My Bush Soul, the Mountain Lion
by Suzanne Duarte
This is a follow-up to, or continuation of, the story in “Creating Space for Nature,” including some excerpts.
Over the years many animals, both wild and domestic, have called and spoken to me in countless dreams as well as in "real life." I have been blessed to have lived in the Rocky Mountains where encounters with wildlife are frequent. But the dreams of powerful "fierce creatures" of the wild were the ones that got my attention and focused it on the transformative significance that animals have had in my life.
Two of the most memorable and meaningful of these dreams occurred when I was on a wilderness retreat in the late 1980's. In order to reconnect with the Earth and my own heart, I did a six-day and -night solo among the wild cliffs on the west side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, on the northern edge of Crestone, Colorado. I have found that solo time in the wilderness is one of the most effective ways to get out of my head and back into my body so that the wisdom of the unconscious may speak. The following vivid animal dreams convey the power of that experience.
As I made my camp among the cliffs on the first night, I noticed that I was laying my bivouac sack and sleeping bag right in the middle of an animal trail. I had to remove abundant deposits of mountain lion and deer droppings in order to have a relatively smooth and level place to sleep. Since I'd been warned that I was in mountain lion territory and was alert to the possibility of a visit by one, I was not surprised that I was visited by the local cougars in a dream that night. But I was surprised by the content and direction of the dream:
A mountain lion cub padded into my camp in broad daylight when I was sitting up in my sleeping bag. I had no weapons. I sat very still, not daring to make a sound. The cub was sniffing curiously around the foot of my bag when its mother followed it into camp.
Knowing that there is nothing fiercer than a big mother cat defending her young, I realized how futile any attempt to defend myself would be if she decided I was threatening her cub. I was paralyzed with fear, frozen, barely able to breathe. But as I sat there, I slowly realized that it was an honor to be joined by the cub and its mother. I felt admiration for and kinship with them. Caught between the conflicting emotions of fear and love, I concluded that if the mother cougar wanted to take me, there would be nothing I could do, so I would give her my life. I relaxed, surrendered to the situation, breathed quietly, and just watched.
The mother mountain lion had sauntered in and stretched out on the ground some feet away from me, seeming, as cats do, not to take any notice of me. She was the picture of nonchalance. Following the cats' etiquette, not wishing to challenge her, I didn't look her in the eye. We simply sat in each other's presence for a while without making eye contact. Then a strange thing happened — the mother cougar turned into a woman, and the woman became my friend. Suddenly we were going to a party together.
This dream turned out to be the first in a series of dreams about mountain lions, which lasted for several years. The next animal dream occurred a couple of nights later, after I had settled into the retreat and was feeling a deep level of relaxation and contentment.
The dream began with a scan of the outside of a sterile institutional structure, a building that expressed a linear mindset, like one of the schools I had attended in the 1950's. The basement of the building was crowded with indigenous women — Native North American, Latin American, Black African, Australian Aborigine women, and others — all dressed in traditional costumes and speaking very fast in their native tongues. They were very agitated and were gesticulating and expressing their feelings vehemently. Among these women were two other kinds of creatures, huge serpents and large cats. King cobra, python, boa constrictor and other enormous snakes were coiling and hissing and arching in strike poses. Black panther, cougar, jaguar, leopard, tiger and other great cats were pacing and snarling and roaring. None of these beings were in conflict with each other; they were all feeling the same entrapment in this awful structure and expressing their frustration. The basement was seething with the tremendous energy of these women, snakes and cats. They wanted out!
When I awoke from this dream early in the morning, I thought, "No wonder they're all riled up, being trapped in that institutional structure. I would be, too." Then I fell asleep again and forgot about this dream until I was back at home.
One night towards the end of the retreat I lay in my sleeping bag unable to sleep for most of the night. There was a different energy in this night, the first I was able to stay awake long enough to see the stars. A lightning storm thirty miles to the west in the San Juan Mountains — no thunder, but great, silent flashes of diffused light — lit up half the sky every few minutes. This lasted long into the night. Between these bursts of white light I gazed at the Milky Way arrayed brilliantly across the crystal-clear sky. It was the time of the new moon and the week of the annual August comet shower. Between the lightning flashes, shooting stars enlivened the deep indigo sky. I felt incredibly blessed to be able to witness Nature's own spectacular fireworks.
