Last month a bear ripped into my tent, clenched his teeth onto my upper left arm, just below my shoulder, and would not let go. I was camped on the grounds of a 700-acre Buddhist retreat center located in southwest Colorado. I had gone there not so much because I was attracted to the practices of this particular method of Tibetan Buddhism, but because I wanted to volunteer. I wanted to sleep on earth every night for an entire month. I wanted to deepen my own meditation practice, which I’d developed over the past twenty years. And although I was uncertain that the teachings from this lineage of Buddhism would be a good match, I wanted to explore its perspective.
Having spent the past five summers thru-hiking long trails, here lay the opportunity to camp night after night in one locale. Instead of packing up each morning and hiking twenty miles each day, I could be a stationary camper. I felt giddy imagining the intimacy and sense of place that might arise by camping in one spot for a whole month. What might it be like to deeply observe the mountains, the dry earth, the scrubby pines, the deep blue sky? I came as much for Western landscape as for anything else. Though from my camp, I could see the colorful temple built in the shape of a mandala, which served as a steady reminder that I came here, too, to meditate.
I also wanted to live, for a short period of time, in a mindful community. The most useful definition I’ve heard for the term “mindful” has nothing to do with a full mind, but more to do with dropping out of the mind, and perceiving and responding to the world from a place of conscious, heartful awareness. Forget about living life on autopilot. Breathe, allow, pause, before reacting or not reacting. Accept each moment exactly as it is, without projection or the need to control. Meditation provides me with a way to practice mindfulness on the cushion, before taking it into the world. Mindfulness is about being engaged with people, animals, trees, everything in your world. It is not about disengagement.
I use meditation as a tool to ground myself deeply into this life. If that sounds esoteric, it’s not. The practice involves sitting and watching the mind, the breath, noticing thoughts and letting them go, noticing all that “is,” and allowing a spacious, compassionate sense to emerge, toward self, toward others, toward life. The practice is very similar to what I do when I run: Notice body. Notice breath. Notice mind. Relax. Let go. Open. Open. Open.
At 5:45 a.m., on the eleventh morning of my stay, May 10th, 2013, I’m asleep when something brushes up against my tent. I think it must be my cat Mica, who often wakes me in the morning. I’m sleeping on my stomach. I lift my head, realize where I am, and shout “Shoo!” It’s probably a raccoon. Though as I write this from my New England home, I wonder, do raccoons live at 7,500 feet?
A few moments later the animal vigorously bumps into me, the poles snap, and part of the tent collapses. A heavy, lumpy thing sits on me. It presses my pelvis into the earth and I think, “Oh crap, it’s a bear!” It sits on me for a few moments. I’m stunned. Then it gets up. I hear it walking around. Wow, am I lucky! That was a close call! I’m certain the bear is walking away, but I’m wrong. It doesn’t. He walks to the front of my tent, where my head is, and starts tearing the vestibule with his claws. It’s a silent morning—no wind, no rain—and each tear sounds phenomenally loud, and so very close. I’m highly alert and honestly cannot believe this is happening. I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that my beautiful nylon tent is being ripped apart by a bear. It’s against everything I know about black bears. I have no food in my tent; there is no reason for this to be happening. Nothing in my understanding of bears has prepared me for the possibility that a black bear (there are no grizzlies in this part of Colorado) could, or would, randomly rip open my tent and attack. I love bears. I admire and respect bears. I am in awe of them. Why is one tearing my tent apart? Then I black out.
