Book Reflection: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
It’s July 6… and I finished Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance less than an hour ago. It took me nearly 3 months to read it from cover to cover. At times, I found my eyes glazed over as the author delved into subjects that I’ve managed, and in some cases actively attempted, my whole life to avoid. Deep thoughts on Greek philosophy, the minutia of academic conflict, the line between curiosity and insanity, of being possibly right when others don’t accept it as right and therefore being rejected every step forward and back. Being stuck… allowing the pressures to slowly cave in around us, creating our own jail cell.
I know it took me 3 months because about a week into the book the author, Robert Pirsig, died. It was April 24. I had never heard of him before, and even a few months earlier the headline wouldn’t have caught my attention, but the act of tuning and maintaining an engine captured me immediately. I was inexplicably saddened by his death, only momentarily, but memorably. Like others who have written books that captivated me, I hold out hope that I will someday meet the author – most of the books I read seem to have authors who are still living. Now this would not be a possibility.
Three months is a long time to read a book. It occurred to me that it took that long because I was all at once busy, depressed, bored, distracted by other books and other reading, and wasting way too much time for no known reason looking at where Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Linked In links lured me. I know that these seem like true wastes of time, but in May I heard myself justifying the time spent as the equivalent of reading the newspaper in the old days. Buffett reads eight hours a day, after all. When the President speaks, which he does on Twitter to the world’s utter annoyance, is it not justified to pay attention? Even if you don’t agree? Even if you find it vile and evil?
At some point, however, I realized this was taking me away from what I really wanted to do with my time. That wasn’t more than two weeks ago. I dropped all of those platforms from my iPhone, and have since found a bit of respite in not being dinged and binged constantly by these previously justified distractions. One Tweet from brother Dave or Trump or a few of the others I followed could instantly wipe out an original thought I had, a project on which I was working, an activity I had previously looked forward to doing. My mind is easily distracted… so put the distractions away. Out of sight, out of mind.
Focusing on the details of an engine really intrigued me. I am now determined to find an old engine – working or not – and take it apart. And then I will put it back together. And try to understand, finally, how engines work. I am fully separated from such things… I have no overlap with anything to do with engines or operating machinery. I can pull the choke lever. I can move the manual choke lever in Ogima (80 years old this summer) and look handy. I can even act like I have some technical skill – and receive compliments from those around who simply didn’t try – when a boat engine, like the old Johnson 25hp – doesn’t start and I then turn the key 3 times quickly and it miraculously starts (maybe the beginning of “feel”?). I am the techie in the household because I remember that unplugging and then plugging things back in fixes 90% of the problems out there… and doing nothing, which is what most people seem to do, is guaranteed failure. I’m a fraud when it comes to this stuff. I get away with looking good, but I’m a know nothing. But I do experiment… perhaps my experimentation can lead to competence if matched with even a bare bones level of training.
Another thing I took away was the existence of two points of view that were completely opposed to each other and yet could both be considered correct. The one that most recently struck me was the discovery that many millennia ago humans saw the future as something that came up quietly from behind, and was anything but ahead of you and something you focused on. The past is what was in front of you, always top of mind, always understood, always The Truth. To see the future, you’d need to have eyes in the back of your head, or so I came to interpret. And yet today we see things the exact opposite… the future is ahead of us, the past is behind us. How do I learn from that? What is the “best” way to view the future? Is there yet another way that we haven’t discovered yet, a third dimension of sorts?
Yesterday something struck me while doing the standing series at Bikram Yoga. My balance is just horrible… I’m usually falling all over the place, despite my two years of practice. But for some reason, this idea of opposing forces crossed my mind when doing Standing Head-to-Knee Pose. For the first time ever, I was able to see my right hand – in which I am supposed to place my right foot, and somehow kick straight out with both legs straight at exact 90 degrees from each other, and not lose balance – as a stable foundation that would not and could not move. If I could execute on that vision, I thought to myself, I could balance easily by placing half of my weight on my standing left foot and half of my weight into the hand, regardless of angle, by way of the right foot. And so I did it… and miraculously I balanced for as long as I ever have. In my second right hand set I actually stayed up the entire pose, something I’ve been lucky to accomplish only a handful of times in the past couple of years.
