the indigenous ways of Native Americans and other indigenous tribal peoples has had its dark side, as described in The Plastic Medicine People Circle, which cites Castaneda, Andrews and Storm, among others, as “plastic medicine people” and “fake shamans” who gain personal power and profit by taking advantage of uninitiated non-Natives’ gullibility. The author’s concern is the damage that fake shamanism can do to participants’ psyches and to Native cultures. A Theft of Spirit? also looks at these issues by presenting a diversity of Native views on white people’s hunger for Native ideas and traditions.
However, leaving aside the conflicts and controversies surrounding New Age spirituality vis-à-vis Native American cultures, what strikes me is that shamanism appeals to the yearnings of the uninitiated animistic soul – and, in some cases, capitalizes on them. What does it tell us about the collective psyche in Western industrialized societies that multitudes of people are attracted to shamanism and indigenous arts, crafts, beliefs and rituals of all kinds, and can’t tell the difference between fake and authentic?
For one thing, I sense the animistic soul’s longing to break out of a stultifying culture and be re-integrated into our lives – a longing that echoes my ‘basement dream.’ For another thing, the inability to distinguish between plastic and genuine in many realms of experience, as well as among shamanic practitioners, indicates the need for, and lack of, initiation into authentic, grounded traditions that would enable the animistic soul to take its proper place at the center of our lives. In the industrialized and commercialized West, we have lost both initiation rites and authentic traditions passed down generation after generation through lineages of wisdom and practice. Thus, there are a lot of ‘lost souls’ among us, a subject to which I will return.
But what other stirrings of the animistic soul have been discernable since the 1960’s? Movies that enabled Western audiences to see ourselves through the perspectives of indigenous cultures began appearing for the first time, I believe, after the ‘60’s. In those that portrayed the humor and tragedy of ‘first contacts’ between ancient tribal peoples and modern civilization, the humor was often directed towards the clumsiness and ignorance of the white people, and the sympathy was directed toward the Native people. Most memorable to me for their accuracy and integrity are these films:
• Walkabout, a 1971 UK film set in the Australian outback, is about two lost white children who meet an Aboriginal boy on his ‘walkabout’ rite of passage. A hauntingly beautiful film directed by Nicolas Roeg.
• The Gods Must Be Crazy, a 1980 South African film about a San Bushman’s encounter with white South Africans, is both hilarious and touching.
• The Emerald Forest, a 1985 UK drama directed by John Boorman, is based on a true story about a dam engineer in Brazil who loses his young son to a tribe of Amazon Indians. His search for him changes his perspective.
• The Mission is a 1986 UK drama set in the Amazonian rainforest in the 18th century. Jesuit priests try to save Natives from Portuguese slave traders. The cinematography and the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone are gorgeous and memorable.
• Dances with Wolves, a 1990 American film directed by and starring Kevin Costner is about a lonely army soldier in a remote western Civil War outpost, who befriends wolves and Indians, which makes him an intolerable aberration in the military.
• At Play in the Fields of the Lord is a 1991 American production based on Peter Matthiessen’s novel by the same name. This is a complex story, also set in the Amazon, of white missionaries, lost-soul mercenaries, and an uncontacted Amazonian tribe.
These movies appeal to and evoke the animistic soul, and they seemed to open the way for many more American films about Native Americas, in which Native Americans are actors (rather than white people playing Indian). But let’s not forget the wonderful animated film, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke, which was released in its American version in 1999, and which I reviewed in PSE. This Japanese film also has all the elements that appeal to the animistic soul: magical, talking forest creatures, an indigenous hero who undergoes a rite of passage, predatory bad guys, and a powerful ecological message.
In addition to movies and books that reveal the re-emergence of the animistic soul, I think that many of the ecologically based counterculture movements – such as the ‘back-to-the-land’ movement of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, organic gardening and farming, environmental, animal rights and indigenous rights activism, holistic healing, deep ecology, and ecopsychology – have been inspired, at least in part, by the animistic soul. The animistic impulse in all of these movements is still alive among many people who foresee and are preparing for the predictable shocks of this century. Foresight, after all, is one of the capacities of the animistic soul. (See the Cassandra Club.)
The consequences of the predator culture, as I discussed in PSE, have been the oppression and destruction of indigenous cultures, the repression of animistic sensibility, and the plundering of the Earth’s mineral and biological resources. Considering the threats posed to human survival, many people regard the destruction of the biosphere and indigenous cultures to be insane. At the same time, the repression of our animistic sensibility, which fragments our psyches and cuts us off from the ‘more-than-human world,’ appears to be compromising the sanity of those conditioned within the predator culture. Rampant PTSD, after all, is not a good recipe for survival. We need our animistic souls to be fully functioning if humanity is to make it through the crises of this century.
This perspective and these themes are brilliantly portrayed in the blockbuster film Avatar, in which the conflict between the predator culture of Earth and a fully animistic society on another planet is movingly dramatized. Avatar is like a siren call to the collective animistic soul. I first saw Avatar after I’d already written several drafts on the animistic soul. After I saw it a second time, this essay finally began to come together. I am grateful to James Cameron for this!
Hometree, spiritual and physical home of the Omaticaya in Avatar
I see Avatar as an archetypal allegory of great depth. At the most obvious, superficial level, it is the all-too-familiar tale of a muscle-bound predator culture invading a pristine environment to plunder its resources, and meeting the resistance of an indigenous, animistic, tribal culture that defends its people and ecosystem with spears and arrows. This drama is still being played out on Earth in many places.
In Avatar the details are highly exaggerated: RDA, the predatory corporate consortium from Earth, defends its interests on Pandora with mercenaries, gigantic machines, irresistible firepower, and cruel intent. It uses “shock and awe” to carry out “disaster capitalism.” Its opponents are the cat-like Na’vi people, a fierce, feisty warrior culture, and the lethal environment of Pandora, with its gigantic, armor-plated carnivorous animals. It is Western civilization’s tale of man against nature writ large.
However, within that story there is a new twist. (Spoiler alert!) The Na’vi and Pandora vanquish the predator culture! The military-industrial complex and its mercenaries are defeated and escorted off the planet. This is accomplished through what I regard to be the primary nexus of the film’s power: the portrayal of Jake’s (the protagonist’s) rite of passage into animistic consciousness. I believe Avatar may be the first fictional cinematic drama to do this in such a way that the audience feels the transformative power of the initiation into animism – an unprecedented experience and quite an accomplishment. Jake’s initiation into animism makes Avatar a paradigm changing film, and it also may be why this movie stirred up controversy and misunderstanding. (See Cameron’s interview with Charlie Rose on February 17, 2010.)
The deeper subtext that I see in Avatar is subtle and apparently easy to miss. The 3-D film is so fast-paced and over-stimulating for some people that it is disorienting and overwhelming – and the multivalent meaning of the film may completely escape them. But I think there may be something even deeper going on, which Robert Augustus Masters captures well in Full-Blooded Awakening & Embodiment: A Review Of Avatar:
Avatar moves and shakes many people quite deeply, not just because of the incredible special effects, but also because they have been reminded with considerable impact not only of their own primal nature-attuned core, but also of their estrangement or disconnection from it. So there's a simultaneous sense, however subterranean, of deep opening and deep loss, a more-than-intellectual recognition of having lost touch with something truly essential to us. In this sense, Avatar serves as an awakening force, a jolt to our core, inviting us to awaken from the entrapping dreams we habitually animate. Earth is Pandora, getting ever closer to being one massive clearcut, and we know it, regardless of our distractions. The popcorn falls from our hands, waves of green energy branch through our torso, tears come, and something very deep in us starts to open, to unfurl, to reach through us with unmistakable urgency, calling us to a deeper life.
I had this experience: I found myself weeping through the scenes of Na’vi life both times I saw Avatar. I needed tissues to wipe my tears and blow my nose. Because I had been writing about the animistic soul before I saw the film, I felt a resonance with those animistic scenes that aroused a great longing for that way of life – a longing for a sacred, holistic, communal life in intimate communion with all other forms of life. When I am moved to tears, I respect my tears as a primal expression of my soul’s recognition of truth, and I did recognize truth in Avatar’s portrayal of an indigenous initiation into animistic consciousness.
I can see why some people who get this gist go back repeatedly to see Avatar and even become somewhat obsessed with it. The symbolism in the film is profound and rich in meaning, and I do think it takes more than one viewing to mine it.
But there is another dimension that Masters touches on: Avatar reminds us of how much we have already lost – not only biological diversity, ecosystem health, and the diversity of animistic cultures, but we have lost the wildness and autonomy of the Na’vi. We’ve become over-domesticated, and Avatar evokes the feral qualities that we have locked in the ‘basement.’ The sadness and anxiety about this has given rise to the phenomenon of Avatar Blues, the state of depression that some people feel when they emerge from the theater to face life in industrial society. The ‘emotional complaints’ that Thomas Moore describes as symptoms of loss of soul – such as emptiness, meaninglessness, depression, and disillusionment – become heightened by the contrast between Pandora and Earth. This is real, and there is even an Avatar forum to help people cope with that depression – it is one of many Avatar forums that give people the opportunity to contemplate the film together.
Many other reviews and the official movie site itself have summarized the story line of Avatar, and I urge readers to see the movie for yourselves. But since this initiatory subtext seems to have escaped notice by many other reviewers, perhaps this summary of Jake’s rite of passage will be helpful to people interested in reclaiming their animistic souls – or at least perceiving the initiation into animism within the film.
Jake begins as a “jarhead,” a marine who knows only the ways of Earth’s military-industrial complex. At the beginning of the film, Jakes tells us, “I became a marine for the hardship. I told myself I could pass any test a man can pass. All I ever wanted is a single thing worth fighting for.”
