Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Shadow Animals

Photo by Christian Svane.
Like many spiritual practices, mine involves the use of animal guides for mentorship, metaphor, and personal transformation. But that doesn’t just go for the animals whose spirit I want to emulate or learn from. It also involves the ones that create a moment of true and absolute fear in me. Everyone has something that terrifies them. I am no exception. In order to live fully in myself in this space, in this lifetime, I try to face my fears, albeit one at a time.
My biggest terror is the centipede. My gut response to them is: nothing with that many legs should be allowed to live! It’s primal and irrational. It involves banging on drywall with hammers trying to smash them. I spent my childhood in a home with a dirt-floor basement and we would get centipedes in the house during the summer. I have always been terrified of them. I have woken up with them crawling on my bare flesh and I have almost ruined carpets trying to drown them. Not my finest moments.
And still, that fear is something I usually keep secret because I have always been surrounded by people who think it’s funny to taunt someone with the things that scare them. That is so not the same thing as helping someone face their fears. I once played a practical joke on my suitemates in college with a realistic-looking spider pin I had been given as a gift, because I thought it was so well done. I didn’t know my one friend was as afraid of them as I was of creepy-ninja-swift-crawlers. I have always felt bad about scaring her. She forgave me because I hadn’t known, but I have not played a scary practical joke since… because what if someone thought that was funny to do to me? I force myself to be vulnerable and reveal my cracks, because I am not perfect. That’s the point. I am human and I am a work in progress, and it is often our flaws that are most telling about where those places of fear live within us.
A few years ago, I began to work with what I had dubbed my Shadow Animal. My fear place. What was it about the centipede that elicited such whimpers from me? That drove me onto furniture in a heaving pile of panic? I wanted to know. I didn’t want such a small creature to have so much power over me.
I recommend you look to your places of fear and dive into the darkness. It’s not for everyone, but to stand in that moment, to face the darkness, to step into it... no matter what happens in between that moment and its end, when you emerge you realize that you survived. And maybe it was terrifying. And maybe you really felt that terror. But it passed through you. It didn’t remain. You survived. Which may sound dramatic when we’re talking about centipedes. But we’re not talking specifically about centipedes- we’re talking about fear.
My fear animal became a mirror to me. What is it about the centipede that scares me so? It runs swiftly, like a whisper. You almost can’t see it. They fill me with that swarming sensation, like a tsunami wave coming rapidly and engulfing everything… thousands of tiny legs skittering over flesh in a hot summer. Sweat beads up a little on my skin at the memory of it. But since my youth I have lain beneath a wool blanket in the scorching sun in meditation so deep I did not flinch at the feeling of insects crawling across my skin. I have worked through that fear. So what is it?
They move so fast… The secret beneath the mystery for me lies in the movement, feathers racing across stone. They are just walking, just moving through their world, and I see them, in my irrational brain, lunging and coming straight for me like a predator. They live in a faster world, their lifetime crunched into five years. They breathe at a faster pace than we do, in the same way that our tree friends, who breathe in seasons, breathe slower than we do. To our tree friends, we are constantly in motion and seldom still.
So it’s the pace of the small arthropod that unsettles me and pokes my scary button. It didn’t take me long to hazard a guess as to why. I never dive into anything. I never jump head first without vetting the endeavor. It’s not that I won’t say yes, but I need to weigh it first. Do I have the energy? Do I have the time? Do I have the skills? Do I have the desire? I think my true fear place is a question or situation that involves an immediate and snap decision, and that I will have no answer for, that I will feel frozen in indecision. Cue skittering centipedes.
Knowing that suddenly made the idea of the centipede a little less scary in my head. But in person? Could I face the panic? I didn’t know, but I had the chance to test the theory recently. My friends and I were cleaning out an old woodpile, scraping off the rotting bark and restacking the logs to dry. Beneath the bark were white centipedes with red markings on their heads, skittering madly up the wood when exposed. I totally yelped. I totally dropped the log. I totally asked for someone else to get rid of them. I totally closed my eyes hoping they would disappear while I wasn’t looking.
But I didn’t run away. I didn’t switch jobs. I pulled up my work gloves and took a very deep breath. I prepared myself that there were going to be centipedes. This is where they lived. I was going to see them. I had to accept it. I peeled the bark up with my (covered) fingers and used the tip of a knife to pry the centipedes off, dropping them into the rot litter below. I didn’t go terribly fast, but I didn’t stop. I made some horrified faces, but I kept going. Little by little, the white-numbing fear ebbed away, a little less each time I uncovered more.

Sometimes, the only way out is through, and not being able to push into these fear places are why we feel stuck, like we’re standing still. They are still my shadow animal. I still don’t like them, or want them in my house. But I’d like to think the next time I see one on my wall, I might not jump quite so high.

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