Standing Bow wasn’t quite as successful, mainly because I was already congratulating myself on my new skill, that was obviously nascent at best. But the lesson stuck with me, and dare I predict will continue to stick with me.
Where else can I see things that aren’t being seen? Recognize a reality that is right in front of me but is still clouded by my own blinders? What possibilities exist that haven’t revealed themselves to me because I’m unwilling to squint a bit and find a different, yet to be retrieved, lens?
I’m tempted to read the book again. I thought it was so painfully complex and wanted to abandon it on multiple occasions. Something propelled me forward. What else would I see on a second reading? The author, Pirsig, was, in fact, insane. It was, I found out in the afterword, about him. Chris, his son, was real. The insane mind is something nobody wants… and yet being open to those afflicted with such “sicknesses” could help us all in ways we can’t even fathom. What guts it took to write this book… having been turned down over 120 times before finding someone to publish it.
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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig
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- You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
- We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on “good” rather than “time” and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes.
- We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all
- When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things.
- A copy of Thoreau’s Walden…which Chris has never heard and which can be read a hundred times without exhaustion. I try always to pick a book far over his head and read it as a basis for questions and answers, rather than without interruption. I read a sentence or two, wait for him to come up with his usual barrage of questions, answer them, then read another sentence or two. Classics read well this way. They must be written this way. Sometimes we have spent a whole evening reading and talking and discovered we have only covered two or three pages. It’s a form of reading done a century ago…when Chautauquas were popular. Unless you’ve tried it you can’t imagine how pleasant it is to do it this way.
- Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic. The dirt, the grease, the mastery of underlying form required all give it such a negative romantic appeal that women never go near it.
- And so in recent times we have seen a huge split develop between a classic culture and a romantic counterculture—two worlds growingly alienated and hateful toward each other with everyone wondering if it will always be this way, a house divided against itself.
- One lives longer in order that he may live longer. There is no other purpose.
- People arrive at a factory and perform a totally meaningless task from eight to five without question because the structure demands that it be that way. There’s no villain, no “mean guy” who wants them to live meaningless lives, it’s just that the structure, the system demands it and no one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless. But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.
- I feel happy to be here, and still a little sad to be here too. Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.
- A technology that produces debris can find, and is finding, ways of disposing of it without ecological upset. And the schoolbook pictures of primitive man sometimes omit some of the detractions of his primitive life—the pain, the disease, famine, the hard labor needed just to stay alive.
- “You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge. And if you project forward from that pattern, then sometimes you can come up with something.
- “Like into realms beyond reason. I think present-day reason is an analogue of the flat earth of the medieval period. If you go too far beyond it you’re presumed to fall off, into insanity. And people are very much afraid of that. I think this fear of insanity is comparable to the fear people once had of falling off the edge of the world. Or the fear of heretics. There’s a very close analogue there.
- “How could they tell the future from the wind?” “I don’t know, maybe the same way a painter can tell the future of his painting by staring at the canvas. Our whole system of knowledge stems from their results. We’ve yet to understand the methods that produced these results.”
- Another thing that depressed him was prescriptive rhetoric, which supposedly had been done away with but was still around. This was the old slap-on-the-fingers-if-your-modifiers-were-caught-dangling stuff. Correct spelling, correct punctuation, correct grammar. Hundreds of itsy-bitsy rules for itsy-bitsy people. No one could remember all that stuff and concentrate on what he was trying to write about. It was all table manners, not derived from any sense of kindness or decency or humanity, but originally from an egotistic desire to look like gentlemen and ladies.
- Quality…you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality.
- Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own.
- That got you A’s. Originality on the other hand could get you anything—from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.
- During the rest of the summer his mood became depressed and lazy. He and his wife camped a lot in those mountains. She asked why he was so silent all the time but he couldn’t say why. He was just stopped. Waiting. For that missing seed crystal of thought that would suddenly solidify everything. 3269
- Mental reflection is so much more interesting than TV it’s a shame more people don’t switch over to it. 3318
- It made the kids at camp much more enthusiastic and cooperative when they had ego goals to fulfill, I’m sure, but ultimately that kind of motivation is destructive. Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster. 3424
- When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost never make it. And even if you do it’s a hollow victory. In order to sustain the victory you have to prove yourself again and again in some other way, and again and again and again, driven forever to fill a false image, haunted by the fear that the image is not true and someone will find out. 3426
- What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it is all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.
