The Bear Vision

I entered the den because I wanted to see, and what I saw there—emerging forth from the face of an old grizzly bear—thrust itself upon me. My eyes were opened. Within the grey dim of that granite womb came an evanescent truth that resonated from beyond the den walls and from somewhere behind the bear’s eyes. For a moment, the world made sense. The bear made sense. And meaningfulness filled this otherwise cold, confined space and expanded beyond it to the furthest edges of the forest and to the highest peaks.

            When I first approached the elder sow, she was resting on her left flank on a bed of pine boughs, struggling to keep her massive head up to fixate on me cautiously moving towards her. She was groaning and clacking her jaws, stressed about my being there, yet too weak for a more aggressive reaction. I realized immediately that the old bear was dying. Her breathing was quick and labored; her shoulders quivered from a life’s strain of wandering and rearing cubs; and her eyes were gentle, tired of seeing. Fierceness had vanished days ago. Fragile and emaciated, she was a remnant of her youthful self. But she was not quite ready to die.

Though it did not occur to me then, I would later be haunted by the thought that this once powerful being, all along, had been waiting for my arrival, waiting to take me into a realm of distant meaning, into a gothic world where lamentations of our ancient ones are sung. It was a dramatic, lucid happening—an uncanny incident of life and death—for she was staring right at me; and I her. There we faced each other, straddling the ridgeline of two worlds, sheltered by the warmth of her den while early winter held sway over the mountain. At that moment we belonged to each other in shared gaze until she closed her eyes and strained to open them up again, one last time, to offer a way for me to see. And I was ready to see.

In that primal space, I saw the real face of our times, glaring with ineffable authority. Behind her were countless faces of the forgotten others, of all those with no say in how they have lived or died. I had awakened to a dream, and the dream was theirs. No longer could I turn away. No longer could I ignore the faces. The dream now owned me.

            That was seven years ago. Since that day on the mountain, I have been consumed by an unfathomable urge to bring adequate expression to what I saw. My life thereafter would never be the same. This became increasingly clear once I left that dark void of wilderness and returned to the comfortable light of my everyday. With each setting sun, what I saw began to nag at me and crept into my sleep. It did not wane but eventually rose with such force that it could no longer be contained. I had to exhale. I had to breathe what I saw out into the world. And I soon realized that my return from that den was not so much a going back, for I could not go back, but a going forth to share what I saw with others so they too might see the faces and hear their laments and take it upon themselves to breathe a world of meaning back into that old sow’s life and into this wondrous, blessed, fierce land she called home.

Though I have had countless encounters with bears since that day on the mountain, especially during my tenure as a bear management specialist in Wyoming, the face of that old sow and of the forgotten multitude of faces blazoned upon those pre-Cambrian walls, still peer at me from that dim space.

I had initially assumed that what I saw was intended solely for me, an intimate moment between man and bear. But I would later think otherwise, for there was something strangely familiar about it. What she revived in me, I am convinced, resonates with the mystical realm deep within all of us. One need only walk the path of our distant ancestors to see her real power.

Decades if not centuries ago, we turned away from this power. In that turning away, we have forgotten that the bear’s real strength comes not from her genetic gifts, but from her intimate relation to an ecstatic realm. And yet, because of our conscious and unconscious efforts to reduce her to an “it”, the bear is now changing before our eyes, although more subtly than dramatically. We no longer grasp her affiliation with the deeper mysteries of existence and we have forgotten how to genuinely benefit from her presence on the landscape. We instead see her as an object to be studied or a commodity to be exploited for economic advantage or self-aggrandized agendas. On the one hand, she has become a threat to be subdued and, on the other, an entity for our amusement. And because of this, what is really at stake is not the bear per se, but what makes the bear worth saving.  

What makes her worth saving is her power to invoke the creative energy we need during this arresting period of environmental uncertainty. This is not a newly discovered power; it is a forgotten power waiting to be rediscovered. And though the extirpation of bears remains possible in the immediate future in some cases and the distant future in other cases, it is only possible because it is symptomatic of a more fundamental crisis of declining meaning brought on by our turning away from creation to focus only on ourselves and our own salvation. While salvation may lie within, as the Exodus authors tell us, we now know that what happens to the outer world happens to the inner world. Our spiritual nourishment comes from the world around us. It comes to us from the songs of coyotes and tree frogs, from thunder and wind and the scent of pine and wildflowers, from the transitional moments of dusk and dawn, and the sight of stars and clouds. All of this—taken together—nourishes us, defines us, and teaches us how to be human.

