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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Children and Ceremony

As seen in the article in Pagan Pages e-Magazine:

Children and Ceremony

In many cultures in the world, rituals are built into daily life as a continual way of renewing the individual and community spirit: celebrating, giving gratitude, grieving, and letting go of that which no longer serves the health and well-being of the village. Ritual is a kind of glue that helps us to remember who we are and how we are related to everything in the universe–something we humans tend to forget unless we build times to experience this connection consciously into our busy lives.

Each of us authors noticed several years ago that many children we met wanted and needed ritual in their lives. The children were interested in what we were doing as shamanic practitioners and some children started asking us to work with them by creating healing ceremonies either with them or for them. This was particularly true of those brought up in the Western world without ties to ancestral traditions of their particular lineage.

With the growing secularization of society in the 20th Century, mainstream Western culture gained more freedom of spiritual discovery and expression. Unfortunately, some of us also lost our conscious tie with the sacred both inside and outside of us. This has created a generation of kids who seem to feel a bit in limbo; many want ways to walk their spiritual paths and make a difference in the world but do not feel comfortable in either secularization or organized religions. We find that many kids have instinctively discovered a relationship with the cosmos in a consistent way through spending time out in nature.

Indeed, ritual seems to come naturally to many children already. For example, when a pet dies, kids intuitively give them a burial and a formal farewell. Grandmother Ann (our co-author) wrote a little about her experience of doing ceremony with children in 2011:

I was fortunate, several years ago, to work with a group of children whose parents were also studying shamanism.  These children and I played games, did ceremonies and had discussions about their joys, fears, hopes and dreams.  We talked about how the ceremonies related to their lives in all aspects: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and life force energy.  We discussed the natural world and our connections to the Earth.  Doing ceremony together, I got to know the children’s needs and the gifts they brought to life.  For a parent, grandparent or other caregiver this sharing can bring increased joy and deepen your connection and love for the child.  That is a wonderful gift.”

The following is an excerpt from the book “The Magic Circle: Shamanic Ceremonies for the Child and the Child Within:”

A few years ago, one of our teachers shared her dream of creating a book of ceremonies for children.  She and our other teacher were working on their own book of ceremonies for adults at the time.  A few of us expressed passion for this project.  Each of us (Ann, Jen and Kat) have a deep devotion to children; serving them is part of our pathway in life.  Ann is a grandmother with five children of her own and two grandchildren.  Katherine (Kat) is a published children’s author and an aunt to two little girls.  Jennifer (Jen) is a BC-certified teacher and an aunt to a boy and a girl.  We share a love of children and passion for their welfare and empowerment.  Each of us has done so much healing through ceremonies.  We know how powerful they are.  Our dream for this book is that children everywhere will experience the magic of self-discovery as they do these ceremonies. 

Shamanism is a term to describe a general practice of using the wisdom of the natural world and the earth’s energies to heal oneself and add beauty to one’s life. Shamanism includes many spiritual practices and does not have one doctrine of belief to follow.  

The ceremonies we have created are earth-based and draw upon the wisdom in nature (and in each of you as parts of nature) in order to bring healing into your lives.  With the natural world as a point of connection, we hope that children (and parents) of all faiths, beliefs and cultures find these ceremonies accessible and healing.  Children who live in urban areas can connect with nature around and within their human-made environments.  Most kids will have access to trees, even if they are small ones that line the concrete streets.  Most kids will find insects, birds and other animals in their cities to observe and connect with.  All of us have access to the sun, the wind, the water and the earth…

Ceremonies can teach us how to use magical tools (altars, medicine wheels, wands) to call something we want or need into our lives, for protection, for working with life’s challenges and for calling forth our gifts, so that we can live the best life we can while we are here on Earth.  Ceremonies can help change our inner worlds so that our lives work better and we are happier people.  I don’t know about you, but in my life, it can be so hard to hear my own voice among people telling me what I should do, what I should think and how I should act.  So many “shoulds” can drive a person crazy!  As Grandmother Ann states, spending time doing ceremony can help people to hear their own voice so that they can follow their own inner wise magician in their lives: 

Why do I do ceremony?  By doing ceremonies, I clear away all of the monkey noise in my head so I can discover my gifts to the world.  I discover magical mysterious me.  I hear the magician that is my higher self, who knows what I need to do and how to do it.  When I do ceremonies, I hear the song of the Universe and its vibrations so that I can vibrate in time with the Universe’s rhythms.  Ceremony sets me free to be me.”

