How do we find our way to somewhere we’ve never been before?
Individually, we each long to create a life that brings us into ever more wholeness. As lovers and families, we aim to love each other fully and create possibilities beyond what we’ve known. As teams and organizations, we want to birth impactful new collaborations, structures, and products that are inevitably further than what we’ve experienced. Collectively, millions of us around the world wish to change our social patterns and ecological trajectory toward a future of freedom and flourishing for all life on Earth.
Navigating unmarked territory to find our way through the mystery is an inherent drive in the human spirit.
This ability is the essence of the skill known as wayfinding. It is invaluable, in general, and especially now, as we face very real, high stakes globally.
What is Wayfinding
In it’s most specific reference, wayfinding is a staggeringly gorgeous voyaging skill developed by Polynesians several thousand years ago (estimated between 3000–1000 BCE) that I will do my best to describe from an outsider’s perspective. (*If you, friend, are more informed than I, please contact me with corrections.) Wayfinding synthesizes exquisite and complex relational pattern tracking of the stars, moon, sun, winds, weather, currents, birds, ocean beings, waves, islands, and self as a wayfinder as all of the needed information for orientating and navigating. It’s based on the understanding that all we need to navigate living systems is present in ourselves and the systems we live in. So our task is to observe, track the patterns, and be in ongoing dynamic relationship, recognizing that we are an interconnected, influencing part of the whole.
Through wayfinding, Polynesians traveled across the vastly distributed network of islands in the Polynesian Triangle — an area ~2 million sq km defined at its points by Hawai’i, Easter Island, and New Zealand — in outriggger and double-hulled canoes. Accomplishments unimaginable to European ocean explorers/colonizers when they encountered these mighty navigators. An example that demonstrates Polynesian wayfinders’ understanding of how our inner state influences our outer reality is that a wayfinder can “call an island up” on the horizon from a precise inner orientation to all of life. As amazing or unbelievable as this might sound to some readers, things can seem magical or impossible when we don’t understand them.
The Polynesian tradition of wayfinding is still practiced and protected as an important cultural pillar, most notably in my awareness by the Polynesian Voyaging Society based in Honolulu, HI who revived wayfinding from the brink of cultural extinction in the 1970s, 600 years after the last canoe had been seen in Hawai’i. Theirs is an amazing story.
In a broader sense, wayfinding is how beings orient and navigate landscapes. Today the term is often used in mainstream instances to refer to navigating built spaces or digital landscapes—a related, but also distant meaning from the original sense of wayfinding.
Since our worldviews and consciousness shape how we see and move through the world, wayfinding has different connotations depending on one’s cultural perspective. Here’s how I see the ends of the continuum:
- From an indigenous perspective, wayfinding is about navigating a wholly animate life fabric from a rich depth of relationship, sensing, and synthesis of complex pattern understanding. In this view we are nature, all the living beings and elements are our relations, and as such we are responsible to and for our big family and our home, Earth.
- From a post-indigenous, modern Western perspective (*all Europeans were indigenous at one point), wayfinding has a feeling of pioneering an inanimate, objectified space from intellect and will. From this viewpoint humans are not nature. We are regarded as separate and either better or worse than nature, which I see as a cultural illusion and an ecological falsehood. (More on this later).
These differences may seem subtle to some, but they profoundly affect our ability to find our way and the impacts we leave in our wake. When we see a living entity as an object, rather than as a being (e.g. another human due to the stories we tell about identity, a turkey vulture, an oak tree , etc.) we are more apt to interact from a posture of doing whatever we want without listening or understanding and, as a result, cause harm…
This moment in history is saturated with movements and efforts to re-weave our frayed connections. So how can the practice of wayfinding both be a forum for practicing connection while also helping deliver us to healing and (re)connection?
In wayfinding, one must know where they came from and locate where they are now to know where they are going. So, this piece is about orientation. It is an explanation of wayfinding, why it is so relevant now, and it’s an honoring of some of the many lineages and people who contributed to my path and the flowering of my approach/business, which I named Wayfinding. (Since I cannot name all the countless people and influences who’ve contributed to my path, I’ll start with a huge wave of thanks to all the beings of the life fabric.)
Recognizing Disconnect (or How I Came to Wayfinding Part 1)
Born and raised by Barbara and Louis Conte and younger sister to Marc Conte — three intensely curious and loving souls — I grew up in Maryland and Massachusetts in a home culture of delighting in curiosity, family, food, people, nature, and diverse expressions of the human spirit.
