The bear had woken up that morning from a long period of hibernation. Still weak and unsteady he had gone out to find some food. Anything would do. Being a hungry omnivore meant he wasn’t picky. Yet, under normal circumstances he would have avoided the dead human he encountered not far from his hiding place. Most wild animals living close enough to humans develop an instinctive urge to stay away from them. But this time hunger was stronger than deeply rooted caution. Hastily, he gobbled up a large part of the body and then ran as fast as he could back to the cave he felt safe in. There he soon fell into a restless sleep.
Suddenly he woke up. He didn’t quite know why: maybe a sound? He pricked up his ears but all he heard was his own breathing. Which surprised him. He had never noticed before how heavy his breathing sounded, somewhere between snorting and growling. He had actually never before paid any attention to his breathing. That was something that took care of itself, like walking, eating and sleeping…. This time, however, he was suddenly acutely aware of the muscles that pulled in the air and pushed it out again. He felt cold air flowing in and coming out as warm, moist clouds. He saw steam form in front of his eyes. Utterly confused he forgot to breathe altogether, until his lungs protested and forced him to take in a huge gulp of air, which caused him to gag, and catch his breath all coughing and barking.
The bear got more and more confused. Observations and half-formed impressions were tumbling around in his head. What confused him most was how aware he was of this going on. He had been surprised before. Or startled by an unexpected sound. He had been in situations before that made him insecure and confused enough to cautiously retreat. But he had never been aware of himself in those moments. Never before had what he observed of the world extended to those observations as well. Observations, impressions and emotions came and went, like the landscape he moved through. He had never experienced himself as the centre of it all. He had never suspected there could be a centre. He had never observed himself before.
The self-evident way with which the world and the bear formed a single flowing dance of action, reaction and interaction completely disintegrated. Unknown emotions overwhelmed him. He felt lost, small and powerless, afraid, alone. Prior to this he had always felt as big as the world he observed, directly and unconditionally connected with everything around him. Aware of himself as observer now, however, he was no longer a participant but a spectator from behind the transparent walls of his senses. The more he looked at himself, the smaller he felt himself become. He felt himself shrink into a single point of awareness surrounded by infinity, completely alone. For the first time ever he saw himself as finite – physically limited as well as in time. Knowing there had been a before, when he was connected with it all, he now feared there would be an after as well, in which he would vanish completely.
This scared the bear. Scared of death. Scared of the end. Mortified.
This wasn’t the kind of trouble he could rely on his instincts to get him out of. The awareness of death sat inside, not outside. There was no adversary to attack. There was no place to flee to. There was no place to hide. Total panic took over. Without looking where to, without noticing his environment, the bear started running.
He kept running till he fell down from exhaustion. Heaving for breath he lay where he fell with eyes closed, convinced death would overtake him and make him disappear into nothingness.
He became aware of the sound of wind over water. Cautiously he opened his eyes. He saw he was lying on a beach on the edge of a small lake surrounded by high trees. The sand was almost pure white. The water of the lake was so clear it could only be observed because of the shadows of the waves being moved across its surface by the wind. The sky was a radiant blue.
What he saw calmed him down a little. He had never consciously looked at a landscape before. This peaceful beauty evoked a new emotion inside him. He felt safe here and in harmony with his surroundings. He could almost forget the fear of death that had driven him to here.
“That would be something,” a voice spoke, “if a little natural beauty were enough to solve your problems. Alas, it’s not that easy.”
The bear jumped up in surprise. His first impulse was to run away, or to rear up on his hind legs to make himself as big and threatening as possible. But his surprise about the unexpected voice, and the fact he had understood what had been said, got the better of his instincts. Flabbergasted he fell back on his haunches and looked around to see where that voice had come from.
Before him stood a human woman, small, with long dark hair. She held a long staff in her hand. Though he could easily kill her with a single swipe of his front paw the bear instinctively knew she was much more powerful than she appeared.
“Yes” she said, “you best sit down for this. You have gotten yourself into a fine mess here.” The bear didn’t know what surprised him more: the fact this human female was addressing him or that he understood everything she said. He had heard human sounds before, but it had never been different from the sounds the birds made or the grunting of the wild pigs in the forest. But this time every word reached his mind and caused a flood of thoughts and questions.
“?????” he growled in her direction.
“Don’t try to speak,” she replied, “you’re snout is not suited for that. It wouldn’t be good for you, either. You are in enough trouble already, if you now start to think in words it can only get worse.”
