contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Animism

ANIMISM IS A HARD-WORKING WORD

Introducing The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (2013)* editor Graham Harvey describes animism as “a hard-working word”. For him, “it identifies a range of interesting phenomena but also labels several distinct ways of understanding such matters”.

Harvey’s own interest was sparked by postdoctoral research among varied groups of Pagans, which brought him into contact with people who identified as animists. It seemed to him that the word was being used in two contrasting ways. “Some Pagans identified animism as the part of their religious practice or experience which involved encounters with tree-spirits, river-spirits or ancestor-spirits. This animism was metaphysical … Other Pagans seemed to use ‘animism’ as a shorthand reference to their efforts to re-imagine and re-direct human participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community. This animism was relational, embodied, eco-activist and often ‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical.”

Fast-forward seven years to now, and ‘animist’ is clearly an important identifier for considerable numbers of people. many of whom draw on both kinds of understanding distinguished by Harvey. Accelerating environmental degradation, species loss and the ever more obvious climate crisis have given the second understanding greater salience and urgency, even when not reinforced by the first.

The Handbook gives valuable information about the history and hinterland of a word that I and my spiritual community use. For ‘animism’ did not arise as a term for people to describe their own experience. It comes from 19th century anthropology, developed by people from a dominant culture (largely European/North American, with a mix of Christian and secular ideas) to study the traditional practices of other people, most of whom were in the process of becoming colonial subjects and living in cultures under stress. Even in the current collection, with its de-colonised anthropology and room for first nations voices, ‘animism’, however positively reframed, is still an awkward piece of labelling for some contributors. One says, “we just call it tradition”.

So ‘animism’ is not innocent. Yet despite this dubious history, it is clear that animism does have inspirational potential as a positive term in our faltering 21st century world. Regardless of where we stand in our metaphysics, any of us can work to re-imagine and re-direct our “participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community” in a way that is “relational, embodied” and, if we so choose, “eco-activist”. How we do these things is up to us. I will look at the work of some of the individual contributors in future posts.

  • Graham Harvey (ed.) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism London & New York: Routledge, 2014 (First published by Acumen in 2013)

WOODLAND HAIKU

This lone shape

emerging from under-wood:

Who am I?

IMBOLC 2020

Spaces ‘between’ can be numinous. They feed the soul. Imbolc for me is like a pre-dawn light. I am not yet out of winter, but something else is happening, and palpably growing in strength.

The hierophant of the Wildwood Tarot – the Ancestor – is placed as a power of Imbolc. An antlered figure clothed in reindeer skins and evergreen leaves, she has a resonance of Elen of the Ways, the reindeer goddess who stands for the sovereignty of the land. She calls to us from a deep past where Ice Age hunters followed reindeer through ancient forest, “following the deer trods” (1,2) responsive to the herds and attuned to the landscape. They lived with little personal property and without long hours of alienating work. The Ancestor invites us to wonder what these early ancestors  might have to teach us under our very different conditions.

On the card, the Ancestor is sounding a drum and calling us into another consciousness – one more open and aware of our place within the web of life. In her world, deer and people are kin. She herself is ambiguous – she might be wearing a mask, or she might be a truly theriomorphic figure. I respond to her call by sinking deeply into my felt sense – the embodied life of sensation, feelings and belly wisdom. The call of the Ancestor  is a pathway to greater wholeness and connection, both personally and collectively. As the year wakes up, it is a good call to hear.

(1) Elen Sentier Elen of the Ways: British Shamanism – Following the Deer Trods Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2013 (Shaman Pathways series)

(2) Elen Sentier Following the Deer Trods: A Practical Guide to Working with Elen of the Ways Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2014 (Shaman Pathways series)

See also book review at: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/06/22/

BOOK REVIEW: WESTERN ANIMISM

Western Animism: Zen and the Art of Positive Paganism. Highly recommended.

Melusine Draco is an established Pagan author, here writing mostly about Japanese culture. She draws on her Shinto upbringing by her father, a martial arts instructor and countryman. She contrasts the Abrahamic stigmatisation of Paganism and Animism in the West with the peaceful co-existence of Buddhism and Shinto in Japan, to the point where the line between them can be “decidedly hazy”. She suggests that the Japanese approach makes positive spirituality and living easier. All it really takes is “time to appreciate white clouds against the bright blue of a winter sky; the whisper of falling rain; the aroma of freshly baked bread … if we make a practice out of seeking out the positive, we tend to find it everywhere – even on ‘bad, black dog days’ when we can still hear water dreaming, or listen to the stones growing”.