After counting twenty shooting stars, I surrendered to a sense of wonder. I became aware for the first time, though this was my fifth night out, that it was far from silent among the cliffs. In the background, the rushing sound of the creek far below echoed off the rock walls. But there was something else. I began to sense a kind of music in the hanging world surrounding me. Even beyond the echoes of water and the sounding and resounding of the stars loud with light overhead, there was the music of the life around me. I became aware of the life around me. It wasn't the rustling of animals, it was subtler. I thought about the cougar dream and the fears I'd had that first night. Now I felt surrounded by a world that was not only friendly, but singing to me, inviting me to a party, letting me in on its secrets, giving me a glimpse of the magical quality of our living Earth, the living quality, the power of ancient rocks and trees and stars. Perhaps this was the party the cougar mother was leading me to.
It was not until much later, years later, that the full meaning — and irony! — of the basement dream sank in. In the short term, I recognized the images of the dream. There was a strong presence of feminine energy, not only among the women, but among the snakes and cats as well, associated as they are in Western tradition with the feminine. The indigenous women represented to me the primal feminine wisdom that is intimate with the Earth and knows the secrets of Nature.
The big snakes represented powerful transformative energy. I had been sympathetic with snakes since childhood. During a field trip when I was ten years old, I had thrilled at the smooth sinuousness of them as they wrapped and coiled themselves around me. In later life I had outgrown and shed my psychological skin several times, like a snake. Images of the Goddess often have snakes coiling around Her arms. The snake is an ancient image of the soul emerging from within the Earth.
In my adult life I had been fascinated with big cats, and also had small cats as my companions. The big cats represented power, grace, beauty and a strong maternal style of leadership and responsibility. I also recognized that those powerful archetypal energies were trapped within myself in a rigid, sterile institutional structure — the intellectual mindset that structured my life. I realized that my rational, linear ways of thinking and living were repressing the instinctual and intuitive elements of myself in the unconscious. I saw that those powerful forces "in the basement" were unhappy being imprisoned within that structure, and that they could be a strong creative force in my life.
However, I could not foresee at the time the extent to which the dynamic image of this dream would mark the beginning of a long rite of passage, a journey of the soul. It was a turning point after which the process of change would take on a particular character. I couldn't appreciate the elegant simplicity with which this dream would symbolize the path that was to unfold; for I couldn't foresee just how many structures in my life would be transformed from the "basement." Both the cougar dream and the basement dream turned out to be prophetic: it was animals that slowly, gently led me to a deeper place of heart and grounding within myself.
• • • • •
Once animals had gotten my attention, I began to consciously follow the passion I had always felt for them. That is, I consciously attended to the coincidences in my life that involved animals and looked for the significance of them. The Medicine Cards, by Jamie Sams and David Carson, became a helpful reference for interpreting the gifts and powers of North American animals according to the Native American tradition.
Many psychologists, particularly Jungians, have studied dreams of animals, and have recognized animals as messengers of the wisdom of the soul. The Latin root for animal is anima, which variously connotes breath, mind, and soul, as well as the feminine aspect of a man's personality. An animal is literally a being with a soul. Anima, as in "animating," is the enlivening factor. Indigenous "animistic" traditions perceive the entire natural world as alive and ensouled. The anima mundi is the great maternal soul of the world, conceived in various images and known by many names in the diverse cultures of the world.
The Christian tradition gave both animals and indigenous people a bad name, projecting onto them uncontrolled carnal appetites, beastliness and savagery, which were actually more characteristic of immature "civilized" humans than of animals and indigenous peoples. However, depth psychology is helping to restore animals to their helpful, healing role in the human psyche, and also is validating the wisdom of indigenous cultures.
