Once when I was working on one of my oracle card decks—well, I confess I was actually goofing off in my office playing backgammon—I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye. It turned out to be a juvenile red-tailed hawk that had flown right into my closed sliding glass doors. It didn’t die from the impact; it just sat there next to the glass, stunned. I remember saying to myself, Okay, Mr. Animal Spirit Guide Guy, what’s this mean?
I’ve written several best-selling books and oracle card decks about animal spirit guides, power animals, and shamanistic healing practices. So naturally, I wanted to understand what clues this animal was trying to give me, what metaphor for guidance I might be receiving. When I thought about the characteristics of a red-tailed hawk, the key word that came to me right away was “focus.” Hawks have this great capacity to see the broader picture from above, and then when they see lunch, they zero in and go for the goal.
One way to look at animal spirit guides or spirit animals is to recognize that we are expressions of consciousness in the larger field of consciousness.
I am consciousness expressing as Steven. That tree is consciousness expressing as a tree. Even those rocks express consciousness in physical form. Everything in physical form right now was once pure energy or Spirit. The hawk that flew into my sliding glass doors was a physical hawk, but it was also serving as a representative of the collective consciousness of all hawks. Spirit sent this animal to me to basically say, “Get back to work.”
The Voice of an Awakening World
Animal spirit guides are physical beings or symbolic beings (such as those you see in a dream or on a poster, for example) that show up as an expression of consciousness that’s collaborating with us, even though we’re not always aware of it. Generally, the rule of thumb for whether an animal you saw is a spirit guide is that it makes an unusual appearance, like the hawk, or it shows up repetitively over a short period of time.
For instance, for about a month, every time I took my dog for a walk in my suburban neighborhood, I would hear an owl hooting not too far away. We would sing to each other back and forth, and this owl followed me all the way to the local park. Something like that is not animal communication—that’s a separate subject. It is spirit animal communication. It is a potent message from Spirit, or whatever word you want to use, when you are visited by an animal sent from God.
Interpreting Messages from Animal Spirit Guides
There are different ways to decipher this kind of message. You can certainly go to one of my books as a reference, or just go to the internet and look up “owl spirit,” “owl totem animal,” or “owl power animal,” for example. See what comes to you. You can also make a study of the animal to deduce and analyze what the possible message is.
When the owl and I were singing back and forth, I had an idea of what the owl’s medicine was already, so I wasn’t surprised. I like to sing and play guitar but I wasn’t doing a lot of it at the time, so that was one clear message I sensed based on the behavior of the owl.
We can take these experiences with animal spirits as a call to deepen our relationship with this beautiful, tempestuous planet that is the physical mother of us all.
The other way to interpret the message is to ask the spirit animal directly. This takes a little practice. Let’s say I walk outside and there is a crow sitting only a few feet away from me and it looks right at me with one eye. That doesn’t happen very often, so I can close my eyes, take a couple of deep breaths, and ask, “Crow, what’s your message?”
People have four different ways of perceiving the answer: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and intuitive. I might just see an image in my mind’s eye that tells a story about what the message is. Or I might hear the message. As a writer, someone who works with words, this is frequently how I receive messages. Other times I might simply sense something in my body, such as getting chills on the back of my neck. I may not know what it means right away, but I know I am getting a message that will soon reveal itself. And sometimes I just immediately know what the message is, even if I don’t know why or how I know.
It is important to consider what your own strong points are for taking the world in. Ask the question: What is the message here? And then practice paying attention to whatever comes to you, even if it doesn’t make sense at the time.
Understanding Spirit Animal vs. Power Animal
“Animal spirit guide” is a generic term for any animal that guides us, including a favorite pet that has passed on into the spirit world. For instance, you may feel the impression of a beloved cat who has passed jumping on the bed, or you may hear the barking of your dog who died two years ago. A power animal, on the other hand, is a particular spirit animal that comes to you regularly and that you develop a relationship with. The difference here is that power animals cannot be domesticated; they’re in touch with the wild.
Of course, spirit animals can also be mythical creatures, such as a Pegasus, a phoenix, a dragon, or a unicorn, for example. These are images that are shared by a vast number of human beings, and so even if they don’t exist in the physical world, they exist in our realm of consciousness. (I admit, though, that I’ve yet to see anybody have Godzilla as a spirit animal!)
In a shamanism workshop I once attended, we paired up to find each other’s power animal. The guy I worked with found that mine is Wolf. Wolf has been an amazing power animal for me. It is the strangest feeling, but I always feel protected, whether I am aware of Wolf’s presence or not. I know that on my final day, he is going to help transport me to the afterlife. That is a power animal.
You don’t have to be a shamanic practitioner or even be interested in shamanism to develop that kind of relationship. Historically, shamans receive advice from their power animals to bring back to the community. But shamanic practices can also be subtle, like somebody whispering in your ear. They’re a calling for you to relate to the natural world a little differently, to remember that as Native Americans and those from other indigenous populations all know, we are related to all that is. Everything is a relative. We can take these experiences with animal spirits as a call to deepen our relationship with this beautiful, tempestuous planet that is the physical mother of us all.
All it takes is paying close attention to your senses and what they’re picking up. I always say to be a good scientist, you have to be willing to experiment, putting aside both your beliefs and your disbeliefs. Try it yourself and see what works.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.