The wheeling of the stars is not infinite
And the tiger is one of the forms that returns.
- Jorge Luis Borges
In the early days of my public teaching, many people said they came to my workshops because they had dreamed of tigers. One woman dreamed again and again that she was searching in a forest for a white tiger. A man arrived at the arts center where I was then teaching and froze in the doorway, staring at the artifact I had placed at the center of our space. It was the carved head of a tiger, open-jawed, set atop a wooden staff hung with bone rattles. An artist in Colorado had started carving the head shortly before he met me, guided by a dream. After he met me, he dreamed he should set the head on a rattle-staff and give it to me. The man in the doorway at the arts center exclaimed, “I know I’m in the right place! This is my dream.”
“For more than a year,” he explained, “I was hunted by a tiger in my dreams. I kept running away, and usually woke myself up, still terrified, trying to convince myself this was only a dream. Then the tiger was on me, snarling and snapping, and I could not get out of the dream. He drove me down a dark forest trail. I saw things there that scared me, huge snakes hanging from the trees, savage eyes in the shadows, but nothing was as scary as the tiger. He kept on me, tearing my clothes and flesh. I was bleeding when he forced me to the edge of clearing in the jungle, where he licked my wounds. I saw he had brought me to a place where jet fighter pilots were being trained. They had been waiting for me for a long time. I went through the training and got my wings, all before breakfast back at home. I felt really good, and empowered to do stuff to help and protect other people. That’s why I came to you.”
I loved this dream resolution. I know, as young children know, that the tiger is power that can indeed help and protect. In soul recovery work, the tiger – as well as the bear – has often been my ally in persuading lost boys and lost girls to return to an adult self from whom they separated because of pain or abuse or trauma in early life. Those child selves often trust the tiger more than the adult, to keep them safe and to make life crazy fun.
The tiger must be gentled to purposes of this kind. The tiger must also be fed. For six weeks, in the late 1990s, I decided to go vegetarian. Towards the end of this experiment, I visited a zoo south of Montreal with my family. I was edgy as we neared the big cat enclosures. Though the zoo was well laid out, with space for the animals to roam, big cats do not belong in confinement.
I glanced through the bars at a group of Sumatran tigers dozing in the sun.
“Look, Dad!” my youngest daughter exclaimed. “That one is looking at you.” I looked again and saw that a male tiger had sat up and was staring at me. Suddenly he bounded from the slope where he had been napping to press his face against the bars, still staring at me. I returned his stare, wondering if he felt – as I did – that we were kin.
He sniffed me, gave a kind of shrug, and loped back up the hill to resume his nap. I got the message. He may have considered the possibility that we were related, but one whiff on my body scent had assured him we were not. Tigers are not vegetarians.
I returned to eating meat – starting with bacon, of course, the vegetarians’ favorite kind – and one night the tiger returned to me. Reclaiming his power was not easy. I learned again that night that there is a price for gaining and maintaining a relationship with a true animal power. The tiger irrupted into my space that night as an energy form that was entirely real, more real than the darkened room around us. He made me fight with him, hand to claw. Few, if any men, could hold their own in a wrestling match with a tiger, and I was certainly not one of them. He made me fight long and hard, until I was bloodied and torn. Then, relenting, he gave me a harder assignment than combat. He told me I must eat his heart. He opened his chest, and I took out his steaming, beating heart, dripping blood. Half-gagging, I forced myself to eat the tiger’s heart. This felt exactly like eating the living organ.
From that time, the tiger was with me again, available whenever I needed his help. He was ready to yield pride of place to other allies, like the bear, when their talents were needed, and even to introduce new helpers. When I landed at Cuzco in Peru in 1999, I was cautioned to be careful to avoid altitude sickness. Our guidance was to take this slowly, and relax in the hotel lobby for an hour with some coca leaf tea. It was stressed that the tea would calm and strengthen us but was unlikely to have hallucinogenic effects because the coca content was so small.
My thought flow was interrupted by the very palpable sense of another presence in the room. I sat up in bed and saw the energy form of a big cat approaching me. As my senses adjusted, I saw it was a puma. I was certain that this was the ally the tiger had promised to send. The puma pressed its face against mind. It spoke to me, mind to mind, in words I can transliterate like this:
“Big cats are not intended to live at these altitudes. We took millennia to adapt, following the game animals up the mountains. You have just arrived and have not time to make the necessary adaptations. So what you need to do is this. You need to open yourself at your solar plexus and let me in. I will help adjust your body systems so you will be at home in the Andes, as we are.”
I did what the puma suggested without hesitation, since this new helper had come with the right introduction. I felt the energy of the mountain cat streaming through my blood, toning my muscles, flexing my sinews. Over the ten days that followed – though I am not athletic and do not work out – I was the fittest member of our party. I had no difficulty with the altitude, no fear of heights, no shortage of breath.
Tiger is not only a fierce but reliable friend. He is willing to share his whole tribe.