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 me”.
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 side.
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 health.
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 centre.
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 development.
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 person.
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 heretofore.
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.