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A Walk with Clouded Leopard- A Totem Dictionary Sample

A couple posts ago, I mentioned creating your own animal totem dictionary. I’ve since had people ask me what my own entries are like. And while I am not currently posting my own meditations and journal entries here, I decided to give you a sample of a totem that I had to do a lot of research and writing for. Clouded Leopard doesn’t have a lot of information out there on it, let alone totemically, so working with him required a lot of motivation and time on my part. The following is a report in my own dictionary that I wrote after research and meditations with Clouded Leopard.

Clouded Leopard is a cat of many attributes and hidden talents. He is shrouded in mystery, leaving his gifts a bit overlooked. In recent years, though, I have seen a rise in people connecting, or wanting to connect, with him via totem work. In my personal experience, he most often takes on the role of a steward or a bridge. These ideals seep into many of the lessons that he has taught me. He ties people of the modern world together, as well as relating the ancient world to the one we live in. We are a part of nature, walking beside him, and he keeps this at the center of all of his lessons.

But, what is a clouded leopard? How is he related to other cats? Well, first of all, he is classified as a medium-sized cat. He can not technically roar; therefore, he can’t be classified as one of the great cats of the Panthera genus. And while he can make a purring-like sound, he technically doesn’t purr, meaning he’s not part of the small cats genus, Felis. This means that like cheetah, snow leopard, and puma, he gets his own genus. Neofelis. This literally translates to  ‘new cat.’ I find this really interesting, because he resembles a bit of many cats but is his own species. Here he acts as a bridge between big and small cats and has on many occasions helped me to understand some of the more specialized members of the Felidae family.

His connection to being a bridge continues when you are made aware that he is also an arboreal cat, spending most of his time up in the treetops of the Southeast Asian Rainforests. Trees have long been linked with travel to other worlds as well as to healing, and though I haven’t explored the latter as much, I can tell you that the former has been very important in our work together. Unlike other cats, Clouded Leopard has a couple of attributes that allow him to stay balanced in his treetop home. For one thing, he has short and stout legs to help bring his center of gravity lower, reducing variables with each step. Rotating ankle joints in their back feet give them the ability to climb down trees head first just like a squirrel. They’re also able to hang by their back paws from a branch, ready to pounce in a moment on some unsuspecting muntjac passing by. The last feature that really helps is the tail, which is equal to his body length, keeping him as balanced on a branch as he would be on solid ground. Think about what this means. Being able to walk as gracefully in other worlds as one might here.

His grace is one of the things about him that people in his native countries noticed, too. In fact, the Rukai people of Taiwan take their name from their own word for Clouded Leopard, Rikulau. To them he was their ancestor but also the embodiment of grace, style, and beauty. He is the fairy that connects people’s dreams back to nature, and vice versa. Again, we see him taking on his role as a bridge. Other people have seen him take on the role of trickster and shapeshifter; my experience with this has been minimal, but I have seen it pop up occasionally. What I see much more often, however, which may get mistaken as something tricky, is that he is elusive, and extremely so.

Until 2008, there was almost no actual footage of a clouded leopard in the wild. They remain out of sight. Field zoologists spend half a decade in the forests where they dwell and will never receive more than a blurry snapshot from a camera trap as a reward. How do they breed? Take care of their young? What do they do with their day? All we can do is speculate and rely on what we observe in the sanctuaries and zoos that house these beautiful creatures.  In captivity, they’re extremely friendly with their keepers, and in fact are the only big cat for which it is actually recommended that their handlers interact with them. If no,t they can get depressed. Now, how odd is that? In the wild, the clouded leopard will avoid us at all costs, but in captivity they have a need for our interaction. As a totem, I think this speaks heavily about environmental influence and how we rely on the things that we know and become accustomed to them.

There has always been an issue in breeding them in captivity. The males often get very aggressive with the females, which can result in injury or even death. They have found, however, that if a breeding pair is introduced at under a year of age that the aggression is greatly reduced. Why do you think that is? Some have suggested that being in captivity changes their breeding patterns. That in the wild the female would run or escape, much like how betta fish males do from each other. Others believe that maybe clouded leopards have a more monogamous breeding style, which is less likely but totally possible. After all, the fact is we don’t know much about this mysterious cat of the asian wilds.

