This is one of my earliest memories. I was about 12 months old. It was bedtime in my family’s little 1950s bungalow in Reno, Nevada. As my parents were tucking me in, I realized with sudden panic that my teddy bear had gone missing. No ordinary toy, this particular bear was my companion 24/7. His button nose was smashed in like a pug’s face from endless kissing; his tawny fur was threadbare and patchy from constant stroking, and he sported a moleskin patch on his back where my mother had improvised a repair to keep his stuffing in, right at the spot where his music box had long ago fallen out. I loved him, with the constancy and passion that is special to very young children.
I unleashed an immediate shrill wailing when I noticed his absence. My parents scurried about the house, searching for the errant bear, in a desperate attempt to stop my grief stricken screams. In hindsight, I realize they must have been exhausted and frustrated and just really wanting me to be sensible and “go the f……. to sleep.” But in some deep part of my instinctive primal brain, I knew that without my bear I was vulnerable. Anything could happen. I was alone and without protection.
Then came a small moment of grace. My father, an infinitely kind and patient man who struggled with his own sensitivity and anxieties all his life, picked me up, cradled me in his arms and said, “don’t worry. We’ll find your bear. I bet you left him outside in the yard when you were playing today.” Then he carried me through the house, stopping in the kitchen to get a flashlight, and out into the yard where he commenced a thorough search, peering under every bush and holding me tight against his chest the whole time.
We found the bear in a thicket where I had been hosting an imaginary tea party earlier that day. “Ah, here he is,” said my father. “Safe and sound.” With an enormous sigh of relief, I hugged the bear to my heart and promptly fell asleep in my father’s arms.
In shamanism, a person’s health and well being are a function of their spiritual power. By this we don’t mean being spiritually “advanced” or enlightened. We mean having a fully empowered soul and a connection to at least one guardian spirit. The guardian spirit often takes the form of a power animal. In most traditional cultures it is assumed that anyone still living and functioning in the world is doing so only because they have had, whether they know it or not, the protection of such a guardian spirit. One of the first healing methods taught in core shamanism is how to retrieve a lost power animal for another person who may be suffering from illness or misfortune. The procedure is fairly simple but in my years of practicing this technique, and now teaching it in workshops, I am often brought to tears by the profound effects it has on people to feel the connection again to an ancient experience of being tended by the unconditional love of this spirit animal.
I kept my teddy bear with me throughout my childhood, and yes, even into my adolescence though by that time it was discreetly tucked away in a closet. And then I went off to college and left “childish” things behind. I don’t know what happened to my trusted bear companion. Most likely my mother finally scooped the threadbare old thing into a trash can. I’m a little sad that I never said a proper goodby. But now that I have shamanic skills I can journey to the spirit of bear and thank him for those years of protection. We were partners, and I see now that he was more “totem” bear than “teddy” bear.
Now I work with a different power animal, one just as loving and compassionate. I tend our relationship with reverence and gratitude. I need her, not only to help me stay safe and well in the world, but to work with me in my healing practice. A new alliance now, appropriate to this stage of life and my current work and responsibilities. But there is still this wonder, and the fragrance of that child’s fierce love, re-experienced in every journey, in every encounter with the helping spirits. It is a precious thing, not to be discarded or grown out of like a child’s forgotten toy; but a vital part of being human and wholehearted and plugged in to spiritual power. And now, thanks to the return of shamanic practices that have been lost for a long time and are now being restored to western cultures, everyone has the opportunity to recover these lost spirit connections.
Narrye Caldwell is on the faculty for the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, teaching the full complement of online and in-person workshops. See her workshop schedule on the Home page of this website.