In this meditation, Amy is Bear Kin, and welcomes you into her den.
Yaaaaaawwwwn. I gotta be honest. Menopause came way early and knocked me out, blindsiding like the sharp-clawed, swiping paw of a grizzly bear. I had been on an upswing for a while, my mental and physical health were working in harmony to make me a happier person. I was getting stronger, wiser, I had more energy than I had had in years. I felt like I was, to use a somewhat eye-rolly term, self-actualising. Becoming the person I was meant to be.
Then one day I woke up in someone else’s body. A tired body with sore knees and extra weight and fur that seemed to just appear while I slept; fatigue the likes of which I had never experienced, even through lifelong chronic illness. I entered a new kind of depression, one I had never experienced before. I just… didn’t…want…to do…anything. I wasn’t even sad. Just blank - my humanity erased with the flip of a hormonal switch.
Winter descended and I, sweaty, achy, foggy and confused, longed for a den in a cave.
As SoCal punk band the Descendants once sang: people are sess. I wanna be a bear.
I am bear kin and I wanted to go deep into the woods to be with them, to curl up in their damp, stinking fur and hibernate. I wanted to sleep through that winter and I needed a bear hug.
I wanna be a bear. I am bear kin.
But I learned that my ursine family don’t actually hibernate. So maybe I don’t need to either.
Instead of hibernating, bears fall into torpor. A deep sleep with some awareness still intact.
During torpor, heart rate and breathing rate decreases, body temperature reduces slightly and bears do not eat or release bodily waste. Bears can sleep more than 100 days without eating, drinking, or passing waste! Instead, bears are able to literally turn their pee into protein through a urea recycling process. The urea produced by their fat metabolism is broken down and the nitrogen is re-used by the bear to rebuild protein.
The main difference between hibernation and torpor is that during torpor, the animal is able to wake up easily if hurt or threatened by predators. Pregnant female bears can also wake up from torpor to give birth, then go back to sleep afterwards!
The opposite of play is not work - the opposite of play is depression.
I am bear kin, so I gave up on hibernation and set my bleary sights on torpor. Energy is the currency; I can afford to waste none. Energy I used to waste becomes protein, becomes fuel.
I keep just enough awareness to not miss something important.
I am bear kin in torpor. Do not poke the bear. Because when I emerge from this long, waking sleep, I am fast, strong, deadly. But please don’t poke me. Be patient and soon I’ll be ready to play.
Experts agree that bears play. Play is known to be beneficial for animals and human animals, promoting intelligence and creativity.
As leading expert on play, Stuart Brown puts it,
The opposite of play is not work - the opposite of play is depression.
I wanna play, I wanna sleep, I wanna be a bear.
In Korean mythology, Ungneyo was a bear who was transformed into a woman after 21 days in a cave with only garlic and mugwort to eat. In Korea, the bear is connected to the land and still symbolizes the uterus.
Speaking of the uterus, there’s this myth that Bears will attack people who are going through a menstrual cycle. This myth originated from a tragic freak occurrence in Glacier Park, Montana,
in which 2 women camping out at the park were both attacked and killed by grizzlies on the evening of August 13, 1967. The occurrence of the attacks on two women in a single night in the same park, both of whom were at the time having their periods led to the speculation that women, especially menstruating women, were especially prone to attracting bear attacks. Scientific studies have been conducted on black bears and grizzly bears to test if this had any truth and showed no evidence that bears responded in any unusual way to human menstrual odors. The tragic 1967 Glacier Park attacks were simply coincidental and not linked to menstrual odor. Bear attacks are very rare and almost always caused by bears becoming aggressive after being habituated to associate humans with food, which entirely lies on the fault of human irresponsibility, whether from people hand-feeding bears or by improperly storing food and garbage.
There’s a metaphor in there about women and victim blaming, or menstruation being evil, in truth coming down to “human irresponsibility” and wide misunderstanding of how nature operates.
