Following Our Symbols: Healing Our Souls


My photo of a black bear raiding a bird feeder in Highlands, NC.
A black bear raiding a bird feeder in Highlands, NC.

There is a thinking in primordial images, in symbols which are older than the historical man…[that] still makes up the groundwork of the human psyche. It is only possible to live the fullest life when we are in harmony with these symbols; wisdom is a return to them.”~C.G. Jung

Last weekend, Elaine Mansfield and I presented a Friday night lecture and Saturday workshop to the C.G. Jung Society of Sarasota about the lessons to be learned from loss and grief.  A major theme was how our culture’s one-sided emphasis on the brain’s left-hemisphere logos thinking has severely crippled the fullest development of our souls. Like Carl Jung, we believe that ignorance of right-hemisphere mythos, a way of thinking which employs imagination and symbol, undermines our hope of finding healing and meaning in our suffering.

Through sharing, writing, examples, and interactive experiences, we demonstrated how to use mythos to find meaning in the symbols from our dreams and myths. Dreams are personal myths. They come to bring healing and wholeness. Cultural myths do the same thing. If we know their language, both can guide us on our soul’s journey through and after life. As Jung noted, using this language to develop a harmonious relationship with our symbols is the first step toward wisdom.

“First we must learn to think mythologically. Powerful things happen when we touch the thinking which myths, fairy tales, and our own dreams bring to us.” ~Robert Johnson

I began studying mythos in my late forties. Every night I recorded my dreams. When I had time for reflection I consulted good symbol books for possible meanings. Occasionally I used active imagination with compelling symbols. Among these were bears. Today Bear is one of my most valued healers and guides.

Bears, 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, are associated with endings and new beginnings. They demonstrate that transitions from known to unknown are not to be feared as obstacles or punishments, but embraced as thresholds to enriched living. This lesson from my dream bears brings me peace and trust during times of change.

During hibernation bears fall into a sleep so deep that they appear to be dead; yet, wonder of wonders, they emerge from their caves in spring as if they have been resurrected, often with a new cub or two. In terms of our soul’s journey, this pertains to experiences of transformation and rebirth  that awaken us to new insights about the unconscious world beneath our ordinary awareness.

A golden bear in my collection of bear symbols.
A golden bear in my collection of bear symbols.

It was only natural that Bear would become a cherished symbol when I was compelled by unconscious forces to embark on a painful spiritual quest. Although initially devastating, my encounter with the Self within eventually brought far greater rewards than the familiar comforts I 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, deep waters.

Many Native Americans associate bears with spiritual introspection. So do I. Bear emerged during a phase of massive psycho-spiritual house-cleaning and remodeling. I was attending weekly classes on Jungian psychology, studying books, recording my dreams, and writing down meaningful insights in my first book about psycho-spiritual development. For reasons I did not fully understand, a golden bear became a prominent symbol in that book. 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 an alien itch for more physical activity. I recognized another threshold, another opportunity to follow Bear.

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, Bear reminds 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.”

Fred and me before a circus-themed costume party.
A scary bear and an affectionate bear tamer before a circus-themed costume party.

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 your body and nature, the final sacred place for pilgrims such as you.

What symbols have appeared in your dreams?  How have they brought healing meaning to your life’s journey?

Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc. Ebook versions of The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at KoboBarnes And Noble, and Smashwords.

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0 Responses

    1. Thank you, Enid. Yes, I’m happy to recommend my favorites. My basics are The Herder Symbol Dictionary from Chiron Publications and A Dictionary of Symbols by J.E. Cirlot. Recently my daughter gave me a wonderful new one—The Book of Symbols, by Taschen, which is now also one of my favorites. Finally, a wonderful one with an emphasis on Jungian psychology is Tom Chetwynd’s Dictionary of Symbols. I have many others, all of which have made enormous contributions to my personal “imaginarium.” Wishing you a fun and insightful adventure tracking your own symbols.

      1. Jeanie, Thank you dear for the wonderful book recommendations. I do so appreciate your wonderful, illuminating posts. And the symbol of the bear hibernating…whoa! That will stay with me for quite a while!

  1. Thank you for this wonderful message. Not long ago a bear was “assigned” to me as my power animal…a “mother bear”. Thank you again for such a insightful message.

    1. You’re most welcome, Corina. I’m wondering who assigned Bear to you as your power animal. If this assignment came from your own unconscious I urge you to accept it and explore its meaning for your life. Personally, I’d do the same even if someone else suggested it for me. It certainly can’t hurt! However, in my experience, the most helpful and personally meaningful power animals have always come from within me via dreams, fantasies, active imaginations, synchronicities, personal passions, and so on. The goal in all inner work is to develop a relationship with your own unconscious Self. Exploring your own symbols is the most effective way to do that.

  2. Thank you Jeanie for this lovely post! I love the image of the bear being seemingly dead while hibernating for so long yet re-appearing when the ice begins to thaw and there is a promise of spring. Bear cubs too! Such a wonderful metaphor for life! I recall a spider biting me on my leg in a dream, lions roaming outside while I was inside, horses tumbling – it’s always special when animals or creatures appear – I take it as a ‘sign’ to get in touch more with my natural instinctual side instead of thinking mode which seems like a natural habitat for me ..
    Your workshop with Elaine sounds wonderful!

