Our culture tends to see power as ‘power over’; the word itself has become synonymous with abusive behaviour, assholes in suits, the political system and the struggle to control our world, individually and communally.
But while all of these are related to power, they are not truly power. Power, when we actually experience it, is not about what we control or do but about what we can draw on in the situation.
In animism, we talk a lot about relationships and how important they are. Power is one area where the quality of our relationships is crucial; when our relationships to the important things are strong, we have their power within us. Our relationships to death, love, truth, magic, meaning and our land are just some of the sources of power that we can build up and be changed by in our lives.
The power of these sources depends on how we relate with them and requires that we approach them with warriorship. The more challenging a relationship is for us, the more power we can claim from it. An excellent example is death, where a healthy relationship can transform the chains and restraints we have placed upon ourselves and leave us more free than we could imagine. But we have to be willing to face our own mortality and grief and pain to be able to claim this power.
This kind of power gives us the space to experience our lives on our own terms, to be creative with the situation to find solutions, to allow unhealthy constraints and relationships to fall away. It can give us the courage to tell the truth, or to lie without care if that’s safer. It can give us the strength to accept the inevitable loss and pain of an illness, and to find connection in shared trauma. It can give us the inspiration to tell a new story, reveal an alternative approach or forget our own worries as we work on behalf of others.
Power like this is what transforms lives and turns human beings into agents of change for themselves and their communities. This is the kind of power that can be wielded by those with the least control in our society; the deep, challenging truths that we learn when we confront the taboos of our culture can free us from their bonds completely.
Animism shows us that there are different types of power that we can draw on; the inborn power of our deepest natures, the power we claim through our experiences, the power we steal from others, the power we reject when it seems too big for us, the power we are given by our land and ancestors, the power we create when we work together as a community.
Each of these powers is something we can actively relate to on our own terms.
Without animism, we’re left with only questions about power. We see people in our culture asking these questions all the time, out loud or in action. How do I reclaim the power I lost in a trauma? How do I relate to my own power without being abusive? How do I turn my mortality and sense of loss into personal power? What is my power for? How do I live with it without letting it consuming me? Why does power frighten me so much? Why do people abuse their power?
The power over others and our environment is just one way that power manifests. It’s an unhealthy expression most of the time, and our lack of understanding of power has lead to this becoming the most common use of power. The understanding of power as something that we gain when we control and manipulate stems from our disconnection, insecurity, fear and confusion.
When we’re disconnected from the relationships we’re in, with our land, body, family, culture, we start to see them as overwhelming, invisible antagonists in our lives. We feel chaotically controlled by our world, and power becomes the way we attempt to wrestle control back. When we can’t relate to the feminine, expressions of femininity can become threatening; we feel we have to control and destroy those expressions in order to be safe.
If we can’t relate to the chaos and vastness of the earth and our dependence on it, we feel threatened and need to control, tame and destroy manifestations of that chaos and natural diversity. We may not realise that this is why we’re choosing these paths, but our damaged relationships are the driving force beneath them all the same.
When we’re unable to face the unsettling nature of our existence, our mortality and pain, the absurdity of our world, our insecurity pushes us to gain power over what’s upsetting us. We become more and more determined to stop reminders of our own instability and vulnerability, including other people who remind us of them.
This insecurity in our own existence drives us into more and more extreme attempts to eradicate the source of the discomfort. If we’re uncomfortable and insecure about the possiblity of become impoverished, our ability to empathise with the poor is pushed aside in favour of attacking and hiding them as the perceived ‘source’ of our insecurity.
Power is rooted in truth; we have to be able to see and accept the reality of the situation we all find ourselves in. The vulnerability of our lives, the looming mortality and discomfort and disappointment – we all live with this, but only those who face it can claim their power. If we lie to ourselves, we can’t engage with the relationships effectively, and we can’t create change inside ourselves or outside.
Robin Hobb writes in her Farseer books about the Warriors Prayer. It’s very simple, but in order to reclaim our power, it’s a potent one. Simply by saying ‘yes’ to the world and ourselves as we are, we can begin to see all the powers of life we hold the keys to.
