Anima Mundi: At Home in the Soul of the World

by Joshua Paquette, CSCH Faculty

Robert Bly once noted that after World War II we in the West began to lose our sense of aesthetic unity — eros and ethos — the love and care inherent in things. Buildings gradually displayed less character and charm; increasingly, up went the sky scrapers and tall glass sentinels of our modern cities. Schools, libraries and public buildings went from creaking hardwood floors, mysterious nooks and cathedral ceilings to clean lines, rubber baseboard, and central heating. Modern and post-modern architecture might display abrupt angles and tidiness, but it lacks soul. Or its soul is machine-like, cold, and sterile.

It can be said that the state of a culture’s outer world reflects its inner, and so the loss of soul, love, and care in the things of the world suggests an inner lack of substance. Anima mundi to the ancient Greeks meant the “soul of the world,” or the “animation of mundane things” — and suggested that the world itself was alive and so all the things in it. The individual soul was a microcosm of the world soul; as above, so below. In this way, outward attunement to the aesthetic qualities of things lends inner awareness and nuance to our emotions, states, psychic patterns, habitual ruts, and to the whims and movements of our inner lives.

Anima mundi implies verticality. For the past hundred years or so we’ve been seeking a type of horizontal fortitude that has begotten a sibling society,[1] where we rarely look upwards to our elders, teachers, ancestors, or to Spirit, and even more rarely look downwards into Soul, to the personal muse, innate genius, or instinctive darkness. We now primarily look sideways, to peers. Lacking verticality means also that youth are lacking initiation. A law enforcement officer in Baltimore speaking of troubled teens once said, “Our gang youth is made up of boys who not only don’t have an adult male to look up to, they’ve never met one.” The trouble is, peer groups cannot initiate each other. Initiation requires elders; it seeks guidance in verticality. The startling lack of elders in our modern culture means our youth lack safe containers or outlets for their burgeoning life force. As such, hormone-driven escapades can explode into violence or turn inwards into self-destruction and suicide. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2013 in the United States, suicide was the third leading cause of death among persons aged 10-14, and second among those aged 15-34.[2]

A mentor for many, Paul Bergner taught nutrition at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado for a number of years. Naropa, a Buddhist university founded in 1974 by the controversial renegade Trungpa Rinpoche, remains in operation today. Trungpa was known for his “crazy wisdom” antics, unconventionality, and his alcohol and drug use.[3] Many students that attend Naropa come with or develop interests in psychedelics, meditation, yoga and the arts. Paul’s experience at Naropa, and also from more than thirty years of teaching elsewhere, exposed him to the phenomenon that many people lack the ability to critically observe the world around them. One day he asked his students, who were herbalists interested in plants, “You arrive here each day passing underneath a tree with pinnate, compound leaves and winged fruits. What tree is this?” No one could say. He continued, “Each day many of you eat your lunch at a bench outside near two flowering shrubs. Which shrubs are they?”  No one could answer. He went on, “How do you expect to take in the heights of the upper worlds or the depths of lower worlds when you cannot grasp with attentiveness the things of this world?”

Without ground state[4] calibration we are unable to discover what strong medicines might be doing to us, for us, or against us. Dale Pendell wisely suggests that the mark of a plant ally’s conquest is its ability to masquerade its influence as sobriety. The fact that billions of people on earth rise to the sun with the help of methylxanthines is not to be belittled. Caffeine (the most common of these) is a strong drug, as anyone who isn’t habituated can attest. We take coffee to “sober up” after a night of drinking; we equate alertness, hyper-vigilance and productivity with “health.” The short-sighted myopia of our times is encouraged by the effect of stimulants. A friend of mine in her forties jested, “I starting drinking coffee when I was eighteen and haven’t missed a day since!” The fact that there are numerous beneficial compounds attributed to caffeinated beverages should not distract us from the truth that they are powerful drugs; being under their influence is not sobriety.

Those cultures we look to for advice on how to initiate our youth were well-imbedded in the world around them. Those peoples that used psychedelic plants, animals, or fungi should not be separated from the deep dreaming love affair they had with the landscapes that sustained them, not only with food and shelter but also with gifts of wisdom and significance. To aboriginal[5] peoples, the natural world literally was the source of their language, rituals, medicine, and sense of mysticism or spirituality. Many vocal tones in jungle cultures are borrowed directly from the feathered language of birds.  Unequivocally, these cultures believed that the things of the world were alive, animated, infused with numinous and multifarious personified forces, as did the Greeks with their concept of anima mundi.[6] To these cultures, life was polytheistic and polyphonic, imbued with power.