The bear has the ability to nourish us as well. She possesses a power that invokes a special interior depth of awareness and has so since humans first encountered her. Just as the old griz made her home in that den seven years ago, her power to awaken the psyche to a sense of ultimate mystery found a home in our bones tens of thousands of years ago. There it settled and went to sleep, waiting to rise up and penetrate our souls again.

If we are open to seeing anew, her revelatory power may still be revived. Such power is not to be taken lightly. It can invoke visions that enrich the spiritual life of the individual and guide us along the way to becoming a more viable species. She possesses within herself a teaching power, something more comprehensive than what an indicator or charismatic species might teach us about ecosystem health. For it brings about visions that force us to take a moral inventory of ourselves at not just the cultural level, but at the species level; and, in so doing, it prepares a way for us to re-inhabit the earth within the context of an ecological imperative that can help save us from ourselves.  Again, this power she possesses is nothing new—bears have been invoking visions for tens of thousands of years, and these visions offer us guidance for how we ought to live.

As for the vision itself, we never know just how much it will shape us until after we have endured it and allowed it to settle into the innermost fiber of our being. Aldo Leopold did not expect a dying wolf or a bear-less mountain to inspire his host of essays that eventually changed the face of conservation in America. Nor could Thomas Berry have predicted that his boyhood exploration of a flowering meadow would inform his dream of the earth. Though we tend to attribute great thoughts to the thinkers conveying them, Leopold and Berry did not conjure their thoughts from ideas buzzing about in their heads. Let us be clear about that. Their insights were seeded by the winds of quiet conversations with the wolf, the mountain and the meadow. During these encounters, the wolf, mountain and meadow spoke first. And Leopold and Berry listened. In other words, it was the wolf and mountain that really changed the face of conservation and the flowering meadow that narrated the dream of the earth. The same is true for the old bear, I think. Her real power manifests itself in our imagination, and the vision I received was hers, not mine.

As with any gift of such magnitude, we give thanks—we cherish and appreciate its depth; we commemorate and celebrate its potency—by sharing it with others. Of course, my ability to articulate this vision is limited simply because language itself is limited. Words refer to what we know. And since we can only speak about what we do not know by drawing upon what we do know, we should not be surprised to find ourselves at a loss for words or, for that matter, compelled to use too many words. That being said, although I have found what I consider to be fitting expressions, it is still dangerous to speak directly about visions received. If we are not careful, we can diminish even distort the real power of the vision and the message it originally conveyed.

Often, careless and insufficient preparation results in an articulation that comes across as “fluff”, as a matter of opinion without substance. Dreams haphazardly conveyed contribute little more than beautiful ideas of entertainment value. While well-intended and attractive, these ideas get preyed upon and then thrown away by a consumerist culture addicted to chasing one beautiful thought after another. We seem to prefer to bask in the sun of a wonderful idea—as a distraction from the desacralized reality we are creating—without feeling compelled to take any real action, without allowing ourselves to be transformed by it.

Once trivialized, the vision is stripped of its uncanny characteristics and then becomes a seemingly positive, fleeting escape from the harsh business of everyday life. No longer does it assault the conscience. Consequently, the vision’s power to transform is lessened because the interpretation fails to emphasize those piercing truths that call for self-limitation and necessary change. And even if we do heed the bear’s call, we find ourselves overwhelmed by a heap of resistance. That alone is enough to turn us away from the bear’s revelatory power. Some of this resistance comes from societal pressures, but most of it comes from within. Meanwhile, the heart of the vision remains dormant and the old bear becomes another forgotten face of our past, shouting to us from beneath tree roots and creek rocks only to be ignored.

I, for one, refuse to let that happen. The old bear had a voice—she still has a voice—and, before my time is done, that voice must be heard. To be clear, I do not proclaim to be a shaman or a person of extraordinary insight. Nor do I assume to have the full breath of what the bear revealed to me that day on the mountain. Anytime we claim to have grasped the entirety of a vision, chances are it is not the vision we have grasped but something we have projected upon it about ourselves. In turn, the revelation becomes less the bear’s and more our own.

At the same time, we might assume we can bring clarity to a revelation if we offer it up to the detailed explanations of psychoanalysis. But this only separates the vision from our immersion in the experience and, in turn, analytically isolates the vision from the mysterious depths from which clarity blossoms forth. Surely, when I stood in that den, there was clarity to be found in the face of the bear. But there was also ambiguity, mystery, refusal. Her revelatory power rested not so much in what she offered for analysis or reasoning, but in what she refused to offer and, in that refusal, brought a world of mystique and force to life in my mind.   