This book is an invitation to ceremony for adults and kids. It can be used in a random and intuitive way. We invite each child and adult’s inner child to listen to the ceremonial descriptions and choose ones that feel/sound interesting. It is okay for parents to make suggestions, as long as they are not attached to the outcome.  It is important that the child participate willingly.  Each one of us has our own path to walk in life and making self-governed choices is a vital part of that journey.  We have included age groups that each ceremony is best suited for.  However, this is only a guideline.  Kids who are outside the age range are welcome to do any ceremony that calls to them. 

It is important to note that this is not a book “for” kids as much as a guide that will allow adults to connect with their playful, lighthearted selves while they participate in the ceremonies with their children. It is not intended to be a book where kids are left on their own to do these ceremonies…

Each one of you has special gifts you brought to the world when you were born that you carry around inside.  Our deepest wish as the authors of this book is that doing these ceremonies supports each one of you to shine more of your inner light into the world.  Discover your mysterious magical self!   What magic will you bring to the planet?

Jennifer Engrácio

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Video: Forgiveness Practice

Recently my friend, Shyloe Fayad, interviewed me on her live show “Real Lives. Real People” on Facebook.  This show is dedicated to talking to real people about their lives and their journey towards wholeness.

During this episode, we talk about the Hawaiian practice of Ho’oponopono and how it can help you. This video was watched over a thousand times on Facebook so far and so it seems that we struck a chord with folks out there with the forgiveness theme.  If you have 40 minutes while cooking dinner, check it out and leave comments below if it touched you in some way.

Aloha to you and yours!

Jennifer Engrácio

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Good People and Bad People

Who are the good people and who are the bad people?

I have had many good conversations with children around this question throughout the years when we are talking about everything from current events to conflicts at school. After 9/11, I was teaching in a kindergarten class near the end of that school year and I was noticing kids still building up towers with their blocks only to then act as planes crashing into them.  This had been ongoing since the event in September.  I decided this day to ask questions to see what it was that these kids were still processing.  Kids started talking about “good guys” and “bad guys,” insisting that you have to be on a side. That the men that did that were bad and that they should be punished.  I could see one kid in the corner getting increasingly anxious. He started pacing and holding his head and then he just burst out with the most poignant and beautiful speech I have heard on the topic. He told his kindergarten class that no one wins in wars: “Don’t you see?  It is just all revenge.  How are we going to fix anything when we just keep revenging each other? People will just get more mad and more people will die.” There was a pregnant silence in the room, which is rare in a kindergarten class! I thanked him for what he said and for offering a fresh point of view that I hadn’t even heard many adults express.

“Shadow work means actively working with and embracing all parts of ourselves that are not pretty, not acceptable, and not liked by others…[A] huge amount of life force is locked away in those parts of ourselves we deny and divorce, as it were…And we don’t lock away the so-called bad things, usually we also hide talents…we are not ready to own for some reason.”

Imelda Almqvist from “Natural Born Shamans”

What this child was clearly seeing from his young eyes was the fact that we all have a shadow side.  None of us make life-giving decisions all the time and some people who are in pain emotionally or are mentally unwell make poor decisions that harm life often.  This child in particular had participated in enough healthy conflict resolution within our classroom to know that in a confrontation, it is not useful to find blame, but rather work towards listening to the needs and feelings of all parties to find a resolution that works for everyone in the classroom environment.  In the process, we get to look at some of our shadow pieces and we get to consciously make changes to our belief systems, behaviour, and emotional states of being. Being willing to look at the shadow to bring out the light is essential in the world we are living in today. It’s not work for the feint of heart, but if a 5-year-old can recognize the importance of this work, then we adults can find the courage to engage in it as well.

Jennifer Engrácio

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Mixed Ancestry

I am a mixed ancestry person.  My ancestors are from all around the Mediterranean Sea (including North Africa), the UK, and Eastern Europe.  Growing up, my mom always talked about this mixed ancestry and particularly the fact that we have African ancestry; though we didn’t know exactly who these ancestors were, it wasn’t hidden from us as kids.  It wasn’t until I went to visit relatives in South Africa that I saw how challenging life is for people with African ancestry that have darker skin than I do.

In South Africa at that time, if you didn’t look “white” or “black,” then you fell into the “mulatto” category: you were not accepted by “white” communities or “black” ones.  I was traveling in South Africa with my sister when we learned this the hard way.  My sister looks more like the people who are descended from Vikings who live in the north of Portugal and although we are full sisters, I look more like our African and Middle Eastern ancestors.  As I got more and more tanned during our trip, people began treating me differently.  I got harassed on the streets, grabbed, taunted, and I could not figure out what was happening.

