Animal Totems and Synchronicities

When I thought to myself about how to write a post on indigenous wisdom in our everyday lives and how it applies in my life, I didn't quite know how to start.  After all, my background is not of native, indigenous culture to the land that I now occupy.  I am Irish American, yet I have found myself drawn to the deep wisdom of Native American cultures and shamanic traditions, particularly in their relationship to nature and animal symbols.

A commonality across most native cultures and shamanic healing traditions is a deep reverence for the Earth and the wildlife that inhabits it.  Animal totems in Native American culture are looked at as spiritual guides or symbols representing a tribe, family or individual.  Often, Native American hunters would ask permission of the spirit of the animal before the hunt and send prayers of gratitude to its spirit after taking its life.  Peruvian shamanism in turn also has great reverence for nature and invokes animal allies, such as the jaquar, the hummingbird, or the eagle, in spiritual ritual to provide healing and guidance to the initiates who call upon them.

Ted Andrews writes, in his book Animal Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small:

There was a time when humanity recognized itself as part of nature, and nature as part of itself.  Dreaming and waking were inseparable realities; the natural and the supernatural merged and blended.  People used images of nature to express this unity and to instill a transpersonal kind of experience.

Modern society, at least in cities, with our technological prowess and high rise buildings, are too often separate from the callings of the natural world and our own spiritual connections to the wildlife which share our land.  In my own spiritual path, I have found that some of the most powerful moments in meditation have come through connecting in with the spirit of an animal ally, or power animal as they are often called in shamanic tradition.  First, it was the broad-winged, colorful eagle who gave me strength when I needed to make a difficult decision and protected me as I said the hard things that needed to be said.  Next, it was the tiger who appeared in all her royal feline glory to guide me through a healing journey which uncovered deep, buried emotions.  More recently, the wolf mother has helped me see the value in connecting to the pack, loyalty, and ferocious feminine wisdom.


And just these past few weeks, another divine guide has popped up in my life through serendipity and synchronicity.  The slow, solitary turtle first showed its face during a walk in my local park, skirting the edges of the pond, as if he had somehow been waiting for me to turn the bend.  He barely batted an eye as I took his picture close up, letting me know that he was immovable, taking his own grand time enjoying the water's edge.  Next, the turtle appeared after I was walking home from an immense healing I had just had at a friend's home.  As I walked through her neighborhood in Manhattan, I passed a blaring sign overhead....Turtle Bay NYC, triggering my memory of the friend I had made just a week earlier  And just a few days ago during a trip to the Berkshires, as we drove around a bend, a lone turtle was making his way slowly across the road, seemingly impervious to the dangers of traffic and curiosity of passerby's.  He quickly jetted into his shell as I lifted him gingerly to his desired destination.


Synchronicities and signs are the universe's way of getting us to pay attention, sending messages our way until it knows we've gotten the hint.  C.G. Jung first introduced the principle to scientific observation in his famous essay "Synchronicity," defining the term as a "meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than probability of chance is involved."  He was fascinated with the subject due to his own experience of recurring fish symbols and his clients' many reports of seemingly beyond-chance coincidences.  He could not himself land on a satisfactory conclusion of causation to the "vast problem of synchroncity" in his work, yet he revealed through his inquiry the commonality of the phenomenon within human experience.

For my part, I could no longer dismiss the signs as mere coincidence; the turtle appeared to want to tell me something.  Reaching out from his usually comfortable shell to deliver a singular message...."slow down."  Of course that's what he would say.  He is the embodiment of slow and steady, carrying his home on his back, never trying to arrive at any particular destination because he's already there.  Indeed, Andrews writes "Long life and groundedness within life are part of what is associated with the turtle.  It does not move fast.  It is as if, on some level, turtle knows it has all the time in the world.  Turtle medicine can teach new perceptions about time and our relationship with it."

The turtle had caught me.  I had not been taking time to slow down.  I had scheduled my vacation time back-to-back with meetings, healings and friend time (but it was fun!) and had neglected my own time to recharge and rest in my shell.  My introverted inner self was suffering the consequences by crying out for alone time, and the turtle was here to remind me of my own need for home and for pacing my life.  "One step at a time, not three," he seemed to call out to me from beside the pond.  "It's the journey not the destination," he whispered in my ear as I picked him up and ferried him across the road.

And as I sighed and took aboard his message, I gave thanks to Mother Nature for allowing me to slow down just enough to recognize the signs of Her wisdom.