Charlie Russell with grizzly bear

A standing room only crowd of 100 packed Fernie’s Arts Station to see Canadian naturalist Charlie Russell. I couldn’t believe that on a Saturday night more than two percent of the town’s entire population would attend a slide presentation about bears. Though I’d just arrived in Fernie two hours earlier, I felt right at home in this town full of nature lovers.

I quickly realized why people were so stoked to see Charlie. He’s focused his life work on demonstrating how humans can peacefully coexist with bears. Seeing his photos struck me with awe and delight. Shots of him petting and playing with wild bears were almost unreal. Hearing him dispel myths about bears was quite affirming.

Charlie establishes a connection with bears by simply respecting them and acting with nonchalance. He believes that bears are not ferocious creatures and are only aggressive when they need to be. Further, they are quite predictable animals. He feels that bears only hurt us because we hurt them. After all, if people were constantly getting shot and yelled at, they too would likely grow to resent their abusers. Human-habituated bears are regularly chased away and shot at by humans. It makes sense that those ones aren’t going to like us so much. My couchsurf host, Bernie, told me a story about how her father had to shoot a bear once because it wouldn’t stop charging him. After inspecting its body, he found two previous bullet wounds. Poor thing. It’s no different than a child abuse victim. The bond of trust that both humans and bears are born with can slip away if there are zero positive interactions to help reinforce human goodness.

Working on the remote island of Princess Royal, BC, Charlie found bears who have no reason to fear humans. The pictures I saw were amazing. He’d walk up to them and just hang out with them-as if they were people. Quite the opposite, the bears he worked with in Kamchatka, Russia, had fear instilled in them because of extensive poaching. It took 12 years of dedicated work, raising orphaned grizzly cubs for release into the wild, for Charlie to gain the respect of grizzlies in the area. After getting to know him, they eventually dropped their guard and trusted Charlie. Like the Spirit bears, they too accepted Charlie and came into close contact with him.

Charlie’s work is truly inspiring. I felt so grateful that someone had the guts to walk up to a grizzly bear and say “hi” then start chilling with them. His work proves that we can indeed coexist with bears. By treating them with respect and acting nonchalantly around them, we can live as we were meant to, in peace, both sharing the amazing wilderness that we have at our doorsteps without fear.

Meeting Charlie was a great surprise of synchronicity. I’d never even heard of him and never would have known about his appearance in Fernie, had Bernie not invited me. I felt quite a connection to him and the work he does. In my small way, I’ve been exploring a similar issue to that which he’s been exploring with bears: trust. I take from him that if you connect to a bear’s true essence, you have nothing to fear. The same can be said for humans. It’s when we are so quick to judge that we meet someone who is a projection of our own beliefs, not their true self. A racist thought kills any truthful interaction we can have with that person. Just the same, a speciesist thought about a bear being out to harm us will not provide us with an authentic interaction with them. Animals are great at sensing fear. You give them that, they give you back more of the same. The best way to deal with a bear is to send out positive energy, meeting them with respect and trusting their true nature as peaceful residents of planet Earth. I can trust that that is the case because Charlie’s work proves it.

There were two questions I’d been wondering about during the presentation. “How do you know the difference between a bear that has been humanized and one that is not? Do you trust them all equally or do you judge them differently?” I asked him afterwards. “I look at them pretty carefully,” he casually replied, with that same tone of nonchalance he uses with the bears. “If they show any signs of not liking me, I give them lots of space.” He uses discernment rather than unconscious judgment. Bears habituated to humans definitely need to be given a lot of space. It’s not their fault they sometimes react with aggression, it’s ours. Luckily, those bears are in the minority. Unfortunately, they’re in the minority because so many of them get destroyed.

If only we could apply that same approach to human interaction. For sure we pay attention to cues that people give us and act accordingly. But the key I believe lies in discerning between judgment and the facts. As the wise sage J. Krishnamurti said: “The highest form of human intelligence is the ability to distinguish observation from evaluation.” Marshall Rosenberg’s practice of Nonviolent Communication explores that very point in great detail. If someone communicates in what would typically be considered an angry tone of voice, instead of labeling that person as angry, respond with: “you’re speaking in a louder voice than I normally hear.” By doing so, we stick to the facts, not our clouded perception of the facts. That person may not be angry at all. They may be feeling any of a number of feelings. They may have been raised in a loud household or they might just be speaking loudly because they have an ear infection and can’t hear well.

Relating this to our interaction with bears in the wild: If we see a bear casually munching on some berries, there’s no need to interpret that as a threat. That judgment is much more likely to create a feeling of fear (likely unconscious), which in turn is more likely to cause the bear to attack and us to react irrationally. Charlie says he relaxes and speaks to the bears in a soft, gentle tone, reassuring them that he’s their friend and doesn’t want to hurt them. Sometimes he uses a five foot long stick to keep them at a safe distance.

Charlie believes that bears, like humans, can have their feelings hurt. Just as we’ve so egregiously judged bears to both our detriments, we constantly judge people. Judgment is based on our own perceptions-all a fallacy self-created by the ego. One person’s ego sorts experiences through a different filter than the next, based on their own unique conditioning. What is true to one person is false to the next. Is the sky really blue? To a colour blind person, it’s not. More subtle examples abound everywhere. A quick read through a movie review website demonstrates the diversity of perceptions that exist.

Whether we’re judging bears or people, the effects are the same. If only we tried seeing the truth and not making up our own version of reality, only then can we have peace. This requires trust. Trust in our ability to observe and trust in the basic goodness of others.

Some may say, why bother trusting bears when there’s that small chance they might attack us. Why not just shoot them or not go hiking in the first place. A friend of mine spoke similarly about hitchhiking in a recent conversation I had with him: Why bother picking them up if there’s even that small chance of them attacking me. A sentiment likely shared by the majority of drivers.

Why trust bears? Why trust hitchhikers? Part of the reason I trust bears is out of practicality. If I can’t trust them, I either wouldn’t go hiking in the boundless wilderness that makes up most of Canada-precisely what I feel is this country’s most unique asset. Other reasons hold true for both bears and hitchhikers (back when I had a car and would pick them up). There are many: freedom, ease, unity, truth. I don’t want to live in a world where I always have to look over my shoulder, thinking someone’s going to get me. Where is the ease in that? Where is the flow? When surrendering to the fate of the universe and connecting to others in Oneness, it just doesn’t work to live in fear and judgment. Surrendering to life’s course takes faith. It’s a big question with a big answer that I continually try to make sense of in my life. To me, it all boils down to just having a different set of values. I value life based on the degree to which I live according to my values. It’s the difference between living according to one’s own agenda or the universe’s. Or, as Eckhart Tolle puts it, it’s the difference between living a lifestyle or living a life. The former is dominated by the ego, the latter by our Being.