The Personal Totem Pole
 Working with the Animals

Alan A. Mooney

Alan A. Mooney is a psychotherapist in private practice. He
 has a particular interest in personal growth work using
 animal imagery and other forms of visualisation. He works 
from the Centre for Creative Change, 14 Upper Clanbrassil 
Street, Dublin 8. 01-538356/7.

In the last few years therapists have become familiar with a number of different forms 
of Imagery and use these to the advantage of clients. Probably the best known of these 
is the style developed by Robert Assagioli in Psychosynthesis. Others also employ a precise and structured form of imagery, e.g. Ira Progoff in Process Meditation.

The personal ‘Totem Pole process has been developed by and continues to evolve with
 Stephen Gallegos and others in Santa Fe, USA. As the name implies, it has connections
 with the wisdom and myth of the North American Indians or, as they are more correctly 
known, Native Americans.

There is also an overlap with the tradition of the Indian subcontinent in that the main 
energy centres of the body are focus points. These centres are known in Sanskrit as the
 Chakras, a word which means wheel.

One usually comes to the personal totem pole by way of a workshop. During the
 course of a weekend, by a process of deep relaxation and active imagery, the participants
 are encouraged to bring their attention to each of the chakras in turn and to allow an
 animal to emerge from that energy centre. The object is not to decide what kind of
 animal will present itself but rather to stand back and permit the process to occur.

People are often surprised by the kinds of animal which appear. They can be wild or 
tame, real or imaginary (e.g. dragon, unicorn). Animals may be ill or healthy, free or
 caged. There can be very young animals or those on the point of death.
 The main purpose of allowing these animals to come along is that they provide a very 
helpful and revealing element to facilitate the psychic and emotional process of the individual.

It is important to note that these creatures are not caricatures to be anthropomor
phised. It is not helpful to ask a question like – “What does this animal symbolise?” Each 
of the animals exists in some sense in its own right, with its own unique personality and 
mode of behaviour. And, the animals may express themselves either verbally or non-verbally to the person working with them.

At the same rime it can be said that the animals have a metaphorical dimension in 
that they mirror the state of the individual and as such can provide a way of understanding 
the current process. In this sense they are a means to reframe the therapeutic work being
 done or can provide clues to the client and therapist about ways to develop the therapeutic process.

There is a dynamism in working with the animals because they have a life of their 
own and can contribute very directly to insight. It might almost be said that there are 
eight facilitators working with the client – the therapist and seven animals…..

During the workshop it may be that no animal will emerge from one or more of the 
energy centres. This is not something to cause concern, rather it is a time to reflect and 
to seek help from the animals which have come along. This usually takes place in ‘council’.

When each animal has presented itself, the participant becomes involved in a dia
logue. Firstly, the individual asks the question – “What do you need from me?” The
 animal will almost always answer quite specifically.

I remember in my own case, for example, finding a song thrush at my 5th energy 
centre which is associated with communication. In reply to this question it said – “Trust

A Beginning Relationship

The next question in the dialogue is often more difficult. It is harder because the participant tells the animal what s/he needs from it. At this stage of the process the individual 
may not know what s/he needs from the animal and also this is a beginning relationship 
and needs to settle a little. Finally, one asks the animal if it has a message. In my case the
 same bird said – “Yes, sing your own song”…..Again the message is clear and direct. It
 may not be a comfortable one and it may need to be thought about but that’s why one 
begins the totem pole process anyway.

This formula is repeated with each of the creatures. Apart from anything else it is a
way of getting to know them and their reason for being there. When this process is 
treated with respect it can be a very powerful way of healing and directing our growing.

Since it is an organic process it is natural to people and easy to live with. The principles 
behind it are simple but not simplistic. There is deep wisdom behind them and outlined
 briefly by Nancy Zastrow, they are as follows:

1. The work is based in experience

It is not a thought system and cannot be accessed by arguments. It does not involve 
having to believe anything. In fact it is helped by a kind of suspension of belief that allows 
one to simply be open to the process unfolding.

