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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Halladay

An Introduction into Animism and Panpsychism

I recently read an article stating that the term ‘animism’ means to assign personhood to all beings (including inanimate objects) within the Universe. I have been practicing Animism as a spirituality for decades, and assigning personhood has never been an aspect of my practice. I did some research of one of the authors cited in the article, Graham Harvey. I found an online manifesto written by Harvey and a series of Youtube videos asserting Harvey’s hypothesis, and indeed, he feels that all things (including computers) should be classified as ‘persons,’ as a way of showing worthiness and respect. This approach, to me, is far too simplistic and troublesome, and I have to ask why he would feel that assigning personhood makes anything ‘more’ worthy of respect. After watching his video series, I feel that Harvey is attempting to assign consciousness in the form of personhood. This concept is more closely aligned within the ideology of ‘panpsychism’ rather than animism. Although there are similarities between panpsychism and animism, and they brush up against one another in terms of ideology, neither really applies ‘personhood’.

Panpsychism is a philosophical and metaphysical term that means ‘everything within the Universe has a ‘consciousness.’ An essay from Metascientist describes panpsychism as “a philosophy based on the notion that you cannot arrive at consciousness without consciousness being fundamentally present to begin with.”

The term panpsychism is derived from the Greek pan (all) and psych (soul, mind) and is one of the most ancient philosophical theories. Although the term was not coined until the 17th century, Greek philosophers had embraced some form or version of panpsychism for centuries prior. Thales of Miletus, credited as the first great Greek philosopher, and one of the Seven Sages of Greece, hypothesized an early form of panpsychism. Aristotle attributes the quote “everything is full of gods" to Thales. Early Greek philosophers believed that if things were alive, then they must have a soul. Ancient people around the Mediterranean believed that all natural actions were caused by divinities.

Plato embraced a version of panpsychism in the form of anima mundi or ‘world soul.’ Plato’s quote “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” exemplifies the assertion that Mother Earth is a living, conscious being with a soul. Although the earth does not fit into our scientific definition of ‘life,’ many feel She is a conscious entity.

The works of 19th and 20th century philosophers furthered terminology such as consciousness, mind, matter, and the scientific definition of life; however, many concepts still embraced elements of panpsychism. Carl Jung wrote that “psyche and matter are contained in one and the same world, and moreover, are in continuous contact with one another” and that it is probable that “psyche and matter are two different aspects of one and the same thing”.

It becomes rather involved in attempting to define consciousness. Definitions state that consciousness is “the state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings” or “the sense of awareness, of knowing.” The concept of assigning personhood to other sentient beings is troubling in this aspect, as ‘awareness’ for human beings all over the world is going to vastly differ, let alone the awareness of one species from another.

Animism is the most ancient spiritual belief system on earth. Indigenous cultures all over the world have practiced Animism for eons, long before any spiritual or religious organization. In its early forms, animistic practices would have consisted of acquiring basic needs and ensuring survival. In its entirety, it is an extremely complex, and yet, fluid and evolutionary system of beliefs. Today, all other religions and spiritual belief systems incorporate animism into their practices to some degree, most without truly being aware there is a definition of their practice.

The term animism is derived from the Latin ‘anima’ meaning breath, spirit, or life. It is the belief that everything, including inanimate objects, carry with it a spiritual essence….a spiritual energy.

The significant differentiation between Animism and panpsychism may be within our perceptions of terminology….consciousness, energy, life, or spirit. What definition is required of each to fall within our perceptions? The philosophy and practice of animism predates panpsychism, which is one reason some may refer to it as a ‘primitive’ belief system. I feel it is ancient, but far from primitive. It is rather ingenious for our Ancient Ancestors to have an awareness of energy, consciousness, or spirit of sentient entities, and to create cultural belief systems contingent upon their vision of the world. Animism existed before the creation and manifestation of any of the gods.

If we are to define panpsychism as ‘consciousness’ or ‘awareness, knowing’, then perhaps a more concise definition of animism would be ‘a spiritual practice or tool in which we create, manifest, or alter consciousness or conscious energy.’

