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What is Animism?
There are a lot of terms that get thrown around in the magickal community. Unfortunately, very few of them are intrinsically obvious. So I’ve been hearing people talk, off and on, about animism. Today I’m going to talk a little bit about animism, what it is, different animistic religions, and how you, as an eclectic witch, can learn from them.
- The belief that all things have spirits or souls.
- The practice of calling out to those spirits.
- The magickal effects, or attempts to engender magickal effects, of calling out those spirits.
Most pagan religions, at their core, have a degree of animism. Of course, some are much more explicit about it than others, and many only ascribe spirits to certain things, like particular animals or particular types of wood. The Druids, for example, had very specific tree species they would plant in sacred groves; learning what trees made the cut and which didn’t was one of the things that bards needed to memorize before they could begin their training as a druid in earnest.
Of course, native American beliefs are often animistic, where a Shaman communicates with the spirits, allows them into his body, and it’s in this way that people are able to talk directly to the spirits, ask it to help them with the weather, the crops, and all of the things one would traditionally associate with magic back in the day.
Many sub-Saharan African religions are a mixture of animistic practices and ancestral veneration, often having practitioners allow spirits into their body, whereupon they eat and drink foods and beverages that the spirits enjoy, enabling them to have a sensual experience that, being incorporeal, they usually cannot have.
Another famously animistic religion, Shinto, is a large part of why so much Japanese culture, and mythology in particular, has monsters all over the place. They’re representations of the spiritual force in all things, from trees to animals to stones. It’s by appeasing those spirits that you hope to achieve your goals!
Of course, it’s important to note that many neo-pagans have animistic ideas as well, not only by borrowing from other faiths, but because for many pagans, love of the Earth and environmentalism is an important part of their practice. By remembering the spiritual life and power of all things around them, they are constantly able to remind themselves to treat those things with respect.
Animistic religions, more than anything, are about the summoning of spirits. However—unlike goetic summoning, for example, where demons are summoned up and then bound to the will of the witch, all Animistic religions are about appeasing the spirits, and only once they are pleased, can you make requests. It’s always a cooperation, rather than a contest of wills!
Many different ways of doing this are practiced, depending on religious practices. Shinto, for example, sees people reenacting historical spiritual events, and praying to the spirits for assistance in a similar way to how an Asatru might pray to Thor. Like many religious traditions, they have complex rituals to achieve this, which are outside the scope of most witches.
A more common practice involves trance, and allowing spirits to overcome the practitioner—similar practices abound in charismatic Christian communities, where the Spirit of God is believed to take over a person’s body and allow them to speak in tongues and be healed. It’s this same thing that witches and magicians can harness in their own lives, to help with difficult times and to get them through potentially worrying situations.
What You Can Try
There are as many ways to enter a trance as there are religious practices. Nearly every religious faith has some idea of trance, though they’re phrased in different ways. Meditation, dream lodges, and nearly all forms of magical energy work, including qi gong and related eastern practices, all ultimately boil down to creating an altered state of consciousness.
Some people will recommend using mind-altering substances to achieve this, and while I cannot stop anyone from doing so, I personally recommend against it, and don’t intend to ever try it. I have few strong stances on what people can do with their bodies, but I believe that drugs are largely dangerous, and even if they weren’t illegal, it would be hard to justify that potential risk, against very little payoff.
My preferred way of entering an altered state of consciousness is through the “flow state.” Well, my preferred way is to make love, but that’s for different reasons, I don’t really practice a lot of sex magick. Just a healthy, red-blooded American!
Sometimes called “the zone,” I’ve heard people talking about the state of flow since I was a little boy. I think we all experience, as children, when you were reading and realized that all around you, things have been going on and you were completely lost in your own world. That’s because your body completely shut off all the external things, outside of the point where you were focused. That’s altering your state of consciousness, right there!
Most people lose that, when they get older. They can get into the zone occasionally, when they’re really feeling it, doing something they love. But what if I told you that you can do it any time, nearly at the drop of a hat? What if I told you that you could do it so readily on command that you could harness that power regularly, for ritual?
