The Wayfinders

the wayfinders by wade davis

The Wayfinders is a collection of brilliant stories about different ways of living from the perspective of people and cultures that have been around for centuries. Some of those cultures are still surviving, most are on the brink of being lost, and many are long gone. The stated goal of these stories is not to suggest one way of life is better than another, but to elicit wonder and appreciation that there are many different ways to approach how we live on the planet, our relationship with all living things, and what it means to be human.

I’ve been thinking about the book a lot. Here are a few thoughts that I hope might convince you to read it for yourself.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Albert Einstein

I first learned about The Wayfinders in a podcast interview with the author, Wade Davis. After being enthralled by the author’s abilities as a storyteller and admiring his myriad perspectives (see owning your decisions as an example), I jumped at the chance to read some of his work. The Wayfinders book was originally composed as part of a CBC Massey Lectures series in 2009, with the hope that great stories have the power to change the world.

Through these stories, we learn about people that navigated the oceans well before the Europeans crossed the Atlantic and navigated the mind and spirit much deeper than any meditation app. Throughout, we also learn how much of this ancient wisdom is close to being, or has been, lost through the drive for economic growth, globalization, and climate change.

“In the Aboriginal universe there is no past, present, or future. In not one of the hundreds of dialects spoken at the moment of contact was there a word for time. There is no notion of linear progression, no goal of improvement, no idealization of the possibility of change. To the contrary, the entire logos of the Dreaming is stasis, constancy, balance, and consistency. The entire purpose of humanity is not to improve anything. It is to engage in the ritual and ceremonial activities deemed to be essential for the maintenance of the world precisely as it was at the moment of creation. Imagine if all of Western intellectual and scientific passion had focused from the beginning of time on keeping the Garden of Eden precisely as it was when Adam and Eve had their fateful conversation.”

Other than being curious and interested in the book’s topics, I wasn’t sure how relevant they were to the modern world as I know it, and I’m not alone in wondering why it might matter to me and being ashamed to be told in no uncertain terms why by the author. My main takeaway on this point was that I have spent my career learning how to use technology and that this is but a small sliver of what matters (or should matter) to me and to the rest of humankind. The wisdom that ancient peoples and cultures can show us is that most modern folk (like me!) put too much emphasis on technology (among other trivial things) and that, as a result, we are both out-of-balance with ourselves and with the planet in general.

“What is science,” he said one morning, “but the empirical pursuit of the truth? What is Buddhism but 2,500 years of direct observation as to the nature of mind? A lama once told me that Western science and efficiency has made a major contribution to minor needs.

We spend all of our lifetimes trying to live to be a hundred without losing our hair or teeth. The Buddhist spends his lifetime trying to understand the nature of existence. Billboards in European cities celebrate teenagers in underwear. The Tibetan billboard is the mani wall, mantras carved into stone, prayers for the well being of all sentient beings.”

“BEFORE SHE DIED, anthropologist Margaret Mead spoke of her singular fear that, as we drift toward a more homogenous world, we are laying the foundations of a blandly amorphous and singularly generic modern culture that will have no rivals. The entire imagination of humanity, she feared, might be confined within the limits of a single intellectual and spiritual modality. Her nightmare was the possibility that we might wake up one day and not even remember what had been lost.”

Kind of makes the whole AI craze we’re going through seem, well, a bit crazy.

I found the stories told in The Wayfinders to be amazing (I can’t do them justice with a few quotes here), and I was left with a joyful appreciation of the fact that I actually know very little about life. I only really know how to navigate the world in one way: the Western (namely American) way. Yet, there are millions of others that approach life very differently and can show us what we’re missing, if only we’re willing.

Other than simply enjoying the entirety of this book wholeheartedly, I’m grateful that it put me in my place.

Comments welcome!