Surfacing: Lessons from the water for men facing hard truths.

Jeff Perera says the rivers of the land offer men a way of handling hard truths that can help us move forward, instead of spiraling in circles of denial and defensiveness.

They say there are few better ways to witness the natural wonders of the land of endless lakes and tens of thousands of rivers called Canada than by kayaking through its waters. Thousands of years ago, the Inuit created kayaking as a way to travel, explore, hunt, and further connection to both the land and to other Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island (North America).

The journey that is our life can feel like riding a river, with currents that flow both within us and around us. Sometimes the waters are calm, and you can slow down and take things in. Sometimes the waters become turbulent. It is in moments like this, when things are moving fast, where a sudden disturbance or occurrence in the water ahead can be initially read as a threat.

When life’s waters get uncomfortable as a hard truth surfaces, I want to share with you how we can learn to find a moment to slow things down in the middle of our panic, and continue in a way that is helpful for everyone. For my fellow non-Indigenous men, particularly settlers who are white, this is an invitation for us to learn how to face hard truths, together.

The flow of my parents’ life journey saw them fly over bodies of water, leaving Sri Lanka to move to England, and eventually come to Canada in 1974. As newcomers in both lands, they faced racism. As settlers, they vaulted ahead in finding opportunities over Indigenous Peoples.

As someone who was born here and has always called Canada home, but was made at times to not feel at home: I understand the initial reaction some will have. ‘Hey, it hasn’t been easy for me either!!‘ is a reaction some might have when hearing about an experience such as mine, that of my parents. or the ongoing oppression of Indigenous Peoples. As Ritika Goel said to: “fellow non-Indigenous people in Canada today, including fellow racialized people and immigrants… despite our own challenges, whether we like it or not, we all have and continue to benefit from the colonization of Indigenous Peoples’ land.

September 30th, 2021 was the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Headlines covered the heartbreaking and ongoing recovery of over 6500 Indigenous children’s bodies. Unmarked graves of lives lost in Canada’s horrifying ‘Indian Residential School’ System (referred to as ‘Boarding Schools’ in the US) which an Elder called ‘assimilation camps‘. With their bodies finally being recovered, what also started surfacing was overdue acknowledgment and deeper realization of Canada’s attempt to erase the language, stories, traditions, and lives of the original keepers of the land. An attempt at their erasure in a horrific and systematic fashion.

We can’t move forward towards reconciliation, if we don’t face a hard truth, together. These truths are perhaps new to you, but it is helpful to remember they are the family history and everyday reality for many. Think of Eliza Beardy who: “after 58 years of searching, found her brother’s grave in a section of the cemetery meant for children. There’s no tombstone, just a marker that reads 215.”

I want to acknowledge how moments of truth like this – whether new to us or finally accepted – can make us as men shut down, tune out, and become fearful, or defensive. The moment our raw reaction surfaces within our bodies and minds is an opportunity to consider the way we want to move forward. We can either propel ahead in denial and defensiveness, or we can sit with what we race from facing.

If you are kayaking down a river and find yourself barreling down a rapid current, situations might slowly arise or suddenly show up ahead in the water, which you might read as a threat to throw you off-course.

These are known as Eddies.

An eddy is a section in the river with a circular current, which comes about due to something obstructing the river’s flow, such as a fallen tree or large rocks. Water flows around the obstruction, circles back, and then moves back into the flow.

When you learn more about eddies, and how to actually catch one, you realize they can offer a window of tranquility in the chaos. Here’s a demonstration of what I’m talking about. Watch a section that’s less than a minute from this video by Pete of River Kings showing you how to catch an eddy.

Forward up to 3:10 in the video and watch until around to 4:05.

Just as when danger seems to appear in the waters ahead: a hard truth surfacing in our lives might send us into panic mode. This happens to us as men, as a people, or as a nation. Even mentioning that we’ve been pronouncing the word ‘Kayak‘ itself wrong all this time might make you a little defensive! In this state, invitations to take accountability and responsibility can feel like, or even be perceived as, a threat.

