Just as I was about to step around the gate to enter the forest trail, I caught a glimpse of something tied to the metal post. It was a handmade sign with bold black letters typed neatly on a sheet of white paper and taped to a brown cardboard square. “Mountain Lion Sighting. Please Beware.” I stopped to consider the warning, wondering about the circumstances of the sighting that had occurred just the day before.
The sign on the gatepost brought me unexpectedly to a crossroads. My plans for a walk in the woods seemed so certain until I bumped into that big bold “Beware.” Now mountain lions were wildly running through my mind, with their inspiring beauty and grace, with their powerful jaws and piercing teeth and sharp claws, and their ferocious passion to hunt. I wondered if I should turn back.
I remembered the deer carcass I’d found earlier that week. Maybe the deer had been killed by a mountain lion before the ravens and turkey vultures came by to share in the feast. Standing by the warning at the gate, my mind replayed the news reports I’d heard over the years about people’s encroachment into wild animals’ territories, about people being stalked and killed by mountain lions, about people fighting for their lives after crossing paths with wild cats – climbing trees, throwing rocks, screaming for help.
A sudden gust of wind called me back to where I stood at the gate, to the question still hovering in the air. Should I continue on or should I turn back? My muddle of indecision was interrupted by a blur of golden brown fur rushing up the hillside. It was Jasmine, my beloved velvety-eared dog, following her nose through the thick underbrush, exuberantly chasing an intriguing scent. Looking out toward the western horizon, I was captivated by the beauty of the waning moon setting over the high mountain ridge in the midst of the brilliant blue sky.
I knew, in my heart, I wanted to walk on into the woods. I didn’t want to turn back. So I stepped through the gate, trying hard to convince myself that I wasn’t afraid. I hoped I wasn’t being foolish. I hoped I wasn’t jeopardizing Jasmine and me.
I hiked up the hill, anxious yet determined, my mind occupied with a thorough review of all the tips I’d ever heard for preventing mountain lion attacks. Be loud. Look big. Wave your arms around. Make lots of noise. In other words, appear to be unappetizing, uncooperative prey. So I jingled my keys. I whistled and called out to Jasmine more loudly and more often than usual. I searched for a sturdy walking stick to fend off whatever dangers might cross my path.
“Beware” the sign instructed. So I dutifully remained hyper-vigilant, uneasy and tense, alert to and startled by subtle movements in the trees. I altered my course to stay in open spaces and on well-traveled pathways, watching for mountain lions ready to pounce.
After awhile, I started to wonder about the fear and foreboding I was dragging along with me through the woods. It was stressful hiking in a fight-or-flight state of mind, on edge and disconnected from the beauty which flourished all around. Along with my sense of adventure, my peace and delight had been abruptly left behind. In fact, I was everywhere but where I actually was. Preoccupied with the future, my mind was wrestling with snapshots of terrible things that could happen, a doomsday collage of not-so-pleasant what-ifs. Lost in the past, I was reenacting old patterns, those well-ingrained reactions to perceived threats of harm, all instantly triggered by the warning at the gate and by traumatic events that took place in other people’s lives.
This all got me thinking about how our modern-day culture promotes and reinforces fear as an inescapable, even necessary, part of life. We are taught to be afraid. We learn to walk in fear, not just in the forests where mountain lions roam, but in our everyday lives.
Fear shouts out from the headlines and settles into our homes and follows us to work and sits beside us in school and sneaks into our relationships and haunts us in our dreams and feeds our addictions and controls how we see the world.
We are told, over and over again, about the inevitable dangers that lurk around every corner.
Beware of anyone unfamiliar. Beware of anything new. Beware of death. Beware of love. Beware of the night. Beware. Beware. Beware. The barrage of bewares serves to fill us with anxiety and tension, worry, despair, dis-ease, and distrust.
What would happen, I wondered, if we instantaneously eliminated all the bewares? What if we channeled all the energy we usually spent on worry, fear and stress into simply being aware?
Being aware of who we really are.
Being connected with all that is.
Living with awakened senses.
Trusting the vast knowledge we carry within.
Being attentive to what’s happening around us and responsive to what we perceive.
There amidst the towering pines and whispering aspens, I stopped abruptly in my tracks. I didn’t want to continue walking on in fear. It was numbing and distracting. It stifled my natural curiosity and joy. It held me back and boxed me in. I didn’t want to beware…I wanted to Be Aware.
Which meant walking through the forest fully present to my experience with each and every step that I take. That meant opening up my senses, setting aside fear and doubt, and trusting that I’ll know which forest path to follow and which way to turn and how long to stay and how to protect myself in the presence of whatever isn’t safe. I wanted to walk my life path in the same way, with clarity and unbridled passion, in connection with what exists within me and all around. I wanted to live each and every moment vibrantly aware and awake and alive.
Stepping gently into the meadow beside the mountain trail, I grounded myself in mother earth and reached inside my pocket to gather up my pouch of tobacco. I untied the soft leather string and reached inside the woven pouch, feeling the crinkly dried tobacco between my fingertips. I breathed in the rich earthy smells of the organic healing herb, a cherished gift for spirit guides and guardians. I held a pinch of tobacco up toward the sun, reaching out from my heart and offering my prayers.
To the Grandmothers and Grandfathers, to the Spirits of the Land, asking for protection as I walked about the mountainside.
To my Spirit Guides, seeking their guidance in Being Aware. I asked for assistance in letting go of fears and having clear understanding of the information I gather through my physical and spirit senses. I asked for guidance in responding to what is with clarity, focus, and centeredness.
I asked Mountain Lion to show me the ways of walking with balance, in harmony with all life, owning and openly expressing my own power and beauty and grace. I asked Mountain Lion to teach me to hunt with tenacity, to diligently search for and catch what nourishes me and creatively enriches my life.
I sprinkled the tobacco offering on the ground, honoring the sacred space of the mountains, honoring the extraordinary web of life which embraces all beings with unconditional acceptance and love. I gave thanks for the gifts of crossing paths with Mountain Lion and connecting with the medicines of her free and wild feline spirit.
I tucked the tobacco pouch back inside my pocket and breathed in the beauty of the alpine meadow. I watched the vibrant yellow sunflowers and spindly purple thistles dance on a gentle breeze. I listened to the cackling calls of the ravens and the staccato clicking of grasshoppers in flight. I continued on my way along the mountain trail, feeling stones and roots and soil beneath my feet, once again following the path of my heart.