Zen and the art (of being an old man on a boat)

It’s all a question of self importance. Well, a lot of it is a question of self importance. As I write this, sitting on deck looking over an extraordinary pacific ocean, turquoise blue, glistening in the sunshine. It stretches to meet a pale blue sky at the razor line of the horizon. It’s real enough, and also a metaphor for empty mind, for empty awareness; thoughts just pass through like the fulmars gliding by the ship. No attachment.

But I do get attached. To what? To some image of myself; to being a competent sailor, well regarded. I get caught up in little whirls of irritation. Something doesn’t go as I want, and I dwell on it. When I am told to do something differently when I am ‘doing my best’; when I make a suggestion and it isn’t heard. My ego gets caught in a little whirl, spun around. There’s a catch of anxiety, a feeling of incompetence, when at the helm I allow the boat to wander off course, and then correcting go too far the other way. I should be better than this, I tell myself, irritated.

Then there is the cold. And it has been so very cold for weeks at a time: frozen fingers and toes, a chill in the body despite layers of clothing. This cold challenges every sense of civilised comfort, invites attachment to complaint. But it is just cold, not really anything to fuss about. Just be with it.

And it’s about age. Being less agile, less strong, not always hearing properly. How to accept being shouted at by someone young enough to be my grandchild, who is nevertheless both in charge and more competent than me? Wanting to be looked out for, but wanting still to be potent in my way, a grown up. How to accept all this without getting into a spin about it, about being an old man, without being a foolish old man. About learning to be an elder, less physically capable and yet fully present. And not getting attached to that, either.

In many ways this trip is like a meditation retreat, only without the formal meditation practices. I am continually challenged by my attachments. I can let myself go off into a miserable spin. And I can notice, let it go, return to emptiness and equanimity, to a sense of the expansive ocean. And that is how I need to treat it, with the discipline one brings to zen.

The ocean in front of me sparkles in the sunshine. Tiny wave caps break then disappear. A line of cloud bubbles up along the horizon. Fulmars hurtle pass, then wheel through the waves, one wingtip just not touching the water. Tecla sails smoothly with topsails set, gurgling under the hull. So many metaphors.


  1. Sarah Gillespie says:

    Peter, I think this is one of the most beautiful, brave and touching things you have ever written. So many metaphors! Missing you. Love Sarah.

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