He ends up on Pandora because he has little left to lose: he is a disabled vet, only half a man, and has just lost his twin brother. Not only is he paralyzed from the waist down by a combat injury, and dependent on a wheel chair to get around, but he is ‘stupid.’ He is assigned to carry on the scientific work that his brother began, but he has had no training for the job. More than that, however, he is uncultivated, un-self-reflective, and has no depth, which both his scientific colleagues and the indigenous Na’vi recognize.
Since Jake is a trained marine, Col. Miles Quaritch, the commander of the mercenary force that protects the RDA’s interests on Pandora, enlists Jake as a spy and makes him a promise: if he is a good spy and helps RDA to defeat the Na’vi, Jake will get the operation that will restore his legs. This is the typical kind of deal that the predator culture offers people, and that the uninitiated fall for: sell us your soul and we’ll give you your heart’s desire. Jake’s acceptance of this deal sets him up for a fateful decision, which also becomes part of his initiation.
Neytiri, the princess of the Omaticaya clan, who saves his life in their first encounter, tells Jake that he’s stupid, like a baby, and cannot see. The ability to “see” is a major difference between the animistic culture of the Na’vi and the predator culture of the RDA consortium. It is also the subject of Avatar’s theme song, “I See You.” In the course of Jake’s initiation he learns to ‘see’: to see into others, and through others’ eyes, with the insight of the heart, which I take to mean the insight of the animistic soul.
There are two reasons that the Omaticaya don’t kill Jake. One is that Eywa blesses him with a sign of acceptance. Both Neytiri and Mo’at – her mother and the matriarch of the clan, who interprets the will of Eywa – recognize this. Eywa is the maternal deity or goddess, the guiding spirit of the Na’vi. I think of Eywa as the Na’vi equivalent of Gaia, the primordial Mother Goddess of the Earth, or the anima mundi.
But in Avatar, Eywa’s sacred existence is made apparent in physical ways: first by the air-born atokirina’, or woodsprites, the luminous white seeds from the Utral Aymokriyä, the healing tree or “tree of souls.” These atokirina’ land on Jake, covering his head, arms and torso, just when Neytiri is insisting that he should go back. Neytiri looks at them with wonder and reverence, and tells Jake they are “seeds of the Great Tree – very pure spirits.” Jake is in awe, seeming to sense the blessing he has received.
The other reason Jake isn’t killed is that Eytukan – the clan leader and Neytiri’s father – sees a use for him. Since Jake is a trained warrior, rather than a scientist, perhaps the Na’vi can learn from him about their enemy, RDA. Eytukan wants to study this new thing, an avatar who is a warrior. Mo’at agrees because, whereas she found the scientists “too full” to learn from the Na’vi, Jake is “empty” and eager to learn. “Learn well,” she tells him. “Then we will see if your insanity can be cured.”
Mo’at assigns Neytiri to be his teacher, to which Neytiri vehemently objects. However, she does recognize that Jake has a good heart and is fearless, so she works with him to teach him Na’vi ways. But she cuts him no slack and doesn’t hesitate to laugh at him. Jake says that, with Neytiri, it’s learn fast or die.
Jake is challenged and humbled at every turn, but he takes the many humiliations in good humor and keeps trying until he overcomes each challenge. There are two dimensions to the learning he must master: the physical and the psycho-spiritual, the outer and inner. He receives lessons on how to relate with the animals and plants of Pandora both physically and emotionally/energetically. He has to open up all his animal senses, use smell, taste, hearing, touch, as well as sight, and become fully embodied, which often enough requires him to be fearless. But he also has to open up his inner senses and allow his heart-mind to receive feedback and messages from other beings, as well as to send messages in a way that others can receive them. In other words, he has to learn the protocols of Pandora and understand the principles behind them, as well as pass tests of physical strength, endurance and bravery.
But the world of the Na’vi is enchanted, beautiful and exciting, as well as dangerous, and Jake is obviously delighted to learn what his new, Na’vi avatar body can do. He is learning to be fully embodied in a new body on a new planet, with new risks, challenges and thrills. He is undergoing a thorough rebirth, and the possibility of death lurks ever in the background. But he is also being pulled into the neural network of Eywa through linking up with plants and animals. When he first makes the neural link with the Direhorse, Neytiri tells him the bond is called shahalu and that he must feel it inside. Those neural connections are also teaching him and giving him confidence and courage – trust in his Na’vi body. At the same time, in his human body, he experiences inner confusion.
Jake says, “She’s always going on about the flow of energy, the spirits of the animals – tree hugger shit…. Everything is backwards now. Like out there is the true world, and in here [the lab] is the dream….
After Jake passes the test of a clean and respectful kill of a hexapede, and makes the bond with his Banshee by learning to fly with it, he impresses Neytiri by evading the attack of the gigantic Banshee, the Leonopteryx, or Toruk. He is just beginning to see the forest through the eyes of the Omaticaya:
It’s hard to put in words the deep connection the People have to the forest. They see a network of energy that flows through all living things. They know all energy is only borrowed – and one day you have to give it back…. I can barely remember my old life. I’m not sure who I am anymore.
This is an honest statement from a man who has only ever known a mechanistic worldview in a world of machines and disembodied, robotic, aggressive humans. It is bound to be confusing to be in a world where every living thing is immediately responsive, and to be taught the Na’vi ways of honoring Pandora’s sacred interconnectedness. The Na’vi know that “it’s all alive, it’s all connected, it’s all intelligent, it’s all relatives.” What we would regard as telepathic (or animistic) communication and communion – say, between people and animals, plants and nature on Earth – is symbolized by the physical, tactile, neural connections between the Na’vi and the life forms of Pandora, where all life is biochemically interlinked. But, of course, the mechanistic world doesn’t believe in telepathy, doesn’t feel or see the energetic connections between living beings. Jake is expressing the difficulty of the paradigm change he is experiencing as he learns to ‘see’ reality through animistic consciousness.
Thus, Jake makes the fateful error of betraying the Omaticaya clan by giving RDA the location and pictures of the Well of Souls, the clan’s most sacred place. Meanwhile, he is accepted into the clan and becomes mated for life with Neytiri in the sacred willow glade where he hears the voices of the ancestors! Talk about a fragmented soul! Mo’at’s question – whether his insanity can be cured – rings in the air.
When talking to Parker Selfridge, the RDA manager, Grace, the director of the scientific project, gives voice to the science:
I’m not talking about pagan voodoo here - I’m talking about something real and measurable in the biology of the forest. I don’t have the answers yet, I’m just now starting to even frame the questions. What we think we know is that there’s some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees. Like the synapses between neurons. Each tree has ten to the fourth connections to the trees around it, and there are ten to the twelfth trees on Pandora. That’s more connections than the human brain. You get it? It’s a network – a global network. And the Na’vi can access it - they can upload and download data – memories – at sites like the one you destroyed.
You need to wake up, Parker. The wealth of this world isn’t in the ground -- it’s all around us. The Na’vi know that, and they’re fighting to defend it. If you want to share this world with them, you need to understand them.
Grace might as well be talking to an oil executive in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. RDA doesn’t want to share Pandora with the Na’vi. They couldn’t care less about the Na’vi.
After Grace and Jake hear that the Na’vi will be gassed out of Hometree, Jake responds with a concise description of the modus operandi of predator culture: “That’s how it’s done. When people are sitting on shit you want, you make them your enemy. Then you’re justified in taking it.”
Immediately after this conversation, they get word that Hometree will be brought down. Jake has one hour to evacuate the Omaticaya clan. Because he loves them, he tries to convince them to leave – run for their lives. But the Omaticaya can’t believe that they must leave or die, because they cannot imagine the destructiveness of RDA’s firepower. This forces Jake to come clean and admit that he’s known all along that they would be forced out. He tries to tell them of the change he’s gone through, from “following orders” to “falling in love” with the Omaticaya and Neytiri, but they can’t hear it. They know Jake has betrayed them and they are outraged. This is a crisis point in Jake’s relationship with the clan, with Neytiri, and in his initiation, which is not over.
Jake’s and Grace’s avatars are tied up outside the Hometree. The RDA gunships arrive and Jake and Grace shout at people to run, get out of there. When the gunships begin firing gas canisters and then missiles at Hometree, setting it ablaze, the Omaticaya finally start to run. Mo’at tearfully cuts them loose and tells Jake, “You are one of us. Help us!”
Cut loose, Jake finds Neytiri grieving over her dead father, Eytukan. Jake tries to apologize, but she angrily tells him to go away and never come back. Exiled from the clan, staggering alone through the scorched forest, Jake is shattered. He has to face the truth about his collusion with RDA: “I was a warrior who dreamed he could bring peace. Sooner or later, though, you always have to wake up....” At that point, he is yanked from the neural link to his avatar.
Jake, Grace and Norm (another avatar) are imprisoned. Trudy (a sympathetic pilot) frees them and they steal a helicopter and fly to the Well of Souls, where they know the Omaticaya have gone. Grace has been shot by Quaritch as they escaped. Jake knows that the Mother Tree is Grace’s only hope. Norm tells him that Tsu’tey is now clan leader and will never accept him. Jake says he’s got to try.
The avatar link re-established, Jake finds himself in the forest again, and reflects on himself in the voice-over: “Outcast. Betrayer. Alien. To ever face them again, I was gonna have to change the rules…. Sometimes your whole life boils down to one insane move.” Jake finds his Banshee and takes flight. Then he finds the fierce, gigantic Toruk, the Leonopteryx, and leaps onto his back, establishes shahalu, the bond, and flies to the Well of Souls.
