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Zen And The Art of Mind Maintenance

August 2010
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“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”  ~Henry David Thoreau

Reading “Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” recently, and for the second time, I was impressed by Pirsig’s observation that, when we seek to repair a motorcycle, the goal is not so much to have a well maintained motorcycle as it is to gain peace of mind. Working on the motorcycle is working on the mind.

But what is a motorcycle but an idea? And what is an idea but a solution to a problem?

A motorcycle is an existential object. It expresses an inward condition in outward form. It is an embodiment of the human mind. It represents a man’s desire to be free, to move, to roam.

Yet when a man thinks it sufficient to purchase another man’s idea, without taking time to learn that idea to gain his own freedom, he becomes dependent upon that other man. He, in a sense, surrenders his freedom to another. He becomes dependent on another for the maintenance of his motorcycle. In turn, he becomes dependent on another for the maintenance of his own mind.

I do not mean here that it is categorically wrong to turn your motorcycle maintenance over to another person. That is clearly absurd. In our world, we simply haven’t the time to do this in every case. But insofar as we can simplify our dependencies upon the minds of others–which are so often poorly maintained–, so our minds become accordingly more peaceful.

Rather than turning over the many problems over to others, we do better to reduce the number of problems in the first place. This comes first by recognizing that the many problems are really outward expressions of an inward problem: a restless mind.

In order to participate in modern life, certain complex objects are required to maintain certain relationships. Many of these will need to be maintained, to some extent, by others. In order to better maintain the peace and tranquility of our own mind, when we must select another to repair an object or solve a problem for us, we do well to examine the quality of the work which that person does; for his or her quality of mind will be consequently embodied in the object. That in turn affects our own minds.

But when we can, we ought to maintain the object ourselves. Studying the problem, we can better see our own mind reflected or embodied in the object itself. Taking care of that object, we can then learn to see beneath the surface of our existence, and to solve existential problems practically.

All a person needs to do, according to this view, is to take a look around at the problems he or she encounters regularly, and then select one or two of them to begin with. Then all that is to be done is to learn and to solve that problem mindfully and with quality. It could be any kind of problem, from cooking and cleaning to farming or fishing. 

One needs to look no further than to his or her activities to discover the deeper layers of self.

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