2. The process is deeper than intellection

The process transcends intellection or any of the more familiar modes of inducing 
persons to change. The journeyer operates at a level not often reached ordinarily, and
 since the work is conducted internally there is little fear of encroachment from the out

3. The process is one of healing and growth and is therefore
 positive and benign

The journeyer can be and often is, led through difficult experiences but this is invariably for the sake of cleansing and healing what is amiss and restoring wholeness and 

4. The animals encountered are in charge

It is the animals who know what is needed, and they, with the journeyer, form the
 healing council which guides and oversees the work. Even though it is difficult to do the
 work without a facilitator, the work is one’s own, directed by the animals.

5. The function of the guide is to keep the journeyer and the 
animals in relationship

The facilitator is usually crucial, providing a safe place in which to relax and allow
 the work to proceed. The guide attends to the process from the outside, however,
 sometimes bringing the journeyer back to trustworthy inner wisdom, away from 
habits or destructive beliefs and always referring the journeyer to the animals for the
 correct procedure from within.

6. Individual growth takes precedence over dogma

This takes us back to the first point and the understanding that arguments, ideas, and
 discussions of what ‘ought to be’ fall in the face of that which causes the person to grow..
(Nancy Zastrow: The Totem Pole, Vol. 1, No. 1. 1990)

When I experienced the animals for the first time a hedgehog came to my first or 
base chakra. He was a strange little fellow who spent most of his time curled up in a ball.
 I was really irritated by such a puny little animal. He told me he needed some courage
 from me so he could become less defensive. Rolled up in a ball, he said, made him very 
easy to push around. He complained that he was never sure of his ground. I explained
 that I was unhappy with his state and needed to understand him. During the course of
 a year with him I learned a lot about myself because I was able to see in him the ways I
 handled the world and I was encouraged because he began to change. One day I met 
with him in council and he told me it was time for him to move on. He talked about how 
his confidence had grown and how he felt ready to go into the woods and do things like 
nose around in the undergrowth. I didn’t need him any more, he said, and a new animal 
would come to take his place.

There had been some considerable change going on in my life at the time and some 
of the other animals were also in the process of change or moving on.

The animals can and do change. This may happen in a variety of ways: Young ones 
may grow up. Others may die and be replaced by different creatures. At times an animal 
may simply disappear. Sometimes the animal will discuss its reasons for leaving and it is
 also the case that there may be more than one animal associated with a particular energy

The Council

The council is a really important part of the totem pole process. It is the gathering
 together of the chakra animals for the purpose of healing either one or more of the ani
mals themselves or to look at and resolve some aspect of the individual’s psychoemotional

To begin the person usually enters a deep relaxation so as to be fully present to the
 unfolding events. Within the relaxation s/he goes to a special place which is safe. It can 
be a real place drawn from memory or a completely imaginary one. My own safe place 
is a woodland which does not exist in the cognitive world. After a period of drawing on 
the lifegiving energy there, one then invites the animals to make themselves present.

Sometimes the animals will come readily. At other times there may be a reluctance
 on the part of one or more of the animals. There is always a very good reason for the
 behaviour of the animals and asking a clear and direct question will always bring a useful
 and helpful response.

In the event that the response is silence or a continued unwillingness to communicate 
an ‘animal of resistance’ may be invited to help.

One of the other animals present may take on this role, however, it is more usual for
 a separate and ‘unattached’ animal to come. This creature will intervene and usually will
 be successful in clearing up the conflict.

A hallmark of the chakra animals is that they are always respectful, even in conflict
 and it is important to say that in all transactions with them respect is paramount.

When gathered in council the animals may be invited to work among themselves 
encouraging each other’s healing and growth. The development of the animals parallels
 the development of the person. Healing and insight are the products of these interactions 
for the journeyer.

Alternatively, the council may be invited to assist in throwing light on a particular
 issue of relevance to the journeyer. An interesting aspect of animal work is that they can 
be quite humorous and often bring light relief to the most solemn and complex issues. 
I remember a council where all the animals came along wearing funny masks. I asked
 why and they said they were wearing them because I wore one most of the time…..The
 animals are very clear, a person may have suffered great trauma in their life but the person 
is not the trauma.