The stages of initiation in many cultures are often as follows: Separation, Ordeal and Return. In The Genius Myth,[7] Michael Meade examines the roles these stages play in human development. Separation from the community and old ways of behaving is a prerequisite for movement into the new. Consciousness is acquired by cutting. Separation can be intentionally created inside ritualized or “sacred” space (such as a sweat lodge or a circle of stones used in a Native American vision quest), or brought on abruptly through a car accident, an illness, a divorce, or in the death of a loved one. Ordeal is the challenge one faces once separated, and involves the reordering and restructuring of old ways of being into more complex patterns of organization. The effect of an ordeal is to make a person bigger or smaller; one rises to the challenge or shrinks in the face of it. One is reminded that Coyote multiplies with the pressure of predation.

The Return is often overlooked and likely the most important. Once undergoing an Ordeal and overcoming it, the next task is to bring back the knowledge gained — deep knowledge, gnosis — to return from the forest to the village as herald. Gabor Maté offers that “trauma” is actually the disconnection one feels after undergoing some kind of ordeal or challenging event. The trauma is not necessarily the event itself, but the separation it causes — separation from one’s true self, emotions, healing, and human connection to others around them.[8] Lacking the Return and suppressing the trauma to cope, we often repress. The trouble being, as Alice Miller bodes, “One cannot repress specifically without also repressing generally.” Ordeal without Return often makes us smaller people. Without the Return, we are bound to repeat the Separation and Ordeal steps (whether that be the patterns of addiction, toxic emotions, or stagnancy) because we are lacking the reward of community acknowledgment. In the Grimm Brother’s story of Iron John, when the knights come back from battle, they are thrown golden apples by the women of the villages.[9] This act is to say, “We honor you for your service (separation from home, the ordeal of war) and we welcome you back into village life.” That the apples are golden, and that it’s women who are throwing them, advises grace, humility, softness, and community. The golden apples act as a threshold for the return to civilized life. Without the apples we are missing the recognition: “I see you in all your pain, and I honor you, brother or sister, welcome home.”

It may be that as a culture we are too obsessed with the great leaps and bounds of inspiration and enlightenment, the aha! moments, and throwing away the tedium. Growth may not happen that way for most of us. As the old saying goes, “The soul isn’t convinced by much.” If it normally takes an ordeal (a car accident, a divorce, or an illness) for the soul to pay attention, then the important question is, as the storyteller Martin Shaw ponders, “How do I stay in touch with the soul without setting fire to my own life?”

It may go something like this: Find a daily practice. It could be anything: yoga, tai chi, painting, cooking, writing, ritual, ceremony, playing with children or spending time with a loved one. It doesn’t matter as long as there is eros and ethos in it, love and care, and beauty. Creation. And do it, over and over and over. That’s called “building a garden.”

At first, visit the garden as often as possible—the walled-off, sacred and special retreat where the sun rises inside you and the birds sing. Then, separately, engage the daily grind: errands, college, the job, children, the mortgage, the endless, endless emails … you can’t wait to get back to the garden! Though, funny thing, after a while that garden starts to imprint itself into your bones, it shows your cells a new way to hum — a more unified humming. Ever so slowly the water color runs off the page and into your life. Bit by bit, it becomes your actions, the way you say hello, the things you think and feel, how you clean the dishes, your smile.

No big epiphanies or all-of-a-sudden enlightenment, just the slow and messy business of creating soul.


[1] Robert Bly, The Sibling Society (Penguin Books Ltd; New Ed edition, 1997).

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. (2013, 2011) National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC (producer). Available from

[3] Geoffry D. Faulk, Stripping the Gurus: Sex, Violence, Abuse and Enlightenment (Million Monkey Press, Toronto, Ontario, 2009).

[4] Dale Pendell, “Ground State Calibration” in Pharmako/poeia: Plant Powers, Poisons and Herbcraft (Mercury House, 1995) p.25

[5] “aboriginal” in the broadest sense, not specifically indigenous Australian peoples

[6] David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (Vintage; 1st Vintage Books Ed edition, February 25, 1997)

[7] Michael Meade, The Genius Myth (Greenfire Press, May 18, 2016).

[8] Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (North Atlantic Books; 1 edition, January 5, 2010).

[9] Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1990).

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