Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Animal You Need

I wrote and delivered this piece as the Credo for the August 30, 2009, service at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco.

In the shamanic work I’ve done, it’s very common when journeying on someone’s behalf to bring back what’s known as a power animal. A power animal is a kind of spiritual ally and friend who shows up to help you by providing protection and guidance. Sometimes it’s with you for a short time, and sometimes for a lifetime.

Some people find they’ve always had an affinity for their power animals, even if they hadn’t noticed it consciously. For example, from where I slept when I was very young, I could look up across the room at a lamp I used as a nightlight every night. At the base of the lamp was a stuffed animal, which decades later turned out to be the same as my power animal. When I remembered this, I knew it had been watching out for me for a long time.

It’s important to note, though, that the power animal chooses you – it’s not about what animal you want, or think is cool, or believe is “good,” or even the animal you’ve always been drawn to. The one that shows up is the one with the gifts you need.

The majestic eagle. The awe-inspiring jaguar. The powerful bear. The playful dolphin. The mighty skunk.

Now, I’m guessing a few of you didn’t see that last one coming. “A skunk?” you may be thinking. “What kind of gift is an animal that sprays my dog in the face and gets its stink all over the neighborhood?”

The example might sound a little silly – unless what you need is to learn more about self-respect. There are few better teachers, because anyone who knows anything about skunks shows them considerable respect.

Think of it like having a friend with an incredible sense of humor who happens to use a wheelchair. If what you need is cheering up, there’s no one better. But on a day when you need to move furniture up two flights of stairs, she’s probably not the person best suited for the job. And that’s no reflection on how awesome your friend is. It just means that sometimes, the issue you’re facing is a couch.

We get into trouble when we decide there’s something wrong with what we need or who we are. We get these ideas of how things “should” be, and then judge ourselves when reality doesn’t match. I once made a list of the “shoulds” running around in my head, because I was so tormented by all the ways I felt I didn’t measure up. It was instructive to see not just how I beat myself up over things that were out of my control, but also to realize how many of my judgments were directly contradictory. “I should be less intense.” “I should be more engaged.” It was a setup for failure.

But just seeing pages and pages with line after line starting with “I should” – and how there was literally no way to satisfy them all – blew open the cognitive dissonance, exposing my internal critic for the saboteur that it is. I haven’t been caught in that kind of “should” avalanche since.

So what do you do when faced with the disappointment of expecting a deer and having a rat show up? The way you answer is a good measure of how you treat yourself.

I start by remembering that judgment doesn’t help. I may not want to admit that I can get cranky, or that my sarcasm sometimes bites harder than I intend, or that my recovery from perfectionism is an ongoing process, but those things are in me. When I reject those parts of myself, I’m failing to accept the totality of who I am, in all my human mess and glory. When I admit they’re there, though, then I can learn from them, just as I can learn from a rat, or a skunk, or an armadillo, or a three-toed tree sloth. And then I have the power to go about changing them if I want to, and from a place of self-love rather than self-hatred. A place of radical acceptance.

The good news is that like the tiger and the horse and the owl and the skunk, I also have gifts that are uniquely mine to offer. And while I’m definitely not the right person to call if you need to learn idiomatic Inuit, I just might do the trick on those days when you need a good laugh.

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