“??!!??!!????!?!?!” he growled back, somewhat frustrated that what he wanted to communicate resulted in such strange sounds, rather than the questions coming up in his head.
“Do you recall when all of this started?” the lady asked. The bear grunted he had woken up with this strange feeling. “I understand. The confusion started when you woke up. That means something must have happened before you went to sleep. Something as profound as this doesn’t happen by itself. Think. Can you remember anything of the moments before the last time you went to sleep?”
The bear tried to think, which was not easy, as he had never consciously tried to think before. He had fallen asleep, that he remembered. He had run back to his cave, he recalled, after eating something … something he wouldn’t normally touch … !!! Suddenly the image of the dead human popped up in his head and he tasted again the strange taste of human flesh in his mouth. He had eaten a human!
“Indeed,” the lady said, “that’s what I feared. You ate a human that had just died or wasn’t quite dead yet. That caused a part of the human self-awareness to pass on to you. As a species you have always been wise enough to avoid this kind of awareness. You don’t avoid eating humans because you fear them but because you instinctively felt there’s something strange about them. Something they all suffer from. By giving in to your hunger you have infected yourself with that same suffering – the terrible burden of self-awareness.”
“!!!???!!” the bear grunted tentatively.
“No. This won’t pass by itself. Once you have crossed that threshold you can’t just revert back to your old awareness. Self-awareness maintains itself. Every time you observe your own thoughts this amplifies the feeling those thoughts are who you really are. The more you identify with your thoughts, the harder it gets to let go of that identification. If we don’t do anything about it, you will start thinking that you yourself will vanish if your thoughts do. After a while you will end up protecting the very thing that is causing most of your suffering.”
“???????!!!” the bear growled, afraid, angry and sad at the same time.
“I will help you” the lady said, “but it won’t be easy. You will have to trust me and faithfully do everything I tell you to. No questions, no doubts. Do you think you can do that?”
“!!!!!!!!!” the bear grunted, glad the lady appeared to know how to help him. He decided to do exactly what she told him. All he wanted was to become that bear from yesterday again, that he, looking back, had been so happy with, even though he hadn’t been aware of it.
And thus began his apprenticeship with the lady.
It wasn’t as easy as he had hoped. He had expected her to teach him some simple trick to stop that terrible stream of awareness and thoughts rushing through his head. Shouldn’t it be possible to shut down that maelstrom as abruptly as it had started? Instead, she told him the last thing he should do was to resist his own awareness. The more he would deliberately try to stop his thoughts, the more he would become entangled in the paradox of consciously trying to not be conscious.
“You have to let yourself be carried by that stream,” the lady told him. “You can only escape the flow by surrendering yourself to it completely. That surrender is the ultimate victory.”
He didn’t really get that. Winning by surrendering? That wasn’t how things worked, was it? He had often enough had to fight over territory. The ones that surrendered had obviously lost and often had to run for their lives. You could hardly call that winning, could you?
“A victory by force is not a real victory,” the lady said, as if reading his thoughts. “That is just a temporary displacement of the equilibrium. The more you try to shift the balance by force, the harder it will flip back in the end. No, you will have to learn to find your own equilibrium by serving the balance, not by disturbing it.”
I guess so, the bear thought, who understood even less now but didn’t know what else to do than to submit himself to whatever she thought best.
“Great!” said the lady, “That’s what I mean. Surrender yourself and you will see you will get what you are looking for.”
The months that followed were some of the hardest the bear had ever experienced.
The lady gave him strange and impossible-seeming tasks to fulfil. She made him walk along the beach and look at the sand. But he was only allowed to see the black grains of sand. He was supposed to ignore everything else. Every time his eye accidentally spotted something else, a coloured pebble, a shell, or a crawling insect, she would give him a nasty slap on his nose with her staff. “Don’t let yourself be distracted,” she would say, “stay in charge of your attention.” The first few times he had reacted with indignation, even anger, to these painful reprimands. He had growled at her, bared his teeth, and one time he had even reared up on his hind legs, ready to swipe at her. That completely failed to impress her, however. “Anger is a distraction.” she said. “An angry soul resists the flow, which only causes turbulence, no progress.” She emphasised her words with another sharp slap on his nose. “Again,” she said. “Black grains only. The rest is irrelevant.” He didn’t know anything better to do than fall back on all fours and refocus on the black grains of sand between the countless distractions trying to keep him from accomplishing his mission.
