Animal Medicineby Rev. Rainbow Wohali Medicine-Walker
The Animals Are Back
An eagle scream lives within my breastAnd fire in my fingers.Strong talons grip the earth,Molding matter with will and wildness.A primal command tears across dimensions,Echoing in forested hills of cougar kin.Coyotes yip in response.Raptor fierceness shakes the world,Rendering motionless the acts of man.Nature's voice inhabits the soul.Earth turns over, releasing winged onesTo dance pathways of beauty and wholeness.They come singing a dawnsong welcoming all.The animals are back and the universeIs alive within them.
Many Native Americans teach that animals have a human form in the spirit world and that humans have there a corresponding animal form. Having direct experience of the human spirit form of animals, it astounds me that society continues to persist in its myth of the "dumb" animal. Native creation stories speak of a time when the animal people were dominant on the earth. These powerful beings gave way so that the puny and defenseless humans might live.
Some of these great spirits became embodied in smaller animal forms to serve the physical needs of the people and others chose to enter earth, sky, and water worlds, ready to offer aid of a spiritual nature if called upon in times of need. These stories remind us that we owe our continued existence to our animal sisters and brothers. This teaches gratitude.
It is made plain in the Native way that humans are not greater than the other beings with whom we share this planet. This teaches humility.
We are also shown, through prayer and ceremony, the power of the great mystery within the many spiritual gifts these animal beings can share. This teaches respect.
Animal medicine is not about symbolism and shamanic hocus-pocus; it is real, alive and vital. Animal spirits are not constructs of the psyche; they have substance, individual life, and important teachings to share. These beings do not inhabit only the spirit realms; they are here and now, ready to work with us if we are willing.
There have been many techniques taught in the past few years to help us connect with the animal spirits. One of the most popular is shamanic journeying, in which one follows the sound of a continuous drumbeat into specific places in the lower, upper and middle worlds to meet with spirit beings. I have great respect for this way; it has proved helpful for many; however, it is not my way, nor is it the way of my Native American teachers.
I find it interesting that a method that originated from studies of indigenous peoples in South America should become so prevalent here, to the point of actually eclipsing more local shamanic ways. While we can benefit greatly from the spiritual gifts of other places and peoples, it is good to remember that the land that we physically inhabit has its own ways and teachings.
We can open to these teachings by being aware of the earth directly beneath us, sinking our roots in deeply and becoming a part of the land itself. Connecting with animal helpers is a natural and visceral process. When we are encouraged to follow our own earth rhy thms, we find ourselves in harmony with whatever animal medicine is most helpful to us at the time. Complicated rituals and mental techniques are not needed. We also draw specific spirits to us based on certain types of work, geographic location and personal need. It can be challenging, in a culture that refuses to accept the existence of spirits, to feel comfortable working with animal medicine. I feel that this is one of the true purposes of ritual, to help bring about a state of being wherein we are receptive to the healing offered.
Often, though, our ceremonies are structured so that little or no direct experience of these spirits can occur. Unfortunately, many people seem more comfortable with predictable ritual that keeps the powers at arm's length, so to speak. Words can be said, acknowledgements made, and prayers offered with little or no awareness of the true nature of the forces called into the circle. This has been one of the most frustrating challenges in my own work and I do not feel I can emphasize this too much: animal spirits are very real and very powerful. Like all powerful things, they have the potential to be harmful if treated incautiously or disrespectfully. This is not mentioned to create fear, but to remind us to take our work, and the spirits, seriously. It is best to have clear intent and safe boundaries when doing spiritual work so that the energy may flow freely and harmoniously.
Animal spirits respect and love us. They have much wisdom and power to share, but we make the final decisions about what to accept and use. It is important to remember that each of us is the ultimate power in our own lives. This gives us a safe center from which to dance the many spiritual forces available to us. The animal spirits are directly connected to the wilderness, and they help us connect with the wildness in ourselves, a place of passion and true freedom. This direct experience of spirit and nature is something for which we all long, and with which society seems to have difficulty coming to terms.
Often there is a great deal of fear, confusion, and unhealthy expectation around religions and spiritual traditions. This can lead to power tripping and dysfunctional, addictive behavior within the community context of our spiritual practices. One great thing about animal medicine is it can help us "cut through the crap," so to speak, and get right to the source of the life force itself.
The best way I know of to connect with any spirit is to pray. There are as many different kinds of prayer as there are people. Most likely you have your own ways, with which you are comfortable. Some things that I have found helpful on my path of deeper understanding of animal medicine are as follows:
- An open heart and mind. Spirits have their own reality, and often do not fit our perceptions of how they "should" be.
- Regular communion with nature. The animal spirits are linked to nature in many ways, and physically connecting with the earth is very helpful in this process.
- Making gifts and offerings to the spirits of the land. An attitude of gratitude opens the way for communication.
- Sacred sound and movement. Drumming, dancing and singing "wake up" the spirits and help put us in a receptive state of awareness.
These four things, in combination with prayer, are very effective in connecting with animal helpers who can strengthen and encourage each of us on our own particular path. Working with animal medicine has taught me to trust myself and to believe in the underlying goodness and integrity of all life. May you also receive the gifts of our animal sisters and brothers in this good way. Blessings!
Rainbow is an ordained minister, enrolled member of the Cherokee nation, and teacher/healer in the earth medicine ways traditions. She is founder of Earth Spirit Ministry, a non-denominational, nonprofit gathering of spirit, nature, and human beings dedicated to the encouragement and healing of all. For individual help, ceremonial information, and gathering times, call Rainbow at (360) 599-1199.