Recently, I was attending a meeting of a local group that refers to itself as The Philosophical Society. It was our first meeting, and the organizer asked that we all introduce ourselves by name and by power animal. Given that this is a small town in the Midwest, I was a bit surprised. All eight of us named power animals. At a subsequent meeting I asked the organizer why he had asked we name our power animals. He said it was a gesture to the artist in the group. When I asked if he had an understanding of what a power animal was, he said he did not. He did not even seem curious and we let the subject drop. About that same time a few people were telling me they had power animals, though they could not explain what they meant by that. Sometimes ideas ease into the popular culture, on silent paws or contagious agreement, without conscious knowledge or intention.
Again, around that same time there was a Facebook quiz circulating that made its way onto my News Feed. The purpose of the quiz was to identify your power animal. I was sympathetic because even superficial expression of a spirited idea is better than opposition. It also suggests a degree of acceptance by the popular culture. On the other hand, the somewhat frivolous treatment of the subject robs an individual of questing, discovering, or coming into resonance with an actual power animal (though I suppose it is possible a select few were motivated to pursue their own potential connections). While feeling no apparent urgency, a seed was planted suggesting I re-act. When I was done dancing with animals, maybe I could dance with words.
Many of us began our fascination with Nature as children. I can see echoes of a power animal arrangement in a game I organized when I was five years old. We paired off to play protective animal companion. One person would pretend to be the animal companion of the human, loyal but wild. It was more a game of imagination, as it is difficult for humans of any age to run on all fours or to spread arms and actually fly. When adults would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I did not answer “fireman” or “policeman” as did many of my peers. I said I wanted to be a tiger. I was serious, though I did understand the desire to be imaginative.
I had no idea what to expect during my first animal dance. It took me completely by surprise — both spontaneous and powerful. I’ve been hooked ever since. To develop a good relationship with a power animal requires mindful participation (this, from the horse’s mouth). That relationship will develop organically through rituals, gestures, chants, gracious bonding, or other means of achieving and expressing depth that we discover in our shamanic practice. That relationship will develop through exploration of imaginal realms, and at the interface between worlds – where the charge of emotional intent reverberates back into the everyday world. And we can also prime that relationship through study of our power animal as it exists in the physical world — learning the behaviors and predilections of an animal through observation of the animal in nature, through documentaries and photography, or by reading about animal intelligence. We can study the world myths of our power animal. We can write poetry or dedicate art to that relationship. When in relationship, power animals empower – each according to its nature. They heal, protect, and inform.
As we develop that relationship, we may have deep experiences with lucid dreams, as well as with actual or representative encounters in the everyday world. Here is an experience that I had with my power animal (several years into the relationship):
During the night prior to my first vision quest, I had a dream in which I was being attacked by a venomous snake. My power animal entered my dream unexpectedly and was able to grab the snake and drop it into Lake Superior, neutralizing the intrusion. Then, I merged with the animal, leaving my human form behind. As I woke up I passed through a hypnagogic into a fully wakened state, growling the entire time — a voice of Power.
This power waking — filled with expressing the voice of my animal power — happened one time subsequent to my vision quest. Again, I became my power animal in a dream. When I woke up, straight from dreaming, I was on all fours like an animal – emitting a powerful growl. About the same time as my dream, my mother had a dream in which she was at the zoo with me. I was a little boy in her dream. There were no cages at the zoo; all the animals roamed freely. I walked up to my power animal and began to pet it. The animal growled, but I was unconcerned. Of course, my mother had no idea that this was my power animal. She told me, “I wasn’t afraid you’d get hurt, but after all, they were wild animals.” Her lack of fear or anxiety for her son in this type of dream was highly atypical for my mother. The majority of her dreams were what might be termed anxiety dreams, in which wild animals were more likely to be menacing, more likely to give chase. I take this dream as evidence that my mother had an unknown glimpse into my relationship to Power. We never discussed it, and I’m sure she had no idea. To her, the dream was highly unusual, well worth sharing with me. She was aware that it was not typical of her usual patterns of dreaming.
I’ve experienced these types of complete metamorphosis a handful of times, and I see it as process in link/relationship building. It’s not necessary to the shamanic process. Generally, even when I merge with an animal, I maintain self-awareness as well. It’s like dancing an animal – vision of the shamanic world and enough vision in this one to keep from tripping over the altar. This is part of the discipline of shamanism – able to keep an eye in both worlds. If I have the urge to growl or howl at an inopportune moment, I can choose for that sound to express silently. It’s important that my awareness remain human, and that I have the awareness to live and interact in the world that requires attention.
There are no rules governing the number of power animals that an individual may have, though this is a situation where quality of relationship would be more important than quantity. I have a group of four power animals that have been with me for some time. There are a number of other animals that have assisted in specific situations, or have functioned as messengers from time to time.
My current shamanic practice involves an intent to merge shamanic mind with ongoing mystic union. It’s a colossal challenge, a work in progress worthy of the elder years. The goal of practice is an ongoing presence that dips with rhythms, like tides, into cosmic consciousness. At times during this practice, union becomes light. Sometimes the light intensifies into a cosmic web. At other times the light is spacious — filled with vibrancy and movement. I liken this activity to nature spirits and dakinis (a Tibetan Buddhist term which literally means sky traveler). I see the light beings manifest as butterfly fairies, glowing dragonflies, and a myriad of light forms. I do not focus on the forms, more on the way that endless space comes alive. These sky traveler/light beings feel like an appropriate addition to this discussion of power animals. They feel like seeds of light — like the viscous Tao, energetic and vibrant — giving birth to the 10,000 forms, both material and non-material. They feel like a living multidimensional tapestry through which power animals navigate and renew.
There are times, when I’m having difficulty maintaining visions of light, that my power animal may arrive to empower my efforts. For a time, or no-time, we two become co-travelers of light and the endless-spacious skies of our universe.