- Time after time I thought I’d found whom he was duplicating, but each time, because of what appeared to be some slight differences, he took a greatly different direction. 4256
- Both trails stop right at each other’s end! There is perfect continuity between them. 4261
- What he neglected to say was that the selection of facts before you “observe” them is “whatever you like” only in a dualistic, subject-object metaphysical system! 4408
- The downward slope of the road makes our feet flop as we head toward the stream. Chris shows me some stones he’s collected while I’ve been sleeping. The pine smell of the forest is rich here. It’s turning cool and the sun is very low. The silence and the fatigue and the sinking of the sun depress me a little, but I keep it to myself. 4462
- This is the zero moment of consciousness. Stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It’s a miserable experience emotionally. You’re losing time. You’re incompetent. You don’t know what you’re doing. You should be ashamed of yourself. You should take the machine to a real mechanic who knows how to figure these things out. 4593
- To put it in more concrete terms: If you want to build a factory, or fix a motorcycle, or set a nation right without getting stuck, then classical, structured, dualistic subject-object knowledge, although necessary, isn’t enough. You have to have some feeling for the quality of the work. You have to have a sense of what’s good. That is what carries you forward. This sense isn’t just something you’re born with, although you are born with it. It’s also something you can develop. It’s not just “intuition,” not just unexplainable “skill” or “talent.” It’s the direct result of contact with basic reality, Quality, which dualistic reason has in the past tended to conceal. 4670
- Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors. 4701
- Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial to technical work. It’s the whole thing. 4834
- I say inner peace of mind. It has no direct relationship to external circumstances. It can occur to a monk in meditation, to a soldier in heavy combat or to a machinist taking off that last ten-thousandth of an inch. It involves unselfconsciousness, which produces a complete identification with one’s circumstances, and there are levels and levels of this identification and levels and levels of quietness quite as profound and difficult of attainment as the more familiar levels of activity. 4841
- This inner peace of mind occurs on three levels of understanding. Physical quietness seems the easiest to achieve, although there are levels and levels of this too, as attested by the ability of Hindu mystics to live buried alive for many days. Mental quietness, in which one has no wandering thoughts at all, seems more difficult, but can be achieved. But value quietness, in which one has no wandering desires at all but simply performs the acts of his life without desire, that seems the hardest. 4846
- The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value. 4884
- You see it often in people who return from long, quiet fishing trips. Often they’re a little defensive about having put so much time to “no account” because there’s no intellectual justification for what they’ve been doing. But the returned fisherman usually has a peculiar abundance of gumption, usually for the very same things he was sick to death of a few weeks before. He hasn’t been wasting time. It’s only our limited cultural viewpoint that makes it seem so. 4989
- Watch out for gumption desperation, in which you hurry up wildly in an effort to restore gumption by making up for lost time. That just creates more mistakes. 5049
- I have a little 6-by-18-inch lathe with a milling attachment and a full complement of welding equipment: arc, heli-arc, gas and mini-gas for this kind of work. With the welding equipment you can build up worn surfaces with better than original metal and then machine it back to tolerance with carbide tools. 5093
- Quality, value, creates the subjects and objects of the world. The facts do not exist until value has created them. If your values are rigid you can’t really learn new facts. This often shows up in premature diagnosis, when you’re sure you know what the trouble is, and then when it isn’t, you’re stuck. Then you’ve got to find some new clues, but before you can find them you’ve got to clear your head of old opinions. If you’re plagued with value rigidity you can fail to see the real answer even when it’s staring you right in the face because you can’t see the new answer’s importance. The birth of a new fact is always a wonderful thing to experience. It’s dualistically called a “discovery” because of the presumption that it has an existence independent of anyone’s awareness of it. When it comes along, it always has, at first, a low value. 5113