Jake “changes the rules” of the clan by becoming Toruk Macto, the reincarnation of the legendary Omaticaya clan leader who rode the revered Toruk and united the clans at the “Time of Sorrows.” The earlier Toruk Macto was Neytiri’s grandfather’s grandfather. So the arrival of Jake on the back of the Leonopteryx is deeply symbolic and electrifying to the grieving clan. That Jake managed to bond with and fly the Toruk restores the trust of the clan enough to let him speak. He presents himself to the conflicted Tsu’tey, telling him, “I stand before you, ready to serve the People. You are Olo’eyctan, and you are the best warrior. I can’t do this without you.” Because Jake humbly asks for help, and acknowledges Tsu’tey’s status in the clan’s order of precedence, Tsu’tey agrees to fly with him. This makes it possible to unite the clans to fight RDA.
I regard Jake’s decision to “change the rules” by embodying Toruk Macto, in order to unite the clans to fight RDA, to be the final test he passes to become fully Omaticaya and committed to animistic consciousness. In order to do that, he has to turn his back on the predator culture, and everything he’s ever known or been. His decision to fight the juggernaut of RDA at the risk of his life is indeed “one insane move.”
In the Initiation section of PSE, I quote Clarissa Pinkola Estés, who says that recognizing the dark truth of the predator archetype and confronting it is, itself, an initiation that is necessary for full adulthood. Dr. Estés tells us that awakening to the existence and danger of the predator archetype is an initiation into the “Life/Death/Life” mysteries that bring maturity and wisdom. She describes an initiation as “a psychic change from one level of knowing and behavior to another more mature or more energetic level of knowledge and action.” It is an initiation into psychic depths, where insight into symbolic meaning resides.
Jake’s insight into both the predator culture of RDA and the Na’vi symbolism of Toruk Macto inspires him to “die” to what he has been – fragmented – and step into a more mature, integrated, and energetic level of knowledge and action. His “rebirth” as Toruk Macto enables him to carry out his mission – “one thing worth fighting for” – to save the Na’vi and Pandora. He has never been more fully alive.
However, I don’t regard Jake to be just another white-male savior archetype, as many other reviewers have criticized. In Avatar, the Na’vi represent the archetypes from my dream – indigenous women, serpents and cats – all rolled into one fictional indigenous race. The thrill of the film, for me, is that these animistic archetypes emerge from the ‘basement’ of the RDA hierarchy and destroy the structure that imprisons them – with the help of an animus figure, Jake, who has been reintegrated into the web of life!
Jake is a different kind of hero archetype from that of the popular white-male savior in Western civilization’s myths and movies. Instead of being an invincible conqueror, Jake is a wounded healer. He could not have been successful in saving the Na’vi and Pandora without the feminine principle embodied by Neytiri, Mo’at, and Eywa. Neytiri saves his life with decisive action no less than three times, including at the end of the film, and she teaches him to “see.” She is also the one who dispatches Quaritch. Mo’at gives Jake a chance, frees him from bondage and conducts the ceremony that transforms him from human to Na’vi. Eywa blesses him and, presumably, answers his prayer to help the Na’vi by sending her largest, fiercest, armor-plated beasts to fight the RDA. Not once is it necessary for Jake to save a ‘helpless maiden,’ which is such a stale patriarchal motif in the Western hero story. Jake does not act alone, but only with the help of others – female others, including Grace and Trudy, as well as all the male and female Na’vi warriors, and the animals of the forest. This is not by accident. It is intentional. If the message of the film is to “see” the interconnectedness, then we must recognize that Jake is not a solitary agent. He is a hero because he is able to ask for help -- from the feminine.
Avatar offers powerful encouragement to the traumatized and repressed animistic souls of people in our culture to come out of the basement. But in order to build a soulful, sustainable animistic culture for future generations, humanity must defy and contain the deceitful, greedy, power-hungry predator archetype in our psyches and in our relationships with each other and the natural world. This takes the courage to defy the predator’s taboos, cultivate our souls, and be fearlessly creative, while being guided by the conscience of the interconnected whole, the will of Gaia.
I wonder whether the predator archetype may actually be the shadow of the unbalanced, fragmented animistic soul. Perhaps the animistic soul of our hunter-gatherer ancestors became progressively unbalanced first by patriarchy and then further by patriarchal theism. The scales seemed to tip decisively toward the predator when the Christian Church began to vilify our animal instincts, our bodies and Nature, creating a definite split in the soul. And the Church seemed to get ‘eaten by its shadow’ when it began to persecute ‘pagans’ and ‘witches’ – those who remained animistic in defiance of the Church’s greed and will to power. The Church became the predator – making itself wealthier and more powerful – through the ‘witch hunts’ and the Inquisition. Then it began producing priests who are predatory pedophiles, and provided institutional cover for them – which added at least another layer of PTSD to the psyches of Church followers. But the Scientific Revolution switched the tables on the Church, and science/technology empowered the predator archetype even further, while driving our split-off animistic souls even further into the unconscious.
The Na’vi offer an interesting portrayal of beings who have assimilated the predatory impulse into a balanced way of life that contains it and limits its power through reverence for the will of Eywa, the conscience of the whole, which is interpreted by the female shaman. The Na’vi are indeed predators – they are fearless hunters. But masculine and feminine powers are equal and balanced, and the Na’vi maintain balance and harmony within their ecosystem. They remain in affectionate connection with their prey and treat them with respect. When Jake kills the hexapede, he says, “I see you, Brother, and thank you. Your spirit goes with Eywa, your body stays behind to become part of the People.” The Na’vi ‘tame’ the other predators in their environment by making a neural connection and treating them with respect and affection. The Omaticaya are fierce warriors, but their fierceness is balanced by reverence, respect and tenderness. They express their feelings without hesitation or pretense. They are authentic, incapable of deceit or betrayal, which is why they are so shocked by Jake’s duplicity.
The predator that has gained sovereignty in our culture – through duplicity, deceit and betrayal – is defiant of any notion of the will of Eywa, Gaia, God, the Tao, the conscience of the whole, or the jurisdiction of the Earth. Predator culture is inflated by its sense of superiority and impunity. And thus it is cruel. Our souls know this, but it is taboo in a predator culture to speak of it. And because the predator’s punishment is cruel, our animistic souls cower.
It is no wonder the Catholic Church disapproved of Avatar, for after seeing the film, our animistic souls feel empowered with the same feral energy that the Church spent centuries repressing. Our animistic souls want out of their imprisonment. They want to live free and embodied within healthy, beautiful ecosystems. But they step out onto the pavement covering Mother Earth, and meet the bleak, artificial technosphere of the predator culture, where everything is a toxic mimic of something natural and organic. Watched by surveillance cameras, surrounded by machines, enveloped by noise and pollution, we feel even more imprisoned. Thus the ‘Avatar Blues.’
One thing is certain: the predator culture is unsustainable, and animistic cultures show the way to a sustainable way of life by living in intimate balance and harmony within Nature’s jurisdiction. How applicable are the lessons of Jake’s initiation to our own situation on Planet Earth after the first decade of the 21st century? And how can citizens of industrial civilization reclaim and restore our animistic souls before it is too late?
In the Initiation section of PSE I discuss the relevance of rites of passage and soul initiation at length, so I won’t repeat myself here, except to note once again that Dharmagaians and depth psychologists have been suggesting for quite awhile that modern humans – people in industrialized societies – are going through a collective rite of passage. A growing chorus of voices has been pointing out that our culture, in doing away with the initiatory process for adolescents, has become stuck at an adolescent stage, which cannot produce healthy, mature adults, or elders, who can lead the youth of the culture into responsible adulthood.
For example, in Humanity's Rite Of Passage: A World Tended By Adults, Carolyn Baker says,
So-called ‘civilized’ humanity has been exiled from its rootedness in nature and the organic process of human development so conscientiously observed and nurtured by indigenous peoples. Consequently, the culture of modernity is not only disconnected from the earth, but in a large sense ‘developmentally disabled.’ An integral aspect of the disability is modern humanity's disavowal of the initiatory process in the care and training of children. Carl Jung asserted that initiation is an archetype or fundamental motif inherent in the human psyche. That is to say that something in us wants and expects engagement in the initiatory process, not only at the age of puberty, but throughout our human experience. If the reality of initiation is deeply embedded in our humanity, it is likely that survival and navigation of the collapse of civilization will be enhanced by our perception and response to collapse as an initiatory process.
The ‘developmental disability’ in the culture of modernity – predator culture – is the a split in the soul, which, ironically, only a rite of passage can heal. An initiatory rite of passage creates the conditions in which a person, young or old, can glimpse the wholeness and power that is the birthright of each individual. That glimpse of wholeness and power then inspires the initiate to undertake an evolutionary healing journey to reintegrate his or her soul at a more mature, individuated, level of being.
But initiation into the deep ‘life/death/life’ mysteries of the soul always involves the death of something to make way for transformation and rebirth into something entirely new. For the 13-year-olds in an animistic culture’s rite of passage, childhood dependency dies and the potential for adulthood is born – if the child survives the initiation, which is not guaranteed. For uninitiated people in Western civilization, choosing to undertake a guided rite of passage before it is forced upon one – as in the collective rite of passage of Western civilization’s disintegration – makes the initiation less perilous.
More and more adults are now choosing this route, where they find that their encounter with soul ‘initates’ the disintegration of their former, socially conditioned identity as they feel their way into a larger, more empowered, enriched and vital sense of themselves and their role in the world. Not infrequently, however, this transformative process entails a dark night of the soul that compels them to let go of that which prevents growth and freedom, and to meet the lost and repressed parts of themselves in the forbidden depths that ego resists exploring.
