A hallmark of human civilization is the habit we have of dividing the world up into “Us and Them”. The group that we describe as “Us” always deserves trust, respect, and the benefit of the doubt. The group we describe as “Them” is usually out to get “Us”, and their actions are suspicious if not downright hostile. Since we are being attacked by “Them”, it gives “Us” the right to do almost anything in self defense or even retaliation.
To make things even more complicated, we have a tendency to apply this segregation over vast expanses of time and space, dividing the people of many generations and geographies into these two groups. When picking “Us”, we tend to select those that can further our feeling of persecution, those who have been mistreated or betrayed. And, when picking “Them”, we choose the persecutors and betrayers.
Unfortunately, most of “Them” think of themselves as “Us”, and believe that we are “Them”. Since they can’t really be trusted, this is obviously a trick.
As an example, consider myself. I am a white male with ancestors stretching back to the British Empire. Not nearly enough persecution going on there… So, I identify primarily as “Pagan”. My “Us” includes most currently practicing Pagans, people who were murdered as part of the witch trials, and anyone ever persecuted for their religious beliefs, Pagan or not. My “Us” does carefully exclude Pagans whose practices are too eccentric for me, and Pagans that believe they are the only true Pagans. I also carefully exclude the ancient Roman Pagans who had the bad habit of feeding early Christians to lions for entertainment. Interestingly, I have to exclude those early Christians, too. Though they were certainly being persecuted for their religious beliefs, their modern counterparts are currently “in charge” in my country, so they have to be excluded to avoid confusion.
This gives me a nice simple “Us” that love the earth, respect each other, have never persecuted another group, and are generally not too crazy. And, not surprisingly, we are being persecuted by “Them”. My personal division of the world gives me lots of wonderful opportunities for righteous indignation and, if I am exceedingly lucky, perhaps even martyrdom. Though, I do hope the martyrdom happens to someone else, another one of “Us”, so I can fully savor it and, perhaps, start a blog.
Wants to Live Forever: Can I live forever?
Animist: That is a really long time.
Wants to Live Forever: Yep. I have lots to do.
Animist: I mean, a REALLY long time.
Wants to Live Forever: I have LOTS to do.
Animist: Alright, technically, you can’t live forever since you would have had to start at the beginning of time. I am assuming you are not an ancient being born with the universe, watching the creation and destruction of stars and galaxies for untold millennia, to finally end up here at this coffee shop asking me questions?
Wants to Live Forever: Maybe.
Wants to Live Forever: OK, no. I was born in 1972 in Broad Slab.
Animist: So the best you could do now is to never die.
Wants to Live Forever: That sounds good.
Wants to Live Forever: What do you mean?
Animist: Why would you want to live on when everyone and everything you know is gone? The sun has burned out; the entire universe is just a cold, dark soup of still matter. And you, living on, surrounded by nothing.
Wants to Live Forever: Yea, that sounds kinda depressing.
Animist: So, not forever, then. How long? How long is long enough?
Wants to Live Forever: Really long. How about a million years?
Animist: You are asking me?
Wants to Live Forever: No. A million years. I want to live a million years.
Animist: And how will that work? Will you just keep aging, or will you stay unchanged, or will you age until you would have died, then start over young again?
Wants to Live Forever: If I just keep aging for a million years… [shudder] No, that wouldn’t be good. Unchanged might work, but it would be hard to hide. I guess going through the normal cycle over and over would be the most practical.
Animist: Each time you start over, do you want to remember the time before?
Wants to Live Forever: Of course. What is the good of starting over if you can’t remember? If I can’t remember, it is not really me, is it?
Animist: So towards the end of your million years, you want to be a child with memories of 10,000 previous lifetimes? What is that going to be like? Almost a million years old, but waiting another 21 years before you can drink alcohol again? Going through puberty 10,000 times. Will you have different parents each time.
Wants to Live Forever: OK, this is getting silly. That’s not at all what I want. I just want to live longer.
Animist: Longer than what? And again, why?
Wants to Live Forever: Longer than, I don’t know… Longer than I would have lived. And because I don’t want to die.
Animist: Back to the same questions as before… How much longer? And why don’t you want to die.
Wants to Live Forever: I don’t know, just longer, until I’m ready. And I guess I am afraid.
Wants to Live Forever: What happens next? Is it just oblivion?
Animist: Maybe. Maybe it is something wonderful, or terrible, or just incomprehensible.
Wants to Live Forever: Not helping.
Animist: How about a story. When I was a child, I hated taking baths. My parents would have to go through massive trauma every night to make me stop playing with my toys and get in the bath tub. Once I was finally in the tub, though, I never wanted to get out. Playing with the suds and my plastic boats, fingers pruned up and the water getting cold, it was just as hard to get me out of the tub as it was to get me in. What I really hated was change. As a child, living mostly in the moment, no matter what I was doing, I wanted to just keep doing it, forever.
