'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' is the Book That Changed My Life

A drive route from the 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' book

Editor's note: This piece is part of a series on books that changed our lives. Read more here, here, here, and here.

Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was one of the first books that really stuck with me. It was a birthday gift from my grandma, who had written a small note inside the front cover: "Let me know what you think about the author's ideas once you're finished!" 

The book has a dual function: it's one part father/son motorcycle journey, and one part dissertation on the "metaphysics of quality," an idea Pirsig pursues throughout the 300 plus pages of the 30th anniversary edition. As per the metaphysics portion of the book, it was something that I didn't take much away from. The narrative surrounding the cross country trip, on the other hand, hit some kind of nerve. The story is told from the father's perspective, speaking in the spirit of the Chautauqua — an assemblage of teachers, musicians and specialists, popularized in early 20th century America designed to deliver entertainment and culture to various communities. Like a series of New Age self-help seminars, the book blends learned lessons into general themes with advice ranging from practical mechanical repair to living with mental illness. One passage on Pirsig's thoughts on education particularly stuck out to me, a tired student:

The Student's biggest problem was a slave mentality which had been built into him by years of carrot-and-whip grading, a mule mentality which said, 'If you don't whip me, I don't work.' He didn't get whipped. He didn't work. And the cart of civilization, which he supposedly was being trained to pull was just going to have to creak along a little slower without him.

Was it a little overly-dramatic to associate this quote with public school education? Yes, but it rang true to some degree. I was in 11th grade, participating with minimal effort and motivation, and the passage articulated a general vague malaise that I couldn't put into words. The narrator goes on to describe an excitement that can be found in shifting one's primary motivation from grade-based learning to a knowledge-based mindset. Once the source of motivation shifts, the spirit in which you engage in a given subject alters dramatically as well. 

In retrospect, Pirsig's work brought to my attention a very obvious, but fundamentally important idea that I wasn't able to come up with on my own: pursue things for the sake of your own interests and intentions and avoid fear as the engine of your pursuits. It's a thought that can't be reiterated enough, and I imagine it rings particularly true with many people attending public or private institutions today. With the narrative mimicking the form of a Chautauqua, the book becomes a gateway to exploring new ideas and finding your own interests within them. This allows for a world of ideas to start forming and provides a kind of mental catalyst. Once the motivation creeps in, almost all the lessons presented in the book become a source of profound interest, be it using aluminum cans as motorcycle parts because they don't oxidize easily in wet weather, or maintaining the speed with which you hike a mountain, so as to stay somewhere between exhaustion and comfort. It's all interesting. The infectious enthusiasm for ideas bleeds past the pages into everyday life.

More fundamentally, the book talks about the kind of individual self-acceptance that comes from pursuing said interests. Pirsig and the narrator of the book suffered from schizophrenia and underwent electroshock treatment as a means of psychological repair. The narrator of Zen eventually reverts back to his original personality, a happy ending by the book's terms. The book suggests that the schizophrenic is the true progenitor behind the "cured" narrator of the book, and that he needs to be let loose to return again to his rightful place. It is an empowering message in its own context, exalting the autonomy of the individual and the power of the mind under any circumstance; it's a message that should hold water for any young person today feeling adrift or bored and unsure why. 

I still don't know if I can properly answer the note my grandma left me on the inside flap of the book. It has taken on bigger proportions that require more than a simple answer. It helped change my mind and let me find out what was really motivating me.

Postscript: Here is a great and rare interview of Pirsig on NPR, recorded in 1974.