That little rock in your pocket may be the key to unlocking your hidden potential.
It’s easy to think of totems as tall poles carved with the faces of animals by the nations that came before. They’re actually much simpler than that. You yourself likely use totems, maybe even on a daily basis. Pet rocks, tattoos, even songs on the jukebox—these everyday items can be used to unlock a person’s inner strength.
Please bear in mind, I am not talking about magical or superhuman powers. What I write of is entirely within the natural realm. If someone believes their necklace can give them the power to leap tall buildings in a single bound, either they know something I don’t, or there’s not enough therapy in the world that can help them.
A totem, in essence, is any being, object or symbol that represents a personal memory or experience, in such a way that when the totem comes into the person’s life, it triggers the memory or experience which it represents.
Totems are like self-authored post-it notes containing a lot of information that cannot be expressed in words. They are entirely personal: what’s a totem to me might just be a rock or a song to someone else. Even things that have a universal meaning might not have the same effect on two different people; but we’ll get more into that later.
For now, let’s look at different types of totems.
I was on one one of those yoga retreats you never have enough money for, “observing silence” for the weekend in the hills of Southern Kentucky. At the moment, I occupied a chair on the patio—the hot tub had gone unused for so long that wasps had decided to make it their home.
To be fair, I had been enjoying my meditation. Though I was born a country boy, I’d lived for so long in the city that I’d almost forgotten what tree bark smelled like.
A butterfly landed on my foot, interrupting my contemplation. Her little legs tickled me as she walked along the side of my foot, and she flicked her wings teasingly up at me.
“Well hello, Little One,” I projected in my thoughts, smiling inwardly at the memory of a girl who always reminded me of a butterfly, a girl with whom I spent a happy chapter of my life near the bank of a creek…
She seemed quite content to meditate with me, for long enough that I had lost track of time. Finally—as humans do—I shifted just slightly, which sent her fleeing—as butterflies do—towards the bushes. I took my best okay-I-won’t-move-ever-again-if-you-come-back posture, but she seemed content to watch me from over by the hot tub. I couldn’t help the feeling that she was sizing me up.
Suddenly, she began to fly in circles, first towards me, even going so far as to get up in my face, before darting away, always in the same direction. There were a set of stairs that went up around the house we were staying in, a set of stairs which led to rooms I had not yet explored. When I stood up and walked after the little mystery, she danced up the stairs and around the corner.
“All right, Little One,” I thought to myself, “let’s see what you want to show me.”
Virtually all Americans are convinced that they know their totemic animal (usually not at all what their totem animal really is). The truth is that we do not get to define our totem animal. Rather, we assign totem animals for the people in our lives. In the example above, the appearance of butterflies will always remind me of a particular young woman who was in my life.
For an animal to be totemic, it has to remind the subject of another person or group of people every time they see it. Totemic animals do not have to share traits with the person or people they represent, either. A child might believe her grandmother’s spirit joined the deer she saw at the forest edge on the days before she died, and from then on associate deer with her grandmother for no other reason than coincidence.
The most common use of animal totems is going to be by sports teams. No one is picking the sloth as their team mascot, because the sloth is not a being whose traits humans wish to emulate. I, however, find this to be the weakest use of totemic animals.
Perhaps that’s because of the city I come from—I, for one, do not find there to be any particularly appealing traits in bearcats.
The last time I heard “I Will Wait” by Mumford and Sons, I laughed quite inappropriately in the middle of a conversation. When asked to explain myself, this was my reply:
T’was the dead of winter, and I was watching my former teacher’s house, taking care of the animals during those times her teaching trips kept her out for weeks or weekends at a time.
A little black cat had begun visiting for breakfast and dinner right around the times for the dog’s walks. Being little more than a kitten, she couldn’t fight off the larger strays, so when feeding her, one had to actively watch over her, or she’d flee to the trees to avoid confrontation from hungry neighbors smelling an easy meal.
After she ate, I’d usually let her curl up in my lap for a few minutes’ nap despite absolutely despising the cold.
We became good friends.
After about a week, the kitten didn’t go back to the treeline when I returned to my car as usual. I was on the phone with a friend and leaning against my car with the door open when Kitten just jumped right in, sitting down in the passenger seat and looking back at me as if to say, “Well? Where are we going?”