Wants to Live Forever: So, death is like a bath?
Animist: Yes, death, like every stage of life, is ultimately just a change, and we all simultaneously hate and love change. We fear the unknown and try to put off change as long as we can, but we get bored and suffer if we actually succeed.
Wants to Live Forever: So, I should look forward to death since it will be just as much fun as life?
Animist: No. You should stop worrying about death and just enjoy life (playing with your toys) right now. Whatever death is, you will find out soon enough, no matter what you do now.
Wants to Live Forever: So, living forever is not a good idea?
Animist: Not the way we are made. Not the way our world works.
Wants to Live Forever: Oh. So, you wanna play scrabble?
Animist: I thought you’d never ask.
There are many ways to enjoy Ice Cream. One way is with complete abandon, with an oblivious rapture that ignores any before or after, just reveling in the moment of the ice cream. This is a child’s domain, experiencing ice cream without thoughts of calories or exercise, without concern for the ethical treatment of dairy cows, and without disappointment if it doesn’t quite live up to the remembered ecstasy of Frrrozen Hot Chocolate from Serendipity.
As adults, we sometimes try to recapture that feeling of simple enjoyment, but the best we can do is a sort of forced innocence, only pretending to ourselves that we can enjoy the ice cream without context. Like reliving a Monty Python skit or visiting a childhood playground, this can be rewarding, but it can never actually be as good as the original experience. No matter how hard we try, we can’t intentionally forget all that we know. The punchlines can never again be a surprise, and we no longer really fit in the swings and slides that were bigger than life when we were children.
So, how can we really enjoy ice cream as adults? Embrace your knowledge, revel in the context, fully accept what brought the ice cream to you. Ancient man domesticated cows for their milk and chickens for their eggs, they cultivated vanilla beans, sugar cane, coco beans and a huge variety of fruits and nuts, all of this happening long before anyone dreamed of ice cream. Then someone invented refrigeration, first taking advantage of ice harvesting and insulation in colder climates, then building on thousands of years of metallurgy and fabrication, and taking advantage of the nature of gases to heat up under pressure to make refrigeration available anywhere there is adequate power. And, of course, that power has it’s own creation story. Finally, there are the actual cows the milk in your ice cream came from, the plants that provided the sugars and flavors, the machines that combine it all into ice cream, the people who help harvest, make, transport and sell you the ice cream. That is a lot, but it really only scratches the surface.
And finally, there is the ice cream itself. The culmination of creation, invention and work by plants, animals, machines and people, ice cream is the product of thousands of years of thoughts and ideas, and it exists now only to be eaten, to nourish, and to be enjoyed, every mouthful savored, and then taken into our bodies where we will draw energy from it, and incorporate elements of it in to our very structure.
So, as you take each spoonful, give it the reverence it deserves, recognizing the long, complex chain of life and creation that brought it to you, and feeling the joy the ice cream itself experiences as it fulfills its own purpose, to be eaten, to be enjoyed, and to nourish. And when you finish the bowl, remember the ice cream is not really gone, it has just become a part of you, part of the even longer, more complex chain of life and creation that makes you part of this world.
Wants to be a Wizard: Can I do magic?
Animist: Yes, of course. Everyone can. You are doing it right now, as you live and breath and talk with me.
Wants to be a Wizard: No, real magic.
Animist: If by real magic you mean make things move around or fly, sure.
Wants to be a Wizard: So I can fly?
Animist: Yes, briefly. I don’t recommend it.
Wants to be a Wizard: Very funny. I’m serious, though. I mean doing something that can’t be explained.
Animist: When I said, “You are doing it right now,” I was serious, too. We know a lot about human physiology, but there are still huge mysteries at the lowest levels. The same is true of forces we take for granted, like gravity and electricity. Nobody on the planet, not even the most advanced scientists, really know what those things are. We know a lot about what they do and how to use them, but what they really are is still a complete mystery. So, though we have made huge advances in genetics, in understanding how cells convert energy into sugar and back again, and in figuring out how specific living organisms function, we still don’t know exactly what “life” is. We know less about being alive than we do about magnetism, and we don’t really know what that is either.
Wants to be a Wizard: So, me just sitting here breathing is magic?
Animist: Yes, and formulating and asking that question is even more magical. The number of things we don’t understand that had to happen within you for you to ask that question is staggering.
Wants to be a Wizard: Fine, so it’s all magic. Got it. But you know what I am really asking.
Animist: Yes, I think I do.
Wants to be a Wizard: Well?
Animist: I am actually not sure how to answer this without sounding like a loony.
