When Lost, Visualize Your Destination

This very minute, a B.C. Ferries vessel blasts a warning at some wayfarer in the path of its impossibly wide-turning and slow-braking abilities.  Through radar, a GPS, computer or perhaps a depth finder, a crew member responds to instrumentation signalling a safety concern.  A  low, determined drone of the horn warns a wayward vessel to change course.

Satawal Atoll - Mau's home island.

Pius “Mau” Piailug had no such luxury. The tradition of his peoples’ oceanic trips was entirely without instrumentation.

Well before pubescence, this child of Satawal was designated to be trained as a Master Navigator for his people.

Satawal, a tiny atoll seemingly floating on the Pacific Ocean is one amongst a cluster of the Micronesian Caroline Islands.  It is 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) long and up to 0.8 kilometres (0.50 mi) wide.  An entire culture exists on 1.3 square kilometres (0.50 sq mi).  Even today, Satawal is seldom visited by outsiders because the island is not able to provide anchorage for large vessels.

Mau Piailug - Master Navigator studies the constellations. Photo by Steve Thomas at http://digicoll.manoa.hawaii.edu/satawal/index.php

The Master Navigator skills had been used over the centuries by Mau’s ancestors.  To a young boy, the training was grueling, boring and uninviting, but his father and grandfather persisted.  Young Mau absorbed, practiced and polished skills that would otherwise have been lost to his people.

Little did he know, as a mature man, he would grieve over the possibility of his skills being lost to a modern world.

As a navigator-in-training, Mau sat countless hours, silent and watchful, on the stern of canoes with every sense fully open.  As fellow islanders paddled and hoisted sails, he studied every minute detail of the surroundings.  He smelled, felt, heard, saw and tasted:

  • Wind
  • Waves
  • Clouds
  • Stars
  • Colors  – especially of clouds, water and the horizon
  • Birds
  • Fish
  • Moon
  • Sun
  • Currents
  • Canoe movements
  • Air

Everything in nature provided the data he needed.  The key was to assimilate it.  Assimilation needed practice and and confidence in intuitive communing and spiritual connecting.

In any weather, Mau would hold his Buddha-like position in the stern and advise, not lead, the crew safely to their destination with phenomenal accuracy.  Some destinations were hundreds of miles away.

As modernization crept into life, a much older Mau became dismayed.  Young people were more interested in motorized boats than canoes.  It became more difficult to interest them in the rigors of being trained as a Master Navigator.  The role was seemingly becoming less relevant, revered and respected.

After dedicating his life to a tradition so vital to the survival of his people, Mau worried that his position and knowledge would die with him.

Meanwhile, in the 1970s, a Polynesian culture east of Satawal also wrestled with cultural concerns.  Hawaiians were facing the need for a cultural revitalization.  The young people needed to have their pride bolstered.  Their oceanic navigational skills needed resurrection.  They had no traditional canoe and no traditional navigational knowledge.

They gathered crude sketches and drawings and designed a canoe similar to those used by their ancestors.  Next, they began an exhaustive search for a Polynesian navigator.  No one could be found.

Fortunately they learned of a Micronesian navigator by the name of “Mau” Piailug.  They invited him to be their teacher.  Mau agreed and arrived in Hawaii.  He began to train the crew for a trip from Hawaii to Tahiti using no instrumentation.  The trip proved successful, but there was a wrinkle. The crew bickered with each other and fighting ensued.   Mau declared his distaste over the lack of respect and flew home from Tahiti.   In spite of Mau’s written instructions, the crew were not able to return to Hawaii without instruments.  They knew they still needed their Master Navigator.

Mau’s disappointment in himself and the crew haunted him.  The crew had missed the fundamental importance of being at one with the ocean, traveling in peace and harmony with nature and each other.

Thankfully the Hawaiians didn’t give up.  They sent a delegate to Satawal and, with difficulty, lured Mau back to Hawaii.  This time, they asked him to undertake a 6,000 mile trip to  Rapa Nui (Easter Island) at the southeasternmost point of the Polynesian triangle.

This trip was not only successfully completed without instrumentation, it was also completed with appropriate respect and reverence for all involved.  Mau was satisfied with the crew’s performance.

