Decolonizing mental health: an animist manifesto
The Hearing Voices Network fundamentally changed the approach to what had previously been called auditory hallucinations. The idea of the network is that, when approaching these phenomena in an affirming way, rather than labeling them, a person is empowered to establish a better working relationship with the voices, which has been shown to have better therapeutic outcomes.
In 2016 I was asked if I heard voices during a psych-hospitalization intake interview. I told the nurse that I received regular auditory guidance from entities that I was familiar with as guides. She flipped out and recommended quadrupling my anti-psychotic meds. Fortunately, the prescribing doctor took another view of the situation. I was given the space to stabilize on a lower, more familiar, dose and the next day the nurse actually apologized to me, saying that she hadn’t understood my personal experience. It was empowering to have my reality affirmed and to realize that even while recovering from an altered mental state, I could be a teacher.
Animists believe that all things are alive, all things have a voice. This includes seen things like trees, rocks, waterfalls, deer, even man-made things like cars. It also includes unseen things like ancestors, spiritual guides, beings that we call gods or spirits that live in the archetypal realm. It is a way of viewing life that gives reality a voice, a recognized being to interact with the cacophony of creation. It is a way of exploring relationality with the world around us.
When one enters into an animist relationship with another seen or unseen being, one never knows what the outcome of that interaction will be, so a necessary level of curiosity is required. It also requires knowing and honoring one’s boundaries and knowing how to negotiate those boundaries in a clear way, which can be empowering to one’s sense of sovereignty. Sovereignty is different from a more immature sense of independence. Animists realize how interdependent we truly are. Sovereignty is about taking responsibility for one’s self, honoring one’s self and realizing that as you do so, you honor the other as well.
So an animist perspective is one of relationality and sovereignty.
Most modern people have forgotten the relationality piece. We go about our lives with the world around us as a backdrop for our independent drama. Our earth has suffered from this distortion. We have also suffered. We have forgotten who we are. We have gotten sucked into a world that is filled with stimulus for our minds, but very little heart or soul food. So it is no wonder that mental health issues are on the rise. We are missing fundamental parts of our wholeness.
So in steps modern psychology, which categorizes and labels mental issues according to the DSM-V and then tries to medicate them away with the support of talk therapy that sometimes focuses on problem-solving behavioral techniques aimed at fixing the way the problem plays out in your life rather than the root of the problem. It is not surprising that many clients feel the practitioner relationship-building aspect of therapy is the most important to their recovery. We are craving connection. There have been articles written about how disconnection is correlated with depression and suicide rates. We know the root of the problem, but modern psychology is unclear on how to create a solution that cannot be prescribed or initiated through talk therapy.
This is where shifting to a more relational worldview is a paradigm changer. There has been a rise in companion animals in the last few years, showing an understanding that having a non-human being to relate to is supportive to mental health. If one opens this up to having the entire universe, seen and unseen, to relate to, the potentials for wholeness increase in creative and inspiring ways.
Wilderness therapy has become increasingly popular. Some practitioners approach this with a view that just being in wild nature is therapeutic without diving into the how and why too deeply. But others incorporate practices that surface the relational aspect of the world around us as a key part of the therapeutic benefits.
I first entered a forest with the intent for a relational experience in 2015. I went to a woods that I was familiar with, curious to see how my intention to relate to it would change my experience. I open up sacred space by calling in the spatial directions of north, south, east and west, above and below, a practice that is held in most pagan and indigenous traditions. This day felt like a typical sunny late-spring day, the leaves sparkling gold with the sun and an earthy-sweet smell of forest decay wafting from the shady ground below, still damp from a rain the previous day. I place my hand on the trunk of a cedar tree, feeling my heart start to entrain with the rhythm of the forest. A little way down the path there is a reishi mushroom on a fallen log. I stoop to wipe my finger on its spoor-dusted top, and taste the sweet umami of this medicinal mushroom. By tasting the forest in this way, I enter into an even deeper entrainment. I walk slowly, taking in the forest around me in a more intentional way, letting my normal busy thoughts pass in and out of my mind. A feeling comes over me that I am not the only one aware of my surroundings, I can feel the forest’s awareness of me. From a bird call in the distance to the rustling of a rabbit in the bushes, I see tangible signs of life interacting with my presence, but there is a subtler energy of the forest that shows the kind of awareness that one feels if someone is watching them from a distance. You know you are seen without having to see the seer.