In Avatar, Jake’s dark night of the soul is very brief. It occurs when he finds himself an outcast, exiled from the Omaticaya clan. In real life, the dark night of the soul is not usually so brief. It begins with what Joseph Campbell and Bill Plotkin call the “call to adventure.” Plotkin says the call to adventure – adventure is what Jake thinks he’s doing when he comes to Pandora – is the “prologue to the journey of descent:”
The call comes when it’s time to inherit a greater life, to plunge yourself into the limitless expanse and depth the world affords. This is both a crisis and an unsurpassed opportunity. The old way of life has been outgrown. The familiar goals, attitudes, and patterns of relationships no longer fit your developing sense of who you truly are. The time has arrived to step over a threshold into a whole new way of being….
Whatever allows you to hear the call, you find your nose suddenly pressed up against the existential questions you had been successfully avoiding: What is my life about, anyway? For what do I live?
Plotkin quotes Joseph Campbell:
That which has to be faced, and is somehow profoundly familiar to the unconscious – though unknown, surprising, and even frightening to the conscious personality – makes itself known; and what formerly was meaningful may become strangely empied of value… This first stage of the mythological journey – which we have designated the “call to adventure” – signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.
It is always possible, however, to refuse the call entirely and to turn the ear back to the egocentric interests of unrewarding work, relationships, and “culture.” The refusal of the call turns our flowering world into a wasteland of open-pit mines and clear-cuts, strip malls and billboards.
In other words, when the soul calls us to adventure, it invites us into an experience of self and world that is beyond the confines of ego and culture – beyond guarantees of certainty and survival. The soul is animistic and wild. It wants to come out of the basement and transform our lives and our world into something authentic, alive, green and flowering. But there are no guarantees, and this is why the rite of passage is often frightening. It requires courage and a certain amount of faith that the soul will show us the way to the other side of the dark night of the soul, and deliver us to a whole new way of being – our larger destiny. But this can only occur by bringing consciousness to the entire process. We can only individuate and create out of conscious intention.
On the other hand, refusal to follow the soul’s call to adventure leaves us stuck with the meaningless lives that result from following the herd. Refusal of the call also leaves us in a state of collusion with the predator culture’s devastation of the natural world and the demise of civilization that that devastation promises.
The animistic Na’vi saw Jake as a ‘baby,’ and only agreed to initiate him into their ways because he was ‘empty’ and because he was a warrior – courageous – not a scientist. The scientists were ‘too full’ to learn anything – their knowledge got in the way of ‘seeing.’ Jake only knew how to follow orders and fight. Although he was un-self-reflective and had no depth, his heart was deemed pure by Eywa. He was fearless but also wounded and humble.
These are clues to how we all begin when we hear the call to adventure and enter into the rite of passage into the animistic soul. We begin by being receptive to the call and the further promptings of the soul. The first task is to become re-embodied, as Jake was in Avatar, because the animistic soul resides in the body.
We don’t need to inhabit a new body, as Jake did, but we do need to re-inhabit our own. Most of us in industrial society are disembodied and disconnected from our animal senses and our capacities for deep feeling. When we are disembodied we are disconnected from the Earth and ungrounded – cut off from the capacities of our animistic souls. Thus, we are all wounded by civilization. Because we cannot read the language of Nature or discern the will of Gaia, we participate in the destructiveness of the predator culture.
In Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body, Reginald A. Ray says,
If to be fully embodied means to be completely present and at one with who and what we are, then modern people are the most disembodied people who have ever lived, because we are not fully present to, or at one with, anything. We are always separate and separating, always trying to find what we seek somewhere else.
We disembody, and this is intimately tied up with the fact that, as modern people, we live in a culture that survives through exploitation. Wittingly or not, we are all exploiters. Is it that we lose our sense of connection with the ‘others’ and then feel justified in turning them into objects to exploit? Or is it that we fall into a pattern of exploitation toward our world and therefore lose our sense of connection? Either way, we find ourselves in a pattern whereby every person, every thing, every situation, and every occurrence in our life, even the earth itself, is viewed as an object that could serve or thwart our interests, our ambitions, for fulfillment. Nothing has any value on its own, but only insofar as it ‘serves’ us. Rather than being a subject with its own integrity, it falls into the category of an object to be manipulated, used, and abused, to be exploited in order to satisfy our misplaced cravings for comfort, security, self-aggrandizement, and fulfillment.
To be disembodied is to be disconnected. The objectifying mind knows things only as lifeless concepts, as mental realities with no life, worth, or integrity of their own. When we objectify something, when we turn it into an object for our use, we lose touch with its reality as a subject. It is this tendency that explains some of the more horrific achievements of Western culture: the relentless genocide against indigenous peoples and cultures worldwide over the past few centuries; the colonial death grip on many of the world’s great high civilizations and the degradation of their peoples; the more recent horrors of fascism and modern warfare; and the witless consumption and destruction of the planet that so many in the ’corporate world’ continue to promote as ‘progress’. These are all symptoms of a terrible disease, the illness of having lost touch with our bodies. Many modern people are born, live and die entirely in their heads, believing that what they think is reality, and that their own feeling of complete disconnection is what life is all about.
The body presents a very different way of knowing the world and of being in it. To be embodied, to be in the body, is to be in connection with everything. When we begin to inhabit the body as our primary way of sensing, feeling, and knowing the world, when our thought operates as no more than a handmaiden of that somatic way of being, then we find that we as human beings are in a state of intimate relationship and connection with all that is. To be in the body is to know our sense perceptions as opening out into a sacred world. To be in the body is to feel our connectedness with other people as subjects. It is to know the natural world, the earth and the ocean, the rivers and mountains, as our relatives, others with whom we are in deep relation. It is to appreciate the other forms of being also as living, breathing, knowing subjects. Somehow the body’s knowledge is so much more subtle, but also so much more convincing and satisfying than knowledge that is purely conceptual. Anthropology, paleontology, and other disciplines of the past tell us that this kind of primary knowing in and through the body is the ancient human way, characteristic of human life back through its millions of years of development on this planet.
I believe that our disembodiment is due to the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that is endemic in a mechanistic culture that is radically dissociated from the natural world. Indeed, many have argued that Western civilization has become progressively more alienated from Nature since the agricultural revolution, and that ecological destruction is due to this alienation. At the same time, as ecological destruction has escalated, PTSD has become epidemic in the predator culture. Which came first: the trauma or the separation from Nature? Cause-and-effect questions about our civilization tend to become the proverbial question of whether the chicken or the egg came first.
It is heartening that collective PTSD is at least beginning to be recognized in the mainstream media of the United States. With regard to war, Boston Globe columnist James Carroll asks in A Nation Under Post-Traumatic Stress, “A psycho-medical diagnosis — post-traumatic stress syndrome — has gained legitimacy for individuals, but what about whole societies? Can war’s dire and lingering effects on war-waging nations be measured?” Tracing the effects of the US Civil War, which ended in 1865, right up until today, Carroll comments on the “moral wreckage” that America’s wars have left in their wakes.
But I think that America’s PTSD goes back much further in Western history than the American Civil War. I tend to go with the Primitivists, such as ecopsychologist Chellis Glendinning. In My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization, she says that the addictive, abusive and aberrant behavior of people in our civilization can be explained as the “history-repeats-itself syndrome” of unhealed trauma, and she traces the trauma back to domestication in the Neolithic era, when humanity began to objectify and separate itself from Nature. Unhealed trauma, or PTSD, is the best explanation I know of for why we are so fragmented, numb, and up in our heads, and also why our civilization has become increasingly pathological.
As Glendinning says in Technology, Trauma, and the Wild,
Nature-based people lived every day of their lives in the wilderness. We are only beginning to grasp how such a life served the inherent expectations of the human psyche for development to full maturation and health…. The loss of these psychological and cultural experiences in the face of an increasingly human-constructed and eventually technology-determined reality, and the loss of living in fluid participation with the wild, constitute the trauma we have inherited. The hallmark of the traumatic response is dissociation: a process by which we split our consciousness, repress whole arenas of experience, and shut down our full perception of the world. Dissociation results not only from direct traumatizing experience, but also from the kinds of social changes that took place in the historical process of domestication.
Disembodiment, PTSD, and loss of soul all seem to be aspects of the same phenomenon in the predator culture – the phenomenon of being radically cut off, or dissociated, from both Nature and our souls. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche says that soul loss is a condition of extreme imbalance that is usually caused by traumatic external situations and beings, which can damage our capacities for positive human qualities – the capacities of a healthy, balanced soul. I wonder whether the predator culture is itself the product of millennia of unhealed trauma, which has caused people to become progressively more alienated, abstracted, and predatory, generation after generation.
The good news is that soul retrieval is possible. And the process of healing trauma and recovering our animistic souls begins with re-embodiment. However, I don’t want to oversimplify or give the impression that re-embodiment is easy, quick or painless. For disembodied people, the recovery process requires the curiosity and courage to experience and tolerate the residue of traumas locked in our bodies, so that we can work out the kinks and heal ourselves. As Bessel van der Kolk, a PTSD specialist, says:
What most people do not realize is that trauma is not the story of something awful that happened in the past, but the residue of imprints left behind in people’s sensory and hormonal systems. Traumatized people often are terrified of the sensations in their own bodies. Most trauma-sensitive people need some form of body-oriented psychotherapy or bodywork to regain a sense of safety in their bodies. The main challenge for the trauma sensitive is to learn how to tolerate feelings and sensations by increasing the capacity for interoception or sitting with yourself, noticing what’s going on inside—the basic principle of meditation. They need to learn how to modulate arousal. Their challenge is to learn how to notice what is happening and how things can and will shift, rather than running away or turning to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate.