After a long moral debate (which my friend on the phone participated in), I resolved to take the kitten in. I packed up some extra food and figured I would sort the rest of the details out later.
We had hardly begun moving when the kitten decided—as all cats do—that she did not enjoy being a passenger in a moving vehicle. Without a carrier, she climbed and crawled from seat to seat, looking out every window, and tried to piece together just what the hell was going on. Her timid, questioning meows grew louder as I attempted to comfort her and keep my eyes on the road at the same time.
Mumford and Sons’ “I Will Wait” comes on the radio.
Next thing I know, Kitten is on my lap, her paw has somehow found the button which starts lowering the window right next to us, her meows have turned to howling, a police cruiser is zooming along in pursuit of something a block or so over with its siren blaring bloody murder, Marcus Mumford and—I swear to you—God’s own choir of banjo-toting hillfolk angels vamps into the second chorus (the sung one), and here I am mentally screaming through gritted teeth and white knuckles, “I swear by God, my ancestors’ graves and all that is and has ever been holy, I will save you, small creature!!“
Almost everyone who dated in high school had “their song.” It was usually in the Top 40, outdated in about a month and the most overplayed song on the radio the week they began dating. Of course, it wasn’t actually written by either of the couple, nor could either sing it if they wanted to (though one of them—and you always knew which—sang it in the shower every morning).
Don’t lie. You had one, too.
Songs tie very powerfully back to memory. These ties don’t have to be romantic. Back before I was young, I’m told, it was a common practice for couples or friends to make these things called “mix-tapes” and exchange them with one another. Songs heard during particularly dramatic moments will conjure up memories and the emotions of that time.
In storytelling, a character might have a theme, so any time a melody is heard, we know it’s the same character, even if they’re in disguise. That same melody turned into a minor key might convey—without a single word—a feeling of that character’s despair or poor fortune.
Remember the last scene of Top Gun, when Maverick’s in that bar and he hears from the next room over, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, which conjures up the first memory he had of Callsign: Charlie?
Talk about an entrance. Musical totem.
“It looks kind of like leaves. Or a flower. But it kind of just looks like squiggles.”
The drawing my friend was so curiously observing was merely a torn piece of paper I’d tacked onto the wall, between the Chinese cookie fortune reading, “Discontent is the first step towards progress in a man or a nation,” and a card with an encouraging message from Neil Gaiman. They all went into the box labeled, “Personal—Do Not Throw Away.”
It was the draft of my French ex-girlfriend’s ankle tattoo, which she had designed herself.
“So,why do you have it?” my friend wondered.
How could I explain? In the time we dated, we might have argued like no other, but we also learned so much from one another. For every time I called her naive, she called me out on my closed-mindedness—pointing out why we Americans didn’t fight for what we believed in, or why we appeared to have significant troubles interacting with the homeless on the streets…but that tattoo went past all of that.
The last time we saw one another—on her back patio, she smoking her iconic self-rolled cigarettes—we weren’t dating anymore. The breakup had left us both bitter, especially when it came to each other. I had childishly ignored her phone calls and any face-to-face meeting for three weeks. But then I faced the possibility that I’d never see this woman again, something didn’t sit right with me. It had been her packing her bags, then, and me holding the drawing. I had asked if I could keep it.
“It reminds me of a promise I made to her,” I said, returning to the present. “One I still have trouble keeping from time to time.”
“Then why do you keep it?” asked my friend.
“Because without seeing it every morning, I wouldn’t have a reason to try.”
What do the Apple logo, the Skull and Crossbones, and the Christian cross have in common?
Oh, quit being cynical—they’re all symbols, which is to graphic totems what songs are to musical totems. Observed objectively, symbols are mostly used for identification: this is an Apple product, this is a pirate ship (and we’re comin’ fer yer booty!), this is a Christian church, and so on. When empowered by a person’s individual emotions and memories, however, they can contain within them just the same kind of power as any of the other totems previously or soon to be discussed.