I asked Marc Barasch, author of Healing Dreams, what he found about animals in dreams during his research. He said that animals are a primary phenomenon in dream life. "Very often in healing dreams they have extraordinary presence, very lifelike. They don't seem symbolic. You almost have to encounter them on their own terms rather than reducing them to icons or some symbolic factor in the psyche."
He also mentioned that indigenous cultures discuss animals in dreams as the "animal familiars" or "totem animals." I asked Marc if he could clarify the term "familiar." He said that "it literally means you have a connection with a particular animal and it becomes your totem animal. You aren't supposed to eat it or dire things will befall you. It's living its life, it's your 'bush soul.'" He went on to say:
What kind of message does this have for us in this culture? We are embedded in Nature. What happens to the natural world happens to us and what happens to us happens to the natural world. This kinship system that included the animals and that is still reflected in our dreams is a very important thing to acknowledge. A lot of people who have had no more contact with animals than a petting zoo still have extraordinary encounters with totem animals in dreams — bears and mountain lions and eagles. We think it's a new age cliché — you know, like "What's your totem animal?" I think that these are spontaneously appearing in peoples' dreams and I'm fascinated by it.
Often the animal is the carrier of the wisdom of the body, the carrier of the other qualities that we need to incorporate in our lives. James Hillman has a wonderful discussion of this. He says maybe you'll dream of a fox or maybe a weasel, some animal you don't much care for, because very often our animal dreams are not about these great, noble predators but about the smaller, more opportunistic animals. These are giving us a clue to some essential part of our personality that perhaps we haven't fully acknowledged as natural and as our own. So if we dream about the fox maybe we have a sharp nose, maybe we're clever or even a little bit sneaky. But that quality is not something we should simply reject as something immoral, but maybe we have a trickster quality and we should use this animal image or this animal feeling as a touchstone for our own growth and wholeness, a more complete way of being in the world.
• • • • •
Because they continued to appear in dreams, I became particularly interested in mountain lions, a cat par excellence. Felis concolor is known variously as mountain lion, cougar, panther, or puma. Long before I talked to Marc, I suspected that, in coming to me in dreams, the mountain lion was a totem animal for me.
According to the Medicine Cards, Mountain Lion is a difficult power totem to have:
Mountain Lion medicine involves lessons on the use of power in leadership . . . [and] the use and abuse of power in a position of influence. . . . If Mountain Lion has come to you in dreams, it is a time to stand on your own convictions and lead yourself where your heart takes you. Others may choose to follow, and the lessons will multiply. . . . [T]he first responsibility of leadership is to tell the truth. Know it and live it, and your example will filter down to the tiniest cub in the pride.
When I read this, my hair practically stood on end. I had been studying issues of leadership and power for nearly a decade. I had also been engaged for several years in a painful struggle to maintain my integrity in relationship to my mother. As her health deteriorated, she had become increasingly authoritarian and tried to manipulate me in a confused attempt to retain control over her life. Also, only a couple of years before the retreat in the Sangre de Cristos, I had left a job where I had observed disturbing abuses of power that affected many people. I had stood on my convictions, spoken my truth, and led myself where my heart took me, which was into the movement to protect the rainforests. I was in the middle of editing Lessons of the Rainforest when I went on the retreat where I had my first mountain lion dream. The mountain lion brought to consciousness the two themes of "speaking truth to power" and leading myself by following my heart that have been prominent in my life since that retreat.
The next mountain lion dream repeated a theme similar to the "basement" dream. In this, as in the dreams to follow, there was only one cougar.
I was in a large, imposing university library, which in some ways resembled a cathedral. It had a very high ceiling with large, leaded windows high on the walls, and a hushed, reverential atmosphere. The reverence in this case was for higher learning, something to which I had been dedicated all my life. An elderly man in a tweed three-piece suit and wire-rimmed glasses approached me and politely asked if he could help me. But I suddenly became distracted by the mountain lion standing by my side and twitching her tail. The cougar was looking toward the elevator from which a white-haired lady in a pink suit emerged with a miniature white poodle on a leash. I felt a rush of adrenaline as I feared the cougar could attack and eat the poodle, right there in the university library. I sent a psychic message to the cougar: No, please don't. Not here. The cougar stayed where she was and I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that she would honor my message. Then I woke up.
