Neuroplasticity, Embodied Memory, and “Crescent Moon Bear”

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”


The way we think can be habitual because the neural networks have formed to back up the pathways of particular ways of thinking. Our brain (including the nervous system) has used such pathways for functionality as well as to cope and survive. The more we think about things a particular way (and act on them), we fortify these pathways with neural networks. These networks are communicating to one another using neural transmitters like cortisol as well as oxytocin. The longer periods of time these networks are in place, the more neurons support action and reaction.

Postpartum is an ideal time for changing habits because life as one knows it and their habits are usually thrown up into the air and new foundations and learning are being laid. Within these moments are great possibilities for renewal, and at the same time, this is also a time in which without guides, families that have had difficult births can be left feeling lost and hopeless and latching on to old stories of abandonment, judgement, loss and shame or even laying neural networks for new ones.

How can we get off such hamster wheels, or how can we lift the needle off of the scratch that is repeating the same sounds on the record player engraving the record deeper and deeper?

When someone has previous trauma it can manifest in different ways like PTSD, rage, anger, or even fight, flight freeze. Of course, there is a spectrum of how this manifests in people’s lives. One person may be more affected by a particular moment that happens to them than another. At the same time, these reactions are a story laid out reinforced as a coping mechanism in a person’s body. What matters is when this particular story no longer serves a person and negatively affects their relationships to themselves or others close around them. What worked for them once (maybe even as a child), no longer serves them.

Changing the way one thinks sounds quite easy, and it in some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. It is as if one set of railroad tracks heads one direction and another set another. If we want to change where our train is going, we must look at points of connection physically, mentally or spiritually so that we can move at that place of origin to another direction. When we find these junctures to new set of neural tracks, we begin firing new pathways for our nervous system by creating new perspectives in our relationships and thus being able to see our story of our birth differently. We can do this with presence, embodiment, reframing, and modulated distraction.

The story of “Crescent Moon Bear” (Tsukina Waguma) is an aperture story from Japan which is a story that holds a deeper meaning with hidden healing structures rather than overt contents (Estes, 351). This story is a map for not just presenting possible junctures for the story listener, but it is also for those with trauma.

As Sarah Payton, author of Finding Voice to your Resonant Self, points out, there are 4 ways to

emotional (re)balancing that are integral to one’s journey towards health and rewiring for neuroplasticity. These include: 1) Naming the emotions 2) reframing memory 3) using distraction to do internal activities such as reading or art for self-regulation rather than self- management 4) finding true accompaniment of the elder or inner resonant companion for a witness (the inner doula).

“Crescent MoonBear” as Map for Neuroplasticity. : Mind, Brain, and Embodied Travel

The Presence of PTSD, anger or negativity around events:

We start with the excitement of receiving a part of oneself that has been away at war and the person is excited and ready to receive and feed them . However, a person coming back from a traumatic place may refuse nourishment and even not feel worthy of returning to home. The inner caretaker may be bringing food and nourishment and being rejected. This rejection and rage happens several times and it has become a Default Mode Network (default habit for reacting to others around you). Some people’s patterning is default self-blame or self-abuse. The actions and reactions have the potential or even the power to be laid as spontaneous brain patterning. Some of these reactions are not new from childbirth but may have been laid into place long before and may be deeper. How can we use this wound as an opportunity to create healthy patterning and change?

Seeking Healing: Initiating the Journey

The woman who was hoping to reunite with her hurt self finally goes to seek help. She goes to the village Healer and she names what is happening. Naming the emotions and that it is affecting one’s life and seeking assistance is an important first step. She knows it needs to be changed in her head, but the same patterns are playing out over and over.

The Healer:

The Healer is a village elder sitting by her fire waiting. She may have been waiting for quite some time for the woman to actually come seek her help. She is an inner caretaker who listens and understands that this isn’t something to be cured by a drug or instantly. She warns her that it may be hard, but the woman is a woman who loves deeply and is committed to changing this paradigm. She seems to tell the woman how her husband can be cured by this woman’s work, but the healer knows something more than the woman. It must be done from within. The Healer tells her if she is committed to doing the work, that she needs something that may be found on a dangerous or difficult journey. The missing item for healing is the hair from the crescent moon bear. We learn most from this healer and her role in health in the final scene.

