The Tao of Boating with Uncle Charlie.

My Uncle Charlie doesn’t consciously practice the Tao of anything and certainly not anything like pure Zen.

You’d be stretching it to call him enlightened, yet he has a self contained harmony a Yin Yang balance all of his own.

If you were to suggest to him that he was the least bit spiritual, he’d only laugh.


Tell him that he was grounded and he’d be off like a shot, down to the creek to check on Panope his boat.

However, there is something about him, some basic awareness of being part of a greater whole an awareness of his environment of being in tune with whatever he is doing.

Perhaps it’s to do with his love of sailing, the connecting with the sails, the wind, the boat and water to achieve that harmony.

The harmony between the tight curve of the sail, the push of the tide, the gurgle of the bow wave and the boat moving towards it’s destination.

Or perhaps sailing is just a manifestation of his naturally spiritual mindset, because it is also evident in most of what he does.

Sailing Zen?

There’s an engaging easiness about my uncle Charlie.

Despite his rough and ready appearance he has a pervasive grace, a sort of harmony with the nature of things.

This is especially noticeable when he is sailing, when he seems to move in concert with the wind, sea and the boat.

He seems to have an especially wise way of being with his world that fulfills the needs of the particular and the general.

I've often been mesmerized by the sight of him helming Panope as he seems to move in accord with the energy of wind and sea, anticipating wind shifts and the rise and fall of the waves.

There’s never any struggle or wasted effort, just a spontaneous fluidity and ease that comes from being in profound accord with nature.

It’s as if he is guided by a deep empathy, like a sage moving with the Tao.

But don’t get me wrong he is never sat there as if in some sort of trance.

He is always very much in the moment, using all his senses as well as paying attention to the GPS, compass, depth sounder, chart and his eyes.

And, as a good skipper should he will keep his crew informed and have planned ahead,.

Now when I say planned ahead I don’t mean that he will have a definitive outcome which must be reached come what may.

There will be a plan to sail ‘towards’ a destination, but there will be no compunction to force the outcome.

Being aware of the vagaries of winds, tides and weather he has learnt to embrace the flow, to enjoy the journey and be open to alternatives.

There is no stressful attempt to force an outcome, thus making the journey much more enjoyable.

Somehow he also seems to infect his crew with his centered, balanced approach as he involves and facilitates them.

Perhaps this centering, this focusing of energy is due in part to his discipline in small things.

He has his little rituals, such as when he has dropped the anchor he will just stand looking around for a few moments quietly absorbing his surroundings, the set of the tide, a couple of transits, the tug on the anchor rode.

Then next thing is to see to the boat, tidying sails and coiling and tidying the running rigging etc.

And only then does he sit back to roll a cigarette and quietly enjoy the smoke and the scenery, it’s like his own ritual tea ceremony.

The Environment.

I wouldn’t call Uncle Charlie an environmentalist, certainly not in the trendy mold.

The occasional bang and cloud of exhaust smoke from Panope’s engine certainly wouldn’t endear him to the noise and pollution lobby.

But then the engine is rarely used and only when sailing is impossible.

However, perhaps it’s because he is a sailor that he dose have a feeling and knowledge of the environment, the sound and smell of wind the feel of the waves, the motion of the boat that seems to come within.

Of course being a sailor he is in tune with the cycles that occur in nature, the ebb and flow of the tide, phases of the moon and the changes of the seasons.

And while he does refer to the tide tables and such like he also has a spontaneous, natural, and effortless knowing.

It’s as if he just flows with the experiences, feelings and other input as they come and go.

And this includes a love of wild nature.

The coming and going of the water fowl, the seasonal running of fish, the lore of nature that comes from a sense of being connected to the Tao of the environment.

It is not motivated by a sense of separateness but of being part of nature which must be respected.

It’s a respect which is not ego-motivated or entirely out of self-interest just a desire to take care of the things he loves.

He is acutely aware, for instance that any garbage that is tossed into the oceans or rivers will not just disappear but turn up to disfigure somewhere else.

The Tao of Woodworking.

The Tao or the Way as it is sometimes called is often likened to flowing water.

The water just effortlessly goes around obstacles in its path such as rocks and stones.

It just naturally takes the shape of any container it finds its self in.

So what has this to do with Uncle Charlie and the Tao of woodworking?

Well it’s not easy to describe or understand but it is the way, like water he seems to do without doing.

That’s not to say that all his projects are trouble-free or that they don’t require lots of effort but it’s the way in which he seems to be guided by the possibilities in the wood and his tools.

But perhaps it’s because he is unconsciously in harmony with the Tao that he never seems to get stressed.

Perhaps it’s because of his appreciation for the natural beauty and spontaneity of wood and his reverence his tools and woodworking methods.

Just watching him sharpen a chisel reminds me of the Samurai Warrior sharpening his sword.

Now, whether he has any spiritual insights into the discipline of his woodworking craftsmanship is hard to say.

Ask him if he has any Taoist principles that have sustained and nurtured his creative experience and he’ll get a bit self-conscious.

But maybe that is the real secret of the Tao.

Like water, he just has a certain acceptance of things as they are, allowing him to follow the natural rhythms of a stress free life.

The Way.

Well anyone who has managed to read this far will by now have gathered that I'm a bit hazy on what the Tao is all about.

But then it is a rather slippery subject.

And perhaps my Uncle Charlie has the secret, don’t think about it just follow the flow.

However, I do remember those times, particularly when I've been sailing alone when the sails were trimmed perfectly and the boat just sailed herself and everything just seemed to come together.

The smell, the sounds, and feel of those times when all seemed well with the world and I just felt at one with the universe, was that what is meant by being on the Zen path, at on with the Tao?

The feeling, the mindlessness of the moment probably only lasted for a moment.

But I guess that that is the Tao for you.

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