On a video produced by the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii, showing the trip to Easter Island, Mau admitted his reticence about traveling such a great distance in waters far outside his territory.  Since a Master Navigator does not sleep and only catches short catnaps throughout the journey, he knew it would be a long and grueling trip.  Different crew members took turns sitting quietly with him, but at one point he fell asleep and lost “the memory”.  He explained that while sitting on the stern, the navigator has to remember everything encountered.  Otherwise the canoe is lost.  The teachings of his ancestors came back reassuringly:  “When lost, remember where you came from.  Then visualize the island.”  He had to think their destination into existence.

He remembered being taught that the canoe was his island until he reached his destination.  Imagine his relief when Easter Island,  24.6 km (15.3 mi) long by 12.3 km (7.6 mi), loomed in front of them on the horizon.

The respect, appreciation and love for this teacher was more than the crew knew how to express.  The Hawaiians decided to build him a canoe to show their gratitude.  However, Mau was diagnosed with severe diabetes and discovered his legs would not allow him to sail again.  Instead of undergoing kidney dialysis in Hawaii, Mau chose to return home to live out his remaining life.  The Hawaiians continued building the canoe.  When it was finished, they sailed it to Satawal where it was presented to a joyful and appreciative teacher.

Mau was ready for them.  He turned the tables.  He had organized a Pwa – the ceremony to officially recognize and name Master Navigators.   The Hawaiians who studied and practiced with Mau and several members of Mau’s people were rewarded with the official Micronesian ceremony giving full Master Navigator status.

Mau died in July of 2010 knowing his people would continue to be known and respected for their navigational knowledge.  As much as his presence restored cultural pride for the Hawaiians, the Master Navigator role was back in its respectful position amongst the island peoples.

In 2009, an anthropologist, Wade Davis, who had learned of Mau’s triumph, shared it as part of the CBC’s Massey Lecture Series.  His lecture titled “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World” addresses the question “How had the Polynesians figured out how to navigate the Pacific centuries ago?”.    (Click on the first lecture to access the topic of Polynesia)

Not bad, Papa Mau, for a young man from Satawal who didn’t even want to be a Master Navigator.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom with the world.  May civilization now honour your memory by being like the crew who made it to Rapa Nui – able to understand the underlying revelations and the connectivity of all.  May we intuit the whole universe and live in harmony with all we have been given so freely.

After all, that’s why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world!  Right, Papa?

Papa Mau on the beach on Satawal

51 thoughts on “When Lost, Visualize Your Destination

  1. Fascinating and echoing within me. Allow me to share my own wayfinding, if you will. We hike–a lot. On on 60 mile journey, a man in our group continually pulled out his GPS. We were forever arguing about the correct way to go. Finally we parted ways. The group split. Of course we had maps and a compass, but we did mark the stars at night, sun position by day. We arrived at our final destination. The GPS group arrived exhaused, late the next day. The satellites had taken them on a route, so they stood above the end point on a tall cliff. It took them another day to figure a way down to the cars. I simply cannot say how comforting it is to know where I am in the world. What a skill Mau had.

    • Wow, Barb, what an experience. I think it’s exceptional that you chose to follow your way with trust and faith in yourelves.

      My friend Sefo from Rotuma used to astonish the exploration crew that he worked with in Northern Canada. Sefo would know a better direction to get back to the camp or the chopper. The folks with instruments would show up later than Sefo repeatedly. I asked him how he knew. His answer, “I just know that’s where to go.”

      I have watched how he pays great attention to his surroundings – all the time. He is keenly observant. Little did I know that ALL senses were at work!

  2. Hi,
    Mau had a wonderful gift, it has always amazed me how things do came naturally to some people. Although a difficult trip to Easter Island, it must of been such an overwhelming feeling of achievement when the destination was reached.
    A very interesting read.

    • Thanks, Mags. The Massey Lectures addresses the abilities of many different indigenous cultures to tap into the mystical. I’m afraid the narrowness of missionaries had a negative impact on some cultures, but Wade Davis’ presentations assure us that most are still alive and well.

  3. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. It reminds me that ancient wisdom is so needed by all of us today. Perhaps this is the most important role of our guides – to, with grace and patience, remind of us what we knew before.
    walk in beauty this day.