As a result, I’ve been in love with humans and the larger living family as long as I can remember. So my journey started from seeds of love, curiosity, and caring. As a descendent of Irish+Scottish+Czech and Italian immigrants, my journey also germinated in the context of not being indigenous to the land I live on, cultural erosion of connection to place and community over generations, and the societally-conferred privileges, responsibilities, and entangled wounds of my ancestry and present-day U.S. culture. The first condition of my early years was clear and strong in my knowing from the beginning. The second condition was obscured (such is the nature of privilege) and took many more years to viscerally understand.
Remember that cultural fabrication and ecological lie I mentioned above? Midway through my undergraduate degree in Earth Systems—an interdisciplinary environmental science and policy major at Stanford that helped me grasp the severity of our ecological state via science and began my development as an interdisciplinarian/weaver—I read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael and realized that I was being taught from the perspective that humans are separate from nature… Wait, what??!? To be fair to my wonderful teachers in 2002, this was, and still is, a pervasive belief in the mainstream United States—part of an invisible belief soup called culture that started cooking several millennia ago. I saw how climate change and our environmental dilemmas were a consequence of this false belief. This belief was clearly ecologically untrue and detrimental, so I had to know where it came from and why it still existed.
I got more intensely curious than I’d ever been to that point, self-designed a Master’s degree to investigate the origin of this belief in European and American thought, and dove in. (Big thanks to Deanna Fabbro-Johnston, Jake Kosek, and Matthew Booker for your invaluable help on this path). From the inception of agriculture and translations of key words in the Bible (*note: “dominion”, as in “dominion over the fish of the sea” etc. in its original connotation meant “stewardship”, but over time became understood as “ownership”) to colonization, the constructions of race and civilization to justify rape + genocide + enslavement + plunder + ecological devastation, industrialization, the creation of “wilderness”, and more, I began to understand the nudging moments that initiated, reinforced, and institutionalized the narrative of disconnect. And that certain people benefit from this narrative at the expense of others, humans and larger living family alike, which is why the belief persisted for so long. And that I am an active participant—simultaneous beneficiary and loser—in of all these systems, regardless of my level of awareness. Uggghhhhhhhh...
Realization: Changing systems in a lasting way requires changing culture which requires changing beliefs about reality then changing behavior across millions of people. To say this felt daunting at 21 years old is an understatement. It can still feel daunting on certain days. (But there’s hope! I’ll get there...) This is how I started to learn about the profound influence of culture and power systems in a larger way.
At the same time, my tremendously wonderful dad died.
It was noon on Monday at the busiest intersection next to the main quad. Classes had just gotten out when I received a call from my mom and uncle to tell me that dad had a third stroke in the part of his brain that controlled his heart and lungs, and that he’d pass away sometime in the next 48 hours. I dropped to the pavement wailing as a flash flood of grief thundered through my body, gasping for air amidst throwing up my heart. At the same time, I was above myself, watching streams of people flow around me on bike and foot, like water swirling past my crumpled body.
No one stopped.
I even saw a professor with whom I’d done a 1-on-1 directed reading for 10 weeks the prior year looking at me from a nearby bench and as soon I made eye contact with her, she returned her gaze to her conversation. I don’t know how long I was there, but I guess that several hundred people passed by me in that time. I didn’t have to read firsthand accounts, case studies, or data to reveal evidence of disconnection operating systemically in U.S. cultural programming—I felt it directly searing my being in all of its violent, numb avoidance. At this moment, my heart and my sensing took the helm of my life with my well-developed brain as an advisor.
Practicing Reconnection (or How I Came to Wayfinding Part 2)
Realizing I was raised in a culture that was primarily informed by disconnection, I longed to know what it felt like to live in a culture more deeply based in a worldview of connection. (*I experience the expanse of connection-disconnection worldviews as a spectrum, not a binary)
In 2007, this led me to an immersive training called the Regenerative Design & Nature Awareness program (RDNA) created by Penny Livingston Stark, James Stark, Jon Young and Nicole Young, and indispensably facilitated and contributed to by Mark Morey, Ned Conwell, Lauren Dalberth Hage, and Dave Hage. I spent two years in deep experiential learning about permaculture/regenerative design, nature awareness, wilderness survival, the ecology of leadership, and the 8 Shields—a map of indigenous cultural technologies for re/weaving connection to self, others, and life created by Jon Young from decades of research and the mentoring he received from diverse indigenous elders from Apache, Akamba, Lakota, Hawai’ian and Haudenosaunee lineages.