I do not think that re-embodiment can be accomplished by aerobic exercise or by bodybuilding alone, for these may actually reinforce the body armor that results from PTSD. To experience the animistic soul, it is necessary to be ‘fit’ enough to walk in the hills on an unpaved trail, to swim, paddle a canoe, go camping, or spend a few nights alone in the wilderness. But, even more important, embodiment of the animistic soul requires the re-opening of our senses, so that we can accurately receive the messages of the natural world. This is best accomplished through contemplative bodywork, which usually requires some training.
Contemplative bodywork teaches us to become embodied from the inside, to feel inside our bodies – as Neytiri teaches Jake. I’ve found that disciplines such as yoga, tai chi chuan, ch’i kung, and certain shamanic practices to be the most effective and direct path for re-inhabiting the body. These disciplines, with their breathing techniques, slow us down and require mindfulness – synchronization of mind with body. Meditation is a good way to synchronize mind with body, but other body-awareness disciplines may be needed to release the blockages due to trauma and re-sensitize us. I needed four years of contemplative bodywork to get myself to the point that I could sit still and meditate!
Contemplative bodywork anchors us more intimately in our bodies and senses, gives us more access to self-knowledge and integrity, and thus empowers us. Teachings and trainings that I can confidently recommend for re-embodiment and reawakening of the animistic soul are those of Alberto Villoldo, Bill Plotkin, John P. Milton, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, and Reginald Ray. That is not to say that there aren’t other effective practices and programs, of course, but I know that these connect people with body AND Earth.
Alberto Villoldo and Tenzin Wangyal teach energy medicine and soul retrieval from the indigenous, shamanistic Inkan and Tibetan traditions, respectively. Bill Plotkin and John Milton teach reintegration of body and nature within wilderness rites-of-passage. Plotkin’s teachings are soul centered, and Milton’s are spiritually oriented. But the best teachings that I know of on re-embodiment per se are those of Buddhist scholar, yogi, and teacher Reginald Ray, who spent decades practicing Tibetan yoga and realized the necessity to help Western students to re-inhabit their bodies. Reggie’s erudite yet experiential teachings on re-integrating the body into the spiritual path are exceptionally relevant to recovering the animistic soul. I recommend these audio interviews for starters: “Your Body is Your Guru,” “Embodying Enlightenment,” and “Embodiment and Earth Energy: Outdoors, Indoors, and In the City” on this page. See also the Articles on Trauma in Animistic Links.
If all of this talk of wounding, trauma and dark nights of the soul seems too ‘dark’ and painful to consider opening to the teachings and to our souls, it is interesting to consider that ‘shamans’ often are ‘wounded healers’ in authentic indigenous traditions. They are people whom the animistic soul calls to go deeper, to plumb the mysteries of the soul, in order to heal themselves. That is how they learn how to heal others. Towards the end of Avatar, Jake’s own urge to heal others becomes apparent when he tries to save Grace. Then he becomes Toruk Macto, a visionary shaman capable of uniting the Na’vi people to fight off the cancer of the RDA – “one thing worth fighting for.”
If we are in the first stages of the collective dark night of the soul, perhaps the animistic soul is calling us all home to itself in order to resist the inner and outer predator – the cancer on our planet. Perhaps humans must all become individuated, visionary shamans in order to survive the crises brought on by the predator that threatens our planet and our species. But coming home to the animistic soul does not consist only of dreadful, fearful trials that we might not survive. There is also the joy of rediscovering capacities and connections – powers! – that have been dormant for centuries. This is also shown in Avatar as Jake becomes re-embodied and learns to bond with other beings again.
Hanging out with wild and domesticated animals can contribute directly to re-embodiment and the re-awakening of the animistic soul. Animals are literally beings with souls, so the human soul naturally resonates and empathizes with nonhuman animals – unless that response has been conditioned or traumatized out of us. As Anatole France, a French novelist, said, “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened.” I believe it is the animistic part of the soul that love for animals reawakens.
Hanging out with nonhumans can wake up our animal senses, remind us of the wonders and mysteries of our sensuous natural surroundings, and alert us to happenings that human sensory capacities can’t detect. Animals model for humans the complete embodiment of the soul, the absolute inseparability of body and soul, and they encourage us to be embodied in order to bond with them – as Jake had to learn to do in Avatar. Learning the body language of another species in order to communicate with particular animals expands the repertoire of our own body language and enables trust and intimacy to develop in our relationships with them. And animals can also teach us to ‘see’ in the Na’vi sense, even if our learning is at first subliminal. Animals, I am convinced, can read our energy fields. They can ‘see’ whether we are whole or fragmented and they relate to us accordingly – with friendliness, curiosity, empathy or fear. They are mirrors for us.
Although the soulfulness of animal lovers is perceptible, soulful embodiment is a largely unrecognized and unspoken advantage of bonding with animals. In our fragmented and alienated industrial societies, many lonely people care for domestic animals as if they are children, best friends, or even soul mates. When animal lovers discover each other, they talk vividly and joyfully of their experiences with animals, expressing the animals’ points of view by moving like the animals and giving voice to the animals’ feelings and perceptions.
Something is going on here, and I think it is that ‘seeing’ through the eyes of nonhumans is a significant gift of the animistic soul that, when conscious, can shift us out of our culture’s anthropocentrism and open our worldview to our belonging within Nature. In the Council of All Beings, a deep ecology ritual, participants do this consciously and purposefully. They make masks and costumes to take on the identity of other animals, or even features of landscapes and ecosystems, in order to speak for those nonhuman beings and how they would perceive what humans are doing to our shared world from their points of view. This ritual engages the animistic soul and shifts our worldview towards a more ecocentric perspective.
Animals with a limbic system, the “emotional nervous system,” have been the companions and allies of our animistic souls for eons. Mammals are the evolutionary ancestors of our own limbic systems. It is not an accident that animistic cultures the world over have identified with the animal powers and have regarded animals as respected relatives, healers and teachers. But, like our own animistic souls and animistic cultures, animals have been persecuted, traumatized and diminished – not to mention exploited – by the predator culture, and still are. The likely extinction of iconic animal species and countless others within our lifetimes is an unprecedented – and, I believe, traumatic – event in the history of our species.
I think that the plight of animals on Earth at this time moves the animistic soul in humans to protect and preserve animals because they are essential to the survival of our animistic souls. As the American novelist Alice Walker has said, “The animals of the planet are in desperate peril. Without free animal life I believe we will lose the spiritual equivalent of oxygen.” ‘Free animal life’ means wildlife, the wild critters that populate ecosystems and help to keep them healthy. These are the creatures that inspired the animistic art and cultures of our indigenous human ancestors, and these are the animals that are most imperiled – although, of course, domesticated animals have their own painful problems in our industrialized societies. Although my animistic soul can hardly breathe without intimate relationships with domesticated animal companions, I have experienced the ’spiritual equivalent of oxygen’ most vividly and thrillingly with wild critters. (See Animal Allies, Creating Space for Nature, My Bush Soul and Conversation with a Mountain Chickadee.)
The human ecologist Paul Shepard did some of the most sustained contemplation of this subject, as reflected in such titles as The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, Thinking Animals: Animals and the Development of Human Intelligence, and The Others: How Animals Made Us Human. In Message Delivered by a Bear, Shepard encapsulates what animals have done for and given to humans on our long evolutionary journey, from the perspective of “The Others” – the animals. In many of his writings, he suggests that we learned to be social animals – to cooperate in the hunt, and develop language and culture – by observing and imitating the animals that had been on Earth much longer than our own species. In his view, our relationships with living animals continue to be as essential to the development of human intelligence as they were in the distant past, and that we can overcome our ‘developmental disability’ by associating with animals.
Shepard’s focus on our long period of hunter-gatherer existence in the Pleistocene, which shaped what we fundamentally are, led him to ask, rather tactfully, whether we can stand to consider that our hunter-gatherer ancestors might actually have been more fully human than their modern descendants are today. That question suggests to me that we can become ‘more fully human’ by reintegrating the animistic soul – which was cultivated in the Pleistocene and was progressively diminished and marginalized in the ‘civilizing’ process.
I do think that to be more whole, more fully human, is what people today are unconsciously seeking through relating with animals; and this might account for the deep response many people have to the Na’vi in Avatar. In Coming Home To The Pleistocene, Shepard said, "White European-Americans cannot become Hopis or Kalahari Bushmen or Magdalenian bison hunters, but elements in those cultures can be recovered or re-created because they fit the heritage and predilection of the human genome everywhere." In other words, Shepard suggests that we can recover that which was part of our way of being during 99% of our evolutionary history. What has been repressed in only the most recent 1% of human history, in which we’ve been ‘civilized,’ can be regained and reintegrated because it is our predilection – really, our souls’ desire.
At the conclusion of Nature and Madness, Shepard writes,
Beneath the veneer of civilization, in the trite phrase of humanism, lies not the barbarian and the animal, but the human in us who knows what is right and necessary for becoming fully human: birth in gentle surroundings, a rich nonhuman environment, juvenile tasks with simple tools, the discipline of natural history, play at being animals, the expressive arts of receiving food as a spiritual gift rather than as a product, the cultivation of metaphorical significance of natural phenomena of all kinds, clan membership and small-group life, and the profound claims and liberation of ritual initiation and subsequent stages of adult mentorship.There is a secret person undamaged in each of us, aware of the validity of these conditions, sensitive to their right moments in our lives. All of them are assimilated in perverted forms in modern society: our profound love of animals twisted into pets, zoos, decorations, and entertainment; our search for poetic wholeness subverted by the model of the machine instead of the body; the moment of pubertal idealism shunted into nationalism or otherworldly religion instead of an ecosophical cosmology.