The last thing that I’ll touch on in regards to this nebulous cat is his teeth, particularly his canines. They are on average two inches in length, the same size as those of a Siberian tiger. Though a clouded leopard is about ½ the length and ⅕ of the body weight of his striped cousin. Teeth are linked to power and truth, as well as what we choose to ingest. Those that walk with Clouded Leopard as a totem must be careful of what they say, remembering that it may be heard with more weight than they anticipate. In addition, they must be wary of becoming caught up in novelty, remembering that this particular attribute is a gift, not a right. It is a skill to be honed and used to facilitate truth and promote understanding.

If Clouded Leopard walks with you along your path, whether it’s for a day or for your whole incarnation, it will be enriched. You will take bridges to places, both external and internal, that you might not have thought to before. You will feel the weight of your words and the power of truth. And you will, above all else, remember that you are a part of nature, a part of the universe, and that everything around you is connected. No matter where you go or where you look, there is a bridge to get you there.

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The Slow Reveal of Totems Pt. 2

Well, here I am again. My last blog post earned me some readers asking for more information about the slow reveal and my own personal experience with it. A journey with totem animals is unique to each individual, so while I have no issue discussing it here, please don’t feel that your path needs to unfold the same way mine has. I also think that it’s very important to talk about the difference between energies we project/draw to us versus those that wish to work with you.

I mentioned in my last post that Butterfly was very personal and special for me, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, I used to straight out reject it as a totem for myself. For one thing, my biological mother was working with it. In our living room we each had our altars and my mom’s was covered in butterflies of many kinds. She wore jewelry in the shape of it too, and she really loved the spiritual meaning behind it. I was clandestinely drawn to it, but I refused to admit it to myself. For one thing, my rather insecure teenage mind kept insisting that the only reason I liked Butterfly was because I loved my mother dearly. The other reason, which I now find humorous, is that I thought if I worked with it, it would confirm something that I’d felt inside for a very long time. And I wasn’t ready for that.

Even though Butterfly was ready to work with me as a totem, I wasn’t ready to do the same. So other totems came to work in her place for a while, Panther most notably. She reminded me of my childhood trauma and of the many walls I’d built up within myself. Well, they functioned like walls, but that’s not how they usually were within my inner space. In fact, I often found myself in a large forest utopia, just after dusk, with a full moon in the sky. Light enough just for me to see, but it was always dark. There was a volcano in the distance, a subconscious representation of the anger I kept trying to suppress and forget about. Boulders blocked the waterways, since I stoutly refused to show things like vulnerability or pain or, as a voice in the back of my head would call it, ‘weakness.’

It took me a couple of months before Panther and I were really able to start developing a dialogue. It doesn’t help that I have a hard time quieting my mind, so this was a real challenge for me. I was rather well informed on people’s experiences with totems as well as differing methods, but my own experience was minimal and mostly academic. But I didn’t give up. I put on my drumming music and I lit my incense. I forced myself to relax, and eventually it didn’t feel like forcing at all. Panther and I formed a relationship and we began to work through all of the issues that were messing with my inner ecosystem.

Occasionally she’d have another totem with her, but it took me a while before I was receptive to working with energies other than her. One day though, she brought me to Butterfly. I won’t go too much into detail here, but I will say that it wasn’t a lush garden that I found her in. It was a desert. It was a very personal and transformative moment for me, and I can remember it rather clearly in my head. Looking back, I find it amusing how much I tried to resist something that is so intrinsic to who I was. Who I am. But that doesn’t mean I did anything wrong, just that I wasn’t ready for that energy yet.

Fantastical as this may seem, what I experienced isn’t as uncommon as you might think. We pay attention to the teachers we can relate to and find it hard to listen to those who are coming from a level we’re not resonating with at that time. I think it’s awesome that totems, in my experience, will choose to work with and teach a person, and then when the lessons are taught, they hold no grudge when another teacher happens upon you. This kind of synergy is paramount to why I think this avenue of spirituality has been so beneficial and natural to me as a person.

As you can see, my own path and how I’ve operated on it has changed as I gained more experience and understanding. So, too, have the animals that people have suggested that I present as. I’ve been told that I have a lot of Bunny, Turtle, Bear, Cat, various big cats, Fox, and Hummingbird. Even a couple have said Dolphin. Now, I’ve had interactions with most of these totems in some form or another, but I haven’t had the privilege of developing far beyond that with many of them. Sometimes this is because this is the terminology in which a person can interpret how I will relate to their own energies. Other times it’s been an energy that is attached to me or wanted my attention. In each case though, I’ve taken what I was told and kept it in mind, but I didn’t let that decide for me what my totems were. And neither should you. It is a lifelong process that will continue to flourish and develop as long as you permit it to.