An intense pain in my left arm wakens me. I turn my head to see the bear’s big head very close to mine. He’s lifted my arm up high. My shoulder is off the ground. He dangles my arm (still attached to my body) above my head. His teeth are jammed into the thin, pale blue cotton jacket that I sleep in. Thank goodness for the thin protection of my cotton jacket. Blood is everywhere. Red blood against pale blue jacket. Red blood dripping onto pale blue sleeping bag. His head, with my arm hanging from it, is astonishingly close to my face. What to do? My mind remains calm and very clear. Fight! Scream! Fight for your life! Give it all you’ve got! His wet, black nose looks soft and vulnerable. The moment I decide to make it my target, my body takes over completely. I watch as my right arm repeatedly punches him in the nose. Every morsel of energy, every ounce of desire to live—my entire life force—accumulates in my right fist as I punch the black bear that won’t let go of my arm. As I punch, I scream at the top of my lungs: “Hey bear! Hey bear! Hey bear!” and can’t understand why he won’t let go. I try looking into his eye, his right eye, the only eye I can see—I want to look in his eye—I want to get a sense of this beast. I want to understand him. But he’s shaking me back and forth, and his eye is high and looks off at an angle. I can’t get a sense of him. When he refuses to let go, I calmly think, “Okay, next he’s going to claw me down the center of my body. One big swipe. I bet that’s all it will take.” I fight like hell, with the calm knowing that next he will rip me apart. His teeth are white and clean, and I think, “That’s a good thing. Fewer germs.”
The first time I meditate in the ornate temple is during a ceremony called “Soak.” The participants consist of a dozen full-time staffers and a few volunteers. The volunteers watch, or try to follow along, as the elaborate ceremony unfolds. Drums are banged, rattles shaken, and conch shells are periodically blown. All chanting and prayers are in Tibetan. Halfway through the ceremony plates are distributed to each of us with bits of food on them: potato chips, marinated mushrooms, salami, and neon-colored candy. Goblets are filled with wine or juice. The temple director (a woman in her thirties) stands robed and erect. She splashes vodka (as blessings?) onto the food. She prostrates in front of the altar many times, both before and after the splashing. Warren, the volunteer coordinator, tells me the ceremony symbolizes shifting perceptions. Everything about the ceremony reminds me of my Catholic childhood. In both cases, the place of worship was lovely and colorful. But instead of the stained glass of the Catholic church, here there is intricately, hand-carved, painted wood, created by Nepalese craftsmen. The formal rituals are similar to my childhood, in that they seem overly serious, mysterious, and unexplained. The language is foreign: Tibetan vs. Latin. Above all else, the biggest similarity is that I’m bored. I yearn to break loose from all this, and walk down the hill to my tent. I want my simple Zen practice. When it is over, that’s what I do. I walk down the hill and meditate in front of my tent.
For some reason the bear drops my arm. He pulls his head away and leaves. I gaze through the hole in my tent, and in the distance see Warren. Our eyes lock, and like a duckling being hatched, he imprints onto my brain. He represents safety. His presence means I’m okay. It means I’m probably not going to die. “Can you believe it Warren? Can you believe it?” to which he responds, “No, Anne, I can’t. I can’t believe it.”
We had talked about bears. He had picked me up at the airport in Durango, and we talked about a lot of things during the two-hour ride (we took a wrong turn), but we talked about bears. He told me that last August a retreatant had slathered her face with honey (as a beauty treatment), then went to her tent to sleep for the night. A bear tore into her tent and bit her arm. When she screamed he ran off. She was unharmed, receiving two minor punctures, I think. Maybe three.
While Warren is hovering over me, another man, Jonathan, arrives on the scene. Warren was camped in a trailer to my left, a good distance away, and Jonathan was camped somewhere to my right. Together they drag me out of my tent by pulling on my bloody and torn sleeping bag. The first thing I say, while still lying on the ground, is, “I’m never going in a tent again.” Then, I keep repeating: “I’m so mad. I’m so mad. I’m so mad.”
With their help, I walk to a yurt. Once it was clear what my screams were about, everyone within earshot evacuated to the Community Building. The yurt has ten cots in it, each with brand-new saffron sheets and pillows from The Company Store. I helped put them on the cots a few days before, and unwrapped the new pillows from plastic. There is a fire burning in the wood stove. I choose the cot closest to the fire to sit on, while Warren runs to get his Jeep. Jonathan stays with me. I lean against him. He’s a solid, steady presence. He says nothing, but I feel he is very much with me. Then I move away from him, hold my sore arm close to my body, and begin to rock back and forth, back and forth. I don’t remember what else I may have said, but I do remember calling out for my dead mother. I call out to her in a childish voice, as if waking from a nightmarish dream.
