THE BLOG
10/30/2012 07:12 pm ET | Updated Dec 30, 2012

Making Eyebrows in the Water

The world is full of small stories that carry great wisdom. This one comes from an Inuit custom between fathers and sons.

In central Alaska, there is a river that begins on the northwest slopes of the Alaska Range and flows more than 650 miles to the Bering Sea. The shores of the river are mostly thick with trees and uninhabited. These chilling waters are known as the Kuskokwim River.

John Larson, a Dateline NBC correspondent, was in Alaska covering a news story when he learned of an Inuit custom in which elders take their sons once a year to the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. Here the largest salmon return from the Bering Sea. The elders teach their sons that if you watch closely enough, you'll see the biggest fish barely break surface, leaving an almost imperceptible wake. When the big fish break surface in this way, the Inuit say they are making eyebrows in the water. The slight break of surface is known as the wake of an unseen teacher.

When father and son alike see this wake, the harvest begins. This is a powerful metaphor for how we fish for what matters in our lives. We are always looking for the teachers that swim just below the surface, like the face of God skimming below the surface of our days.

The Inuit believe that, wherever the large salmon break surface, they leave traces of everything they've carried from the mountains to the sea and back. If a son can swim to the spot and drink, he will have the strength of salmon wisdom growing in his belly.

This Inuit ritual is another indigenous instruction for the great care and attention needed to see through to the essential realm of spirit that underlies everything. Though even when sighting what matters briefly, there is no guarantee that the deeper reality will surface in the same place twice. Still, it is the art of sighting the wake of an unseen teacher that begins the harvest. This way of listening below the surface of things opens a kind of education that is not really teachable, though we can bring each other to its threshold through love.

Excerpt from Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, just published from Simon & Schuster Oct. 9, 2012.

A Question to Walk With: Have you experienced an unseen teacher? If so, tell the story of coming upon this teacher and what you learned.

For more Poetry for the Soul, click here.

For more by Mark Nepo, click here.