In retrospect this is a marvelously rich and ironic dream, although it took me awhile to appreciate it. Here again was the intellectual structure, a bastion of civilization. When I had attended the University of California at Riverside and at Berkeley, I had worked in the libraries of both those institutions. Although the library in the dream did not look like UC Berkeley's library, the atmosphere was similar to what I experienced as a student. Clearly, there was something in my ego structure that had been imprinted by such structures of learning, symbolized by their architecture. The wild, instinctual aspect of myself was confronting that ego structure — in fact, my very sense of identity. However, I was not ready, apparently, to allow my wild self to create havoc within that structure.
In this dream the mountain lion was out of the basement, on ground level, and was "behaving herself" from the dream ego's point of view. She did not indicate any intention of attacking the poodle, other than the twitching at the end of her tail, but "I" projected that she posed a threat to order if she chose to attack the dog. The poodle leashed to an old lady represented to me the domestication of my instinctual nature by my intellect, by civilization, which the mountain lion was calling attention to. I was uncertain of the lion's allegiance to me and whether I could "control" her, but by the end of the dream I began to feel that this wild creature could be trusted. Meanwhile, the question of whether the "librarian" could help me was left hanging. It was now a question that I began to address consciously. In fact, I became aware that the dominance of my intellect over my instinct and intuition was a painful theme in my life.
In subsequent mountain lion dreams, the situations involved people with whom I had conflicts. In each of them the cougar appeared benignly at rest in the midst of a human drama. She was there for me, like a reminder, an ally and protector of my deepest inner truth. In the course of this series of dreams, which numbered five in all, I became more and more comfortable with and trusting of her, until I finally recognized her as my familiar, my "bush soul."
That is not to say that we had a cozy, cuddly relationship — she was never my "pet" in these dreams. Rather, she was a powerful ally with whom I had a respectful relationship. I do not recall ever touching her in these dreams, but there was a psychic connection between us. She was the guardian of my true nature, my integrity. She bequeathed to me the confidence and courage to set boundaries and stay true to myself in my waking life.
In the last mountain lion dream, which was six years after the initial dream, I was on staff at a Buddhist meditation retreat center in the Colorado Rockies. This was the dream:
A woman who claimed to have healing powers was adjusting people's auras. Other members of the staff were standing passively in line to have their auras adjusted. I was not in line, but was observing from a distance. The woman doing the adjusting came up to me and looked me in the face. "Aren't you going to have your aura adjusted?" she asked, as if it was something I should do.
"No," I said, "I don't have my aura adjusted by other humans. I get my aura adjusted by my mountain lion," gesturing to the cougar standing next to me on the right, "and by contact with the Earth." Then I leaned over and touched the Earth. I woke up, amazed.
I hasten to add that nobody I knew claimed to "adjust peoples' auras," nor attempted to do so overtly. However, the dream very accurately framed for me a decision I was compelled to make at the time. It showed me that power relations do adjust people's auras, for good or for ill. That is, when someone has power over others — as is the case in every human family, group, organization, or society — the use or abuse of that power affects everyone's psychic field. In the world of unenlightened people, power usually corrupts, and the effect on the collective psychic field is negative. When challenged to prove that he was enlightened, the Buddha himself did not appeal to human authority. Rather, he touched the Earth and said, "The Earth is my witness."
I didn't think I was enlightened, but this dream signaled for me the end of a life-long struggle to prevent my aura — my psychic field — and that of others from being adjusted in a negative, disempowering way. Without being fully aware of it, I underwent an internal shift and entered a new phase of my life in which I no longer had to deal directly with abuses of power. Many confining institutional structures, internal and external, fell away. I simply side-stepped power struggles as I stayed true to myself and remained a free agent in my own life. It was around the time of this dream that Ecopsychology began to call me, and it eventually became my calling.
I have come to believe that what all animals and ecosystems deeply need and desire for the health of their souls is to be free agents in their own lives, and especially free of domination by humans. The mountain lion has been my subtle companion and guide on this journey, and photos of her on my walls have kept her presence alive in my life.