In five relatively brief chapters, Melusine Draco covers a great deal of ground. She discusses Ki, “the unseen life force in our body and everywhere”, and the sense that there is no dividing line between the divine and human. She describes Kami, “the most ambiguous of spirits” and talks of “sermons in nature”. She describes a Zen teacher who, at the beginning of a lecture, paused to listen to a songbird outside the window, and then dismissed the class. She explains Kensho moments, sudden insights and awakenings that help us on our way. Exercises to facilitate such moments are scattered through the book.

Draco evokes a culture that celebrates life and its transience; stylises and thus sacralises everyday skills and activities; and pays respectful attention to nature, including Kami. Religion itself is based on respect rather than faith. Drawing on these riches, Draco suggests an alternative wheel of the year inspired by Japanese festivals and adapted for the West. A chapter on the Zen garden includes a wider discussion of sacred space and the use of plants. Her final chapter looks at Zen arts and aesthetics – including wabi-sabi, “defined as the beauty of things ‘imperfect, impermanent and incomplete’”. It also covers a Japanese view of concentration, meditation, contemplation, and the differences between them. For Draco, “contemplation is that state of consciousness which brings clairvoyant power. It must, because the basis of contemplation is a clairvoyant perception, a kind of spiritual intuition”.

Anyone interested in Japanese spirituality, and willing to be inspired by it, would benefit from reading this book.

Melusine Draco Western Animism: Zen and the Art of Positive Paganism Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2019 (Pagan Portals series)

‘ABOUT’ FOR 2020

A happy New Year to all readers, as we begin to navigate the 2020’s! May we find compassionate and creative ways to flourish in the days ahead.

As my contemplative inquiry evolves, I update the ‘About’ section for this blog. Below is my revision for the beginning of 2020.

“I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. I began my contemplative inquiry within modern British Druidry and my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

“Over time my inquiry became a wider exploration of contemplative spirituality, identified for a period as a Sophian Way. It drew on the enduring wisdom of many times and places and I came to experience it as a path of healing, peace and illumination. In particular, my inquiry identified an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment. Such at-homeness is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I have found that, for me, the realisation of this at-homeness has supported a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.

“The discovery of at-homeness emerged from an inward inquiry arc: noticing myself perceiving, making meaning, and finding a language to articulate my experience. Now I am on an outward arc. I am turning to a greater focus on relationships, community, culture, and the wider web of life. Druidry, as a modern eco-spirituality receptive to ancient wisdom, is renewing its importance in my life.”

EMPTINESS AND INTERBEING

At this point in my inquiry I want to refine my understanding of ’emptiness’. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is a great help here, in his final commentary on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra .

Thich Nhat Hanh discusses Buddha’s teaching that everything is “a manifestation of causes and conditions” and that nothing is permanent or unchanging. This applies to the whole cosmos, and not just to the apparent world. “Whether you call it atman (the soul) or Brahman (ultimate divinity), whether you call it the individual self or the universal self, you cannot find anything there”. Buddha’s teaching was aimed at undermining both of these notions. Nothing has any ‘self-nature’ (we might use the term ‘essence’).

Thich Nhat Hanh pursues this right into the territory of emptiness. “There are still many people who are drawn into thinking that emptiness is the ground of being, the ontological ground of everything. But emptiness, when understood rightly, is the absence of any ontological ground. … We must not be caught by the notion of emptiness as an eternal thing. It cannot be any kind of absolute or ultimate reality. This is why it can be empty. Our notion of emptiness should be removed. It is empty.”

He goes on to say: “the insight of interbeing is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else … looking from the perspective of space we call emptiness ‘interbeing’; looking from the perspective of time we call it ‘impermanence’ … to be empty is to be alive, to breathe in and breathe out. Emptiness is impermanence; it is change … we should celebrate. … When you have a kernel of corn and entrust it to the soil, you hope it will be a tall corn plant. If there is no impermanence, the kernel of corn will remain a kernel of corn forever and you will never have an ear of corn to eat. Impermanence is crucial to the life of everything”.

This is one side of an age old controversy within spiritualities of Indian origin. In this blog, I have given friendly attention to the other side as well – particularly Direct Path teachers like Rupert Spira and Greg Goode and the Indian influenced Douglas Harding. In the end I don’t make an absolute judgement about it. My Sophian ‘At-Homeness in the flowing moment’ is compatible with both views. But I’m now finding greater energy and aliveness in the framework here presented by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Increasingly, when I do Direct Path exercises I experience a breaking down of assumptions about experience itself, and a tremendous opening out … but no container called ‘Awareness’ to fill a God sized hole. It’s similar for me with the Harding exercises. My experience is broadly the same, but my felt sense has shifted, and my narrative with it. I’m moving away from big picture truth claims about this, because I have become sceptical that exercises like this provide any grounds for them, one way or the other. Rather, I lean in to an evolving personal understanding, always provisional, of my contemplative experiences.

As a shorthand, I can talk about the tension between a ‘Oneness’ framing and an ‘interbeing’ framing of what people call non-duality. The difference can seem subtle – and it may be best to use ambiguous, open-ended words like ‘Tao’ and preserve a sense of mystery. But at this turning of the year, ‘interbeing’ is my preferred term. It fits better with the eco-spirituality which I take from my Druid journey, and affirms the relational basis of my Sophian Way.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/ an earlier post that I’ve been able to draw on here.

THE FLOW OF INQUIRY

There’s a saying that we never see the same stream twice. It’s true, from a certain perspective. The water is always different. In this recent picture there’s more of it than is usual. The flow is faster and more energised. But in another sense, it is clearly the same stream. There’s a pattern and a placing that make it the same. Not forever. But enough to give it an identity of its own. Enough for us to recognise it, and to be in relationship with it over time.

I think of my inquiry in the same way. It is clearly a process of inquiring, not a thing. It has changed a lot over the years. But I notice, looking back, that it does also have characteristic points of reference and recurring themes. It has its own kind of flow. I see for example that whilst taking up practices of self-inquiry linked to non-dualist movements, I have not embraced the movements. I have gone to them for insight, not belonging. Instead, I have naturalised the insight and reframed it in my own terms – such as stilling into presence, or finding home in the flowing moment. The central focus on Sophia, and the naming of a Sophian Way, has helped here. In my world, contemplative inquiry is a core Sophian practice.

I have also kept a least half a foot in the cultural matrix of modern Druidry, Paganism, animism and eco-spirituality. These movements are closer to my heart and imagination, and feel more like my cultural home. For me, emptiness only has meaning as a home to fullness and and an exuberant multiplicity of forms. The Sophia card (Major Arcana II) in the Byzantine Tarot has a vision of Sophia as present in all of creation and the natural world, and also “watching over the steps of the Holy Fool on his journey and guiding those who seek her blessing to find their own path through the world”*. I am not at all sure about the word ‘holy’, but I see Sophia in the stream, and sense the guidance there.

*John Matthews and Cilla Conway The Byzantine Tarot: Wisdom of an Ancient Empire London: Connections, 2015

EYE OF SPIRIT

I walk my Sophian Way, seeking imagery for the end of November. The willows provide it. I see a dying back of the year, where the withdrawn and conserved life has a beauty of its own.

Stilling into presence, and holding the trees in loving attention, I act as the eye of spirit. I am aware equally of the uniqueness and otherness of the trees, and of my inter-being with them. I feel love, gratitude and wonder. I also feel a poignancy, and a sense of vulnerability – for them, and me, and everyone else.

I am glad to be taking pictures again after a gap of many years. There are dangers of displacing my attention into the process of photography, or of contracting into a collector’s obsession with ‘capturing’ images. My solution is to be artless and spontaneous in pressing the button – and to leave my phone in my pocket for most of the time. Once at home, I do find myself delighting in the record.

BOOK REVIEW: GREENING THE PARANORMAL

I recommend this book to anyone concerned with deep ecology, animism, or the kinds of phenomena we describe as ‘paranormal’. It opens with two substantial framing pieces, a foreword by Paul Devereux and an introductory chapter by editor Jack Hunter. These are followed by 16 chapters from a diverse range of contributors, mostly seeking to combine direct witness with a workable form of academic analysis. To an extent this book is a story of how to face this difficult challenge. Very early, in his foreword, Paul Devereux shows how the challenge can come from the ‘phenomena’ themselves.

“We were trying to geographically map generations of old accounts of fairy paths we had uncovered in the verbatim records of University College Dublin. Suddenly, standing in the grass, there was a figure, between two and three feet tall. It was anthropomorphic and fully three dimensional (as we could clearly determine while we were drifting slowly past. It had sprung its appearance out of nowhere, and it caught my wife’s and my own transfixed attentions simultaneously.

The figure was comprised of a jumble of very dark green tones, as if composed of a tight dense tangle of foliage rather like the stand of woodland a hundred yards or so beyond the sward of grass. It didn’t seem to quite have a face, just a head with deep set eyes appearing out of the green tangle. It presented a distinctly forbidding appearance. As we crawled past in our car, the figure started to turn its head in our direction, but then vanish.

“Charla called out, ‘Oh, shit!’ We looked at each other, both of us wide-eyed and thoroughly disconcerted. ‘You saw that!’ I asked rhetorically. The whole episode had lasted for only about half a minute or so, but it was unequivocally an actual. if transient, objective observation.”

The running inquiry question throughout the book is, what do we make of experiences like this, if we are determined to honour rather than dismiss them? Devereux senses four major themes in the suggested ‘greening of the paranormal’ in our time. The first is animism, the ‘Big Step for our culture to take’: the sense that the elements of the non-human world are animate in some way – rocks, rivers, soil, as well as plants and living organisms. This involves a deep relationship with the land beyond utility and subsistence. The second theme is the vision quest, a wilderness journey which is more about paying attention and being open to what unfolds, rather than posing questions. The third concerns the ‘liminal’ places that seem to support our breaking through into other-world realms or altered mind states. The fourth is inter-species communion with the animal and plant kingdoms. In the language used by Jack Hunter, we find ourselves dealing with a “profoundly mindful, sentient and agentic world” and the potential re-opening of lost forms of communication and connection.

Many of the contributors believe that we are unlikely to get through the climate crisis if we continue to ignore dimensions of experience from which our cultural filters have exiled us. Some of them live or work in countries that have been colonised by Europeans, but where pockets of traditional indigenous wisdom remain. They recognise that in some cases there are invitations to share in this. There are also concerns about appropriation and the dynamics of the researcher/subject relationship. There is a questioning of the word ‘shamanism’ as currently used – and arguably over-extended and suspect.

This book does not read like a novel. Although I have read it all, there were two or three chapters which didn’t speak to me. Others were riveting. I see it as an excellent book to own and keep for reference. The foreword and first chapter each stand alone and I recommend reading both of them. The other chapters can be cherry picked according to taste or need. Overall there’s a strong invitation to wake up to the aspects of world, life and experience that are being pointed to. The book suggests that they are needed for our personal, social and global healing.

 

SACRED SOUNDSCAPES

“Concepts of animism can take many forms. … The idea of the land being capable of speaking to humans was probably widespread in ancient sensibility. Sacred soundscapes were simply a natural corollary.

“The basic notion of the land having speech, or being read like a text, was lodged deeply in some schools of Japanese Buddhism – in early medieval Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, founded by Kukei, for instance. He likened the natural landscape around the Chuzenji temple and the lake at the foot of Mount Nantai, near Nikko, to descriptions in the Buddhist scriptures of the Pure Land, the habitation of the buddhas. Kukei considered that the landscape not only symbolised but was of the same essence as the mind of the Buddha. Like the Buddha mind, the landscape spoke in a natural language, offering supernatural discourse: ‘Thus, waves, pebble, winds, and birds were the elementary and unconscious performers of the cosmic speech of buddhas and bodhisattvas,’ explains Allan Grapard (1994).

” …. ….

“Throat singers in Tuvan, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, developed their vocal art originally as a means of communicating with their natural environment, not for entertainment. Throat singing involves the production of resonant sounds, overtones and whistles within the throat, nasal cavities, mouth and lips, and was used to provoke echoes or imitate natural sounds like waterfalls or wind. The master throat singers can select precise locations inside caves where the resonances are exactly right to maximise the reverberations of their songs. They even wait until atmospheric conditions are perfect for the greatest effect. It is in essence a technology of echoes. At one locale, where a singer called Kaigal-ool performed in front of a cliff face, ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin reported that ‘the cliff and surrounding features sing back to the musician in what Kaigal-ool calls a kind of meditation, a conversation I have with nature‘ (Levin & Suzukei, 2006).

“It is only in our modern culture that we have stopped listening to the land within a spiritual context. If we could fashion a modern, suitably culturally-ingrained animistic model, we would treat the environment with much more respect.”

Paul Devereux, in his Foreword to Greening the Paranormal: Exploring the Ecology of Extraordinary Experience August Night Press, 2019. Edited by Jack Hunter. See: http://www.augustnightpress.com

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