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(*This longer blog entry is a transcript of my 2015 Lenten Lectures that had an overall theme of pilgrimage. This talk was given on March 19, 2015 at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Kamloops, BC and entitled “Sail, Wander, Wonder: Wayfinding as the Art of Pilgrimage”)

The wayfinding I want to explore with you comes to us from the Pacific Islands. It opens up what it means to Sail, Wander and Wonder and takes us into the art of pilgrimage

I have had some valuable firsthand experience in orienteering and navigating in the wild areas of Canada: in canoe on the Churchill River system in Northern Saskatchewan and in the alpine of the mountain ranges of BC- some times in low cloud or in thick fog when only a compass bearing was the method of knowing where we were going. There were no visible landmarks and we had to dead reckon on our location based on how far we had journeyed and what bearing we had held.

I could speak to you today from that vivid memory. Yet, the stories I will share today come from another culture and learning: that of the people of Polynesia, as it has been passed on to me. Alas, admittedly the stories are not directly from my own experience, as I am neither much of a sailor nor have spent more than a few days in Hawaii. However, I do find the stories of Polynesia to be compelling and revealing.

I would like to enter into the practice and experience of Polynesian ocean wayfinding as a reference and as a metaphor for:

  • how I develop an art of navigation through life;

  • how I reference inner and outer landmarks and a keen environmental awareness;

  • how I create conceptual ‘heart maps’;

  • how I make use of body and mind in finding my way;

  • and how I might cultivate the art of dead reckoning: of where I am and what direction I am heading.

I became intrigued after my first introduction to wayfinding- or traditional open-ocean navigating in the Pacific Ocean- upon hearing the 2009 Massey Lectures on CBC Radio by Canadian and BC resident, anthropologist Wade Davis. Davis entitled his Massey Lectures Wayfinding: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (House of Anansi Press, 2009). And indeed, this wisdom does matter- perhaps more with each passing day.

The second of his five Massey Lectures focused on Polynesian wayfinding as an art of pilgrimage. I recognized in the stories and experience of this ongoing resurrection of traditional navigation a powerful metaphor for the spiritual journey…. and much more.

Since then, I have immersed myself in reading more about wayfinding and natural navigation and in watching documentary footage of the Polynesian navigation practices. Today, I want to consider some of what I am learning with you.

Here is what we know.

Polynesia, (and you can also include Micronesia and Melanesia to make up the broader Oceania)- it all comprises the great civilization of the Pacific Islands.

It makes up the largest cultural sphere in human history.

Over about 80 generations, a culture eventually spanned 25 million sq. kilometres of ocean.

It covers tens of thousands of islands and various island chains.

The distance involved- the scope- is staggering.

Between the tip of New Zealand and Hawaii is twice the width across North America.

The total settled area by this seafaring culture is about 1/5 of the total surface of planet.

It is one of the greatest achievements in human history.

It was all explored and settled with focused intention, with courage, with ingenious skill and know-how- moving in various directions but steadily eastward from Asia against the prevailing winds and currents of the Pacific. (An aside: If you also read Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, you should know that what was a long held theory of accidental drift voyaging from South America is proven in error from all the steadily emerging evidence over the past decades of research)

What lies behind this achievement? All human cultures share the same broad genius. We all possess a powerful overall intellectual capacity. If a human culture applied the power of this knowledge and learning and focused this capacity for 80 generations on oceans and travel, what emerges is Polynesia.

At the heart of this is the art of wayfinding.

I would like to introduce a story at this point- told by Wade Davis but told to him by one of the current heroes of the rediscovery of the art of wayfinding in Polynesia: Nainoa Thompson.

“At one point, close to their goal, Nainoa snapped awake in a daze and realized that with the overcast skies and the sea fog, he had no idea where they were. He had lost the continuity of mind and memory essential to survival at sea.

He masked his fear from the crew and in despair remembered his mentor Mau’s words. ‘Can you see the image of the island in your mind?’ He became calm, and realized that he had already found the island. It was the Hokule’a and he had everything he needed on board the sacred canoe. Suddenly, the sky brightened and a beam of warm light appeared on his shoulder. The clouds cleared and he followed the beam directly to the island of Rapa Nui.”

