‘Bear Medicine’, is a philosophy that comes from ancient Shamanism. It teaches us to approach our patients and those we care for with a strength based on knowledge and introspection. The bear was considered to be a very special animal in American Indian culture. The Shamans observed that bears strolled free around the countryside during the summer months and then withdrew away from the world in winter to rest up in caves. This communicated to the Shaman the importance of ‘thoughtfulness’ coming from quiet contemplation and reflection. By considering others at this meditative level, we are facilitating the ability to understand their unique individuality; by understanding their predicaments, we can then formulate a plan to naturally assist them to heal comfortably and harmoniously and keep them instep with nature.
Bears slow their metabolic rate down in winter but they exercise constantly during the spring and summer. They store up their reserves of fat, then use this up during winter hibernation in their inactive winter months. Some humans, however, keep on guzzling a diet rich in carbohydrates without sufficiently exercising and cause health problems to develop from acquired conditions such as chronic metabolic syndrome. The processed foods we often eat are full of artificial trans fats and refined sugars. We have long periods of inertia in our desk bound modern lives, but keep eating without putting in the required levels of physical activity to keep us slender and healthy. We can learn much from respecting and studying animals such as bears, but we are not bears, we are humans and for us to stay healthy we need to keep moving all year round as we do not consume most of our excess fat during a prolonged winter hibernation. Special care must be taken to ensure that if we work behind a desk in an office, we also eat a correct diet and do sufficient exercise and arguably the simplest exercise for the able bodied is walking. More strenuous aerobic exercise is also obviously beneficial for those able to do it.
We do, however, need time for peace and contemplation and the ‘cave’ that we have been given for this purpose is the ability to still the mind, so we can meditate and contemplate. Relaxing and doing breathing exercises, or “pranayama” as Ayurvedic sages term it, is important for resting the mind and balancing the emotions.
Many North American Indian tribes have referred to this ‘cave’ or special place of inner knowledge that lies deep within us all as the Dream Lodge. Through meditation, the transience of our physical reality can be seen in true proportion. Meditation can take us to a level where, behind our physical mortality, we can glimpse the expansiveness of consciousness.
This concept of introspection has also been mirrored in other cultures. For instance in the Indian subcontinent, parallels can be drawn to that of the cave of Brahman. Some sages visualized this cave as physiological, as well as metaphorical; it is related to the pineal gland that resides in the center of the four lobes of the brain. We may well ask ourselves: does this tiny gland only produce melatonin helping us to sleep, or is it also the seat of consciousness?
In the east this introspection developed into looking within and seeking the light of knowledge through meditation. Fundamentally, this was much the same approach adopted by the Shaman on the other side of the globe in North America. ‘Bear Medicine’ is concerned with developing intuition in the healer. This requires acknowledging that it is important to develop the right side or intuitive area of the brain, as well as considering the logical and mechanical left sided attributes, as both can have importance, both metaphorically and physically.
The Buddha’s teachings were fundamentally aiming at combating human suffering. To do this he taught that we should always do our best to stick to the eight fold path that consists of:
He suggested that we turn our attention within. This is equivalent to the ‘introversion’ adopted by the Sharman practicing ‘Bear Medicine’. The Buddhists discovered four ‘dhyanas’ or levels of meditation. The first stage consists of withdrawing from everything apart from the subject of the meditation. The second stage finds the meditator at a deeper level of concentration and any outside sensations become far less shrill. The third stage is deeper still, personal ego and identity seem far away, it is almost as if the wall between you and the rest of the universe is so thin, that at any time it may dissolve completely. As the practice is perfected some are said to finally reach the fourth ‘dhyana’, which is the ultimate state of ‘Nirvana’ or enlightenment. But we do not necessarily need to attain this ultimate state to use the skills of meditation and contemplation to benefit. Stilling the neurosis of the mind, slowing the heart rate and breathing have benefits in themselves. Meditation is possible whilst standing and walking, it doesn’t have to be a physically passive process in a particular squatting position.
'Bear Medicine’ developed concepts that are just as relevant to people today, just as they have been for generations before them. Sometimes people, especially those whose mobility has been chronically compromised, have seen that there is not necessarily a quick fix solution to their problems. Patience, care and introspection with strength and knowledge are the under pinning skills that are needed to form a strong solid platform from which treatment regimes can be planned and undertaken.
Allopathic treatment using synthetic drugs has only been part of mainstream health care for a relatively short period in time. It became important in the latter 19th and 20th centuries. The healing arts of humans have been going for far longer than so called 'modern medicine'. Chinese herbal medicine has a written history of over 3000 years and Ayurveda goes back over 5000 years.
One important holistic principle is that each individual is different and we each have a unique mind, body and soul. Our uniqueness, and our seemingly random behavior patterns are the results of our own long historical trial with the natural environment that has been run over many generations. Each one of us has our own path in life to walk and the emotional reasons that prevent us from comfortably doing so are just as important as the physiological and anatomical aspects of our bodies when they malfunction. We do not merely confine ourselves to mechanical factors and considerations, we are also concerned with the uniqueness of every single person, what makes them tick and what makes them happy. Holistic medicine at its core is about emphasizing happiness and assisting others at all levels. We learn that the benefits bestowed by nature are sometimes just simple considerations such as clean fresh air, sleep and relaxation, simple exercise such as walking bare foot along a sandy beach. By automatically acknowledging factors as these, we can often achieve better levels of motivation and increase function to the body, mind and spirit.
Some further reading:
Sams, Jamie and Carson, David. ‘Medicine Cards’ (Santa Fe: Bear and Company, 1988).
Eknath Easwaran ‘The Dhammapada’. Nilgiri Press 2012.