  4. This was a fascinating read, SD. It reinforces my belief that we modern humans ovelook a huge segment of potential knowledge. All to often, someone who claims to have extra-sensory perception is looked upon as a kook…a bit daffy. In reality, that person is simply more focused on something that the rest of us have lost to the noise and business of technology.

    Although I have never experienced anything from another realm, I whole heartedly believe that it is possible and that some people live closer to the membranes of other realms of knowledge than I do.

    It was particularly interesting that Mau resisted his boyhood education. It is too easy to believe that people are “called” to such special roles. But living in a society that feels with all of its senses, I can understand that elders knew before the boy knew what lay inside him, ready for the tending.

  5. I am forever lost in the wilderness so I just soak in the beauty all around me. Dirt Man is the one who navigates by the landscape, the sun, moon, and stars, and always leads the way. And yes, he carries a GPS to record our routes so that he can post to a travel log for other hikers…and once the GPS led us out of the wildnerness when a storm quickly came upon us.

    • I’m afraid my skills in the bush would not be ones a group would use if they want to find their vehicles and fresh water bottles! 😀 As a younger person, I was fairly competent, but today? I’d also only venture into the wilderness these days with someone who “knew”.

  6. What a fascinating blog, I have learned so much and it was so interesting to find out how they did things through the senses. It only goes to prove that our instruments are not the only way and it makes you wonder if because of our modern technology we aren’t losing valuable skills.

  7. “The respect, appreciation and love for this teacher…” so much of this has been lost not only for teachers but for elders in general…this was a wonderful post…thanks for sharing it.

    • If Wade Davis has his way, this respect will blossom. He offers proof that, in spite of all this so-called civilization, the vital skills and connection with Divine have survived amongst these various incredibly gifted groups.

  8. Such an interesting story. I can’t imagine being out on the ocean without modern means of direction-finding, let alone in a canoe! It’s amazing to think that even the most daunting tasks can be performed with such seeming simplicity. Nothing ‘simple’ however in the skills this man and those that came before him learned and practiced.

    • As a prairie kid, I remember how my world teemed with life – all telling me stories of world around me. I was shocked the first time I heard people talk about the “boring, flat prairies that went on forever”. I remember one person saying, “On the prairies you could never run away from home because they can see you forever.” When I see Mau sitting on the beach studying his world, I think of our gorgeous prairies.

      Really, Kath, how many degrees are we apart?! I think not many.

  9. What a privilege to be this close to the sea and the forces of nature. To have a life grounded in all the great universal things that matter most. What a wonderful life story. Amy. Thank you.

  10. In change there is always a storm. Thank goodness the Hawaiians asked Mau back again, and thank goodness Mau not only accepted but raised them up in such a very unexpected way/ceremony after the disappointing attempt. This is an important story on so many levels. Thank you for synthesizing this story and bringing it to us.

  11. I love it! You got the video. And this is such a wonderful, metaphorical account. It makes me want to write a poem about it (sometime). Yes, there have been times when I’ve fallen asleep and lost the memory. Thanks to you and Sefo for sharing this profound story.

  12. Another one of your great posts Amy!

    I have a dreadful sense of direction so it beats me how people can travel thousands of miles on land without a compass, but then these people could do it on the open seas:

    “When lost, remember where you came from. Then visualize the island.” He had to think their destination into existence.”

    sheesh that’s incroyable!

    I wanted to be an anthropologist when I grew up – it didn’t happen long story – but I never understood why the missionaries didn’t respect the cultures of the indigenous peoples they met and felt they were entitled to change the religions to theirs… Thank god the people of Hawaii woke up in time and managed to learn from a master like Mau before it was too late.

    I’m going to watch the videos and read the lectures slowly so I can take it all in. I’m too tired to do it justice now.

  13. What a wonderful story … so filled with truth. We are taught to “not use” our senses. We are taught not to trust them. Especially our feelings. We are meant to ignore them for they are a sign of weakness. Foolish drivel. we ought pay attention to our feelings, they have a lot to teach us. Thank you I enjoyed this

    • Thanks, Old Raven. Fortunately I chose a mother who loved the English language and therefore encouraged a breadth of expression. We were encouraged to pay attention to what we were sensing. While we weren’t in a “survival” situation, it helped us be more aware of our surroundings.

