In the last article [“Dreaming and Journeying”], I mentioned that “it’s really impossible to talk about journeying without talking about the Spirit beings that share those journeys with us, as guides and companions.” Now, in the third post of my series about the shamanic perspective in dreamwork, I’d like to consider who these “Spirit Helpers” are, and to look at their relationship with us in dreaming and waking.
Shamanic practitioners (whether they are full-fledged shamans or not) explore other ways of experiencing reality—other worlds—through “journeying” in a trance state. In these journeys, they encounter a variety of Spirit beings, just as in our dreams we encounter various dream figures. Such beings regularly appear in animal or human form (though there are also elemental spirits, plant spirits, weather spirits, etc. that can take other forms).
Among these Spirit beings, journeyers will meet one or more who volunteer themselves as committed companions—generally because they have some connection with the journeyer’s life path, or because they have something unique to offer him or her. In the shamanic tradition, these Spirit beings who have chosen to become our individual companions are referred to by many names: Spirit Helpers, Power Animals, Spirit Guides, etc. Often, these companions appear in dreams as well as in journeys. [see “Dream Messengers, Guides, and Guardians”]
I’ll use my own dreaming and journeying as an example. There are three Spirit Helpers who have come to meet me regularly in dreams and in journeys. All three have influenced my growth and development in significant ways. Before writing about them, I asked each one whether or not it was appropriate to tell others about my experiences with them. The two who are in animal form were quite comfortable with “going public,” but the one who is in human form didn’t seem sure, so I’ll refrain from discussing him here.
The first Spirit Helper is Whale. She has been a consistent character in my dreams since early childhood (though I only saw living whales for the first time a few years ago). Usually, she appears as a Humpback or Gray whale, and occasionally as a Sperm whale or a smaller Beluga or Pilot whale. I’ve also dreamed of Orcas, but they don’t seem to embody my particular Spirit Helper. When Whale comes to meet me in a dream, there’s a numinous sense of presence and relationship—I recognize her at a deep level, and trust her. Here’s a recent example of such a dream:
Whale Takes Care of Me: I am about three years old, riding alone on a city bus, then sitting alone on a low wharf in a harbor surrounded by old city buildings, but no people in sight. A Gray whale surfaces and spouts right in front of me. I’m thrilled. For a while, I am in the water, with the whale, feeling the texture of her skin, feeling our connection so physically that it’s as if I were in her womb. I feel her heartbeat through the water that surrounds us. But she knows that I’m just a child, and belong on land. She gently nudges me back to safety, and even boosts me up onto the wharf by swimming under me and lifting me with her head. Now sitting safely on the wharf, dangling my hand to stroke her back, I know she will stay with me as long as I need her.
Having had dreams like this, it’s not surprising that the first time I tried journeying (in an intentional way), Whale came to me immediately. This time she is a Humpback whale. I’ve followed a river underwater and underground, until I am standing on the bottom of a deep pool, looking down at the small plants rooted in the silt, when suddenly I feel a huge presence above me. I look up, and it is Whale…. Whenever she appears in a dream or a journey (almost always, she seems female), I feel safe and awestruck at the same time. She has taught me a lot about the experience of being a whale: being ultimately one with the water, yet loving to breach and leap into the air for the sheer joy of briefly knowing separateness and gravity.
My other animal helper is Wolf. He is a more complicated character, and he is always surprising me. Shortly after encountering Whale in a journey, I had another, more difficult journeying experience. I entered a light trance state, taking all of my troubles with me, and ended up feeling lost and doubtful about the whole experience (wondering if I was just “making it all up”). I’m sitting by a lake, feeling a lot of inner turmoil, not knowing what to do. I wish that Whale would come, but instead…
…there’s a pack of wolves running past me along the shore, toward the forest. One nearly black wolf separates from the others and approaches. I ask him “Can you help me?” He replies, gruffly, “You don’t need help.” And then vanishes into the woods with the rest of the pack.
Animals frequently appear in journeys to respond to a specific question or situation, and although they are helpful, they aren’t necessarily meant to become our special companions. I thought this wolf was just playing a bit part. However, the next time I journey: I am waiting on a subway platform. The subway arrives, the doors hiss open, and there’s Wolf. He has come to guide me and insists that I follow him. He shows me new places and makes me run very fast to keep up with him…
I didn’t really want Wolf to be my Spirit Helper. “Practically everybody who’s into shamanism has a wolf for a Power Animal!” I complained. But he kept coming back.
Wolf is always rather brisk, and he often teases me. For instance, it’s customary to bring gifts, usually food, to one’s Spirit Helper. So I asked Wolf what he wanted me to give him, and immediately had a mental image of the bloody corpse of a deer. He insisted that I’d have to kill it myself! This was unsettling, even in my imagination. But then I noticed that Wolf was laughing. “How about tapioca pudding? Vanilla,” he suggested, letting me off the hook. I added some cream, to make his coat glossy, and he liked that. Since then, I’ve been bringing him “vanilla” foods—soft, white, mild foods—just to make him laugh.
But there was a real issue involved in this silly exchange. Another time, when I asked him what was at the root of some difficulties I’d been having with my health and appetite, he said my problem was that I wasn’t willing to kill, to take life (I don’t eat red meat). I wanted to dismiss this idea, but there was something in it. I started considering what it means to “take life,” rather than waiting for life to be given to me—to take responsibility for my own needs (hunger) and be more proactive in my self-nourishment. He also made it clear that “killing to eat”—taking direct action toward feeding myself, even if I’m not literally a carnivore—is actually essential to participating in the ecology of life, but such direct action must always be tempered with gratitude and respect.
This kind of conversation with a Spirit Helper is fairly typical. It doesn’t always have to occur in a journey—or rather, the “journey” can be as simple as looking within myself, picturing Wolf or Whale, and asking a simple question. The response can be a kind of koan—a way of seeing things from an entirely different perspective, the perspective of a different species, a different kind of mind.
Like Whale, Wolf is appearing in my dreams pretty regularly. Now, I remember him as someone who has been with me a long time. I remember that when I was five or six years old I had an “imaginary” wolf for a friend. He isn’t scary in my dreams, though I do have a healthy respect for his ferocity. We run and play together, like members of the same pack. On the other hand, he has been known to bite. In a dream or journey, it’s not unusual to get eaten by a Spirit Helper—an experience that is more transformative than terrifying (though sometimes both).
When we dream of animals, we may be receiving an invitation from the world of nature and Spirit. Any animal in a dream can be a Spirit Helper for a little while—and a few become long-term companions, following us throughout our lives, supporting and teaching us. Is there a particular animal roaming your dreams, trying to get your attention?