I’ve been afraid of the dark since age seven, when I awoke one night and felt something soft and winged swoop low across my face.
Too terrified to scream, I threw off my blankets and bolted down the hall to my parents’ room. I couldn’t see what it was, but I knew it was following me—I felt its eyes or whatever it used instead of eyes tracking me with unspeakably evil intent.
In that instant, I understood what it was to be a mouse in a field and know that the hawk is circling twenty yards above, poised to dive.
It turned out to be a bat, the first of many we would find in our house that summer. Once their presence became routine, I stopped being afraid of them, and I could sleep at night with all the lights turned out.
That fear came back to me twelve years later in the woods in late August. I was backpacking with my boyfriend, who didn’t seem to be afraid of anything. I was afraid of everything, but on that particular night, I was afraid of bears.
There were signs posted at the trailhead about an increase in bear sightings, about ravaged tent sites, about the dangers of improperly sealed containers. Under these circumstances, every rustle was an approaching bear. I saw them lurking in the dark beyond the beam of my headlamp, felt the atoms of my scent borne on invisible currents towards their nostrils. With each breath, the bear’s ribcage expanded in unison with my own. They walked when I walked, stopped when I stopped. My fear transformed the air into their hot primordial breath.
At the time, I don’t think I knew exactly what scared me. I was not afraid of being mauled, or losing our food, or even seeing a bear. I realize now that what I dreaded was something far more nebulous: bearness itself. Savagery. The will to tear something apart. I feared things that lurked, things that lived in the dim regions beyond my perception. I made my boyfriend miserable that night.
“I heard something,” I would say roughly every five minutes.
“It’s nothing. Go back to sleep.”
I must have dozed off, because toward morning I experienced something I can only describe as a dream, although that word doesn’t feel quite right. At some bluish gray hour, either I or a slightly different I crawled out of the tent and began searching for bear tracks.
I crouched on all fours, scanning the carpet of leaves for a claw-shaped impression. And then I heard a sound, a low roar that I immediately identified as bear. It echoed through my body. I froze. I looked around frantically, my heart ready to burst. Nothing but stillness around me. Then I heard the sound again, louder this time. The sound came from my throat. It was me.
I was the bear.
I woke up in the tent, drenched in sweat. I unzipped the flap, looked at the ground outside to see if it had been disturbed. It hadn’t been. My palms were clean. I didn’t tell my boyfriend what happened until several months later, partly because I didn’t know how to articulate the feeling of having a bear inside me and partly because I was terrified of admitting that it might have been true.
When I finally did figure out a way to tell him that didn’t make me sound borderline schizophrenic, I framed the story in a way that allowed for the possibility that I had completely imagined the episode. To speak of it that way felt safer.
Children eventually learn that they must leave their dreams on the pillow, separate their inner worlds from the three-dimensional reality known as adulthood.
Civilization depends upon this separation. We have been conditioned to ignore our subjective experiences, to treat them as antithetical to reality rather than a part of it. But after that night in the woods, I have wondered if, in that moment, I was more present, more conscious, than I have ever been before.
Arthur J. Deikman, a psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco, believes that these moments of hyper-consciousness are the result of deautomatization, a state in which the psychological structures that organize and interpret external stimuli cease to function normally.
In other words, deautomatization involves the undoing of abstract, goal-directed thought processes, creating an undifferentiated experience of the world. In this condition, Deikman writes, “the self is no longer experienced as a separate object and customary perceptual and cognitive distinctions are no longer applicable.”
Deikman notes that this phenomenon of total unity characterizes accounts of mystical transcendence across time and space. In Run to the Mountain, the 20th-century Catholic mystic Thomas Merton describes the strange bliss that sometimes overwhelmed him while he prayed in church:
“It must be the kind of joy that I can once in awhile catch at here, where everything is unified in proper harmony, and there is no barrier between yourself and what is around you, for you simply seem to exist in some same not quite important but interesting medium that is nevertheless pleasant and gentle because of something that shines all through it and through you.”
But the merging of self and surroundings does not always manifest itself as sublime ecstasy, or even as contentment. I did not feel the slightest bit of joy when a bear, unbidden, began to roar inside me; nor, at the time, did I recognize that experience as a brush with some higher power.
But it was a moment of transcendence, a fleeting communion with the sacred, a realization of the interconnectedness of all life. It was a glimpse of my “bearness” and the bear’s humanity, of something fundamental and universal. My experience did not verify the existence of a certain entity or confirm the validity of a specific doctrine; in fact, it didn’t prove anything.
Exactly two years after that first glimpse of the bear inside me, I went camping in Shenandoah National Park with my boyfriend, the same one who had endured those miserable hours in the tent. It wasn’t the first backpacking trip we’d taken since then; somehow, that episode hadn’t stopped him from going outdoors with me.
I was still afraid of bears, but my fear had resolved itself into bursts of silent panic that I controlled by counting to fifty or one hundred, depending on the severity of the situation, and then reminding myself that if a bear did, indeed, attack us, we could appease it with dried fruit.
My fear of bears had become part of being in the woods, as normal as feeling sore after a long hike. Sometimes, I wondered what it would be like to not be afraid, to experience the outdoors without feeling vulnerable at all times. But mostly, I accepted it, dealt with it, stopped talking about it altogether.
I still had never seen a bear, even though I had heard thousands of them lumbering through the leaves in my head. But as we entered the park on Skyline Drive, I glimpsed a real one for the first time: a black bear cub scampering across the road, about twenty feet ahead of us. I caught it just as its fat hindquarters disappeared into the undergrowth.
That night, I slept soundly.
The next day, we hiked eight miles from our campsite to a swimming hole. It was mid-August, and the humidity weighed on us like a wet wool sweater. As we climbed to a lookout about three miles from the trailhead, a bizarre thought floated into my brain: I need the bear. I was too sweaty to dwell on it. I shook it off, blamed it on the heat, kept climbing.
A few yards from the top, my boyfriend stopped abruptly. Some instinct told me why. We waited in silence for a few seconds, and then we heard the sound of something huge plodding through the trees.
I waited for that familiar rush of terror, the one I had rehearsed so many times, but all I felt was the stillness, the white-blue heat, the sweat dripping from the end of my nose. I caught a flash of umber through the foliage, and then the woods went silent again. I could feel the bear looking at us from a distance, pondering our existence.
And then it dawned on me—strangely, gradually, as if I were watching it happen to someone else—that I was not afraid. Nor, at that moment, was I even conscious of my body.
I felt my borders melting into the air, felt the bear’s presence hot along my spine. A familiar sound rose up from some deep gorge within me, a low, distinct roar. I smiled as I heard it pronounce my name, except it wasn’t exactly my name. It was my name and the name of the bear, the name of the trees and the name of the worms that lived under the rocks, the name of everyone I’ve ever loved.
I don’t know the name, but to this day, I always recognize it when I hear it.
Like elephant spirituality on Facebook.
Asst. Ed: Melissa Petty/Ed: Bryonie Wise