Teachers, Friends, Allies: What Do We Make of Psychedelic Animism?

From the Series: The Psychedelic Revival

Serotonin. Image by Kelsey Brooks.

I’m still pretty pragmatic and mechanistic but I definitely am open to . . . the idea that all the different life forms have a consciousness and a perspective and that there is no hierarchy. [Thinking] We are not a higher form of life than anything else, and our conscious state is actually probably not very different from most of the other animals, and the conscious state of non-animals is probably . . . just incredible. [Laughs] I don’t know! I don’t know what the mushrooms are thinking. I don’t know what the trees are thinking. But I do believe that they’re thinking. —Oskar

This kind of talk was surprisingly common in my field work among amateur applied (or do-it-yourself) mycologists. The technical methods and culture of do-it-yourself mycology originated in the 1970s when aspiring cultivators began growing and foraging psilocybin-active species. These methods were popularized through figures like the author, businessman, and popular mycologist Paul Stamets. Stamets’s most influential work in this respect was the book Mycelium Running, in which he wrote: “I see mycelium as the living network that manifests the natural intelligent imagined by Gaia theorists. The mycelium is an exposed sentient membrane, aware and responsive to changes in its environment” (Stamets 2005, 4).

The culture of do-it-yourself mycology is infused with ecological values and alternative spiritual beliefs. “I am a spiritual anarchist,” Leo, in his mid-sixties, declared to me during one of our conversations. He elaborated, “People now call it Gaia-ism but the older name for it was pan-psychism. Pantheism and then panpsychism . . . I’m not always thinking [this] because it leads to superstitions, but every animal and thing has a certain spirit to it, whether you see it or not. I don’t think all the fairies are going to come out of every flower but it just gives you a respect for nature.” Similarly, Fred, in his mid-twenties, told me he considered himself “a spiritual person,” explaining, “I believe in the Gaia theory . . . I don’t think it’s just mushrooms; I think they’re part of it.” When I asked Sam, in his late-twenties, if he believed (following Stamets) that mushrooms were “conscious,” he responded without hesitation, “Well, sure. I think everything’s conscious, I think a fucking rock is conscious—it’s just a different consciousness than what I have.”

This kind of thinking has been par for the course in the psychedelic corners of American counterculture for some time but it’s now finding its way into new contexts. The spread of ayahuasca use among non-Amazonian people in the United States and Canada (as well as Europe and Asia) has brought the language of plant spirits and teachers to new audiences. Taking a wider frame, the neopagan practices that have taken root since the 1970s and are interwoven broadly with the ecological movement (for example, among permaculturists) are another influential force (Epstein 1991; Puig de la Bellacasa 2010, 2015; Taylor 2010).

What do we make of these animistic expressions? Since Alfred Irving Hallowell’s writing on his time spent with the Ojibwa (Anishinaabe) (see Hallowell 1960), anthropologists have been mining the Western canon for analytical frameworks that resonate with animist paradigms in order to (quoting Rane Willerslev) “take seriously the actual experience of those indigenous practitioners” (Willerslev 2007, 22; see also Ingold 2000; Harvey 2005; Willerslev 2012; Kohn 2013). Theorists across disciplines have also begun to align themselves explicitly with animist thought, generally by way of continental philosophy (Stengers 2012). These intellectual projects remind me of Foucault’s observation that ascendant discourses and practices often appear among the elite before becoming dominant across a culture. Are we seeing the rise of a (neo)animism, not just as an analytical category but as a lived reality? And if so, how might this animism be similar or different to what anthropologists have called animism in Amazonia, Siberia, East and Southeast Asia, and so on?

I mention these “other” animisms because they figured so prominently in my interlocutors’ understandings. Amateur and popular anthropology were key sources for their ideas but notably this was anthropology of another era and spin; none of them had ever heard of Tim Ingold or Eduardo Kohn (although How Forests Think [Kohn 2013] had just come out and did seem to be finding readers outside the academy). Rather, it was popular understandings of shamanism (i.e., as an “ancient technology”), Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan, Terence McKenna’s freeform paleoanthropological conjectures, or R. Gordon Wasson’s ethnomycological theories that were cited as visions of nonmodern ways of living. Several of my interlocutors also invoked American Indian practices when they spoke of “communicating” with fungi and other nonhuman beings.

At the same time, like Castaneda’s “maybe” hoax (always mentioned in the same breath as his books), animistic gestures were often treated as a kind of charade, enacting a form of playful doubleness. Rather than being necessitated by the reality of nonhuman people and one’s social and cosmic obligations to them, they were premised on the condition of wanting to believe—because such beliefs are associated with cultures that are viewed as superior in the ways they coexist with other forms of life. As Tyler put it, “We have to practice it as such . . . We have to treat them almost as if they are human.” True to its partial anthropological roots, these gestures and expressions originate (at least in part) from a notion of the efficacy of such beliefs as instruments of ecologically benign behavior. In this naturalist view, animist beliefs are a kind of evolved cultural mechanism for ecological resource management. A similar doubleness was reflected in the shifts between discursive modes. Words like communication (as opposed to simply speaking) can resonate on multiple registers: computational, neurological, and broadly biochemical, as well as supernatural.

These qualities of doubleness, openness, and playfulness distinguish these animistic expressions from, on one hand, the intellectual project of anthropologists and theorists, and on the other, the kind of “playing Indian” that historian Philip Deloria (2002) has described among Euro-American counterculturists. At the same time, playfulness—as provisionality, experimentation, and openness—is central to these low-stakes experimentations in ontology. Such playful doubleness holds doubt at bay by constantly shifting back and forth from an open relativistic mode and a personal experiential one. By locating the site of animistic encounter within, in the realm of imagination, there are never stark truth claims to defend or dissect; naturalist criteria is evaded. This allows for a high-traffic margin between seemingly distinct ontologies. Perhaps, as a horizon of new ontological distinctions (borrowing Philipe Descola’s [2013, 188] terminology), this is neither “animism” nor “naturalism.” Or, following Rane Willerslev (2012), it may reveal new perspectives on what anthropologists have called animism. Either way, it points towards meaningful openings for public anthropology.


Deloria, Philip. 2002. “Counterculture Indians and the New Age.” In Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s, edited by Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle, 159–87. New York: Routledge.

Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Epstein, Barbara. 1991. Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hallowell, Alfred Irving. 1960. “Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior and World View.” In Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin. New York: Columbia University Press.

Harvey, Graham. 2005. Animism: Respecting the Living World. London: Hurst and Company.

Ingold, Tim. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria. 2010. “Ethical Doings in Naturecultures.” Ethics, Place & Environment. 13, no. 2: 151–69.

———. 2015. “Making Time for Soil: Technoscientific Futurity and the Pace of Care.Social Studies of Science 45, no. 5: 691–716.

Stamets, Paul. 2005. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. New York: Ten Speed Press.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2012. “Reclaiming Animism.” e-flux, no. 36.

Taylor, Bron. 2010. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. Berkeley. University of California Press.

Willerslev, Rane. 2007. Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 2012. “Laughing at the Spirits in North Siberia: Is Animism Being Taken too Seriously?e-flux, no. 36.