© 2011 by Michael Drake
A shaman or shamaness, by definition (vide Prof. Hutton, Shamans, Hambledon & London, London 2001), is "someone who works with spirits to help others." Shamanism is the intentional effort to acquire and nurture ongoing relationships with personal helping spirits to gain wisdom, healing techniques, and other vital information that can benefit the community.
What I mean by the term spirits is all the material and immaterial forms of life energy that are all around us. We are woven together into a net of life energies that are all around us. These energies can appear to us in different forms, such as spirits of nature, animals, or ancestors. The spirit world is the web of life itself.
Whether you realize it or not, you have always had helper spirits. Helping spirits are like family and friends, and each has a unique personality. The majority of helping spirits take an animal form, most commonly a mammal or bird. Not everyone experiences helping spirits as animals. In cultures where there are no indigenous animals or even birds or insects, the messengers of spirit are experienced through representations of the elements: air, water, fire, earth, sun, moon, planets, stars, and so on.
A power animal is the archetypal spirit that represents the entire species of that animal. It is actually the spirit of one of the First People, as they are called, who at the end of mythic times turned into the animals as we know them today. Raven, for example, is embodied in each individual member of the raven species, but Raven himself still lives in mythic times. In practice this means that while many shamans may work with Raven spirits, there are not many different raven spirits that work with different shamans. Power animals are valuable allies who can help you navigate through life's challenges and transitions. Many animals will come to guide you, some briefly and others throughout your life.
In the worldview of the shaman, power animals or animal archetypes such as Eagle, Coyote, and Bear represent and protect their entire species. When you connect with a power animal, you align yourself with the collective strength and wisdom of the entire species. One of the most important gifts that animal allies offer is protection and guardianship to the shaman during arduous shamanic tasks. Without this alliance, it is widely accepted that it is impossible to become a shaman. Power animals are themselves great teachers and shamans. In many shamanic cultures, the knowledge imparted by a power animal is considered more important than the practical guidance of a master shaman.
Power animals offer humans a much needed medicine. They remind us of what is innocent and truthful. Animals subsist from the heart, with a deep instinctual knowing that is always connected to the web of life. They live from the heart and are not entrapped by their reason. Humans, on the other hand, tend to live from the head, trying to figure everything out. But the energy that comes in from the source is directed through our hearts. We come into our own power when we learn to live from the heart. The heart attunes us to the flow of a dynamic, interrelated universe, helping us feel connected rather than isolated and estranged.
There are many ways to bring power animal energy into your life. Try any of the following:
- Hang pictures of animals around your house or work area.
- Read books about animals.
- Learn about their connection in the web of life.
- Go for a walk in nature.
- Take time every day to meditate and tune into an animal.
- Simply call or invoke an animal. When you call upon the power of an animal, you are asking to be drawn into complete harmony with the strength of that creature’s essence.
One of the best ways to connect with power animals is through shapeshifting. Shapeshifting is more than just transforming into an animal as is often depicted in shamanic accounts and tales. It is the ability to shift your energies to adapt to the demands and changes of daily life. We all learn which activities, behaviors, and attitudes support or hinder our survival and growth. It is a natural and instinctual ability that we all share. The minimal development of this talent is the ability to mimic. We often mimic for the purpose of learning something or to blend in with our social or physical environment. It implies changing one’s pattern of appearance or behavior, rather than just using what you already have. Actors, for example, are known for their ability to take on the characteristics of another person or thing.
A shapeshifter is one who manipulates their aura or energy field to access a higher or inner power in order to grow and learn. All shapeshifting occurs on an energy level. If everything is broadcasting its own energy pattern and if you could match and rebroadcast the same pattern, then you would take on the appearance and qualities of the thing you were matching. The only constraining factor is the degree of belief, connection, and energy. Learning to shift your consciousness, to align with and adapt your energies to power animals, opens your heart and mind to the wisdom and strength of the animal world. You must empty yourself so that spirit may embody you. "Become like a hollow bone," a Lakota elder once advised me in the sweat lodge.
Power Animal Drumming
Drumming is an excellent way to induce embodiment trance states and facilitate shapeshifting. When an animal spirit is invoked, there is often an accompanying rhythm that comes through. Shamans frequently use these unique rhythms to summon their helping spirits for the work at hand. As Ted Andrews explains in his book Animal Speak, "Some are so skilled at drumming, they can duplicate the rhythms of various animals. There is snake drumming, wolf drumming, hawk drumming -- a drumming for every animal. As the rhythm is created it plays upon the metabolism of the individual causing entrainment -- the individual’s own heart and metabolic rhythm is brought into synchronization with the drum beat. This is used to facilitate a shapeshifting, an aligning with the archetypal forces represented by the animal." (Animal Speak, © 1993 by Ted Andrews, page 224)
Through drumming, it is possible to co-create a resonant field with a power animal. I recently recorded the CD, Power Animal Drumming: Calling the Spirits to help the listener connect with power animals. The spirit calling rhythms on this CD evolved over many years through me and fellow shamanic circle drummers who gained and nurtured enduring personal relationships with helping animal spirits. Each pattern creates a vibratory resonance that allows these spirit helpers to be called forth. The drumbeat is the tuner sound. Each rhythm projects onto the body a supportive resonance or sound pattern to which the body can attune. As one resonates in sync with the rhythm of an animal, energy and awareness are exchanged.
The basic steps to connect with a power animal are as follows:
1. First, select a private and quiet space. Make whatever arrangements are necessary to assure that you will not be disturbed. Dim the lights and sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor.
2. Next, close your eyes and focus on the breath as it enters the nose and fills your lungs, then gently exhale any tension you might feel. Continue this breathing exercise until you feel calm and relaxed.
3. The next step is to frame a simple and clear statement of your intentions. Whether asking for help or merely getting acquainted with an animal, one must clearly convey the purpose of invoking them.
4. After clearly stating your intent, begin listening to the track on the CD corresponding to the animal you wish to invoke, or begin drumming the animal rhythm yourself. It may take a few moments for you to fully synchronize with the drum pattern.
5. As the drumming progresses, vividly imagine with every sense the animal you are invoking. When you can visualize it fully in front of you, imagine that your body is merging with that of the animal. Allow the change to come slowly. It is not uncommon to be and see the animal simultaneously. Be open to the sensations and feelings of being that animal. Feeling is the most important sensation because you want to imagine what it feels like to be that animal. It helps to mimic the posture, movements, and sounds of the animal. Animal sounds and calls often accompany the drum on the CD as an aid in merging. The degree of merging is limited by any negative attitudes such as anger, fear, and doubt. The goal is to merge to the greatest degree possible while still retaining a bit of self-awareness.
6. Finally, separate from the animal by imagining yourself back into your physical body. Do not rush the transformation. Imagine the animal fully and completely outside of you once more. Thank the animal for its power, presence, and assistance. Then allow its image to dissipate.
Be flexible with the steps outlined in this exercise. Adapt and experiment with them. Moreover, your animal guide may gift you with a unique drum beat to summon its presence and power. Remember to thank power animals and seek practical ways to give something of value back to the animal world.