The New Age movement is an amalgam of hundreds or even thousands of traditional, eclectic and cross-cultural practices and points of view. Whether an ancient Eastern or Native American practice can be authentically experienced by a modern Westerner is a topic that has been widely discussed. Carl Jung coined the term “gnostic intermediary” to describe someone who authentically translates the essence of a tradition, point of view, or practice from one culture to another.

The New Age is a “big-tent” phenomenon, and no one person can even hope to experience every aspect of it, assuming there even is a set of practices, groups and teachings that can accurately be subsumed under that name.

One area of spiritual practice with which I’ve had limited contact is the Native American. I read Black Elk Speaks years ago, and was deeply impressed. Not too long ago, I saw a video of Kwakiutl tribesmen wearing bird and bear costumes as they lead canoe oarsmen (the footage starts at about 0:25 into the clip), and another showing members of the same tribe dancing in animal costumes. These old pieces of film by anthropologists left me wondering, “What is the actual experience of these tribesmen like, as they pursue these activities?” I looked for something in the figures that I could relate to, in the context of my own human experience, but they continued to baffle me.

On two occasions, I’ve participated in groups that held an “Animal Totem” activity. One of them was a “New Age” event with well-known teachers and authors in attendance. As we entered the workshop, held at a camp deep in a forest, we were each assigned a Clan. Each Clan met in its own cabin. Mine was the Whale Clan. I was quite curious what being a “Whale” might be like, but unfortunately, this experience remained superficial for me.

Two or three years later, as a part of an Early Childhood Education class I was taking at my local community college, the teacher led us in an exercise in choosing one of several animals as our Spirit Animal. I chose a turtle, gathered in a corner of the room with the other “turtles,” and had a profound experience as we discussed our “turtleness” and its symbols.  The poem below was written later that night. It evokes the experience I had better than I could in prose, so I chose to include it. A Facebook friend’s recent question, “What is your Spirit Animal?” brought it to mind and also led to the creation of the painting immediately above it.

As was the case with this experience, it seems to me that adopting a playful  attitude is the most helpful way to approach anything new. If your imagination can be genuinely engaged, as mine was with the poem below, the result is thrilling! If not: “Just not for me, at least this time around.” 


Turtle painting by Max Reif - Sacred totems


Speaking to Turtle 

No one knows what mysteries
enfold inside you,
what you do in there
alone, how you dream,
and what new life you bring
back from the dark.

Turtle’s Reply:  

Yes, I withdraw and dream.
Lose myself completely.
Clouds drift across the sky inside.
At some point, then,
I’m back, continue,
not the same,
all new.

The World-Turtle

Every night the World-Turtle
Goes inside its shell.
In the morning, it wakens,
plods another thousand miles.
rests again.

Universe Turtle

The Universe-Turtle
walks on,
another Year of Brahma*.
Then, it goes to sleep.
Gone. Mahapralaya*.
Rested, the Universe-Turtle
pulls its head out and
goes walking on again.


In a night class
at community college, I found
my totem—

These were the names
of the animals the teacher
had written in large letters
on posters along the wall:


I knew I was not Lion,
the first sign up.
“What will she post next?” I wondered.
“Something completely different. Turtle?”
Then, a second later… there it was!

I looked at the large, blank sheet
with “TURTLE” at the top
in large black letters.

Something about dreams
inside a shell
was me.

I went and stood
under the sign
of the Turtle,
as the others
of my clan gathered.


Earlier, that morning
I’d been on my walk,
not far from the college,
on the bike path that runs
along the drainage canal
with its jungle of tall grasses.

Half an hour out
I saw something ahead—
box turtle, I thought,
but usually, these sightings
are imagination working on some
piece of garbage along the path.
I came up close:
it was a box turtle,
big and shiny
like the ones we used to find
with Dad when I was a boy.
Never seen one
in these parts!


After we divided into groups
at class, my Clan
spoke about the turtle:
How it perseveres.
How it is cautious.
How it dreams.
How it hides.

With each quality mentioned,
we all nodded.
We knew.
For we were
the Turtle Clan.


I’ve been at a tribal
gathering of men
deep in a redwood forest,
where we chose totem animals.
I think mine was a whale.
I don’t even remember,
it ended up meaning
so little. But here,
at community college,
in this polyglot class
called “Teachers as Leaders”—
I found my totem.

Not meaning
“Turtle is my only totem, forever,”
but that this was real!
Thirty-five women, two men,
from a dozen countries, maybe more,
many just learning English—
here, here
I stopped thinking
and dove in!
Dove in to that pool
behind thought!

Life, I desire
of you
nothing more
than this.

Significant Terms (*)

Mahapralaya: According to Hindu mysticism, after many cycles of existence, God withdraws the universe back into Himself, then breathes it out again after a “rest.”

Year of Brahma: A vast cycle of time in Hindu cosmology.

Have you ever participated in an exercise that helped you determine your “spirit animal”? Do you think this can be done by anyone? Comment and let us know!

image 1: Library and Archives Canada; image 2: Max Reif