Since I’m living in black bear country right now, I’d like to explain why the bear is a symbol of the Beloved, or Self, why it is so meaningful to me, and why it sometimes appears in the dreams of seekers.
As large animals that are so human-like at the same time they are so strangely other, bears generate an awareness of, and reverence for, the instinctual life of the body and soul. In a culture such as ours, based as it is on a centuries-old tradition of valuing mind over matter and repressing the instincts, bears remind us that we ourselves are animals, and that, in the soul-stirring words of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
A second theme addresses endings and beginnings and the times of transition between. In their simple willingness to shake off their unconscious sleeps, abandon the dark caves of their births and hibernations, and make their solitary ways into the forest, bears demonstrate that transitions from known to unknown are not to be feared as obstacles or punishments, but embraced as thresholds to enriched living.
Bears also symbolize transformation and rebirth and are associated with all initial stages. Psychologically they represent the time of awakening when one becomes aware of the reality and power of the unconscious self. This is partly because during hibernation they fall into a sleep so deep that they appear to be dead; yet, wonder of wonders, in the spring they emerge from their caves as if they have been resurrected. It was only natural that Bear would become a cherished symbol many years ago when I was savagely awakened from the sleep of conventional thinking by a scatheon (a dream word I interpret as “god wound”) and compelled by forces I could not understand to embark on a painful spiritual quest. Although initially devastating, an encounter with the Self eventually brings far greater rewards than those left behind. Like Bear, I too am now at home in the unknown where I love to roam the wilderness and fish for nourishment in dark waters.
Another of the bear’s themes is introspection. Bear emerged in my life during a phase of massive psychological house-cleaning and remodeling. I was attending weekly classes on Jungian psychology, reading books about the same, studying my dreams, and recording my most meaningful insights in a book about psycho-spiritual development in which, for reasons I did not fully understand, a golden bear became a prominent symbol. Just as Bear spends long periods of time in inward-focused hibernation each year, so was I thoroughly immersed in my inner world.
Some years ago a new theme, return to nature, began to demand my attention. It manifested in ways unusual for me then: a decreased motivation to write, restlessness, attraction to the outdoors, and a particularly alien itch for more physical activity. I recognized another threshold, another opportunity to follow Bear. Once the golden bear called me out of unconsciousness and into awareness of the sacred place within. Now it calls me out of myself. You’ve hibernated long enough, my bears say. Come out here and find us! It’s time to explore your senses and immerse yourself in nature, the final sacred place for pilgrims such as you.