A friend’s question about power animals has reminded me that I’ve never gotten myself together to write about that subject here. The main reason is that I’ve never developed a very deep understanding of what the animals “really” are. Or much of any understanding at all. I have had fascinating and profound experiences with what appeared to be animal spirits, though, and I treasure them.
This subject also ties in with another I need to expand upon at this point: how do we know that the beings we contact are for real or are who they say they are? I’ll have much more to say about that, but for now, let me tell you about my introduction to shamanism. Some of you reading this have far more training and experience in this area than I do, so please feel free to chime in.
During my first year at Southwest Acupuncture College, 1993-94, one of my teachers was Diane Polasky, DOM. Diane had been my acupuncturist for quite a while, and I gave piano and voice lessons to her daughter. Diane was also well-versed in shamanic studies.
My own crash-course introduction to the spirit world had come early in 1993, with my first encounter with the being identified as Fryderyk Chopin. (See my post “How I Met Fryderyk.” And note the weaselly indefiniteness of my reference to him just now. It’s still hard to be assertive and confident in writing about him.) I had told Diane about my composer friend pretty early on, just in a general way, just the idea that someone was around. One day when she was treating me she got a bad feeling about something. She told me that there was indeed someone around and that the being was not OK in the least. She thought it might be an elemental– a concept that was new to me– a mischievous being glomming onto me for potentially harmful purposes. (There are other definitions of elementals as well.)
“Would an elemental have a deep understanding of piano technique?” I asked. I thought not, but I honestly didn’t know. Diane asked, half joking, if I was in touch with someone from Mozart’s time, in a brocade jacket and powdered wig. Not quite that, I replied, but a musician, someone I felt was trustworthy.
Diane then uttered these immortal words, which I have often repeated to myself: “Just because someone’s dead, doesn’t mean they’re nice.” She explained that an elemental could pretend to be any number of things and could gain access to enough knowledge to be completely convincing. (I didn’t, and still don’t, believe that an elemental could manage to manifest as something as emotionally complex, skilled, or erudite as Fryderyk, who seems all too human, though I can’t prove it. It’s also quite possible that Diane was perceiving some other entity that was hanging around me at the time.)
While I didn’t take Diane’s misgivings all that seriously, her doubts fed into my own and preyed upon my mind a bit. When she told me about an upcoming basic shamanic workshop and described how that could help me figure out what was going on, I was vitally interested. This was one of a series of workshops put on by Michael Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies. It was going to be held that spring in Oregon, not too far from Portland. I had no idea that there was no sense going there because another session exactly like it was to be held in Albuquerque later that year. Going to Oregon sounded like a great idea anyway because I could combine the workshop with a visit to my friend Elaine. A SWAC classmate was also interested, and we decided to travel there together.
The way it worked out, I went all the way to Oregon to find the person who had been right here with me for over a year, as close as my own skull. Oh, well, I got a trip to Portland out of it.
The workshop was at Breitenbush, a spiritual community out in the woods, spotted with wonderful hot springs. Although it was May, when we arrived sleet was falling; mud turned out to be a major theme of the weekend. We New Mexicans coughed and shivered in the extreme dampness and chill. And no one could sleep the first night; we were told the bubbling geothermal energy of the place tended to affect everyone that way when they first arrived. But the real trial for me was a severe bout of the chronic pain I had been suffering with for nearly eight years. At the time I only dimly understood the source of that pain.
The workshop was terrific, at least the parts I was able to stay awake for. I wish I could remember the name of our teacher, who was excellent. (I do remember that she came from the Pacific Northwest.) The teacher was kind enough to give me permission to lie down during the class sessions, when sitting became too agonizing.
While shamanic practices seem quite foreign to us urban moderns, it’s important to realize that this way of seeing the world was common to all of humanity not so long ago. Many tribal peoples still live in this kind of reality, but we were all once tribal peoples and all lived close to nature. Harner and his disciples have tried to distill out the basic practices and beliefs that have been known to cultures around the globe.
One of our first activities, putting us directly and literally in touch with the natural world, was rock divination. This was an exercise for letting our intuition loose. It’s very simple: you hold any rock, not necessarily a special kind, and gaze at the patterns and shapes in its surface. Those suggest answers to whatever questions you are holding in mind.
A particularly fascinating activity was “dancing the animals.” We walked around in a big circle and invited the animal spirits to come and inhabit our bodies, and that was what happened! At that time almost the only way I could experience nonphysical beings was to become them, to embody them. I remember the sensation of suddenly becoming a crane, stepping stiffly on each foot while holding the other leg bent high in the air, lifting my “wings” as I paced majestically. There were other animals I don’t remember, but the experience that will always stay with me was the cougar. I crouched on the ground on my “haunches,” very palpably feeling a long tail swishing behind my head and my huge furry paws on the floor. I felt immensely muscular and powerful, and had to restrain myself from trying to leap across the room on all fours. In that state I felt sure I could cover the entire distance at one bound, but of course that would not have ended well had I tried it. All this felt like I was being actually taken over by some other entity, but there was no discomfort or sense of danger in it, no unwanted feeling of invasion, and once it was over, it was over, without any lingering effects.
These were apparently random animals who just happened to show up for the group– I have no idea why– rather than our individual power animals. A major part of the weekend was devoted to learning to do a power animal retrieval, a process that can help strengthen a person and reconnect them with the natural world and with their own essential nature. Each person is supposed to have a connection with at least one animal spirit who is there to help and support them, much like a guardian angel, but that connection can be lost. With the modern disruption of our relationship with the earth, I suppose we need more than ever to revive those connections. We were told not to have preconceived notions about what sort of animal we might end up with, nor to be upset if we didn’t get a “cool” one like a wolf or an eagle. Every kind of animal has something to teach us. The teacher, who had a horror of slugs, said a person might even conceivably have a power slug, though she would just as soon not. We were told that we have no control over which animal decides to come to our aid. They are assumed to be greater beings than we are, and we cannot dictate to them.
