Follow your senses

In her review of dovetails a few weeks ago, Laura touched on the flow possible when working with your hands: you can move beyond yourself and become completely absorbed in your work. It reminded me of Ayrton Senna – widely considered the greatest F1 driver of all time – reflecting on his experience at the 1988 Monte Carlo Grand Prix: “That day, I suddenly realized that I was no longer driving conscious, and I was in a different dimension for me. The circuit for me was a tunnel. Which I was just going, going, going. And I realized… I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”

In positive psychology, the state of flow has three criteria:

1. Involvement in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress.

2. Clear and immediate feedback to negotiate changing demands and adjust performance.

3. Balance between perceived challenge and perceived skill.


Mental states: flow is achieved when skill is balanced with a task’s difficulty (Wikipedia).

Flow is ever present in hand-tool woodworking. You use all of your senses to deconstruct each saw stroke or plane pass and subtly change the pressure of your movements or the angle of your tools. Continuously assessing the state of your work by receiving feedback from your materials and tools – to negotiate their changing demands – heightens your sensitivity and gets you closer to your goal. The sound a tool makes and the smell of its shavings, or the feel of worked surfaces before they’re held up to raking light, all serve to direct you – your senses are your guides.

It seems paradoxical that through this absorption you move beyond yourself: consciously heightened sensitivity leads to experience outside consciousness. With patience, the repetition of constant change creates even saw strokes and gossamer shavings, and your work proceeds in harmony. Sensitivity becomes second nature and action becomes intuitive, beyond conscious understanding.

It reminds me of karma yoga, the path of consecrated action. The Bhagavad Gita tells of a serene wisdom that arises when the senses – the body and the mind – are in harmony.  It says that “in the bonds of works I am free, because in them I am free from desires. The man who can see this truth, in his work he finds his freedom” (4:14). And also, “the man who in his work finds silence, and sees that silence is work, this man in truth sees the Light and in all his works finds peace” (4:18).

The pursuit of these moments is what my woodworking journey is all about.

My first dovetails.

My dovetails.


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