As Pete showed us: If you get to its core, an eddy offers a moment of calm and clarity. It’s a chance within the endless flow to gather yourself, regroup, and consider what’s next. So we can consider an eddy in our life’s journey as an unexpected opportunity to go from a panic zone, into a learning zone.

The key is handling the eddy lines.

The water moving around the object – the eddy lines – sometimes cause a whirlpool: water swirling that could potentially drag things on the surface down underneath, possibly including you. Like anything in life: we find a moment of clarity by working through rocky discomfort while not letting it take us under: you work your way through the eddy lines in order to get re-centered.

As Pete said: “…learning how to catch eddies is gonna open up a whole lot of river to ya, and a lot of possibilities.”

An eddy is that place for self-reflection. When eddies occur in oceans they “cause nutrients that are normally found in colder, deeper waters to come to the surface.” The things which can surface in the eddy are not just what is in the water, but what is inside of you.

I think of the times we live in as an era of Surfacing.

So much has surfaced in the past ten years. From #MeToo and the harm women and gender-diverse people continue to navigate, to the Black Lives Matter movement: There have been waves upon waves of truths surfacing. Truths that have long been dismissed or silenced, but can no longer be buried or submerged.

What has also surfaced is how we feel about it all, our reaction to it all. We either lean forward, listening and wanting to know how we can help or make amends, or we lean back in fear and shame, leading to defensiveness and denial. What has ultimately surfaced is our learned behaviour, our cultural conditioning as a person or as a people. In some ways, we now see one another more clearly. We see who and what others value, or devalue. We see who or what truths matter to each of us. The third surfacing is the kind of action we take. After we react, how will we act? What will we do about it?

The stakes are high. In my 2014 TEDx talk, I spoke about Loretta Saunders, who was doing her thesis on Missing and Murdered Women, Girls and 2-Spirit (MMIWG2S) when she herself was murdered. Her sister Delilah never recovered from the grief and advocated for MMIWG2S. She is now also gone. 

Gregory Flynn is a coach and facilitator who also enjoys kayaking, and also works with men. He started Men Connecting as a space to support men navigating the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. When it comes to facing a hard truth as men, Gregory says that: “we feel we have to pick sides, when we can be in the hurt of it. Sit in the shame and learn to reconcile, We can be in connection as white men with communities of colour.”

We can choose to wade into our deep emotional waters to face what we perceive as hurt or a threat, and dive into the emotional deep end to untangle and interrogate what we are actually feeling.

jeff perera – Higher Unlearning

Like the waters in an eddy circling back, these surfacing hard truths provide a moment to bring us back to ourselves, rather than continue to be disengaged. We can work our way through the ‘eddy lines’ of fear and shame, rather than let them take us under emotionally. We can choose to wade into our deep emotional waters to face what we perceive as hurt or a threat, and dive into the emotional deep end to untangle and interrogate what we are actually feeling.

It is easier to see our self, our reflection, in still waters.

What is happening when we react in fear to the sight of a Muslim family out enjoying a walk? That kindling of distrust that sparks when hearing a person of colour describe experiencing racism? We need to face and understand what our institutions have done to generations of Indigenous communities and families. What is happening for us when we get nervous at continuous headlines surfacing the harm Indigenous Peoples have endured for generations in Canada, the United States, and Australia, and…

The moment of a hard truth surfacing, is an opportunity for men to be who we believe we are.

jeff perera – Higher Unlearning

In these eddy-like moments, Gregory asks men to consider: “Is this hard, or is it discomfort? Is someone actually shaming you, or are you feeling shame?What do these notification-like feelings tell us? The eddy can offer a safer space to sort through these questions. For many men, we are only okay with getting vulnerable if there isn’t a sense of threat, since our social conditioning makes us associate vulnerability with weakness. When we feel we are under threat or unsafe emotionally, it’s hard to move forward.

