9 Lessons Learned from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good — Need we ask anyone to tell us these things? If you’ve never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you’re about 30 years late to a super self-aware party. Get ye to a bookstore. The bestselling Robert Pirsig novel is a philosophical meditation [...]

And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good — Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

If you’ve never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you’re about 30 years late to a super self-aware party. Get ye to a bookstore. The bestselling Robert Pirsig novel is a philosophical meditation on the value and changing concepts of quality, as well as an exploration into different worldviews. Start with Platonic-style dialogues (called in the book Chautauquas) that harken back to the seminal philosopher’s concepts. Swirl in some winding road, and top it off with the merits of knowing the intricacies of your bike. Sprinkle some “coming to terms with the past” on top, and you’ve got one seriously great read — for a Sunday. (…Get it?)

It’s a book with some yin to its literary yang: it’s heavy and light, playful and serious, and it shows us the difference in the Romantic and the Classical concepts of worldviews. And the best part about paging through the often pedantic yet breezy-to-read modern long-form thinkpiece is the vanity of it all — the point of the work, after several readings and years of careful consideration, remains easy enough: it’s about asking and living the questions. It’s not about arriving at any answers through our journey as a reader, rider, or a student of life — it’s about understanding that dedicated inquiry has its own value, and one of ZAMM‘s crowning achievements is legitimizing those that need to thoughtfully process the heavier things in order to focus on the lightness of being in the present. Also, there are motorcycles.

And there’s even more to it. Sandwiched somewhere between the overtly self-indulgent, unnecessarily simplism of pop philosophy and the thick, coarse, hard-to-reach entrails of an academic philosophical treatise, the 1974 modern masterpiece has effortlessly achieved its well-situated goals — optimism without ambition, illumination and rumination on important theories and premises, and all without buckling under the pressure of being real philosophy. Also, once again — there are motorcycles. It can be light, it can be dark — and at times it can be a shining beacon of understanding and faithful hope, that one day (with careful study and reflection, of course) — it might just all fall right into place. Here are nine specific lessons that bikers, thinkers, and everyone in between can learn from the humbly-penned book:

  1. It’s All About Attitude.
    “Is it hard?”
    “Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.”

    A major lesson to be taken from the now-classic book, what matters the absolute most to those seeking zen (and motorcycle maintenance) is your attitude. While there are many disappointments in life and everything can easily go (of be thought of as) sour, it’s the joy that you take in the little things (like mechanical work — tinkering, if you will) that really matters and brings joy to life. Living a life of mindfulness and having a good attitude, as well as being resilient and perseverant, can and will change all of your circumstances. Investigating the way that you approach things also matters, and being aware of the way that you conceptualize of things can lead you to better maintenance — on a motorcycle and beyond.
  2. Some things you miss because they’re so tiny you overlook them. But
    some things you don’t see because they’re so huge.

    This passage (page 48) is a gentle reminder that oftentimes we can’t see the forest through the trees, and vice versa. This key concept of the book (that the general leads to the specific and that they enshroud one another without careful consideration and lots of parsing) is an important message to heed, whether you’re motoring down the open road with the wind in your hair and the sun at your back, or simply sitting — meditating, breathing — and doing a zen amount of nothing.
  3. Best versus New
    Here’s another long passage that’s worth considering:I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?”, a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and “best” was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for. This early introduction (page 9) to the themes and scope of the 300 pages that you’re about to read can seem a bit daunting at the outset — but if you read them conversationally (and harken back to the days where you, too, spoke in paragraph form. We sincerely hope those days existed for you, by the way.), it’s a relatively easy passage to understand. The narrator here wants to clarify his intentions (“channel deepening” — or pointed, focused deep concentration and thought) as well as set up a dichotomy of “what is best” versus “what is new.”

    The lesson to glean from this thoughtful paragraph is that society is all too often enmeshed in caring or paying attention to what’s new, that it becomes unclear what is best. The way that you ask yourself these questions and the thoughts and impressions that they conjure are even more the point — the narrator wants what’s best to take hold, and to be considered, postulated upon, and deepened — and he could care less about what’s new. And there are several literary parallels here. Think about Desiderata — which urges us to go “placidly amid the noise and haste” — and to painter Mark Rothko’s perennially fascinating adage that, “the familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment.” What is left, after the systemic stripping away of all the noise and bullsh*t in order to isolate and exalt The Good (as Plato would have it) — this is the best triumphing over the new.

