Wild Guru

[This is the first excerpt from the book-in-progress on my spiritual journey. This may be the most exciting chapter:)]

The first time I ever saw a mountain lion in the wild it killed a deer in front of me, less than a hundred yards away, and woke me up in a way I would never have predicted.

At the time, I was staying alone in our family cabin in the Absaroka mountains. My brothers planned to show up later, and my then-boyfriend couldn’t get away from his work back home. For a week or so, I was free to roam whenever, wherever, and for however long I wanted, every day. 

That summer of 2011, I was newly returned from several months in India where I had completed a yoga teacher training and found a guru in the form of a long-dead Hindu mystic. I had discovered the idea of enlightenment and begun studying with a living teacher, with whom I planned to return to India in the fall. My July 19th journal entry was a rumination on my perceived resistance and lack of commitment to the real work of spiritual awakening:

“ I am resisting my spiritual journey and my resistance is simply based on fear….of losing control… I don’t even see my fear and anxiety, so covered up are they by desire for control and arrogance, and rationalization. Just as in a 12-step program, the first steps toward spiritual realization are to admit I have a ‘problem’”.

Three days later, I was on the phone, catching up on life back home. Standing at the front door, tethered by the phone cord, I watched the little hillside across the creek our family calls the ‘wildlife meadow’. My eyes were drawn to the brushy clearing that seems to serve as dining room and throughway for deer, elk, moose, bears and who knows what else when no one is looking. As I watched and chatted on this particular day, a whitetail doe stepped across the meadow with a deer’s usual caution, looking around, but showing no signs of feeling threatened. I could just make out the tawny-colored body, graceful neck and alert ears, the bobbing steps of long legs in tall grass. 

Then a second shape of similar color showed up at the other end of the meadow, on a path of interception. As my attention was drawn more to the scene in front of me and less to the phone conversation, I noticed this other animal moved differently, more fluidly, more determinedly. The knowledge dawned that I was watching predator and prey and I hurriedly described what was going on, that I wasn’t watching two deer, but a deer being stalked by a mountain lion, and I had to go, would call back later. While I stood mesmerized, the lion stalked, then chased and then pounced on the deer, with the finale hidden behind the trees along the creek but clearly told by the doe’s cries. I had run out onto the porch trying to see, but instead ended up hearing the sounds of distress I didn’t even know deer made. And then it went quiet. 

I have always known there are mountain lions around the cabin. On a hike one summer with my first husband, we were confronted with a lion’s presence when we hiked up a draw and traced the rotting smell of long-dead flesh back to the remains of a calf. But the lions had never shown themselves to me. I had never even seen tracks in the mud of the trail, or the dust of the road. Lions had been tantalizingly invisible to someone who always wanted to see one on its home turf. 

My thoughts the day I witnessed the kill were mostly with the lion. I admired its speed and strength, and would actually have been disappointed had it failed. If I were asked with which of the two creatures I felt the most kinship, I would certainly have said the lion, the predator, the strong one. I didn’t want to think about what it would be like to be the deer. Yet I was haunted by the sounds of her cries, for which I had been unprepared.

It had never occurred to me that getting my wish to meet a lion would put a damper on my confidence to wander the mountains alone. The trepidation I now felt was an unexpected side effect of what I perceived as a gift. Everyone to whom I have told the story has reinforced my assessment it is a rare occasion to witness a predator’s kill. 

About the time things went quiet after the lion’s feat was when I would normally start packing up for a hike. I had planned to head across the creek and up the ridge that morning. However, every main route out of the cabin clearing heads down the hill towards the area where the lion had disappeared with the deer. Though I couldn’t see exactly where they ended up, I knew it was close. Heading out for a hike, especially alone, seemed quite foolish all of a sudden. 

The wannabe tough, fearless mountain woman in me thought there was no excuse for being afraid to continue on with daily hikes as usual; the lion would be far too preoccupied with its meal to give me any attention as long as I gave it a wide berth.  I paced back and forth in the cabin and on the porch and even a few steps down the driveway trying to convince myself to go out. I finally managed a walk up to the road, where I had better visibility and which was mostly in the opposite direction of the kill. Ironically enough, when I next saw the lion that afternoon, it was on the hillside just above that same road, within yards of what I had chosen as the safest route for my walk.  Several days later, my brothers arrived and we all three together inspected the remains of the deer. We found nothing more than hide-covered leg bones and hooves hidden in the trampled grass by the creek. We surmised our predatory neighbor had moved on.

At this point in my life I had done a variety of things others called brave, although I did not think of myself as particularly courageous. Hiking alone in the mountains was one example; traveling alone in India for several months another; quitting a corporate job and big paycheck yet another act that appeared brave. It was not that I had never been afraid before; rather, I had not had such a visceral response that it stopped me in my tracks. Even during one particularly challenging time in India, when I missed my stop and got off a bus in the middle of open fields with no idea which way to go, I did not let myself feel the fear. My sole focus was to keep moving until I found the town I was looking for, or enough cell service to call someone for help. I channeled my fear into movement rather than feel it.

Remarkable to me is that bearing witness to the lion’s kill confronted me with something I had become adept at ignoring: I am vulnerable to all manner of injury and even death as an embodied being on this planet. My vulnerability was no longer in the background to be ignored and covered up, but right up front. The truth was out. I had written in my journal the day before, “teachers seem to show up when I need them!” 

I tried, though, to put fear and vulnerability back where I thought they belonged. My false sense of security was, in part, a symptom of the feel-good, transcendence-seeking spirituality I was pursuing, supported by the trappings of a culture that refuses to acknowledge anything but love, light and happiness while avoiding pain and darkness. I had enough New Age spiritual training under my belt to sit for a while in meditation trying to transform fear into love. I worked to convince my body that if I could wander out there with an open heart, wild animals would leave me alone. But, although I wanted to feel love for the lion, I couldn’t muster it up through the fear. My body was not convinced. No matter how many spiritual platitudes I found about oneness, the bald fact in my face was my vulnerability to a powerful animal with teeth and claws. I was forced to admit I am not in control. I had been stepping around this elephant in the room for a good part of my adult life. I had not seen the fear of being vulnerable that drove my relentless planning of the future, my explanations and rationalizations of why something bad had occurred to me or someone else, my belief that if one would just take the proper precautions, put in the right safeguards, stay in the right places, have enough money, one would be safe from all manner of unpleasantness. 

Shutting down and ignoring such a fundamental truth of my humanity as vulnerability kept me at the surface of my life, ignorant of the breadth and depth of who I am. Watching the lion cracked the invisible armor I had built to avoid feeling the bad stuff, the scary stuff. It was as if a fingertip had finally poked through the end of a glove and all of a sudden there was sensation where there had been only a dullness. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of the end of my own captivity, of no longer seeing the world from a safe distance. The lion brought it up close and personal. It was my body that told me the truth, as it always does, when I listen.

The lion’s gift marked the beginning of an authentic spiritual journey, one in which I eventually stopped turning away from the shadows. I did not give it proper credit at the time. What I wrote in my journal after witnessing the kill was detached, in my head: “I had just been reading about creation, preservation and destruction. There it was, enacted in front of me…” A few weeks later, one journal entry in August hints at the internal transformation that had taken place:

“One of the essential elements of a spiritual journey – at least one that bears some fruit – is a strong desire to know God/Self/Love – pick the word that works for you. I did not have that. I had desire for knowledge, for accomplishment, for challenge, for being a better person, but not for self-realization. But what I have found interesting is how that very desire has appeared and developed in the fairly recent past.”

The lion guru’s work was done.

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