At the Medical Center, the nurse says she was in the Emergency Room last year when the honey-faced girl was brought in. “Oh, this is much worse,” she says, “much, much worse.” My ER doc is Dr. Ralph Battles. Isn’t that a great name? Isn’t that the perfect name for an ER doc? He’s going to clean up my wound, battle infection, stitch me up. He’s going to do battle for me. I will be eternally grateful to this man. He is skilled, kind, funny, and a Red Sox fan. I’m from Boston. He tells me he’s a baseball nut, and knows baseball statistics like nobody’s business. I tell him my dad wrote a weekly sport’s column for our hometown paper and he, too, was stat-crazy. He asks me his name, I tell him, and he swears he’s read a column by him. I tell him he’s been dead twenty-five years, but he swears up and down that he’s read a column written by him, about Johnny Pesky. He swears it. I doubt it’s true, but isn’t this the kind of doc you want to do business with?
I’m in the ER for over five hours. Though, one hour of that time is spent waiting to hear back from the Colorado Center for Disease Control, while they determine if I should receive rabies injections. There is no cure for rabies. If you get it, you die. There are twenty-one punctures on my left arm. I get seventeen stitches. The stitches are loose, to allow drainage. I receive the rabies shots. Fifteen injections directly into the wound, one vaccine in the right arm, and three follow-up vaccines scheduled within the next two weeks. Each injection feels like a tetanus shot—a stab and a punch.
On the way back to the retreat center, Warren stops to get us coffee, then stops again to pick up prescriptions. The final stop is to meet the District Wildlife Manager. They have “suppressed” the bear. They want Warren to confirm it’s the same bear that he saw attack me. We drive down a dirt road until we reach a “T” intersection, where a pickup truck is parked. Several men in uniforms are standing around it. There’s a woman with them. I recognize her as a retreatant (not a volunteer) that I spoke with once, in the ladies room.
We approach the pickup. The bear looks small compared to many larger bears that I’ve seen. But no, they tell me he’s a typical-sized bear for this neck of the woods. Later I learn he’s a 125-pound, three-year-old adolescent male. Warren confirms that this looks like the same bear. The retreatant has makeup on, and is nicely dressed. She has a white satin sash draped around her neck and is holding a clay sculpture of a bear. She tells me she made it this morning. My arm is throbbing. I feel nauseous from all the meds flooding through my body. I feel sick and angry as I look at the bear. He could have killed me. He almost killed me. I’m alive, but I’m lucky to be alive. This beast nearly killed me. I ask the retreatant, “Why are you here?” She says, “I came here to pray for the bear.” I scrunch up my face, tilt my head, and step away from her. “Oh, oh, and for you, I came here to pray for you, too.” Then she asks a wildlife official if she can touch the bear. She places her hand on it and begins to sing. We leave.
I’m taken to a tiny room on the second floor of the temple, normally reserved for visiting Lamas or Rinpoches. Loosely translated both titles mean “respected teacher.” I like the room. It feels safe, cozy, womb-like. There’s a small window to the left of the bed with Venetian blinds in need of repair. I don’t have much of an appetite but force down an apple and a few almonds so that I can take my antibiotics. The kitchen staff sends up a bowl of guacamole and a large bag of tortilla chips; the brand name is Bearitos. There’s a picture of a cute little dancing bear on the bag. This catches my eye.
