Thursday, June 20, 2013

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I'm never reading only one book at a time. Right now, along with the book about ancestral homes known to Virginia Woolf, I am reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig. It's subtitle is An Inquiry into Values. It's listed in Wikipedia as a 1974 philosophical novel in which Pirsig "explores his Metaphysics of Quality". My late mother-in-law read it in the '90's. I never did read it, until now.

The fiction of the story is a road trip on a motorcycle. The Zen is an extended Chautauqua about Quality, which, loosely speaking, is achieved when subject and object are one. When a mechanic and the part to be fixed are in tune with one another. Where there is no thee and thou but we. This is how I read it.

Last week I wanted to move a very heavy craftsman-built dining table (Robert Treate Hogg) against the wall so I could fit my church office furniture in the dining room of the rectory. I thought the center piece was a removable leaf. However, it was the two ends which were the leaves that when folded down reach almost to the floor, leaving a narrow table top.

I couldn't remember how to get the leaves to fold down, so I got down on the floor to look at the underside to see how this works. I took my time gazing. I could see how the two legs held up the leaves, and how they had to be moved to release them. Each leaf is very heavy, so I had to work with the legs and leaves in order not to stress one or the other into snapping off. As taxing as this was, I felt as one with the table, calm, peaceful, though the work of shifting weight was hard. I have the bruises to prove it!

Reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I see exactly what the author is trying to say about quality. When I face something that is not in my skill set, I face it in one of two ways: it becomes a problem to be solved and I get anxious and frustrated and even angry, or I sit and gaze at it, work out how it goes together, become calm in the contemplation, and am at peace with whatever I then do.

The latter means is my preference. I sometimes remember it. More often I don't. The first time I discovered this was probably 20 years ago when my bicycle chain came off and there was no one around to help me get it back on. I understood, then, that what I did was go into my recessive left brain, clear away all distractions, and gaze at the whole assembly, really see how the whole chain/bicycle thing goes together, and voila, I fixed it.

I know I have experienced this at least one other time, maybe a few more, in the intervening 20 years. Not a lot. Some of them involved emergency situations with people. As I have more times of awareness of things like moving the table and fixing the bicycle chain, I expect I will face a lot more situations in the preferred way more often.

Only took me 60mmppphhhh years.

I expect you are now waiting for me to bring Jesus into this, since I'm a priest. Well, I'm also a teacher and sometimes it is good for me to leave it to you to make the connections. I'm sure there are some. I also expect yours will be different from mine. That would be lovely!


Danny Cutting said...

Oooo so enjoyable! Thank you Lois! I have had those , often very fleeting, but very nourishing moments...usually involving a paint...wrestling with color mixing or application onto the canvas...sometimes with gardening...heavy work, such as double digging, or long times on the knees weeding. And i must say I do see a strong connection with it being all part of the creative force we are given and the use of it for fully being/becoming the one God created us to be...each one so very unique. There is such huge pleasure in the being and doing at that could it be less , it is such a God given experience. I hope 'm not way off beam here...and that in some way I have understood what you were so beautifully expressing. The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance is a wonderful book! All 3 of our boys read it as they grew up! It had lasting importance for them...and us!

Lois Keen said...

Well done, Danny.!