The Other Side of the Hedge: Animism & The Big Questions

Do we have souls? What are they? What happens when we die? Is there a god? I’m not going to answer those things to your satisfaction. I can’t. But I am going to talk about my own struggles with these questions.

"Europe a Prophecy" by William Blake.  From WikiMedia.
“Europe a Prophecy” by William Blake. From WikiMedia.

When I was a young adult, I believed life was about trying to get a grasp on who and what we are, as people. To me, it meant going after those pesky questions on the meaning of life. Some part of me could see through, and under, the world around us. Some part of me craved an authenticity I just couldn’t find.

Some people want to be lawyers. Some want to be engineers and businessmen and accountants. I remember that all I wanted to do with my life was get answers to some of the big questions. I was told, definitively, by the authorities in my life, that such questions were unanswerable.

Unanswerable. Not that the big questions were hard to answer, or that chasing them could lead to frustration, despair, and madness; but that such questions were categorically impossible and therefore meaningless.

I never did take advice well.

Finding the Truth for Ourselves

I don’t know about your experience growing up, but I was raised to be a positivist materialist. That’s fancy words for, “only the physical world exists, and if there’s more, we best ignore it.” Nominally Christian, my deepest beliefs had more in common with Star Trek’s progressive scientific message than the gospels.

Either way, the options seemed limited. As a member of Western culture, I was always taught that either the spirit was dominant, or the material world was dominant. It was one, or the other. These days, the Western elite mostly believe that the material is dominant. I was taught that those who are not part of the elite believe that it is the Spirit.

This hasn’t always been the case. Since the rise of science in the Age of Enlightenment, positivism has been in competition with monotheism. And for pretty much everyone after Isaac Newton, it’s been a battle between the two.

There has been no easy resolution; the whole of Western occultism has been caught in this tension. We could even say that it was born from this struggle: what is the relationship between the physical and the spiritual?

Are we creatures of spirit who inhabit bodies, or physical bodies that somehow have awareness? As a culture, we never really seem to resolve this question. At worst, we consider it irrelevant. At best, we consider it a matter of faith.

"An Alchemist in His Laboratory" by David Teniers the Younger, from Wikimedia.
“An Alchemist in His Laboratory” by David Teniers the Younger, from Wikimedia.

The Path Forward

And yet, whatever other challenges we might face as we try to understand the big questions, the practice of animism has helped me break past this. Just as each tree and stone has a spirit, so do we. Each of us is a body, and also a wild and free spirit. We are like nature spirits held in place by this body, at least for a time. We resolve the question of either/or by encompassing both truths.

And these truths are not a matter of belief. We are not what we believe, up in our heads. The self does not reside in the mind in any recognizable way. We are not the belief, and barely even the believer.

To find answers that satisfy the soul, what we must do is remember ourselves — not as we have been taught, but as we are. All we need to do is grasp that freedom.

It is the hardest and most natural thing in the world.

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