I borrow the temple phone to make a few calls, and then try to relax but can’t. I decide to make a list. I like making lists. Lists calm me down. I list the three medications I’m on. This small task takes a quite a long time. I’m left-handed. The bear noshed on my left arm. I need to re-write it four times before it is legible: antibiotics, pain pills, nausea pills. Pain pills, I was told, make you sick to your stomach, hence, the nausea pills. I’m exhausted yet buzzing with tremendous energy. Is this from the drugs they gave me at the hospital? I don’t do drugs well. In fact, I end up chucking the pain pills and the nausea pills. Hate drugs. Though, am grateful for antibiotics. Neutral about the rabies vaccines. I was told it was unlikely the bear is rabid. He will be tested and the results should come back in a few days. If he isn’t rabid, my thought is that I’ll skip the next three vaccines.
I hear voices outside my door. I open it to see my volunteer friend, Jenna. She has strawberry blonde hair that she wears in French braids, and a beautiful smile. She’s from Santa Fe. She sits with me. “Now Anne, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but we’re all so glad this happened to you, because if it happened to anyone else they’d be dead! But not you. For you it’s just another day, another thing to check off your bucket list. Wrestle with a bear and win: check.”
Jenna leaves and I doze lightly. A strong wind picks up. It whips against the window, causing part of the broken blind to fall onto me. I bolt upright and scream “bear!” Then lie back down. No bear. An hour later something falls on the deck and again my body reacts; I bolt upright. I can’t relax. At midnight, I tiptoe into the meditation room, take a seat, hold my wounded arm, and rock back and forth. I recite a chant: Ra, Ma, Da, Sa, Sat, Say, So, Hung. Over and over, I sing this chant. I think of the yoga class, in Bethel, Connecticut, where I learned it. I chant and chant, and rock back and forth, back and forth.
I return to my tiny room and try to get comfortable. My arm hurts. It’s tender. At 3 a.m., I reach for my iPod. Just before leaving home, I downloaded six Dharma talks by Thich Nhat Hanh. I love this man. I love being in his peaceful presence. He has four monasteries, one of which is close to my home. The few times I’ve been in his presence, he has felt like truth to me. He feels genuine. I respect his life, and his work, but rarely listen to his Dharma talks. My excuse is that his Vietnamese-French accent gets in the way. With nowhere else to turn, I turn to him. The talk is called “The Voice of the Buddha,” and as Thay (teacher) speaks, his words penetrate my entire being in a way I’ve never known before. He speaks directly to my heart. I hang on his every word. Is this what it takes for me to hear this dear man? Must I be attacked by a bear and utterly freaked, before my heart will crack open enough to let this wise man in? I am both horrified by this notion, and grateful. I fall into a deep slumber as his soothing words wash over me.
The next morning, I’m given a room in the Residence Hall. After unpacking, I walk to the Community Building. Along the way, I cut through a field and nearly step on a big fat snake. I used to be afraid of snakes. I worked very hard to conquer that fear. It took me years—a lifetime, really, but I did it. When I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) four years ago, I had a breakthrough, and my fear of snakes shifted from an ancient cellular panic to curiosity, respect and fascination. I saw fourteen rattlers on the PCT, and dozens of other snakes, most of which I admired. The snake at my feet, in this moment, pushes me into a full state of panic and I scream. What the heck? I can’t believe it. My body begins to shake.
At the Community Building I walk into the staff room and am given a heroine’s welcome. It occurs to me that this is the reason I came to here, to meet these people. This motley crew. One of whom sits beside me, leans over, and whispers, “Hey Anne, I just got back from Iraq. If you have any trouble with stress, just let me know. I can probably help.”
This guy’s name is Dan. He’s in his twenties, and is a cross between a hippie, a scholar, a radical, and a monk. We worked together in the temple the other day, collating and stapling prayer books. He’s a nonstop talker. I’m neither a nonstop talker nor a nonstop listener, and after twenty minutes of working with him I say, “Hey Dan, have you ever heard the Zen phrase: Chop wood. Carry water?” He says, “No, what’s it mean?” I respond, “It means, shut up and pay attention to what you’re doing.” I don’t mean to be rude, and luckily he doesn’t seem offended. He shuts up. He collates. I staple. Every few minutes the stapler jams and I have to stop what I’m doing to pluck the offending staple out of the cartridge. After about the eighth jam, he pipes up, “Chop wood. Carry water. Fix stapler.”