  14. What a well thought out, and well written story. I enjoyed it very much. And I think this line encapsulates the spirit of adventure so well, “He remembered being taught that the canoe was his island until he reached his destination.”

    One of the things I like about taking hikes with my kids, or wandering through the woods is that you do become entirely self-reliant.

    Great post.

    • Hi HK-HM! Thank you for coming by and leaving such a welcome comment. I had not considered how much we learn about self-reliance when hiking and wandering in Nature. Good point. Maybe you’ve just answered my life long question about why I am so independent. I spent most of my childhood with my dog freely and safely wandering our rural countryside.

  15. That was wonderful – thanks for sharing! So much ancient wisdom out there that we desperately need to turn to now, of all times! Just because our “modern” society is all entangled in the www and technology, doesn’t really mean we know a darn thing that matters!

    • Thanks for your comment, Suzen. Friends who are descendants of these aboriginal groups are very adept at using modern technology without threatening their cultural beliefs. They have been quicker and wiser about pitfalls and discipline. They foresaw the chaos our society seems to want today.

  16. A great post and a wonderful story. It reminds me of all those trades that have vanished with time. I remember the typists, the shoe-makers, the buggy-drivers, the stove-cleaners…and many others who I don’t see any more. I guess there’s a flip side of everything, including technology…

    • Hi Shafali – the one service that I miss is the person who re-straws brooms. I am still not prepared to throw out my little hearth broom just because the bristles are now one big hard clump of short bristles. I cannot think of one other use for the rest of the attractive little broom. If there was some new technology to re-straw, I’d be over the moon! 😀

  17. The story was everything I’ve come to expect from an Amy post–evocative, lyrical, gently knowing and memorable–but it was the post title I most needed today.

    The shifts I’m experiencing this week opened me up to big insecurity–a lost feeling, for sure. But if I visualize my island, I can remember that it’s there, even if I can’t yet see it with my physical eyes.

    Thanks, friend.

  18. You made me see that tech not only makes us lazy but also kills wisdom and the necessity of shutting down our digital world from time to time is a must. So sad for people who can’t Amy.

    • It is sad, Poch. We need to remember we can stand on our gifts. It’s great to let technology enhance our life experience, but we don’t have to give it our power. Sometimes we forget who’s working for whom!

      Thanks for coming by, my friend!

  19. What a fascinatingly informative read Amy!
    In this high tech world of ours we tend to overlook the depth and reach of Ancient Wisdom as well as the gracious culture that was and still is a part of it…thank you for helping us remember !
    The prayer is that we can further empower and enrich our lives through these traditions of wisdom…many thanks and God bless…

  20. Wonderful wisdom…this story reminds me of my own country’s ancient wisdom being lost as days goes
    ( i.e India where our ancestors knew how to exactly live in line with nature).I even wrote an article about it in a city magazine.Here again, thro’ networking I even learn that many out there ( with a lil bit of me) are still trying to explore, spread and preserve the ancient wisdom.I read this post and now trying to read more about it thro’ googling 🙂

    • I cheer you on, Uma. If we keep shining the spotlight on ancient wisdom, more and more people will quietly want to know about it. So I’m glad to know you are sowing the seeds as well.

  21. Thank you for sharing this story, Amy. May I make mention of your skill as a writer? You wove this tale and put it in front of me and I can see everyones’ lifetime in this story. Through Mau, you have touched on the navigator in all of us as we face our life. Beautiful photos!

  22. Hi Amy – I love this story .. and the connection with absolute space – which still has so much to offer .. the breath of the wind, the salt kiss as we near the sea and so much I know so little about .. I shall remember this post – and may use it anon.

    Professor Iain Stuart mentioned it when he was doing a documentary series on earth, wind, fire and water .. the beginnings of life .. it was fascinating.

    We are losing all these characteristic skills – these were the original talents to explore … everything was down to nature … we are one with nature – but many are forgetting … and losing those skills – then what?

    Thanks Amy – I loved this .. Happy New Year – new horizons to come .. cheers Hilary

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