I wanna be a bear and I have precedent outside of Korea. Globally, our ancient ancestors had many stories about women turning into bears.
Bernd Brunner in his book, Bears: A Brief History suggests that the Kituwah, also known as the
Cherokee, who originally lived in the region between the Ohio River and what is now Georgia and Alabama, believed that bears were transformed humans. They were convinced that at one time some of their forefathers had traded their difficult human lives for the more carefree lot of bears, and that they and bears thus shared the same ancestors.
There’s the story of the Niitsitapi Bear Woman who took a bear for her lover, and became a bear. Who became a bear and killed her whole village. Who’s resurrected brothers and sisters decided the sky was the safest place and became the seven stars of what we call Ursa Major.
Then there’s Callisto, the nymph of Greek mythology who was impregnated by Zeus and then turned into a bear for her efforts. Almost killed, she instead was sent to live among the stars as part of that same Great Bear constellation.
You are a keeper of courage, dear Bear.
So many distinct ancient civilizations looked up into the Pleiades and saw a bear that I have to wonder what else I’m missing. I’ve never lived in a world without electricity, without lights and light pollution. I am bear kin, longing for a darkness that will allow me to see a different kind of light.
In the Sacred Medicine Oracle Deck, Asha Frost wrote:
Bear is holding potent healing energy for you, protecting your sacred space. In your surrender and rest, you are held. Bear stands behind you and wraps their warm fur around your body.
In her book You Are the Medicine, Asha tells the story of why the bear sleeps. Creator bestowed gifts upon each animal and Bear was first in line. Asha writes:
Creator swirled beautiful energy around Bear and spoke the gift into the Universe. “You are a keeper of courage, dear Bear. Fierce in your boundaries, you stand rooted in your sovereignty. You are passionate about protecting those that you love and mirror the importance of standing your ground. Use your gifts wisely; we are grateful to have your medicine upon the Earth.
And because Bear was brave and strong and capable he helped everyone until he collapsed from exhaustion. The other animals were sorrowful and apologetic but Bear was not angry or resentful.
Said, Bear, “It is my responsibility to manage my own energy. I know this now. From now on I will be mindful of my capacity to help, and when I feel tired I will listen to my body and rest [...] perhaps it might span the whole time that the Earth Mother is blanketed in snow. But please know that I will be ready to serve in my place of Creation again when I reappear.
I am bear kin and I am adaptable - a problem-solver.
A recent study where researchers gave brown bears puzzles to solve lets us know that
Bears typically used trial-and-error learning to solve the problem.
Bears are not afraid to make mistakes. We try, we err, we try something else. I am bear kin and my mistakes are paths to my learning.
I am bear kin. I rest in Torpor. Keeping awareness always on tap. Relaxing…sleeping…but not so much that I become unaware of safety and surroundings. Rest, but not so much that it threatens my life. Help others, but not so much that it threatens my life. Be not afraid to make mistakes.
I am bear kin. I eat garlic and drink mugwort tea, serving in my place of Creation again when I reappear.
You may think I am hibernating but I am in torpor, here, awake, and soon emerging from my cave.
I am Ursa Fucking Major, made of stars, and I know how to use my energy on the Cosmic Hunt.
I wanna be a bear, a keeper of courage, responsible for managing my own energy. Spelling menopause P A W S. Soft fur, sharp claws. Trial, Error, and Torpor.
I am bear kin, seeking bear hugs, in the doorway of the Den, having traded my difficult human life for the carefree lot of bears in constellation.
But, as AA Milne wrote at the end of The House At Pooh Corner, “of course, it isn’t really Good-bye, because the Forest will always be there…and anybody who is Friendly with Bears can find it.”
Amy (she/they) is the co-founder of Missing Witches and co-author of Missing Witches: Reclaiming True Histories of Feminist Magic and New Moon Magic: 13 Anti-Capitalist Tools for Resistance and Re-Enchantment.