With experiences like learning bird language and reading the energetic signatures of different animals moving on the land before seeing them thanks to precise shapes and tones of bird expression, to the transformative power of ceremony in community, and reviving vitality of land, soil and ecology in a way that worked with the character of the place, I started to feel/taste/know more fully what it was like to live from connection. It was remarkable, as it should be, because we are wired for connection—it is the source of our vitality, wholeness, and creativity. RDNA and the 8 Shields gave me an incredible immersion and base map of connection technologies sourced from around the world that reconnected me to life in a way I didn’t even know I was missing. It changed my life, the way I walk in the world, and my heart forever. (Huge thanks to all my teachers, classmates, elders, and community members).
The experience of RDNA opened an intense curiosity that led me to my next chapter—how to bridge this type of life and knowledge delivered in wild and rural settings into the contemporary, urban realities of many of my loved ones and friends? So, I moved to San Francisco and began to live this question.
At the same time, I almost died.
Embodying Vitality (or How I Came to Wayfinding Part 3)
On January 10, 2011, I was sitting watching sunrise from the top of a waterfall in Golden Gate Park when I stood up to go, but evidently I stood too quickly. I had a low blood pressure moment, blacked out, lost my balance, and fell ~8–10', regaining consciousness immediately before bouncing on a boulder four times. Upon impact, a part of my awareness registered that this was the most painful thing I’d ever experienced as I felt something inside of me tear open and release a howling river. I didn’t have my ID or phone and I lost sense of time, plunged into endless screaming.
No one came.
I knew it was really bad. I silently sensed into/asked if I was going to die. I heard a voice say, “Not right now, but if you don’t get help you will.” I mustered all I had left to crawl out of the gully to a more conspicuous intersection of paths and collapsed there. Shortly thereafter a wonderful woman, whose name I still don’t know, found me. I could have bled out to death, but didn’t, thanks to this woman, all the life-saving souls who helped us, the emergency medical teams at SF General Hospital, and all my invisible helpers. This fall ushered me into the scariest mystery of my life. One five-hour emergency surgery and four days later, I went home with limits of recovery and recovery time undefined amidst severely limited finances.
My body became my greatest teacher, my sensing my compass. The indicators of my aliveness unmistakable signposts I had to follow to regain my life force. All the information I needed in any moment was there. If I followed my Yes and honored my No, I could feel aliveness condense and accumulate as precious drops of energy. If I didn’t choose, act, express, or create in alignment with my vitality and connection, I’d get tired at best, or sick, bedridden, and submerged in PTSD at worst. But even the uncomfortable dives ultimately held doorways to acceptance, healing, and transformation.
And so I began learning a whole other level of mastery in internal and external sensing, and navigating from the interface of the inner and outer realms. It ended up being an 8-year journey to return to health and a sense of wholeness, and I am forever grateful to wake up each day and for my path (*edited in 2021: it was a 10-year journey).
This journey was made up of millions of moments where I chose to walk into my desires, blindspots, longings, and obstacles to my life force because my life depended on it. This practice/process isn’t over—it’s a life journey, a beautiful one, that just reveals more of life. And I have a constantly-affirmed hypothesis that each of our lives, our ability to collaborate, and our collective wellbeing depends on this type of dynamic sensing and navigation—on wayfinding.
Wayfinding for Heart-Centered Leaders
Here’s my map of the core interconnected scales of vitality that I’ve explored over the past 17 years that encompass my approach to wayfinding and how I support heart-centered leaders to lead from aliveness and become systems healers.
My intellectual experiences helped me understand our current context, catalogue patterns, and reframe the story of where we are and where we can go. But my lived experiences honed my sensing of the vibrational information in systems and my capacity to navigate toward aliveness, belonging, creatorship, and connection in any setting. They fed the fire of my heart and spirit by immersing me in the suffering that I want to reduce for as many people and living beings as possible, and the love and beauty that I hope grace as many people and our living relatives as possible.
I learned that:
- Transforming disconnection into connection on any of these scales necessitates alignment across all of the scales. So even though I can foreground the lens of organizational transformation and leadership in my work, evolution in these realms is necessarily bound up in personal wellbeing, intimacy, social justice, ecological thriving, and our relationship to the mystery (hence the range of my work). And from my experience coaching hundreds of people, we best learn how to wayfind by starting at the simplest scale—ourselves.