We have not lost, and cannot lose, the genuine impulse. It awaits only an authentic expression. The task is not to start by recapturing the theme of reconciliation with the earth in all of its metaphysical subtlety, but with something much more direct and simple that will yield its own healing metaphysics.
That “something much more direct and simple” would be to learn to speak with, listen to and commune with the animals, the trees, the mountains and rivers, which the animistic soul seeks to do through its embodied animal senses. All animistic cultures have found their own “healing metaphysics” in their own ecosystems in this way. I believe that we who reintegrate the animistic soul can also find our own healing metaphysics, our own nature mysticism in our own ecosystems. By becoming re-embodied and re-bonded with nonhuman animals, we begin to regain the wisdom of the body, which knows how to reintegrate the animistic soul with the anima mundi, the soul of the world.
How we treat animals is how we treat our souls. — Carolyn Casey
If you talk with the animals, they will talk to you and you will know each other. If you do not talk with them, you will not know them. And what you do not know, you will fear. What one fears, one destroys. — Chief Dan George
One of the most creative possibilities for the future is hanging out with other forms of life, to crack open our rigid consciousness. — Brian Swimme, Canticle to the Cosmos #3
There are three other pathways that have led me to experience and embrace my own animistic soul. I will mention these only briefly since there are other references to their role in my life on this site:
• Contemplative time in Nature
Spending contemplative time alone in Nature means entering the nonhuman natural world in silence and solitude in order to listen. Contemplative walks or aimless, attentive wandering; meditating outdoors in natural settings; and wilderness solos - spending nights alone in the wilderness are all ways of allowing the soul to commune with Nature. What we listen and pay attention to is our animistic souls’ responses to what we hear, smell, taste, touch, see and feel in natural surroundings.
Hildy and the gulls, East Hampton, NY
Alone in nature, we let our senses open to the elements, allow our animal bodies to feel the freedom of the wild, and follow the proclivities of our animistic soul as we notice, appreciate, and explore, like a child. We let our socially conditioned persona and its self-consciousness fall away, which it can do quite quickly if we allow it to. What replaces it is a sense of being surrounded by sentient life, even of being seen by the other life forms. Which ones attract your animistic soul’s interest? Indulge it, nourish it with the beauty and mystery of whatever it finds alluring. Soon we may find ourselves speaking respectfully to those beguiling nonhuman others, and we may hear the animistic soul’s interpretations of their responses through the mytho-poetic imagination. We may find ourselves painting or writing poetry, songs, and stories about life forms that capture our imagination. These are some of the ways that a sense of intimacy and belonging – a reciprocal I-see-you relationship with the natural world – can be cultivated. But a liberated animistic soul will find its own ways and will lead you on an unpredictable adventure.
Of course, it is also important to know some survival skills and to have gear to keep oneself dry and warm, fed and watered. All we need can be carried on our back, and there is a primordial satisfaction that comes with meeting Nature in this way. However, in order to relax enough for our experience to be ‘contemplative’ – to hear and sense through the animistic soul – one does need to be experienced enough in the ‘back country’ to feel confident and safe. One needs to become ‘woods wise,’ shed the socially conditioned fear of Nature and animals, and also know enough to avoid taking foolish risks. When we are embodied and experienced enough, our bodies tell us a lot that we need to know; but disembodied, urbanized people definitely need guidance and training before they can trust themselves in the wilderness.
I suppose I was lucky that I wasn’t conditioned to be afraid of wild nature or animal life. For me, Nature was nurture. I began intuitively seeking solitude in natural settings at a young age – letting my senses open, observing other forms of life with fascination, reading signs, intuitively absorbing Nature’s messages and signals. These experiences led to a passion for natural history, ecology, wilderness and mountaineering. I believe in the formative power of wilderness rites-of-passage – also known as wilderness solos and vision quests – which began for me in an informal, unguided way during summers in the High Sierras of California, and continued in other places and phases of my life. Some of my experiences in Nature that led to realizing my animistic soul are discussed in my Ecobiography, Creating Space for Nature, and My Bush Soul. Ecopsychology and its Links provide information on the theory and practice of contemplative time in Nature.
• Symbolic and archetypal systems
The study and use of symbolic and archetypal systems has also cultivated and prepared me to reclaim my animistic soul. The ones I have studied and used include the I Ching, Jungian archetypal psychology, astrology, the Tarot, Native American symbolism, and Tibetan vajrayana symbolism. I was introduced to most of these systems during and after college in the 1960’s in California. I sought universal principles, and I’ve found that ancient symbolic systems from different wisdom traditions have expanded the range and depth of the patterns and correspondences I am able to discern.
My primary teacher Chögyam Trungpa told his students – who, like myself, were interested in these other systems and wondered how they related to or corresponded with Tibetan Buddhism – that it is necessary to learn and practice one metaphysical system deeply. After one is grounded in that system and has facility in its symbolic practices, then one can explore other systems and appreciate their depth from one’s own deep grounding without getting confused and lost. I have found this to be true. Facility with multiple symbolic systems expands the repertoire of the animistic imagination. There are other symbolic systems than the ones I’ve studied, of course, but these companions on my path have nourished, harmonized with, and supported my animistic soul and my Dharmagaian worldview because they are holistic and place humanity within natural systems.
Native teachers and literature about indigenous ways have been an indispensible part of the journey that enabled me to recognize my animistic soul, and I am grateful for the many opportunities I’ve had to learn from indigenous teachers, among whom I count Tibetan teachers. In addition to oral teachings, one receives energetic, body-to-body teachings by being in the presence of genuine indigenous people who embody the animistic soul in all its individuated yet traditional diversity in their direct, reverential relationships with the sacred and the wild.
But reading literature by and about indigenous peoples has also fed my animistic imagination and given me both cognitive and emotional appreciation for Native ways of perceiving and experiencing the world. For me, such reading has included sympathetic anthropological and historical accounts as well as novels and poetry by indigenous people. For example, Eva Saulitis’ review of Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing, Pacific Rim, 2009 reminds us why the animistic sensibility is nurtured by indigenous poetry:
Our country’s most ancient stories say there was a time when humans and animals spoke the same language. Everything had spirit: the rocks, the trees, the ice, the wind, the waves. Everything communicated. The poets in this volume, in their cellular memory, recall that time. There’s no way to go back, to return to the distant past. But the common language is all around us, and, ultimately, it’s in us. Poetry (and its precursor, chant) brings us closer to it. The voices of Effigies remind us that the world is alive and it’s endangered, it’s wise and it’s beautiful, it’s silent and it’s storied, it’s spirit-filled and it’s dangerous. They speak out of the whirlwind of history and change. There’s only one thing to say on their behalf: listen. Ultimately, these poets teach us about survival.
Yes, Native literature teaches us how to survive both physically and spiritually by keeping the animistic soul, “the natural indigenosity of the human spirit,” alive. Fortunately, indigenous literature is vast and continues to grow. My own favorite Native novelist and poet is Linda Hogan. And I am heartened by the popularity of indigenous literature, another indication that the animistic soul of white people is still seeking to re-emerge. (See also Indigenous Wisdom and its Links, and Native American/Indigenous Wisdom in Animistic Links.)
Among Native teachings, perhaps the most important principle I learned was spoken by Iroquois Chief Oren Lyons at a lecture I attended in the 1980’s at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He said,
Humans live within the jurisdiction of the Earth, which transcends human laws. The law of Nature is a spiritual law. It respects all life, for all life is equal. If we transgress it, the consequences will be dark and terrible.
Speaking of natural law as a spiritual law that is defined as the jurisdiction – the power and authority – of the Earth is a powerful framing concept that resonates with my Buddhist understanding of karma. On Earth, in other words, human laws cannot protect us from the results of transgressing spiritual law because spiritual law transcends human laws. Therefore, we would be wise to abide by spiritual law, which is known in Buddhism as the dharma. Chief Lyons’ statement electrified me and I’ve carried this quote with me ever since. I’ve used it on this site in many places because it is a basic truth that Western culture has long forgotten.
Another Native American teaching, which seems to express the basic etiquette of the animistic soul across cultures, is that people abide by the Earth’s spiritual law by practicing appreciation, gratitude, respect and reciprocity with regard to ‘all our relations,’ including our nonhuman relatives. This is expressed in Spiritualism: The Highest Form of Political Consciousness, which describes the animistic worldview of the Iroquois Confederacy, and is echoed in the animistic teachings of the Na’vi in Avatar. These are excerpts from “Spiritualism”:
In the beginning, we were told that the human beings who walk about the Earth have been provided with all the things necessary for life. We were instructed to carry a love for one another, and to show a great respect for all the beings of this Earth. We are shown that our life exists with the tree life, that our well-being depends on the well-being of the Vegetable Life, that we are close relatives of the four-legged beings. In our ways, spiritual consciousness is the highest form of politics.
Ours is a Way of Life. We believe that all living things are spiritual beings. Spirits can be expressed as energy forms manifested in matter. The original instructions direct that we who walk about on the Earth are to express a great respect, an affection, and a gratitude toward all the spirits which create and support Life. We give a greeting and thanksgiving to the many supporters of our own lives -- the corn, beans, squash, the winds, the sun.
When white people allow our animistic souls to re-emerge, we also see all living beings as spiritual beings, as energy forms manifested in matter that create and support life. Seeing in this way, we do not need to give our power away to ‘plastic medicine people,’ or to any of the other predators who prey upon the gullible to enrich themselves. Restoring our animistic souls restores our instincts, our bullshit detector, our conscience, and all the other powers that the predator archetype has either stolen or squelched. True Native elders would like for us to restore our own animistic souls so that we can co-create our own cultures, rather than trying to steal or imitate theirs.