Initiative (from the person them self):

They have sought a healer, but now they have to find the resolve to follow the call of the healer. To do the work it must take to find the thing that is going to heal the husband representing the angry part of themselves. The woman was a woman who loved, and she prepared for this journey which also was a leap of faith into the unknown to follow what may be a perilous journey that was uncomfortable. The preparation was in that she packed a backpack full of food.

Forging into Untravelled Territory:

When headed to the place of change, we must be willing to go back into uncharted territory that one may not have explored before. We go easy on ourselves and we take the risk into traveling into a part of the psyche that we know we haven’t traveled. We may be going back into a moment that is familiar or into the past, but preparing with eyes seeing what we haven’t seen

before or ears that haven’t heard before. So we thank these boulders that we climb. And this is where the woman calls from within to be her own compassionate witness or calls upon a therapist or Birth Story Listener to be the resonant listener and presence. That self-witness is also full of gratitude thanking the landscape for allowing it to be traversed. “Arigiato Zaisho!” “Thank you, Illusion.” These foothills, represent the urge toward consciousness.

Lifting the Veils of Illusion:

Clarissa Estes says, “To lift the veils makes one strong enough to tolerate what life is about; and to see into the patterns of events, people, and things; and eventually to learn not to take the first impression so deadly seriously, but to look behind and behind” (356). Part of diving into this journey is to recognize that what is happening in our psyche has something much more important behind it. It is recognizing that we must thank ourselves for our patience in recognizing this psychic terrain not just as branches in the way, but as illusions that are being lifted so that we can pass. Again, our compassionate self as that moment or anger or rage or self-judgment or blame arises comes up and says, “Arigiato Zaisho!” Thank you illusion, for showing me the way and allowing me to pass. “we lose our illusions when we take the risk to meet the aspect of our nature that is truly wild; a mentor of life, rage, patience, suspicion, secretiveness, remoteness, resourcefulness… the crescent moon bear.” In ridding the illusion we are learning from what is underneath. These emotions are our teacher.

Putting the orphan spirits to rest:

As one climbs into their own psyche, there is also work to be done at putting old experiences or acknowledging the orphan of themselves so they can be put to rest. They must be put to rest buried once at peace with their own death or they will haunt like a ghost and pull into the common neural patterning and responses. These orphans must be acknowledged (named) but also are part of the interpersonal legacy of parts of ourselves that we must go back in time in our own psyche and talk to. To heal, we go back into those moments of the most difficult times and speak to our previous selves. This is our time travel. We go back to these moments that live over and over in our minds. We (re)member them physically. We are the resonant and compassionate witness to ourselves that may not have been there in that particular moment and we call out to them (the muen-botoke spirits of dead people who have no family ) to feed and comfort them and say, “I will be your relative. I will lay you to rest.”

Feeding our Instinctual Self for Resurrection: (Re)newing Neural Patterning

Where can we find that bear? Tracking down the bear is a process. We begin to look for the footprints and its interactions with the landscape. We follow them. Follow the scat and the refuse and the movements. We also stay centered and aware of the sensations, of all of our senses as we track it. We are going deep and the breath may slow as we get closer. We find a place for rest in this process so we have energy. But we also save our food we brought for the next part of our journey.

We follow the signs of the hunt. We begin to feed it and draw it out of the cave. Pacing as we get closer and closer and feed this part of ourselves and draw it slowly from the cave is important. If we meet resistance and push through too quickly, we may never find or meet the Crescent Moon Bear. Or if we do, we may fall in the same patterns without completing our journey. Titration and mirroring and developing trust of this wild self is done with humility, yet we are on a path of love.

