“Becoming Traditional”: Animism, Culture, and the Newly Born

Animism, because it seeks to relate and converse with the world, rather than to define and control it, always renews itself. It wakes up every morning fresh and alive, and every evening it tucks itself to bed to dream again for the very first time. Since animism involves a relationship with the world, a living being that exists in the now, the present moment, what more relevant perspective could you find?

You’ll see this the opposite of science, a culture which, in spite of its ideals, constantly tries to discover “the ways things really are”. Imagine the culture-wide relief if civilization finally finished placing the last piece of the finite puzzle that science perceives.

Of course, the animists, with their puzzle of infinite pieces, laugh at such notions. Of such things only the civilized dream.

But we also know animist cultures to have very strong, very stable, very conservative traditions, enough so that we often call these peoples “traditionalists” or “traditional cultures”. How odd…adaptable, relevant, fresh cultures…yet also highly conservative, claiming their traditions rooted in the dawn of creation, and indeed many having lived the same way for thousands of years.

How do we explain the apparent paradox?

Well, we can come at it from a couple directions. Though Jean Piaget claims that children come into the world with animist behavior, this may play down the extent and the depth of a true animist relationship, as seen by indigenous peoples.

One hint of this came from reading this passage from Graham Harvey’s book, Animism:

This chapter is interested in the language, thoughts, and actions of people who are, to one degree or another, ‘traditional’…the possibility of ‘becoming traditional’ may seem contradictory, but even prior to contact with Europeans…tradition was always something aimed for and lived towards rather than simply inherited…

This matched perfectly with my past experiences. I’d long noticed that though our culture stereotypes native peoples (past and present) as “more spiritual”, this doesn’t hold at all. Just like with all individuals from all cultures, native persons choose the lives they want. Within native communities in the USA, you can find plenty of dissension over spiritual practices. Many modern native people, often under intense pressure from our culture, have abandoned their old traditions and models for success for american ones.

I do consider native cultures as the most supportive environments for anyone wanting a deep, vibrant relationship with the world. Much like science, whether or not any individual scienctist stays true to the ideals of the practice, the culture itself keeps the members on the right track. And you will find some individual scientists committed to the ideals of “reality therapy” and honest observation (again, within a rather rigid civilized wordview).

This holds doubly true for animist culture…not every member pursues the implications of an “all my relations” worldview as far as they could, but enough do so to impact the family and community (at least, where civilization has not crushed them out yet).

I’ve found you can identify someone’s culture by the stories they repeat. If you ever hear someone say, “My Grandmother tells a story…”, or “My elders like to tell this story in times like this…”, you’ve found the major way an animist can explore their traditions. They don’t necessarily say, “I believe this happened”, they usually say, “I have heard this tale”, implying that they still seek to understand it. You probably can immediately discern the difference between this attitude, and that of an adherent to a modern religion, such as Christianity. The bible “is” the word of God. End of story.

An apprentice to animism doesn’t have it all, from the first moment. They don’t understand even a tiny fraction of the wild nonliterate library of wisdom that awaits. But they’ve started the process. They have starting “becoming traditional”.

So in a sense, those of us born into the mainstream civilized culture, have a similar challenge to those with the good fortune to live their entire lives surrounded by indigenous wisdom. And it never ends…ask a native elder if they’ve finally “mastered tradition”, if they’ve stopped learning animism. You can guess how they’ll respond.

Don’t make yourself a stranger to a deeply familiar and familial relationship to the world. Don’t consider yourself a guest. Sure, you may have just begun, but so has the world.

Which means you have a lot of company today.

Written by Willem