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Zen and the Art of Seafaring

December 6, 2010

All at Sea (a critique of critics and a celebration of free minds)

by D. O’Dea

This is not written as a review; free spirits have little need of critics – only the anxiety drenched consumer classes yearn to be told what they should enjoy 😉 Rather it has been written as an affront to the soulless jerk who described Bernard Moitessier’s classic work, ‘The Long Way‘, as “drudgery” and “wank”.

This is a little surprising when a ‘wank’ (as in a brief moment of selfish fun, rather than a deep and meaningful encounter) is exactly the kind of thing that critics like this are looking for. They’re happy enough to pass an hour on a beach with a good book, but they lack the soul to sail beyond that beach with a guide-book. The fact that the reviewer believes that the urge to roam is a “pathology” tells us everything we need to know about his spirit of adventure – or lack thereof. And that’s the problem here, a person who is satisfied with mere escapism will always lack the courage to truly escape – these fools would rather be entertained than enlightened any day. As for Moitessier’s reasons for traveling the world, he himself answered the question by saying: “You do not ask a tame seagull why it needs to disappear from time to time toward the open sea. It goes, that’s all.”

You kinda know that he should stick to reading Harry Potter when he describes Zen in the Art of Archery as having “suited its time during its time only” and Saint Exupéry’s Wind Sand Stars as “beautiful nonsense”. The problem, of course, is that critics are so wrapped in their own egos that they really do think that a spiritual connection with the living moment – oneness with the nowness which is, in truth, all that we possess – is ‘nonsense’. In fact the reviewer appears to be of the mind that anything which can’t be bought and sold, owned and controlled, is nonsense; hence he describes Moitessier’s meditations as  “a mash of New Testament longing, hippie idealism, nature worship and corporate baiting all stewed together.” One might respond to this statement by arguing that a decline in spirituality, our lack of respect for nature, and the corporate control of the world’s power bases has brought us to the point that we’re all in danger of being stewed together! Maybe we should have listened to those damn hippies?

I’m not suggesting that people who have circumnavigated the world are somehow more ‘free’ than the rest of us. There is much truth to Homer’s observation: “They change their skies, not their souls, those who go over the seas.” The world is now overrun with rich, widely traveled imbeciles who tick off destinations like numbers on a bingo card, but a true cosmopolitan is still an incredibly rare thing; Moitessier however knew his own place: “I am a citizen of the most beautiful nation on earth. A nation whose laws are harsh yet simple, a nation that never cheats, which is immense and without borders, where life is lived in the present. In this limitless nation, this nation of wind, light, and peace, there is no other ruler besides the sea.” We can all – no matter where, or what our personal circumstances are – learn something about freedom and the human condition from true adventurers like Saint Exupéry or Moitessier.

The Long Way must be read as an epic journey, not skimmed like some Disney ride. Certainly there is repetition and times when the going is slow (Moitessier’s description of travelling through the doldrums is all too realistic), but that’s life. And that’s exactly what the reviewer has failed to understand. The Long Way is a good and honest sailing/travel book, but it’s also a log of an existential expedition that all too few of us will ever embark upon. But if you want to make the most of your life the first thing you need to do is (either metaphorically or actually) sail beyond your comfort zone and expose yourself to the elements. You may be able to find knowledge in books and maps and even on TV or the internet, but wisdom can only be discovered through direct experience:

“The geography of the sailor is not always the one of the cartographer, for whom a cape is a cape with its longitude and latitude. For the sailor, a great cape is both very simple and extremely complex, with rocks, currents, furling seas, beautiful oceans, good winds and gusts, moments of happiness and of fright, fatigue, dreams, aching hands, an empty stomach, marvelous minutes and sometimes suffering. A great cape, for us, cannot be translated only into a latitude and a longitude. A great cape has a soul, with shadows and colors, very soft, very violent. A soul as smooth as that of a child, as hard as that of a criminal.”

Bernard Moitessier, ‘The Long Way

‘The Long Way by Bernard Moitessier is available from Amazon and other bookshops (but why not do eveyone a favour and get it into you’re local library 😉 )

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