Last week I took a plane to Calgary, then rented a car, and drove to and around Banff and Yoho National parks with Dr.M. I was mystified by the names Yoho and Banff—Yoho is a Cree expression of awe and wonder—the onomatopoeia is spot-on, as is the naming, in the native tongue. Banff on the other hand, the interwebs tells me, is derived from Banffshire, Scotland. Banffshire is the birthplace of two of the original directors of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Speaking of the railways, the spiral tunnels are an incredible engineering feat, and I am in awe of the incredible human capacity to build such things under such seemingly impossible conditions. We watched from the viewing platform as a train made that crazy looping descent. I was transported back to my childhood, on long car journeys, alongside goods trains in India and counting the ‘bogies’. On our way back to Banff, I was delighted to count up to one hundred carriages ratting past, with an accompanying rear engine, while we waited at the level crossing. While I say this, I cannot also ignore the tragic impact on wildlife these trains have, and the loss of countless bears, moose, elk etc., and it is heartbreaking to witness or read about their terror and confusion on the tracks.

Walking around the lakes in Banff and Yoho National Parks affords a deeply spiritual experience. To clarify, my definition of spirituality is one concerned with the direct experience of latent higher consciousness within one’s self, i.e. the internal space and must not to be conflated with, or confused with religion. Similar in vein to my many walks in the Himalayas, these places stimulate a deep resonance with one’s deepest sentient frameworks. The aesthetics of walking, and the meditation this allows, especially in a place characterised by such beauty, has both a therapeutic effect on the body as much as it stimulates responses of awe and reverence. Keltner and Haidt suggested that experiences of awe can be characterized by two phenomena: “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation.” While the meaning of the former is obvious, The latter refers to the dissonance with normal ways of comprehending the world. When an experience exceeds expectation it can provoke an attempt to change the mental structures that we use to understand the world. This then demands a “cognitive realignment”, an essential part of the awe experience as conceptualized by Keltner and Haidt. Studies show how these feelings (and these experiences) have the effect of making us feel smaller—diminishing the ego perhaps, or the inevitable self-centeredness contemporary ways of living seem to contrive, thereby allowing us to feel more connected to other people.

The lakes in this part of the world are spellbindingly beautiful. The rock flour suspension in the glacial melt renders them an unreal blue, turquoise, cobalt, aqua, teal, and green. But this blue/green, and this is not the reflection of the sky as some might think—the colours are the result of the grinding of rocks as glaciers melt and shift, producing a rock flour that is so fine it hangs as a suspension in the lake-waters. This reflects the blue-green wavelengths of light more than any other, giving the lakes their incredible colours. And these colours change, depending on the angle of viewing, the time of day, and the month, (the best times being after July-August, when the glaciers melt). The intense clarity and depth of colour of the water seem to impose a similar set of attributes onto the spirit—like some form of spiritual mimicry of a physical phenomenon. The result is a feeling of silence, of focus, of insight and peace. A tremendous privilege to witness and experience.

Then there is the creative value of walking itself—especially when in a natural setting, where one is not lulled into autopilot by the evenness of surface. There is some evidence that this stimulates creative thinking. The creative impulse is the place of meaning and joy that we all seek. The earliest human activities have explored this essential instinct—by transforming material, making music, telling stories etc. As artist/designers, we continue to honour this sapient tradition in our every day, and walking in places such as these perhaps links us, in some meaningful way to the earliest drivers of this impulse.

Also, encountering a white Grizzly while at Sherbrooke Lake….. there is not much to say. The experience is a quiet reminder of one’s place in the world.

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