Finding your own personal totem

Story highlights

  • Traditional cultures adopt animal totems to co-opt the virtues and strengths
  • Word totem comes from the Ojibwa (aka Chippewa) word "ototeman" meaning "one's brother-sister kin"

This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one's life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don't miss another Wisdom Project column by subscribing here.

(CNN)Warm yourself around the open fire while I dramatically gesture at the night sky and talk of the benefit of adopting an ancient wisdom technique. It involves identifying what some traditional cultures may call a totem or spirit animal.

Sound too flaky? How about if we call it a personal mascot, instead?
Sports teams began adopting animal mascots in the early 1900s to represent a team's region and imbue it with good luck. The word originates from the French "mascotte," which means a talisman or charm.
    Lions, panthers, broncos, bulldogs, tigers, eagles, wildcats, timberwolves, bears -- each carry their own identity and a somewhat anthropomorphized personality that players can take into the field or court. They invoke virtues such as perseverance, courage and agility. Even all those baseball birds were chosen because they're regionally identifiable, elegant, quick and strong.
    Advertisers like animal mascots too: Tony the Tiger, the Energizer Bunny, Ford Mustang. But have you wondered why?
    "Animal characters transfer meanings on to brands," according to researchers at Boston College and AUT University in Auckland, New Zealand, whose paper in the Journal of Marketing Management investigated the integration of animal symbols in advertising and how they "serve to activate and connect archetypal associations automatically in the consumers' minds."
    The utility of these mascots and spokesanimals is not far from the reason Native Americans and other ancient traditions (Celtic, Norse, Asian, African, Indian, Australian) adopt animal totems. It's about co-opting the virtues and strengths of those archetypes for inspiration and guidance, and reminders to live the lessons they offer in old myths and fables.
    For some of these traditions, there wasn't even a categorical word for "animal." They were simply other people, and not distantly related either. The word totem comes from the Ojibwa (aka Chippewa) word "ototeman" meaning "one's brother-sister kin."
    Totems have a spiritual connection to their tribes, and these animal kin look out for the whole family.
    Totems, are, of course, still part of some Native American tribes' ceremony and belief, and I'm not trying to make light of that by suggesting we adopt a similar idea. But in this world of a la carte spirituality and tradition, you are free to choose your tribe, and its animal. Maybe start with the mascot of your favorite team.
    Think of animals as metaphor: busy as a beaver, crazy like a fox, horsing around, bullish, sheepish. And metaphor, as applied to how we live our life, is wisdom. So by adopting a mascot, you create a symbolic reminder of the virtues and lessons you want to be mindful of and employ for yourself.

    How it could work

    At the beginning of every new year, for the last 10, I've embraced a new mascot. The process is simple. I assess where I am in my life, what challenges I'm facing or anticipate in the coming year and what aspects need more attention than normal. And then I look for a corresponding animal whose symbolic meaning makes for a good metaphoric fit.
    I've adopted a duck to remind myself to let things roll off my back, a squirrel when I needed to make more plans for the future, an otter as a cue to be more playful with my young daughters, a swan to float above professional distractions, a salmon to encourage flow during an upstream struggle, a falcon for focus and bold vision, and a rabbit when my wife and I were trying to get pregnant.
    It's easy to find animals' symbolic meanings. You can Google "wolf symbolism" and get dozens of links about what wolves represent in certain traditions, in dream symbolism and folklore. There are also a number of books with encyclopedic listings of animals and their meaning you can reference, such as Steven Farmer's "Pocket Guide to Spirit Animals" and "Animal-Speak" by Ted Andrews.
    As I consider a new mascot I tend to read a number of sources and look for the common themes, metaphors and traditions. Some virtues even come out in the animal's biology or behavior. Sharks are immune to most diseases. Bald eagles mate for life. Salmon swim with a reverse undercurrent. Dolphins and otters are among the few animals that play for the fun of it.
    Chosen with some thought, these animals naturally resurface throughout the year with personal relevance. This experiment is simply a tool for becoming more mindful about what you already feel you should be more mindful of.
    There's a less self-serving benefit to making a connection to other animals, as well, which is an increased awareness that we are not the only beings on the planet. You may start to simply notice more animals around you and how we share spaces we often think of us as ours alone. It's another much-needed lesson the traditional cultures pass on to an increasingly digital, modern and disconnected world.

    A mascot starter kit

    Maybe you already have an animal or two in mind. Or maybe you need a little nudge out of the nest. Here are some common animals and their symbolic virtues to get you brainstorming.
    Bear: strength, confidence, healing
    Bees: success, fertility, happiness
    Dolphin: harmony, protection, joy
    Eagle: freedom, success, vision
    Fish: productive, moving easily, being in one's element
    Subscribe to this column

    Don't miss another Wisdom Project column by subscribing here.

    Fox: discernment, agility, intelligence
    Hawk: focus, vision, perspective
    Horse: success, freedom, courage, strength
    Otter: playful, helpful, curious, nurturing
    Owl: intuition, wisdom
    Rabbit: luck, fertility, creativity
    Wolf: intelligence, instinctual, social