I had no great insights or epiphanies on that first intentional walk of relationality, but it opened me to a relationship that over the years has deepened in ways I never could have predicted.The simple practice of returning to one place to witness what is there in acknowledgement that a place is more than a backdrop, it is a living breathing being (and network of beings), this is counter-cultural and feeds the heart and soul in ways that no prescription can and in ways that traditional therapy rarely does.
And this is a practice that does not need to be reserved for wild spaces. I had a friend who regularly practiced this kind of intentional relating in the busy metropolis of Boston. One can relate to the spirit of any land, including an awareness of the indigenous people of the land both current and ancestral. Wild nature does provide a unique perspective and experience, but relationality can be found anywhere. One of the tenets of animism is that we are nature and our built environments are part of nature. Just as a beehive or a wasp nest is part of nature. The question is more how our part in nature is in or out of balance. And we are out of balance, mostly due to our disconnection from the world around us.
By coming back into our rightful relationship with the world around us, we are dismantling the colonial narrative that humans are somehow separate from the world around us and in competition with not only with wild nature, but with other humans as well. When we experience the world as relational, we understand that there is always the potential for reciprocity. There is also a respect when we receive a “no” that ensures that we are not violating the boundaries of the world around us. Our current degradation of wild nature would not be possible if we acted as if these spaces were living beings and consulted them about our intentions.
And it is no coincidence that the cultures around the world who held animist views were the ones that were colonized or taken from their homelands through chattel slavery practices. It takes a break in relationality to implement these harms in a broad and systematic way. And part of this break in relationality is to build a new consensus reality that upholds your right to enact these violations. This has been the role of religion and then eventually science in the western world, including psychology. Standards of conduct for mental patients are based on white cultural norms and anything outside of that norm is considered pathological. And very little historical context for and deviation from that norm is considered. We live with generations of ancestral trauma, ghosts from the past who are literally haunting us, and, because the ancestors are not recognized as entities we can relate to in this moment, we are left to wade blindly in the toxic soup of history.
There is a revival of ancestral healing practices happening around the world. These practices are based on the animist understanding that the ancestors are beings that we can relate to in the present and who can change and be healed through intention. By widening our perspective of the causes of mental illness to include these histories, we are finally getting to some of the roots of our problems. And by empowering our ability to establish healing relationships with these ancestral entities, we are finding solutions to these problems outside of the colonial psychology narrative.
Part of reclaiming our sovereignty is challenging the colonial narratives that extend to gender identity and sexuality. Wild nature leads the way in demonstrating gender fluidity and non-conformity. And often the word “wild” is subtly linked to sexual instincts that do not fit in a neat white heterosexual colonial box. Opening the world up to relationality in all its forms and expressions is disruptive to norms that we are already seeing crumbling as more people around the world come to celebrate the queerness of themselves or loved ones. Animist practices propagate a stance of open curiosity, allowing the world to come to us in ways that often surprise us and offer opportunities for relationality that transcend previous paradigms. I myself have entered into a marriage with a non-binary nature spirit who has taught me about trusting the heart, intuition and the imaginal realm inhabited by unseen beings. This relationship emerged from the intentional forest walks I described earlier, which became an invitation to a much more intimate relationship. This part of my reality could be labeled as mad by colonial psychologists, but in an animist framework is very real and valid.
And an animist framework also recognizes a value to all things, unrelated to “usefulness” or “ability.” It dismantles colonial disability paradigms by establishing relational potential in all things. The only true disability is when something falls out of relationship with the world around it. This would describe most of our culture, so who in fact are the real disabled ones? Animism also propagates a culture of feedback and engagement, so ways forward are defined in partnership rather than being made on behalf of someone. This is supportive of the culture of “nothing about us without us” where constituents are part of the process of decision-making.
