Zen and the art of mental maintenance

This is the 40th anniversary of one of those small, seemingly inauspicious events that have led to cultural works of great significance: a trip that produced Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Slowing down the mind is still essential, 40 years after Pirsig's philosophical journey

This is the 40th anniversary of one of those small, seemingly inauspicious events that have led to cultural works of great significance.

In the summer of 1968, Robert Pirsig, an unknown writer of technical manuals, climbed onto his Honda motorcycle with his son Chris. They travelled from Minneapolis through parts of the American West and the Rocky Mountains, ending up in San Francisco.

Instead of walking the Camino route in Spain, a 40-year-old Pirsig bared his chest to the wind while riding a motorbike. Chris sat on the back and hugged his father's middle-aged middle, an embrace that lies at the centre of this American pilgrimage.

From that trip, Pirsig wrote a book that has become a classic: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The critic George Steiner compared the book to Moby Dick, another great American  story. Zen and the Art is both a personal and cerebral road tale, where the thoughts of an intellectual motorcyclist become the stuff of heady drama.

Over the years, Pirsig's motorcycle trip has been followed by many "Pirsig pilgrims."

The latest is Mark Richardson, an automotive writer for the Toronto Star. His book is called Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Richardson is like many of Pirsig's readers — intrigued by the book and, by his own admission, baffled and only half comprehending it. If you're like many, you read it again and again, stick the book in your backpack and then climb aboard a motorcycle so you can figure it out.

If you don't own a motorcycle, a good, long hike will do.

Zen and the Art   is a "transformative" book, one that many readers have claimed changed their lives.

The word transformative is bandied about a lot now in politics and on the campaign trail. But in its private, paperback way, a book can be truly life-altering.

It puts a new frame on inchoate experience. That's one of the glories of literature.

Brilliance and suffering

Pirsig was a precocious and solitary being. At the age of nine, his IQ score was 170, genius. But his obsessive questing mind could also slip into manic overdrive.

He suffered from breakdowns. What comes through the book is his terrible yearning — for his troubled son and for a self extinguished by bouts of electro-shock therapy.

Zen and the Art  was published in 1974 after 120 publishers turned it down. It is an account of Pirsig's trip, interlaced with riffs on philosophy. 

Some people read it with an accent on the poignant story of a man who is struggling to come closer to his son. Others zero in on the seemingly arcane but lucid and calm lectures on Eastern and Western philosophy.

It's certainly a weird book, but utterly authentic in feel. If you believe the act of thinking is an abstract, bloodless activity, read Robert Pirsig.

The philosophical demons he pursues are part of an immense family drama that goes to the heart of our divided culture.

Pirsig pulls off something exceedingly rare: Reading him, you get the sense that ideas are supremely important. They matter. They are not just scholarly indulgences.

I first read Zen and the Art when I was working as an announcer at a small-market radio station. I would puzzle through the book at the local diner at lunch, while long-distance truckers would sit in the booth beside me.

The scene was perfect Pirsig: The renegade ex-grad student reading philosophy shoulder to shoulder with Teamsters and garage mechanics. I was fiddling with ideas and they were operating their roaring road machinery.

That was Pirsig's genius: He wanted to write a book to unite these disparate activities, the romantic and the rational.

Reconciling the 'two cultures'

In a philosophical sense, the book is about the attempt to reconcile Eastern and Western thought. Pirsig is trying to understand something he called "quality," the source of our creative juice.

For Pirsig, this concept is a slippery one. It is always oozing away when you try to nail it down.

In that sense, it's like the Eastern concept of Tao or the vast, creative silence at the heart of reality. For Westerners, quality may resemble God. But when you define it too much, it fools you.

Pirsig also noticed many people were wary of technology. They were romantics, extolling the virtues of feeling. On the other side were the rationalists, the technicians.

Back in the '60s, the two cultures were in their separate camps and often one group had contempt for the other. The British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow called a version of this fight "two cultures" — art and science.

Pirsig had a leg in both camps, believing each was part of a single human consciousness.

"The Buddha, the Godhead resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at top of the mountain or in the petals of a flower," he wrote.

Now, 40 years later, it's more common to read about scientists with a mystical bent who try to combine reason and romantic feeling — like Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian.

Or the Buddhist monk and astrophysicist, Matthieu Ricard, who also serves as a translator for the Dalai Lama.

Pirsig was prescient, using the teachings of Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. He counselled patience.

You want to find a solution to a problem? Stare at it, he suggested. Quiet your mind and don't panic. And then, an answer just might start emerging, like a fish nipping at the end of the line. 

Slowing down

In a hyperactive culture, it's even more important to follow Pirsig's advice and slow down. Pay attention when we fix our motorcycles (or our politics and economy). 

The best motorcycle mechanic, says Pirsig, is quiet and humble. He doesn't have rock music blaring in the background.

 He leans into his task and merges with it. He becomes one with his motorcycle and the oily screws, the chains, the gears spread before him on the ground.

Pirsig tells us the motorcycles we are really fixing are ourselves. But he has no large public vision. At 80, Pirsig is reclusive. He will not advise Obama, McCain or even Elizabeth May or Stephen Harper. 

But if he would, I'd guess he'd tell them to turn down the noise and fix what has to be fixed and be very humble before the evidence. There's no use "spinning" the truth about motorcycle maintenance. The screws, the parts, must all somehow fit.

And if our public servants can't do that, maybe they should jump on a bike and take a sabbatical pilgrimage.