I’ve found that Native literature can help non-natives like myself to see our predatory culture for what it is and to let go of beliefs in its myths. “Spiritualism: The Highest Form of Political Consciousness” is the first document in A Basic Call to Consciousness, which presented a Native peoples’ analysis of the modern world in Geneva in 1977. The introduction states:
What is presented here is nothing less audacious than a cosmogony of the Industrialized World presented by the most politically powerful and independent non-Western political body surviving in North America. It is, in a way, the modern world through Pleistocene eyes. . . . It is a geological kind of perspective, which sees modern man as an infant, occupying a very short space of time in an incredibly long spectrum. It is the perspective of the oldest elder looking into the affairs of a young child and seeing that he is committing incredibly destructive folly. It is, in short, the statement of a people who are ageless but who trace their history as a people to the very beginning of time. And they are speaking, in this instance, to a world which dates its existence from a little over 500 years ago, and perhaps, in many cases, much more recently than that. And it is, to our knowledge, the very first statement to be issued by a Native nation. What follows are not the research products of psychologists, historians, or anthropologists. The papers which follow are the first authentic analyses of the modern world ever committed to writing by an official body of Native people.
This introduction to“A Basic Call to Consciousness” also tells the story of the Great Law of Peace, which recognized that vertical hierarchy creates conflicts, and it describes how the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy developed the complex organization of their society in order to prevent the internal rise of hierarchy and conflict. The visionary leader Oren Lyons, one of the authors, tells a bit more about “A Basic Call to Consciousness” as well as the Great Law of Peace in The Ice Is Melting, a talk he gave on leadership and climate change at the E.F. Schumacher Society in 2004 (excerpt):
I was one of a group of Indian leaders who went to Geneva in 1977, the first time indigenous people had ever gone to the United Nations. We were people from North, Central, and South America who had never met before, yet we were able to come to an agreement, were able to choose leaders and speakers and topics all in one day. Even though it was difficult, we did it. The reason is that we had a common understanding and belief.
After outlining the principles of Native ways of life, “Spiritualism” goes on to describe the history of domestication and hierarchical civilization among humans and, in particular, Western civilization’s devastating effects upon the natural world and Earth-based peoples. This is a truly edifying portrayal of the predator culture! But at the same time, ”Spiritualism” inspires hope for the animistic soul because it provides a progressive way forward - and a reminder that Westerners often need (excerpts):
The majority of the world does not find its roots in Western culture or traditions. The majority of the world finds its roots in the Natural World, and it is the Natural World, and the traditions of the Natural World, which must prevail if we are to develop truly free and egalitarian societies.
It is necessary, at this time, that we begin a process of critical analysis of the West's historical processes, to seek out the actual nature of the roots of the exploitative and oppressive conditions which are forced upon humanity. At the same time, as we gain understanding of those processes, we must reinterpret that history to the people of the world. It is the people of the West, ultimately, who are the most oppressed and exploited. They are burdened by the weight of centuries of racism, sexism, and ignorance which has rendered their people insensitive to the true nature of their lives.
We must all consciously and continuously challenge every model, every program, and every process that the West tries to force upon us. Paulo Friere wrote, in his book, the "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," that it is the nature of the oppressed to imitate the oppressor, and by such actions try to gain relief from the oppressive condition. We must learn to resist that response to oppression.
The people who are living on this planet need to break with the narrow concept of human liberation, and begin to see liberation as something which needs to be extended to the whole of the Natural World. What is needed is the liberation of all the things that support Life -- the air, the waters, the trees -- all the things which support the sacred web of Life.
We feel that the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere can continue to contribute to the survival potential of the human species.... The traditional Native peoples hold the key to the reversal of the processes in Western Civilization which hold the promise of unimaginable future suffering and destruction. Spiritualism is the highest form of political consciousness. And we, the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere, are among the world's surviving proprietors of that kind of consciousness. We are here to impart that message.
In How the Conquest of Indigenous Peoples Parallels the Conquest of Nature, John Mohawk, the late friend and colleague of Oren Lyons who likely co-authored “A Basic Call to Consciousness,” provides an even more vividly detailed description of the history of the predator culture in the West from the time of Classical Greece – up to and including the global economy – from a Native perspective. Mohawk says (excerpts):
Essentially, the purpose of the politics of the intellectual movement of the American Indians in the hemisphere as a whole and certainly in the southern hemisphere is to encourage biological diversity and encourage local food production for local consumption…. Indians understand that self-sufficiency is the antithesis of the global economy….
I propose to you that we [ie, US mainstream culture] live in an age of utopian excess that is driving us away from doing what would be sustainable and survivable and is diverting us into participating, in ways we’re not even conscious of, in activities that are destructive in the long term…. The actual trend over the centuries has been toward a politics of conquest and plundering. And we have rationalized our behavior in the context of that conquest and plunder.
Now that the disintegration of Western civilization and the global economy has begun – more than three decades after “A Basic Call to Consciousness” was written – and now that the animistic soul has issued its call to millions of people, thanks to James Cameron’s Avatar, those who are awake and courageous enough to answer the ‘call to adventure’ would be wise to consider the current zeitgeist. The “reversal of the processes in Western Civilization” has begun. I believe that this time in the world is challenging us to reconsider and re-envision everything about the way we live, the way we think, and the way we see things – and the Native view is indeed very relevant to that re-envisioning, as well as the recovery of our animistic souls.
One of the things we need to reconsider in the current zeitgeist is how we think about ‘resistance’ to the predator culture. It isn’t 1969 anymore. Again, I think there is practical and spiritual wisdom and inspiration to be gained by remembering how most of the surviving Native cultures of the world have survived. Yes, they survived by resisting assimilation, but armed resistance was not their primary survival strategy. Their most important survival strategy has been to keep their animistic souls intact by maintaining their traditional cultural practices – songs, dances, stories, rituals and ceremonies – which are inseparable from their intimate relationship with their land. Those practices also included protecting local biological diversity and practicing local food production for local consumption and self-sufficiency. As Mohawk says, “Indians understand that self-sufficiency is the antithesis of the global economy.” That is also the understanding of deep ecologists and Dharmagaians.
One such deep ecologist – whose name has been associated with bioregionalism and neo-luddism for decades – is Kirkpatrick Sale, who introduced John Mohawk before his talk on “Conquest.” At a talk titled Ecosteries, which Sale gave on September 13, 2001 – two days after the fateful day of 9/11/01, he reflected on resistance in the current zeitgeist. Referring to the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City, he said,
It was a powerful symbol of the new phase of global society we are in, signaling the collapse of social and political arrangements as we know them now – exacerbated by increasing environmental damage and depletion, new and newly virulent diseases, political disintegration and genocide, financial disarray and worldwide depression, increased cultural and psychological chaos, and the thrashing about of national and corporate dinosaurs in their death throes….
The modern nation state and the stem of corporate capitalism are entwined with a synergistic power that is not going to be undone or overthrown. As long as they effectively have all military and police force, and the will to use it to secure their ends, revolt is futile and violence – though it may buy some publicity in the short run – is counterproductive in the long. As long as they effectively control the governing and political systems, reform is impossible and politics – though it may occasionally permit an interesting and dangerous thought in the short run – is useless in the long.
It is possible, indeed necessary, to express opposition to the conditions of industrial civilization, establishing an analysis of what the problem is, who the enemies are, and I would say that chief among them are industrialism, capitalism, globalisation, scientism, and anthropocentrism (that last just a fancy term for "people first, nature last"), and providing the moral and intellectual grounds for alternatives to them. It is also possible to develop and broadcast this philosophy at many levels – at least putting it on certain public agendas and encouraging as many people as possible to question the values of the civilisation they live under and reflect on where it is leading them. My version of this philosophy is bioregional, but it can go by many names. Will this opposition, even as vocal as we can make it, be enough to overcome the systems of power? Of course not, for if it became too widespread and too threatening, it would be quite quickly curtailed and muffled.
But it must be done, because this industrial civilisation around us will collapse, and the awful destruction in the US this week shows that it is beginning. According to 'Sale's Law,' all civilisations always collapse from a failure to understand both scale and limits, and a resulting growth in resource exploitation that leads to environmental collapse, economic inequity, and political ossification that leads to social dislocation. It might come from the gradual erosion of the nation state or the disintegration of corporate behemoths. In our case, I believe it will be the accumulating environmental disasters – most especially global warming and the immense rise in sea levels that will occur when the major ice shelves of Antarctica drop off into the ocean – that will cause this collapse within the next 20 years or so.
A decade after 9/11, echoing both Sale and Mohawk, Chris Hedges notes in Standing On The Cusp Of One Of Humanity's Most Dangerous Moments that the forces of oppression are far more brutal now than they were a few decades ago (excerpts):
All resistance must recognize that the body politic and global capitalism are dead. We should stop wasting energy trying to reform or appeal to it. This does not mean the end of resistance, but it does mean very different forms of resistance. It means turning our energies toward building sustainable communities to weather the coming crisis, since we will be unable to survive and resist without a cooperative effort….
We are living through one of civilization’s great seismic reversals. The ideology of globalization, like all “inevitable” utopian visions, is being exposed as a fraud…. Our mediocre and bankrupt elite is desperately trying to save a system that cannot be saved…. All attempts to work within this decayed system and this class of power brokers will prove useless. And resistance must respond to the harsh new reality of a global, capitalist order that will cling to power through ever-mounting forms of brutal and overt repression. Once credit dries up for the average citizen, once massive joblessness creates a permanent and enraged underclass and the cheap manufactured goods that are the opiates of our commodity culture vanish, we will probably evolve into a system that more closely resembles classical totalitarianism. Cruder, more violent forms of repression will have to be employed as the softer mechanisms of control… break down.
