The “spirit animal” is an ancient belief in a guide, who takes the form of an animal, which can help you in times of trouble. Belief in spirit animals has existed across all continents, from indigenous Africa and Australia, to Native American and Inuit. Shamans – spiritual leaders – see animals as natural spirits who are never cruel, passionate, hateful, aggressive or anxious unless it is necessary, and that is what they try to teach humans to be.
Sounds good, right? If someone were to come to you and say, “Hey, so I’ve got this great trick to give you other-wordly wisdom and happiness, and literally all you have to do is believe what I tell you,” you, the not-so-discerning, lower-middle class, Bachelor-degree holding, aggressive anti-conformist would likely nod your head. Not quite certain of the adventure you’re being taken on.
London Shamans are, perhaps with good reason, wary of someone emerging from murky East London claiming to be in search of spiritual enlightenment when, actually, he needs to fulfil a commission.
Here’s how you imagine it working. You walk into a room. The smell of burning incense, or maybe cardamom, fragrances the air. An old woman is bent double on a black leather couch. She wears a shaggy overcoat and excessively long false nails. She stares up at you and grimaces, “I am the Bear Shaman, and you are lost.”
This, unfortunately, was not my experience. London Shamans are, perhaps with good reason, wary of someone emerging from murky East London claiming to be in search of spiritual enlightenment when, actually, he needs to fulfil a commission. There are probably a lot of people looking to reveal them as charlatans, the same people that make documentaries exposing faith healers and ex-gay counsellors. Charlatans or not, they are perspicacious.
Finding a shaman
I finally managed to get one on the phone – on Boxing Day, in fact. Her name was Jill. Not my first choice; my preference would have been for the exotic sounding Imelda, but Imelda was otherwise engaged this Christmas and advised me instead to attend a £200, two-day workshop called “The Way of the Shaman”. I wasn’t sure about getting that signed off, so went with option two, Jill.
Our phone call was terse. Jill was a Northern women who clearly felt the time pressures of the modern urban Shaman. After perhaps 30 seconds of niceties and my explaining myself she broke it down for me: “My sense with you is to keep putting the work in.” She then told me that, if my spirit (or “Power”) animal was not in attendance, it was because he or she was “honouring the sacred law of man’s free will”.
The “difficulty” was my expectation of them helping me; it was holding me back.
This advice was a little irksome after two weeks of chasing evasive Shamans. I asked her what, then, I should do. She simply rephrased herself, speaking as if I were a less-than-average but well-meaning student. “A Power animal doesn’t come when it’s called,” she said. I wondered whether in fact I had reached the Shamanic version of a Swansea call centre, as we seemed to have reached that all too familiar scripted impasse. I thanked her and hung up.
The “issue” I was giving them I felt was pretty stock, in the hopes that they would throw me some well-rehearsed advice rather than taking an investigative approach to my alleged interest. It went: I was a country-mouse-cum-Londoner who had not seen the countryside recently, and felt I was losing touch with nature. I said I felt if I had an imaginary animal, it might help me through this.
The answer to that problem, it seems, is not as easy to come by as it was to conjure. First of all: Shaman are apparently overworked these days, and the only way of meeting with one are at a booked-out workshop or on a one-to-one appointment basis. Fees for that can range from £20 an hour to £200 per session. If you’re feeling gamy, you can offer them homemade bread, which thankfully is hard to refuse if you’re peddling spirituality.
Lacking the money for that sort of thing, I was running around searching for handouts. The best I could hope for was some sort of subscription: 2 weeks Owl, 4 weeks Polar Bear, that sort of thing. I couldn’t see why not: having now read quite a bit on spirit animals, a lot of which seems contradictory, why couldn’t I get goofed up on Power animals like they were ethereal Modafinil?
Jill insisted I do nothing. But after a lifetime of doing nothing to find my spirit animal, I was getting skeptical. Busy bee Imelda had offered me some advice on meditation, and with that a few books advising me on how to reach out to the spirit realm. So there was light in the tunnel: perhaps I could do it on my own.
