The New Age is “an eclectic group of cultural attitudes … that are adapted from those of a variety of ancient and modern cultures, that emphasize beliefs outside the mainstream“.*
It is rooted in the Western counter-culture movement of the 1960s, and began as a search for alternative approaches to spirituality and health. As such, it shares some features of animism and is often confused with animism by both animist practitioners and followers of the New Age.
The New Age has no universal rules, hierarchy or source texts, just like animism. It also recognises the value of nature and intuition, and it can’t be defined as a religion, philosophy or life style, again like animism.
But animism is not the New Age.
Animism is ancient and inherent to humanity. We know that our most ancient ancestors behaved in ways that we now call animistic, and that children will create animist practices of their own volition when given space to do so.
Whereas the New Age is modern, only a few decades old, and derived from Western European rejection of monotheistic laws and mores; not so much reclaimed as created.
Animism is practical and experiential.
It’s focus is on finding the methods and ideas that help in a specific situation, rather than on following a particular belief. It embraces experiences, even when they challenge previous ideas, and is therefore flexible.
The New Age is focused on belief or aesthetic over practicality, as can be seen in the anti-vaccine movement and the proliferation of New Age marketing. It also often requires ongoing access to teachers, equipment and events in order to engage with it’s practices, in contrast to animism which can be practiced in isolation without external teaching or certification.
And animism belongs to everyone, regardless of ancestry.
The New Age has been commodified into an exclusive product for a select few. Participation in the New Age movement is highly segregated by class, language and race, because of it’s roots within collonialism, racism, appropriation, capitalism and the romanticisation of non-Western cultures.
Animism, on the other hand, is far older than collonialism; and it requires that we examine our prejudices in order to be effective. It is available to all people, without needing them to appropriate from other cultures, because it’s ancient enough that everyone has their own, local heritage of animism. And because of how personal and inherent animism is, it has so far escaped commodification.
In a way, the New Age is a modern, Western approximation of animism.
Born of a yearning for spiritual sovereignty, nature and freedom, it speaks of our need for the methods and maps that help us navigate the web of our relationships. But animism goes far deeper, and is much more accessible, than the New Age movement. When we reclaim animism for ourselves, we can step beyond the need for it’s facsimile.
Animism is as diverse as it is potent.
There are no laws, rules or dogma that apply across animism, and there are no universal texts, beliefs, teachers or teachings in animism. All animist practitioners are different, and see their practice differently.
Saying this, it can be difficult for beginners and newcomers to get a grip on how to begin an animist practice. To be able to understand animism,we have to do it rather than read about it, but this is hard when we don’t really understand how it works or why.
The following principles are the foundations of animist practice, found in animism throughout the world, no matter the languages and or form. When we approach animism for the first time, these principles give us a solid base from which to have our own experiences and come to our own understanding.
Workability means that the universe is workable; we aren’t merely passive objects in our lives, but active participants. We can change things, direct ourselves, make decisions, break and destroy, create and maintain.
It doesn’t mean that we can force our lives into the exact shape that we wish, or change the people around us, or change the way nature works. But it does mean that we can work in partnership with our relationships to people, objects and that fabric of reality.
Relationship means recognising that we are always in relationship with everything in our lives, and that these relationships are crucially important. We are not islands; we exist in an infinite web of connection, movement, pattern, energy, emotion, causality.
In animism, these relationships are the means through which we work with the world. Almost all animist practices work through these relationships; enhancing, deepening, pruning, rooting, nourishing, taking space from or cutting them off.
Warriorship is the word I use for the blend of courage, discipline and integrity that animism requires from us in order to be useful. Without these qualities, animism can’t work in our lives; we will always be sabotaging ourselves.
But animism recognises that these are not static qualities. We can grow them and learn how to access them better through specific practices. And we can express them in varied ways; not just through physical courage, but through a huge spectrum of internal and external behaviour.
Nature is vastly important in animism throughout the world. This isn’t because nature is ‘better’ or ‘safer’, as is often misunderstood in Western distortions of animism, but rather because it is the heart of who and what we are as a species.
