An exploration of animist ethics.

The question to ask is ultimately a simple one. What does animism have to do with ethics? And how can and should it inform the way we live our lives?

Let us start with something that you have undoubtedly heard before. The notion that love should be at the center of things. That is what every philosopher and every religion worth following ultimately teaches. And animism is no different from that. A life well lived is one that has love as its core motivation.

You may think that to be a simplistic and rather naive notion, one that tends to ignore the current state of the world, and looks at life through rose-tinted glasses. But nothing could be further from the truth. There is no emotion that hurts more deeply than love, and also no emotion that is more efficient at reminding us that we are far, far stronger than we imagine ourselves to be. The force that allows us to work miracles and makes us forget about our own smallness.

That then, is the only ethical imperative there is: to have the courage to feel, and to live our emotions. To not walk away when the going gets hard, but rather draw on our understanding of interconnectedness to keep going. To not hesitate to give back more than we have received ourselves. Just because we love.

What makes this a different statement from the version you usually hear is that we do not start from the assumption that love should only include the human tribe. Rather, the animistic view is that everyone of us is connected to the greater web of existence, and that every single person within that web has an equal right of being loved. That includes those we generally tend to leave out, like the wrapper of our snack and the trash we throw out without second thought.

How to practice this? As anyone who has ever loved knows, the first step is making a soul connection. For once that connection has been forged, it will be impossible for us to ever see that other as separate from ourselves again, and we will feel the pain of the other as our own.

 

There are then, two steps that lead us on the path of ethical living.

The first is a commitment to awareness. If you would ever make an oath to bind yourself to a more ethical way of life, this is what you should do. Simply promise that you will make connection. Every moment of every day. Not just when you pass an other human being in the street, but also when you pick up that bit of trash on your nature walk, or when you consider your next purchase or are making plans that will effect the land in some way. Before you make a decision, take a moment to close your eyes and connect. Ask all of those who are affected by your action to be present. Ask them how they feel and look them in the eye. Ask permission. Listen to the voices from the other side. Then promise to take these into consideration in equal measure to your own needs.

Note that these are not easy exercises to do, and we acknowledge that this is not something you can do every moment of every day, especially not at first. So let your commitment be to do this every morning, relating to the first decision you need to take that day. Promise yourself to let that one be guided by your sense of connectedness.

The second step is compassion. It is in understanding that you are part of the web, and that all of us have moments of weakness, times when we simply are not up to carrying the burdens of others, because we are already burdened beyond our ability to carry. If you see this in your environment, make it a habit to step up where you can. This can be as simple as showing that you noticed, that you are available when help is needed, or it can be that there is something specific that you know you can do to alleviate the burden. This you should do without waiting to be asked for it. If you are called by your consciousness to act, see that as a sign that you are the right person to do it. And remember once again that this observation extends well beyond the human web. This holds no matter who that other might be. Your connectedness requires you to help carry the burden of others when you can.

And lastly, there is a reminder that sometimes you might be the one who needs help. There is no shame in this. It happens to all of us, and it is part of the adventure of living. And also in this case, your duty is to the web. The imperative this time is to find the courage to not be ashamed to ask for help.

These suggestions may sound ridiculously easy, but ultimately they are all that is needed. A continued effort to live up to this norm is all that is needed to heal the world and make it a healthy and thriving place for all of its inhabitants, human and non-human.

Beith is a druid who likes to wander through the forest, inviting the trees to be her teachers in life. She also runs a personal blog about her druid journey, that can be found at wandering-the-woods.com. In real life she’s a mathematician, trying to walk the boundary between the rational and the irrational.

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11 thoughts on “An exploration of animist ethics.

  1. This is one of the greatest gifts animism can give to the world – a grounding of our ethics in love and relationship rather than the supposed primacy of objective logic on one side and immutable divine commands on the other. Recognising our place in the web, as animals ourselves within the wider ecosystems of Being, changes everything.

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  2. HI Beith, Iʻm glad you are starting this conversation with your thoughtful essay. I see animist ethics slightly differently, but with full respect for your perspective. I see animist ethics as fundamentally grounded in shared being, and our human recognition of that shared being. But the difference is merely a shading of the essential point, which I think Ryan expresses very well in his last sentence above.

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