The Other Side of the Hedge: Animism and Healing

The Other Side of the Hedge: Animism and Healing December 6, 2015

Healing isn’t always a gentle thing.

an image of a demon's face used to ward off evil
Wooden sign painted with a demon’s face, China, 1801-1900 Wellcome L0058519” by (gallery). Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The three men – a healer, his friend, and a patient — stood in the living room of a lousy grad-school apartment. The patient was a young yoga teacher, weighed down by something unseen.

Half in a trance, the healer scanned the teacher up and down, and grunted thoughtfully. After he let out a slow breath, he and his buddy exchanged a few words. They’d been working together for years, and that was all it took, anymore.

The two had spent half an hour clearing the miasma out of the young man’s spirit; they’d determined that he had a huge intrusion weighing him down. Impaling his neck from the back, it clenched around his chest. Worse, it was something active in the moment. In other words, there was someone on the other end.

“Hey, man,” his buddy said, “I’m pretty sure your girlfriend’s sorcerizing you.”

The young man managed to look concerned and sheepish at the same time. “She sneaks things onto my altar. I told her not to, but she doesn’t listen.”

After a sigh and a slow facepalm, the two spent a quarter of an hour interviewing him on all the things she had been up to. Little “pieces of art” on his altar had been the least of it. Her work was extensive and malign.

The three of them tried to remove the intrusion, but it resisted. They tried cutting the connection, but it just reattached. The kid’s spirit was a suppressed, holey mess.

The healer laid it out. “Alright, man. We’re going to ward the apartment. She’s probably going to call you as soon as we do. Don’t answer it.”

He looked doubtful. “Uh…okay.”

Reaching out with his own spirit, the healer awoke the home’s guardian. The spirit-walls came up with an almost palpable snap. The young man, twitched, yelped, and stood up straight. He took a deep breath of relief.

His cell phone rang.

The three looked over at the phone, then at each other. Something, or someone, began pounding on the shields.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Almost all religion recognizes that we, as people, are both spiritual and physical beings at the same time. But animism goes further – it’s not just us. There are spiritual aspects to everything in the world. For animists, having spirits doesn’t make us special, or good, or anything. Mountains, pebbles, oceans, raindrops, sharks, dolphins, algae, and Ebola: everything exists in both worlds at the same time.

The spirit world isn’t a nice place. It’s not somehow more wholesome than the everyday world. That’s not to say the spirit world’s a terrible, dangerous place, either. It’s like the everyday world, with good and bad, predator and prey. Whatever exists here, exists there.

1,353 feet (412 meters) above Wacker Drive in the Sears Tower, Chicago
Walking in both worlds — © Polly Peterson (2009) /

Since animists don’t turn a blind eye to the dark corners and dangers of the spirit world, it’s not uncommon for us to occasionally find ourselves stepping into the role of spirit healers. Mostly, we’re not great healers with legendary magical powers. That doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to those in need.

For those of us who knowingly walk in both worlds, I believe we have a duty to do some good. I don’t mean we should turn into selfless drones who think only of the greater good. But our knowledge can, and should, be used responsibly.

No Simple Answers

The spiritual world is powerful. Admittedly, it’s not the same kind of power as the everyday world. But everything that exists on one side also exists on the other. The spiritual doesn’t break the rules of science, so much as exist in a space outside of them.

a willow tree and its reflection in a small lake or pond
Everything that exists on one side exists on the other — © Polly Peterson (2009) /

If we imagine that the spirit world is greater than the everyday world, then we have simply exchanged one set of axioms for another. But if both sets can be true, then the universe is amazingly complex. If both of these sets of seemingly contradictory axioms are provisionally true in different contexts, then our concept of the universe becomes exponentially more complicated.

When we understand this, we can more clearly see the world in which we live. It’s a difficult step toward living in both worlds at the same time, but a necessary part of becoming more wholly ourselves.

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