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Language Beyond Words

In 2001 I climbed into a four passenger De Havilland float plane (the workhorse of the Pacific Northwest) and set out from Petersburg, Alaska for a 2 hour flight to Tebenkof Bay in southeastern Alaska. Tebenkof Bay, ancestral home of the Tlingit, is part of a 66,ooo acre wilderness comprising wooded islands, inlets and smaller bays. The Tebenkof Bay Wilderness is adjacent to the Tongass National Forest, comprising 16.7 million acres of primal temperate rain forest.


To say that this is 'big country' is an understatement. For the next 10 days I'd be kayaking with a small group of kindred souls in the Tebenkof, exploring the landscape of this vast land. For those 10 days we would not see another human being but what would soon become clear, was that we were surrounded by the presence of other beings: Eagles, humpback whales, bears (black and grizzly), four species of salmon and countless others.



Tebenkof Bay


The group I paddled with were part of a program guided by Kurt Hoelting called Inside Passages. The framework for our days in the wilderness was to spend a large portion of each day paddling in silence. We began each day with a Zen sitting on the beach. The premise was that in silence we would be invited to move from our preoccupation with planning and doing to simply being. Being present. Being mindful. Being quiet.


To be honest, in those first few days I fought it. I fought the silence. For me it was uncomfortable, unsettling, unfamiliar. However, on the third day, I experienced a shift. It was as if I slipped into another space, another realm, a deeper place where my senses were heightened.


In this new place I was able to hear the sound of the humpback whale blowing water from its blowhole, a half mile away, as if it were very close. The colors of the salmon swimming in vast schools below my kayak shimmered. And, in the midst of these neighbors, I moved from being an observer, to being a participant a part-of this intricate dance of life.


This is where the silence took me. And, with my fellow humans who shared this experience, there was an intimacy that was created. An intimacy not based upon words, ideas, personalities but upon a shared experience of being silent.


Monastics of diverse religious traditions, who seek silence, know this to be true. In silence we are transported to a way of being that transcends words. All it takes is practice. Do you believe this to be true?


Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk and mystic said: 'Silence is the Creator's first language. Everything else is a poor translation.' On the waters of Tebenkof Bay we heard a language unlike any other. A language that transcended words, a language that one felt on a visceral level.



Ipswich River, Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary, Ipswich, MA


As that 10 day journey unfolded there were extended moment when I felt myself to be immersed in the beauty and intricacy of that primal wilderness. And yet, there was something even more. I felt not only 'a part' of this intricate web of life, I also felt, like I was 'being held' by the Maker of all that is.


I can't prove or define more fully what I felt during that time. Yet I can tell you, that for me, and I suspect others who shared in that time, that it was (and is) true.


When was the last time you spent an extended period being quiet? Was it comfortable or did it stretch you?


What I've come to believe is this: Cultivating silence is an acquired ability. It takes practice. The more one practices being silent, the more accessible it becomes. I think too, being quiet in the midst of nature can be transformational. And, if you persist and persevere in being quiet, there will come a time, when you too will slip into another space, another realm, a deeper place where your senses are heightened. In time you too will know that you belong.


Paddle well.


With you on the journey ~ Kent Harrop


Note: There are countless tools and techniques to help us cultivate silence. I've found Centering Prayer to be helpful https://www.contemplative.org/contemplative-practice/centering-prayer/ Another suggestion if you live in New England is to join me on a contemplative kayak/canoe experience that is called Pray and Paddle. On these paddles we offer a 2-3 hour taste on local waters, of the wilderness journey on Tebenkof Bay. To learn more go to: prayandpaddle.org

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