Integrating the Experience

The reality of the totem pole process is so powerful that it can happen that one falls
 into the trap of simply enjoying the animals in their own right without seeing them as a 
means for therapeutic development. I have known people to become so involved with
 the colour and the antics of the animals that they simply relate the stories without any 
attempt to integrate the experience into their own process. This is the omnipresent
 danger in my opinion and one which a guide or facilitator needs to watch.

It is true to say the the totem pole can be understood in a metaphorical way. The animals can provide a way for the client to reframe or re-label an experience which can 
bring insight into their emotional and psychic process.

For example, I worked with a client who desperately needed to feel confident about
 and trusting of her own feelings. During the course of our work together I asked her to 
focus on her 2nd energy centre, (sometimes called the Hara, from the Japanese), and to
 allow an animal to emerge. I noticed that as the client was in this process she was smiling;
 then a startled look came to her face. Asking her to tell me what was happening she said
 a beautiful black stallion had appeared, it began by galloping across a meadow tossing
 its mane and tail in a powerful and graceful way, which my client was delighted by.

Metaphorically she saw this beautiful animal as an image of the beauty and grace of
 her feeling self and an image of what she deeply wanted: a sense of grace and freedom
 within herself. That’s why she was smiling.

However, true to form, the horse had a big surprise which could not be contrived
 externally by the cleverest thought or suggestion. As the animal came galloping up to 
my client it suddenly gave a whinney which was like a ‘gotcha’ laugh and ‘plonked’ itself
 down in front of her in the manner a dog sits on its haunches – most undignified for a
 horse. My client was completely taken aback and startled. I asked her to check with the
 horse what was going on. She questioned the animal and his reply was – “You can accept
 and admire my grace and beauty but can you accept my awkwardness?”

The horse represented several things for my client. On the metaphorical level it was 
representative of what she desired about herself – to be dignified and graceful. Also on
 this level the horse reminded her of the strength of her feeling self. It could be said that
 the horse was a means for her unconscious to give voice to the basic conflict going on 
in her. However, the other reality is that while it can be said that the totem pole is only 
a clever use of the imagination, it cannot be denied that the animals appear to have an 
unpredictable and independent streak which is not under the conscious control of the 

A Subtle Reality

This brings us to the discussion about where does reality begin and end. Is the process
 of the totem pole simply an interesting use of an animal metaphor or is there a subtle
 reality involved which indicates something more than an internal and subjective process?

There are many questions which could be asked, for example, what is the nature of
 our connectedness with the natural world? How many levels are we operating on? We
 have been conditioned to experience the world through our main physical senses – sight, 
sound, touch, taste and smell. But to what extent is a developed intuition and imagination 
a valid form of knowing? This question brings us to the boundaries of the cognitive
 process and really enters the realm of epistemology. Intuition and imagination are inter
nal processes and as such are not easily available to empirical method. So perhaps faith 
needs to be placed in a more wholistic paradigm of research since the older more mechanistic approach to research cannot handle the internal world effectively.

It seems to me that a good model for a starting understanding of the animals is to 
describe them as a manifestation of intuitive awareness, where intuition is a means of 
knowing which takes account of the empirical evidence and adds another dimension
 which expands perception. Imagination is that dimension and it is my belief that the power of imagination needs to be celebrated and acknowledged much more fully than

To conclude, as a therapist I like to work with the animals. I admire the clarity, gentleness and insightfulness they bring. This article is written not so much as a rounded 
discussion piece but as an expression of my excitement about the Totem Pole process.
 There are many questions to be addressed. Perhaps I’ll find answers on the journey.


Assagioli: ‘Psychosynthesis’, Turnstone Press. First published 1965

Ferrucci: ‘What We May Be’, Turnstone Press. 1982

Gallegos: ‘The Personal Totem Pole – animal imagery, the chakras and psychotherapy’, Moonbear 
Press, Santa Fe, 1987

Progoff: ‘The Practice of Process Meditation’ Dialogue House Library, 1980.