There was a point last week when everything changed. Golden autumn gave way to darkening autumn. Winter is at our heels. I imagine that for weeks now, bears have been slowing down their activity, having grown large with the inner resources they will need to sustain themselves through the winter. At some unknown signal, perhaps that same thing we felt last week, they each enter their solitary cave and begin hibernation.
Bear lives in the West of the Medicine Wheel. This is the place of intuition, emotion, dreams, the energy of adolescence, and feminine energy. Pregnancy can be a time when the West is very active. It can be a time of vivid dreams. Intuition can be especially strong. Emotions well up in powerful waves.
Although intuition may be strong in pregnancy, it may easily be drowned out by the voices of others. Pregnancy is a vulnerable time due to the rapid changes, uncertainties, and new responsibilities. It is natural to want to depend on the advice of experts and those that have tread this path before. But having access to an abundance of contradictory facts and opinions gets us no closer to the answers we seek. For someone that’s trying hard to “get it right”, this can be overwhelming and set the stage for a sense of failure. Another natural tendency is to seek out only that information which supports what is already believed to be true. Again, rather than give us the deeper truths we need, this approach blinds us to the full range of possibilities and can in fact contribute to emotional birth trauma.
Bear embodies the power of Knowing. Bear is her own authority, seeks her own counsel. How do you find out what you need to know to give birth and become a parent? Where do you find the sweet honey of your own truth? What does it mean to find the answers within? Let’s learn from Bear by tracking her journey into her cave.
David Carson (Medicine Cards) uses rich imagery to illustrate the meaning of the bear cave. He calls it the Place of Rites of Passage, the Dream Lodge, the Womb, the Great Void “where solutions and answers live in harmony with our questions.” He uses the Hindu concept of the Cave of Brahma to describe Bear’s journey: In India, the very center of the four lobes of the brain (the third ventricle) is known as Brahma’s Cave. Imagining the Medicine Wheel superimposed over your head, the West would be over your right ear, the intuitive side of your brain. As winter approaches, Bear leaves the West and walks the inward path of silence, slowing down with each step she takes, toward the cave of Brahma… where she dreams. I liken this journey to that of the labyrinth. Tracing the inward path calms the mind and prepares the seeker to sit in the center and hear the answers she carries within. Tracing a labyrinth is an ancient way of finding answers to problems that the thinking mind could not solve. It is a type of meditation, which allows brain waves to slow down and change from Beta (thinking, analyzing) to Alpha (relaxed mind) to Theta. When Theta waves are activated in your brain, intuition becomes stronger, it becomes easier to see a situation in its entirety, and complex problem-solving can take place.
Tracing or walking a labyrinth is one way to enter your Bear Cave. Other types of meditation and visualization can accomplish the same thing. Creating art while focusing on the process, rather than the product, will also lead you down the inward path, toward your inner Knowing and personal Authority.
While they are powerful tools, entering the Bear Cave doesn’t have to entail these special activities. It can be as simple as acknowledging to yourself and others that your pregnancy and postpartum period is a significant time, a time during which it is natural to hibernate. It’s probably not practical to give up all of your outside responsibilities for months on end, like bears do, just because you are pregnant, although this sometimes does become necessary. But Bear teaches us to pull back from activities that drain our energy, that do not nourish us. This is a time to re-evaluate what you give your energy to. Ask yourself, “Is this absolutely necessary? How do I know this? Is this still a priority for me? What would happen if I stopped? Who am I without this? Who am I becoming? What nourishes me? How do I know this?” Also, give yourself permission to take naps. Take breaks to focus on your breathing. Notice if you are holding tension somewhere in your body. What can you release?
Mother bears teach us the importance of timing and of listening to the body’s signals. Female bears enter hibernation carrying fertilized eggs. Although she may have been carrying these eggs for months, they are not implanted until the conditions are right, ensuring that the cubs are well-nourished and born at the proper time. The mother bear wakes up briefly to give birth to her cubs, then returns to snoozing while she snuggles and nurses her babies for the next three months. Only at some inner signal does the new family emerge to embrace the newness and activity of springtime and the outside world. This is a powerful reminder that a mother is still in her Bear Cave for months after her birth. This is the fourth trimester. How will you know when it is time for you and your baby to leave your Bear Cave? What will your inner signals be? Will it be hard for you to wait? Or will you need some help rousing yourself? These are important questions to consider as you anticipate, or try to make sense of, your new life with baby.
You have entered your Bear Cave carrying dreams and goals for yourself as a mother, your birth, your baby, your new family, and this next stage of your life. Introspection is necessary to bring these dreams to fruition. Introspection and time. This is what Bear teaches us. Allow these seeds to dwell in the darkness, within the protective walls of your Dream Lodge, until a signal moves you to bring them outside, to the light, where they can blossom and grow into their true shape. While in the Dream Lodge, these seeds contain infinite possibilities. A season in the Bear Cave will give nourishment, strength, and wisdom to your dreams so that when they emerge in spring they are ready to take off running.
