Three Rhinos: Spirit Animals and Personal Power

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.


Dali with Rhinoceros, Halsman 1956


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.


Growth and Trust, Lessons from Al Fuentes

Sometimes, we end up at just the right place at just the right time. Such was the case last week, when I found myself in a room with thirty other individuals, trusting our breath and meditating on trees. How I arrived here isn’t important–it was simply the right combination of changed plans and obstacles that landed me the seat, and I knew as soon as the evening began that I was in the right place. “It’s like a group meditation,” my mother had said, as if trying to convince me to go, “and it could be good for you.” It’s no secret that times have been hard. Everyone has felt it, and the more sensitive you are, the harder it becomes. It showed on the faces of everyone in the room that night, a shadow under the eyes, a crease between the brow, a tension in the hands… yet by the end of the evening, they had all melted away, replaced with ease and empowerment.

Al Fuentes sat in front of the window, a travel-cup of tea at his side, looking every bit the part of the guru. But when he began to speak it became clear that he wasn’t some inaccessible spiritualist at all. In fact, he’s incredibly down-to-earth. Sure, he has stories about meeting enlightened masters in India, but he has equally engaging stories about having his iPhone stolen at the DMV. Anyone who compares one of the most profound human experiences to a cheese pizza has to have both feet planted firmly on the ground and at least one in the modern American world–surely, swamis don’t eat Dominos. To Al Fuentes, Enlightenment isn’t at the top of a mountain somewhere in the Himalayas, or at the end of a long and trying religious path. According to Al, the first step towards Enlightenment is simply taking a breath.

Take a breath. Go ahead, do it. Take a real breath, a conscious, considered breath in through your nose. Think about that breath and all it’s doing for you. Think about why you breathe. Feel the breath filling your lungs, feel the oxygen absorbing into your bloodstream, feel your cells receiving that nourishment. How did you know that breath would satisfy so much need? Trust. Every time you take a breath, you trust that you’ll be getting oxygen, and that your body will synthesize it. Every day, you could breathe over 28,000 times. In any given minute, you might breathe twenty times. That’s twenty demonstrations of perfect trust in the universe around you. Twenty times when you share control over your life with a totally unseen force–you might command the breath, but the universe ultimately decides how the action is fulfilled.

But breathing is a two-part action. You breathe in and demonstrate perfect trust, but you also breathe out. For each time you take in nourishment from the universe, you release as well. You cleanse your system of things you no longer need. You never hang on to the carbon dioxide that your body has produced–it’s a waste product and it would poison you. Almost reflexively, you purge it. There are so many things in our lives that poison our well-being, things we cling to out of habit or comfort. We don’t need them. Think about it: when you read that statement, your head turned over several things that you know you don’t need in your life. Clothing that no longer fits, tech gadgets that no longer serve your purpose, maybe even people that no longer uplift and support you. Letting go can be scary–what if you need those things later on? What if you feel lonely or empty once they no longer take up that space? In reality, you’re only holding your breath. Breathe out. Now breathe in again. The universe restores what you might have lost, and fills those empty spaces with things you truly need.

We share our breath with millions of others, every day–other people, other creatures, other things. We breathe the same oxygen as our partners, our friends, our family. Our exhalations provide an abundance of chemicals needed by flowers, grass, and trees. And in addition to trusting and letting go and sharing the cycle over and over again, we can learn from them. Al shared a story in which several people asked him what they were supposed to be doing with their lives. It’s a common theme–even when I read cards, people always want to know what their life’s purpose is. But this was a peculiar number of people in a peculiar period of time, and Al felt that there was something more at work. He posed the question to the universe and what he received in response–in true universal fashion–was so simple and elegant that it answers for absolutely everyone who has ever dared to ask. Like a tree, we are meant to grow up and out. We are meant to root, to attach firmly to the earth, and grow towards the heavens, spreading our branches to shelter loved ones and touch people around us, to bud and flower and achieve great things, to bathe in sunlight and cast off the leaves that no longer serve us and grow new ones all over again. We are meant to do all of these things, relative to our own stories. My achievements will not be yours, and the people you shelter will not be mine, but as long as we continue to grow towards the sun and spread our branches, that’s okay. We’re both accomplishing all that the universe wants from us. And as long as we continue to breathe–in and out, over and over–we’ll get there.

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You can see more of Al Fuentes’ work on his website, including his blog, testimonials from clients, and his work as a mental coach


Magic Monday: Everyday Symbolism — You’ve Got This

Normally, when a stranger on the streets of New York City approaches me, or asks me to do something, I ignore them. It’s an ingrained trait, handed down from one hardened city-dweller to another. But on Tuesday night, re-discovering one of my favourite neighborhoods through the fresh eyes of a friend, things felt different. Maybe it was the optimism of the still-glowing skies at nearly 9PM, or the electric haze of summer post-rain, but when a stranger in shining black shoes stepped out from under the awning to grab my attention, I gave it to him–“Look!”

