Bears swish when they walk. Their legs are chubby, with thick fur rubbing smoothly as they amble along. I didn’t know bears made this particular sound until one happened upon me at a meditation retreat as I sat on a bench atop a mountain knoll in North Carolina. My memory of this encounter is based almost entirely on sound alone. I saw the bear for only a moment when I turned my head at the noise, expecting to see a fellow retreat attendee emerging from the woods to join me. Instead I saw her (I am not sure, but I think of the bear as her), head heavy, sunlight flowing down the soft slope of her forehead to the bridge of her nose as she bowed towards the earth.
Earlier that morning I lay with my back against the wood of the meditation hall, eyes closed as our instructor Cindy led us through a visualization meditation. She’s a spritely, slight woman, with a cheerful Southern accent and a ready smile. Cindy began in a familiar manner. We were discussing compassion that day, and I expected Cindy to follow the natural course of a metta, or lovingkindness, meditation.
“Bring to mind someone you care deeply for,” she said.
I imagined my mother.
“As we follow this person, pay close attention to how you feel physically in your body,” she continued.
I looked forward to that warm feeling metta provides—the comfort in sending good thoughts towards others.
“Now, imagine you see this person surrounded by fire. Hot flames all around a hell realm, if you will.”
Not quite the comforting visualization I was expecting.
“Imagine they are burning and there’s nothing you can do,” she continued as I struggled to imagine my mother in hell, a concept foreign to me, having been raised in an agnostic household.
“This person who you care so much about is now in an ice realm. They are freezing to death…”
Jesus!, I thought.
The rounds of the visualization continued in this way, without relief. Hell realm, ice realm, my mom going blind and wandering close to a steep cliff-edge. Behind me I heard a woman begin to sob. Distracted, I wondered why I did not have tears as well. I love my mother, so why couldn’t I feel much while envisioning these horrible situations?
Cindy’s voice interrupted my thoughts.
“Now, imagine this person in the human realm. But they are weak, diseased, and dying. You must watch them suffer and know there is nothing you can do to help them.”
My mother has joked before that when she gets old, too old to stand or to be trusted on her own, that my sister and I just have to park her wheelchair in the woods and she’ll be happy the whole day long. Watching rabbits jump over one another, ruby-throated hummingbirds suspended in the air, feeling a warm breeze on her papery palms. Though I was meant to imagine her struggling, this peaceful scene came to mind instead. It’s what she wanted, what would happen. I felt calm. The woman behind me shook quietly.
Since childhood I have looked for bears on those rare occasions when I was in a place where they actually exist, and during the retreat, as I was in bear country, thoughts of these primal, shaggy creatures had crossed my mind several times already. So perhaps it was not a true premonition when I walked up to the bench on the grassy knoll that afternoon and thought, Wouldn’t it be cool to see a bear? I almost felt like, at 22 years of age, I should have seen one already. Memories of missed chances floated across my consciousness as I walked: hoisting a cloth bag of beef jerky and oats high into a tree in the Sierras while backpacking; gazing out the car window on annual trips to Maryland when I was a girl, searching between flashes of pine for a stubby snout. On the first day of the retreat the staff had gone over the local natural hazards, black widow spiders and cottonmouths and black bears. They advised us to write down where we were headed and at what time on a white sheet of paper pinned to the communal cork board, and before heading out I almost didn’t put my name down. The map indicated the knoll was only a 15 minute walk—what could happen? I unlaced my hiking boots outside the sala and went in at the last minute to scribble my name on the list.
I had thought about seeing a bear the same way anyone thinks of seeing something dangerous and awesome—abstractly, almost as fantasy. In my imagination I would perhaps be up on the crest of a snowy hill, peering down to a creek or river and see a bear approach the flowing water and bend down for a drink. Or maybe I would be on a wooded trail like ones I walked so often in Ohio, and spot a bear far down the path in front of me, both of us staring at one another for a moment before darting off. I tried to remember what I had read about what to do in a grizzly bear or black bear encounter—for which species did you back away, make yourself bigger, or curl into a ball? The only bear tip I was certain of was to make noise as you walk, but it would seem overly precautious for me to follow that rule on this silent retreat, as I walked past the quiet wooden cabins of the dharma community.
A clearing on the hill opened as I left the woods, like a painting being created all at once. The grass spread wide, the sky unpeeled overhead. In the center of the knoll a bench overlooked far away mountains that rippled, slate-blue, as if freshly risen from the Earth’s core. I sat almost giddy in the silence and hot sun. I was there for some time before I heard the footsteps approaching behind me, quite close. I turned with a smile, expecting a fellow retreatant, and then I was standing and I couldn’t tell you what emotion my face was showing. For a split second I thought the bear was a dog. It was less than ten feet away and walking through the tall grass straight towards me.
“No, no, no!” I heard myself saying, almost as if I was mistaken. It couldn’t be.
Without thinking I grabbed my backpack from the bench and ran across the field, diagonally opposite the bear, in a dash to get off the knoll and back to the trail. I glanced over my shoulder in pure prayer that I wouldn’t see her chasing me, and I saw in a moment that she had also run from me in the other direction, both of us rustling into the woods at the same time. My entire body felt like stone as I shakily sought to calm my breathing, without success. I remembered the tip to make noise to avoid startling bears, and though I knew it was a little too late for that I started to sing, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember a single song. I assigned a small melody to a strange yodel that popped into my head, too afraid, apparently, to recall lyrics. A “Yodel-lay-hoo-hoo!” emerged awkwardly as I hurried down the path and back to the retreat grounds. On the way I saw another retreatant heading up the path and broke the silence to warn her about the bear up ahead, and to my embarrassment I found it a struggle to hold back tears while issuing my warning.
