Sandra - Black Bear

Speaking with Nature: Awakening to the Deep Wisdom of the Earth - Sandra Ingerman, Llyn Roberts 2015

Black Bear

When I was four years old, I went with my mother and brother for summer vacation at a bungalow colony in upstate New York. I loved escaping the heat and confines of the city. It was so freeing to be able to roam through lush mountain forests and be enveloped by nature. When I developed a severe case of the chicken pox, I had to lie in bed in this very rustic bungalow staring at the beauty of the tall trees through a window next to my bed. During my time of healing, it was as if some inner knowing guided me within to find the rest and peace needed for full and speedy recovery.

My father used to drive up from Brooklyn on the weekends to visit. One such visit was during the weekend holiday of July 4. I was lying in bed gazing out the window when I saw the bright smiling face of my father appear. He had something very large in his arms.

My father then came into my room revealing a large reddish-brown stuffed bear that was almost as big as I was. I immediately fell in love with the bear and named him Brownie. He still sits in my office today, propped up by some other beloved stuffed animals. Brownie does look his age, and he’s not “aging well,” but I celebrate his birthday every Fourth of July by bringing him a cupcake with candles, and I sing “Happy Birthday” to him. Throughout my life Brownie has accompanied me on some of my travels to different cities. We’ve been through many adventures together, and he remains precious to me.


Teddy bears provided great comfort for many of us when we were children. We slept with them, felt protected by them, and knew when we whispered secrets into their ears that they would not tell a soul. Many of us feel a deep connection with Bear as we remember our connection to our beloved stuffed animals.

In the 1970s I worked at San Francisco State University. My position was for nine months of the year, and I had to find work elsewhere for the three summer months when classes were not in session. At the time I had a dear friend living in a small rural town in Tiller, Oregon. She always helped me find work with the forest service or with a private crew, and I was able to spend three months of the year working out in nature.

Many of the people who lived in Tiller had gone there to escape the pressures of society, and some lived on the land many miles from civilization. I had some friends who lived in such an isolated area that we had to swim across a river and then hike a few miles on a trail through a lush forest to get to their home. The sparkling South Umpqua River is quite wide, so a true effort had to be put into such a journey.

One day after work I had set out on the long journey to visit my friends. I was tired and my mind was wandering. I had swum across the wide, clear, blue-green river and was a couple of miles into my walk on the trail. As is often typical for someone who grew up in a big city, my gaze was at the ground rather than around me. I was paying no attention to any other life that might also be on the trail.

Out of the corner of my eye, some movement caught my attention, causing me to lift my eyes. At that moment I saw a small Black Bear about twenty feet in front me. What happened next is a sequence you might see in a cartoon. The Black Bear had also not seen me. We both looked up at exactly the same minute, saw each other, raised our startled arms/paws in the air, and turned and ran, while looking back to make sure the other was moving in the opposite direction. It must have been quite a sight, and the memory still makes me smile.

I had another very humorous meeting with Bear in the 1990s while I was leading a five-day Soul Retrieval Training to forty or fifty people at a retreat center in Phoenicia, New York. Soul Retrieval is a healing ceremony that is performed to help people, animals, and the land after a trauma has occurred.

In the first experiential exercise, I asked participants to journey into the invisible realms to meet a power animal or guardian helping spirit who would assist with their work of performing a Soul Retrieval. We were indoors and I was standing in the middle of the room drumming with my assistant while the group journeyed. When we drummed a change in beat, signaling it was time to return from the journey, people opened their eyes and started laughing, all gazing at a window in the room. There was a Black Bear looking into the window watching our group. This was a wonderful omen for our circle.

In the practice of shamanism, Bear is considered to be a very sacred living being. Native cultures considered Bear’s hibernation phase to be a process of dying and being reborn. Bear’s death and rebirth is seen as a miraculous event. In some shamanic cultures it is also understood that Bear has the incredible ability to heal itself.

In Native American traditions in the Southwest, Bear is honored as a healer. I have a Hopi friend who used to tell me that shamans worked with the spirit of Bear in their healing work, and the Zuni create bear fetishes that provide both healing and protection. Painted images of bear claws are often seen on various sacred objects, such as rattles and ceremonial objects. In many native traditions Bear is seen as the shaman.

The Bear cycle of “dying” and “being reborn” each year relates to the shamanic initiation practice of dismemberment. In dismemberment a person might have a dream or vision of being eaten by an animal, ripped apart, torn to bone, or even burned to ash. In this process the person is returned to spirit as a reminder that we are more than just body and mind. Who we are beyond our skin is spirit. The dismembered person experiences a state of unity with Source and often has a profound experience of being one with universal light.

In shamanic cultures dismemberment marks an initiation that might be called the “shaman’s death.” There are no practices or exercises that can prepare you for a shaman’s death. Life brings this initiation to you, and if it occurs in a shamanic journey or dream, it typically happens spontaneously. An initiation such as this cannot be planned and has no safety net. In such an initiation you lose the identity you are attached to on an egoic and personality level. And then “rememberment” takes place over time as your old identity is replaced with your authentic self.

Life circumstances that provide such a death experience can often be harsh. But in the end, once we surrender to our new identity, we emerge reborn and refreshed. As I wrote in my essay on Sand, our ego is truly sculpted, allowing our spirit to shine through. After these initiations we stop being led only by our ego and follow a path of spirit. Going through an initiation is akin to a snake shedding its skin; we let go of the old and birth new aspects of ourselves.