I leave the staff room and go out to the patio. Sitting on a table is a box filled with canisters that have small horns attached to them. “What are those?” I ask. Someone says, “They’re bear horns from last year. We need to refill them and then distribute them to campers.” Bear horns.
I wander into the garden. Someone has placed cairns among the herbs and flowers. I walk back toward my room, noticing more cairns—near the statute of Quan Yin; beside the path to the Stupa; in the garden by the temple. Later I learn Dan made them for me while I was at the ER.
It’s Mother’s Day. In the evening it snows six inches.
I spend the next morning trying to connect with family and friends. This is not easy. My cell phone doesn’t work in this remote location. Borrowing a phone means walking up the hill to the temple, and then up many stairs. Normally this small piece of physical exertion would be nothing for me. I’m a lifelong distance athlete: marathons, centuries (hundred-mile bike rides), birthday runs (a mile for each year), etc. But today, the short walk up to the temple exhausts me. Everything exhausts me, yet I can’t relax. Can’t sleep. A switch was flipped in my body—adrenalin won’t stop coursing through my veins. I spend four days and four nights not sleeping. Then I meet Maria.
She’s a beautiful woman, about my age, from Chile. She’s a medicine woman. I lie on my back in the temple while she stands above me and speaks to the spirits that live in the north, the east, the south and the west. She speaks to the earth, to the elements, and to the animals. In her lovely Chilean accent, she asks that all these forces, “Come to the aid of my sister Anne, and heal her.” She places one hand beneath my sacrum and one hand on my lower belly. I place my left palm on my heart. She guides me out of my mind and into my body. She says, “We need to coax the jaguar out of the tree. She’s been chased up there and is on high alert. We need to get her down.” I do as she says. Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. Don’t think. Come into your body. Feel sensations. Blow emotions out of your body through your mouth. We do this for twenty minutes. Then she is above me again, thanking the northern, eastern, southern and western spirits, earth, elements, and animals for their assistance. We’re done. I feel deeply relaxed. We walk down the hill for lunch, and say goodbye. I return to my room and sleep. I don’t bother with dinner. I eat a few almonds, and sleep through the night. I wake astonished. Not only am I sleeping, I’m dreaming. It’s been months since I’ve dreamed.
The days pass. I want to leave but logistics are difficult. Plus, the truth is, I’m not strong enough to travel. I need to heal a bit first. Dr. Battles told me my body would be sore during the days following the attack, and he’s right. My neck, back, and bitten arm are often in significant pain. So, I wait. After my meeting with Maria, I sleep around the clock. Occasionally, I help out in the office or the kitchen. But mostly, I sleep.
On the fifth day after the attack, a year-round, full-time staffer helps change the dressings on my arm. She says, “Well, you know, this never would have happened if you hadn’t camped on a well-known bear path.” Anger rises in me like silver mercury in a glass thermometer—slowly, steadily, and with unstoppable force. “What are you talking about? I was told to camp there. I was told to camp in that very spot, and told that my location was marked on the map in the office.” She says nothing.
On the sixth night after the attack, the volunteers wait patiently in the temple for Lama to arrive. She’s going to talk to us about a meditation practice called “Prajna Paramita.” She comes into the room, we rise; she sits, we sit. She talks about the practice. She seems like a nice woman. The room is silent as she speaks. Lama cracks a joke that isn’t funny, and no one laughs except for her young female assistant. She laughs heartily, with a bright face, and a twinkle in her eye. The word “sycophant” comes to mind. I think, “Oh my gosh, this just like corporate America (a place I spent many years). She’s sucking up to her boss.” No judgment, just noticing. Or maybe, the rest of us just didn’t get the joke.