For the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, I could not calm down. Even at the evening meditation I had to fight the urge to open my eyes and turn around. In my mind, she was still behind me. As I lay in my small bed at the end of the day, I noticed my shoulders and back ached from being clenched. I closed the cloth curtain to my room, finally finding the privacy to cry. I didn’t want anyone to see a reaction that I barely understood myself. I was ashamed. Black bears aren’t even particularly dangerous, and I was safe, so why did I still feel afraid hours later? All the times I had thought about seeing bears seemed to mock me. I had always envisioned myself feeling gracious, awe-inspired, invigorated by a bear sighting. I had never felt fear in my fantasies.
This retreat was new for me, a yoga retreat connecting movement and poses (asanas) to the Four Immeasurables, a Buddhist conceptual framework I knew nothing about before signing up. Cindy, our trusty guide, described the Four Immeasurables as boundless qualities that exist without end both within us and in the world around us. These qualities are equanimity, joy, love, and compassion.
At first, I doubted these qualities related in any real sense to yoga, which I had practiced mainly as a form of exercise. The connection became clear, however, as the days passed. Cindy led us to notice how it specifically felt, physically, to embody the Immeasurables through meditation and movement. Was there a similar buoyancy in your chest after a meditation on joy as when you arched your low-back in a crescent lunge? Did the same constriction in your throat you experienced during an unpleasant visualization also appear when you became frustrated by failing to force your body to fit an idealized yoga shape?
During the brief session at the end of the day for discussion and dharma talks, several of my fellow retreatants recalled how painful the visualizations of suffering had been. How, they asked, was envisioning loved ones in the hell realm or the ice realm connected to compassion?
In response Cindy referred us to the slips of paper she had handed out that listed the Four Immeasurables in a table form, with categories for “close” and “far” enemies of each Immeasurable. Compassion’s far enemy, which I interpreted as its opposite, was listed as “fear.” Cindy described how the far enemies of the Immeasurables act as blockages that prevent the flow of the immeasurable quality from being felt.
Cindy, perched before all of us on our cushions peering at her with eager eyes, explained that the fear blocking compassion could take many forms. You could fear that a person you love who is suffering could come to depend on you for care, or you might fear the attachment awakened in you by watching someone suffer—but generally, the fear comes from identifying yourself in their pain. Imagining yourself in their situation, fearing pain, prevents you from empathizing fully with the other person and feeling true compassion. The point of meditating on painful visualizations, Cindy explained, is to observe what the fear of suffering feels like in the body.
I realized that all of what I was unable to feel during our meditations came pouring out of me after my encounter with the bear. Because of her, I recognized how much I fear suffering, and the possibility of suffering. Perhaps it was natural for me to shut my negative feelings off during the meditation. Who wants those sensations in their body? But my avoidance prevented me from reckoning with even the hypothetical possibility of my mother’s suffering. What would happen when direct physical suffering afflicted my mother? Would I be prepared?
This past Thanksgiving, months after the bear sighting, I stood on the front porch of my aunt Jenny’s house, my parents and I saying our goodbyes after dinner. My grandpa Mickey was leaving as well, escorted by my uncle Todd who lived just one house over. Frail but still chipper, even in his 90s, Mickey leaned onto Todd’s bent elbow as they slowly approached the stairs before pausing.
“Chris, help him down,” my aunt told my dad.
My dad tried to go to Mickey’s other side, but Jenny, whose career has been devoted to elderly care, stopped him.
“No, no, you have to go behind him and hold his belt up.”
As the words left her lips, I saw that what she meant related both to Mickey’s center of gravity and his dignity. Leaning tremblingly over the top stair onto my uncle’s arm, Mickey’s pants had sunk down a few inches, exposing the naked flesh of the top part of his rear end. I looked to my dad and saw, if only for a moment, something that resembled fear flash across his face before he stepped forward and looped his fingers through Mickey’s back belt-loop and the three of them carefully descended the stairs.
As my parents and I walked to the car, I felt ashamed that I had felt ashamed. My first instinct had not been compassion, but rather a recoiling, a burning embarrassment at what I perceived as pathetic. Though we didn’t discuss it, I wondered if my father had been embarrassed as well before stepping in to hoist up the pants. My dad does not work with the elderly as his sister does, and he will sometimes express relief that his more knowledgeable siblings live close to Mickey. My dad will admit he does not feel prepared to care for an aging man.
I understood that my reaction on the porch stairs served a clear but obstructive purpose—my embarrassment masked my fear. My fear that eventually the elderly man would be my father, and I will be the one expected to not feel shame, but to step up and help him, even, or especially, in situations that our culture construes as demeaning. My fear that I wouldn’t know what to do, or how to help him. And the fear that eventually, I may be the one relying on someone else to lift my pants up and help me down the stairs.
I rarely imagined seeing my parents age, and when called to do so, I clung to the fantasy my mother gave me, of her happily parked in a wheelchair in the woods, reading a good book. With luck, maybe it will all be just like that. But now I remember the bear. Our encounter on the knoll was not at all what I had for years imagined. The reality was terrifying, my response confusing.
Perhaps we can’t really be prepared for suffering, but we can approach fear of the suffering in a different way. Fear, with its shoulders of stone and pounding heart, deserves to be met with kindness. And, with kindness, it might yet show us a path toward unending love and compassion should we choose to look for it. There’s an awe in living with bears, an awe of sunlight cascading down the soft slope of her forehead and the bridge of her nose as this creature of such power bows, humbled, to the earth.
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