Analytical thinking is the backbone of science and a key attribute setting us apart from other animals. The gifts it has provided us impact every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to how we communicate and travel. But there is a dark side to our love affair with the analytical mind. When we analyze we cut things into pieces. We use observation and logic to dissect them into their component parts. We examine how each affects the other; we link causes and effects. But with so much breaking down, so much dissection, it can be hard to put things back together. We come to see the parts and their immediate relationships, but in so doing we often lose sight of the whole. The animating spirit gets lost when we relate to things as objects, seeing only through the eye of the logical, discriminating mind.
Patricia is a middle-aged woman who suffers from a variety of medical issues including diabetes, hypothyroidism, chronic pain, gum and sinus infections, anxiety, depression, and a history of stroke. All of these conditions, potentially serious by themselves, are even more challenging to treat when they are combined. Changes in mood, for example, can profoundly impact blood sugar levels. Erratic blood sugar levels, in turn, affect the body’s ability to fight infection. Hypothyroidism contributes to depression. Depression suppresses the immune system. And the list goes on.
Patricia had several physicians who each managed a different aspect of her health. But, despite the occasional information passed between these professionals, none saw the big picture. Not really knowing her body, and the effects of her mood upon her body, their recommendations were frequently off the mark. For example, insulin dosages prescribed according to a general formula would typically over- or under-shoot her specific needs. Managing her diabetes was like trying to shoot an arrow at a falling leaf on a windy day. Even if they had all gotten together to discuss her case, they would likely still miss the whole. This is because the basic orientation of western medicine is to suppress and banish symptoms rather than see them as symbolic and purposive messages from the larger psyche.
This situation was compounded by the fact that Patricia was herself too analytical in her orientation to life and the needs of her body. She forced herself to do things according to a prescribed time schedule rather than the internal cues of her body and instincts. Most importantly, Patricia would too-readily turn to medications to manage her anxiety or depression symptoms rather than work with her symptoms to better understand her unconscious feelings, fears, or conflicts. Her physicians would get frustrated with her because her illnesses would not respond to their treatments, and she would get angry with herself and her body because it wouldn’t do what she wanted it to do. Over time her list of medications just grew for the side effects of one would lead to the prescription of yet another. Ironically, the more that she and her doctors tried to control and strong-arm her illnesses and moods, the more out-of-control her symptoms became.
The complexity of Patricia’s medical situation did not lend itself to the cookie-cutter approach to solving problems encouraged by the medical, pharmaceutical, and insurance industries. Care is almost always abbreviated and fragmented within our current system. Patients, especially those with complex or confusing health issues, often feel they don’t have enough time with their doctor, or that they are not really listened to. In addition, patients with complicating psychological issues can be very frustrating to the doctor that is trying to maintain a tight schedule or who is overly attached to straightforward solutions. Patricia noted that two days after her visits with her primary care doctor she would typically be in the emergency room seeking treatment for heart rate or blood sugar problems.
One morning, when both her body and her emotional life were especially upheaved, Patricia had the following dream:
I went into the lobby of a plain building. There were two double doors that opened into a room that looked like a dining room. It had square tables that seated four and all the chairs were turned towards the front of the room. In the lobby, next to the two double doors was a cutout of a black bear with brown fur on its stomach. The bear was standing upright on its hind legs and its left front paw was raised to the sky as if reaching up. The bear was not intimidating, more like welcoming.
There were other people in the room, all looking towards the front. They were waiting to hear a lecture on a way of life. I never saw the person who was to give the lecture but it was a man and he called his lecture “Take the Bear.” I understood that the “bear” was a metaphor but was not sure for what. I did not hear the lecture in the dream but absorbed the message: The Bear is yours.
The lecture was on what to do with the bear. The idea was that in order to manage the bear one must cut it into pieces. How you cut it into manageable pieces was different for every single person. How you cut it didn’t mean by which object you use but where and how big or small you decide it is necessary to make the cut so you can manage it. Some people may need to cut a paw while others may need to cut the torso and some get the whole bear. It was completely individual, no two the same. I fully understood the concept of cutting up the bear but I kept repeating “you get the whole bear?” People kept turning to me and saying “yes.” Finally one clear voice said, “Yes, Patricia, you get the whole bear.” I kept repeating the phrase because while I understood that the bear was mine, I was absolutely incredulous. It had never occurred to me that the bear was all mine. It was mine. Not my family’s or society’s ar any institution’s. It was mine to do with what I pleased. I could reject it or accept it, but as long as I behaved in the manner in which I was ultimately meant to (i.e., spiritually, honestly, peacefully) I could easily access the bear. If I veered off my path the bear would be less accessible. I had been so busy trying to manage pieces of the bear, I never saw it for what it was. I didn’t need to manage pieces of the bear, I was ready for the whole thing.
The bear wasn’t scary or a burden, it was empowering and freeing. The knowledge the bear, or really my life, my soul, my being was all mine was almost euphoric in feeling. The bear would be with me forever and had been with me since the beginning. I have no words to describe the realization the bear is mine. I suppose one would say it was a spiritual experience. I needed to be ready to receive the bear and see it and feel it wholly. It came to me in a dream at one of the most desperate and lonely times in my life, a time when I was ready for my life to end. The bear has been there, waiting for me just as it is for everyone. You simply have to be open and ready to it.
In Patricia’s dream, the bear is a symbol of the Self, the life-giving core of the total personality. Like the bear, the Self is a living, dynamic, and autonomous being with its own intentions, goals, and process of development. Also like the bear, the Self is injured when you treat it as an object to be manipulated rather than a life force to be respected and learned from. You cut up and antagonize the psyche when you study and analyze it only for the sake of controlling it, or bending it to your will. Unfortunately, this is how so much of modern medicine, especially pharmaceutical medicine, is oriented. It is so focused on the control and suppression of symptoms that the creative and purposive role of those symptoms is rarely ever considered. The psyche as a living, autonomous whole is denied, ignored, or placed in restraints. Modern medicine was in some ways killing Patricia.
Patricia’s dream conveys two opposing attitudes towards the bear (her psyche). The first attitude reflects her ego’s usual orientation to the psyche, which is to cut it up into pieces through analysis and a mechanistic perspective. The other attitude, less contaminated by the ego’s false assumptions, emphasizes wholeness, seeing the bear (psyche) as a living, guiding force in her life. This revelation was a difficult one for Patricia to grasp. (“You mean I get the whole bear?”) But it was also one which opened the door to her seeing and relating to her body and the psyche from a more attentive and respectful standpoint.
Rather than treating herself and her body like a frustrating, disordered machine, she developed a more compassionate and humble attitude towards it. For example, she started to augment her knowledge of diabetic nutrition with greater responsiveness to her own instincts about what to eat and when. She became more assertive with her doctors regarding her care and much less reliant on hospitals and urgent care clinics to resolve problems that they, frankly, did not understand. Most importantly, Patricia started working with her physical and psychological symptoms in a way that helped her to learn from and grow through them. For instance, instead of asking her psychiatrist for a different antidepressant, she worked therapeutically with her depression to become more authentic and self-trusting in the way she lived her life.
Like Patricia, you also have a bear. It is your psyche. It is alive and speaks to you through your dreams, synchronicities, symptoms, problems, relationships, and other life events to guide you towards physical and psychological wholeness. Get to know and trust your psyche. It’s your bear. Keep it whole and it will keep you whole.