In recognizing the inherent value in all things, we also dismantle social hierarchies that value particular class traits over another. Wealth and accumulation are actually seen as the resource hoarding that they are rather than traits to be mimicked or strived for. Ingenuity and resourcefulness, traits often shown in under-resourced circumstances, are actually honored and admired. And those who are in a dynamic relationship as a community are seen as pillars of health. This re-arranges our priorities to more cooperative structures that value the role of each part of the whole.
A huge part of animist practice is the construction of personal myth. This is a reality outside of consensus reality that is seen as a valid experience of the world around you. Shamans around the world are respected for the power of their own personal journeys into the unseen realms. Humans are myth-making creatures and these are more than make-believe tales, these are real experiences of profound truths that live outside of the reality that most are taught to believe in. We are acting at only partial capacity when we disempower our ability to co-create reality on the mythic level. Animism verifies these personal experiences of reality and helps us to embody them, honor them in how we live our life. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a distinction between embodied intuition and mental fantasy, but those distinctions are brought back to how the individual holds their experience and how their experience interacts relationally with the world around them rather than some comparison to a collective norm.
Modern psychology is slowly catching up to the idea that adhering to consensus reality is not as important as navigating one’s personal reality in a healthy way. Thanks, again, to groups like the Hearing Voices Network, society is becoming ready to step into a paradigm that affirms personal experience. But by widening personal experience to a larger animist relational experience, we no longer need to navigate the world solo. We also begin to deconstruct the myths of independence and hegemony that underpin colonial mindsets. We begin to deconstruct standards of mental health based on a narrow white culture definition. And by deconstructing colonial myths, we allow for the cultural understandings that honor animist ways of relating to the world to take their place in modern thought and practice. We also expand possibilities for building and expressing new personal mythic truths in relationship with the world around us. There is hope here for real heart and soul food that changes mental health and larger social paradigms in brilliant ways.
I see mental health as a matter of creative life force. When we allow our hearts and minds to traverse the full spectrum of what it means to be human in relationship with the universe(s) around us, especially in a grounded and embodied way, we find health. Health isn’t always pleasant – grief and dark nights of the soul are actually a sign of health – but flowing with those even challenging bits is a sign of health. When we close down that creative force within us and stop relating to ourselves and our world, or when our traversing brings us so far out of our bodies that we can’t function in consensus reality, we find what has been labeled disease. It just means the waters have been dammed up in some way or are flowing at such a force that we have a hard time integrating it. When people ask what is your mission in life, I believe everyone’s answer could be “to tend the creative life force that was given to me”. To me it is that simple. If everyone was doing that to the best of their ability and supporting each other to do the same (because tending to this life force in relationship with others is critical), then our world would transform. Enacting this is more challenging, because the things that block us from this can be pretty huge like personal and intergenerational trauma, systemic oppression, the absence of what we need to meet our basic needs, isolation, ways of living and working that are dysfunctional, soul-deadening media that is fed to us through a multiplicity of mediums, etc. But if we could all recognize what is most precious in us and dedicate ourselves to tending it in some small way each day – like taking a walk or calling a friend or talking to a flower or cloud – then we would have profound change even amidst the challenges.
Summer Starr has been deeply shaped by unseen forces. She has profound ties to her ancestral roots, and a visionary connection to her own past lives that have brought her to work as an intuitive healer. You can learn more about her healing work at www.makingkin.com. Her journey to this work took her around the world (including living in Vietnam, France, Ghana, Kenya and India) and then right back to the land where she was born and raised, Bellingham, WA. She occupies the current and ancestral homelands of the Nooksack and Lummi Nations, to whom she is deeply grateful for their sovereign presence to this day. She is a white cis-female, descended from settler colonialists, mostly from England, Ireland, Scotland, who have been in the US since before the revolutionary war. Reckoning with this family history has informed her own anti-racism journey. Part of this journey has been understanding how to balance the gifts and challenges inherited ancestrally. These challenges showed up as a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the gifts have shown up in her creative and empathic nature with strong connections to the unseen realms.