One of my goals this year is to launch a new online program on discovering and working with your Spirit Animals. I’ve been working on this for about a year and am excited that next month I’ll get to teach it live and in-person to a small group of five people. We’ll spend six weeks discussing what Spirit Animals are, how they are viewed and worked with in different cultures, methods of discovering your Spirit Animals and how to work with them. I see a lot of material out there on “discovering your Spirit Animal,” but not a lot on what to do after that – how to work with the Animal and learn from the Animal. There’s a lot more to the program, but that’s a quickie overview!
I believe that we have more than one Spirit Animal and even Spirit Animals that come in and out of our lives depending on what lessons we need to learn at the time. There are many ways of uncovering your Spirit Animal(s), with meditation and visualization being the most common. I often see that people want their Spirit Animal(s) to be something exotic or mysterious, but it’s important to be open to whatever kind of Animal makes itself known to you, no matter how common. An exercise that can help you get in tune with the Animals of your area is to create a Genius Loci profile of where you live. Sarah Lawless has written a great piece on what a Genius Loci profile is and how to create one for yourself. Doing this can help open your eyes to the incredible diversity that’s around you without going very far.
In this post, though, I want to focus on creating and working with an Animal Spirit Altar – what an altar is and things to consider when working at the altar.
First of all, what is an altar? The dictionary definition says that an altar is “a platform or table used as a center of worship; a place on which sacrifices and gifts are offered.” A pretty open-ended definition, depending on what the purpose of your altar is.
Generally speaking, altars are typically dedicated to:
- Gods/Goddesses/Deities – the Supernatural Divine; entities that were never living human beings
- Saints/Religious Figures – enlightened Spiritual entities that were living human beings at one time
- Ancestors – entities that were living human beings at one time and to whom you have a direct connection
- Specific Purposes – for example, altars for Love or Prosperity
The purpose of working with these types of altars is to connect with something that is essentially abstract. Whether you have an altar dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Kali, the Virgin Mary, or your Great-Grandmother, you are working with something conceptual. You may have a vision of the Goddess Kali, you may hear the Virgin Mary or your Great-Grandmother speaking to you when you meditate, but you will never be able to shake their hand or give them a hug. Most Spiritual work is, at least partially, about dealing with the abstract, the conceptual, the intangible.
Creating and working an altar dedicated to Animals and Animal Spirits can be very different than working most other kinds of altars. There are some similarities, which are in line with working any altar, but there are also some really big differences and special considerations.
When you dedicate an altar to Animals and Animal Spirits, you’re partly working with the abstract because you’re working with the essence or Spirit of something, but there is a tangible aspect to it. You are connecting with the energy and Spirit of a creature that exists in the physical world, right now alongside you.
Just as with other types of altars, you are honoring and venerating them, as well as asking for their guidance. You are agreeing to open yourself to receiving the messages and lessons they have to share with you.
In my experience, working with an Animal Spirit Altar requires that you get on board with three major concepts:
- A belief in Animism – this is the belief that all natural objects and phenomena (including animals, plants, rocks, wind and lightning, for example) have a soul or a spiritual essence. The link provided is to the Wikipedia entry, but I suggest doing your own further research on Animistic beliefs. Many cultures throughout history, especially some of the most ancient, have held Animistic views of the world.
- A belief that all of Creation is connected – meaning the belief that no individual creature in this world can exist without all the others; that the actions of one can have an effect on the greater population. A good example of this is the Native American Medicine Wheel, which embodies a circular concept of how one views coexistence with Nature.
- A belief that we can learn by observing Nature – knowing that when we observe the way Nature innately operates, we can learn how to live more mindfully of the role we play in the bigger connection that lies between everything; that by quieting ourselves from time to time, we can observe the oneness of everything.
If you can get on board with these ideas, not only will you likely be successful at communing with certain Animals, you will be doing a greater good by learning their lessons and reflecting on your own actions in the world.
Creating an Animal Spirit Altar
When you create an altar you are creating a Sacred Space and it should reflect the purpose for which you intend to use it. Items that might normally be found on an altar should be included – an altar cloth, a plant or some flowers, a glass of water, incense and candles. Arrange these items in whatever way you see fit. A typical altar arrangement includes placing items that represent the elements in the four cardinal directions, but there is no “right” way and the altar should be set up in a manner that is pleasing to you. Just make sure it’s set up so that you are physically comfortable when you’re working at it, otherwise you’ll find yourself not wanting to make the effort.
You may want to (legally and ethically) obtain actual natural items of the Animal, such as bones, feathers or pelts. Some great resources are The Bone Room in Berkeley and Paxton Gate in San Francisco, California.
If having these types of items makes you uncomfortable, use representations of the Animal(s) you’re honoring – photographs, statues and other objects that symbolize the Animal(s). Whether you have real natural items of the Animal or not, it’s also a good idea to include items that would be found in the Animal’s natural habitat. Make your altar like a second home for the Animal.
Try to keep your altar simple. That is, don’t try to fill your altar with too many Animals. Focus on just small few or even only one. The goal is to develop a relationship with this Animal, so don’t spread your attention too thin.
Working at Your Animal Spirit Altar
Within the Sacred Space you’ve created, you are building up the energy around the purpose of your altar – a thought-form; a manifestation of your energy, your will, your desire, your intention – and this takes time, effort and dedication. The more you put in, the deeper the experience you will have. Such is the case with working any type of altar.
Remember that when you’re working at your Animal Spirit altar, you are not trying to connect with a person, so the same rules don’t apply. You’re not trying to connect with someone “on the other side” or something supernatural. Remember the “tangible-ness” of what you’re working with.
Once your altar is set up, start by taking at least 10 minutes to light a candle and meditate at your altar. Try to do this every day, but no less than once a week. While you meditate, focus your thoughts on one Animal. Visualize it intently. As you sense the Spirit and energy of the Animal, imagine how you would interact with it in real life. Be gentle. Think about how you would approach this Animal if you encountered it face to face.
Practice this ritual for several weeks, each time only attempting to be with the Animal, not to ask anything of it. Sit with this Animal during your meditations and get to know it. After a time, you will sense its comfort with you and be able to interact with it on a deeper level. Again, the goal is to build a deep and meaningful relationship and that takes a little time.
Here are several things to start thinking about after you have spent some time working at your altar and have developed a connection with one or more Animal Spirits:
- What were your feelings about this Animal before you started working with it at your altar?
- How have those feelings changed since you started working with this Animal?
- What are some qualities of this Animal that you feel you already embody?
- What are some qualities of this Animal that you don’t embody, but would like to?
- Is there anything keeping you from wanting to be more like this Animal?
- How can you begin to acknowledge and honor this Animal in your everyday life (not just at your altar)?
You may start noticing the Animal around you more often. If you have this opportunity, take the time to stop and watch it. If you’ve connected with an Animal that’s not so easily observable in everyday life (like a Jaguar, for instance), seek out ways that you might still be able to encounter it. I have very negative opinions about zoos and animal theme parks, but that is one option. The best way to observe an Animal that’s not common in your everyday life is to search for an animal sanctuary or exotic rescue in your area. When you get to watch the Animal, observe how it moves, what it’s doing and how it interacts with the environment. Think about those behaviors, contemplate how they can influence your own thoughts and actions, uncover what lessons they have to teach you.