• • • • •
The meditation center also had a resident mountain lion, observed by a number of staff members over the years, although I never saw it myself. I wanted very much to have the honor of seeing her (or him) in person, but was granted the next best thing. One spring I was thinking about this mountain lion, wondering if it was still around because no one had seen it for a year. I hoped it continued to grace the land and decided to go out and look for signs.
As I walked up the trail to the top of the valley, in the direction of the national forest, I silently asked to be shown tracks: Please let me see a track so that I will know you're still here. Within a couple of minutes, just after I had reached the top of the trail, I felt pulled to my right off the trail. I walked slowly, scanning the wet ground where snow was still melting. Much of the ground was either bare rock or a gravelly surface, where I would not be able to see any traces, so I concentrated on the soft ground and snow patches. Very shortly I saw it: a large, clear front paw print in the mud, with a fainter back paw print behind it. There it was — definitely a mountain lion track — like an answer to my prayer.
"Thank you! Thank you!" I said aloud, feeling joy and gratitude that the spirit of mountain lion was still with me.
I continued my walk along the Forest Service road that borders the center's land, walking slowly and continuing to invite contact. I knew that people had been attacked by mountain lions along the Front Range of the Rockies. But I also heard it was possible to scare them off by raising one's arms and making oneself look bigger, shouting, throwing rocks and fighting back if necessary. Cougars do not expect their prey to fight back. I also carried a walking stick, which — if I hit one with it — I'd heard can be sufficient to scare off a cougar.*
However, because of my deep sympathy and connection with these creatures, I felt no fear and certainly had no intention of hitting a mountain lion with my walking stick. I reasoned that mountain lions are usually afraid of people, with good reason, and go out of their way to avoid us. I also doubted one would be interested in me as food. It's usually juveniles who have left their home territory that attack people on the trails near populated areas. These are inexperienced hunters who are hungry and don't know the dangers posed by humans. But I was far from the Front Range and was in the home territory of a particular mountain lion. There were miles of national forest, uninhabited by people, adjacent to the center; and the surrounding forest offered plenty of other game.
Therefore, I strode along the road with a light heart, keeping my senses open and looking for more signs. As I neared the fence that marks the west boundary, I saw another sign. In the middle of the road, only a few feet within the boundary, sat a large pile of deer droppings. On top of it was another pile — mountain lion scat, all big and hairy and white with crushed bone!
I burst out laughing. It was as though this sign, deer and mountain lion scat, was there to remind me that my entire journey with the mountain lion as my bush soul had begun when I had removed deer and mountain lion scat from my camp the first night I dreamed of the mountain lion. Of course the deer and mountain lion weren't thinking of me when they left their signs on the road, but those signs had a powerful significance for me, nonetheless. "Thank you again!" I said. "I see that all's well. Thank you!" Feeling relieved and reassured by these signs, I turned back and returned to my office.
Although I couldn't have put it in these terms at the time, the spirit of the mountain lion began my initiation into the deeper secrets of the psyche, which are inseparable from the magic and mystery of Nature. After many encounters with wild animals, my unconscious intuition has gradually become a conscious conviction that the soul of the Earth, expressed through her sentient creatures, responds and speaks to human souls who are open to that possibility; for there really is no separation at the soul level. And that is what Nature and all her creatures are dying for us humans to learn.
* Mountain lions are not friendly, cuddly creatures, but powerful predators who have been known to kill people — but only very rarely. Nobody at the meditation center was ever attacked, and the mountain lion there seemed to us then to be a guardian spirit much more than a threat.
This story was first published in Listening to Cougar,
Marc Bekoff and Cara Blessley Lowe, eds., University Press of Colorado, 2007. For further adventures following this rite of passage, see Psycho-Spiritual Evolution and The Animistic Soul Re-Emerges.
This story was first published in Listening to Cougar, Marc Bekoff and Cara Blessley Lowe, eds., University Press of Colorado, 2007. For further adventures following this rite of passage, see Psycho-Spiritual Evolution and The Animistic Soul Re-Emerges.
© Suzanne Duarte