This doesn’t mean that you might not meet your primary totem very quickly into totem work, nor does it mean that you won’t present as your totem. It just means don’t feel like you’re doing something wrong if you don’t. Because chances are, you’re not. Everything is a process, and I’ll probably tell you that a lot. Actually, I am going to tell you that a lot. And processes take time. You also can’t rush them. You have to let them work themselves out. I’ve stuck with my meditation, my documentation, and always taking time out of my life to go spend in nature. These things, along with a desire to understand, grow, and communicate, will be the tools you need in order to walk a path with totems. Do you have those?

Great! Then I think you’re ready.

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The Slow Reveal of Totems

I was asked a couple weeks ago by someone what I thought their primary totem was, which earned them a much more thorough answer than I think they expected. Working with animal totems is a lifelong undertaking. It isn’t some achievement you earn and then stick in a cupboard to forget about and occasionally point to as some kind of accomplishment. Working with animal totems is about relationships between you and spirits or embodiments of archetypal energy (People have different opinions on what totems are exactly, and I figure that’s a topic for another post). So when you begin working with these energies, you must be patient and realize that the whole process is a ‘slow reveal’ as one colleague of mine has put it. Moreover, you will get out of it what you put into it.

Though I have helped many people with the introduction of animal totems into their spiritual walk, it is only during the last couple of years that I have taken people on as ‘totem students.’ Now, let me be clear, I don’t consider myself a guru or an expert by any means. I have always taught from a place of “So this is what I’ve read, and this is what I’ve experienced.”  From there, you kind of have to make your own way. My role is not to have the experience for a person; I will not carry someone along the path. I am there to be a sounding board and to bring an objective perspective while they start working with these types of energies. When you first begin working with animal totems, it can seem like you’re being pulled in a couple of different directions, and the whole process can be confusing. While there are differing schools of thought as to how one may acquire a totem to work with, it’s important to have somewhere to start. I thought I would lay out some basics that have proven rather helpful for most, if not all, of the people I’ve worked with.

I feel that personal record keeping and journaling is important, and thus I encourage it in my students. Like most people will tell you, you don’t need some fancy wooden journal with gold embedded in it. A basic notebook will do. So will a binder with page protectors, or even a Google Document. It doesn’t matter so much where you’re documenting, as long as you’re actually doing it. But wait, what are you going to put in the journal? Well, first ask yourself what it is exactly that you want out of working with totems? Is there a particular area of your life that you need help with? Are there certain traits that you wish to work on? Or are you just interested and seeing what path the spirits may lay before you? All of these are acceptable answers, but knowing why you’re doing something is extremely important on this kind of walk.

From here, I recommend documenting any meditations you do for or with the totems you’re working with. Jot down any research you might find or images and phrases from your dreams that seem to stick out. I’m also a big fan of scientific research being integrated with the spiritual, so don’t be afraid to put some of that in your records as well. This right here is the basis of that animal totem dictionary that I talked about in my last blog post. So, why am I talking about that again? Because that’s how the ‘slow reveal’ happens. Over time the energies you work with will change as you learn lessons and become more aware and begin to align more with your spiritual path.

For example, when I first started working with totems, I worked with Bat, Crow, Llama, and Bunny a lot. Bat taught me to listen to my gut, and Crow taught me about spiritual law, while Bunny taught me a lot about how to deal with anxiety. Llama and I never really had a strong connection, but his energy was there. Over time, though, these characters traded out, my way of working with totems shifted, and I became more open to other lessons and energies. Black Panther came to me to start working a couple months into working with totems and has walked with me since. Though in recent years she’s taken a more backseat role, she’s still there, and I don’t feel that she’s going away anytime soon.

Over this course of time, though, I’ve worked with dozens of different creatures, each of them coming to me at a time when I needed them. At first I was frustrated because I would get really excited about the energy, hoping that it was my primary totem (a term referring to a lifelong very personal totem), but none of them really ever seemed to fit the bill. I kept trying on all of these animal hats, but I didn’t feel like I was resonating with them. It’s because I was trying to move things too fast. I was trying to force a dynamic that wasn’t actually present. It wasn’t until I slowed down, looked back over my journal, and began to appreciate the knowledge and lessons that I’d been gifted that I started to see what was really there.

