Indigenous and ancestral shamans know that we are all connected to the world of the animal powers, and that by recognizing and nurturing our relation with animal spirits, we find and follow the natural path of our energies. Yet many of us have lost this primal connection, or know it only as a superficial, wannabe, symbolic thing that we look up in books and medicine cards without feeding and living it every day.
Our animal spirits come stalking us in dreams, offering us ways to reclaim our connection. In the nature and condition of our dream animals, we see the state of our own vital energy. But this goes beyond personal psychology. Dream animals come to claim us as powers of the deeper world, revered and inhabited by our ancestors and still vitally alive in the deep cave of ancestral knowing, to which each of us has access if we are willing to go below the surface levels of consciousness.
The condition of animals in your dreams often reflects your situation in regular life. You see an eagle confined in a birdcage, unable to spread its wings, and you’ll want to ask where, in your waking self, you need to claim space and freedom to fly. You see a lion napping on your porch, and you might ask what you need to do to awaken the lion energy in your soul and claim the courage and the voice of the lion. You find a bear cub in your basement, and you might think about how to nurture and grow the medicine power of the bear in your life.
Our ancestors believed that we are born with a connection with a particular totem animal; this was the raison d’être of the clan system. Some Australian Aborigines believe, up to the present day, that when a human is born, its “bush soul” is born in the form of an animal or bird. We may feel that we have a lifelong connection with a certain animal or bird. Others may observe this in our body type, our lifestyle, our mode of responding to challenges.
But in the course of a lifetime, we may develop many animal connections. Some of these may stem from our relations with the animals who share our homes and habitats, from the family pets to wild animals encountered in nature and in our travels. Animals we have met in the physical world may reappear in our dreams, as allies and helpers.
The dream animals are both personal and transpersonal. We learn what that means as we deepen our connection and work with them. This involves more than looking up in a book what an animal symbol is supposed to mean. We want to track our dream animal by studying its natural habits and characteristics; by following its trail through folklore and myth; and by feeding and embodying its energy in the way we move and eat and use our physical senses — for example, by borrowing the keen vision of the hawk, or the ears of the fox, or the olfactory sense of the wolf.
The word totem is widely, but rather loosely, used for an animal with whom a person has a special connection. I tend to avoid that term, except in relation to ancestral or indigenous peoples who have clan totems. In their societies, you were (or are) born with a connection to a certain animal if you are born into its clam. The clan totem is part of your identity. Besides this clan animal, you may have a lifelong connection with a power animal dating from very early in your life; we might call this a life totem.
Active dreamers, especially if they engage in shamanic work, are likely to develop working relations with many animal spirits. Different animals bring different gifts, different challenges call forth different allies, different landscapes and different ancestries hold different animal dreamings.
Forming a strong connection with a dream animal is already soul recovery, restoring vital energy and clarifying the natural path of that energy. The dream animal may prove to be a power animal, and a guide and protector for other forms of soul recovery for ourselves or others.
Whatever animal is stalking you in your dreams, there are a few things you can do right away to start unfolding and embodying its significance for your life.
1. Study the natural habits of the animal
Learn all you can about the natural habits and characteristics of your dream animal. Is it diurnal or nocturnal? What does it eat? Is it a loner or does it live in groups? Does it mate for life or have multiple sexual partners? How does it hunt and hide? As you consider these things, you may find your dreams are giving you excellent tips on how best to follow the natural path of your own energies.
2. Track your animal through folklore
Track your dream animal through mythology and folklore, especially the legends of the land where you live and lands of your ancestors.
3. Feed and honor your animal spirits in your body
Consider how you can feed and nourish the energy of your power animal in your physical body. Practice moving or using your senses as the animal does. Eat something it might enjoy or at least tolerate.
Adapted from Dreaming the Soul Back Home: Shamanic Dreaming for Healing and Becoming Whole by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.
In her painting “Whispers”, visionary Canadian artist Shannon Brown evokes what it is like to be connected to the animal spirits, to listen, perhaps, to fox and to raven. For more of her work, please visit her website.