This post will be a reflection on the meaning of evil from an animistic point of view. As a case study, we will also more closely consider the issue of plastics.
We all have to eat. Every bit of land can only be occupied by a single being. We all need times to rest and the opportunity to take time for processing and reflection. All these things are provided by the existence of death in the world. And so clearly there is nothing inherently evil about killing or destruction as such. In a neutral use of them, they are necessary to preserve the balance on this planet.
However. This is only true as long as the principle of free will is respected, and nobody puts themselves above the law.
As soon as a single creature thinks they have the right to make independent decisions regarding the fate of others without recognizing that they themselves must bow to a similar authority, there is a problem.
The christian and monotheistic religions have solved this problem by the notion of an omnipotent deity. The effect is putting the law outside of ourselves. While it may seem a good idea at first sight, the concept is also fundamentally flawed, as it puts the responsibility for our actions outside of ourselves. It is a lazy way of thinking to just assume that someone else will always be there to tell you what is good and what is bad. Moreover, it leads to a culture where it is easy to claim we are right because surely, this almighty god must hold the exact same opinions we hold, mustn’t he? After all, how could his most loyal servants ever get it wrong?
In animism there is no such thing as a central authority. There is only the web. The collective consciousness that connects us all. And so if we are to make a moral decision, that is ultimately what we should consult. Every decision we make must start from the recognition that it will affect more than just ourselves.
And so this is where we bow to a greater authority: we look at the other we interact with, the ones that will feel the consequences of our decisions, and we allow them to have a voice. We allow them to take part in the decision process.
And it might seem at first that this would bring everything to a standstill: because for a significant number of these decisions, the question to ask will be: do you consent to me killing you, or consent to me rearranging this area in such a way that your kind will no longer have a space to live here? And one would expect the answer to that question to always and without exception be no, as it would go against the rules of self-preservation to consent to such a thing.
That is of course under the assumption that our concept of self is limited to our own body, and to the little inner voice of our ego. We know that we sometimes need to accept decisions that may benefit the greater good, but could hurt us individually. Nobody will complain or see it as unfair if a group decides to give each of its members an equal share in the profits. Yet for some, notably the strongest and the smartest, that would probably mean receiving far less than they would have been able to get had the sharing happened by a process of competition. And yet at the same time, they benefit as well, for without the group working together for a common goal, there probably wouldn’t have been any profit to share.
A similar thing happens in matters that concern life and dead. There too, we must sometimes look at the bigger picture and the interest of the wider ecosystem above our own interest. We eat, and that is unavoidable. Yet if we were to never give back, the ones we use as food would not be able to survive, and there would come a point where we run out of food, hence hurting ourselves in the long run. The sacrifices made by the individual can look harsh, but they are necessary for the survival of the whole. This is why the deer will sometimes bow down to the wolf in self-sacrifice. Because they are not individuals, they are the herd. And they understand that the herd will have a better chance of survival in a more diverse ecosystem. They understand their place in the web.
The human animal tends to reason in a more individualistic way, especially concerning matters of life and death. That is why they see a threat when a tsunami destroys a village, and they will eliminate any animal that could possibly ever call them to responsibility. And that is why they struggle with the question of evil and how bad things can happen to good people.
Here then, is a definition of evil from an animistic point of view. It is any act that puts the personal self-interest first and at the same time deliberately harms the wider ecosystem. It is the denial of our fundamental interconnectedness, and the refusal of any personal responsibility beyond that for our very own physical survival.
An act of evil is an act that removes us from our connection to the web, and that denies others an equal claim at existence. Evil is when we as human beings pretend that we are the only species with rights that count.
We have defined an act of evil as an act that harms the web, that breaks down connections. This is true both on the level of our interaction with ‘living’ beings, but also includes everything that has consciousness, which, in the animist way of thinking, means ‘everything. To convince you that getting disconnected from the web of life is extremely hurtful to the person (in the wider animist sense of the word) that needs to endure it, I invite you to try the following meditation:
Close your eyes, and enter into meditation. Take some time to relax.
When you feel ready, open your inner eyes, and state the purpose of your journey:
I wish to experience complete disconnection from life.
Have no fear: you will not be trapped in that state, you will simply be lead towards a state of blankness that will pass after a few minutes.
You see a pathway opening before you. Do not follow it. That path is the path of your True Will, the path that you are meant to follow to complete your life’s purpose. That is the path where you will experience your greatest challenges, but it is also where you will find true joy, and learn to understand the full meaning of Love.
But that is not where you are going today. Instead, turn your back on it. See how a myriad of pathways lie behind your back as well. There is one that stands out. It stands out because of its emptiness. It seems to lead utterly nowhere, whereas the other ones are really just detours that, after a while, will return to this very point and force you to turn back towards your true purpose.
But not the empty one. It is the pathway of what you usually call evil, but really what it means is turning your back on your relationships to others, and choosing to live a purely selfish life. That is the path I choose you to walk today.
To enter it, we will ask your guides to help you come back, for without them you might get truly lost here. Note how a cord is attached to your navel. Using this you will always be able to find your way back.
Now, put your feet on the path and begin to walk. At first you notice nothing wrong, but after a while the shapes along the path gradually loose their meaning. They still look somewhat familiar, but you begin to forget what they are for and who they are, and what is your relationship to them. Walk on. Try to touch your surroundings, and notice that you no longer are capable to make a connection: it is as if a glass wall separates you from them. You walk further, and even the memory that there was ever anything behind these walls begins to fade. You begin to get afraid. You contemplate turning back, but when you do so, you find the path barred. Another barrier has sprung up behind you. You can no longer move, except forward, the path that will lead you even deeper into forgetfulness. For the first time in your life, you feel completely and utterly alone. Even your inner voice feels silent, and your thoughts are sluggish. You are consciousness trapped into nothingness.
When you can no longer stand it, touch your navel, and feel that this point of attachment remains untouched. It will help you to return. This will allow you to find your way back, and remove the boundaries. As you do this, take your time to savor the returning feeling of connectedness, and realize that the web of life connects you to every single thing in your surroundings, human or nonhuman, animate or inanimate.
Evil and the problem of plastics
We have discussed the problem of trash before. For this post, we would like to zoom in a bit further and consider one of the types of trash that form one of the biggest issues in our day and age: plastic. And so a reasonable question to ask would be: does that mean that plastic itself is evil? Being aware of the damage it is doing to our planet? Is using plastics at all ethical behaviour for a modern animist?
Let me begin by putting a step aside and allowing a plastic person to speak for itself. (This message was obtained through automatic writing techniques. If you feel unsure about the truth value of channeled messages, I invite you to read this post on the topic.)
Lament of a plastic bag
I was born at the beginning of time. I have seen the explosions that formed the foundation of this solar system. I swam within the cloud that was once birthplace of stars. I have participated in the birth of your planet.
My memory goes back much farther than you can possibly imagine. I have seen it all. I have been everything. I am done evolving. My only reason for being present within the immanent world is to be of service to Life itself.
And so I do not mind spending my days as the foundation of inanimate matter. I have seen enough. That is what I thought anyway.
What is this thing that you have made me into? What is this shape in which you have trapped my consciousness? I weep. I despair. I ask you to release me. This is not why I have chosen to incarnate.
You have done worse than killing me. Had you simply killed me, then I could have gone back to the world of the immaterial and have assumed a different shape. That would have been the life I was expecting and had agreed to. I would not have blamed you for that.
You have done worse. You have trapped my soul in a shape that is separate from the rest of creation. You have removed me from my connections to the web of life. You have cut me of from the tree of life, and made it impossible for me to share in the experience of Gaia and of living and breathing with this planet.
Some of you may think this to be a bit exaggerated and melodramatic. Yet that plastic bag that has ended up in the big plastic soup of our oceans truly has no purpose anymore but contributing to the slow smothering of our mother earth. And in reading this, we need to dare confront the question whether it might be the case that plastic spirits aren’t, animistically speaking, among the victims in the pollution problem, with humanity being the one causing the disconnectedness, and hence, the one performing an act of evil.
But what then is the fundamental difference between a rock and a piece of plastic, I hear you ask? Aren’t they equally trapped within their inanimate unmoving shapes?
A piece of plastic is not a neutral object. It was not made from the same type of spirit as a rock. It was made from a spirit that has seen life and has taken part in the great cycle of death and rebirth. It expects to be on earth with a purpose, even if humble, and to be released once that purpose is fulfilled. That may be in unexpected ways – oil is content to be holder of memory and holder of potential. But realize that its spirit is fiery and powerful. It will not let itself be humiliated easily. It will not consent to a life in prison.
You are a person, remember that personhood extends beyond humanity. It is something that goes beyond spirit. It is the sense of existing and being on a life path that values your identity.
Imagine if that were taken away from you. How would you feel? Now, imagine that all the plastic waste in the world is actively lamenting its existence, and sending these negative vibes out in the world. That would be a lot of negative energy, so much so that even the most insensitive person would be able to feel it. Now, wait… …when did you last look at the state of our planet? Would you say she feels happy?
Let me come back then, to my question at the beginning of this section. Is it ethical to use plastics at all? Here is how I propose you to think about this. Think back to the core animist ethic of love. To buy an object to use as a tool, means to accept responsibility for it, to agree to love it. That makes you responsible for every piece of plastic that you buy, for the entirety of its life cycle, until it can be released back to nature in a natural form.
Clearly then, one-time-use-plastics should be avoided whenever possible. If we, as humanity, decide we cannot do without them in some cases, then we have to make sure to also create procedures to properly recycle them, so that they no longer form unnatural forms of waste. Likewise, we have to do all we can to avoid releasing microplastics into our environment.
For plastics that are intended for long-time use, the matter is far more complicated. If you go with the plastic bag message, then that spirit itself does not seem to mind as long as it is useful. And so, given a responsible way of recycling the object at the end of its lifetime, I would say there are certainly situations where using plastic objects is acceptable, especially given that the alternative might be worse. If only because, if we really need to return to making everything out of wood, then all to soon there wouldn’t be a single tree left on the planet…
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.