I saw similar energies in my totems that kept coming up: winged insects that went through transformation, large water mammals, and nocturnal solitary felines. This didn’t mean that all of these were necessarily indicators of what my primary totem(s) would be, but it sure was an interesting pattern to see. So I began to go back and try to work with these particular totems again. I’ve worked with these groups of energies very closely, and it is from this work and new sense of understanding that I did learn who my primary totem was: Butterfly. But it took me years, even after I’d already worked with that energy a couple of times, before I was ready to really understand what it was and what it really meant for me.

Now, not everyone is like this. Some people just instinctively know what their totems are. They have always known. For others, it will take time to find it. And even more people will see the answer when they’re ready to really accept who they are, and why they’re here. So don’t rush your journey. Try not to get upset with yourself if your first meditation doesn’t offer you an animal spirit BFF, because that’s not how it works. But just remember, you have a lifetime to work together. To strengthen that bond. I assure you, from my personal experience as well as that of others, it’s worth the wait and dedication.

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The Elephant Totem in the Room

I’ve walked my spiritual path, consciously, for a decade or so now, and animal totems have always been a strong part of it. My fascination with animals predates even that, however, especially media and literature portraying  them in a spiritual or mystical light. It was no surprise to me that when I started to strengthen my intuition, I saw people’s energies as archetypes of animals. I used it as a tool for guidance and healing, and it has helped me to evolve my own spiritual practice.  In my years of study, however, I’ve found a rather large problem in how animal totemism is presented, and it stems from personal bias. I used to do readings for people, helping them to discover just who their totems were, but ever since I saw this elephant in the room, I’ve stopped doing that for the public.

As is often the case when you become knowledgeable about a topic in the metaphysical community, people try to put you into the role of “teacher” or “reader.”  This was my experience at 18, as many of my friends wanted me to do “Animal Totem Readings” for them so that they could know their totem. I used the template outlined by Jamie Sams and David Carson in their deck/book combo “Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals.” It had an outline for a system to use. I also frequented texts such as “Animal Speak” and “Animal Wise” by Ted Andrews for more information on the individual totems.

As a year or so went on, however, I found that their template didn’t work for me; I found it rigid and consistently conflicting with my spiritual growth. Some totems I worked with intensely over the course of a couple of months or a year. Some were fleeting messengers, while others seemed to be here for the long haul. So I tried to indulge in the notion that totems were a more fluid thing, that there was no system and to just take it as it comes. It was around this time, however, that my totems started trying to form into a system of their own. In both cases, it was my totems themselves that were trying to buck my system or lack thereof.

I took some time and asked my totems why I felt like there was no stability. Why even when I tried to remove templates, I couldn’t find a sense of stability with what I identified with as being my main form of spiritual practice. And they sat amused in silence for a while before answering, “It’s because you are trying so hard to find a way that works for everyone. To design the ‘perfect template.’ But it doesn’t exist. Everyone’s spiritual path is different, as you well know. Is it so surprising that that also applies to working with animal totems?”

It took me a long time to really accept this. I worked with a couple of friends on their totems, and what I realized is that when I chatted with people, we could easily identify the ways in which their own totems worked with them. Some people just intuitively understood their relationship with totems, some of them taking on archetypal roles, while others had correspondences or liked elaborate templates. Literally every system with which I was familiar, and those I wasn’t, had worked for someone I have chatted with over the years.

That’s when I realized I’d spent so much time worrying about other people’s totemic journey rather than becoming intimate with my own. That is when I stopped doing “Animal Totem Readings” for people, in which I would tell someone the guides to work with for the rest of this incarnation. Instead I shifted to telling someone if I saw a particular totem energy pop up for them, or I would do an “Animal Guidance Reading” (which is much like a tarot reading). Those are more situational and don’t force someone into a fixed dynamic.  I had discovered it was important to let people find their own path to totems, and even with helping them, things have to be rather open-ended. 

Though I’d always operated from this point, I hadn’t really understood why. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the root of the issue. And then last summer, I was hanging out with some friends  when another woman who, “knows her stuff” was asking me what I thought her totem was. I told her.  I gave my reasons why I thought that particular spirit was a part of her, and she said she could definitely see why. Though, I realized an issue with this the next day. I had told her of my perceptions of her via my own personal bias, which was formed from my general opinion of her, my personal gnosis, and of course the research I had under my belt. But it had barely any basis in her own spiritual path. Now, granted I told her that it was just my humble opinion and, again, it was based on only what I saw and on what my own intuition picked up, but it still bothered me.