I have been through many harsh initiations in my life. The messages I have received during these times are to not dwell in the darkness; that the strength of my spirit will carry me through; and that the only way out is through the process.

At the same time a shaman’s death can bring beautiful experiences that teach us how precious life is. Through surviving an initiation we learn how to live. We wake up to the strength of our inner spirit.

Part of the initiation into becoming a shaman is experiencing some type of life-threatening illness or a near-death experience in which the initiate loses any sense of ego or separation from Source. In this numinous state we remember that we are one with all.

Among Eskimo shamans these types of initiation experiences bring the initiate a feeling and vision of the body being renewed; often the initiate returns with magical and healing powers. In the Eastern tradition it is taught that it is only when we allow our attachment to our material nature to be destroyed is resurrection possible. We sacrifice identity, ego, and beliefs to the Divine. Death is not an end but the doorway to the eternal.

In a shamanic culture, when one reports a dismemberment dream or vision, the community perceives that this person has been chosen by the spirits to be a shaman. This understanding is reflected in modern psychology; Carl Jung wrote that children often have dismemberment dreams marking an initiation into a spiritual path or a new cycle of life.

Many of my students in workshops have a spontaneous dismemberment experience as they perform their very first shamanic journey. They report that they were ripped apart by an animal, such as a bear or a bird, and deconstructed to spirit. Their bones and organs were cleansed, and all illness was left out as they were reconstructed. They always report that although the experience was unexpected, it was filled with peace and they returned feeling regenerated by the process. Some of my students journey with the intention of experiencing a dismemberment to receive healing or to help them move forward on a spiritual path.

Dismemberment is akin to a Bear dying each year and being reborn. As we are dismembered or go through any initiation that life brings us, we are reborn and come back refreshed from our experience. We are cleansed of impurities on the physical, mental, and emotional level. We begin again with a new awareness and consciousness as we emerge into a new cycle of life. This is like Bear waking up refreshed in the spring after a long winter’s sleep.

Nature is a true teacher about flow and movement. Seasons flow into one another, as do the cycles of the moon. The sun rises and sets each day. Bear flows into a deep winter sleep and awakens slowly to greet a new season of life. Times of light flow into times of darkness. This is all part of nature.

We tend to think of shifts, changes, and transitions in linear ways instead of in the circular fashion that the Earth teaches. We have judgment about the darkness of the season of winter, both internal and in nature, and hang on to the “sunny days.” But everything in nature changes. Death and rebirth are part of the natural flow.

We have many Black Bears in New Mexico, and when they wake from their long sleep, they roam populated areas looking for food. We have to bring our bird feeders into the house at night, because even though we hang them on a strong metal rod, Bear twists the strong metal as if it were a thin plastic stick, and all the seed spills onto the ground.

When the peach tree in my garden produces fruit, I pick it off the branches and leave it on the ground for the animals, so that Bear doesn’t climb the tree and break branches while foraging for food.

Due to continued drought in New Mexico, less food is being provided by nature for the bears living in the mountains. As they continue to roam into populated areas looking for nourishment, they are being captured or relocated and sometimes killed to protect residents. In other words, they are being displaced, as are thousands of species of nature beings around the world due to land development or changes in the environment that no longer support their life. This list includes humans who lose their homes due to environmental changes that no longer support life in certain areas.

We need to be more responsible as we cut down forests and develop land for factories, businesses, and homes to make sure that we do not kill or displace entire species of animals. We live on Earth in partnership with other species who also have a right to life. We have a responsibility to make decisions that decrease our negative impact on the environment, for our choices often lead to destruction of many parts of the world that once were a beautiful and bountiful home for many living beings.

This is a sad topic but must be addressed. We are the caretakers of our planet and there is a web of life that connects all life. When we displace or kill species of animals, there is an impact on all of life. There are consequences to our lack of care for the environment.

I believe that as a collective, humanity is entering a new phase of an initiation process. There will be a death of an old way of living replaced by actions that honor the Earth and all of life.

At the same time the feminine teaches us about the natural process of evolution. The face of the Earth is changing and will continue to change with age. Species will die and new ones will be born. Life that continues learns how to adapt to the changes. The feminine continues to teach us about the cycle of death and rebirth.

Image Practice

Llyn provided us with some beautiful and powerful practices, and there is one I would like to add.

Bears do not have a good sense of sight, but they have a very strong sense of smell, which helps them in foraging.

A well-known herb used for preventing and healing colds is osha root, which Native Americans call “bear root.” This root has a very strong, earthy, bitter fragrance.

Once a year my friend Ann Drucker, who teaches brilliant herbal workshops in Colorado, leads her students into the woods to forage for osha root. But she has her students do this as a bear would; she asks everyone to get down on all fours. They all put their noses to the ground to follow the scent of the osha root. This is a powerful way to connect to the Earth. Try to find a place in nature where you can be alone and not disturbed by others. Get down on all fours and close your eyes, and let your sense of smell be your guide. Explore your surroundings. Have fun with this practice while also noticing how deeply you connect with the feminine, the Earth herself, as you smell the wonderful fragrances of nature.