In summer, all of life answers the call of the sun. Reaching, growing, expanding. All answering the urge to become the fullest expression of one’s being. And then... there comes a moment when the pendulum hangs in the air. The pause between breaths. Golden stillpoint. All is ripe, complete. The Golden Autumn, just before giving way to Darkening Autumn, Eldritch Autumn. Electric blue sky. Whispering of golden leaves. The call of a hawk high overhead. Sitting outside on a day like this, I feel the stillness, the fullness and richness that comes from a season’s work well done. The moment is so… pregnant. And then - suddenly, silently - one golden leaf drops.
In the last days of pregnancy, this double voice can be heard, if we allow ourselves to listen. Culturally, our focus is all on the joyful firsts… seeing, holding and feeding the baby for the first time. Baby’s first smile, first rolling over. And these things are indeed magical and to be cherished to the fullest. However, if we fail to acknowledge the entirety of the experience of becoming a mother, including that autumnal awareness that some things - important things - are coming to an end, we not only fail to prepare properly for this new stage of life (and, I would say, increase the likelihood of postpartum depression), but we miss out on this exquisite paradox.
Two major things that come to an end with childbirth are the maiden self and the state of pregnancy. Some women enjoy being pregnant and others do not. The experience of being pregnant certainly can be fraught with discomfort, uncertainty, and intense emotions. However easy or difficult one’s pregnancy, it is indeed a special state experienced perhaps once or several times during a lifetime. It is common to become impatient as the due date approaches, wanting to meet this new little person and wanting relief from pregnancy discomforts (in fact, the Spanish expression for “When are you due?” is “¿Cuándo te alivias?” or “When will you be relieved?”) To be sure, there is a collective sigh of relief whenever a baby finally makes her appearance.
I invite you to take some time to enter into the stillness and rich fullness of your last moments of pregnancy. Feel your heartbeat and his, the Original Song. Cherish one more time that odd, unique feeling of arms and legs moving within you. Reflect on nine-months’ work well-done. All is ripe, complete. Never again will you hold your child this close. Never again will your baby’s needs be met so perfectly and continuously. Soon, very soon, that first golden leaf will drop. Your baby begins her own path. Soon, too soon, you will learn the work of mothering, the work of letting go. Allow yourself to feel all of this. Honor all of this. And then open your arms to embrace the joyous adventure that is just around the corner.
Parents are continually trying to explain to people without children that having a child changes everything. It is difficult for them to explain what they mean and impossible for those who haven’t experienced it to understand. For women, there is an archetypal shift that occurs: from Maiden to Mother. To help my students reflect on what this change means in their own lives, I give them a drawing of a tree and a seedling. There are roots and footsteps leading toward the tree. Here I have them write where they have come from - the strengths and challenges that they bring, and that have brought them, to this journey. Half of the tree is in summer and half in autumn. On the summer side, I invite them to write words that represent their independent, self-contained maiden self. On the autumn side, they write what they anticipate letting go of in order to become mothers. The seedling represents what they will gain and the ways in which they will grow through the experience of being a mother.
So as you sit in the darkness with your soon-to-be-born child, sit with your maiden self as well. Sit with the girl and woman that you have been and have become. Acknowledge her, honor her, laugh with her, cry with her, conspire with her. Feel the beauty tinged with sadness. Tell her you must leave her soon to start a new journey. Ask her to watch your back. You will meet again.
As we go about our daily lives, we inevitably lose parts of ourselves as well as pick up debris along the way. With a huge change such as becoming a mother, it can seem like large parts of our identity are lost and a lot of unwanted baggage can weigh us down, keeping us from being as present, patient, joyful and creative as we'd like to be in our parenting.
This simple meditation will support you in regaining the parts of yourself lost along the way and letting go of accumulated debris. I learned it from Lynn Andrews.
As you breathe in, call back to yourself all the pieces of yourself that have been left behind as you moved through your day. As you breathe out, release all of the things that are not you that have stuck to you throughout the day. Continue breathing in the lost parts of yourself and breathing out the accumulated debris. The Universe absorbs the debris and has the ability to transform it. Let it float away. Let the breathing in and breathing out be a breathing back-and-forth between you and the Universe. Breathing and being breathed. Welcome... Release. Embrace... Offer.
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Go ahead, try it now.
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How do you feel?
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Here is a story about reclaiming the lost pieces of yourself. I first read this story in Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and then the story was brought to life when I heard it told in person by Virginia Bobro.
La Loba is an ancient woman, a woman without age, who lives in the lonely desert hills. She makes her solitary home deep in one of these hills and spends her days, spends her nights, walking the desert, looking for bones. She gathers all kinds of bones: jack rabbit, snake, hawk, mouse... All bones are precious to her, but the bones closest to her heart, the ones she loves best, are wolf bones. When she uncovers a bone, when she chisels a bone from the dried mud of an arroyo, when she uncovers a bone from beneath a rock, when she carefully extracts a tiny bone from a pellet... she brings it back to her hollow hill home and places it on a table where piece-by-piece she reconstructs each skeleton. When at long last she places the final bone of a skeleton... she waits. She turns to her cooking pot, gives it a stir... turns to observe the skeleton a while... sweeps her floor... regards the bones... chops some wood... waits... waits... and when finally she knows the song, fully knows the song she will sing over the bones, she sings it. And as she sings, flesh begins to cover bones, blood courses through veins, fur grows thick. The wolf opens her eyes, springs to her feet, and runs. And if you happened to be in that lonely part of the desert on that particular day, you would have sworn you saw, laughing and howling with the wind, a wild and vibrant woman, running naked toward the woods.