(The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, Wade Davis, 2009)

Traditional open-ocean wayfinding involves navigating without modern navigational aids; the wayfinder does not use a map, sextant, compass, clock, radio, GPS or satellites. In focused solitude within a small crew, the wayfinder instead relies on living observations of the stars, the sun, the ocean swells, and other signs of nature for clues to direction and location. Wayfinders must be so mindful, attuned, and sensitive that they notice the smallest deviation in wave patterns and animal behaviour.

Wayfinders memorize the nightly travel of about two hundred of the brighter stars.Orienting the canoe, they can determine a bearing as the stars rise and set on the horizon. They use a star compass that divides the horizon into 32 sectors and these are aligned to determine the starpath and a bearing for travel. Stars are then associated with specific islands.

As well, each sunrise and sunset is the most critical time to reorient, as the sun meets the horizon and provides the most accurate understanding of direction and weather.

But it is also what is happening to the canoe. In the dark, a skilled wayfinder can sense about thirty two different wave patterns moving under and through the canoe. There are eight dominant ocean swells that provide direction, even on the blackest of nights and foggiest of days. The art is to watch the wash of the water against the hull and the shape and crest of waves. The presence of an island beyond the horizon subtly produces a distinct wave pattern: acting like a distinct fingerprint that can be sensed and seen- providing both distance and direction to the island ahead.What is nurtured over time is a developed physical sense of rhythm and sway of the wayfinder’s body as the instrument of navigation.

Animals also provided essential clues to the location of land.The flight path of homing birds that returned to land at night provided direction to the next island. Migration patterns of whales and other animal sightings revealed information to an experienced observer.

The sky, colour and light also provided wayfinding information. Cloud formations over high islands helped the navigators identify land from as far away as 90 kilometers. Coral atolls produced unique cloud formations that provided important information for seasoned navigators. For example, islands with heavy vegetation produced a darker tinge and those with white sand gave a brighter sheen.

Remaining monk-like at the stern of the canoe, the wayfinder needs to be calm to hear the wind and detect patterns- as night falls the navigator becomes more alert to storms and direction.

In wayfinding, the canoe is the needle of the compass. The compass is the whole universe.

In traditional understanding, it is as if the canoe stands still. It is the island that comes out of the ocean to greet the canoe. In essence, the art is to conjure up the next island from a vision that is sustained throughout the journey.This is why it is critical to sustain an inner vision of the island throughout the voyage.

Wayfinding operates by an art of orienteering known as ‘dead-reckoning’. Dead reckoning is summed as:“you only know where you are by remembering how you got there”. One’s current location is known solely on the basis of distance and direction travelled since leaving the last known point.

As Nainoa says in some documentary footage:

“You don’t look up at the stars and know where you are, you need to know where you have come from by memorizing from where you sailed.” Every course and overall speed has to be remembered and integrated into an inner map. There are no written logs, notebooks, charts, speedometers, watches or compasses. Every bit of data- wind, currents, speed, direction, distance, time- over a long voyage must be storied in the memory of the wayfinder. This is why wayfinders must keep awake for most of the voyage. Nainoa tells the story in another documentary of how he can’t navigate with just his eyes at night. This is especially the case with a black cloudy night.

He says: “I have to wash away dependence on what I can see and know. I have to wash away that dependence of what I can see and believe. I must trust other senses. I call this ‘knowing without knowing how you know… I’m not very good at it…I’m a virtual kindergartner… I know the difference between myself and my teacher… Mau was nurtured as young child and there was dependence on his skill for survival. . Mau was chosen by his grandfather and trained at age one. He was sailing when he was five years old. Each day Mau was taught how to study sunrise and sunset.”

I value the way Wade Davis sums up the practice of wayfinding:

“The science and art of wayfinding is holistic. The navigator must process an endless flow of data, intuitions, and insights derived from observation and the dynamic rhythms and interactions of wind, waves, clouds, stars, sun, moon, the flight of birds, a bed of kelp, the glow of phosphorescence on a shallow reef-in short, the constantly changing world of weather and the sea. “ (Davis, 2009, p.60)

Now, we have focused on the wayfinding among one culture in the Pacific Islands.

Yet, stories of wayfinding exist in many other cultural communities, as well.

Indeed, wayfinding and the art of natural navigation has existed in all human groups for as far back as we know, whether on land or on sea. I am reading an insightful book about the Inuit practice of navigation in the high Arctic- in a white landscape that is almost as featureless to the untrained eye as the open ocean.

