8 Lessons for mediators as learned from the Wayfinders, the greatest navigators ever

moon over pacificThis week I’m reading Wade Davis book, The Wayfinders – Why Ancient Wisdom Matter in the Modern World and listening to him on radio, as he delivers this years CBC – 2009 Massey Lectures on the same topic.  Totally fascinating in part because of the persona of the author/lecturer, in part because of the context and stories, and in part because I realize much of the ancient wisdom being presented applies to my work as a mediator!

Wade Davis is author, award-winning anthropologist, ethnobotanist, filmmaker, photographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence.  He has an obvious love of humanity, in all its variants.  To him, we are all brothers and sisters, descended from common ancestors.  He has a wonderful way with words; e.g., the world is not flat, it remains a rich tapestry, a rich topography of the spirit.

The Wayfinders is one of five chapters in the book by the same name.  For me it was the most compelling.

Who are the Wayfinders?

They were ancient Polynesians whose role was to navigate across the largest expanse of water in the world.  They were not navigators in a modern sense so much as wayfinders.

They travelled by canoe, finding their way sometimes over tens of thousands of kilometres.  They did this with no logs, notebooks, speedometers, watches, or compasses.  Every bit of data, for the entire voyage, in the correct sequence, had to be stored within the memory of one person, the navigator.

They could:

  • extract meaning from every cloud pattern
  • draw significance from the twinkle of a star, the halo around the moon, the tone of the sky
  • in darkness; sense and distinguish as many as 32 different sea swells moving through the canoe at any one point in time, distinguishing local disturbances from the great currents that cross the ocean
  • name and follow 250 stars in the night sky; track all of the constellations
  • employ notches etched into either side of their canoe as a type of star compass
  • know what a tan shark moving lazily in the sea, or a lone bird, signified (seamarks vs. landmarks!)
  • conjure islands out of the sea by holding a vision of them in the imagination

How did they do it?

They learnt through direct experience and the testing of hypotheses, with information drawn from all branches of the natural sciences, astronomy, animal behaviour, meteorology, and oceanography.

They saw the science and art of navigation as holistic.  Calculations must be made day and night; all the while 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.

Even more amazing is that this entire science of wayfinding is base on dead reckoning.  You only know where you are by knowing precisely where you have been and how you got to where you are.

And all of this was done by memory.  You need to know where you have come from by memorizing from where you sailed.

Techniques were orally handed down from generation to generation.  Training started at infancy, was lifelong, and involved almost impossible, intense commitment and discipline.  Navigators were rewarded the highest level of prestige in a culture where status counted for everything.

All the intellectual brilliance of humanity, together with the full potential of human desire and ambitions, was applied to the challenge of the sea.

8 Lessons for the Mediator

Here’s what I think mediators (and others in similar roles) can learn from the Wayfinders:

  1. Be holistic in your approach to mediation; mediation offers endless opportunity to mix and match science and art.
  2. Be open to the potential of mediation (thinking back to my last post about YES/AND) and to the rainbow of ways to conduct a mediation (to which the mediate.com video library is an excellent resource).
  3. Expand your capacity to create positive flow within a multi-sensory, sometimes chaotic environment; while balancing emotions, process, and content.
  4. Expand your capacity to remember; e.g., what has taken place so far in the mediation, what are the different impasse breaking techniques available to me, what is the court rule that applies, all towards spending less time looking at paper and more time looking at faces.
  5. Develop your dead reckoning skills where exactly am I this mediation and what exactly is my intention if I ask the party(s) to?
  6. Expand your capacity to let the solution, the way forward in the mediation, find you (combined with previous point = opposable mind!).
  7. Pursue appropriate training and/or learning opportunities; e.g., how about a multi-day workshop conducted entirely orally (to improve memory skills), or maybe a conflict role play exercise with a TV or radio playing loudly in the same room (as a way to prepare for the multiple stimuli of real mediation)?
  8. Respect that becoming a better mediator is a forever exercise; especially if you weren’t mentored in the ways of mediation from infancy!Go for it with commitment, joy and passion!

Much of the insight provided by Davis is based on a recent trip he took, with a modern day wayfinder, from Hawaii to Tahiti.  The journey was much about recovering lost (Polynesian) traditions.

In addition to his book and lectures (available on podcasts) about the Wayfinders, you can watch Wade Davis delivering TED presentations.  His 2008 TED talk, worldwide web of belief and ritual that makes us human is highly worth watching.  It touches on much of the same content as in his book.  And, it includes some amazing photography.

What have you learnt, in your meditative role, from ancient wisdom?

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Photo credit: peasap


  1. […] Wayfinder. Like Marilyn, or the ancient Polynesians whose role was to navigate canoes across the largest expanse of water in the…, the connector applies all their senses, skills and experience to the challenge, learning their way […]

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