When asked to explain animism as a religion (as opposed to the dictionary version), I consistently say that it is the belief that everything possesses an animating, motive force, which, if I was to translate that into more 'popular' vernacular, means that everything is "alive" and can make decisions.
On a certain level, this is completely valid; choices are made consistently on a quantum level, based on variants that affect that particular quanta state. Decisions made through what we term"consciousness" are merely more complex variants of the same theme; our decisions are based on everything from what we eat to how we were raised to what the temperature is now to a thousand other variables...
I've also taken a fancy to the idea that spirit is 'breath', that wonderful energy that circulated through a system and lets it do what it does. For some, like rocks, breaths are drawn in much larger cycles than are insects (did you know rocks 'breathe?' They actually exude and take in gasses from the atmosphere. Just found that out. Fun stuff). When I die, my particular animating force goes away and all the little 'fires' that are left are devoured by other creatures to add to their life.
Let's have a little more fun with it though. Straight from a traditional healer's mouth (saw him lecture -- free btw at a university -- on Tuesday), he talked about the 'gods' of the Central American pantheons.
Take "Tlaloc" for example. Books say "god of Rain."
Wrong answer. Linguistically, Tlaloc breaks down into two words; Tlal = Earth & Loc = Liquid. Literal translation is "Liquid of the Earth". Actual translation is the evaporation cycle! The Mexica knew moisture drew up from the ground and the waters and came back as rain. So Tlaloc describes a process which begins in the ground and ends in rain. The "great spirit" of rain, the animating force that makes rain work.
So, why treat everything as if it's an anthropocentric representation of a human? For two reasons: (1) It's easier to remember, because we are geared towards social interactions within our own species (2) it allows a greater capacity for empathy for other species if you place them within a 'human' context. You may not understand your cousin's rationale, but you can still love him as family. Now if your cousin happens to be a raccoon, it makes it a smidge more difficult but still possible if you try very hard. And if you've been trying for thousands of years, you've probably figured out a whole host of ways to communicate that we first generation goofs haven't even thought of yet.
And finally, on a strange but practical note. Alright... let's say we consider 'spirit' as energy. Fine. Let's say we break it down to 'quantum choices' for decision making. Simplistic but fine. Lastly, we treat things through the lens of being human -- all the while understanding that they are also different than us -- because it facilitates communication. So what's the point? Why not strip away the metaphor and be done with it?
Here's why. Because the First Nations were right. It is one big damned mystery. I'm a cynic by nature, have been all of my life. I love studying all of the whacky phenomenon out there and don't believe most of it. I started going to a sweat lodge about a year ago. The tales told there are amazingly dense and rich with metaphorical information (including the relationship between the tree's life cycle and the heating of the stones of the lodge + many, many other interesting facts). I've prayed in that lodge
in a respectful manner, fully expecting simply a great, time tested purification ritual.
Then my prayers started getting answered, way beyond statistical chance, and in ways that astonished me. I experienced a sweat which saved my father-in-law's life. I've seen incredible healings occur, seen small miracles occur. How?!? How is this happening if the spirits are just descriptors of processes? The truth is they're more than that and I don't know how or why and that doesn't matter one bit. It's a mystery, one that doesn't solve life's problems or make you a saint but instead connects you to the world in wondrous and sometimes frightening ways.
No, I'm not saying everybody should go rush out to a sweat (though you should! ). What I'm trying to express is this: when people say that animists are talking about 'gods' and 'spooks' (to quote an earlier posts) they are talking about much more than that. And if you think they are just talking about physical processes that have no specific 'connection' to us, well, they're talking about much more than that, too. I'll be damned if I know exactly what's going on but I could spend a rich lifetime trying to figure it out.
I suppose that's our (us trying to dive out of civ) next issue. To experience more of this so we can plug into the cycle once again and explore this intense complexity that is life.
I've had similar experiences when it comes to sweat lodges. All I can say it is simply one big mystery, too.
Here is a great 15 minute video with Trudell talking about the vibratory reality we are a part of and what it means to have power.