Here’s where we get into the difference between a sign, a symbol and a graphic totem. Let’s use the example of the cross. When a person sees a cross on a map, without any words attached to it, they can surmise that a Christian church would be found at that location—that’s a sign. When that person approaches that church and sees that exact same cross on the door, it has an acknowledged universal meaning—that’s a symbol. When that person is confronted by a beggar just outside and sees over that beggar’s shoulder that same cross on the door, prompting them to ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?”—that cross is a graphic totem, because non-Christians, or even other Christians, could see that cross and not be influenced by it. The relationship has become personal.
Graphic totems can be (and often are) made into jewelry. When this occurs, they become talismans (see below).
It had been a rough night. As a young writer, any night where you receive criticism is a rough night. Feeling hurt, sulky, alone and like the shittiest writer on the internet, I took to one of my vices—the comments section of friends’ posts on Facebook.
My hunt did not last long: a politically incendiary status update was sighted on a friend’s wall virtually unmolested. It was an angry post. While I grow more articulate when I get angry, this person, like most people, grew more clumsy. All it would take would be the right arrangement of words to rip apart their argument, to reduce their beliefs to shreds, for every one of our mutual acquaintances to see. I smiled at the good I would be introducing into the world by showing the internet how stupid this stupid person really was.
I had four lovely paragraphs written; every point I made was checked, rechecked, and triple checked, polished to flawlessness. My argument was a Grecian statue to their child-in-tantrum scribbles.
For whatever reason, my eyes darted down to the next line, which was a post by someone I don’t think I’d ever even met. The status was a mere four words—gibberish to most of the internet. But I knew what they meant.
“Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu.” May all beings be happy and free, and may my thoughts and actions contribute to that happiness and freedom for all.
I stared at the screen for a long time. Surely, by destroying vile arguments such as the backwards and archaic one proposed by this former comrade, I would be bringing happiness and freedom to all of the intelligent people of the world. Right?
Highlighting the entire reply, I read my argument again. It was more than right. It was more than perfect: it was beautiful.
I gently pressed delete, then closed my laptop.
Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu.
Similar to music totems, totemic verses compact knowledge into smaller thoughts which can include an auditory component. Mantra is a common form of totemic verse—chanting mantra over and over again is said to have power over speakers and listeners. Reciting a prayer or pledge every morning is another form of totemic verse. Used improperly, totemic verses can lead to indoctrination, but what constitutes proper and improper use of totemic verse is a moral argument and not the subject of this article.
Repetition and origin separate totemic verses from musical totems. Totemic verses are usually small enough to be repeated and practiced, and most often are spoken and recited by the person who is in relation to the totem, whereas musical totems are generated by forces outside the person (the radio, the PA, the band on stage, etc.).
Totemic verse doesn’t need to be in Sanskrit, either. The Lord’s Prayer is a common totemic verse amongst Christians, though a better example for Americans may be the Pledge of Allegiance. Just as I believe most of us remember reciting it every day in school, I’m sure most of us have heard the stories of the kid who refused to stand, or speak, the Pledge because of a personal conviction. That conviction is the mark of a totemic verse.
For three days, I had not left my apartment, so trapped was I in a binge of gaming. I called it a really nice treat—having just finished an intense collaborative project, I was “taking some time for myself.” It was only as I drew near to the end of that time that I realized that I was not at all happy, and I was starting to go a little crazy—I was talking to myself, ignoring phone calls and generally being reclusive and trollish.
At some point, I decided to do some yoga—an old habit that I came back to from time to time. While I was in a headstand, I felt a strange but profound absence. Normally, I wear a necklace, which drapes down over my chin and rests on my lips during inversions. For the project, I had removed the necklace, and had forgotten to return it to its rightful place when finished.
Digging through the mess in my room, I found where I had put the necklace and quickly clipped it around my neck. The chain holds three items: a prayer circle to the goddess Saraswati, a tiny pair of handcuffs, and a key with the word “Master” etched across it.
I touched the handcuffs and the key, almost instantly recalling a story my teacher had told me about a bird kept in a silver cage who refused to sing. When its master begged and pled, it refused still to sing. When the master finally asked what it would like that would make it sing, the bird looked around at all the master’s fine jewelry and goods and said, “Well, a golden cage might be nice.”