Once you enter that state of unconscious control, where your body acts and your mind steps back and lets things happen, that’s when you can allow other spirits to act through you, to experience through you. You can learn from them, and you can make requests of them, and in return, you trust them and allow them to experience being physical, being alive.
A word of caution: Don’t allow anything or anyone to control you. Like hypnosis, understand before you ever begin that you cannot be made to do anything you do not want to do. It’s as easy as stepping back into yourself, snapping out of that altered state. No matter what you think you’re interested in, make sure that you’re prepared to step in if things start to get out of hand, and make sure that you aren’t in a position to do anything you would regret. This is important for all magickal practice, but it’s that much more important when you’re allowing an outside entity into your head, even if it’s merely a passenger.
Entering the Flow State
When you enter any altered state of consciousness, whether it’s drunkenness, or sexual ecstasy, or exhaustion, you’re fundamentally altering the effectiveness of your mind’s ability to think and control your moment-to-moment actions. Almost always, you’re shutting down certain processes that are in some way not necessary to the more important tasks that you are completing.
In this way, for example, when meditating you can shut off the sound around you. Of course, your ears hear it, and of course, your body feels the floor, your nose smells, and so on. But by focusing your attention very carefully, you can just… not notice.
The state of flow is one way to enter this state, where the outside world seems to melt away, and you’re left with nothing but yourself and your mind. You’ll need to practice this for a while before you get the hang of it, but once you do, it’s very simple and very repeatable. Here’s a step-by-step overview:
Step 1 – Begin doing a task with which you are comfortably competent.
Step 2 – Increase your load until you are at your limit, and stay there.
Step 3 – Once you are settled in and comfortably achieving that load? Do more.
Let’s break that down, now. What do I mean by “comfortably competent”? Well, it’s important that you’re not doing something that’s going to feel awkward. This can be anything from writing, which was where I learned this skill, to unloading trucks, to shoveling sand, to doing squats. You need to be able to do it without thinking too hard. Of course, some thought is always necessary for any task. Your body, despite what it may seem like, cannot be operated if you cannot think!
Once you’ve got a repeatable, comfortable task, which you are reasonably confident in your ability to perform, you need to do more of it. What “more” means varies. When I’m writing, for example, my measure is words-per-minute. I go faster! More words per minute, more thoughts per minute, but the more that my fingers move, the less I have time for extraneous activity, or even thoughts. At some point, the only thing that exists is the sentence that I’m typing in that moment!
But “going faster” isn’t always good. Can you imagine if you were lifting weights, and you simply “went faster”? Your form would quickly break down, and long before you were able to have any sort of revelatory experience, you’d be injured. So in that case, you want to lift heavier weight. But again, safety and control is paramount. You need to be sure that what you’re doing is safe, before you try to push yourself.
Eventually, no matter how tight your tolerances, no matter how high your standards, if the standard is achievable, you will find that slack opens up. What seemed like an impossibly fast pace at first, becomes normal, and then what seems normal becomes easy. You can’t continue to rest on your laurels. That’s a good sign, that you’re getting used to difficulty, but that slack opening up is because you’re finding and correcting inefficiencies.
Those inefficiencies are where your thoughts are getting lost. You’re still able to think! And it’s important that you can’t, not when you want to be in the zone. Thoughts need to go away, and the only way to do that is to push yourself past your limits. So once you find your limits, and you begin to notice that you could actually push harder, push harder. Keep setting new goals, and keep pushing for more and more aggressive tolerances.
And then, eventually… you’ll be there. At the point where you can do nothing other than continue, if you hope to keep up. And it’s in that moment that you’ll find your peace, and it’s into that void that you’ve opened in yourself, which you can allow a spirit in. Inviting them is an important step, and treating them like a partner is the second.
Imagine for a moment if you were trying to get an essay done for a final, and you were able to use the wisdom of the trees! Imagine if you could gather up the strength and courage of a mother bear, protecting her cubs! Imagine if you were able to summon up the cunning of a fox, trying to get that promotion! Remember: everything around you is valuable, and everything deserves respect.
Treat everything with respect, ask for help and advice, and accept what you get. Keep trying! I know you can do it. Let me know how it goes—I hope, if nothing else, I’ve given some tips on how to increase productivity. But I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the effects it has on your magick, too.