Working on explaining animism

I am shamelessly reposting something I put up in 2007, cause it sparked a fun discussion there.

When asked to explain animism as a religion (as opposed to the dictionary version), I consistently say that it is the belief that everything possesses an animating, motive force, which, if I was to translate that into more ‘popular’ vernacular, means that everything is “alive” and can make decisions.

On a certain level, this is completely valid; choices are made consistently on a quantum level, based on variants that affect that particular quanta state. Decisions made through what we term"consciousness" are merely more complex variants of the same theme; our decisions are based on everything from what we eat to how we were raised to what the temperature is now to a thousand other variables…

I’ve also taken a fancy to the idea that spirit is ‘breath’, that wonderful energy that circulated through a system and lets it do what it does. For some, like rocks, breaths are drawn in much larger cycles than are insects (did you know rocks ‘breathe?’ They actually exude and take in gasses from the atmosphere. Just found that out. Fun stuff). When I die, my particular animating force goes away and all the little ‘fires’ that are left are devoured by other creatures to add to their life.

Let’s have a little more fun with it though. Straight from a traditional healer’s mouth (saw him lecture – free btw at a university – on Tuesday), he talked about the ‘gods’ of the Central American pantheons. Take “Tlaloc” for example. Books say “god of Rain.” Wrong answer. Linguistically, Tlaloc breaks down into two words; Tlal =
Earth & Loc = Liquid. Literal translation is “Liquid of the Earth”. Actual translation is the evaporation cycle! The Mexica knew moisture drew up from the ground and the waters and came back as rain. So Tlaloc describes a process which begins in the ground and ends in rain. The “great spirit” of rain, the animating force that makes rain work.

So, why treat everything as if it’s an anthropocentric representation of a human? For two reasons: (1) It’s easier to remember, because we are geared towards social interactions within our own species (2) it allows a greater capacity for empathy for other species if you place them within a ‘human’ context. You may not understand your cousin’s rationale, but you can still love him as family. Now if your cousin happens to be a raccoon, it makes it a smidge more difficult but still possible if you try very hard. And if you’ve been trying for thousands of years, you’ve probably figured out a whole host of ways to communicate that we first generation goofs haven’t even thought of yet.

And finally, on a strange but practical note. Alright… let’s say we consider ‘spirit’ as energy. Fine. Let’s say we break it down to ‘quantum choices’ for decision making. Simplistic but fine. Lastly, we treat things through the lens of being human – all the while understanding that they are also different than us – because it facilitates communication. So what’s the point? Why not strip away the metaphor and be done with it?

Here’s why. Because the First Nations were right. It is one big damned mystery. I’m a cynic by nature, have been all of my life. I love studying all of the whacky phenomenon out there and don’t believe most of it. I started going to a sweat lodge about a year ago. The tales told there are amazingly dense and rich with metaphorical information (including the relationship between the tree’s life cycle and the heating of the stones of the lodge + many, many other interesting facts). I’ve prayed in that lodge in a respectful manner, fully expecting simply a great, time tested purification ritual.

Then my prayers started getting answered, way beyond statistical chance, and in ways that astonished me. I experienced a sweat which saved my father-in-law’s life. I’ve seen incredible healings occur, seen small
miracles occur. How?!? How is this happening if the spirits are just descriptors of processes? The truth is they’re more than that and I don’t know how or why and that doesn’t matter one bit. It’s a mystery, one that doesn’t solve life’s problems or make you a saint but instead connects you to the world in wondrous and sometimes frightening ways.

No, I’m not saying everybody should go rush out to a sweat (though you should! ). What I’m trying to express is this: when people say that animists are talking about ‘gods’ and ‘spooks’ (to quote an earlier posts) they are talking about much more than that. And if you think they are just talking about physical processes that have no specific ‘connection’ to us, well, they’re talking about much more than that, too. I’ll be damned if I know exactly what’s going on but I could spend a rich lifetime trying to figure it out.


Adrian Bejan’s book Design In Nature does more than I ever thought possible to explain why the thermodynamic physical universe is fundamentally alive - and that any configuration of flows is a living system.

I’ve always struggled with definitions of animism, being as how those who invented the term were Christian anthropologists defining the relationship from their POV.

But Daniel Quinn’s proposition that animism is not a belief system, but a value system, always struck a chord with me. I also feel that an empirical relationship with the world - a relationship to what one reliably experiences with your 5+ senses - drags you inexorably to animism, in a way that monotheism and scientism can never touch. The trackers and traditional healers to me have always been the most honest and ethical scientists the world has ever seen.


