Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Don’t worry, this post is not about the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance. Nor is it about Zen or motorcycles.

It is about you. And me.

I thought I would let you know that right away before your eyes roll into the back of your head in disinterest about either Zen or motorcycle maintenance.

Robert M. Pirsig

I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (written by Robert M. Pirsig) in 1983 as part of a freshmen’s Honors English course at the University of Oklahoma. We read it under the tutelage of Dr. David Gross, professor in the English Department. During the class, we would read a bit, discuss it in class and then write about it.

In short, the book is a fictionalized true story about the author’s journey with his son as they traveled cross country on a motorcycle – at least on the surface. In the book, Pirsig is writing and learning about Phaedrus, the ghost of his former life and about both of their rational, logical, emotional, spiritual, metaphysical, and philosophical journeys. I say “both of their” because it is as much about Pirsig before his shock therapy as it is about his life following the therapy. Pirsig had a mental break, and back in the those days, they would use shock therapy to clear away your brain…and consequently, much of your memory went with it.

I realize how inadequate the above description of the book is. The book is DEEPLY thoughtful and thought-provoking. It challenges modern thinking, assumptions and norms.

In this writing, I am not even going to scratch .00001% of the books’s value. I am going to focus on some analogous takeaways that I think have a broad application for most people I know, including myself.

My notes for this post

As I organized my thoughts for this post, I started to make a list of topics I wanted to discuss. These thoughts originated in Chapter 26 of the book. After completing the list, it became evident that my original idea of writing about key points in the chapter was going to become unruly and cumbersome…and no one was going to read that type of reflection. In fact, I am not sure that anyone is going to read THIS type of reflection either. So, if you have made it this far, please keep going…you can do it!

Below is a list of topics that I would love to share. They are wide ranging but do have at least one fundamental element that binds them: they all remind us that WE, our individual selves, are the greatest determinants of our own destinies and that our own thoughts, choices, words and actions are 100% are within our own control and power.

NO MATTER WHAT, We own our lives. Period.

As you look the list below, I would like you to keep it in context of several individual or combined perspectives in either your work or personal life pertaining to problem solving, relationships, creativity, and your overall life success and fulfillment.

  1. Slow down.
  2. Stare at the problem/situation. Allow your mind relax and open.
  3. Check your ego. Admit mistakes readily. Tough work ALWAYS brings rough treatment to your ego. Ego can make bad facts look good and in turn, make you look (and maybe feel) bad. Think about it, problem solvers tend to be modest and quiet.

    From the chapter: “If modesty doesn’t come easily or naturally for you, one way out of [the ego] trap is to fake the attitude of modesty anyway. If you just deliberately assume you’re not much good, then your gumption gets a boost when the facts prove [you correct]. This way you can keep going until the time comes when the facts prove [you] incorrect.”
  4. Address Your Anxiety. If you are the type that is so sure that you will do everything wrong that results in you being afraid to do anything at all, then you can mitigate that anxiety. One of many ways to do so is by writing down your situation on paper and by reading/researching as much about it as you can. Once you have some ideas flowing then make lists and organize the lists into an appropriate sequence of actions. This small investment in time and thinking can leverage results.

    Keep this quote in mind: “When you make the mistakes yourself, you at least get the benefit of some education.” If you anxiety paralyzes you, you may be missing out on some of the most important lessons.”
  5. Watch Out For Boredom. This can be related to ego but does not have to be. Boredom can be dangerous because it results in lower gumption and motivation, which in turn, can result in poor performance on your part. If you find yourself bored in the middle of your work, then stop. Take a break. Maybe pick it up again tomorrow.
  6. The World Is Not Always Black or White. All too often we can caught in a thought trap of “this or that.” We can think problems have either right or wrong answers. Consider the Japanese word mu. From the book: “Mu means “no thing…it points outside the process of dualistic discrimination. Mu simply says, ‘No class…not yes, not no.’ It states that the context of the question is such that a yes or no answer is in error and should not be given. ‘Unask the question’ is what it says.”
  7. Use Good Tools. Ask any craftsman, artist, or carpenter. Having the right tools for the job at hand can make the work or challenge so much easier to deal with. This applies to all types of situations at work and at home. Tools can be physical tools like saws, hammers, etc., and they can also be devices, guidebooks, how to manuals, etc.
  8. Work for Optimal Surroundings. Environmental conditions like lighting, sound, seating, and temperature can impact our efficacy, thinking and attitude.
  9. Mental Positioning. When you go into address a situation or to solve a problem, whether working alone or with others, it can be helpful to take a mental inventory of your preparation, attitude, desire, your physical condition, and of the relationships that may be involved.
  10. Feel the Situation. This is a weird and intangible sense that one gains through experience, the use of all senses, and by keeping yourself in check. You can observe the dynamics involved, paying attention to whether or not there is curiosity and flexibility, whether or not the right questions are being asked, and by gauging the emotional state of others. This art of “feeling the situation” can help you discern which tools to apply, if any. For instance as an analogy, do you need a rubber hammer, a lead hammer, a brass hammer, a wood hammer or perhaps even a jack hammer.
  11. Live Right. This last one is both brilliant and frustrating at the same time. It is both inherently obvious and evasively obtuse. Pirsig wrote, “It’s the way you live that predisposes you to avoid the traps and see the right facts.”

“You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then paint naturally.”

Salt Lake City

We spend so much time thinking and/or dreaming about where we want to be even though we do not have a good understanding of where and who we are. Think of having a map of Salt Lake City while you happen to be in Austin, TX. You may want go to Salt Lake City, but having that map does not help you.

Route from Austin to SLC

You need a map that takes from here to there, Austin to Salt Lake.

When you have that map, you are in control. You are in your POWER mode. You have a plan and yet, you can still decide how fast to go, and whether or not to follow the map.

When we better understand who we are as unique and distinct individuals, we can better align our actions and ourselves and create an actionable bridge to our own goals and aspiration. We can also better react and respond to the all of the other unique and distinct individuals around us at work, home, and play.

We do not get to control others. We do not get to make decisions for others. All that we ever get to do is decided how we want to be, react, and respond.

I am convinced that my effort above is not adequately conveying all the nuances of the this one chapter in the book. I invite you to dig into it yourself. The whole book.

Let me know if you do.

Perhaps and alternate title to this post could be Zen and the Art of Self Responsibility and Maintenance.

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