After laughing at the absurdity of the situation, I opened the door and went for a walk.
Talismans are small objects that can be kept on a person. They are commonly worn around the neck, but they can also be found in pockets and purses, on desktops and many more individual places. Wedding bands are common talismans; they embody the commitment each partner has made to one another, but physically supply no power to stop infidelity or betrayal.
Here again we have to differentiate between symbols and talismans. A crown, for instance, symbolizes leadership and divinity, as wedding bands symbolize the relationship and commitment one has entered into. At the end of the day, objectively, they’re both just golden circlets. However, when a person invests a part of themselves into an object, that part can return in times of crisis. While it seems like a fable-magic phenomenon, these little post-it reminders can have tremendous effect—if a person invests that kind power into the item. A crown can remind a prince at the right moment that they have a duty to the people; looking at or touching a wedding band can remind someone of that commitment and that their decisions effect another person’s life.
It is a common practice to keep the collar of a beloved pet after their passing. Sometimes, individuals may wear it as a bracelet; other times it simply gets shoved into a desk drawer. Either way, it was once functional as one item, and now it functions as another. A talisman often serves a different function than the one it was designed for.
This is great and all, but how does someone actually use these totems?
One of the most recognizable recurring effects we know of is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Much in the same way as totems, the sound of a helicopter conveys no meaning greater than the proximity of a helicopter for most of us—however, there is a small percentage of people for whom that sound can send into a vibrant flashback. If we could tie positive experiences and memories back to objects and sounds much in the same way as PTSD, would that not be a beneficial aid?
The next time you swear an oath or make a promise, tie it to a physical object that has been introduced into your life—a gemstone, a necklace, even a key or a seashell. Place that item someplace that you can forget about it, but it will always be within your proximity—if it’s truly small enough, keep it with your change. Particularly with physical objects, it’s great to hide them places where you cannot see, but will reach, like purses or pockets. If there’s a graphic totem in your life, perhaps you can hang it on a wall next to a door or keep it on your desk.
Take a moment every day to remind yourself what the totem has come to mean to you. This does not have to be a lengthy or ritualistic practice; the act of very simply touching or looking at the object and reliving the memory or renewing the process will begin to create a physical pattern. If you have a musical totem, maybe one you’re not even aware of, and you hear it on the radio or in a bar, perhaps you might take a moment to send a text out to whomever is tied to the totem.
Ultimately, a totem cannot and will not ever control a person. They can only provide influence. How much influence a totem has is decided by the person.
Finally, there will always come a day for the totem to be destroyed.
“One day, I know, I must smash the emerald.”
~Dream of the Endless, The Sandman, Vol. 10 “The Wake”
Totems are not meant to be permanent. A seashell containing the promise from a person to return to the coast might be returned to the ocean with the fulfillment of that promise. A mala bead necklace might be gifted to a student or a friend when a mantra has been internalized to a point that the totem is no longer necessary. Even tattooed graphic totems will eventually wear or need touch-ups, and it’s not out of the question that they might be changed or become something new.
A simple bath in warm salt water can be enough to cleanse an object of its purpose, allowing it to become either a new totem or to end its purpose as a totem to its bearer. The release of totems can be cathartic experiences, and one of the greater joys in life. They’re some of the moments that we write movies about.
What we cannot do is use totems as crutches. They’re meant to serve as guides, not to hold us up, but to point us in a direction. If a prince might remember his duty, and a wayward spouse might go back to their home, is it so great a stretch to think that hearing a song in a bar might be able to suggest that you contact someone you haven’t spoken to in far too long, or that maybe a choice someone’s about to make isn’t in line with the teaching they earlier received? Is it so hard to believe that following a butterfly could lead someone on an unforgettable adventure?
We have the power. Where we invest it is a matter of choice.
Kevin Macku is a fledgling yogi in the body of a 20-something who has held a number of scandalous love affairs with words. His bachelor’s degree is in dramatic performance, and he has appeared in local stage and film productions in the past few years. Since graduation, he has found himself in the middle of a spiritual revolution, and has set about recording what he can for posterity. Like his writing? Follow him on Facebook and Twitter!
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta
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