Reposting here what I just wrote on the animism thread that Peter started on the Facebook page:

I’d like to share a dream I had last summer that relates to this conversation. It came after a few weeks of crushing anxiety connected to climate change.

In the dream I stood on land at the edge of the ocean. Lots of other people walked all around, going various directions. None were familiar to me. All of us busily went about the work we had to do.

Suddenly a male voice cut through all the activity, coming from the direction of the ocean. “THIS ROCK ISN’T ALIVE! THIS ROCK IS A DEAD THING!” The voice carried an emotional intensity that’s hard to describe. It had anger in it, but more than anger, agony.

The rest of us paused and turned toward the voice. A boulder the size of a small house seemed to be hovering just offshore above the ocean. (I wondered for a moment whether it was actually hovering, and if so what was holding it up.) A man standing on top of the boulder was the source of the scream. He looked tiny from where I stood. I couldn’t make out details, just gestures and sound.

There was the sound of a gunshot. The man had shot himself in the head. His body doubled over and fell into the ocean.

I don’t remember what the response was from the other people on land, but I remember feeling intense sadness and relief.

After reflecting on this dream several times over the last year and sharing it with friends, it seems to me a pretty good illustration of inanimism. The man on the boulder has created his own little “earth” right near the actual earth, and thinks that it’s the real thing, and thinks that it’s “dead.” He’s separated himself, and made himself insane with despair, with this creation. And so he kills himself and falls back into the actual earth.


Last week I got Adrian Bejan’s book Design In Nature. Interesting reading and food for thought, indeed.
It also brings up lots of new questions. For example, in the Introduction he states: “It reveals that it is not love or money that makes the world go round but flow and design.” Where does he get that certainty from? Love and (attraction to) money can be felt, experienced. Do we understand their nature enough to know that these cannot set things in motion? I don’t anyway.

I’ve read only about one third so far, so perhaps I’ll find an answer to this question in it later on…


Thanks for sharing, I love the way you illustrated your dream story.
Reading it over today, I noticed for the first time that you added a line on when this dream had come to you. It made me curious if you have any idea whether the dream had anything to do with that anxiety… any thoughts you’d like to share?


Anneke: I believe his point is to not let the appearance of the thing that is flowing - love, money, electricity, water, wind - distract you from observing the universal common ground that are the flows themselves and their constantly adapting configurations. For example, a wave can take place in any medium - emotion, money, electricity, water, wind - it is a flow form that happens irrespective of the medium. I suppose an argument could be made that this universal flow dynamic could be called “Love” since it unites us together in the common reality that we are all flow systems flowing into each other - but I think that’s for us to enjoy exploring rather than a professor of Engineering who has a more conservative audience to appeal to. :slight_smile:


Hey Anneke, thanks for the question! Yes, I dreamed that dream at the tail end of the longest, strongest bout of anxiety in my life and the dream was directly connected to that, sort of the baby born after weeks of complicated labor. My guts had been twisted up for two or three weeks, my whole body felt weighted down, and it was kinda hard to move! At the peak of it all I could do for relief was walk around my garden and neighborhood touching plants and stones and fence posts and saying thank you thank you thank you. The dream showed up after a lot of frazzled pondering over this whole situation and how it came to be. It seemed to sum things up nicely and with so few words. Wonderful! And I felt immediately compelled to share it, which I have now several times.


About halfway into Adrian Bejan’s book Design In Nature now.

Still good food for thought, but reading it feels like constantly “stroking against the hairs” (how should I translate this saying?).

An example: I find it irksome how Bejan usess the word ‘life’, ‘live’ etc. According to him, a running flow means the presence of life: as long as the river runs, it lives. (B.t.w., at other times, he adds in the word pulsating, which makes this more difficult to spot.)

If I make a slope in my (E-primitive) sandbox, take a garden hose and softly douse the sandy surface, a flow pattern like a river basin will emerge. True indeed. But does it mean I created life? Not in my view. When I stop dousing, the flow will stop a bit later, too. A river basin pattern develops well enough, but the availability of the water doesn’t pulsate.

In my view, only when the river pulsates because the water moving away from the top gets replenished regularly, the river pattern becomes alive. Then, at the same time, it becomes a flow pattern that will allow other life to grow as well - even serving as a channel for life to move through. Note that the pulsating can be really slow, even making the river fall dry regularly - as long as it pulsates, it will fill up again.
Similarly, following this line of thought, I do not agree with Bejan’s saying that a company like Ford lives. Yes, things flow through it, people move in it, and it has run for a while already, but fundamentally the flow is only one-way, not pulsating.
In this view, even death can flow, following the patterns of (or even inside) living beings (E prime?). But surely that makes death not ‘alive’? It just flows.
Thus, I also do not share his view that the (civilized) pattern of moving more and more stuff faster and faster, further and further enacts merely an ‘unavoidable’ matter of physics. Instead, the responsibility for this conscious choice to create a not-pulsating flow lays with certain individuals.