  4. Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial.
    Still waters, as they say, run deep. This short statement (page 146) seems as trite as it’s trying not to be, but if you really read it — slowly, methodically, over and over, and especially in the context of the book — you’ll realize how empowering this aphorism truly is. Whether you’re a worrier, a warrior, or just longing for that Easy Rider-style sense of freedom, to believe that it’s OK to search for — and obtain — is relax-worthy in and of itself. If peace of mind isn’t superficial, then it has some value to it — some grit. And once you’ve achieved peace of mind, you can then concentrate on a clear-headed apprehension of the world around you (and perhaps the universe — or, at least, a piece of it). This constancy of a meditative state is not only deeply rooted, but also provides you with more than just a surface level of calm. 200 pages later, the narrator reminds us again that, “Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions
    produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of
    the serenity at the center of it all.”
  5. We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it is ghastly.
    You’ve got to be mutil-faceted and able to dance between thought frameworks to become a functioning member of today’s brave new world. And Pirsig’s words first published in 1974, remain true today. Although the tides are slowly changing — often you meet artists that have technical knowledge, and programmers, engineers (looking at you, David Fokos), or scientists that also produce creative works — the fact remains that it’s halfway through 2012, and mass collaboration is arguably not yet the norm. In the Information Age, it’s of ultimate importance to spiritually, physically, and intellectually connect — within yourself and surely among others.
  6. Language Has Its Limits.
    Since the One is the source of all things and includes all things in it, it cannot be defined in terms of those things, since no matter what thing you use to define it, the thing will always describe something less than the One itself.
    While this could also be seen as a rudimentary lesson in Taoism (and, luckily, with Taoism — the rudimentary lessons are every bit as personally profitable as the complex, advanced ones), the point here is to emphasize the limits of linguistics. It is true that your knowledge of language defines the limits of your world. Those that speak English, boolean logic, math, music, and Latin have the ability to have an almost advanced idea of nuance in their worldview that those who speak only English and don’t read just won’t, in many ways, be able to have. And while having a command over several lexicons may be the mark of a well-developed mind, language does share its set of limits. To explain the universe, the everything, God, the Tao, the Prime Substance — whatever you like to call it — spoken, written, and intuited language falls short of an ability at a full explanation.
  7. Motorcycles Are Insane.
    This is where you might get lost. But put on your philosophy hat for a moment, and really think about this passage:That’s all the motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel. There’s no part in it, no shape in it, that is not out of someone’s mind [. . .]. I’ve noticed that people who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this … that the motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon. [. . .] Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not. Shapes, like this tappet, are what you arrive at, what you give to the steel. Steel has no more shape than this old pile of dirt on the engine here. These shapes are all out of someone’s mind. That’s important to see. The steel? Hell, even the steel is out of someone’s mind. There’s no steel in nature. Anyone from the Bronze Age could have told you that. All nature has is a potential for steel. There’s nothing else there. But what’s “potential”? That’s also in someone’s mind! [. . .] That’s really what Phædrus was talking about when he said it’s all in the mind. It sounds insane when you just jump up and say it without reference to anything specific like an engine. But when you tie it down to something specific and concrete, the insane sound tends to disappear and you see he could have been saying something of importance.
    — Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
    , page 88Yes, it’s a long passage for such a short list, but what’s going on in this investigation is of paramount importance for thinkers and cycle enthusiasts alike. To brass tacks what you’re being told: All concepts, mashups, innovation, invention, and ideas — all of these come from the mind, and they are (arguably) all qualitatively similar things. And when one speaks of this mind, or conceives in the mind, or uses the mind to create an idea — this sounds insane. But when this pihlosophically named inquiry and production turns material, the insanity begins to take shape — literally — and the ideas find a place in reality wherein to exist. Motorcycles, for example. A motorcycle engine is composed almost entirely of steel. But steel is the idea. Steel is the concept. Steel is the shapeless alloy that doesn’t occur in nature — whose theoretical underpinning can be dichotomized against all natural resources. And steel is the thing that seems insane — by virtue of its concept. The narrator of ZAMM tells us Phædrus was driven insane by the ghost of rationality — that is, the immaterial idea that could never be realized. Steel’s only conceptual saving grace, then, is that it can be forged into things — like rods and spokes. Once an idea is conceptualized, it becomes easier to materialize it, create objects from it — and therefore disseminate it, giving it the quality of reality and therefore sanity. When and only when steel can be realized then organized into the things that steel can make, it can be viewed as no longer insane. In the book, this same metaphor is extended to words of Jesus and Moses — if they said their ideas out loud in today’s world, their sanity would be questioned.
  8. Don’t Rely on Mechanics
    The philosophical argument inherent here is the Romantic versus Classical worldviews, but, for the cyclist, the lesson to be taken is this: be the guy that can fix his own bike. It’s more laudable, more valuable, to adopt the Classic worldview (held by the narrator), and not need to rely on mechanics to fix your motorcycle when it’s broken. The Classical worldview proported in the book is one of an older rider, and the rider is well-tuned to his machine. He is able to hear problems deep within the engine, and he knows how to keep care of his own motorcycle. Not only is this indicative of the classic worldview, but it is also methodological thinking as well as one of Emersonian Self-Reliance. The Romantic worldview (held by Chris), on the other hand, takes this approach: buy a wonderful motorcycle, don’t take the time or effort to learn to maintain it, and — when it inevitably breaks — you have to get it fixed by mechanics. While the Romantic has beautiful, poetic, over-arching ideas about the soul of the cross-country roadtrip, there’s more to be said for being able to perform your own maintenance.
  9. Technology is Ugly. (PS: Technology is Beautiful.)
    There are points in the book where technology is demonized, fettered as dehumanizing. Which it is. Nonverbal communication, email, social media — all of these things contribute to the lack of human’s ability to “make it” face-to-face in today’s world. Especially for the Romantic, technology (motorcycle innards and otherwise) can appear base, ugly, and difficult to navigate. The narrator also wants to give the impression that, to the Classical worldview, technology is and can be quite beautiful. While it can retract from putting us in touch with our most true and organic selves, it technology is altogether amoral — neither ethical nor unethical. Pirsig wants the reader and thinker to be able to incorporate both ideals — to be able to find a workable middle-ground that includes the implications and promises of both opinions. And, in true zen-like fashion, this brings it all back to to the beginning: your attitude is what matters most, and what ultimately determines your experience. And you’ve got control over that, dear reader — be you zen or not.

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