“Living is not always a smooth journey. There are times in life when everything seems difficult to an extreme extent. Those are the winters of our existence.” Starry Song said after I told him about the stressful breakup process between the partners of the advertising agency I was part of. Two of them left to set up a new agency with the intention of working for a powerful multinational company, which, by contractual requirement, imposed exclusivity of service. The others, me and one more, continued with the accounts of their former clients. However, the facts did not unfold in a simple and gentle manner. It was a situation that involved money and shadows. They say that you better know a person when you walk away from them than when you stand by their side. Honestly, I am not sure if this is true, but at that moment egos were running high. Vanity, pride, envy, jealousy and greed were present in our meetings. There were days when I would come home in complete physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual exhaustion. Friends who, driven by uncontrolled passions, became mortal enemies. Everything got worse when the lawyers were present in the final stages of the negotiations; when we need the laws it means we have lost love. We lacked wisdom and balance; we lacked love. On the day when all the contracts were signed, I didn’t even go back home. I went to the airport and, without any baggage, having only my personal documents, I took the first flight to Arizona. I was sick with myself, as if life had given me a digestion problem. I felt like a spectre of a man.
Starry Song’s home, in Sedona, would always be a safe harbour for the storms of my soul. I was greeted with a strong hug and a sincere smile. Sitting on the porch, the shaman filled the red stone furnace of his pipe with smoke, looked at me with compassion, and said, “You are very sick. You need to get treated.” I told him that I was tired. I just needed to rest and distract myself a little. In a few days everything would be fine. He shrugged, puffed his pipe, spreading the scent of smoke into the air, and looked up at the mountains. Then we chatted about small things.
In the days that followed I went on many hikes, went horseback riding, swam in the river, participated in a magical ceremony, went to a music concert, I talked to many people, in short, I had a lot of fun. I felt very good. As if my soul was renewed. I told this to Starry Song and said I was thinking about returning in a few days. The shaman just looked at me. That afternoon I received a phone call from the remaining partner, the one who continued the partnership with me. He told me about an abusive behaviour on the part of the former partners, an attitude that, although it was not regulated in the partnership termination contract, was clearly dishonest. I harshly narrated the facts to the shaman.
Faced with the accusation I had just made, Starry Song reminded me that we need balance in moments like these: “An analysis made through a passionate perspective must remain silent. When two people disagree, very often both of them are right. Each one has been left with a part of the truth.”
I said that all of this was nonsense, as I knew very well what I was talking about. However, all the wellness that I felt disappeared completely and, in a fraction of a second, I returned to the discomfort that had plagued me the day I arrived in Arizona. The shaman patiently explained: “Living with nature nourishes us with the vital energy we need, and dissolves the heavy astral clouds. The contact with our friends rekindles the flame of love, makes us dance around the fire of life. It’s all very pleasant, but it’s not always enough for healing. The storm, however violent, can only stir the surface of the lake; in its depth the waters always remain calm.” He paused briefly before concluding, “We must understand where we are in ourselves. Whether in the shallow or in the deep. This determines the disposition of the soul. The level of harmony we have with ourselves establishes the balance we will have in relation to the world.”
“To understand this, extreme moments exist; they are the winters of our existence. It’s time to learn from the bear.”
I asked him to explain further. Starry Song elaborated: “It is time for the bear to hibernate in the cave. In the shamanic tradition the bear represents the guardian of the Western Gate, the place where the sun sets and darkness dominates. The bear, the winter and the cave are archetypes that project existential situations. Winter, since time immemorial, represents days of difficulty, periods of scarcity. Just like the body, the soul also needs to nourish itself. The soul is nourished by the good feelings that flourish in our relationships, by the virtues that drive the choices we make every single moment, by the ideas that broaden our horizons. However, the cycle of life has four seasons. When winter comes, comes the cold, the cloudy mornings, the rainy afternoons, we feel uncovered; life seems to be smaller. Hunger and weakness arrive. The winters of the soul are hard to get through. But they have their importance.”
“It doesn’t mean that the universe has abandoned us. This never happens. In nature, once winter arrives, the bear retreats to the bottom of the cave to digest everything it has eaten during the previous seasons. The cave means the core of the being, the place where each person finds him or herself. The bear needs this time of stillness and solitude. In other words, it is the time for introspection. It is the time to dive deep within oneself to understand all that one has experienced; and to overcome it. To decode the hidden lessons behind each fact. To learn from the losses; to rejoice in the gains. To digest the disappointments; to delight in the lessons. Once winter ends, spring comes. It is a cycle of life’s renewal, when the fields are once again in bloom, when the sun regains its intensity. Then the bear comes out of the cave. Stronger and wiser.”
“If the bear doesn’t enter the cave, it won’t survive the winter. In the winter of our existence, when we refuse to introspect, we succumb to sadness or aggression. Without going through the winter no one reaches the spring.”
By then it had become clear to me that the improvement in mood I had experienced during those days of sightseeing and fun was only apparent. Nothing in my essence had been transformed. At the slightest contrary movement, all the unpleasant emotions were back to the surface of existence. I needed to face the winter; and in order to do so, I had to go deep into the cave.
