Is this my animal guide and why?The young warrior sits by the fire, a puzzled look on his face. He has recently completed his first vision quest to find his totem animal. For three days and nights he was alone in his inner circle, fasting and praying. Now he has returned, feeling as confused as he was before his journey.
The tribal medicine man quietly sits beside him. After a few moments of silence, he asks the young man, “What troubles you?”
In reply, the young warrior relates his tale to the medicine man. “On the first morning, I awoke to see a fox run by with a rabbit in its mouth. It stopped, looked at me and ran on. I thought, ‘Fox, a strong totem.’ On the second day, I awoke to the sound of the great eagle over my head. It circled me three times and dived to the ground, rose again and flew off toward the river, a rabbit in its talons. I thought, ‘Eagle, I am honored’.” On the third day, I awoke to nothing. As I made my preparations to return home at the time of the high sun, I saw a rabbit sitting in the shade of the tree. I looked at him, and he held my gaze before hopping into his hole.”
The young warrior turns to the medicine man, wide-eyed and says, “I am not sure which of these is my totem!”
Often in our eagerness to find our animal guides or totems, we make assumptions that any animal that crosses our path may be a guide, especially if encountered in the physical realm. But we should not allow our preconceptions and eagerness influence us to see a portent or animal guide in everything we encounter on life’s journey. Sometimes a crow is just a crow, doing what crows do best.
To help avoid this trap, some questions I often ask when I have an encounter are:
• Is the animal exhibiting normal behavior for the particular season or location or is this “out of place?”
• What does the encounter make me think of?
• How does the experience make me feel?
• What was my mood at the time of the encounter?
• What events have been happening in my life?
It is never wrong to question. Many times just the process of asking the question provides us with the answer. It has also been my experience that recording the encounter in a journal allows greater opportunity to reflect. And usually, upon reflection, the answer has been there all along. After all, who is the best judge of an experience but the person who experienced it? In any case, thinking of how the experience makes us feel, what we think of when it happens, and taking stock of our presence of mind will give us insight into whether there was a message to be delivered or if it was just a chance encounter. The medicine man chuckles, looks at the young warrior, and asks him to speak about what he knows about Fox. The young warrior tells him that he has always liked Fox and has encountered her often. “She usually hunts at night, feeding herself first. She then finds rabbit before the dawn and returns to her den at the sunrise to bring food to her kits.”
The medicine man nods and asks “So what does this tell you?”
The young warrior thinks for a moment then replies, “It tells me when I saw Fox, she was doing what she does naturally and is not necessarily my totem, though I might wish it so.”
The medicine man nods and says, “Now tell me about Eagle.”
The boy tells the medicine man that his brother has Eagle as a totem. “Eagle begins to hunt at sunrise.” He pauses, enlightenment in his eyes. “Ah! I see now, Eagle was just doing what Eagle does and just because Eagle is my brother’s totem, it is not necessarily mine.”
The medicine man nods again and asks, “So, young warrior, do you know your totem now?”
The young warrior nods, sighs in disappointment, and answers, “Rabbit. Rabbit showed himself many times during my quest, even in the jaws of Fox and the talons of Eagle. Then Rabbit did what a rabbit does not do; he greeted me at the time of the day when he was to be back with his kin. By doing this, he was showing his connection to me. I see that now.”
As this story illustrates, often when we are searching for our animal guide or totem, it is staring us in the face. However, we allow our desire for something different to interfere in our quest. We enter our journey with the idea that we will find a bear and have a difficult time accepting that perhaps the toad at our feet is truly the guide we need.
Author RJ Stewart puts this into perspective: “If we work with older traditional methods, however, the creatures choose us, even if we do not like them. In this way there cannot be a fantasy or emotional investment or romanticised self-identification.”
This does not necessarily mean that if we favor a certain animal, that there is no chance in that animal choosing us. In fact, this is quite the opposite in many cases. However, if we seek without a preconception and without prejudice, we do not influence and romanticize the outcome. We may not always like or appreciate the guides that choose us at the time of the choosing. But in the end, the lessons we learn from then are those that help to shape our future. Even the small mouse has much to teach us if we are willing to listen. “You sound disappointed, young warrior. You desired a different totem?”
The young man turns to the medicine man with sad eyes and says, “I wanted a strong totem like my brother has. Instead, I have timid rabbit. Why rabbit?”
The medicine man looks at him and replies, “Why not?” And he leaves the young warrior to his thoughts.
The young warrior settles down for the night and thinks about his experience. He thinks about what he knows about Rabbit and remembers that Rabbit is quick and agile. He hides in plain sight in the tall grasses. He is smart in the fact that he builds two entrances to his burrow so that while his enemy is at one, he can escape through the other. Are these not qualities much like his own, hiding when others cannot see him? Is he not considered to be one of the fastest in his Clan? Do they not speak of his cleverness in escaping from difficult situations?
He grins as he also remembers that rabbits breed often and with many. He decides that maybe Rabbit isn’t so weak of a totem after all and falls asleep dreaming of the chase, but he is the one doing the chasing!
By asking a few questions when we encounter an animal on our journey, we will be able to discern if this perhaps is a guide or just an animal tending to its business. By accepting that an animal guide or totem "is what it is" and not superimposing our own desires, we allow ourselves to be open to its message and begin to understand ourselves and the world around us. If we trust ourselves and reflect upon the experience, we grow in our own abilities and knowledge and learn the language and protective powers of the animals around us. Whether we call them animal guides, totems or “Henry” doesn’t matter. What is important is that we seek interaction with our guides and accept their guidance.
So next time you get the attack of the ho-hums and see a sloth staring you in the face, ask yourself if this is a good part of your personality or one you want to make an effort to change. And when you meet an animal that you would not normally think would be a guide, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this experience?” instead of “Why snail?”
Andrews, Ted. Animal Speak-The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2004
Carr-Gomm, Philip and Stephanie.The Druid Animal Oracle. New York:Simon & Schuster, 1994
Meadows, Kenneth. Shamanic Experience: A Practical Guide to Psychic Powers. Rochester:Bear & Company, 2003
Stewart, RJ. “Stampeding to Oblivion, Survival of the Fatuous-The Underworld Perspective.” http://www.rjstewart.org/blessbeasts.html
originally published in Pan Gaia Magazine, June, 2004
Merriam-Webster OnLine Dictionary and Thesaurus. Merriam-Webster Inc. 2009 http://www.merriam-webster.com/