What intrigues me in all this is not just the applied human knowledge and skill, it is how each of us also has our own personal stories of wayfinding.

We are always wayfinding.

I am a wayfinder.

You are a wayfinder.

We orient ourselves as humans have always done.

We also wayfind in a most soulful way through the life journey.

Our inner journey is as important as our outer activity.

The map we have internalized in our hearts and minds is just as vital to our lives as any external map of our landscape.

Cultivating the art of wayfinding is practicing the art of living well.

I mentioned before that I would like to enter into the practice and experience of wayfinding as a reference and as a metaphor for:

  • how I develop an art of navigation through life;

  • how I reference inner and outer landmarks and a keen environmental awareness;

  • how I create conceptual ‘heart maps’;

  • how I make use of body and mind;

  • and how I might cultivate the art of dead reckoning: of where I am and what direction I am heading.

I would like to offer as my gift in this lecture the open questions about wayfinding I am holding. These are the questions that are breaking me open.

And I find greater value in offering these to you rather than suggesting to you any advice. I am lousy at advice anyhow.

So in the flow of SAIL, WANDER and WONDER- I offer these questions as my wonder.

How might I learn this art of processing all the data of my life: the endless flow of information, intuitions, and insights- all that is derived from observation and the dynamic rhythms and my interactions with others?

Where can I find a mentor or mentors who are practiced in this art of navigation and might be able to apprentice me?Who has already mentored me and what have they taught me about wayfinding?

Where is my observation seat in the stern of my soul?What does it feel like to sit there amidst the constantly changing world of my inner and outer weather?

Where do I find even a few periods of deep silence so that I can hear the wind in the ropes and rigging and differentiate the sound of waves?

What rhythm, vibration and sway am I sensing in my body? How do the swells physically and emotionally move me as both resistance and buoyancy: the crests as peak moments, the troughs as struggle, heartbreak and loss. What might this detected movement reveal to me about the direction I am travelling? (Alas, this is new learning for me as I become more aware recently that I indeed have a body!)

How can I creatively hold the tension- the balance- between awareness and busy life? I know that part of me must hold a necessary monk-like solitude within myself in order to wayfind… and yet I am clearly also a member of an active crew on the boat- pulling on the ropes, preparing meals, checking the stock of supplies and tending to the sails?

I need others. The journey is too dangerous to make on my own, Who is in my boat with me? What skills and learning do they provide on the voyage?

When am I the wayfinder for others? When am I a member of the crew and thus relying on another to wayfind for the rest of us? How do I know when it is best to switch roles?

How I do I more deeply trust all of my senses and not just my rational mind? How do I grow into my experience of ‘knowing without knowing how I know’?

The last question I would like to offer has to do with the practice of Dead Reckoning. I only know where I am by remembering how I got there. My position in life is known solely on the basis of distance and direction traveled since leaving the last known point. Where is my last known point? What is the reality of my situation- where do I find myself at this present moment? How did I get here and what helps me to deeply remember? How can I possess this knowledge of where I have come from so that I am ‘fierce with reality’?

In our collaboration of facilitators that I journey with- called the Center for Courage & Renewal– we talk about standing in the tragic gap.This standing in the gap is a creative tension-holding between our reality and our hopes and dreams. Between where we are and where we intend to go. If you get too immersed in the remembering how you got here, you might lose the vision of the island that you need to keep in awareness. If you lose track of your reality and get swept away by the vision, you become lost and lose touch with the real situation of your life. You don’t know where you are. How do I dead reckon my current position and also hold the vision of where I am going?

I end with a poem by one of my colleagues in facilitation, Judy Brown.

She describes some of the emotional and spiritual experience of wayfinding in the midst of the dynamic action of waves of life.


There is a trough in waves,

A low spot

Where horizon disappears

And only sky

And water

Are our company.

And there we lose our way


We rest, knowing the wave will bring us

To its crest again.

There we may drown

If we let fear

Hold us within its grip and shake us

Side to side,

And leave us flailing, torn, disoriented.

But if we rest there

In the trough,

Are silent,

Being with

The low part of the wave,


Our energy and

Noticing the shape of things,

The flow,

Then time alone

Will bring us to another


Where we can see

Horizon, see the land again,

Regain our sense

Of where

We are,

And where we need to swim.

~ Judy Brown ~

From “The Art and Spirit of Leadership” 2012


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