Other days she made him sit on the water’s edge with the taks of observing everything his senses could register. Sounds, movements, scents, touches, … he had to try to be aware of it all without giving precedence to any single observation or lingering on any of it. This, too, turned out to be a painfully difficult. When something itched, he wanted to scratch it, but before he could even do so, he would receive one of those slaps on his nose. “Just registering,” she would say, “and then let go. Don’t linger. Don’t give permanence to all the fleeting phenomena around you.” He didn’t quite know what that meant but he did know there was no escaping the impact of her staff. So he would sit and tried to be aware of everything around him without paying attention to anything at all.
And then there were days she told him to concentrate on a small animal that happened to be around. That could be a bird, an insect, a fish, a squirrel, … any animal living in or near the water could be a target for this practice. His task was to observe the creature with his full attention and concentrate so intensely he would be able to feel what the animal was experiencing. “Become that bird,” she told him, “and experience the world through its eyes. See what it sees, feel what it feels, until every beat of its wings feels like yours, and every note it sings seems to come from your own throat.”
This last task was one of the hardest of all. He had never consciously observed other creatures. He had hunted small prey, or given wide berth to larger bears or packs of wolves to avoid conflicts. But that was never about them, always just about his own emotions at that moment. Hunger, fear or curiosity made him notice other animals but he had never felt the slightest urge to see the world from their perspective. How could he? He hadn’t even been aware of his own perspective. His accidentally acquired self-awareness had drastically changed everything. It had divided everything into him and everything else – him versus the world. Other animals existed outside of him and were therefore not connected to him. However hard he tried to put himself in their place, his awareness of the divide between himself and the rest of the world seemed like an impenetrable barrier. He could observe other animals, but he could not empathise with them. He would try to imagine what that would feel like, but didn’t manage to really feel it.
Which would land him another slap on his nose. “Don’t imagine what it would be like,” the lady told him, “but experience what it is. Feel yourself as the other. Break through the wall of your self-awareness. That wall only exists in your mind. It isn’t real.” And so he would try again, intensely staring at a little bird looking for seeds in the bushes or the seemingly aimless wandering about of a bug in the sand.
One fine day – he had no idea how long he had been trying – everything suddenly changed. He was walking along the beach, concentrating on the black grains of sand. After a while he realised he was no longer seeing individual grains of sand but a fragile network of faint black patterns instead, weaving over and through the predominantly white sand of the beach. Those patterns where everywhere around him, however far he looked. He stopped in surprise, somewhat overwhelmed by the intricate, delicate beauty of this tapestry of black sand around him. The lady appeared next to him, not to slap him on the nose, but to whisper in his ear: “Don’t stop now. Let yourself be absorbed by these patterns. Let your thoughts flow through the lines and figures you are seeing in the sand.” He did as she said and let his awareness become part of what he saw in the sand before him. Wherever he turned his attention the black sand would briefly light up, as if pure white light was flowing through the black patterns; light that danced with the movements of his attention. He was so enraptured by this dance of attention, movement and light he completely forget himself and lost track of time. Only when the sun started to set and it became too dark to discern the colours in the sand did he become aware of himself again.
Things went fast from that day on.
Not long after he was observing a squirrel that jumped from branch to branch when he realised he was moving along with every jump. More than that, he knew, without knowing how, exactly which branch the squirrel would jump to and how he would land there. He picked up the sounds that were relevant to the squirrel. He saw what the world would like to such a small and fast-moving rodent. And for a moment he couldn’t tell if he was a bear watching a squirrel or a squirrel watching a bear.
He looked up and around. He wasn’t a lonely bear anymore in a strange and distant world. He was a point of light in an endless tapestry of patterns of light spreading out around him in a continuous dance of light and dark. He felt there were animals everywhere that were similar points of awareness in that same lattice of light. He was a drop in the ocean of life and all that ocean at once. There was no distinction, just connectedness.
The bear realised he had returned to where he had once started. He was, once again, a part of the totality of the world he observed. With the difference that this time round he was aware of himself as well as of that totality. He was no longer trapped in the isolation of his own thoughts and his inward-looking awareness. He was free and unlimited. He was both infinitely small and all-encompassing. He saw himself reflected in the universe and the universe reflected in him.
The lady watched the bear walk away into the woods he had come running from in total panic so many months ago. He didn’t look back but she felt his gratitude towards her in the way he moved and looked around him. She leaned on her staff. She looked at the forest where the wind made the trees softly sing and sway in the rhythm of the bear’s footsteps as he vanished in the distance.
And she saw it was good.