There, arching a perfect 180 degrees over Tomkins Square Park, was a vibrant, neon rainbow. I gasped and thanked him for pointing it out to me, and while I initially rounded the corner towards our original destination I found myself drawn back to the edge of the sidewalk, angling my phone towards the sky to capture what I could only see as a brilliant sign from the universe: things are going to be all right.

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I choose to see things differently. I look carefully at my surroundings, I find messages and meaning everywhere. There is constant reassurance from the universe all around–even when you’ve made the wrong choice or need to rethink your plans, there are clues everywhere. Recently, I had a series of particularly rough days. I felt alone, exasperated, and just plain bad. Armed with my Nikon D-series, I lay in the dirt outside my classroom shooting some of the plants and odd fields of abandoned construction supplies. Back in the lab, I realized I hadn’t gotten all my exposures as I wanted them and headed back out to the exact spot I was crawling around for the last half our only to find a mammoth goose feather in nearly the exact spot I had been. There were no geese to be seen, and I had only been inside for about five minutes.

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My grandfather was a particularly insightful Pisces who knew What’s Up. About a year before he died, he told my mother that when he wanted to get in touch, his sign would be feathers. At his memorial service, we gave each person in attendance a peacock feather to remind them that while people we love might move on and change state, they are never gone. The next day, my cousin–who graciously opened her home to the service–called us, excited and just a little uneasy, because she found several bright, beautiful feathers laid out on her front porch. “I think Jack was saying thank you.” That mammoth goose feather brought me to a similar state of confused excitement, tearfully decoding the message as I dropped back into my place in the dirt–in this case, I think Jack was saying “you’ve got this–just hang in there.”

We all go through tough times. With Mars recently coming out of retrograde and Mercury slipping back in, things have been more than a little wonky lately. But don’t worry: you’ve got this–just hang in there. The signs are all around you.


Blossoms and Bulbs: Everyday Symbolism and the Lily

Magic is the thin silver thread that holds together the tapestry of our perception–it’s easy to lose track of it in the weave. Sometimes, it sits on the surface, dazzlingly bright as it reflects our own light back at us and we wonder how we ever lost sight of it. At other times, it dips below, hiding beneath layers of the mundane–at those times, we need to trust that it’s still there. Luckily, the universe has so many ways of reassuring us that magic is all around if only we look hard enough… Think back to a time where you were deeply involved in a personal issue–maybe work wasn’t going well, or you were arguing with a loved one. During a moment where your mind was at rest, or there was a lull in your thoughts, you might have noticed something odd. There was something out of place, or perhaps simply something oddly vibrant or distinct in your perception–you were meant to notice it at that exact time. When we’re not listening, ignoring some vital lesson in life, the Universe has a way of making sure we pay attention.


Recently, my boyfriend and I took a wrong turn while heading back to the car in a part of town we had never explored before. I knew we were headed the wrong way, but he walked with purpose and determination ahead of me. At the corner, we stopped–in the heat wave, the perfume of sweet flowers was so intense it couldn’t be ignored. There at the corner was a gigantic stalk of stargazer lilies. Stargazers hold a particular fascination for me: I love their velvet petals, the variation in their colours, the vibrant spots and stripes they develop. Several years ago, I even had one tattooed on my body. It struck us both instantly that this stalk was the reason we were walking out of our way that day. We were simply guided there because we were meant to see it.


Since then, I’ve been seeing lilies far more often. Of course, the skeptic could say that they’re simply in season, but they only seem to come to me when my mind is feeling less than magical–after a long and frustrating car trip, after a tiresome day at work, after mulling over some extremely confusing and troubling issues, I begin to notice lilies that never seemed to be there before. And lilies are a powerful symbol. Traditionally associated with purity and innocence, they can be seen as a symbol for spiritual cleansing. Most fascinating to me, however, is their connection to growth–Emily Dickenson regarded it as a metaphor for the development of the soul. In dreams, it can be a message of encouragement, and it is depicted on the Ace of Pentacles in the traditional Rider-Waite tarot deck, a card that can herald rewards and fresh starts.


Lilies are also present on the Rider-Waite Magician, a card of potential and personal power. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that if one dreams of casting aside a lily, it symbolizes the abuse of personal power. Similarly, we might infer that coming upon an abundance of blooming lilies can signify coming into one’s own blossoming personal power. While my life is absent of lilies today, I was reminded of my lily encounters when a speaker on the radio recited the following quote from Anais Nin:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Sometimes, all the pieces fit together perfectly. If they don’t, don’t worry–when the time is right, the Universe will allow you to see clearly. Until then, continue to look around you. Be vigilant. Don’t let the day’s issues cloud your light, and keep sight of what really matters–that thin silver thread.