Animists remember that we are animals, and that this animal nature must be honoured for us to be healthy. Nature reminds us of the importance of our own individual natures; it provides deep teachings about freedom, mortality, power, health and relationships.
Imagination is the language of animism. It lets us understand the areas of life that are non-linear, non-rational, inaudible, invisible, unpredictable, uncertain and yet vital.
Imagination is used every time we use animist tools, from divination to spirit communication; it is the sense we use to interpret the world. It is, like warriorship, a skill that we can develop through practice, and it will grow as your animist practice does.
Having your own relationship with these principles will mean that the foundation of your animism is strong and reliable.
Silence is a practice in many spiritual traditions. In animism, silence works to increase awareness, connection and knowledge of our relationships.
Practicing silence is such a common and important tool because it allows us the space to get to know ourselves, to experience our inner worlds and at the same time become aware of the more subtle aspects of our relationships with everything around us.
Silence can be an act of power that develops our warriorship, and can strengthen our imaginations by getting rid of distractions and giving us a space to work within creatively.
And combining silence with the natural world can by particularly powerful; by allowing our human words and concepts to fall away for a time, we get to experience how nature communicates, and how that relates to our own inner natures.
Silence is a perfect tool for when:
- We’re feeling overwhelmed by our day to day lives and need some space to let everyone unwind before we can work with it.
- We’re working with a deeply held or complex pattern of feeling and energy within us, one that needs to be coaxed into a form we can work with.
- We’re open to establishing a more conscious relationship with a space, element or spirit of nature, where language and symbolism isn’t as useful.
- We’re looking to increase the power of another practice, such as ceremony or altar work.
- We need a socially acceptable act of power to work with throughout the day.
- We’re exhausted and depleted energetically and need to spend some time recovering ourselves and our energy.
- We need to truly see a situation so that we can accept it.
To use silence as a practice, we simply need to be silent. This practice doesn’t require that our environment is silent, although that can sometimes help, but rather that we ourselves become comfortable not talking.
This is easier at first when we’re alone, especially out in the wilds. But as we strengthen this practice, we can practice silence around other people, either privately or in community.
For more about the fundamental principles of animism, join the free 12 week Foundation in Animism course here:
Working with the elements is about working with the essential fabric of reality; most cultures have envisioned that reality has five fundamental elements, through which we can work with reality itself. The most common variation is earth, fire, water, air and spirit or void.
Working with the elements allows us to go beyond human concepts and language, to the heart of experience. The elements wind through everything that exists, and so in working with them we can work with our relationships to the whole of creation.
Working with the element is helpful when:
- We need to access a relationship that’s abstract or not grounded in physical reality, such as relationship to an emotion.
- We need to explore the underlying feelings and patterns of a relationship.
- We need to solve a problem that we can’t put into words.
- We’re experiencing a journey that needs map points to guide by.
Element work involves using the foundation tools such as ceremony and altars to express different aspects of an element. We can use any system of elements that is familiar and makes sense to us, but we have to remember to stay within that system so we don’t start to mix systems up.
For more about ceremony and altars – the foundations of element work – join the free 12 week Foundation in Animism course here:
Animal work is the collection of practices and approaches that center around learning from the wisdom of animals.
Animal work allows us to listen with different ears, see with different eyes and work with our lives from a different perspective. Through working with the nature of an animal, we can engage with our own wilder nature; each animal aspect lives within us as well, and has a lot of teach us if we can only find it.
When we become disconnected from our animal natures, we become disconnected from what it means to be fully human and instead become dull, stressed and possibly damaging to the world around us.
Animal work is especially helpful when:
- We need a new perspective on a problem or situation.
- We’re feeling low, dull or uninspired.
- We’ve lost touch with our power and how to wield it well.
- We need to be reminded of our priorities in life.
- We need to gather up some more of our power for a new endeavor.
Animal work uses the foundation tools of animism – ceremony, altars, crafting, divination – to make contact with a specific animal and listen to what it has to teach us. We use all of our senses to engage with these teachings, eventually embodying them in our own bodies and in our crafts.
For more about ceremony, altar work and crafting – the foundations of animal work – join the free 12 week Foundation in Animism course here: