The Isolated Animist: Respectful Relationships in Postmodern Individualism
As above so below, within as without, except for with other people. I've worked with others as a modern shaman since 2000, and the hardest facet of that role to impart is creating balanced relationship with All Things--especially each other--and live it in our "I" culture. It's easy to feel interrelated in trance, to idealize it in solitude, but to reach beyond the isolation of how capitalistic culture has created us and fosters us poses significant challenges. We end up living the collective experience alone. In this blog I explore new approaches to being an introverted, suburban American animist in an individualist culture, and living that connection out loud.
Surrendering the Known
When I was in fourth grade, our teacher told us at the beginning of the year that she wasn't going to tell us what words mean. I thought Mrs. Parker was joking, though true to it, anytime one of us asked what a vocabulary word or morsel in a personal reading selection meant, she wouldn't even glance from her desk. She'd just say, "Go look it up," then point to a bookshelf lined with Merriam-Websters, one for each of the thirty of us.
I hated it. I just wanted to know what the word meant. I didn't want to have to make a big production. I didn't want to wait that long to understand what I was reading. This, after three years of vocabulary lists being drilled into us like catechism and pats on the back for even showing interest in learning definitions. It was outrage. It was offroad.
You see, fourth grade was my first year in public school. I grew up in a small southern town, and my grandfather insisted that private schools better prepared young minds than public. Of course in our area all private schools were affiliated with churches, so acquiring primary skills came with a healthy dose of censorship, not just in what was taught, but in how it was conveyed. What meaning wasn't readily supplied we were expected to ask. No resources beyond teachers were provided, let alone referenced.
Little did I realize that learning was spelled F-R-E-E-D-O-M, and its closest synonym was R-E-S-P-O-N-S-I-B-I-L-I-T-Y. As looking up words became ritual, something odd happened. One day I trudged to the bookshelf, and instead of plopping the book down when I'd learned what I needed, I took the dictionary back to my desk and began to read it. Page-by-page, I sank into words.
My first year in public school became the initiatory point that I actively created my relationship not just to concepts, but to my learning process, and how I engage what lies beyond the point of Known. That subversive literary exercise fueled my insatiable drive to be a writer, and it became a methodology that served spiritual needs. I credit that renegade adventure with whetting my desire to feel connected to what held my focus, and my realization that by connecting at all, there was so much more to become aware of, to connect with. All it took was a little elbow to show me an entirely different order, which in turn, reorganized how I looked at the world and myself in it.
Thriving as a modern animist works much the same way. We start with what we know, to create avenues comfortably leading us into what we don't. We examine the familiar through as many different filters as possible, until uncharted territory becomes negotiable. Still, realizing our relationship to the unseen world around us, our immediate culture doesn't foster such exploration. In many cases, neither do the people with whom our lives are most intertwined. Venturing into new soul territory takes initiative and effort, requires sacrifice and stepping out of the comfort zone.
What we can conceive, we can connect with, and by holding that perspective we preserve unlimited potential to perceive more, connect beyond what we think we know. In that light, animism isn't about just finding meaning in personal spiritual connection, but also knowing when to surrender it.
The next time some new little habit tugs at your comfy routine, suck it up and just do it. It may not be about that slight deviation at all, but the vast new spiritual territory that behaving differently reveals.
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