What is power?
Many of us see power in a negative light; we don’t trust it, we don’t like it in others. It’s understandable – for a long time, our culture has seen power as the ability to do, especially the ability to do to others.
But through practicing animism, I’ve learnt that power is much more complicated than that. I’ve witnessed power in the moment of vulnerability, of healing, or grief. I’ve seen it in people who are creating through dance, paint, words, song. I’ve felt it in rhythm and darkness, the use of blood and bones, runes in the hands of a runemaster.
Power has been a running thread through my work, coming to understand it, reclaim it and hold it. I’ve seen it manifest in lots of different ways, both in myself and in other people; everyone seems to have a personal way of power.
Power is really the capacity to be present, to be real.
When I’ve found myself deeply challenged, being empowered has always been about standing where I am, being real and honest with myself.
When we think about people who are truly powerful – not simply politically but personally – who do we think of? People who have achieved great things, and also the quieter sort of person, who holds their own space completely.
These are both ways that people hold power; the power allows them to do what they do, but it stems from a deep knowledge and comfort with themselves, acceptance of what they are, where they are.
These are people who are real, and they appear it to everyone around them. They can seem to shine, to be bigger than life, or to be intimidating, or to be subtly alive in a way most people aren’t. They are full of their own power, and it imbues everything they do with energy.
People like this are quite rare, but there are many more of us who experience brief flashes of personal power. Moments when we are completely at ease with who we are and act from that space.
When we are absolutely certain of what we are doing.
These moments come when we can get out of our own way and allow our full power to flow through us and into the world. We can do this because the self doubt has gone quiet, and the paranoia about how we appear to others has eased. We can do it because our fears and uncertainty about what we are and what our life is about have fallen aside.
Moments like this are deeply inspiring and transformative, and they can influence our lives for a long time after they’ve passed. And we can create space for these moments to happen more frequently, and call on this power within us when we need it, by working with the principles and tools of animism.
My animist practice has taught me that this power is available to everyone, and can be accessed more easily when we practice it. The principle of warriorship is most important here, in that it pushes us to face the areas that we are uncomfortable – which are the places within us that get in the way of our power.
For example, I reclaimed a huge part of my power when I healed my fear of madness.
The backstory of this particular wound is that I come from a deeply athiest family that held no truck with spirituality or spirits or anything like animism, and my experiences as a child didn’t fit in that paradigm at all. I discovered that my experiences were considered ‘madness’ by my family and most people in my culture, and it was deeply frightening to believe that I was going to become lost in my own mind if I engaged with them.
When I challenged this fear, I used altars and crafting and ceremony to embrace the madness in myself, and to heal my relationship with it. This was a piece of healing work that required a lot of warriorship; I was facing a fear that really terrified me, getting really close to it, trying it on and accepting it as part of me.
This work returned a huge chunk of my power that I had lost for years, it was very very important. Because of the way our culture works, I don’t think I would have been able to reclaim this part of myself without a knowledge of animism and it’s methods. The way that I did the work was very intuitive, but without the framework of how to work with symbolism, intent, energy and power, it would have been very intimidating and confusing to attempt.
Power is vital when we want to make changes in the world.
Not because it allows us to overpower others but because it gives us the freedom to make our own choices, think our own thoughts, follow our own paths and stand our ground in our nature when things get challenging. If we can’t access our own power, we can’t withstand the pressures of the world that sway us, intimidate us, manipulate us and overwhelm us.
At the most extreme, power is what allows us to face an evil or destructive force.
When we can say – this is who I am, and I’m willing to die rather than betray myself – we have ultimate power. We may be subjected to all the pressure possible to change, but our power allows us to withstand – and when we are dealing with truly evil, destructive or cruel forces, this is the only way we can create change.
This is the power of the peaceful protest – the ability to say “we will not be dissuaded from our protest, no matter what you do”.
Power like that comes from facing the deepest of fears and wounds.
Our mortality, our nihilism, our grief and our lack of control. It may take many rounds of work, but we can come to accept these aspects of our lives, and learn to drawn strength from them.
When we can do that, we have the power not just to do, but to fully and freely be.