A few years ago I took up a spiritual path, a story I tell in Tamed by a Bear. I was in my fifties, a longtime spiritual skeptic and a veteran of several bookish careers, and I got won over by a bear. A spirit bear. A bear who tells jokes and chuckles at me.
It was Bear’s gentle teasing that disarmed me from the start. How could I have guessed that Spirit would show up in such a jovial form? The first time I spoke with Bear in meditation, he was chuckling at me.
Too intrigued to be offended, I returned for more. Almost every day after that I holed up in a private spot in my house, coming into the loving presence of Spirit and resting my heart and mind there. From that calm and unruffled place, I could then watch any impressions that flowed across the mental screen.
The impressions Bear sent in those early weeks and months were all about joy. Never in a million years would I have thought that what I needed most was more joy. Being cheery was for Pollyannas. I’d have died of embarrassment before hiring a happiness coach.
Yet in those early days, that’s exactly what Bear sounded like. Over and over he advised me to lighten up and enjoy life. Bear seemed to take great pleasure in tweaking my outlook—too much pleasure, I thought.
“Robust good enjoyment provides energy!” Bear announced one day.
I considered. “How do I contact this enjoyment?” I finally asked.
“Just crack the door, and it’s there,” Bear replied. Along with this thought came a picture of double doors in the floor, like a trapdoor or a chute leading downward. I watched the doors slowly open to reveal a cheery warm light emanating from below. “Just slide down the chute of enjoyment!” Bear said, cracking up.
Millennia of spiritual dialogue
Humans have conversed with spirit beings for many thousands of years. For much of that history, spirit helpers were trees or animals or other wise beings of nature—companions who shared the same land. The most well-worn path for wising up may be learning to see life from the perspective of other creatures.
People in the modern world tend to think communing with animal spirit helpers is something only Indigenous people do. And yes, many Indigenous cultures, in many different ways, do teach their children to respect and commune with trees or animals or water.
My European ancestors too were Indigenous, and as hunter-gatherers in prehistoric times, they must have talked with other-than-human beings. Bears especially were central to their lives. They hunted bears, painted skilled pictures of them, named the central stars of the night sky after them, and likely imitated them in rituals. Even today, men dressed as straw bears dance in carnivals in northern Europe, while in other villages bear performers bestow annual good-luck visits on people—rituals that may stretch back to a time when humans and bears dwelled side by side.
Spiritual dialogue in Christianity
In Christianity, the path of spiritual dialogue continued, with the spirit helper being Christ. I think of Teresa of Ávila, a nun in Catholic Spain of the 1500s, finding her prayerful way through the many rooms of the soul—what she called the “interior castle”—toward the hidden chamber in the deep center. There her Beloved awaited, and there she celebrated a spiritual marriage between Christ and the soul, “a secret,” she wrote, “so great and a favor so sublime—and the delight the soul experiences so extreme—that I don’t know what to compare it to.”
And sometimes the spirit helper was God, who walked closely beside one in daily life. I think here of Brother Lawrence in the kitchen of his Carmelite monastery in France in the 1600s practicing the presence of God while he cooked. “I made this my business, not only at the appointed times of prayer but all the time,” he wrote; “every hour, every minute, even in the height of my work, I drove from my mind everything that interrupted my thoughts of God.” He spoke with God “frankly and plainly,” and it made him a person known far and wide for being kind and joyful.
Spiritual dialogue in world religions
I think too of conversations with the divine taking place in other lands, such as Prince Arjuna’s epic dialogue with Krishna in the middle of an
Indian battlefield. “Be aware of me always,” Krishna says at the end the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna speaks with affection: “Adore me, make every act an offering to me, and you shall come to me; this I promise; for you are dear to me.”
Or there is the tender and fierce intimacy in Sufi traditions of Islam, where the divine accompanies the seeker as an unseen Friend. “The Friend is an unfathomable well / That knows everything,” wrote Hafiz in fourteenth-century Persia. “Draw from that safe luminous sky.”
I had been trained as a scholar of religion; I was familiar with various paths of spiritual dialogue and had read many of these mystical texts.
Spiritual dialogue in the modern world
But did spiritual dialogue happen in the modern world? Yes, of course; in Judaism and Christianity it was usually called prayer. But outside of those mainstream paths, few talked about the possibility, though one of those who did was Carl Jung. In his memoir Jung wrote of meeting certain spirit teachers in meditation. Through a process he called active imagination, Jung spoke with these teachers, asking them questions and receiving replies. Clearly, the tradition of talking with spirit helpers was still alive and well.
But I didn’t expect that a path of spiritual dialogue would call to me. And I certainly never expected that the one to do the calling would be a wisecracking Bear.
A lively communion
As my relationship with Bear unfolded, I came to enjoy that gentle teasing presence. Looking forward to a lively connection kept me coming back for more.
And still Bear was all about joy. If the weather was too cold or gray, Bear advised finding something—anything—to enjoy. Bear called enjoyment the quickest route to faith, to that deep sense that all is well no matter how things look on the surface.
Each time I talked with Bear, my voice grew lighter. I can hear it now on the recordings I made of our conversations. Ten or twenty minutes into a meeting with Bear, and my voice would grow more amused, more ready to see the humor in things.
After only a month or two of this, Tim commented one day, “You seem happier.” By then Tim and I had known each other more than thirty years and had been living together for nine. If anyone could spot a change, it was Tim.
He was right. Though I had no idea where these spiritual dialogues would take me or what they meant, my outlook was indeed becoming more cheerful. I was hanging out with a perpetually cheerful Bear who seemed to think the purpose of life is to enjoy it. Under Bear’s influence, I was beginning to enjoy it more too.
Talking with Bear was lightening my spirit.