    1. Thanks, Susan. We are very alike in that thinking in words and ideas seems like a natural habitat for us. Thinking in images was a new, and enormously beneficial world that only opened up to me in my forties. But now that I’m finding my way in this world, it is very precious to me, as are the images that live there.
      As I was writing the first sentence above in my usual left-brained way, a very new and unusual image from last night’s dream just popped up. When I “saw” it, I found myself smiling with delight. I jumped up from my computer and rushed to write it down in my dream book before I forgot it. I won’t share it now…it was really strange and I want to work on it first. But thank you for the mental prod your letter has brought to me today. I can’t wait for the insights that are waiting for me to discover.
      The workshop with Elaine was a wonderful experience…an excellent example of how two heads, or minds, are better than one. Our personal passions, skills, experiences and gifts seem to fit together well.
      Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to play with my image. 🙂

  3. Love this, Jeanie! As you might remember from reading parts of my manuscript, Bear is a frequent symbol in my dreams as well. I associate this personal imaginal totem, if you will, with my connection to my Wilding Self and feminine nurturance. Yesterday, our dear cousin Tim died of a prolonged bout with cancer. I was at a loss for words to say to his mother, wife, children, and siblings. And sad for the loss of his presence in my own life. Last night I had a dream I titled “A Living Tree.” In the dream, I am at a memorial for Tim. It was a celebration of his life with dozens and dozens of people and a band and a large sign on a beautiful tree that said “EARTH” in bold print. Tim was an Earth being, who loved nature and working outside, so that seems fitting. Also, I think of a tree with roots deep in the earth and arms outstretched to sky and spirit…his legacy to his family. This imagery of the Tree was comforting to me as it was to others in the family with whom I shared it. A living symbol of how he lived his life: close to the land with spiritual roots that will continue in his lineage. I know how powerful imagery is and that I could not live without the deep meaning it adds to my life. I’m thrilled that your presentation this past weekend in Sarasota went so well. I look forward to talking about it with you in person one day…
    Much love,

    1. Thank you, Jenna. Elaine and I both missed you. It would have been such fun spending time with you. But yes, we will get together and have a wonderful talk in person one day for sure! For now I just hope your back just keeps getting better and better until you’re up and leading a “normal” pain-free life again very soon.
      I do remember your Bear symbols. Elaine has them too. They mean much the same to me as they do to you. Very natural, wild, spiritual companions, teachers, nurturers and guides. Mother Bear is especially dear to me.
      I’m so sorry to hear about your friend, but what a wonderful, reassuring dream you were given. As you know, both Bear and Tree are Self images… wonder they are so powerful and comforting. And Earth Mother there too! A powerhouse of a dream, and what a gift to you and your friend’s loved ones in your grief.
      Sending lots of love and healing,

  4. I read this blog a while back, in an airport as I recall. It’s powerful to read your reflections and remember the image of the golden bear you shared at the workshop. Until a year ago, I don’t remember dreaming of a bear even though I’ve worked with a few bear myths.
    Bear became personal when I dreamed of a huge bear surrounded by elephants just after our first planning session for what would become the Sarasota workshop–and I hope more workshops in the future.
    My white dream bear was larger than the elephants who stood back in a worshipful way, but not with fear. My forest and small stream in New York state had become a rich, fertile, deeply green tropical landscape with a large river out of which the white bear emerged. White Spirit Bear, but I’m still seeking the exact message because my understanding feels unfinished. Sometimes it takes a while to get these big images.
    Today, while I write about our workshop from the personal perspective of friendship, I love that you reflect from a different vantage point. We hold a good balance, Jeanie. I’m grateful for our friendship and what we’ve created together.

    1. Your White Spirit Bear is an extraordinary image of the Self, one of the most fascinating and powerful I’ve ever seen.
      A few years ago I had a dream image that felt equally powerful involving our dog Bear, a beloved golden retriever with whom I had an especially strong emotional bond. Some months after he died I dreamed he was lying on the floor working at something in his mouth and looking a bit ill, or at least uncomfortable. I knelt and opened his mouth and looked down his throat and was transported to the top of a dark, descending stairway up which a huge golden cobra was winding its way, almost ready to emerge. Upon waking I was immediately reminded of the Kundalini serpent that makes its way up the chakras….etc.
      The exact message eludes me too, but I knew some powerful and profoundly important change was taking place. As you and I both know from long experience, some dreams like your bear dream and my snake dream are simply enough on their own. I think they are like Vic’s dream which you shared at our Sarasota presentation about the Spanish King being dead. Such striking images simply show us that the work is happening whether we understand it or not.
      I agree that we do hold a good balance, Elaine. We share many similarities, and most of our differences appear to be very complementary! I too am grateful and look forward to many future presentations of this special workshop with you in the future.

    1. I’m glad to know your new e-mail address, Jane. I can’t change it for you at this site, however. If you want my posts sent to your new address, you have to enter it in the subscription window to the right of this page. It’s the fourth green window down from the top! I look forward to hearing from you. Love, Jeanie

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