There is a very famous Indian parable about the blind man and the elephant that can teach us a lot about animism. It goes something like this.
Six blind men stood begging on the road-side every day. They had heard many stories about elephants but had never actually seen one.
One morning a man drove an elephant right past where they were begging. When he told them about the great beast in front of them, they asked him to stop so that they might feel the elephant with their hands.
The man agreed. The first blind man reached out and touched the elephant’s side. “Oh!” he said, “An elephant is like a wall.”
The second reached out and grabbed the elephant’s tusk. “Oh, you are wrong,” he said. “An elephant is not like a wall. He is more like a spear, round, smooth, and sharp.”
The third reached out and found the elephant’s trunk. “No, no, indeed. You are both wrong,” he said. “An elephant is like a snake!”
The fourth reached out his arms, and grasped one of the elephant’s legs. “Wow, that’s not right at all!” he said. “It is easy to see that he is quite like a tree, round and tall.”
The fifth blind man was very tall. He reached out and found the elephant’s ear. “This beast is not like any of the things that you name,” he said. “This elephant is exactly like a huge fan.”
The sixth man had the worst sight of all. He struggled to find the elephant. When he finally did, he grabbed onto the elephant’s tail. “Oh, you silly men!” he cried. “This elephant is not like a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, or a fan. He is more like a rope.”
Once all the blind men felt the elephant, the elephant moved on. The six blind men sat by the roadside all day quarreling about who was right.
A wise man overheard the argument and calmly said, “Each of you is right, and each of you is wrong. You each only touched one part of the body and only had a partial view. If you put them all together, you will understand what an elephant looks like.”
Of course, there are many lessons in this story. If we look at animism as a holistic spiritual path, we start to get a picture of what animism is. It’s about living in relationship with everything – people, plants, animals, the mineral realm, and the spirit realm. We may not know what those other parts look like yet, so it’s best to be humble and open so that we can discover them.
When we bump up against someone with a different reality, it’s okay to honor that. They may be right from where they stand. We may be right from where we stand. Both of us may be enlightened by combining viewpoints. Or we may come to very incorrect conclusions. The important thing to keep in mind is that it’s the same elephant. If we share what we know, we may all come away from the experience knowing more than we did by holding on to our own perceptions.