A society that no longer recognizes that nature and human life have a sacred dimension, an intrinsic value beyond monetary value, commits collective suicide. Such societies cannibalize themselves until they die. This is what we are undergoing.
If we build self-contained structures, ones that do as little harm as possible to the environment, we can weather the coming collapse. This task will be accomplished through the existence of small, physical enclaves that have access to sustainable agriculture, are able to sever themselves as much as possible from commercial culture and can be largely self-sufficient.
The increasingly overt uses of force by the elites to maintain control should not end acts of resistance. Acts of resistance are moral acts. They begin because people of conscience understand the moral imperative to challenge systems of abuse and despotism. They should be carried out not because they are effective but because they are right. Those who begin these acts are always few in number and dismissed by those who hide their cowardice behind their cynicism. But resistance, however marginal, continues to affirm life in a world awash in death. It is the supreme act of faith, the highest form of spirituality and alone makes hope possible.
Earthlings do not have the gigantic, armor-plated animals of Pandora to help us combat the predator culture. We do not have the solidarity of warrior clans, and we do not outnumber the mercenaries. I think that if we want to survive the coming decades with our sanity and our animistic souls intact, we must practice inner resistance, spiritual resistance, in order to sustain spiritual integrity – that is, so that we do not succumb to despair or collaborate with the predator culture, either of which would be spiritual suicide. In order to practice that kind of resistance, we must understand the predator archetype inside and outside our selves and fully realize the danger that it poses to future generations of all life.
Consciously seeking a soul-centered life, in the midst of a culture that marginalizes soul, requires a bit of grit – a kind of stubborn refusal to abandon one’s inner knowing and seeing, and a passionate resolve to follow the longings of one’s soul. The animistic soul seeks connection with the souls of others, whether in human or nonhuman life. It seeks patterns that reveal the intelligence of the natural world, and the deeper meaning behind appearances. In the process of creating a soulcentric life, one learns to pay attention to dreams, synchronicities, intuitions, resonances, glimmers of foreknowledge, and the yearning heart within all living phenomena. When a baby or an animal – or anyone – spontaneously recognizes and connects with you, and you recognize that primordial resonance of the animistic soul, remember to smile and say, “I see you.”
By reclaiming and reintegrating the animistic soul – which connects mind with body, as Facino and Moore tell us – we are able to ‘see’ into the symbolic meanings and archetypal connections between events and phenomena in our lives and our world. Seeing meaningful connections is essential to knitting our integrity together and maintaining it. By giving us access to deep feelings through empathy, the animistic soul connects us with our inherent powers of insight, courage, confidence and conviction, which seek creative expression through action. In all these ways and more, the animistic soul is empowering. It is the source of vitality, will power, resilience and resourcefulness, which is, no doubt, the reason that it has been suppressed by the predator archetype within our psyches, which colludes with the predator culture in the world to keep us disempowered and confused. The path of the animistic soul leads us away from the herd and towards our own unique and individuated calling in this lifetime. It also helps us to heal and transcend our traumatic past by re-bonding us with the animate Earth.
The breakdown of our global civilization is now occurring, which offers us an enormous opportunity to become more fully human again by reintegrating the wholeness that this civilization has fragmented. This is our opportunity to make the Great Turning towards a life-sustaining way of being that will serve future generations much better than will clinging to what is disintegrating. I believe that humanity has a much better chance of surviving the crises brought on by the predator culture if we allow our feral animistic souls to lead us in co-creating ways of life that are both ecocentric and soulcentric, and thus focus on nurturing and sustaining the other life forms of our planet as well as our human tribe. But in the midst of social, economic, and ecological disintegration, this will take vision, discipline and practice. The practices I suggest for keeping the animistic soul at the center of our lives are in Dharmagaian Practices for Spiritual Sustainability.
I will close this long disquisition on the animistic soul with Kirkpatrick Sale’s vision of the “ecostery” in The Columbian Legacy and the Ecosterian Response, for his vision is similar to my own Dharmagaian vision of ecocentric communities that can perpetuate our species by enabling the animistic soul to flourish:
The future is not easy to contemplate, but it is, obviously, where we are going to spend the rest of our lives, and if those lives are to be anything more than the nasty, brutish, and short passages we experience at the close of the twentieth century, it has to be an ecological future. Now, it seems to me that there are only two possible paths to achieving such a future: either by design or by catastrophe….
In either case I would argue that the challenge for us is the same: to start now to establish small, local, bioregionally guided alternative institutions that can provide the information by which human communities can live in harmony with nature, the strategies by which such communities would go about doing this, and the model of how it is actually to be carried out. Specifically, I mean institutions guided by three essential tasks: (1) to gather the scholarship and lore that teaches us the characteristics of the species and habitats of our specific local area, from eco-niche to bioregion; (2) to inaugurate projects of rehabilitation, chiefly by ecological restoration that returns specific areas of the land and its species to their natural, largely wild state, within which humans fit their social and cultural constructs; and (3) to develop human communities, small-scale and eco-centered, that will carry out these tasks and guide us toward living within our restored eco-niches on the species level.
I have in mind something that might be compared, within European history, to the time after the fall of Rome when there emerged a small-scale, community-based, agriculturally rooted society and along with it the invention of the monastery, the institution more than any other that kept alive the wisdom of the past, that provided models of a new way of living, that became the source of creation and invention, not to mention inspiration and dedication, for the next thousand years. I am suggesting that the most important institution we can begin to create right now is something we might think of as an "ecostery"—a small community of men and women living and working together to learn about and restore important, sacred, and fructive portions of the earth to their fullest complexity and productivity, living within and keeping holy and learning from those ecosystems, systems that are wild and free and know us as one more large mammalian species marked especially by a capacity to carry on knowledge through myth and ritual and by the ability, unique in humans, to blush. Ecosteries that, however odd they may look now, come to be understood as the only ecologically based way of human existence in the future, where there is kept alive for at least the next thousand years the minority sensibility that has existed for centuries, even as the Modern Age was forming and marginalizing it, from St. Francis to Aldo Leopold, from the Celtic witches to Rachel Carson, the sensibility that has always reminded us of the right method of living on the earth; where there is developed and spread the system of values that reminds us of the inherent tragedy of the modern industrial way and teaches us that though we may have—I suppose we will have—the knowledge of how to cross the oceans, to make war, to build skyscrapers, to construct atomic bombs, to splice genes, none will choose to do those things, because they transgress the will of Gaea, they bespeak an alien, violent, disregardful, and nature-hating culture.
I am suggesting, in sum, that we understand our tasks right now to be the pursuit of scholarship, restoration, and community—not as separate tasks, you see, but as interrelated—and that we understand our goal as the building of these model ecosteries, in urban settings as well as rural, working to reinhabit the land with the wisdom that the original peoples had who inhabited there first. I know, of course, even as I say all this that it seems daunting and slightly mad. I know these are not easy tasks, especially in our current world—I myself have been struggling for a year and more just to give birth to a restoration project in New York City—and the forces that resist them are great. But I also know that there are even now some suggestive models, glimpses of how this all might work—ecological restoration is being done across the country, people in community are understanding ecosystems in a bioregional way, quasi think tanks like Sister Miriam McGillis’s farm and the permaculture centers and the Ecostery Foundation and the E. F. Schumacher Library are assembling the wisdom and the lore. And I know these tasks are the ones that must be done, one way or another, starting now, starting wherever the vision can locate.
This vision appeals to my animistic soul as a way forward for all who can see it as a ‘call to adventure’ in this time of profound challenge and opportunity. In this call to adventure, the animistic soul is called to co-create ecocentric, soulcentric communities that follow the will of Gaia. This is not a call that the animistic soul shrinks from! To embark on co-creating such a community could itself evoke and activate the animistic soul and fulfill its most ardent longings, for this is what it is made for – to co-create community and thus find its unique place in the tribe and ecosystem.
So I submit that the animistic soul needs ecosteries, or Dharmagaian tribes, or whatever we choose to call the small, co-creative, ecologically literate, bioregional, contemplative communities that are dedicated to nurturing future generations of all life. And these ecosteries (or Dharmagaian tribes) need people who are at least in the process of restoring their animistic souls, because animistically initiated people can provide the most sensitive information about the local bioregion, the most sensitive ecological restoration work, and the visionary rituals and ceremonies that can keep communities knitted together.
As animistic ritualist and visionary activist Caroline Casey says, whatever we love, serve and protect will guide us. When we love, serve and protect the Earth, the whole that includes and contains us, the animistic soul is guided by the will of Gaia. It occurs to me now that this entire Dharmagaians website is dedicated to serving and protecting the Earth, following the will of Gaia, and contributing to the ecosterian/Dharmagaian project of perpetuating humanity – in the fullest sense of ‘humanity’ – for the benefit of future generations of all sentient beings.
Masks for a Council of All Beings
We must go far beyond any transformation of contemporary culture. We must go back to the genetic imperative from which human cultures emerge originally and from which they can never be separated without losing their integrity and their survival capacity. None of our existing cultures can deal with this situation out of its own resources. We must invent, or reinvent, a sustainable human culture by a descent into our pre-rational, our instinctive resources. Our cultural resources have lost their integrity. They cannot be trusted. What is needed is not transcendence but "inscendence,” not the brain but the gene.
— Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth
The generic human in us knows how to dance the animal, knows the strength of clan membership and the profound claims and liberations of daily rites of thanksgiving. Hidden from history, this secret person is undamaged in each of us and may be called forth by the most ordinary acts of life. — Paul Shepard, Preface to The Only World We've Got
© 2010 Suzanne Duarte