- What you have to do, if you get caught in this gumption trap of value rigidity, is slow down—you’re going to have to slow down anyway whether you want to or not—but slow down deliberately and go over ground that you’ve been over before to see if the things you thought were important were really important and to…well…just stare at the machine. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just live with it for a while. Watch it the way you watch a line when fishing and before long, as sure as you live, you’ll get a little nibble, a little fact asking in a timid, humble way if you’re interested in it. That’s the way the world keeps on happening. Be interested in it. 5126
- The hole is big enough so that the monkey’s hand can go in, but too small for his fist with rice in it to come out. The monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped—by nothing more than his own value rigidity. He can’t revalue the rice. He cannot see that freedom without rice is more valuable than capture with it. 5146
- If you have a high evaluation of yourself then your ability to recognize new facts is weakened. Your ego isolates you from the Quality reality. When the facts show that you’ve just goofed, you’re not as likely to admit it. When false information makes you look good, you’re likely to believe it. 5175
- Overall goals must be scaled down in importance and immediate goals must be scaled up. 5230
- When John appears, he thanks the other attendant and says proudly, “We always help each other out like this.” I ask him if there’s a place to rest and he says, “You can use my front lawn.” He points across the main road to his house behind some cottonwood trees that must be three to four feet in diameter. 5248
- At one of the lots far off the main highway we spread out our sleeping bags and discover that the pine needles just barely cover what must be many feet of soft spongy dust. I’ve never seen anything like it. We have to be careful not to kick up the needles or the dust flies up over everything. We spread out the tarps 5379
- Technology is blamed for a lot of this loneliness, since the loneliness is certainly associated with the newer technological devices—TV, jets, freeways and so 5858
- the real evil isn’t the objects of technology but the tendency of technology to isolate people into lonely attitudes of objectivity. 5859
- As the class goes on Phaedrus sits staring out the window feeling sorry for this old shepherd and his classroom sheep and dogs and sorry for himself that he will never be one of them. Then, 6452
- If it was all bricks and concrete, pure forms of substance, clearly and openly, he might survive. It is the little, pathetic attempts at Quality that kill. The plaster false fireplace in the apartment, shaped and waiting to contain a flame that can never exist. Or the hedge in front of the apartment building with a few square feet of grass behind it. A few square feet of grass, after Montana. If they just left out the hedge and grass it would be all right. Now it serves only to draw attention to what has been lost. 6478
- Along the streets that lead away from the apartment he can never see anything through the concrete and brick and neon but he knows that buried within it are grotesque, twisted souls forever trying the manners that will convince themselves they possess Quality, learning strange poses of style and glamour vended by dream magazines and other mass media, and paid for by the vendors of substance. He thinks of them at night alone with their advertised glamorous shoes and stockings and underclothes off, staring through the sooty windows at the grotesque shells revealed beyond them, when the poses weaken and the truth creeps in, the only truth that exists here, crying to heaven, God, there is nothing here but dead neon and cement and brick. 6482
- What I am is a heretic who’s recanted, and thereby in everyone’s eyes saved his soul. Everyone’s eyes but one, who knows deep down inside that all he has saved is his skin. I survive mainly by pleasing others. You do that to get out. To get out you figure out what they want you to say and then you say it with as much skill and originality as possible and then, if they’re convinced, you get out. 6611
- “No. I just hate everything…I’m sorry I came…I hate this trip…I thought this was going to be fun, and it isn’t any fun…I’m sorry I came.” He is a truth-teller, like Phaedrus. And like Phaedrus he looks at me now with more and more hatred. 6647
- there is one perspective it misses. That is their view of time. They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their eyes. 6808
- A culture-bearing book, like a mule, bears the culture on its back. No one should sit down to write one deliberately. Culture-bearing books occur almost accidentally, like a sudden change in the stock market. 6825
- The hippies had in mind something that they wanted, and were calling it “freedom,” but in the final analysis “freedom” is a purely negative goal. It just says something is bad. Hippies weren’t really offering any alternatives other than colorful short-term ones, and some of these were looking more and more like pure degeneracy. Degeneracy can be fun but it’s hard to keep up as a serious lifetime occupation. 6839