“Totem animal” is one of those spiritual topics that I think some people are quick to dismiss. On the surface, it seems as though the concept is a little out there, at best a flight of fancy, at worst an ego trap.
After all, who wouldn’t like to imagine themselves as having the spirit of an animal? In a weird way, it’s empowering to think about. So are those who claim they’ve found their spirit totem or guide just indulging themselves, or is there something more to this?
I’ll be honest, for the longest time I thought it was the former, because I tend to have a different perspective on spirituality than most. My usual philosophy is “If it helps you grow as a person, it holds spiritual value, and if it helps you grow in power, or creates the illusion of it, then there’s a good chance what you are looking at is rotten apples.” Granted, this doesn’t always hold true, but it makes for a decent makeshift spiritual compass. If someone claims that they can help you speak with the deceased, (at the low, low price of $100 an hour) then it seems best to tread carefully. I had always just filed away the concept of “animal totems” away in the similar area in my mind, but lately I’ve been rethinking it.
The Power of Symbols
There is no denying the power of symbols. The longer a symbol exists, the more meanings it can take on to different people. There is a reason countries choose national flags, national flowers, and national animals. Likewise, there is a reason corporations spend millions of dollars on their brands and logos. In literature, symbols are excellent devices to tell stories, and they have potential to give characters further depths and personality. Symbols have the power to deeply impact our subconscious quickly and flawlessly. The ability of our minds to associate external symbols with internal suffering is remarkable.
In the more recent Batman films, for example, it is the symbol of Batman that strikes terror into his foes. Batman himself is just a person, but the “idea” of Batman makes him more threatening, larger than life even. The reason Batman’s symbol is so powerful is that it held personal meaning to him first. In fact, Bruce is terrified of bats, and usually when we’re afraid of something, it’s because that thing reminds us of a part of ourselves we don’t want to come to grips with, to accept as part of who we really are. In Bruce’s case, the part of himself he kept hidden away was the scared little boy, alone at the death of his parents. The bats were already scary, but the additional layer of trauma at the death of his family left him impressionable. Bruce associated the bats with everything else he had already gone through. Mastering a symbol like that? How could it not be a powerful weapon?
This of course, is just an example from a fictional movie series. However, this kind of thing happens to us in real life all the time. It’s where fiction writers get their ideas. It’s just that usually, in real life, the revelations are less linear. Where in a video game, for example, a character may go into the fire dungeon and fight the powerful fire monster and come out of it with a new found passion and inner strength (not to mention cool stuff), in real life a person may undergo countless exposures to a subtle stimulus that stretches throughout their life before they “get it” and rediscover that little piece of their soul. I think that may be how it worked for me.
How I Discovered my cutie mark Animal Totem
For the longest time, I have been absolutely terrified of moths. Since I was a little kid, there was always something about them that unsettled me. I used to come to live with my parents during the summers in between college. At the time, I told them I wanted to be a writer, and that I was going to use the time there when I wasn’t working my part time job to get some writing done. Instead, I procrastinated heavily. As I slowly worked on one mediocre short story, I found myself switching to flash games and movies, literally surfing the net for any kind of video game related distraction I could. Whenever my mom would peek in to say hi, I treated it like a huge invasion of privacy. I would freeze up, minimize the window on my computer (there was absolutely nothing worth hiding on there, but I did anyway) and act like I was guilty of something when I wasn’t.
During this time, I saw a lot of moths. I’m not sure how, but they kept on getting into my room. It was almost as though they were drawn to me, and they always made this disgusting sound when they would hit the light bulb in my room over and over. It didn’t help if I turned out the lights, they’d just fly over to my computer. I’d go out of my way to try and get rid of them. After a while of this, I started thinking about it, so I came up with a list of reasons why I hated moths so much.
1. I didn’t like the awkward way they fluttered, as though they are always in a panic. A moth will fly right into your face and not even care, because of their panicked, alien way of moving.
2. I saw them almost as parody of butterflies. Like butterflies, they go through metamorphosis, but instead of turning into something beautiful like butterflies, they merely just change into something equally mundane and hideous.
3. It always bothered me the way they lived in darkness yet craved the light. A moth will immolate itself in fire just to be a part of the light, but it can never be so. When daylight comes, the moth hides. A moth will fly to the first artificial light it sees, even if it kills it.
4. Have you ever swatted a moth? When you do, dust comes out. I couldn’t honestly think of a better reminder of our mortality. It’s like a little Biblical reference. From dust he came…etc.
Fast forward years later and I overhear a conversation online about animal totems, and I ask out of curiosity how you go about finding one, and how you know it’s not just an ego trip. The very first piece of advice I’m given is to look at an animal that scares you the most, especially if it’s an irrational fear. Sure, it’s entirely possible that when a person is afraid of something external, it’s just because, and there is no underlying explanation, but how often is it the case that we project our own internal fears or the things that we dislike about ourselves on external things?
I’ve come to realize that I’ve always been afraid of moths, because they remind me of me, or at least of parts of me. It reminds me of parts of me I’m not always proud of. Like the moth, I too flutter awkwardly, and I too move as though I am in a panic. I hide my panic, but it’s still there. I too expected myself during that time to transform into something beautiful, but what actually happened is that I simply transformed into something different, something that I saw at the time as ugly and dysfunctional. I expected myself at the time to change the world, inspire people, write beautiful things. Instead, I found myself wasting both my time and society’s time, contributing literally nothing positive to the world.
I wanted to be a part of the light, but I always feared what that meant, and as much as I envied the light, I never trusted it. At the time, still confused and pseudo-Christian, I wasn’t even sure what I believed “the light” to be. In the dark, I at least felt at home.
One of the things I learned about the moth recently is that it actually uses moonlight as a guide. It’s just that when it sees a campfire, or a bug zapper, it gets confused and cannot tell which light is from the moon and which light is the “false” light.
I knew that by not hoping in things, I wasn’t setting myself up for failure. How I ever wanted to step into it though. The sun was just too big, too proud, and I wasn’t deserving enough. I didn’t realize at the time all the false light out there, and I found myself burning again and again, just so long as it was light.
Finally, the dust metaphor. I found myself wrestling with existential issues at this age, constantly wondering what the meaning of life was if we were just going to die anyway. Life seemed short and pointless and I couldn’t find a way out.
Is it any wonder then, that moths kept appearing to me to remind my mind of the things I was hiding to myself? And is it any wonder that their presence filled me with an irrational fear and rage, to the point that I would spend 15 minutes trying to hunt one down when I heard it, only to not find it, sit back down, and be interrupted by the flutter again?
The moth has taught me many important lessons. It taught me how to discern true light from false. It taught me that just because the person I am now isn’t who I thought I’d be it doesn’t make me awful. It taught me of my own mortality, but not to live in a panic. The moth is really a beautiful creature actually, at least I think that’s what the most peaceful man in the universe would say. I think the most powerful lesson it has taught me is that it takes a beautiful, whole soul to recognize beauty for what it is, and this world, it’s filled with it. For that, I’m proud to call the moth my totem.
Until next time, may the sides of you hidden away be exposed to the light.