This is why, I think, we must admit the mystery of things. Once we realize that we never encounter the entirety of anything; once we confront the reality that every revealing is, at the same time, a concealing; once we become aware that everything that shows itself also hides itself, we begin to see the bear as one who lives in between the real and surreal, the rational and irrational, being and non-being, life and death. She then appears before us with wisdom teachings that inspire a kind of wonder and dread that demands newfound respect. For she wanders where, for far too long, we have dared not go. That alone can humble us enough to allow her to have a voice again.

And when that is allowed to happen, when she has a voice again, we should not be too quick to claim authority about what she reveals. We are better off speaking of such revelations indirectly and respectfully, with a special interior depth of awareness, as the ancients once did. This is not intellectual laziness, but acknowledgement of very real limitations and, hence, a gesture of openness and humility. After all, when dealing with the bear’s power to invoke human imagination, there are, plainly and absolutely, no experts. Even shamans and mystics, while specialists, never avow expertise. To be an expert, one must stake claim on the source from which visions come, and that source, ultimate mystery, refuses to be claimed. We cannot take hold of mystery; it always takes hold of us. Our world of meaning is bound by endless horizons. These horizons retreat at the same pace as our rational and empirical attempts to approach them and, hence, remain out of reach. Still there are times when, through the eyes of another, horizons open up and a voice rings out from the depths and a vision flares forth to overwhelm.

This is why we do not come to visions; visions come to us. Revelations come to us from the world around us and take hold of our thoughts. Whether through the wolf or meadow, the starry heavens or the eyes of a dying bear, the world speaks to us. The world is always speaking to us. Our challenge is to be open to this grand liturgy. For nowhere is there better guidance for how we ought to live than from the very world that nourishes and takes hold of us. After all, the earth community is and always has been our primary teacher and sacred reality.

For the past 40,000 years, whether realized or not, the bear has been one of our most challenging teachers and sages. And once I entered her den and she began to visit me in my dreams, I unexpectedly became her student and novice. There I received lessons that have taken years of discernment and countless nights of frustration to apprehend and express in a relatively coherent and honoring way. I became a dream-seeker. 

I had hoped that what I learned could be conveyed poetically as a quick read. But the profundity of that moment and the dreams that followed did not allow for articulations to flow out of me without, at the same time, trivializing the vision. This is to be expected. The monastic life reminds us about the arduous path from seeing to sharing. For the most thought-provoking revelations—the visions most worthy of our time—are by their very nature the hardest to express. To express them, one must first apprehend them. And to apprehend them, as Nouwen once wrote, we must become from within them. That often requires years of preparation. Visions bide their own time and come forth in grandeur on their own.   

This never leads us towards isolation. Rather it leads us farther and deeper into communion with songbirds and a sea of wild grasses, with the moon’s reflection on ocean waves, with the endless forests and the starry heavens, and, of course, with the bear and her mountain. The destination is complete saturation. Complete saturation—that is what we ultimately seek. We seek to immerse ourselves in everything and to become through everything. It is the path of the soul and it begins with a kind of awe that can slay the ego. Surpassing ego-centeredness can be grueling—for we must endure trials, undergo loss, exclusion and the death of old identities, and cross thresholds along the way—but we are never alone.

Along the way there are countless faces standing before us who have something to teach us about who we are and ought to be. And the bear is not the only one. These faces have always been there, waiting to guide us, whether or not we embrace them. To apprehend their presence in full light, we must shed our empirical tendencies and learn to see with softer eyes. This allows us to embrace them in all their splendor and revelatory power. Once we have embraced their power, we allow them to become a primary source of guidance. We then find ourselves treading down an ancient path. This is an uncanny place to be, for we are reviving something asleep within and, in a way, returning home.

This home we seek is not elsewhere. It has never been elsewhere. It is here and now: here, on the soil upon which we stand; now, at this moment in the earth’s story. Here and now, among the countless faces of other beings surrounding us, past and present, stands the bear, emerging before us from some dark crevice within the mind, surfacing from the frozen waters of the unconscious to rest upon the last float of melting sea ice, wielding powers that imagination cannot tame, calling upon us to follow her as she lumbers down a path or swims towards solid ground. And whether we walk or swim, we must follow her, for she will lead us to the center of the world. This center is enveloped by unreachable horizons, roofed by the divine heights and founded upon an ancestral ground. It is the center of meaning—the sacred home—that human souls long to reach. And the bear knows the way. But then, she has always known the way.