Posted by: Zen | November 27, 2010

Zen/Tai Chi, Cross training…Sailing, beyond basics

Having just recently completed an article for Kyudo Japan magazine on cross training for Kyudo, also called Zen Archery.  In that article I spoke on the benefits and similarities of training Tai Chi and Kyudo. Also with the upcoming in March ASA conference with Yoh Sensei speaking on teaching sailing with Zen, this got me thinking once again on crossing training in Sailing or the Sanmai-ittai ( rough translation of the trinity: body, mind, spirit) of Sailing. Bring together or harmonizing, mind, body, spirit in sailing. All Arts are expressions the Tao. I have in the past touch on these briefly and separately before, as a unit this time, I wish to bring it together a bit more.

The Mind

Everything we do starts in the Mind. All actions, start as thoughts, subconsciously or consciously.  The mind control the movements of the body and functions. The mind controls the movement of Chi/Ki which is the life force within all living things and the forces of nature. Via Chi/Ki with connect with the Universe and all it contains. Besides our physical connection, which is we are made up of the five elements of nature ( Fire, Water, Metal, Wood, Earth this is the Chinese Medical system , I believe the Indian Ayurveda Medical System adds Air))  Chi/Ki is the live connection (energy) that is active.  This connection is active on a sub-conscious level yet also available on a conscious level via our mind.

With things that are controllable subconscious and consciously, eg: breath, and fear, are two things that we can control on both levels. Fear which can be a good thing can keep us alive. On the other hand it should not control us which could in fact cause us to get killed. Having no fear of an approaching hurricane at the same time one is heading out to sea can get one killed. Being so attached to fear when caught in a storm out at sea can also get one killed.

Being able to detach oneself from that same fear and function properly can save your life. It is the same fear yet how one handles it makes the difference. Like Monday’s they are just another day, it is how we handle, perceive it that effects how it influences us. In “Zen” it is all about how one perceives “Good” and “Bad” in the mind.

Breathing is a necessity, we do not control it, without it we would physically die. Yet when one is overcome by fear and hyperventilate, this also can cause death or at least put one in enough danger that death could be the result. Therefore the need to control the breath is important. Control the Mind, to Calm the breath, to detach from the fear and function as trained ( sailing educated ) and/or by instinct.

So it would seem that logically, training to control the Mind would benefit most things that one does. I am speaking of training beyond that of just technical training, educational training. As with Kyudo more than just technical skill is needed to become a great archer. With sailing more than just technical skill is required to become a great Sailor. As with “money being the root of all evil” The mind would be the root of all action.

Meditation(Chan/Zen) is a prime way to train the mind on an advance level beyond that of text books skill or knowledge. Zen training is also a way of becoming in touch with one’s instinct or intuition, surpassing or by-passing pure logic, as in the case of a storm while sailing and the fear factor of being very afraid and panicking.

The Body

I am using Tai Chi as an example of Physical level of training. Tai Chi has multiple levels of engagement like the mind. Tai Chi unlike what some think if as just an unarmed system of combat. This is a limited view, similar to Zen being just a religion. This is viewing with small eyes. One of the aspects that is beneficial to a sailor in training Tai Chi is an expanding awareness, connecting to outside stimulus, which show, manifest in the form of physical contact ( the boat), Chi (wind power), or motion ( wind, waves or both).

Tai Chi is on another level about being grounded and being centered. That being centered part is a key benefit when sailing ( see a friend’s opinion on learning Tai Chi and sailing), feeling the balance of the boat, feeling the balance or lack of it in yourself and the boat. Even further the balance or lack of it in the boat, water, wind and self. Being aware of your inner balance, and being able to expand that outward into your environment, is what makes an advanced sailor. Not being dependent on wind-vanes/telltales to tell the wind direction, not using the GPS to tell your speed, etc etc. Listening to the boat, the sails, the water, with eyes, ears and touch, even smell to connect with environment and all the elements and details that are need to sail well and safely.

There is of course the simple but important act of stretching the body, controlling the muscles while doing the movements of Tai Chi. Being able to pull, bend, step, twist without injuring one’s back, arms, legs, shoulders while doing the routine tasks aboard a sailing vessel.

I have at times , depending on the time factor had my students do some warm up stretching before we head out on the boat. As well as do a sensing drills. Sit on the boat and feel the wind, listen to the waves, feel the boat motion. Stand face the wind with eyes closed then turn to the called out points of sail. Stand on the boat with eyes closed feel the boat motion, keep your balance, blend with the boat.

To recap a bit we have Zazen to calm the mind and activate the Chi/Ki. There is Tai Chi to translate that calmness and Chi/Ki into physical action and awareness.


The final section of Sanmai-ittai in the sailing sense, deals with Spirit. Not spirit in the religious sense but spirit in the life force sense. Or if you wish electrical energy or just energy. All life has this energy ( Chi/Ki ), it is the connecting element of life in the universe. Even if there is no “life” force as that between people, birds, and plants, yet if there is movement there is energy. The energy we are concerned with in sailing is from the wind and water. The ocean maybe not be “alive” yet is is full of life and has energy, stand against a wave if you doubt! Energy is energy wither developed from our body, wind, or water. Understanding how to deal with it, use it adapt to it, is to our benefit. This is how we sail, using the energy of the wind and water, the Feng Shui ( balance of wind & water) to move.

Our bodies are composed mostly of water, plus air and a formation of minerals. We are what we use to sail, air and water. Add in the physical elements of wood, metal, even plastic, yes plastic is composed of earth elements as are we, just in an converted form. Therefore we are part of everything we use to sail ( as in Zen we are part of everything period). With that awareness, with that sense,  and with that respect we become better sailors and go beyond just mechanical technique and book learning, to sailing with spirit, or another way of saying “Zen Sailing”.

The more you bring into your sailing that which puts you in better in touch with the whole of your self, and your environment the better sailor you will be.

When one does a weapon in martial art training we do not think of there is me and there is this weapon. We think, I am now extended beyond my hands and feet limits. I have gain a further reach. Being at one with your boat may have that “new age” hippie kind if sound but this is how you should be in the mind and body. Even beyond that, you are not just extended to the boat but to the water and wind, as well. You are part of the Feng Shui, balance of wind and water. You are riding the line between wind and water.

Now understand I am not saying that doing Meditation, doing Tai Chi are the only ways of developing these mind body skills and connections. Many advanced sailors have them acquired them, they just may use other words, names, descriptions or non at all, just experience and years at sea. Pilots of old use to call it flying by the seat of your pants for what they did. We would now-a-days, in some circles call it, “Zen Flying”. No matter what the name, it is flying by feeling, instinct. In this case Sailing by the seat of your pants, or “Zen Sailing” if you like, going beyond pure logic or physical technique, as in Zen we go beyond word and rely on our own experience, instinct, intuition. It is really not about the name. Shakespeare once said ” a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.” in Zen we say do not get lost of the finger pointing to the moon and miss the moon’s beauty.
Training for sailing is about Sailing and not any label that one places on it. Sailing well, is about Sailing harmoniously, safely, your experience of that, not the name.
To enhance that experience, expand your mind, use the big eyes not the small ones. Think outside the box when learning, when training.  We say in Kung Fu everything is Kung Fu, everything is training. In studying Chan/Zen everything is practice. Sailing is Chan/Zen practice, …Chan/Zen is sailing. In Sailing we adjust our sails to the moment’s wind, in life we adjust our sails to the present.

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