The Art of Shapeshifting

By Steven D. Farmer, Ph.D.

“I feel the wind flowing around my wing feathers as I float in the air suspended by the invisible breeze. I look down and see the forest below me, then briefly toward the horizon. I flap my wings a few times, moving into the flow of air and soar even higher! My human body is somewhere, but I pay it no mind right now. My consciousness is here, now, in this other physical being. I am Hawk!”

We hear folk tales and fairy tales that describe how men and women transform into animals or vice-versa. The Frog Prince comes to mind, as does the Irish tale of the Selkie (as in the movie, The Secret of Roan Inish) where a seal comes to the land and shape-shifts into a woman. A young man falls in love with her, hides the sealskin so she won’t be able to return to the sea, and they marry. Yet she pines to return to the sea and eventually finds the hidden skin, puts it around her like a cloak and immediately shape-shifts back to being a seal. Other tales abound of humans who become wolves or other animals, such as werewolves or weretigers—a recent comical version being the Nick Parks movie, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Children playing will spontaneously growl like a bear, spread their arms as if in flight, or crawl along on the ground lizard-like. As adults we often smile and take delight in observing children in these games, and if we tap into our own inner child we may even join them. We’ll tend to write off this kind of play as childhood imagination. In doing so, however, we denigrate the incredible power of imagination and how it can open up realms that are beyond the usual senses. Consider imagination as extending beyond our immediate physical self and consciousness into the energy field of the world around us and different dimensions and possibilities become available, ones in which we can extend our “self” into.

There are many stories of shamans who have mastered this ability to shift their form and consciousness into animal-beings because they have not limited their imaginative capacity to the degree that those of us in modern civilization have been conditioned. Indigenous peoples not only lived in the natural world but were of it and intimately connected to the earth-beings both physically and spiritually.

Shamans had a particular gift of being able to transit across the usual boundaries of the self by sending their soul (or consciousness) via the shamanic journey into non-ordinary reality. There they would contact various spirit guides, including spirit animals, that assisted them with sustaining their tribe or community by helping them with healing, finding food sources, weather magic, and various other kinds of guidance.

Shamans had a specialized relationship with an animal spirit guide that was their power animal (they often had more than one) that served to guide and protect them in both ordinary and especially non-ordinary reality. They were known to shift their consciousness into the body and being of that animal, sometimes actually becoming the animal while still retaining their primary human consciousness. They would also commonly allow their power animal to cohabit their human form so their power animal could experience what it was like to be human for a while. This mutual arrangement was a way of honoring their power animal and deepening that relationship. The art of shapeshifting was a fact, not merely a theory or fantasy.

With the increasing interest and practice of shamanism in the past few years, more people are learning how to journey and are discovering their power animals. Yet you don’t have to be an expert at shamanic practices to get a sense of what shapeshifing is all about. You just have to be willing to open your mind, heart, and allow your imagination to lead the way.

One simple exercise to try is to call on any animal spirit guide with whom you have an affinity (doesn’t have to be a power animal), sit or lie down, close your eyes, take a couple of deep breaths, and invite this animal spirit to come into your body and consciousness. Notice how you feel. Can you feel the fur, feathers, or skin of the animal? Can you see with their eyes? Hear with their eyes? Any emotions come up? Just simply observe all of this for just a few minutes, then thank the spirit animal and release them.

The power of imagination is limitless and is what will help us remember our forgotten intimacy with all of life here on earth. Shapeshifting to any degree is one way to help us rediscover that memory at a very profound level.

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