It wasn’t until I walked into a general store one day and the owner told me to “mind my colour” that I began piecing together what was happening.  I had never been treated with this level of disdain my whole life and it really had an influence on my psyche.  It wasn’t until I was on a tram in Cape Town and I met another mulatto man who made eye contact with me that I understood what was going on.  He told me about the extreme bias against mixed ancestry people in South Africa at the time (1997) and that these folks didn’t fit in anywhere except for in their own community.

I came home feeling so guilty and sad: I could come home and my skin colour would revert back to what it was.  I did not have to live with being treated in such a way every day, but other folks did not have that option.  In an effort to figure out the reason behind what just happened to me, I started studying African history in university (I minored in history). Understanding history is far from a redundant exercise. History is important in the present because it shows us where we came from and, hopefully, helps us to make different choices than our ancestors did: more life-giving ones.

In today’s world, there is a popular narrative in the mainstream world that there is equity in society for all. My take away from my experience in South Africa is that the prejudice that people with darker skin experience is very real–even here in North America.  As a lighter skinned person, this was not even on my radar until I was on that trip.  Now, it’s an awareness I live with and have compassion for. And it also got me thinking that this idea of race (a term I dislike for a lot of reasons) is really human-created.  We are all part of the same species. And it’s time for the separation along cultural, ethnic, gender, and religious lines to stop if we want to evolve and survive as a species.

I experience my cultural identity as being very fluid.  It’s not based on how I look. When I was interviewed recently, it became evident that the interviewer was very uneducated when it came to mixed ancestry and identity.  She wanted to put me down as “caucasian” and when I insisted that she put me down as a mixed ancestry person, she said: “Well, you don’t look African.”  So we have a long way to go as a species in educating people and breaking down these made-up separations between people.

New Book: Dreaming of Cupcakes



Book: Dreaming of Cupcakes: A Food Addict’s Shamanic Journey into Healing

Part autobiography and full of ancient and modern knowledge, Dreaming of Cupcakes follows a woman’s yearlong journey to heal a lifelong addiction to food, utilizing the shamanic medicine traditions she was trained in, her inner resources, and her community of support.

To order, go to the Balboa Press website in the US or then Amazon in Canada and the US.

About the Author:

Jennifer Engrácio has been a student of shamanism since 2005 and knows that the journey toward healing and wholeness is life-long. She believes there is no need for an intermediary between people and that intelligent force that binds all of life together known by many names (i.e. Spirit, God/dess, Creator, the Divine, Allah, etc.). Her intention is to share shamanic knowledge so folks can tap into the wisdom of the universe in order to grow their own connection with Spirit so they can guide their own personal growth and evolution in a responsible way.

By day, Jennifer is a certified teacher who has worked in many different education settings since 2001. She has a deep passion for working with children as well as great respect and reverence for their magical worldview. Jennifer is a certified Shamanic Coach and Practitioner, Reiki Master, and Lomilomi Practitioner. She runs Spiral Dance Shamanics, a business committed to supporting the healing and empowerment of others.

Jennifer self-published and co-authored two other books: The Magic Circle: Shamanic Ceremonies for the Child and the Child Within and Women’s Power Stories: Honouring the Feminine Principle of Life. Jennifer is originally from Vancouver, Canada and now lives in Calgary, Canada with her life partner.

Testimonials from folks who have read the book:

“Jen trances readers by laying out her personal journey so we can all go along with her.”
-Greg Leach

“I found this book thought provoking. I went from: ‘Hmm, interesting, but I don’t have an addiction to food’ to ‘Hmm, I can relate to some of the mindlessness of what and how I eat.’ Making it personal meant that the author wasn’t telling the reader what to do or think, and as a result, I started to think about my own patterns, thoughts and emotions to food. I liked this.”
-Verena Gibbs

“’Dreaming of Cupcakes’ is a powerful book that lends understanding and compassion to the addiction healing journey. Whether you have an addiction or not, anyone can benefit from reading this book. Jen’s journal entries provide a vulnerability that is really engaging and impactful. The combination of shamanic knowledge and quotes from other authors’ writings brings the possibility of new perspective to the reader. Addiction is a societal issue, not just and individual issue. As a recovering addict, it brought me to a deeper level of looking at my patterns. Jen’s courageous journey can help open the door to changing your life. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!”
-Cheryl Traxler

“’Dreaming of Cupcakes’ is very readable and captivating. I learned a lot about the potential of treating my addiction to stress, overwhelm and anxiety as such. I have become more aware of my own relationship with food.”
-Darcy Kaltio

“Jen has an easy, open, natural way of writing. I anticipate that this book will touch many people.”
-Marilyn Keffer author of Shamanic Ceremonies for a Changing World

What Is Shamanism, Anyway?



