Being the Bear

The bear’s head collided against the top of the cave. A roar shattered the night. It dropped to all four paws and charged at Max. Max stopped looking for the stick. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the bear, the air between them, the consciousness connecting them both.

Tat Tvam Asi.

I am That. One consciousness. One universal energy. . . .

I am He.

We are one.

An eternity passed. Or a minute. When he opened his eyes, the bear was at the mouth of the cave. Max stood up, drowned in a wave of compassion for the scared, confused life in front of him. . . . He struck a flare and walked calmly to the front of the cave.

from The Yoga of Max’s Discontent by Karan Bajaj (p. 262)

Preparing for my trip to New College of Florida, the small liberal arts university under attack by Governor DeSantis, I find myself meditating on Max’s encounter with the fearsome/fearful bear in the cave.

To Max, the cave is a safe space not just because it offers shelter from the elements, but because he is learning to manage his own expectations–about what constitutes comfort, safety, and well-being–and because he is practicing peaceful co-existence with other living creatures. When he stops sweeping away the scorpions, they leave him alone. When he sees himself as One with the wolves, the snow leopards, the bears, his relationship with them is changed. They are all predators, and not, all dangerous, and not, all surviving as their instincts and experiences have taught them. Including Max.

I am going to NCF to teach digital storytelling and co-creativity as a means of civic engagement. This trip is helping me reflect ever more deeply on how story work itself is a yoga. I’m asking myself, how do we hold the bear? How do we share space with the bear while continuing to cultivate self-expression, critical thinking, curiosity, ingenuity, insight? How do we mentor youth who fear the bear and don’t feel safe sharing their stories?

Even Max knew that he could see himself in the bear and still get mauled by the bear.

Rhetorically, Max’s story illustrates the power of identification, but what I see isn’t a quick strategy in a moment of crisis; rather, I see the deeper work, the real practice. Max wasn’t spending his days meditating on his One-ness with that specific bear. He wasn’t riffling through a handbook of techniques for de-escalating interspecies violence. Max was spending his days opening his mind to his inter-relatedness with everyone and everything, everywhere. Being a story worker means practicing curiosity and recognizing inter-relatedness, not to eliminate all the bears, but to remain calm when the bear arrives, feeling prepared for the encounter and its possibilities.

I nearly said also, “to welcome the bear” or “to invite the bear into the cave” or suchlike. I had to delete all that. Because, as a survivor of bears (long ago, during my own youth in Florida), I still don’t feel that ready or safe or open-hearted. My best hope is to believe that my caution is just one of the ways I can realistically manage my own expectations for how supported and safe students will feel next week and beyond.

Another thing to consider is how we will use story work in this particular moment: Is story to be our stick, a desperately grabbed tool for pushing back the bear? Or can story be something else? Of course it can be. But sometimes people feel safer with sticks. Sometimes they need to know they’ve got their stick before they’re ready to try something else. I’m still thinking this through. Max had inner resources that were more powerful than the stick, and the training to discern when to use them. Max also recognized that the bear was manifesting its own fear, which enabled him to shift his energy out of fight-or-flight mode and alter his response.

Let’s return to Max’s cave, as a metaphor for a workshop classroom. Let’s look at some similarities and what they can teach us: both are borrowed spaces, they offer a kind of shelter but can be uncomfortable too, so it’s our job to adapt the space to our needs and to acknowledge its limitations. To do that, we must identify and prioritize what it means to feel comfortable and safe. Both the cave and the classroom have ways of being open and closed, public and private. Both are temporary gathering spaces–everyone leaves the shelter eventually, to seek another one. Both have access to the natural world outdoors. A supportive co-creative space depends on physical and material preparations as well as interpersonal communication and cooperation.

Something else Max had, that our space should have, is calm. Not everyone may be able to bring that into the space, but I can. Max’s story reminds me how important it is to cultivate present-mindedness as a teacher and as a learner. (For we are always both at once.) For starters, this means not rushing to class, not substituting over-prepping for self-care (a thing I did for 20 years and am still unlearning), and being ready to adapt to the energy of the learners who show up in spite of or because of the bear. It also means spending some time with the bear. Teachers have to do this. We have to critically reflect on our own trepidations, to anticipate the bear’s presence and influence, to see the bear and [Be] the bear and then, like Max, escort the bear out of the cave for at least a few hours.