The second rhinoceros appeared on the projection screen and the entire class collectively held their breath. Eyes shut tight, it knelt in the grass as several disembodied hands reached down to rest on its face, bright woven bangles shocking against gray flesh. I put down my coffee, afraid I would choke if I started to weep.
“A remarkable photograph, eh?” Our instructor paused at the slide, noticing our intense reaction to this particular image. When class meets at 9AM on a Friday, an intense reaction is a rare thing. We were assured the rhino was all right, rescued after a run-in with poachers–a lucky rhino in what was usually a tragic situation. The next slide brought us back to the usual street scenes and portraits. But after a half-dozen more had passed another rhino invaded the frame, this time eye-to-eye with Salvador Dali. Now I knew that something was up.
Before the lecture was over, I had seen at least four rhinoceroses in various forms–sculptures, drawings, actual animals. While some could say that my instructor clearly had rhino on the mind while putting slides together, that didn’t change the fact that the rhino is my spirit animal and I was supposed to be hearing something.
Animal totems have a fairly wide appeal, regardless of spiritual beliefs or backgrounds–they can be a tool to embody strength, action, wisdom, or joy, or a reminder to listen to your higher powers. Almost everyone I’ve known can say that they have a personal connection to some animal symbol, in some way. But it’s often far more complex than simply a favourite animal or beloved pet speaking from your memories. I was a teenager when a friend and I laid down on the thin boucle carpet in a minuscule shop near my town, breathing deeply of the fragrant smoke wafting through the room as we prepared to journey into Spirit. We were both open-minded, having grown up in rather untraditional faiths, but we remained skeptical of what would come next: we were going to meet our spirit animals on their own turf. The circle leader beat a steady rhythm on his drum, focussing our attention on the hypnotic beat as he set us off. At first, it was all me–I was in complete control as I pictured myself in the peaceful stream I had waded through that spring, remembering the gentle trickling of the water over rocks and the cool rush against my skin. I pushed aside stones in the banks to find the opening that would lead me into Spirit, and I crawled through, following the dark path downwards. At this rate, my spirit animal was going to be a lizard, or a crow, or any other number of animals I felt “suited” me because I was dictating what happened. A fox appeared in the dark stone cavern before me.
And then something curious happened: I asked whether it was my spirit animal, and it met my eye, shook its small orange head, and said, “No.” I was a little startled. I hadn’t anticipated meeting animals that weren’t my spirit animal at all. A lizard scuttled across the wall of the cavern, hesitating as he saw me. “Are you my spirit animal?” –and with another quick no, he disappeared from sight. Slivers of light caught the iridescence of feathers as a peacock fanned and again I posed my question. “No,” he said, dropping his tail and retreating into darkness, leaving a single feather behind. I was getting confused and worried–what if I didn’t find my spirit animal during the journey? What if I didn’t even have a spirit animal? The vision had gotten away from me completely–things were happening entirely on their own. Several more animals came and went, some only laughing at my question, others sympathetically shaking their heads before leaving me alone again. Then, I came to another space, a room carved out of the rock separately from the cavern at large. Inside was a massive white rhinoceros, glowing softly in the darkness. His impossibly black eyes followed me as I crossed the threshold. “Are you my spirit animal?” I asked breathlessly, and received only a purposeful nod in return. I ran my hands over his massive head, feeling the rugged texture of his skin, the precious stone of his horn. I wove a crown of jane magnolias and dogwoods to place over his ears and danced around him like a maypole. Rhino never moved out of place, tacitly approving my actions with flicking ears and swishing tail.
The drum beat changed, quickening ever-so-slightly, little by little. It was our call out. I wrapped my arms around Rhino’s massive head, resting my cheek against the cool length of his horn as we said our unspoken goodbyes and I thanked him for his guidance. I backed out of the chamber, through the cavern, ascended the passage, and then out of the stream. When I opened my eyes, I was in the smokey little shop, keenly aware of the hard floor below me and the growing tickle behind my throat. Through the years to follow, Rhino has been a consistent symbol in my life. He becomes a reminder of myself and a suggestion of power. He is often the “I can,” or the “I should” when I’m unsure or unwilling. I don’t always know what he’s telling me, but I know when he presents himself that I need to listen up. Lately, things have been in flux, rapidly changing as I discover new and interesting things about myself and the world around me–three rhinoceroses in one day can’t be a coincidence.