I used to have a job in the Hunter Valley, where I lived for a few days a week on open, dry hills in the hot sun. One week, as I walked around the hills, I encountered three snakes on separate occasions. One was swimming across the dam, another large black one reared its head a metre away from me on a walk, and another slid past me at the top of a hill. I also saw a kangaroo swimming across the dam, something I had never seen before. Having worked as a psychotherapist I wondered whether these sightings could have any symbolism attached to them.
I looked up a comprehensive book about animal symbolism. It went into great depth on each animal, but, basically, snakes were said to symbolise rebirth, initiation, change and healing. The number three was also said to represent new birth from the darkness. Kangaroos were about moving forward and not backwards. A few weeks later, I went through a long and difficult time in my life that resulted in change, rebirth and healing. I couldn’t help but wonder about the connection.
Afterwards, when I was back in Sydney, I went for one of my daily walks through a nearby national park. It was getting dark. That evening, I saw three owls in the space of 30 minutes. I was tempted to dismiss the sightings as coincidence as I had seen the occasional owl over the past month. However, for the next three nights in a row, I saw three owls every night. Once again, I felt compelled to check the symbolism, which was the ability to see that which is in the darkness, and making others uncomfortable as they’re less able to deceive you for this reason. “You will hear what is not being said and you will see what is hidden or in the shadows,” said the book. I was experiencing this to a small extent in my life at that time, though it didn’t seem significant.
Once again, though, a difficult time of transformation followed — perhaps the number three was relevant again regarding rebirth. And what instigated this process was my experience of perceiving and exposing a lack of integrity in someone else’s behaviour that they would have preferred to have kept hidden. I often check the meanings of unusual animal sightings these days and it’s always interesting how relevant the symbolism can be.
So to what extent can our external physical reality, such as unusual animal sightings, be a reflection and a meaningful symbol of our internal reality? Certainly, in alternative models of healing there is a popular view that we create our external reality — our everyday experiences, the quality of our relationships, career and home life — according to the inner beliefs we hold about ourselves and our world. If we repeatedly have a negative pattern in an area of our life, it’s said to be holding up a mirror to some internal aspect of our belief system that we need to recognise and heal.
This is also a popular belief emerging from models of reality based on quantum physics — that our thoughts and energy create our external reality. Such models argue that at a sub-atomic level we are not made up of matter at all, but rather we are buzzing particles of energy impacting on everything around us, directed by our beliefs and intention and able to create in a non-deterministic way from an infinite range of possibilities.
In this way, any patterns of negative experience could be viewed as symbols of our healing — showing us where our inner world needs attention. But could this idea be stretched to encompass our physical environment? Could our environment also hold up meaningful symbols to us about our inner reality? Some authors argue this is so, that the trees, animals and even the general landscape of our physical environment can have meaning and symbolism for us and that we only have to know how to read the landscape to learn from its wisdom.
Psychoanalyst Carl Jung advocated that if a symbol and its meaning repeatedly recurred at different times in history and across different cultures, it must reflect some deeper meaning or truth that has emerged from the collective unconscious.
Author Ted Andrews describes in depth the behavioural habits and biological abilities of each species of animal, as well as systematically examining their symbolism across cultures and time. Such symbolism could be viewed as archetypal. He encourages a deep respect for nature and says the more we learn to be in relationship to nature, the more we will understand what it may be trying to teach us.
Animism is the anthropological belief that all of nature — the elements and the animals — have spirit. Andrews believed that to truly understand and gain wisdom from studying the animal world, we must combine the mysticism of animism with the scientific approach of zoologists without becoming overly rational or superstitious. He examined the meaning and beliefs about animals across many different cultural traditions and found many beliefs were consistently repeated. Such beliefs encourage a deep respect for and insight into the natural world and are outlined below.
Cross-cultural beliefs about animals
Each animal has a spirit
Animals may not have the same kind or degree of intelligence that we experience as humans, but some kind of intelligence exists and the animal has become present to us to reflect an archetypal energy and intelligence we can learn from.
No animal is superior, more important or more spiritual than another
Even if an animal isn’t beautiful, it doesn’t mean it’s less important. For example, the humble cockroach is extremely adaptable. If you’ve ever wondered why it’s hard to step on one, it’s because the antennae spikes on their backs are able to detect subtle changes in air movement so they can escape before being killed. Part of their message is about survival and being adaptable by using what is available to us.
Each animal has a power or medicine
Each animal has a unique set of skills and abilities that allow it to survive. These skills and abilities symbolise the archetypal power they hold. If an animal shows up, it may symbolise that we have similar abilities, or be telling us what abilities we need to develop to make good decisions or take a certain type of action.
We can have more than one spirit totem in our lives
A totem is anything in nature that we feel is especially meaningful and significant to us, such as a type of animal, tree or even a rock. We will always have more than one totem because of the interconnectedness of everything, so that which has meaning to us will also include the things it is connected to, such as what it eats. For instance, the grass is nourished by sunlight and water, the grasshopper eats the grass, the frog eats the grasshopper, the snake eats the frog and so forth.