To summarize: my view is that flow is just flow, and only becomes alive when it starts to pulsate. The downward forces can be called “death-bringing”, the upward ones “life-giving”, and given enough time they will dance together in more and more complex ways, moving in each other’s channels, like fish swimming upstream, parasites moving in other lifeforms, and so on.
To call memes and flow patterns that cause death and decay on a massive scale ‘alive’ gives the impression that no alternatives for civilization’s way of increasing flow exist, let alone need exploration.

Looking forward to hear your thoughts on this, Willem. And others, of course.

Bejan, as a refugee from a communist dictatorship, has a special affection for capitalism and civilization. This I believe clouds his perception and so I tend to pass over his thoughts about these things. However the animistic idea that we exist in a living universe, and that the sustainability of flow systems speaks to the processes of life and death, are much older than him. To traditional peoples every drop of water and grain of sand is alive. The flow of their journey through time is the journey of their life. Indeed, Death is a person for traditional cultures and considered alive too. This is why I find constructal law so rich, it is a set of traditional understandings rendered in the language of science.

When a river dries up, it fossilizes and dies. When civilization loses the flows that drive it - modern food crops, petroleum, myths that no longer have meaning, etc - it too will fossilize and die.

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Thanks, Willem, for that bit of background information. I’ll look into that a bit more myself, too, and try keep that in mind as I continue reading.


I love the flow of the conversation so far :slight_smile:

I think I agree with Willem in terms of how there can be temporary life (like the flow from a hose) and I do believe death has a flow (have I ever discussed the Black River here? Probably not… hm)

But (other than loving the quote “stroking against the hairs”) what popped into my head when reading your response Anneke is how much of our response to different modes of being comes from us being unused to ‘Honorable Others’? In this case, modes of being that are antithetical to our own. I know I fall into this way too much, so I miss opportunities to contemplate things which are truly alien to me.

What do you think? (or am I barking up the wrong tree?)

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Yes, that’s exactly why I like to discuss these things here while reading (still haven’t finished the book yet). It helps me “massage” my own (and perhaps others’) viewpoints and overcome moments of getting stuck or misunderstanding.
So far, I find that in many cases there is not so much difference in perception but rather in who means what with each word. And, in doing so, it helps clear one’s own thought pattern too. Thanks!

Thanks for questioning my wording and awaiting my thoughts so patiently!

After reading “Design In Nature” and pondering the wonderful comments/input above for a long time, I have come to understand that although I can try and learn to speak Adrian Bejan’s language, there remain differences in wording and understanding between his language and mine, and that his writing hasn’t impacted me enough to give up mine so far.

For example, I have pondered the living aspect of Death, and I can totally see that and appreciate the live quality thereof. At the same time, I continue to feel that for me the “live” aspect only makes sense in relation to a pattern of recurrence.

As I described before, to me a river that dries up every year is very much alive even at the times that “death” seems to take all the individual plants, fish and other lives it brought forth or sustained.
It also means that for me pouring out a bucket of water on a sandy ramp to me doesn’t mean it brings life, even though it causes flow patterns to appear in the sandy surface.

In other words, To me the flow patterns described by Adrian Bejan have a very different quality than “alive” - but I haven’t figured out yet how I might want to call it instead. My first thoughts go in the direction of “Law of Change Propagation”…
So, all in all, I guess that my view asserts that apart from the qualifications “alive” and “dead” there could be (at least) one other state - “existence”.

I have two misgivings when it comes to animism. Perhaps this has already been addressed here. I find myself having a hard time following everything that is being written.

First: take a worm. Cut it in half. You now have 2 worms. Do they have 2 new spirits or does one keep the old spirit and a new one is born? I doubt anyone knows the precise answer to this question. How could they? It is, however, something that bothers me.

I suppose the first issue could apply to all sorts of things. Rocks being crushed into gravel. Silica being fused into glass. All the complex or simple processes that exist in the world as it changes and changes again on a daily basis. Do spirits fluctuate in droves all over?

Second: take a human being physically tortured to death who does not choose to be tortured. Does the body retain the soul or is the soul kicked out of the body and replaced with a simulation that screams and writhes like a puppet? There is, I think, a line as to how far we are willing to experience reality and how far the all-loving all-knowing extremely-powerful universe will allow our experiences to go.

It’s quite a bit of fun to have read through your response a few times before an answer came into my head. Could the difference you are describing be “persistence”?

