What Does Indigenous Animism Teach Us About Well-being and Compassion?

Posted on Dec 4, 2020 12:00:00 AM

“The Earth is a living being. She’s alive. And She hurts. And She feels, like you and I.” 

- Russell Means

What Does Indigenous Animism Teach Us About Well-being and Compassion?


We live and breathe well-being at Synthesis because we’ve seen how a safe psychedelic retreat can lead to transformational healing, creative breakthroughs, and life-changing personal growth. 

Based on scientific research, participants at Synthesis retreats experienced, on average, a 14% increase in well-being scores at two weeks after their psychedelic experience.

Interestingly, participants’ depressive symptoms were decreased by 43% at four weeks after their psychedelic experience, and the degree of fear and stress reported by participants decreased by 15.4% at the four week follow up. Synthesis guests are also likely to feel an increased connection to themselves, others, and nature, which can contribute to well-being.

The connection to the world around us that psychedelics can catalyze is a core component of well-being and way of life in indigenous animist cultures. Animism is a blanket term for the forms of perception that everything has a spirit – people, animals, objects, and even the weather.

Could we learn something from the animist perspective? And is it more than a coincidence that the ritualistic use of psychedelics almost exclusively occurs in animist cultures?

What Does Indigenous Animism Teach Us About Well-being and Compassion?

Animist cultures are connected to nature

It’s important to note that the word “animism” is an invention of Western anthropologists who needed a word to describe the widespread spiritual beliefs they encountered in indigenous populations around the world. The idea that everything has a spirit was so obvious to so many indigenous peoples, and so foreign to modern Western societies, that neither had a word for it!

So while many indigenous cultures may be described as “animist,” their religions and cultures are as varied as you can imagine. But the one thing animist cultures have in common is believing that everything has a spirit.

This means that every object, plant, animal and person has an experience of the world, and behaves in particular ways because of their personal motivations. As Russian anthropologist Vladimir Bogoraz writes, in animism “everything has its own voice” (Pederson, 2001). The mountain, the lake, the tree has its own Being, and through our embodiment, we can resonate with what it is to be an animal, river, or moon.

Indigenous cultures that have an animist belief system (which, again, are diverse and varied) almost always live in a close relationship to nature. Well-being in animist cultures is much more tied to the health of their environments and communities than to individual prosperity. If the surrounding land, plants and animals (i.e., the spirits that keep you healthy, fed and sheltered) are suffering, your well-being suffers because of your direct relationships to them!

What Does Indigenous Animism Teach Us About Well-being and Compassion?


How could animism be better for your well-being?

Well-being in animist cultures is difficult to fully grasp. When modern Westerners talk about well-being or wellness, we’re usually thinking about satisfaction with life, the achievement of specific goals, or happiness within our relationships. 

For animism, well-being is much more about what nature provides. Wellness can be said to be about the absence of sickness and strife, or the presence of good weather and good relationships with the land (Helander-Renvall, 2009).

Thinking about some of the main characteristics of animism can help us find relevance to what we currently understand about well-being and health. Understanding that we are nature, we start to include the wider community, including our non-human kin, to our ethical considerations.

We already know that spending time relating to nature can increase our mental and physical well-being

Many animist cultures don’t make a distinction between themselves and nature. In the words of an indigenous Sami person, “I am part of the forests and the mountains” (Rochon, 1993 p46). If one accepts that nature supports life, then feeling connected to nature is fundamental to being a happy and healthy person.

Animism very much brings the “treat others as you’d be treated yourself” philosophy to life. If you treat the land around you badly, the disgruntled spirits will make sure negative energies find their way back to you. Animism therefore requires a strong sense of compassion. If you can’t imagine yourself as the prey you are about to hunt, you are unlikely to treat it with the respect it deserves. Psychologists have known for a long time that boosting our connection to others can make us happier. Realizing that we are a part of a web of relationships, and being able to see ourselves in the place of others, not only helps us understand others – it can also help us feel less lonely. 

Research shows that people who have more psychological flexibility are less likely to suffer from depression or anxiety (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010). This is a series of attitudes that can help people cope with the difficulties of life. It involves being present in the moment, accepting unwanted feelings, accepting the fluid nature of the self, and understanding that your perceptions are not necessarily always true. Animism, because it is so closely tied to the turbulent natural world, practically requires people to be psychologically flexible. As anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli says; “Because the country is sentient, the ground, for Belyuen Aborigines, is always potentially liable to act for its own reasons” (Povinelli, 1993 p150). Embracing animist principles could therefore help us encounter hardships with more grace and acceptance.