- The gating factors to addressing root causes to blockage in human systems are caused by power dynamics and our egos — two places that hold great charge and can instill fear, but that soften and flower into incredible beauty when engaged in the right way.
- The antidote to blockage is encoded in the blockage itself and can be brought forth when we orient our power to that aim. We discover the keys to repair and incredible aliveness on any scale by listening into longing, desires, dissonance, and trauma. This is a simple, but uncomfortable task, because we are unpracticed in sensing and being with big feelings.
The great news is that fostering connection requires getting great at relationship with ourselves, each other, and life. Which is both fun and more productive than the designs of fear-based systems…
With all the turbulence and cacophony of our present, I know the future I want to help call up from the horizon. So Wayfinding is my attempt to contribute to that future. It is an ever evolving love letter to you and to life as we all walk into this mystery together.
I know we have all we need to find our way.
If you’re interested to learn more about examples of wayfinding traditions from around the world, see Wade Davis’s The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World
RDNA, the program I mentioned above took place at The Regnerative Design Institute in Bolinas, CA. Now the program lives on as Weaving Earth facilitated by Lauren Dalberth Hage, Dave Hage, and Will Scott. If you want to learn more about intuitive tracking, here’s an amazing article from Josh Lane from the 8 Shields Institute.
Huge thanks to john a. powell at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society who gave me additional language for what I’ve conceived of as Connection & Disconnection worldviews: Belonging & Othering.
Special thanks to additional loved ones:
The Conte and McIntosh families, my love Michael Armstrong, and my beloved friends (so many to name…in particular Jessi Suzuki, Welde Carmichael, Anne-Marie Marron, Laura Griffiths, Ross Robertson, Scott Davidson, Justin Hakuta, and scores more)| Pleasant Bay, the CYC community, and Roy Terwilliger for being my first training ground listening to subtle and sometimes wild communications of the wind, waves, my body, and boat | Sierra Camp, Dave Bunnett, and the staph for setting an aspirational bar for creative, self-directed work culture+loving community and my introduction to realizing I was in love with ceremony | Julie Langhorne, Paul Raphael, Mala Spotted Eagle, Wendolyn Bird, Pete Bergen, Arianna Husband, and many more for holding and contributing to the RDNA ecosystem | Julie Langhorne for contributing so much to my path in RDNA and so far beyond, and being one of the coolest elders around | Mark Morey for supporting me in the underworld after my fall and for being an enduring ally in bringing connection to organizations | Sobonfu Some & Martin Prechtel in illuminating the connections between grief, ceremony, community, health, and joy | Gigi Coyle, Win Phelps,Will Scott & The School of Lost Borders for guiding vision quests and offering the barest bones of ceremony to let the land & spirit speak directly | Belvie Rooks & Dedan Gills for being stands for such big love, inspirations for what romantic partnership could look like + holding the intersection of social and ecological healing, and asking “What would healing look like?” through Growing a Global Heart after visiting the door of no return at the beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade route in Ghana | Kumu Ramsay Taum for being my first role model in making wisdom of the spirit and heart relevant in the business world and sharing Aunty Morrnah Simeonah’s incredible ho’oponopono process | Catherine MacCoun for profoundly elevating my understanding of the unseen and for properly introducing me to alchemy and the Great Work| Gordon Rudow, Jeremy Morgan, and the Bonfire family for being my first immersion in being human at work while running a great business and helping other organizations learn to listen and communicate with empathy | Stephen Blumenthal in facilitating trauma healing, role modeling being an urban medicine person, and displaying some of the humblest+wisest+most fun elderhood I’ve ever witnessed | Celeste Hirschman, Danielle Harel, Dimitry Yakoushkin, Elena LeTourneau and my entire Somatica tribe for creating life-changing space to illuminate, heal, and explore the dynamics of erotic energy, sex, relationship, intimacy | Aaron Dignan, Rodney Evans, and the whole team at The Ready for exploring the mechanics of self-organizing and adaptive organizations and how to transform into one while helping others do the same | David Beaudry and the Qi Tribe for helping me learn and begin to embody the Taoist wisdom of qigong and medical qigong | To all those who defended and passed on connection | To the turkey vultures, the pumas, the waters, the Cooper’s hawks, the hummingbirds, the poison ivy, the yarrow, the fungi, the junipers, the oaks, the moon, the deer, the whales, the garlic, the ginger, the sun, the swallows, the wolves, the bees, the rocks, the Earth, and to so many more…
Big thanks and love.