Wants to be a Wizard: Go ahead. No judgement here. I promise.
Animist: So I don’t actually know what might be possible. I know what I want to believe, though. One way to say it is that I think the universe is full of wiggle room. I think we can affect the world around us in unexpected and difficult to quantify ways. A recent study on coin flipping drew a small correlation between the side of the coin that was up before the flip. In other words, when many people flip many coins, there was a slight statistical leaning towards the last side of the coin they looked at. The difference was small, but very consistent. An important point is that there was just a correlation, with no proof that the person seeing that side last actually had anything to do with the surprising result. It should be noted that this was not the point of the study, either. The test subjects were not instructed to attempt to affect the outcome with their minds, or any such silliness. It just happened that way.
Wants to be a Wizard: So you think you can affect the universe, just a little bit, with the power of your mind.
Animist: Not exactly. What I believe is actually more grandiose. I think everything in the universe can be affected by everything else in the universe in many ways, including some science can’t yet explain, and may never explain. The coin toss study is just an example.
Wants to be a Wizard: So, no flying for me.
Animist: Maybe, but I don’t know how to do it. Unless you figure out a way to hide from gravity and dampen inertia, the forces involved to lift and move you around up in the sky far exceed the wiggle room that I believe exists in our universe. Still, we don’t really understand what either of those things really are, so time will tell.
Wants to be a Wizard: You keep mentioning “wiggle room”. What’s that, exactly?
Animist: That is hard to put in a sentence, so settle in… I am talking about the slightly fuzzy area between everything we know and understand, and what actually is. The concept is based on the fact that our universe is mostly filled with assumptions. So, there was a time when everyone knew light traveled instantaneously. We know now that it travels at 300 million meters every second. Though that is truly fast, it’s infinitely slower than instantaneous. So, the difference between what we knew, light travels instantaneously, and what actually is, that light travels at 300 million meters/second, was wiggle room. Any tests or experiments that showed light traveling slower than instantaneously were met with well deserved scepticism, with increasingly complex and convoluted explanations made for the discrepancy. Relativity, quantum physics, and a host of other theories and concepts that have yet to be dreamed, fine tune what we know, changing wiggle room into science.
Wants to be a Wizard: So, how do I use this wiggle room to make magic?
Animist: The traditional path in western society is science, a carefully organized process of prediction and testing, with rejection of accepted wisdom considered a virtue. Of course, even the scientific method itself is theoretical. Most scientists, similar to the rest of us humans, have a tendency to revere existing beliefs, accepting new ideas only by general consensus throughout the scientific community. This works out well since most new ideas are rubbish, so we save a lot of time by limiting how much effort we put into unproven ideas. In general, due to its rigorous nature and careful approach, science is the most effective way we have found so far to create new wisdom.
Wants to be a Wizard: So, I should become a scientist?
Wants to be a Wizard: Will there be math?
Wants to be a Wizard: So, what is another way to make magic?
Animist: If you can’t be a scientist, teasing new wisdom from the complexity of our universe, you could go in the opposite direction, studying tried and true ancient practices to gain wisdom that is anything but new. Eastern civilization is probably a good place to start. They have a written tradition going back over 6,000 years. In 6,000 years you can put together a huge amount of wisdom, no matter how inefficient the process might seem. While modern science is still just touching the surface on the affects various organic compounds have on us, ancient texts provide over 100,000 ready-to-use medicinal recipes. For a huge percentage of these, their effects are well accepted in various communities based on hundreds or even thousands of years of uninterrupted use, even though they have not yet been tested and classified for modern medicine.
Wants to be a Wizard: That sounds like a lot of studying and reading.
Wants to be a Wizard: Reading makes me sleepy.
Animist: Yes. OK. Then there is acupuncture, reflexology, astrology and hundreds of other ancient traditions that still live in the wiggle room.
Wants to be a Wizard: Astrology?
Wants to be a Wizard: Math?
Animist: Yes, lots.
Wants to be a Wizard: Is there anything else?
Animist: Let me get this straight. You want to learn magic, but without reading or math?
Wants to be a Wizard: Yes.
Animist: Have you tried body english?
Wants to be a Wizard: What?
Animist: “English” is a billiards term. It refers to hitting the ball off-center, causing it to spin as it travels. The results can look amazing, with the cue ball executing a smooth curve to scoot around one ball in order to hit another that was behind it. “Body english” refers to the attempt to change the path of a ball already in motion just by leaning your body. Though most people “know” that simply leaning to one side or the other will have no effect on a ball already in motion, almost everyone has tried it anyway, often without even being aware of it. The same technique is used to keep a tennis ball inbounds, or to make a field goal attempt pass between the posts. Though we “know” it can’t work, we all unconsciously try it everyday on stop lights, grocery store lines, and baseballs, constantly trying to make the entire world around us act more to our liking.
