This time of year, I sometimes wake up to the sound of people arguing loudly in a hot air balloon just above my house.
After a few minutes, I figure what I’m actually hearing: a flock of Canada geese. My house is right on their migratory route, and hundreds of flocks fly past us, honking and yawping at each other to stay in touch. They fly thousands of miles every year. We should all be so good at navigating the world.
In a way, we can be. But only by tuning in very, very closely to what we Wayfinder coaches call our inner compasses. The one resolution I’m making this New Year is to stop and check my compass before every decision, large or small.
“Inner compass” is not just a figure of speech
I’m particularly excited about this because, while I’ve been writing about inner compasses and Wayfinding for years, I just found out that what I thought was metaphoric is actually literal.
Many animals, like my goose friends, seem to navigate by detecting the earth’s magnetic field. They manage this because somewhere inside them—in the beaks of homing pigeons and the abdomens of bees, for examples—are tiny deposits of magnetite, a black stone that can be magnetic if it’s struck by lightning.
This blows my mind. Somehow millions of organisms manage to internalize specific lightning-struck rocks and use them as literal magnets.
One of those organisms is you.
Scientists have found that the human brain is suffused with magnetite, particularly around the brain stem. They think this may account for the incredible navigational abilities of people like the Inuit, the original people of Australia, and the Polynesian Wayfinders.
If you’re a Wayfinder coach (or you’re taking the Wayfinder training right now) you know that our whole method is based on paying close attention to our internal sense of being pulled in a certain direction. I wonder if our ability to do this comes from the same genetic history that allows the geese to find their way from Canada to Florida. I wonder if the geese know the methods most humans have forgotten for “reading” their internal signals.
How to live a Wayfinder’s life
Most of us make decisions by paying attention to external signals and standards. We follow cultural standards of “excellence” and ignore any protest from within. That’s especially common at this time of year, as we all swear to do whatever our culture admires: eat, sleep, and work in accepted ways, look like the people we see on TV, post just the right images on social media.
This is the way many non-Wayfinder coaching systems encourage people to behave. It usually leads to a period white-knuckled virtue before we lose finger strength and fall off the wagon. Wayfinder coaches focus on listening to the inner pull before we set goals, and listening continuously as we set about achieving them. This, I believe, is how nature designed us to navigate the world.
Even if you’ve been Wayfinding for a while, as I have, it never hurts to review the process. Here’s what I’ve resolved to do every day for the next year. You might want to join me in this Wayfinder lifestyle.
Each day, find a bit of time to go off by yourself. Even if you can only get ten minutes of quiet time in the middle of the night, it’s worth it to gain the solitude and silence in which you can feel your inner compass.
Get still. Breathe deeply and relax your muscles.
Feel for any sense of comfort, curiosity, joy, or fun. Sometimes you’ll feel it clearly. At other times, the signals may be subtle.
Here’s a handy trick for making decisions: Stand up straight (but relaxed) and think about a decision you’re making. Focus on one option. If your true nature likes that option, you’ll feel your body sway forward an inch or so. If that choice is wrong for you, your body will pull backward.
Write down whatever is pulling you forward. This may be something you aren’t expecting: learning to play the trombone, going for coffee with a friend, sleeping ten hours a night. Resist cultural judgments. Just read the compass.
Set off—slowly—toward your own true north. You don’t have to radically change your life. Just add a little of what pulls you forward, and subtract a little of what pushes you backward, every day.
Finally, accept that you may change course at any time. As this year goes along, you might get blown off course. You may realize your signals have been scrambled (this sometimes happens to migrating birds when they cross power lines). Commit to re-establishing course by repeating the steps above whenever you feel off-course, unhappy, bored, or purposeless.
Mary Oliver’s poem “The Wild Geese” sums up what we discover when we set out to live this way. “You do not have to be good,” Oliver writes. “You do not have to walk on your knees/ for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./ You only have to let the soft animal of your body/ love what it loves.”
All around us, wild creatures are Wayfinding—using literal inner compasses to find nourishment, companionship, home. If we can let ourselves love what we love, our own Wayfinding skills gradually grow sharper and stronger, so that we end up with the people, places, and practices that suit us best.
Time for my daily compass reading. I’ve got a journal, a pen, and a cup of tea—everything I need to find my way through life. I’m going upstairs to a room that’s almost always quiet, except for the sound of wild geese calling to each other as they fly.