Take a step back in time with me and explore how our ancestral ecophiles viewed the world….
Sprinting through the jungle, huge palm leaves slap your face as you weave through a blur of trees. Fingers wrapped around a wooden spear, you let your bare feet carry you through the dense understory. You hardly notice the colorful fruits and birds hanging in the canopy. Your predatory nature forces single-minded focus on pursuit of the prey. A fellow hunter cries out in success! A sudden halt confronts you with the eerie silence of the unforgiving jungle. Humans are not the only hunters here. Gazing towards the sky, you find yourself looking into the eyes of a baboon. But you are not in danger. There is no fear from this animal. It looks at you knowingly, as if you were an old friend. Your gaze is locked. You are communing with your bush soul. You send a prayer to the animal spirits for safety and a successful hunt. The baboon receives the message and swings off into the jungle. This encounter will bring great fortune.
In the African bush at the dawn of our evolution, before there were gods, angels, or ghosts, there were souls. An individual was deeply connected to nature through their “bush soul.” For example, an unnatural human death could be attributed to the death of the bush animal. To maintain balance with the natural world, our ancestors took care of both the bush and human souls in a culture sustained by the belief that all living (and non-living) things had their own. Today we refer to such a belief system as animism. These “animal spirits” (and rock, water, fire, air, plant, thunder, sun, mountain spirits) were intimately involved in human affairs, and blurred the lines between the spiritual and physical worlds. To the early anthropologists and missionaries that encountered these beliefs, this was no more than “primitive superstition.” However, “superstition” was necessary protection in a dangerous world where humans were not at the top of the food chain. In Western society, we have sought to dominate Mother Nature and do away with the need for protection. We have also lost sight of the need for respect. Today, taking another look at these early beliefs, we discover their relevance to our relationship to Mother Nature in a world where domination has become synonymous with destruction.
Modern humanity’s disregard for the natural order has thrown our relationship with Lover Earth into turmoil. We have subjugated every available resource to satisfy our material needs, and in the process, engendered a mass extinction event with our very own existence in jeopardy. It is no surprise that our expansion into every corner of the planet has displaced wild species and provoked the conditions for a global pandemic. Our animist ancestors would diagnose our global environmental crises as disharmony born of a lack of respect. Animism is not simply a way of explaining the unknown, it is an ethos describing societal behavior and communion. Clearly, this is not primitive superstition; it is an indigenous awareness we have tragically lost. We are finally realizing our mistakes, but much too late.
Outside of the West, some examples of ancestral knowledge are still respected today. For example, Shintoism, the first animist culture in Japan, permeates Japanese society to this day. It is embodied in the concept of yugen (which I will finally define for you!) The Japanese word yugen loosely translates as “an awareness of the Universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and powerful for words.” You may think yugen is reserved for Zen monks contemplating the meaning of existence, but as I explained in my first article, ecophiles already experience this emotion! It arises during the peaceful act of sitting by the ocean and listening to the crash of the waves. It’s as simple as drifting on a calm lake and seeing past your reflection into the underwater world. The concept of yugen is best illustrated by the practice of Japanese forest baths1. No, you’re not taking an actual bath in the forest; instead, you’re simply immersing yourself in the natural environment where you practice mindfulness to notice the patterns that arise in the sky, the forest, the river. Once you let go of your thoughts and worries, all that is left is yugen.
And to prove what ecophiles have long known, there is actual science to back up the medical benefits of forest baths, from lowering blood pressure to boosting the immune system to curing depression2. It’s very possible that your Western family doctor will start prescribing forest baths to overactive children or depressed adults, with proven results3.
Many of our modern ills can be traced back to humanity’s divorce from Nature. We are not separate from this Earth, and certainly not superior to its other inhabitants. We are all part of an interconnected web of being, and if one strand suffers, we all do. Clearly, preserving, maintaining, and creating natural areas can pay dividends in restoring the natural balance as well as the mental and physical health of humanity. So, we should take a lesson from the Shinto practitioners who erect shrines in the forest to pay homage to the spirits. Perhaps the primitive superstition of our ancestors can teach us how to return to a more ancient association with the world, one that respects and values Lover Earth.
References: 1. https://time.com/5259602/japanese-forest-bathing/ 2. https://www.mamanatural.com/forest-bathing/ 3. https://westminsterresearch.westminster.ac.uk/item/q1455/a-review-of-the-evidence-assessing-impact-of-social-prescribing-on-healthcare-demand-and-cost-implications