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Here is something I wrote one afternoon in Mexico, watching the vultures wheel over the desert. I think it is a message to help us let go of what is no longer needed and to trust that it's just the beginning of a process that benefits all beings and becomes a gift to ourselves in surprising ways. When we talk about Birth as a Hero's Journey --Inanna's Journey-- this is a big part of it.
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The vultures follow the currents looking for the dead things and consuming them, leaving behind the bones to be gathered. One by one. La Loba does not gather the freshly dead carcasses... The animals- the vultures and buzzards, the insects, worms and bacteria, the Earth and the plants, all are nourished by the discarded flesh, while in turn cleaning the planet and nourishing others.
Once all of these have benefitted from what has been left behind, only then, only when the time is right, only then does la Loba seek them and do they reveal themselves to her. It is a slow, slow process... but a disciplined one, discipline without attachment to outcome. It is a lonely process, but for the presence of that which lives in the desert, which are many and silent and powerful and ancient. And tricky.
Always remember that your death will be thus. What you leave behind will be eaten, purified, will nourish the planet in untold ways and, in time, will be gathered, fragment by fragment, by She Who Knows and when the essence, the core, the structure, the bareness of what you let go of is once again connected, it will reveal its song to She Who Knows and, in singing that song, she will breathe a wild life into those bones and so it continues.
Little one, this food is for me, this food is for you, this food is for our birth... this food keeps me strong and healthy, these good fats feed my brain so I won't become too forgetful... this whole food keeps my blood sugar and blood pressure down... it helps the muscles of my uterus grow strong and well-coordinated and able to bring you into this world smoothly...
My child, as I eat this food, I strengthen my body so that I will be healthy and have lots of energy to care for you for many years, and to enjoy my time with you for many more. As I eat this food, I am laying the foundation for how I will feed you and how I will teach you.
This food builds a big, strong placenta, that miraculous organ created by us both to nourish you, give you oxygen and orchestrate this amazing process of gestation... baby, when you experience the challenges of birth, this strong placenta will ensure that you get plenty of oxygen... this food makes a thick, resilient umbilical cord... even if it gets twisted up during the journey of birth, it will keep you healthy and strong...
As I shop for food and prepare meals for your mother, I am feeding you with love, I am feeding her with love. By eating mindfully while your mother is pregnant, I am learning how to love and how to keep us all strong.
The flavors of my favorite foods are influencing your own tastes... when you are born, you will recognize the smell and the taste of this flavorful amniotic fluid, you will recognize it in the scent of my breasts... you will know you are home... this food is creating your idea of home...
Once you are born, and you get your nourishment from your mother's milk, I will contribute to the nutrition of that milk as I prepare good food for your mother to eat. In this way I will feed you with love. By eating mindfully while your mother is pregnant, I am learning to care for you when you are born.
Little one, this protein is forming the building blocks of your brain, your heart, you liver, your kidneys... determining how strong they will be FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE... This fat is building your brain and your nervous system... all of this good food is programming your metabolism FOR LIFE...
This seems like the heaviest of burdens, this responsibility weighs heavily on me... but I remember that many of the effects of my eating will not be seen in you, my child, but in my grandchildren... and so your health, little one, is also the result of how my mother ate when she was pregnant with me, and how my grandmother ate, and on and on in an unbroken chain of women, and those that loved and supported them, stretching back to my unknown ancestors... and in this way I am sharing in the creation of the future as I become one link among many in the heritage of unknown descendants... this is the amazing creative power of women!
My dearest, I confess, sometimes I eat marshmallows... sometimes I am so nauseous I can't eat any of the good things I should... I can't always afford organic food, the healthiest breads, the best oils... I sometimes have a difficult relationship with food... but when I eat marshmallows, I eat them mindfully, I enjoy it to the fullest, I share with you this bit of fun, a special treat... and I LOVE MYSELF, I love myself eating a marshmallow, I love myself eating broccoli.
I give myself a break because, like you, my metabolism was programmed in utero, my tastes were formed by my mother's eating habits, by what my father liked to eat, by the food I was fed as a child, by the stories and meanings that my family attached to food. So, while it may not be quite accurate to say that I choose what I eat, one thing is true: I choose to eat in awareness, I choose to connect with you as I eat, I choose to make eating an Act of Love.
Through eating-in-awareness, by bringing our love to the table, we strengthen our family, we strengthen our bond, we learn to take care of each other, we learn to love ourselves and each other unconditionally, through marshmallows and broccoli, through thick and thin. We are giving a gift to countless future generations.
Christy is a doula and Birthing From Within childbirth mentor committed to strengthening families and communities through storytelling/storylistening, meaningful celebration, mindfulness, and reflective work.