Emilee Gilpin shared this in an edition of the Indiginews newsletter:I went to the water and asked the ocean what it has seen, what it remembers, and how we heal from here. I cannot think about colonization, with its ugly dehumanizing head and dispossessing hands, about residential “schools” and the people who operated them, without thinking of the spirit of evil that has existed in this world, and still does in many places. I remember my friend friend (master carver from the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation) Joe Martin telling me that when you have fear in your heart, “this is much you can learn,” as he put his fingers together real close, but when you rid of the fear, he spread his arms out wide, “this is how much you can learn.””

We can allow ourselves to take a moment, take a breath. Staying stuck in guilt or shame won’t help us, but we can be like water in the eddie: work through our feelings and get back into the river’s flow and head in a good direction. We can realign our flow with our values, integrity and principles. The eddies provide a moment to build our capacity, re-connect, restore our empathy, our own humanity, and then take action to restore the humanity of others.

Eddies inform a lot of which impacts our daily lives: from fluid dynamics and engineering, to blood flow in the circulatory system, to environmental flow. They are “vital in grasping an understanding of environmental systems… to efficiently formulate remediation strategies for pollution events.” This makes me think of the environmental racism that works against Indigenous Peoples in Canada, those who are Land and Environment Defenders. These slides from the @CoralsAndBees Instagram account tell the story:

Struggling to have drinking water, within a country as water-rich as Canada. Here, today, still. In 2021.

Tanya Talaga recently said in her powerful opinion piece:We can no longer ignore our past. The heinous one we have been telling you about in First Nations, Métis and Inuit songs, words, art and books …and countless inquests. Canadians, now is the time to act. To face this country’s ugly truth…”

This is how we can truly move forward. This is what justice looks like. This is what love looks like. Love means cleansing our hearts of the hate that was shot into the currents of our veins, into the life stream. These moments of truths surfacing about Canada’s anti-Indigenous racism are an invitation to – instead of staying adrift – reflect, take accountability, and take action. Denial and defensiveness are the true obstacles in the river leading to reconciliation and healing. As settlers, the truth won’t take us under, but our inaction will.

The moment of a hard truth surfacing, is an opportunity for men to be who we believe we are.

The lesson from the Eddies of Life is that if we as men learn to receive these moments of truth, and move into them, it’s no longer a perceived threat but an opportunity to reset, transform and grow.

jeff perera – Higher Unlearning

We can be helpers instead of trying to ‘fix’. We can help demand every lost Indigenous child’s body be recovered. We can learn about the history and legacy of Canada’s Residential Schools. We can read the Truth and Reconciliation Reports and help see the 94 calls to action be implemented. We can donate time or money to Indigenous organizations. We can follow Indigenous creators and read, listen, or watch their content. We can learn to value, and celebrate their traditions and brilliance.

We can decide to face our own resistance to the resistance efforts of any oppressed group in their struggle for freedom, justice, and their humanity.

My long time colleague and friend Tuval Dinner Nafshi, who has been talking to men across Canada since 2004, said it best: “We have a tendency in these moments to feel attacked and think about what is being taken from us. I invite myself and others to consider what is being gifted to us. The gift of accountability. The gift of growth. The gift of learning. The gift of righting what has been so wrong.”

Changing our relationship with the truth, will change our relationship with the land, and the people across the land, for the better. The lesson from catching the Eddies of Life is that if we as men learn to receive these moments of truth, and move into them, it’s no longer a perceived threat, but an opportunity to reset, transform and grow.

Once you do the work, we can apply that calmness into our life stream of consciousness. Read the bodies of water. Read our own bodies. See the direction we’ve been going in. Let truth wash over you and renew a desire to take action. Let’s reflect, reset, and redirect, and move forward in a good way. Let’s catch those eddies throughout our life’s journey.

It is always a good time to change the direction of our story.


about jeff perera
Since 2008 jeff perera has spoken to tens of thousands of people of all genders across North America about healthy versus harmful ideas of manhood, striving to be allies, and how we as men can be the lesson in action.



Indian Residential School Survivors

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation: Truth and Reconciliation


Legacy of Hope

Centre for Indigenous Environmental

Indigenous Climate

Against Residential School

How to provide support, issued by the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation:

How to provide support, issued by the Cowessess First Nation:

The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack

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