An excerpt from the book “Dreaming of Cupcakes: A Food Addict’s Shamanic Journey into Healing” by Jennifer Engrácio:

“Shamanism is not a faith, but a wisdom tradition in which we learn purely from our own individual, collective and personal experience. It is not a religion and is dogma-free; indeed it supports any existing spiritual practice one already has. Many of us deeply desire a connection to our own ‘soulfulness’ and that of all other living beings in a free and natural way. This is the essence of Shamanism.”
– John Cantwell

The etymology of the word “shaman” itself comes from the Siberian language and it was originally used to refer to a spiritual medicine healer in the community.  In fact, shamanism itself is widespread among the indigenous people of the world today.  In each area of the world, including Europe, earth-based spiritual practices can be traced back to specific groups of people who knew how to enter into communion with nature spirits through non-ordinary reality in order to obtain information that could aid in the healing of a person or a community.  Although we don’t tend to call urban shamanic practitioners “shamans” in the modern world, the skills indigenous shamans utilized are being used again by shamanic practitioners the world over.

Shamanic practitioners do not focus on what is “broken” in a person or even necessarily how the imbalance happened in the first place.  Shamanism is concerned primarily with reminding an individual of their inherent wholeness.  Shamanic practitioners see that when a person experiences trauma or illness, they are not in need of fixing; rather, parts of their being splinter or shatter away from the whole causing inner and outer dissonance.  Because imbalances manifest in the spiritual energetic level of being first, this is also where practitioners travel to bring back these pieces to the afflicted person. In the case of a long-standing physical illness, the body can begin to heal only when the spiritual aspects that caused the illness to begin with are brought back into alignment with overall health and wellbeing.

Today, many of us have lost contact with these old ways.  The traditional shaman has grown scarce in North America due to our colonial past.  In the modern world, we’ve had to adapt ancient traditions to fit our hurried, busy lifestyles. Urban shamanic practitioners train in ancient shamanic technologies in order to heal themselves and to support healing in others in the community.  Ancient tools are used by everyday people again with great success: drum journeys into the spirit world, vision quests for extended time out in nature, and other spiritual ceremonies.  All of these strategies help us to quiet our inner world so we can hear the voice of Spirit and our inner wise one who knows what medicine we need to heal.

This may seem strange to people who were not brought up in shamanic cultures.  However, because of their close proximity and dependence on the natural world, ancient peoples knew that the consensual reality we live in is not the only reality we can sense and participate within.  It is not uncommon for shamanic practitioners to work with spirit guides, totem animals, and their ancestors in order to affect positive change in their own lives and in the world around them.  In shamanic cultures, dreaming is not an idle activity without any useful function: it is the way people dream a new reality into being.  This does not involve attempting to control anything outside the practitioner.  What we put our attention on is what manifests.  And so just like a journeyer can enter the spirit world for answers to problems, she can also enter the spirit world to lend energy to a different dream than the one she is currently living.  In fact, both are needed in order for healing to be effective.

Shamanism may seem like magical thinking and there are definitely magical and mysterious moments in the practice as we learn to deepen our individual connections to Spirit.  However, the truth is that there is substantial work needed on the physical plane of existence, putting our visions into action, if any change is to occur.  As individuals on a growth and evolutionary edge, if we choose, we continue to heal until we die.  Healing requires us to keep sensing the splintered parts of ourselves, working with the spirit world to bring them into wholeness again.  This is a tremendous act of power that we are capable of as human beings.  Unlike other living creatures, humans can consciously learn to direct their will to literally change the pathways available to them in the future.  This is one of the benefits of being able to go back in time or travel into the future, whereas animals only live in the present.  Shamanic practitioners learn to responsibly travel the spiritual realms to affect change.

If it is so easy, then why are there so many suffering people? Of course, this gift we have can also be a pitfall.  Many of us get stuck in our ego minds.  Or we refuse to let go of the past.  Much of the pain of the human condition is caused by our lack of awareness and ability to direct our attention.  This takes lots of practice and mentors who know how to teach these methods with skill and care.  Many of these traditions have been lost and many have been revived.  There are some modern-day shamanic practitioners that are charlatans, yet there are many more who are earnestly passing their teachings onto sincere and responsible individuals willing to learn these ancient ways of dreaming, healing, and creating.  Many elders are passing on this wisdom for the benefit of humans as a species, regardless of cultural and societal barriers.

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