If you were birthed by Earth, then every pebble and plant is your sibling.
Last week I wrote about animism, the belief that all things possess a spirit. Animistic cultures are incredibly widespread – chances are, if you didn’t grow up in one, you’re descended from one. But these sensibilities have been largely supplanted by science. Science and spirituality are often at odds, and the science-oriented developed world generally disbelieves in spirituality – especially in a form so different from our monotheistic religions. This might not be a problem if a reductive, nonspiritual orientation met all our needs, but I believe we’ve lost something along the way.
Scientists and animists alike can agree that a rock isn’t biologically alive in quite the same way that, say, a bird is. But the scientist wouldn’t be scientific if they assumed that this means we can’t be in relationship with both. A person who believes a rock doesn’t possess a spirit has no understanding of what life would be like if they did.
The animistic perspective transforms a thing we use into someone we relate to. Our surroundings turn from scenery into family members. Just as it’s relatively easy to perceive the personality of a pet and recognize it as a member of the family, an animist would extend such personhood to all aspects of their world.
Could you be open to experiencing the personality of your favorite tree or stream or mountain? Have you ever felt inexplicably drawn to a certain place in your yard, your home, or the park? It’s where you feel naturally most comfortable, maybe also safer, more focused, even more powerful. What is it that your inner compass is tuning in to?
Beyond the ways in which such an orientation might enrich your subjective experience of your surroundings, there are potentially global repercussions to remembering and being reverent of the spirit of the world – even if we don’t fully embrace the animistic view.
Dr. John Reid of the Ngai Tahu Research Centre in New Zealand explains that when we mistreat the world through disregard for the spirit within, it becomes a vicious circle. Lacking a conscious relationship with nature, we take from pristine resources with no restraint, then we dump our waste back into them. This diminishes what the Maori call its mauri (lifeforce), and the reduction in its vitality makes it less supportive to humans. This willfully ignorant behavior and the hardship that results from it diminishes the mana (dignity / power / authority) of the humans involved.1 The weakened mana of the humans causes them to act in increasingly desperate and irreverent ways, and the cycle continues.
It’s possible to transform this situation into a virtuous cycle, but it requires coming into right relationship with our planet. This means humbling ourselves and perhaps taking a cue from animistic cultures. If that sounds good to you, I encourage you to take another week to relate to your surroundings differently than usual.
What happens when you ask before taking? What happens when you give thanks to everything you encounter? What happens when you open yourself to the existence of a spiritual world? What happens when you feel into the dynamic between your body and the elements around you? What happens when you bring greater awareness to the act of consuming something? What happens if you do the same when throwing something away? What happens when you listen?
I believe that bringing consciousness to these relationships yields great benefits. Perhaps we stand to make our planet habitable by humans for longer, but for certain we enrich our mana as we re-weave ourselves into the living tapestry of this exceptional, gorgeous planet.
Dr. Peter Borten
1. Informative Maori dictionary here: https://maoridictionary.co.nz/