The process of animal retrieval is uncomplicated and easy to learn. As with everything else in shamanic practice, it’s necessary to enter an altered mental state. This can be done by various means; drugs such as peyote have been used in many cultures, but we simply used monotonous drumming and rattling, which works quite adequately. The process of going to another reality this way and getting information and assistance is called journeying.
We worked in pairs, the shaman-in-training lying side by side next to the “patient,” one person’s head at the other’s feet. The budding shaman was supposed to journey to the Lower World, where the animal spirits live, by visualizing going down through some opening in the earth, such as a cave or the mouth of a spring. Once there, we were told to ask which animal was meant to be with this person. The animal might manifest as a vision, in words, or in physical sensations. We might encounter various animals, but the correct one would manifest three times. When that happened, we were supposed to embrace it, bring it back to ordinary reality, and blow it into the top of the person’s head.
I was nervous that I wouldn’t come up with anything at all, but I did encounter a small green snake, which showed itself to me in images and by giving me undulating sensations in my body. I duly held it in my hands and blew it into my partner’s body. So far so good.
When my partner did the same for me, I had an extraordinary experience. I sat up and found myself cocking and turning my head in quick, jerky, birdlike motions that wouldn’t stop. “It’s some kind of bird,” I said. My partner, looking delighted, replied, “It’s a crow!” I was quite convinced that a bird had come to inhabit my body with me, whatever that meant; it could not have been more vivid. I’ll tell you more about the Crow, who became very dear to me, when I write more about the power animals.
Toward the end of the second and last day we did perhaps the most profound activity: a journey to the Upper World to look for a spirit guide. The purpose was twofold: to try to meet such an august being, and to solicit help for some problem if we wished to do so. We were told that it was best to ask for help for someone other than ourselves, that the spirits were more likely to respond to such a request than if our motives were selfish. However, the teacher said that if we really, truly, needed help for ourselves, it was all right to ask.
I really, truly needed help, I thought. By that time I was wild with pain and couldn’t think of anything else. It was about the worst it had ever been, and I was at the end of my rope and didn’t have any idea how to help myself.
The drums started and I did my best to climb into the sky and ask for the highest possible guide to come and work with me. I wasn’t much surprised when Fryderyk, who had been hovering around me a bit earlier in the workshop, came in immediately and with complete clarity. It was as if he had just been waiting to be asked. There was no one else looking to come through. I showed him the pain that I was feeling and told him that I would do anything, anything at all, to make it stop. I didn’t ask him to stop it for me. I asked what I myself needed to do to get better. I said that I was willing to take the responsibility for my healing, and that I believed he could help me figure out how. I don’t know why I thought he could help, but I had complete confidence in him at that moment.
Well, I asked for it, and I sure got it. It felt like he took a sledgehammer and swung it hard into my sternum. My heart broke open like a building hit by a wrecking ball. It was awful and terrifying and wonderful. I understood in no time what I had been suppressing and hiding under that pain. It was literally painfully obvious once I saw it.
The pain started to diminish within moments, and my condition improved more and more over the next few days. It never got that bad again.
Unfortunately, within the context of the class, there was no time at all for me to process that earth-shattering experience. I had to come back to the reality of the room at Breitenbush right away. I would not have been able to resolve it all that day, anyway. Once my heart was opened all sorts of things started pouring out, and the process took quite a while to complete. My “stuff” kept pouring all the rest of the week, which made my visit with Elaine overdramatic and difficult. It did force us to work out some issues in our relationship, though. I had no control over my emotions or their expression whatsoever, so I couldn’t hold anything back or smooth anything over, and it was a rocky ride. I had to keep reminding myself that I really had asked for all this to happen and that it was what I really needed. I don’t know what Elaine thought. It can’t have been much fun for her.
I returned to school with a heavy, streaming cold but a lot more confidence in myself and in my dear disembodied friend, who had gone a thousand extra miles for me to meet me where I was in every sense.
I’ve written this on Chinese New Year’s Eve, just before the Year of the Water Dragon. I guess I should give you a preview of the power animal stories to come, and a fond greeting to the Dragon who offered himself as my protector:
At the time of the demon attack in 1999 (see “A Case of Possession”), I was terrified, and I cast about for any help I could find. One of the symptoms was a feeling of isolation, as if there were a heavy fog wrapped around me, keeping me from my spiritual connections. I did everything I could to reach out– yes, I did pray, and I did feel more connected after that. Here is one of the specific strategies I tried.
Perhaps, I thought, there might be help in the shamanic world, some being that was more or less on the level of the demon and able to deal with it. I hoped to find someone or something that was bigger and badder than that entity, so I journeyed to the Lower World and asked for exactly that.
Usually, as I’ve said, I feel entities much more than I see them, but this time I had some visuals, and they were dramatic. I entered a cave and found a gigantic, gold and red, Chinese-style dragon, breathing fire and the whole nine yards. In flashes, I saw his huge, round, rolling eyes, the feathery streaming appendages around his head, his formidable horns, and his scimitar claws. The golden scales gleamed impressively. He was the fiercest creature I could imagine, and I was very, very glad to have him in my corner. He was a little frightening, but his wrath was directed at that which would harm me, not at me.
I can’t say that the Dragon did anything in particular during the time that I was fighting that malevolent being, but I felt supported and much stronger. I often fail to remember to ask for him, but I have felt his support at some difficult times since. We’re bound to need all the help we can get this year, too. I just read that Dragon years are always tumultuous. Happy New Year, and hang on for a wild ride through the stormy skies!