A Bear, Coyote and a Dragon
…a lady we’ll call Elisa requests a shamanic journey, to find her path in life. We undertake the journey, a work that happens in the mind in a psychological landscape. The vocabulary and order of events, however, are mythical: mythical characters, animals and people, mythical action, heroines and heroes. Both the language of psychology and the language of myth have a voice in healing and evolution.
Totems, power animals, play key roles in the shamanic journey. Nothing really happens without them. When I Googled for a definition of “totem” I find it is considered an animal symbol or an emblem representing a company, a team or a person. That falls way short of the true dynamics of totems in the shamanic journey and in our personal lives, as well.
Let’s imagine you just walked into the altar to ask us about totems. We ask that you bless yourself in the smoke and maybe hand you something related to totems, like a drumstick or a feather.
Since most English and Spanish speakers have heard the concept of the guardian angel, we like to start here:
Totem equals Guardian Angel
If you’re a believer in angels, or simply curious about them, that’s a powerful statement. It means you basically understand power animals, or spiritual totems, as observed in many tribal traditions.
In traditions where Mother Earth is honored, totems – animals, their spirits, or other beings – show up at the time of birth, and in one form or fashion, stay close to that person the rest of their life. Like guardian angels, right?
In Earth-centered traditions, animals were here before humans; they share the Earth with us, the feed us, they teach us, taught us to hunt, for instance, to survive. It makes sense to us to be aware of and have access to our protective, guiding, animal spirit. Being aware of angelic help and communicating with angels is nothing new either, is it? Even the Christian cults which don’t allow prayers to angels pray for God to send those angels.
In the modern world, animal images are seen as imagination and visualization. In the shamanic world these “images” are spirits of animals and are co-workers in making human life a little easier.
When it comes to the shamanic journey, totems and power animals play the critical role of guiding and protecting us in the mental/spiritual plane we are entering. That’s not speaking lightly.
We tell our totems what we want, in detail, as per our patient’s private needs. We follow the animal spirits to a place in space and time where we can find answers. On the way to such a place there are obstacles, some at monster levels, and the totems help us with that. Protection, however, is only one way animal spirits participate in human life and evolution.
Working with totems in the shamanic sense involves real time energy movement. The shamanic journey is likely one of the oldest ever medical/psychological treatments on record. The reason we humans keep doing it, the old fashioned way to boot, is because it works. A key reason it works is the power animal and the role it plays in the action.
Elisa, as we mentioned above, requested a shamanic journey to help her find her path in life, and to help her unravel some of life’s current challenges.
Totems in Action
We ask the Strong One, also known as Bear, to lead us in the cave, where our journey begins. We explain we are looking for what Elisa needs most, right now, to progress in her path, while dealing with the present moment a little better, as well.
We won’t touch on Elisa’s actual situation and how all that works out. That’s a different story; this is about power animals in action, what they do, what they know, how they guide and protect.
The totems and power animals are spirits like us, and like us, are defined by the context of where they find themselves at the moment. Below is a totem-related excerpt from the journey we performed for Elisa.
We follow Strong One into a dark cave. Dark and narrow at first, the path widens to make for a relatively straight walk, opening onto the top of a cliff and overlooking a deep chasm. The only way down is making the jump.
I hold on to the Strong One’s thick fur as we hit the air. Floating down we watch the walls of the canyon pass, until we hit a dark cloud that only gets darker as we, suddenly, just fall through it.
We hit with a thud. Strong One takes the bulk of the hit, but I take a good bounce, too. Still being in the dark, I put my hand on the big one’s back as she walks us toward a distant glow, a light at the end of the darkness. As we get closer, the terrain turns to softer grass and sunlight comes through. With the grass beneath us, we pause expecting…
Strong One moves fast, reacting to something I can’t see yet. Strong One falls on me, over me, in protection. She leaves me enough room to breathe and I peek out at the action.
I see a dinosaur type bird, diving at us. I see bear claws vs bird claws raising a devil dust. I call Owl and Coyote to come help, but Owl is here already.
I hear Owl’s wings flapping hard, followed by the shrill of slicing air, once, twice, three times. Suddenly the battle stops, the only sound, the dying flaps of a large bird.
We stand and follow the shadow of Owl, slow-flying ahead of us. We step into a tropical forest and on the first turn we find ourselves looking up at another sheer cliff. We see some movement high up, maybe from a cave up there. It looks like the rapid flapping of wings from down here, but vision may be deceiving at this distance.
One of these totems will know what to do, but it’s a third totem, a white Dragon with red wings that makes the next move. Dragon slithers over the ground, right between us, up the side of that cliff.
Meanwhile, Owl, Strong One and I resize; Owl grows, we shrink. We climb atop her and hold on. We hit the air anticipating the moment Dragon will fly off the cliffside, to show us where to strike. We keep a distance as we fly up to see what Dragon will show.
As we hover, we see it’s a cave in the cliff wall, but the movement we’d thought was wings is a nest of riled up snakes, fangs out, juicing venom. The snakes are hissing and jetting out their poison, reacting to us in the air and the smell of Dragon’s breath, we assume.
We don’t know why Dragon is hesitating to signal attack, and soon we get the message to go back home, talk to the patient, interpret some of this.
We return precisely the way we came, but this time we encounter a little girl at the edge of the forest, before heading back into that cloud we had passed earlier. Little girls appearing all of a sudden, I admit, is mostly scary, and with good reason, but this girl owns the forest. It responds to her. She barely nods at us, giving us the impression, she’s showing up for Elisa.
When it’s time to return, Strong One, Owl, Coyote, Dragon and I go the exact same way back. We yanked those snakes out one by one and let them fall to their death, until we had a clean cave where we were able to complete our journey.
The workwe performed is about rescuing a piece of Elisa’s soul from where it had become lost in her past, something we discuss under the topic of soul retrieval, a major treatment in shamanic medicine. In this article, however, we focus on honoring our totems by telling their tale.
Every bit of the terrain we covered and action we experienced found some parallel in Elisa’s life, and particularly in her healing journey. She’s learning how to work with her totems in her time and her way. Maybe it’s all a myth, maybe it’s how we see the energy move,ormaybe it’s how we use it.
If you have stories or teachings about totems, angels or other guides, we’d love to hear them. Meanwhile, get in touch with your totems, so you can