You need to develop a relationship to the animal
To understand the symbolism of your animal totem, you need to learn as much about the animal as possible: how it behaves and adapts and what it can and can’t do. Then think of how you would apply what you have learnt about the animal in your unique way.
How can we learn from the animals?
Australian mystic and author Scott Alexander King says to simply go outside, ask Mother Earth for guidance and wait for a response. He says you should outline the situation, why it bothers you and what the best way is to resolve it for the highest good of everyone. An animal symbol should soon show up. The animal may appear physically or symbolically, such as a picture or t-shirt. You then need to decipher the message of the animal — various books can help with that.
If you live somewhere where you see a lot of animals in your environment, you may want to look out for unusual behaviours. The animal may also show up more than once and in close proximity to each other.
Take the time to connect
Many people spend nearly all their time indoors or live in city environments with little natural surroundings. They aren’t even aware of their disconnectedness from the natural world. There are many ways to reconnect. To begin with, you simply need to spend time outdoors paying attention to nature and appreciating it, including the sun, the trees and any animals you may see. In city environments, this may only be a tree, bird or insect, but it could still be significant.
Taking walks in nature, planting a garden or tree, or meditating in natural surrounds are other ways to connect. Even without direct contact with nature, it’s possible to connect through supporting local animal shelters and humane societies and studying and learning more about animals and nature. Animal myths and stories from other cultures often contain archetypal meanings about animals that can be important to us.
Certainly, the Indigenous people of Australia view the land as central to their spirituality and culture. For them, nature is rich in meaning and deserves enormous respect. Animals are viewed as spiritual beings with great wisdom and uniqueness, and all interactions with and between them are viewed as sacred. With climate change now being taken more seriously, a similar level of respect for nature is needed in all of us if we’re going to be motivated enough to change our lifestyles to accommodate the needs of the earth. Such respect can only be understood by developing a felt connection to the natural world.
Scott Alexander King views the earth like a mother who wants to nurture her children so they can grow into whole, healthy, happy people. He says, “She guides us and whispers to us as any mother would. She speaks to us in a symbolic tongue; a language older than words. To me, the animals are her voice — each instilled with a message, a key word that, when known, recognised and integrated into our life as wisdom, has the potential to change our life.”
King also speaks of the intrinsic harmony in the animal kingdom in how each species supports the existence of another species, whether they be predator or prey. He believes this is symbolic of us as humans in how one person’s weaknesses support another person’s strengths and one’s strengths support another’s weaknesses. In this way, like the animals, we are all equal, each having something sacred to offer, and when our gifts are respected we can truly support each other.
King says, “The animals demonstrate a sacred connectedness with every move, every breath they take and if we honour their ways and bring their wisdom into our lives we (could help) heal our fractured world.”
Meditation to connect with nature
- Find a quiet place where you will be undisturbed. Close your eyes and focus all your attention on your breath, allowing it to become very slow and very long.
- With every breath you let go, allow yourself to relax more and more, and as you do so, imagine a beautiful place in nature of your choosing. Perhaps the skies are blue and wide and the sun is warm on your skin. There may be sunlight twinkling on a nearby lake or ocean and you feel the power, warmth and support of the earth beneath you. The air is clean and crisp and, as you breathe it in deeply, it cleanses your entire body.
- Not far away, you see a large, strong tree that you feel drawn to. With every step you take towards the tree, your body sinks into a deeper and more pleasurable state of relaxation. When you reach the tree, you are so deeply relaxed you virtually collapse under it.
- There is warm, soft grass underneath you and the earth is warm. You can feel the warmth of the sun soaking into your skin, bones, blood and muscles, healing, relaxing, cleansing every part of you — your toes, legs, hips, belly, back, chest, shoulders, arms, neck and finally your head, brain and mind. It penetrates the core of your being.
- You sense the immensity of the earth stretched out for millions of miles in all directions around you — so strong, so immense, so grounded — and you feel the earth supporting you. You sense the strength of the tree next to you and its infinite stillness. For an instant, you feel so connected to the tree that you experience the same stillness within you. Focus on that.
- The more you relax, the more receptive you become to the energies of the warm sun soaking through your body, the immense earth supporting you and the stillness of the tree centring you. As you relax more and more, you dream. You dream you are in a magical garden with everything just the way you want it — your choice of flowers, trees and perhaps a lake or river nearby.
- Somewhere in the garden, you see an animal. You feel very attracted to the animal in a positive way and move closer to it, observing it. You notice its energy, its abilities, what it is doing and how it makes you feel.
- You spend some time just being with the animal and feeling its energy. Perhaps a significant word comes to mind about what this animal means to you. When you have a sense of the animal’s meaning for you, you may open your eyes.
Other ways to learn from animals
1. Pay attention to your dreams
Many traditions also believe that dreaming of an animal is just as important as physically seeing and encountering it. So if you dream of an animal, take its symbolism equally seriously.
2. Notice your fears
Many traditions also teach that the animals we fear are suggestive of what we must face — our shadow. If we can learn more about animals we fear, we may be able to apply their unique qualities in our own lives.
3. Observe what you are preoccupied with at the time
If you have an encounter with an animal, notice what you were focusing on at the time or during the hours before the encounter. The symbolism may also relate to major issues that have been occurring in your life during the period of the sighting.