What Does Indigenous Animism Teach Us About Well-being and Compassion?


Many animist cultures speak of the importance of maintaining a balance with their surroundings. They understand that in order to continue living from the plants and animals that surround them, they cannot exploit them. We already know that striving for possession-based wellness is a dead end. Researchers have shown that people who value material possessions more than anything else, or who strive for material wealth, are unhappy and unfulfilled (Lee & Kawachi, 2019; Roberts & Clement, 2006). This backs up the animist perspective on well-being, which emphasizes developing a strong relationship with all the beings surrounding you, and avoiding excess accumulation of resources.

Finally, animism infers a world rich with meaning and purpose. Living with this deep sense of purpose can be particularly helpful for people who are terminally ill. Palliative care typically encourages patients to explore spirituality in order to help them find meaning in their suffering. When an illness can be reframed as being there for a reason, rather than just being an arbitrary fluke of existence, people are more likely to find peace and acceptance (Testoni et al, 2017). 


Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there. I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glints on snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain.

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning's hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry;

I am not there. I did not die.

—Mary Frye


Animism and psychedelics

Is it just a coincidence that almost every culture that traditionally uses psychedelic plants or fungi is an animist one?

From the aboriginal Australians whose cave paintings indicate the earliest use of magic mushrooms in 10,000BCE, to the Siberian shamans who still use the red and white-spotted Amanita muscaria mushroom to this day, indigenous animist cultures are often deeply tied to natural psychedelics

Even if we accept that psychedelic plant use naturally had to originate from indigenous peoples, and animism is just the most common belief system within native cultures, the question remains: Why do non-animist cultures like ours not have psychedelic components?

One argument is that psychedelics act in symbiosis with animist principles. One of the most profound effects of a psychedelic trip is to show the user that everything is interconnected; and animism relies on an intuitive understanding that there is no distinction between “us” and “nature.” Both animism and psychedelics teach us that there is profound meaning inherent in our surroundings. Psychedelics show that the whole world can come alive with meaning, acting with their own sense of mystery and enchantment.

What Does Indigenous Animism Teach Us About Well-being and Compassion?


In South American shamanism, psychedelics are used for healing, divination, and even sorcery; all set firmly within animist principles. Most shamans who use psychedelics as part of their practice explore shape-shifting – travelling throughout the web of relationships between all beings in the land, and even temporarily inhabiting them. This can allow shamans to “possess” animals in order to lure prey, or even to kill their foes (Praet, 2009; Riviere, 1994). 

At Synthesis, it is not uncommon for participants to experience morphing into an animal, and experiencing a world through their eyes. Others, perceive insects or birds, real or imagined, that carry messages or remind them of their past.

In this way, psychedelics reinforce animist principles. Shamans use psychedelics as a tool to encounter the unseen spirit realms, to bring back knowledge and healing for their community. Anthropologist Graham Harvey states that shamans are, “necessary negotiators of communal well-being among people who understand themselves to be participatory members of wider-than-human communities.” (Harvey, 2010)


How can you consider new forms of wellness?

Most of us haven’t been brought up in animist cultures, or even with a close connection to nature. So finding alternative forms of wellness probably won’t involve us venturing into the forest and living directly from the land.

Yet there are many things you can do to discover and incorporate the animist perspective of well-being into your modern life.

What Does Indigenous Animism Teach Us About Well-being and Compassion?

Spending more time in nature, or reflecting on your relationship with nature, is a first step. Reframing yourself as part of a rich tapestry of relationships between humans and other beings may be a little harder – but is still possible!

If animism still seems a little too abstract or unfamiliar, we recommend reading The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World.  If you’re interested in considering new forms of well-being, while learning from the wisdom of animism, this may be a good place to start.

“When it is said that some rocks at Kutal are the ears of the ancestors that dwell there, this should be understood in a literal sense and not as a metaphor” - Sylvie Poirier, on aboriginal australians (Peterson 2011)

And of course, when it comes to self-discovery, there’s nothing quite like a psychedelic experience to shift your consciousness into new modes of well-being. Group retreats using truffles containing psilocybin at Synthesis have been shown to increase well-being. The psychedelic experience is unrivalled in giving people a chance to transform, re-frame, and emerge into a healthier and more complete version of themselves.

Learn more about Synthesis retreats here!


Tags: Insights