Reflection: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Nathanael Yellis By Nathanael Yellis • Last Updated May 18, 2021

I found the examined life in this book's approach and commentary.

The sort of thorough examination, consideration, and explanation in Maintenance, if found in your life, would demonstrate deep meaning. By putting his life on the table, considering the relative virtue of choices, and explaining it all in the light of philosophy, the author provides an excellent example of the examined life.

Whether his conclusions are agreeable is almost beside the point. The act of squaring life, morality, and philosophy provides a challenging pattern.

Thus Maintenance is not only an autobiography, moral handbook, and treatise, it's a method of interrelated explanations. While it seems like a manifesto, its pattern was more challenging than its conclusion. I frequently put it down to attempt similar thoughts about my own life. Rather than adopt his maxims, I saw the value in overtly constructing my own. Rather than believe his conclusions, I saw the need to make my own.

It's in those three streams, or rather at their intersection, that life is lived. Good decisions are fully informed by one's history, conscience, and philosophy. Maintenance thought through each of those elements fully. This type of thought is prerequisite to living rightly; or, rather, the good life is the working out of the three.

The excerpt below demonstrates the analysis Maintenance gives to ordinary life events. Instead of assuming Chris is tired, the author lets himself, and us, learn to live rightly. This sort of consideration is often a vital missing component of contemporary life:

Up ahead all of Chris's movements seem tired and angry. He stumbles on things, lets branches tear at him, instead of pulling them to one side.

I'm sorry to see this. Some blame can be put on the YMCA camp he attended for two weeks just before we started. From what he's told me, they made a big ego thing out of the whole outdoors experience. A proof-of-manhood thing. He began in a lowly class they were careful to point out was rather disgraceful to be in . . . original sin. Then he was allowed to prove himself with a long series of accomplishments--swimming, rope tying . . . he mentioned a dozen of them, but I've forgotten them.

It made the kids at camp much more enthusiastic and cooperative when they had ego goals to fulfill, I'm sure, but ultimately that kind of motivation is destructive. Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster. Now we're paying the price. When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost never make it. And even if you do it's a hollow victory. In order to sustain the victory you have to prove yourself again and again in some other way, and again and again and again, driven forever to fill a false image, haunted by the feat that the image is not true and someone will find out. That's never the way.

Phaedrus wrote a letter from India about a pilgrimage to hole Mount Kailas, the source of the Ganges and the above of Shiva, high in the Himalayas, in the company of a holy man and his adherents.

He never reached the mountain. After the third day he gave up, exhausted, and the pilgrimage went on without him. He said he had the physical strength but that physical strength wasn't enough. He had the intellectual motivation but that wasn't enough either. He didn't think he had been arrogant but thought that he was undertaking the pilgrimage to broaden his experience, to gain understanding for himself. He was trying to use the mountain for his own purposes and the pilgrimage too. He regarded himself as the fixed entity, not the pilgrimage or the mountain, and thus wasn't ready for it. He speculated that the other pilgrims, the ones who reached the mountain, probably sense the holiness of the mountain so intensely that each footstep was an act of devotion, an act of submission to this holiness. The holiness of the mountain infused into their own spirits enabled them to endure far more than anything he, with his greater physical strength, could take.

To the untrained eye ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical. Both kinds of climbers place one foot in front of the other. Both breathe in and out at the same rate. Both stop when tired. Both go forward when rested. But what a difference! The ego-climber is like an instrument that's out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He's likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He does on when the sloppiness of his step shows he's tired. He rests at odd times. He looks up the trail trying to see what's ahead even when he knows what's ahead because he just looked a second before. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions and when he talks his talk is forever about somewhere else, something else. He's here but he's not here. He rejects the here, is unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then it will be "here." What he's looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn't want that because it is all around him. Every step's an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.

That seems to be Chris's problem now.

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