We finally stand there next to the food as it has come to expect to be fed. We have drawn it out of the cave at first seeing it from the distance and then getting closer and closer. The bear even appreciates our feeding. Finally we stand. We stand next to the food as the bear looks down to eat, it sees our feet. . When it has come to feed and looks into the eyes and speak to it, and it speaks to us. The bear has the power to attack us, we know this, but we stand.

The bear is the primal and ancient part of our brain. We can look it in the eye. We see its ancient history of “mountains, valleys, rivers and villages reflected int he bear’s old, old eyes.” And this is where we request the hair from its crescent moon while it is standing there the claws as daggers hanging before us. How we get there may be different for various people. We get closer to our primal selves through birth, sexuality, trauma, hypnosis. We slide under that neocortex’s gate with the storytelling.

The bear speaks to us. “It is true, you’ve been good to me. You may have one of my hairs. But take it quickly, then leave here and go back to your own.” And the bear gives permission and you pull the hair out. The bear roars and says words that are not known and yet somehow known all of your life.

Moments that may be seen currently as traumatic may be reframed in two different ways. First, we can reframe the moment by standing back and being able to see the full picture. We can head to the top of the mountain and be able to have an eagle’s eye view to see that moment in a different context. The second way we can reframe that moment is by mindfully entering it through the sensations remembered so we are there in the present. It is by entering this moment that we can also access or see things we may not have been ready to see in the past. That which is alive but hibernating. We can also stop and speak to our younger selves and bring compassion to them through validation, acknowledgment and finding a deeper sense of that particular moment. We can ask for the hair to bring back to our healer for a cure. The bear, although threatening and knowing its power, willingly gives it. It is a touchstone that is key for the healer.

How do we lay a foundation for a new neural wiring? How do we change neural pathways? How do we skip from one train track to another so that we can go another place or solicit a different response?

We take the advice of the bear to grab the hair (yes, it is painful for this bear as it roars as we yank it out) and run. We don’t look back at that moment. We are on a quest and returning the hair we know is essential. We return passing the places in our psyche and thanking them again for lifting the veils of illusion. We run right into the cave or hut of the healer.

The fire is going. The healer looks up and sees us standing there with the hair. She takes the hair of the crescent moon bear. Measures it. Looks at it and knows that it is authentic but goes through these motions to show the importance of the journey allowing us to savor this victory. The foundational map of the journey has been accomplished. We have gone and bridged from the amygdala to the hippocampus bringing back the essential ingredient for healing as we are a person who loves deeply.

What is the act of her throwing it into the fire and shocking us? What does this symbolize?

Then she tells us: “Be calm. It is good. All is well. Remember each step you took to climb the mountain? Remember each step you took to capture the trust of the crescent moon bear? Remember what you saw, what you heard and what you felt?” (this is the sensations and mindfulness of the moment which is the bridge to the new mapping of the nervous system)

We reply, “Yes, I remember well.”

We now have a new map, a new route to get onto a different track to bridge the ancient embodiment with the past and the future. If we (re)member, we can lift the needle that has dug a groove in a vinyl record deeper and deeper and keep moving and playing another part of the song. We have edited the scene with different places in the room of our memory so that we can see more of it and time stamp it. We can see into ourselves and have perspective of that moment that still may elicit memories but we can take our shield and reflect it and slay it if necessary. We can hear the snakes whispering but know what is inside our bag. We know there is poison and the power of healing inside that body and in the eyes of the bear. We have created a different neurological reaction and embodied it so that we can return there again and again with a new sense of empowerment, mentorship, and possibly even joy or pleasure.

“Please now, my daughter, go home with your new understandings and proceed in the same way with your husband.”

Estes, Clarissa. Women Who Run With the Wolves. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

Peyton, Sarah. Your Resonant Self: Guided Mediations and Exercises to Engage Your Brain’s Capacity for Healing. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2017.

One Comment on “Neuroplasticity, Embodied Memory, and “Crescent Moon Bear”

  1. Pingback: The Woman and the Bear | petrujviljoen