It’s always possible to turn to conventional medicine with its anxiolytics, antidepressants, and the like. I knew about friends who had experienced this, and I didn’t like what I had seen. They went into a downward spiral of addiction; only a few made it back. I noticed a case of existential stagnation and no evolution. I was convinced that the pains of the soul cannot be treated with medicines. They are cured with therapy, meditation, prayer and study. Valuable experiences as long as they lead to the inevitable encounter. The one that each of us will have with ourselves.
I asked the shaman for help. He told me about an old hunting cabin that belonged to his family and was inactive. It was in the mountains, in the middle of the forest. I provided supplies. Starry Song drove me there. The access was difficult. The cabin, although in disuse and in need of some repairs, was still habitable. I would be alone there. When he said goodbye to me, I asked him when he would be back. He answered: “At the end of winter. When the spring sun shines on your soul again.” I was startled. There was no telephone or any other means for me to communicate with him. There was no market nearby for me to stock up. Not to mention the risk of inconvenient visits by wild animals. The shaman laughed with amusement and said, “Understand the importance of living with only what is necessary; it helps you to find yourself. Material superfluousness generates emotional debris. They get in the way by taking us off our axis.”
I asked which axis he was referring to. Starry Song explained, “The ego suffers as it becomes involved with its own shadows. It, the ego, needs to meet with the soul to know the value of virtues and the possibilities of other choices. They will meet each other, fraternize, and finally align themselves on the same axis: the light. The illuminated cave establishes the end of winter.”
He paused and concluded, “That day I will be here to pick you up.” Before I could say that this was insane, that I couldn’t stay in the cabin in those conditions, with no contact with the rest of the world or even with him, Starry Song shrugged and said, “If it were different, it wouldn’t be a cave.” He got in his car and left.
I was absolutely and literally alone. Being surrounded by people does not mean being in company. In the same way, being alone does not mean being lonely. But being alone does not mean being with yourself. It took me a while to understand this. Those days were fundamental.
They were difficult days. Difficulty, when well used, brings many lessons and transformations. By unbalancing us, it pushes us to search for a new point of balance. So, we move forward. I soon realized that, in order to survive in those conditions, I would have to rethink my way of living. To reprogram my mind to change priorities. There, credit cards had no value; there was nothing to buy. Having a good knife made me privileged, a shovel made me a blessed man. At night, relying on a gas lamp or candles was a fortune. A book brought me indescribable joy. Each meal, all very simple, made the sacred pulsate in my veins. I needed to think carefully in order to ration my supplies with wisdom; this made me understand about the beauty of simplicity, because it talks about the essential. The essential paves the road to the essence. So, a little bit each day, I could find myself.
Finding myself has allowed me to have a more generous perspective of my business partners. A fairer look. Admitting my shadows made me patient with their behaviour. By understanding that, just like me, they also had their reasons and needs; weaknesses and qualities. It was necessary, without forgetting myself, to look at those men with gentleness. I knew about many things, but I didn’t know many more. So did they. This caused me to engage in a love triangle with the virtues of humbleness and compassion. I got closer to sincerity, justice and meekness. As I felt better, I realized that they were also better than I had initially assumed. By judging through the bias of my own interests and needs, my own eyes and abilities, I rigorously evaluated the difficulties of others, in an unconscious attempt to ignore my own difficulties. This is why the mistakes of others are always more serious than our own. Thus, the roots of intolerance and backwardness take root in the earth, sprout branches of pride and vanity; the faded flowers of envy, greed and jealousy appear. Their bitter fruits cause serious indigestion problems; once poisoned, they sicken the tree itself. Reversing this train of thought to sweeten one’s own fruit in order to nourish, besides oneself, all those around, begins the process of bringing the ego and the soul together under one axis. The axis of light of which Starry Song spoke before.
The need to solve practical questions, typical of those days in the cabin, were useful as existential exercises. For it led me to face intimate questions that ended up illuminating the interior of the cave. All decisions were interconnected. It was necessary to evaluate the trajectory, set goals, qualify values, and invert some priorities. Both in the cabin and in the cave. I advance according to the expansions of consciousness and love that I achieve, reflected in each choice I make; in what I want from now on, and in what I no longer want. Understanding and personal overcoming make the world a more beautiful place. The colours of life are directly connected to my inner beauty. Only a better person can find the best in another person. Only by admitting the coexistence of differences can I enjoy the power of being unique and be enchanted by everyone’s diversity. With their virtues and shadows; as well as my own. As we have perfect affinity, by complaining less about the world, I have more time and energy left to improve myself; and very often we have the same flaws. This is a sure way to revolutionize life. This is my strength. This is the power of transformation through introspection. This is the magic of the cave and the lesson of the bear.
Difficulties became challenges; initial dissatisfaction turned into primordial joy. I felt stronger as my mind cleared. My feelings became calmer. A little bit more each day. Until I realized that it was time to go back. There was a new man willing to travel the world in a different way; through others, willing to relate to himself in a better way. Nothing bled anymore; the virtues of will, wisdom and love can heal us.
Winter had come to an end. It was time to leave the cave.
As if coincidences existed, that afternoon I was surprised by the arrival of Starry Song. I wanted to know how he knew it was the day to return. He smiled and gave a cryptic explanation: “Thought is the language of the spirits. Hearts are their drums. I heard it when you called me.”
This understanding will be left for another time. For now, that was enough. I put my personal belongings in a backpack and we left. A strange sensation was driving me; I felt rejuvenated. I carried the strength of the bear within me.