Alienation, recovered animism and altered states of consciousness
Format: Journal Article
Publication Year: 2007
Pages: 727 - 731
Source ID: shanti-sources-35196
Collection: Contemplation and Ecology
Abstract: SummaryAlienation is the feeling that life is ‘meaningless’, that we do not belong in the world. But alienation is not an inevitable part of the human condition: some people do feel at one with the world as a consequence of the animistic way of thinking which is shared by children and hunter–gatherers. Animism considers all significant entities to have ‘minds’, to be ‘alive’, to be sentient agents. The animistic thinker inhabits a world populated by personal powers including not just other human beings, but also important animals and plants, and significant aspects of physical landscape. Humans belong in this world because it is a web of social relationships. Animism is therefore spontaneous, the ‘natural’ way of thinking for humans: all humans began as animistic children and for most of human evolutionary history would have grown into animistic adults. It requires sustained, prolonged and pervasive formal education to ‘overwrite’ animistic thinking with the rationalistic objectivity typical of the modern world. It is this learned abstraction that creates alienation – humans are no longer embedded in a world of social relations but become estranged, adrift in a world of indifferent things. Methods used to cure alienation and recover animistic modes of thinking involve detachment from the social systems that tend to maintain objectivity and rationality: for example, solitude, leisure, unstructured time and direct contact with nature. Many people also achieve similar results by deliberately inducing altered states of consciousness. Animistic thinking may emerge in meditation or contemplation, lucid dreaming, from self-hypnosis, when drowsy, in ‘trance states’ induced by repetitious rhythm or light, or when delirious due to illness, brain injury, psychoses, or intoxication with ‘entheogenic’ drugs – which is probably one reason for the perennial popularity of inducing intoxicated states. However, intoxication will typically damage memory processes making it harder to learn from any spiritual experiences; and even mild states of cognitive impairment may be dangerous in situations where skilled or responsible behaviour is required. Despite these constraints and limitations, recovering animism through seeking altered states of consciousness could already be considered a major world spiritual practice.