Reading Notes #1

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Myths to Live By

Ready or not, we’re talking about books.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

by Robert M. Pirsig

First of all, this book made me cry, which I didn’t expect because I don’t expect anything to do with “motorcycle maintenance” to evoke enough emotion to make me cry, unless it’s the emotion of boredom. Yeah. But I wasn’t crying from boredom, and (you guessed it) this book is not really about motorcycle maintenance.

“You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”

I mean, it’s in there: the motorcycle. The maintenance. But it’s a METAPHOR. I dig metaphors. There’s a lot of Zen, and there’s a lot of philosophy, and heavy tough thinking, and relationships, and helplessness, and falling apart, and finding peace.

“You look at where you're going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you've been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

A couple of the ventures into the history of philosophical thinking made me sleepy. Or it might have been that I was reading on an airplane after being awake for, like, 40 hours. Who knows!

“But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”

This book has been recommended to me numerous times by numerous people, and I don’t know what I thought it was, but I didn’t expect what it is. This was a serendipitous book encounter. It came with the kind of timing that is a little too good, frankly.

Who is planning this? Who’s in charge here? *looks around suspiciously*

“We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.”

If I’d read it a year ago, I’d probably have been like, “Hm, okay, whatever, it’s pretty good,” instead of weeping in an airplane as I read the last few chapters.


Maybe it was the sleep deprivation. Maybe it was the recirculated air. Maybe it was the fact that some books speak to your core, at exactly the right time. Some books tell you that—whatever else is happening—you’re not alone. That’s more important than almost anything else.

Here are a bunch of quotes. Read them. Then read the whole book.

“When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.”

“It's a problem of our time. The range of human knowledge today is so great that we're all specialists and the distance between specializations has become so great that anyone who seeks to wander freely among them has to forego closeness with the people around him.”

“…the idea that one person’s mind is accessible to another’s is just a conversational illusion, just a figure of speech, an assumption that makes some kind of exchange between basically alien creatures seem plausible, and that really the relationship of one person to another is ultimately unknowable.”

“In the high country of the mind one has to become adjusted to the thinner air of uncertainty, and to the enormous magnitude of questions asked, and to the answers proposed to these questions. The sweep goes on and on and on so obviously much further than the mind can grasp one hesitates even to go near for fear of getting lost in them and never finding one’s way out.”

“The real cycle you're working on is a cycle called yourself.”

See? Metaphor.

Myths to Live By: The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell

Good news! This book did not make me cry.

It’s a collection of Campbell’s lectures, a dozen or so, in a neat little package. I started reading it months ago, got distracted by other newer shinier books, then came back around. As one does.

“To become—in Jung’s terms—individuated, to live as a released individual, one has to know how and when to put on and to put off the masks of one’s various life roles.

The aim of individuation requires that one should find and then learn to live out of one’s own center, in control of one’s for and against. And this cannot be achieved by enacting and responding to any general masquerade of fixed roles.”

Campbell can be dry reading. But I kept hearing Alan Watts’s voice narrating in my head, so that worked out. I mean, they were friends. So it makes sense, right?

“Significant images render insights beyond speech, beyond the kinds of meaning speech defines. And if they do not speak to you, that is because you are not ready for them, and words will only serve to make you think you have understood, thus cutting you off altogether. You don’t ask what a dance means, you enjoy it. You don’t ask what the world means, you enjoy it. You don’t ask what you mean, you enjoy yourself; or at least, so you do when you are up to snuff.”

This book is about (surprise!) mythology: what it is, where it comes from, how it interacts with out social conventions, what it means, what it means about our world, what it means about us, what we can learn from it, and (most of all) how we can understand ourselves better by understanding mythology better.

“A lion has to be a lion all its life; a dog, to be a dog. But a human being can be an astronaut, a troglodyte, philosopher, mariner, tiller of the soil, or sculptor. He can play and actualize in his life any one of any number of hugely differing destinies; and what he chooses to incarnate in this way will be determined finally neither by reason nor even by common sense, but by infusions of excitement: “visions that fool him out of his limits,” as the poet Robinson Jeffers called them.”

I walked away with a long list of books/authors to read next, which is both bad and good, I suppose.

“In the Orient the guiding ideal is that each should realize that he himself and all others are of the one substance of that universal Being of beings which is, in fact, the same Self in all. Hence the typical aim of an Oriental religion is that one should experience and realize in life one’s identity with that Being; whereas in the West, following our Bible, the ideal is, rather, to become engaged in a  relationship with that absolutely other Person who is one’s Maker, apart and “out there,” in no sense one’s innermost Self.”

The contrast of Eastern to Western mythology was particularly interesting. There’s something very sinister in the way Western mythology presents an ideal of engaging with an “Absolute Something” outside of and apart from the self. This idea of External Authority—and the obligation to seek it out, serve it, get its approval, submit to its will—is damaging in ways so deep we don’t recognize them anymore. They’re too deep, too familiar.

“And now, to say just one more nasty thing about our religious institutions: what they require and expect is that one should not leave the womb that they provide.”

Think about the last time you were stuck, hesitating in indecision: what kept you stuck there? Probably you were seeking more information, a way to know you were making the right decision. But what is the right decision? There are no right decisions (or wrong decisions) unless there is some sort of external standard by which we can judge decisions, i.e., an external, higher-than-thou authority which “sees the big picture” and is just kind of, I don’t know, waiting for you to guess right and probably ready to punish you if you guess wrong. Which is, first of all, a very silly way for an omniscient authority to judge and govern, and second of all, turns us all into perpetually dependent children, never able to see things from the (authoritative, all-knowing) adult level, always grasping for signs and clues, hungry for validation and feedback because it seems that Somebody must know what the hell is going on, but it sure isn’t us.

“Life as an art and art as a game—as action for its own sake, without thought of gain or of loss, praise or blame—is the key, then, to the turning of living itself into a yoga, and art into the means to such a life.”

If we release the idea of external authority, then decisions aren’t about guessing the Divine Will, lining up with a preconfigured Correct Path, or choosing the One Right Option out of an infinite array of other, all (apparently) wrong options. Making a decision is simply about choosing (WAIT FOR IT, THIS IS REVOLUTIONARY) what you want.

And whenever anything is experienced that way, simply in and for and as itself, without reference to any concepts, relevancies, or practical relationships, such a moment of sheer aesthetic arrest throws the viewer back for an instant upon his own existence without meaning; for he too simply is—“thus come”—a vehicle of consciousness, like a spark flung out from a fire.”

It’s about picking the decision that lines up best with your values, your priorities, your interests, your desires, your energy, etc. It’s maybe about guessing at potential consequences and picking the decision that gives you the most favorable set, or helps you avoid the least favorable set.

It could be about a preferred decision, or even a better decision, but it’s not about the “right” decision.

That takes a bit of weight off.

“The ultimate divine mystery is there found immanent within each. It is not “out there” somewhere. It is within you. And no one has ever been cut off.

You are not now to lose your nerve! Go on through with it and play your own game all the way! And of course, as everybody knows who has ever played at games, the ones that are the most fun—to lose as well as to win—are the ones that are the hardest, with the most complicated, even dangerous, tasks to accomplish.”

Now it’s time to roll into the weekend. May yours be filled with books and friends and naps and other worthy endeavors.