There are visible tensions among the full-time staff. Most of them seem stressed, and often upset. When the Executive Director pops her head into the kitchen one afternoon, a few days after the attack, she shouts something to the cook. He has dark black hair and an exotic look about him. He turns his slim body from the stove, and growls angrily back at her. That night I dream that this sweet, soft-spoken man morphs into a bear.
The next day at meditation only five of us attend. At the end of the meditation, names are read in honor of the sick, the dying, or the dead: John Waters, Arizona, cancer; Marie Winters, California, died April 8th; David Crest, Denver, recovering from surgery; Anne O’Regan, healing from trauma (I’m stunned); a black bear who lost his life on May 10th (I’m stunned again). It’s only been a week.
Three days before leaving, I go for a walk with Dan. We walk beneath the colorful wooden gateway and off the premises. Our intention is to walk up to a fire tower about three miles away. I tell him that if comes with me, he must be silent on the way up to the tower. We can talk on the way down. He reluctantly agrees to these terms. As we walk, he’s clearly excited by this flower! That tree! The multicolored lizard skittering by! He looks at me with pleading eyes, begging to speak. I shake my head. After a mile, I feel dizzy and nauseous and like I can’t breathe. After two miles, I tell him we have to stop. We sit down. I can’t make it to the tower. We turn around and walk back. Along the way, Dan finds a giant heart rock. I watch as he creates a cairn, and leans the heart against it.
On May 22nd, my friend Rebecca, who had been out of state for the past ten days, drives 6.5 hours to pick me up. We dump my stuff in her car, and then walk over to where the attack took place. We return to the car. Warren sees us, “Anne, I’m glad I caught you.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a few dollars. “Here, dana (tips) from the guests.” “Thanks.” I say. “Gas money.” He’s a kind man, with a kind heart. I give him a hug goodbye. One thing that has changed since the attack is how I feel about reincarnation. I used to be on the fence, but not anymore. Of course, I don’t know. Who really knows? But it makes sense to me now. It seems reasonable that when we die, we come back as a dolphin, an Aborigine, a hawk, or a bear. It seems reasonable that we come back. I sense Warren has walked this planet many times over. I’m glad I met him this time ‘round.
Four years ago, when I completed my 2,650-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, the phrase “Everything and nothing has changed” coursed through my brain. Meaning, I think, that I’d just spent five months in the wilderness, walking thousands of miles, mostly alone. I felt completely different, yet nothing in my life had really changed.
The only other time that I’ve had a near-death experience was on the Pacific Crest Trail. I was in the Sierra Mountains, and got swept into a creek. I got sucked into the current, and smacked up against rocks. The same life force that welled up in me when I was punching the bear welled up in me in that water, and I willed myself out. The name of that body of water? Bear Creek.
Since the attack, the phrase that keeps coming to mind is, “Everything and everything has changed.” I’m still sorting that one out.
I’ve been back from Colorado less then two weeks. My arm is still healing. A few years ago, when I was shopping in Newburyport, a seaside village north of Boston, I tried on a sleeveless dress in a tiny boutique. When I came out of the dressing room, the owner of the shop gasped and exclaimed, “Oh, those arms!” I suspect if I went back tomorrow, she would gasp again, but for a different reason. The arm looks rather unsightly. Though, at least it’s still attached to my shoulder.
At the ER the other day (infection), I sat watching the puss ooze from my arm. The surgeon examining me says, “I’ve never met anyone who survived a bear attack.” I ask her if she’s ever met anyone who didn’t. She stares at me, but doesn’t respond—implying that she has? She asks a lot of questions. She tells me that my arm will take six months to a year to heal. As she leaves the room, she turns to me and says, “Your life has a purpose. You survived this. You have a purpose in this life. You belong here.” Since the attack, people have said all kinds of things to me, most of which I ignore. I glance at her, and then look away. I can feel her eyes on me. She’s waiting for a response. It seems she won’t leave until I look her in the eye. She repeats, “You have a purpose in life. You didn’t die. You belong here.” I nod, and she leaves.
Rumpus original art by Jyotsna Warikoo Designs.