For example, I had another friend who tried very hard to work with Wolf, because that’s one someone she respected told her. She’d meditate and try to connect, but she was always greeted by Lark or Lemur instead. It took a while before she realized the latter two were her totems and not Wolf. Now, this doesn’t mean that her friend was “wrong;” perhaps she needed Wolf energy, or someone she is close to has a lot of Wolf energy and it tends to be around her, or that’s how he saw her. The possibilities are truly limitless. It’s why I always caution people away from absolutes and definitives unless it’s based on personal gnosis. It’s nice to have external confirmation, but it shouldn’t be what you base your whole journey on.

Everyone has their own interpretations of what certain animals mean and help you with. Now, I do believe that there are some core concepts that are nearly universal (this is where archetypes come in), but individual relationships are as varied as the people who participate in them. I found this out when I started asking people I’d done readings for what they thought my own totems were. This wasn’t because I had no idea, even if I’d say I didn’t, because intuitively I know what kinds of energies I have within me. But mostly I did it because I was curious to see what kinds of energies people associate with me and what animal forms that they take. I’ve gotten so many varied answers, it only confirms for me that totems are a unique and malleable spiritual practice. Though we are working with real spirits and energies, how they speak to us varies from person to person.

Take Snake for example, which has one of the most diverse and expansive histories in culture and myth of any creature on this planet. It has been the embodiment of chaos, a cherished healer, and a scapegoat for temptation. This also translates over into the mundane world. Some find them fascinating while others flee in terror at even the mention of a slithering serpent. As someone who works closely with Snake, in various forms, I have found them to represent healing, cleansing, self-renewal, order, sexuality, and natural cycles among other things. So for me, this totem would be something very sacred and special. Someone who sees it as a sign of chaos and disruption, or as the totem of someone who is manipulative and untrustworthy, however, probably wouldn’t assign this totem to me (I hope!). And thus, if I relied on their personal bias, I’d be missing out on a lot of potential wisdom and spiritual development.

There are of course less extreme examples of this kind of bias, but just like the paths of totemism, the list would be limitless. We’re all shaped by our own knowledge of biology, culture, experience, and mysticism. There have been plenty of times I’ve picked a totem for someone and they said there was no way that it could be that. Then I tell them a story or interesting fact, and suddenly, they see it in a perspective that aligns with their own sense of identity. I’ve also been the person whose view was shaped on many occasions, for as much as I’d love to know everything about every animal, it’s simply not possible. I welcome the knowledge when it’s given to me, as I think it’s always good to be reminded that there’s more out there to learn.

By this point in this blog you’re probably thinking, “Well, good job, you’ve pointed out an inherent problem within spirituality. But what can we do about it?” If you’re not, that’s okay, but it’s what I was thinking, so I thought I’d share. My first suggestion is to work with your own totems and learn about them. Both through research and through working with them in meditation or dreamtime. This is a crucial part of working with these kinds of energies. You’ll start to understand your personal relationships with totems as well as how they interact with you as far as other people.  It’d be nice, though, if there was a way to document your own personal opinions and experiences and make your own animal totem dictionary, wouldn’t it?

Oh wait! You can!  It’s that simple. Just make your own. I had one of those ridiculous “Duh!” moments when I was re-reading a book by one of my favorite authors, Lupa. In DIY Totemism, she points out why it’s such a good idea to just make your own. It’s genius, and, really, after you hear it, it just sounds like common sense.

Now, keep in mind, this is a long term project. You don’t need to rush out to Michael’s and buy all of the craft supplies possible and crank out a dictionary by the end of the week. Instead, take your time and work with your own totems. Work on it as it comes to you, and you’ll start to build up your own personal reference guide to animal guides and totems. As well as being a tremendous resource, it’s also a documentation of your journey with them,  a representation of the effort both sides have put into it. I recommend going out and buying a three ring binder, some page protectors, and some paper (computer, construction, lined, etc…) and going from there. In mine, I have printouts of articles which have stuck with me, pictures I’ve loved, art I’ve made, meditations I’ve experienced, and wisdom I’ve gained. Make the book personal; if you want to decorate the cover, or draw a picture for every creature, then do it. This is your journey, and only you can decide how to go about it.