Some of the exercises were deliberately simple: sit alone for 30 minutes and try to catch the sound of animals around you. Others were complex: lie, with legs outstretched and arms folded in front, in a bath, on your belly – thus summoning the crocodile, or “Queen of the Nile” spirit.
I had returned home for Christmas, to the Scottish Highlands. We didn’t have any snow this year, so the land was desperate and stark in a way: it looked like perfect territory for spiritual journey. Quite Native American. I felt that, if I were to find my spirit animal through the means of meditation, it’d surely be here.
I could hear quacking mallards.
On Boxing Day, despondent after my talk with Jill, I went walking into a nearby birch forest, known locally as the Fairy Glen. I found a mossy spot beneath a lichen-encrusted birch, crossed my legs and hunkered into the navel of the tree. Meditation in a winter parka is perhaps not the done thing, but I was warm enough for 5 or 10 minutes that I could patiently listen to the forest around me.
I could hear quacking mallards. They were from a nearby pond, more or less domesticated by now. And geese – actually domesticated – called off somewhere else. Everything else was still.
Perhaps this was simply the wrong time of year?
At home I resolved to try some of the special meditation exercises my book, Find Your Spirit Animals, provided. This is the volume from which the crocodile drowning exercise comes.
There was near-enough one for every animal the book covers: spiders, snakes, gorillas, the unicorn. Each animal corresponds to their supposed gift – the thing they can teach you. Some of them are fairly straightforward: change is a butterfly. Others require a stretch of already wafer-thin imagination: the coyote is good for “crisis management”.
I picked the Polar Bear exercise. I had to imagine myself as a bear out on the ice caps, beneath the Northern lights. To play the role, I picture myself breathing through a Polar Bear’s nostrils, sitting like him and gazing up at the Lights. I then reach up and capture the lights, stringing them through my hand, and divvying them among my friends as “healing energy”.
I came away with a sense of generosity, as well as being somewhat calmer – which I guess was the deep breathing I assume bears do. But I can’t really think that I’ve helped myself with that exercise, and I certainly didn’t help anyone else.
I tried other exercises, such as the “Great Black Turtle exercise”, awakening the serpent and searching for my inner wolf. They all made me calmer and feel more centered but as for discovering my Power Animal or creating an effect that lasted longer than a few minutes, there was no effect.
My greatest reflection from all this talk and these exercises is how fleshless the entire thing seemed to be. When people talked about spirituality, I was not the type to scoff. It all seemed legitimate: people have their rituals. It makes you feel good. If sniffing the ground and growling gives you the (mental) strength of a bear, I’m not going to argue with you.
If sniffing the ground and growling gives you the strength of a bear, I’m not going to argue with you.
But I will if, in fact, all it gives you is a crutch. It’s all very Emperor’s New Clothes, or whatever it is priests do before they call it “holy water”. You take some deep breathing exercises, or you box out some time for what is ordinarily just called “reflection”, call it spiritualism and hey presto: you have yourselves an ancient rite. Whatever “ancient rite” even really means, the meaning having gotten lost somewhere between the fall of pagan religions and their suspicious resurrection in the modern era.
My journey toward my Spirit Animal began online. I typed in “what’s my spirit animal”, got a ton of tests, and took 5 or 6 of them. I got 2 owls, a raven, a spider and butterfly. I also had a ton of “suggested” animals, like dolphins, wolves and cats.
So: sure, it’s not meant to be an exact science. But, in defence of online tests, at least I got an answer. The many hours spent hounding Shamans and reading books either got me dead-ended with an “it’ll come when you least expect it” brush-off, or sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor feeling a bit like I was doing yoga on the easy setting.
It seems like the bottom line with Spirit Animals is: make it up. Philip Pullman did, and the His Dark Materials books sold millions. The attraction is probably that in itself: it sparks the imagination, the idea of a spirited animal walking beside you during one of life’s trials. Failing that, you could go online.
And, if that fails, then perhaps you really do need a shaman waving animal bits at you. Something to tell the family at Christmas, at the very least.