Animal Totems: Masters of Sensitivity

This article originally appeared in “The Empath” magazine.

Animal Totems: Masters of Sensitivity

by Jennifer Engrácio

“The true shaman, the true naturalist, works to reconnect conscious human life with Nature and Spirit through totems and ritual…What we consider imagination is a reality in some form on levels beyond the normal sensory world.”
Ted Andrews from Animal Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small


When the editor of The Empath magazine invited me to submit an article to contribute to the growing body of knowledge on Highly Sensitive People (HSP), the first thing I did was journey into the spiritworld to communicate with my totem animals.  It is common in shamanism for spirit animals to come to practitioners during dreams and journeys with information about how to help the person move through challenges without getting stuck for too long; they know the terrain of our psyches and how to mend what needs healing.  Shamanic practitioners often have a special place in the spiritworld they travel to that is protected so they can do their healing work.  As a HSP myself, I have consciously grown my relationship with my spirit animals for years now as a way to help me navigate the world better without losing the sensitivity that I honour in myself.


The challenge for HSP is to live in this dense dimensional reality without armouring up and numbing out.  It is not surprising to me that many of the addicts I’ve met are also HSP. I spent most of my life believing that my extreme sensitivity was a curse instead of a blessing.  For many years, I self-medicated with food because I didn’t know how to live with feeling everything so intensely in a balanced way.  The crocodile is my death guide animal. Crocodile came to me in a drum journey long ago to show me how to move through all the small losses, deaths, and changes that we all go through in life as we transition from one phase to another.  I had been depressed for a long time when I first met crocodile and I wasn’t convinced that I could get unstuck.  Crocodile taught me how to make death and transition an ally.


The first time I journeyed with crocodile, I knew he was not a warm and caring sort of spirit–he was initially disarming but not without kindness.  This was an animal I could always trust to be ruthless with the truth of a situation in a way that was not cruel but didn’t beat around the bush either.  As I was getting used to swimming around with him in his energy, without warning, he lunged for me and took my heart right out of my chest.  Then, he swam away.  I sat in horror and shock.  I was hurt that he would do that and felt deeply confused.  I immediately went into pity: He didn’t even check to see if I was okay.  He just swam away.


After a few minutes of feeling sorry for myself, I saw crocodile emerging from the depths carrying something in his mouth.  I stared in disbelief as he brought me a beautiful new heart.  I could see right away that this heart was stronger and more robust than the last one. When I asked him why he took my old heart, he said simply: “This old heart was filled with emotionality and past trauma.  It couldn’t learn anything new.  Where you are going on your journey, you need a heart that is up to the task of learning new things without losing sensitivity in the situations you will find yourself in.”


Then, being the man of few words he is, he placed the new heart in and swam away.  The drum journey was not over and so I sat with this new feeling in my chest for a long while.  A sense of courage came into my being that I’d not known before.  And the a-ha washed over me: My sensitivity is a gift and if a tough animal like the crocodile values it, it must have a purpose that can be equated with innate strength.


Since that initial meeting with crocodile, I’ve learned a lot about accepting reality as it is and using information from my environment in order to figure out how to adapt and thrive.  This can be challenging in a world plagued by war, aggression, and violence of all kinds.  The gift in it for me as an empath is that I’ve learned not to separate myself from the ugliness in the world.  When I separate, I feel myself go out of balance immediately.  If I can stay compassionate and aware during a confrontation with aggression, for example, then I can more easily listen to my inner knowing to see what the next steps are (if any need to be taken at all).  A crocodile doesn’t go looking for trouble, but it doesn’t avoid confrontation either.


In a way, reptiles are the ultimate teachers for empaths and others who are extremely sensitive to their environments.  Crocodiles embody the ancient wisdom of needing to be in tune with their surroundings in order to survive without being at the effect of the energy they find themselves in.  Being cold-blooded means that reptiles must continuously monitor their body temperature and when their internal thermometer tells them to make a move into a cooler or warmer setting, the creature follows suit.  This amazing ability to adapt seamlessly is one of the reasons that crocodiles survived the last Ice Age that wiped out so many other species.  Crocodiles don’t stew in their emotions and bemoan the environment around them for changing on them; they simply find what they need to thrive in the new setting.


Crocodile also taught me that the key to maintaining sensitivity without armouring is to stay centred.  If we don’t take the external world personally, we can actually perceive reality neutrally like animals do.  This makes a lot of information available to us that comes directly from the Great Mystery of life.  We may not always understand the whole picture, but this guidance from the spiritworld can help us to move through the world and accomplish our life purpose in more easeful ways if we practice neutrality.


Neutrality is important because it helps us to be in an energy without judgement of it.  When we go into judgement or reaction, we cease to be in the present moment and we miss important information in our environment.  Paradoxically, being neutral also highlights the bottom lines that are important to each of us.  When we are neutral, we know when to let something go, when to simply observe, and when to act.


In shamanism, we practice breathing into our Centre of Gravity (COG) just below our navel in order to tap into that universal wisdom that lives inside of us.  When centred, I feel my energy drop like a clunk.  From that place, I can sense neutrally and know what my next step is without reactivity even though emotions may be present.  Like animals, I can sense the unspoken energy in a space without invading the personal energy space of others.  Far from being a curse, it’s allowed me to sense the boundaries of others in a way that has allowed my relationships to deepen in mutual respect–even in the face of energy I personally find most challenging!  The opportunities for growth in this realm are endless and I know they will go on until I die.

I stress the word practice; unlearning lifelong habits wired into our brains doesn’t happen overnight.  We need to persevere to heal; it takes practicing new skills again and again for new neural connections to form in our brains.  In my book, “Dreaming of Cupcakes: A Food Addict’s Shamanic Journey into Healing,” I describe how I utilized many shamanic tools and technologies to bring myself back into balance.  I practiced these tools (and still do every day) in order to heal the addictive patterns in my life.  It’s not an easy journey, and yet it is so worthwhile.  Shamanism provides us with ancient practices that really work in the modern world when we learn to use them for our own healing.  In the end, I didn’t have to sacrifice my natural sensitivity or gifts to live on Earth.  My prayer is that other HSP learn ways to honour their sensitivity and live their lives to the fullest with great vitality.  Don’t give up; stick with it until you find a path or strategies that work for you.  You’re worth it and your gifts are needed in our evolving world.


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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. John Devaney
    Dec 18, 2017 @ 11:34:46

    Hi Jen: Big Wolf Guardian here. My death animal sports a massive body of a bull to go along with that same crocodile head. Great timing on this story as I am remembering a time of great change 3 years ago when I was turned down for refinancing from the bank. I knew I was done at that moment. However, not to die but to be reborn indeed. Thanks for the medicine today.


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