Wants to be a Wizard: So it doesn’t work?
Animist: Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. Remember the coin flipping study? I think that after hundreds of flips, some people might begin to connect with the coin on some level, and their affinity for the side they stare at before the flip is having an effect. I think the magic is finding that connection, effectively becoming one with the object of your attention. Single minded focus, gathering and concentrating your will, then connecting with the object of your intention somehow in the wiggle room of our universe, these are the most basic elements of all effective spell work, prayer and golf.
Wants to be a Wizard: So, you just have to want something really bad, and you can make it happen.
Animist: Not likely. The techniques for real focus and concentration are difficult, taking years of training and practice to master. And even more difficult is the concept of connecting, becoming one with the object of your intentions, and melding your intentions with it. In other words, you are not “making” things happen. It might better be described as establishing a rapport with the forces in play, creating a shared interest with those forces. And the process has to be a two-way street, where your own intent is swayed in return.
Wants to be a Wizard: That sounds like a lot of work for such a small reward.
Animist: I don’t think so. Small changes in just the right place and time can have a huge effect. And by really connecting with everything around you, your own desires and needs begin to change, ceasing to always be at odds with your environment. You gain not only more power to change your world, but at the same time you gain acceptance of things you cannot change, maybe even satisfaction and joy from those things.
Wants to be a Wizard: And if I really want to fly?
Animist: You should probably become a scientist. You might start with quantum locking. You’ll need a crystal sapphire wafer, some yttrium barium copper oxide, some liquid nitrogen, a really big magnet and a strong grasp of materials science, ceramics engineering and graduate-level physics.
Wants to be a Wizard: Any other ways to make magic?
Animist: Probably as many as there are stars in the universe, but I think one basic rule applies to all of them. You can think of it as the magic word: TINSTAAFL.
Wants to be a Wizard: What?
Animist: There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Wants to be a Wizard: Oh. … So, you wanna go for a ride in my van?
There are as many definitions of Animism as there are people on that path. Terms like Modern Animism, Primitive Animism and Bio-regional Animism have been created, defined, then redefined over the last century, and it can all be very confusing. For the purposes of Illusive Shadows, I’ll define Practical Animism here, with the understanding that there are other definitions out there.
Let’s start with Animism. Here is the dictionary definition. (WARNING: Skip over the next three lines if, like me, reading big words makes you sleepy)
… 1. a doctrine that the vital principle of organic development is immaterial spirit
… 2. attribution of conscious life to objects and phenomena of nature or to inanimate objects
… 3. belief in the existence of spirits separable from bodies
Wow. That was REALLY dry, which is not a surprise from a dictionary. Let’s make this all more accessible. For starters, let’s call the “immaterial spirit”, which is a real mouthful, the “spark”. With that term, I’ll lay out a few beliefs…
All things host a spark.
… And I mean ALL things. People, animals, plants, rocks, rivers, clouds, planets, and ideas.
Sparks have desires.
… This implies consciousness and free will. So a river wants to flow, and rain wants to fall.
Sparks can affect their host.
… When a host has a choice its spark affects that choice. Nothing is really random.
Sparks are aware of each other.
… Sparks can combine their wills when they agree. Everything is connected.
Given these four deceptively simple affirmations, a huge variety of very complex and very different belief structures can be created. This is where we come to the Practical part. How do we apply these simple affirmations to our lives? Since there is no way to know if any of this is really true, I am suggesting a practical approach. In this approach, we will create a practice that follows this one all important guideline:
Your practice must have a positive effect that is separate from your religious beliefs.
This is actually a hard rule to follow. The idea is that anything we do based on our religious beliefs must have some benefit, even if the religion turns out to be myth. The inverse is that you must never justify a negative act with your religious beliefs. Of course, the definitions of positive and negative are open to interpretation, which is where all the hard work lies.
And that is the purpose of this blog, to study the complex ethical and moral dilemmas that arise when you live your life according to these simple beliefs. In each post I will try to examine some ethical question, guess how the spark for some object sees the world, or provide elements that can be used in meditation or ritual.
… If I can help someone, must I? Should I?
… Should I be a vegetarian, or is it fine to eat animals if they were treated well?
… What does a birthday cake want?
… How can I invoke the Beaver to help me stop procrastinating? Let’s face it, beavers get it done, or die. They really know how to stick with a job.
And the list goes on and on. See you on the ether!
So, the hardest part is getting started, and the pressure to write something profound for the first post is intense. Instead of pushing against that pressure, or bending to it, I am simply turning aside to let it wash past me. Years of thoughts and ideas, all clamoring to be the first on the page, are now blowing past me to litter the path ahead. I’ll pick them up as I come to them.