I’m glad you asked the two questions @grandiose. I think this is where English becomes really odd. It’s my understanding (mistaken or not) that English evolved as a trading language, which means it works very well to assign a value to a discrete thing compared to another discrete thing. Whether this discrete nature is an accurate representation of the actual thing in question is immaterial. It’s the perceived value that can be traded.

So where does that enter in to this discussion? Well, we’re discussing ‘spirit’. Spirit, in English, is perceived as a discrete object that may or may not exist within the body and may or may not be connected to other energies in the universe.

The alternative, of course, is to perceive spirit as a descriptor of the processes (both internal and external) that make up you. That means, when you typed this comment, you were humaning. You were grandioseinterlopering. But now, for all I know, you might be wolfing, or oaking or any number of processes distinct from what folks in modern civilization would call “you”.

A better and simpler visual. What you call “spirit” is an eddy in the stream that is existence. It circles and circles for a finite amount of time before returning to the greater current.

So let’s take question 1: 2 worms. Let’s call him Eddy. Cut him in half, get 2 worms. They are both Eddy 2, and as time progresses, they will diverge even farther from what we used to call Eddy. To be proper, 2 spirits have been ‘born’, if you wish to picture it that way, with imprints reminiscent of their previous existence.

Some of what you’re referring to – rock into gravel for example – I describe to my kids as old age. Rocks, as they age, get smaller, lose cohesion. Silica fused into, more likely a death and then birth into something new.

I believe it’s best to describe spirits as repetitive patterns, which is why we can say sometimes a rock is a rock (i.e. no connection to us) and sometimes a rock is our oldest ancestor (we’ve gifted it with a fire lodge, asking that it returns the blessing to us in a sweat lodge). This puts animism squarely in the realm of observation and analysis, allowing us to grow and expand in our understanding of the world around us.

Question 2: So torture is the second point although great pain will do as well. I suppose it should creep me out that I actually have an answer. I’ve had some major conversations with a man who a long time ago was a “military interrogator”. That’s a euphemism for someone who occasionally uses torture. Part of his assignment was to take people from other units and try to break them. This was basically to prepare them in case they got caught by the enemy.

Anyway, he told me a story about the only person he -couldn’t- break (he was -very- good at his job) and that was an Inuit fellow. This person was so centered, so at peace with what he’d done with his life, pain wasn’t an issue. Yeah, it hurt, but it couldn’t psychologically break him. It couldn’t spiritually break him. All that was left was death.

There was a similar lesson taught at the sweat lodge I attend. The set up is that there are things that happen in this world that are negative for some but positive for others. For example, the lion gets to feed but the antelope dies in agony. Or the deer gets away but the cougar goes hungry. Negative things will happen in your life but you are -never- meant to carry them for long. That’s why this world is sprinkled with all sorts of medicines to help people.

One of these medicines is death.

So that’s my answer. You don’t get a simulation but you can make your mind and spirit healthy enough to resist any pain. And if agony is too great, death is there, the final balm for those too wearied or too pained to continue.

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Thanks Thomas Maxwell. I understand where people are coming from better now. Animism and spirit remain mysterious to me. I do not think I will go through much difficulty over that. A lot of things are mysterious to me. :smile:

Honestly, it’s one of the things that appeals to me about animism. To be able to understand and convey the basics, but also to see that to figure out the details, even in one small area, could take generations! :grin:

Hi Bill, Thanks for joining my search for a good word… The word I searched for should describe the process of the one-time flow of energy (e.g. the water pouring from a bucket and shaping a river pattern in the sandy slope, or a battery releasing its energy). Your suggestion ‘persistence’ to me seems to describe another aspect in my post… but it certainly helped my formulate my thoughts further. :slight_smile:

As I sit here writing, a whole different line of thought develops: the river that keeps flowing (or comes back every year) may not come back after all. So that indeed makes it hard to differentiate between ‘alive’ and ‘other’ flow patterns. On the other hand, if it does come back every so often, other life forms will start to depend on it, like (migrating) birds, plants, salmon, and so on. They can, because the river’s presence has become predictable (namely: recurring with a fairly certain interval) and hence they feel the river has become trustworthy. The flow of the bucket water has yet to become dependable…

So perhaps the difference does not lie so much in ‘aliveness’, but in ‘trustworthiness’. No wonder that people feel estranged from nature… if they don’t have a trustworthy way of life everyone else will move away from them if they can…

Our sensory system serves to tell us whether something supports (feeds/helps) us or not, and also whether it does so in a dependable way.

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I absolutely -love- the term trustworthy! I think it brings back into focus that life exists in relationship to other connections. Thank you so much for that insight!