Working With Your Shadow Animal
The Shadow is a Jungian archetype made up of parts of each person that are shoved away from consciousness.
However, one common misunderstanding about the Shadow archetype is the notion that it holds only negative qualities like rage, deceptiveness, the capacity for violence, etc.
The truth is that people react negatively to parts of themselves that are valuable as well.
The reasons for pushing positive traits away are many and are often unique to each person.
Working with these buried parts of oneself can be challenging, since confronting them brings up feelings and fears from the days when those qualities were first pushed into the unconscious.
When we think about our spirit animal or totem, we usually think first of an animal to which we have a special positive connection. This is fine, and connecting with any animal positively can lead to significant changes in awareness, increased respect for the Earth, and welcome personal growth and insight.
Yet every person also has a powerful totem that is avoided at all costs: the shadow animal.
Your shadow animal is almost always a creature that triggers a special revulsion or fear that is unique to you and is way out of proportion to any serious danger that animal might pose.
Common shadow animals include spiders, snakes, sharks, rats, and vultures, but some people have intense negative reactions to animals others like, such as dogs, wolves, crows, or frogs. You may also have an 'imaginary' or fantastic animal as your shadow animal: a dragon, werewolf, yeti, or other cryptid.
If you can name a specific animal that causes you to freak out or avoid it at any cost, whether it be flesh and blood or magical in nature, the chances are good that you have just identified your shadow animal.
If you can't think of an animal like that, you might not be ready to confront your shadow. Shadow work is difficult, painful work that involves real emotional risks. Put simply, shadow work can dredge up feelings that were buried for good reason, and because of this painful reality, no one needs to push themselves into this work.
If you are ready, however, you probably already know. You are probably encountering your shadow animal more often than you think you would like, as your unconscious self gives you opportunity after opportunity to reclaim your personal buried treasure--the valuable qualities that have been pushed away from consciousness along with the frightening ones.
My Shadow Animal Encounter
I first became interested in shadow animasl when I discovered Pia Ravenari's totem artwork. When she is not producing knockout imagery, Pia also keeps a blog that details her process and how she came to be a totem artist.
Before beginning a new piece, she induces a light trance that enables her to tailor the work to the person commissioning it. By anyone's definition this is a form of shamanic practice.
Pia goes into the matter of shadow animals in one of her posted articles, and provides a meditative exercise for finding out if you are ready to confront your shadow animal, and if so, for listening to what it has to say to you.
I already knew what my shadow animal was and how I reacted to it, but I wanted to do the exercise because I felt very strongly that it was time.
Just that week I'd had an encounter with my shadow animal that made me stop and laugh.
I was mowing our property with a small tractor. In order to go from the wooded back to the front part with the fruit trees and garden, you have to get off the tractor and open a ranch-type latch gate to let you in.
It was a gorgeous day and I was enjoying myself, but when I opened the gate I put my hand on something soft and furry, and immediately recoiled and screamed.
There, on top of the gate, was a furry little caterpillar.
Yes, I am afraid of caterpillars. Deathly afraid of them.
I caught my breath and just looked at it, then laughed. What was wrong with me? It actually felt nice, like petting a kitten, and it was no more than an inch or two in length.
What was that caterpillar going to do to me anyway?
In doing Pia's meditative exercise I realized that when I was a young child, I walked past a field every day on the way home from school that was filled with caterpillars. Often they would be swarming on the sidewalk or nearby trees.
I was a small and sickly child until I got to be about 10 years old, and sometimes some of the kids would taunt me and throw things at me or chase me around with these bugs. But even much later, when I was as big as everyone else (or bigger), I still associated caterpillars with weakness and vulnerability.
Caterpillars are soft and easy to spot on a sidewalk. They are a favorite food for birds and small mammals. Sadistic little boys enjoy squashing them underfoot, and there are so many of them that even if 80% of them get smashed or gobbled up there are still enough left to make some butterflies, who will then make more caterpillars, and so on and so forth.
I was a caterpillar!
And in my childhood neighborhood, that, my friend, would not do!
I spent much of my youth learning to be tough and street smart, learning not to show my true feelings, not to let anyone close. And while these coping skills have real value, they are very much like a form of cocoon.
Habitually shielding oneself in this way causes deep internal changes over time.
My Shadow Animal's Gifts
I did not feel safe enough to spread my wings and show my true colors, so to speak, until fairly late in life, but by the time that did happen, I experienced a freedom and a lightness unconnected to anything going on around me.
It was worth waiting for.
But those poor little caterpillars--I was way too hard on them.
The vulnerability I recoiled from as a child is a rare gift in a strong adult. The more I can open myself to others, the greater the chance for mutual transformation. Of course, with that openness comes the chance that I will be hurt or rejected. And sometimes that happens. As an adult, I can take it.
A caterpillar is on the beginning side of a life cycle that has fascinated children and adults for generations. Caterpillars, cocoons, and butterflies are emblematic of transformation, a process that can be beautiful but also terrifying.
In the Tarot, the Death card is sometimes referred to as Transformation. That's because Death scares people, but Transformation sounds nice and full of butterflies and sweet little caterpillars and so forth.
It isn't quite that easy.
Every butterfly was once a lowly worm, and the worm is a transitional creature, born to die so something else can emerge. What's more, segmented worms especially are connected to Death, the eating up of decay and rot and transforming it into something useful for a garden or a forest.
Not everything about this life cycle is palatable to humans, or to me. (See, I just admitted to being a human, sort of... that's openness for you!)
In fact I do have a strong connection to Death and what lies just beyond this life, a connection I'm just beginning to fully understand. My mediumistic abilities are not all sunshine and wonder by any means, and more than once I have found myself in a spot I could not handle alone and so had to open myself to a guide and/or the Creator.
More and more I do that routinely, BEFORE I get into a jam.
Your Shadow Animal & Its Gifts
I'm sure by now you get the general idea here.
I know that some of you have already done much of this work and discovered how powerful the shadow can be. Others may be put off, and please don't worry if that is the case. There's no reason to dive head first into anything when it comes to the spirit realm. Slow and steady wins the race.
While I'm not exactly running around my backyard now kissing caterpillars on the lips (do they have lips?), I am grateful for what my fears are teaching me, slow and steady.
If you have had encounters with shadow animals that helped you, please feel free to share them in comments or post links to your hubs.