To consider living things (ie: requiring food, water, and the ability to reproduce) as having consciousness would be a good start to understanding both panpsychism and animism. Humans, trees, animals, plants all fit nicely into this category, and most of us would agree that these entities have consciousness. There are, however, caveats to this hypothesis. Single-cell organisms, such as microbes, bacteria, and cancer are within our basic definition of ‘life,’ as they have the ability to reproduce; however, it would be a stretch to indicate they are conscious entities. I will delve into this concept in subsequent writings.

An aspect of Animism is to incorporate inanimate objects within spiritual and religious practices and ritual. We use stones, crystals, bones, candles, incense, Christian cross, crucifixes, Pentacles, sigils, totems, Tarot cards, Rune stones, talismans, amulets and a multitude of other objects that carry within them energy. We bless them, cleanse them, bury them, and hold them with reverence. We use these items as energetic conduits. None of these objects have conscious awareness, per se; however, they do embody a spiritual essence, an energy, that we may harness to create, manifest, or alter consciousness or states of consciousness.

Creating our altars is practicing Animism. We choose objects, plants, flowers, herbs, statues, stones, and bones in combinations meant to come together to create and manifest a state of consciousness or enhance an existing state of consciousness. All of these items, separately, embody an essence or energy specific to the object. We select each item for an altar by the energy that resonates within us to create a specific sphere of consciousness.

Oftentimes, inanimate objects carry with them a very personal spiritual essence. My Grandmother passed 34 years ago. I was gifted her gold Timex watch and her set of cultured pearls. I’ve never worn pearls….they’ve never been my style, but to me, these items are sacred as they carry with them the spiritual essence of my Grandmother, and I keep them safely tucked away with other treasures . These objects are not ‘alive,’ so to speak; however, they are ‘alive’ with my Grandmother’s essence...her energy. These objects may be nothing more than an old, broken Timex and a set of pearls to anyone else, but when I hold them, I cry tears of memories….I hear her voice…..I feel her Spirit.

Have you ever walked through an antique store and felt ‘pulled’ by an object, and at times, compelled to buy it? Or perhaps you have felt compelled to purchase a painting or a sculpture or a piece of jewelry crafted by hand? Have you ever noticed that an object that is handcrafted carries with it more significance, a unique essence, than something that is mass-produced? These instances are animistic occurrences. Previous owners and artists ‘breathe’ their energy into objects.

Religious objects are an animistic observance. My maternal grandparents were devout Catholics. They had a 5’ porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary in their dining room. My Grandfather built this little enclave where she was placed. Shenanigans led to her demise when she fell from her perch. I attended her ‘funeral’. We were all to pray to the Holy Mother as her statue was laid to rest and blessed words were spoken. Catholics believe that the only way to ‘dispose of’ a Blessed object that is broken, is to bury it, in fact, there is an entire protocol involved. :) This is often the case for many religious observances, as we feel there is sacredness in disposing of components used in ritual and ceremony.

Marie Kondo’s KonMari method of retaining items that ‘bring joy’ and getting rid of items that don’t, is a form of animism, as is Feng Shui. In fact, anything that we do to our surroundings in order to alter energy, alter the essence, would be considered, animism.

Artists, musicians, writers…..all practice aspects of animism. In whichever format one observes, they ‘breathe essence’ into their creations. I have tears every single time I listen to John Lennon’s Imagine. Every time. It ranks as the second most iconic song in the world. It is relatively short and musically simplistic…..and yet, it touches the heart of nearly everyone who listens to it. It is because of its ‘essence,’ its meaning, and the breath of life that Lennon instilled into it when he was creating and manifesting the song.

Cultures all over the world incorporate dance, costume (quite elaborately so or at times none at all), singing, and drumming within their spiritual practices. Separately, these components are not conscious entities; however, they create a unique state of spiritual consciousness.

There is so much more material to delve into within these concepts in order to really gain an understanding. I often find myself stumbling from one rabbit hole into another. :) In the coming weeks and months, I wish to share more explorations into Animism, panpsychism and other Esoteric Mysteries…...

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