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Mindful : April 2014
Nainoa Thompson’s journey aboard the Hokule’a, a double-hulled ca noe the early Polynesians used to travel to Hawaii and beyond. Nainoa was my teacher Steven Smith’s high school friend. He had navigated the Hokule’a across the Pacific from Hawaii to Tahiti—without a ny mod- ern navigational tools. It was the first time anyone had achieved this in 500 years. Nainoa had no intention of becoming a naviga- tor. He just wanted to learn more about the stars and the ocean and was curious about how the first Hawaiians, his ancestors, got there. But as he fol- lowed his interests deeper, they led to meeting his teacher, Mau. Mau was brought up in a family of traditional navigators on a small isla nd in Micronesia. As an infant, his pa rents had placed him in tide pools so he would begin to feel the pull of the sea. At the age of four, his grandfather began teaching him the art of wayfinding, the a ncient practice of non-instrument navigation. From Mau, Nainoa learned how to read the stars and the moon, currents and waves, and patterns of bird flight to find his way on the open ocean, paying attention to subtle changes through concentration and quieting his mind. Mindfulness has been my wayfinding. It’s helped me navigate the internal ocean of my mind—some- times rough waters, sometimes calm, always chang- ing. It’s taught me how to connect with and take refuge in my body when my thoughts a nd emotions become overwhelming. As I learned mindfulness, I learned that my body is always in the present. It doesn’t fabricate things, get confused, overthink, or second-guess itself. I went on numerous retreats during my teenage years. Each one brought more cla rity about what truly made me happy and where I wanted to head in the next year. After graduating from high school, on my annual ea rly summer retreat, I decided to take it a step I began to see how much unconscious self-criticism was pounding away in my head: needing to get perfect grades, to be thin, to save the world, to “succeed.” further and go to Burma to meditate. I called to defer my freshman year at Dartmouth, and a few days later I told my parents. Despite my mother’s own positive experiences with meditation, she wasn’t exactly thrilled. And my father? He cried— one of the only times I can remember his doing so. I understood; he just wa nted me to get a good education and start a career. But somehow I knew this was the right way to go for me. I didn’t try to defend my decision. I trusted my intuition a nd worked through the summer to save money, apply for a visa, and buy a plane ticket. Despite my pa rents’ continued protests, in the fall I left for Burma, where I dove into intensive medita- tion practice at a monastery. Staying the Course Meditating in Burma was not like a teen retreat— there were no afternoon breaks for g uitar playing and Hacky Sack, no bonfires or small discussion g roups. In fact, there was no talking at all. It was tough. At one point I noticed that while I struggled, the woman in the cabin next to mine made it all look effortless. Annie was always smiling as she did her walking meditation and hung her laundry in the sun. One day, I broke the silence and ran into her room, desperate to lea rn whatever secret practice she was doing. Instead, she explained how mindful- ness can help even more if I direct it at the process of my own thinking. She helped me see there was a whole pattern of thoughts that my mind was pro- ducing, but I wasn’t noticing. I saw that when I realized I’d become lost in thinking, each time my mind would immediately slip into inner-critic mode: “Ugh, I’ve done it again! I’m terrible at this! I’m never going to get it. What ’s wrong with me?!” Annie helped me pay attention to those self-critical thoughts and—more importa ntly—not to believe them. 62 mindful April 2014 growing up PHOTOGRAPH©THOMASPICKARD/AURORAPHOTOS/CORBIS