On Being Awake

Our guide told us ‘tap the sides of your kayak’ so the Humpback whales ‘know you are there’.   Surrounding us were whales feeding and breaching.  That we were in the midst of a pod of whales was awe-inspiring, humbling and somewhat frightening.

The setting was Tebenkof Bay Wilderness in Southeastern Alaska.  For ten days our group kayaked and camped on small islands in this vast and primal setting. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tebenkof_Bay_Wilderness

Ours was a Zen meditation kayak trip.  Each morning and evening we shared in the Zen practice of becoming still and open.  Half the day we’d paddle and sometimes simply float.  Always in silence, allowing the sounds and sights to fill our senses.  The silence created a container within which we could experience what each moment offered.


It has been fifteen years since I communed with the humpback, bear and eagles of Tebenkof Bay.   I remember the wisdom of living in the moment of being present to the now.

To live in the moment is counter cultural. Often we live in the past or in the future and even in the present are easily distracted by what doesn’t matter.

There’s something special however about floating in your kayak knowing that another world of whales and fish are below you.  You ‘knock on your hull’ to let the whales know you are there and to remind yourself to live in the now.

Contemplatives call such heightened awareness being awake.  The challenge is to spend more time being awake than being asleep.

Another gift from that kayak trip was being introduced by our guide Kurt Hoelting  to the poetry of Mary Oliver.  Mary Oliver a prophet, poet and mystic invites you to dig in the dirt and float on the water. To take notice.

For ten days eagle, whale and bear spoke to me. I smelled the earth and felt the wind.  Each offering wisdom.

Silence creates space to see, hear and receive.  Martin Luther said, eagle, whale, bear, dirt and water are ‘little words from God’.  The Tlingit’s who have lived in Tebenkof Bay for thousands of years know that Spirit speaks through nature.

This day I invite you to  join me in being awake.  To listen and receive.

Paddling in the Rain

Several years ago I climbed into a rickety 1946 de Havilland Float Plane for a two-hour flight from Petersburg, Alaska for Tebenkoff Bay in the Tongass Wilderness in Southeastern Alaska. I was dropped off at an island with ten other people I’d never met. The rain was falling in sheets. We would be kayaking from island to island and camping.

Our guide brought us together on the beach as the rain fell. He said: “You are dressed for the rain. This rain will be your constant companion for most of the next week. It is up to each of you how you view this reality. You can complain or you can embrace it. The choice is yours.”

We chose to embrace the rain. For the next week we would kayak from island to island with rain as our constant companion. We had a great time.

I was thinking of that experience yesterday as I kayaked with my wife Tricia and friends on Chebacco Lake in Massachusetts. It was October and the colors were in their New England glory if muted somewhat by a steady rain.

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Having been on that lake in the summer with water ski boats racing past us, this day it was just our little group. Apparently most people prefer the sun. The gift of rain brought us quiet.

Slowly we paddled the circumference of that lake. Our only companions were ducks, ravens, hawks, occasionally a rising fish and of course the sound of rain.

In our busy lives where our schedules guide us and our minds race, it was a healthy antidote to be on the water. Our group’s age range was mid 30’s to mid 70’s. Gliding on the water any age difference fell away and we were simply fellow paddlers embracing the rain and the sounds that come with silence.

3000 years ago a prophet named Isaiah said: “Listen and your soul will live.” All we need do is slow down and listen. There is no better place to listen than being on the water in the rain.

Contemplative Paddling

We live in a culture that celebrates our ability to spin many plates, both professional and personal. We also remain highly connected through multi-media, not the least being the ubiquitous ‘Smart Phone’.

I’m not writing to bemoan the state of our culture. There is a lot to be said for the ability to multi-task and staying connected to our immediate and wider community.

Yet there are times when our brain, heart and spirit ask that we let our plates drop (for a while) and tune out from technology (for a while). The reason is that physiologically, emotionally and spiritually we need time to rest, reflect and restore.

A wonderful way to do this is through contemplative paddling. Recently I paddled with a group from the church I serve. We met early in the morning on the banks of a local lake. Our instruction was to limit our talking and to paddle slowly. We were given a meditation mantra from the Vietnamese Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hahn: “Breathing in I calm my spirit….Breathing out I smile….(inhale) Living in the moment….(exhale) This is the only moment…”

Kayak lone paddler photo

As we paddled on the lake, we were invited to practice this mantra when we found our thoughts pulling us away from being present to where we were. Half the time we simply floated and allowed the wind to take us where it would.

As we slowly paddled or simply floated we found that our minds, hearts and imaginations slowly began to be filled with the simple and profound beauty that was under and around us. Those busy spinning plates or glued to their computer, were missing the beauty that we floated upon.

3000 years ago a Jewish prophet named Isaiah offered this: “Listen and your soul will live”. From the waters of the lake we listened deeply, to the call of a mallard duck, to the soft wind, to the hopes and dreams that slowly emerged as we paddled or floated.

There’s a reason Jesus often removed himself from the demands and busyness of life, to go to a quiet place to pray, to listen. In the late 19th century a mystic and theologian named Soren Kierkegaard said: “The Sacred is always present, simply waiting to be found.”

Sometimes all it takes is time on the water to rest, renew and restore one’s soul. Sometimes all we need to do is slow down to find that a blessing is simply waiting to be found.

Paddle well.

Sound of Silence

Some years ago I was kayaking in the Tongass Wilderness in southeastern Alaska.   The Tongass is a temperate rainforest of several million acres largely untouched by human beings.  The Tlingit’s who lived here for thousands of years left few traces, a burial mound, indentations from  long ago villages and a few totems that eventually return to the earth.   It is a sacred land whose neighbors include wolf, bear, salmon, humpback and the occasional human.

My trip consisted of 10 kayakers led by Kurt Hoelting of Inside Passages insidepassages.com  The purpose of our trip in part was to immerse ourselves in the beauty, to slow down and become quiet so as to see and hear what the Tongass had to offer.

Each morning and evening we entered into a Zen practice…where we would seek to quiet our mind and spirit so as to be present to that which was going on within and around us.   One evening we heard a rhythmic “Whoosh”, the sound of a humpback exhaling as the whale broke the ocean surface.   So unmistakable and loud was the sound that we who were seated in the forest several yards off the beach were certain that the whale must be very close.

No longer able to contain ourselves our meditation leader broke our practice and invited us to greet our neighbor the whale.   Walking to the beach we saw that the humpbacks were actually a mile out in the bay.  It was the stillness of that evening and the stillness of our minds that allowed us to hear their call.  The sound of silence.