Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

Reading Time: 6 minutes


Through an entrancing narrative of a man on a summer motorcycle trip with his son, Pirsig takes us on a deeply philosophical journey that explores society, values, and life’s big questions.

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Key Takeaways

Pay attention to who’s knocking

“The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away. Puzzling.”

Sometimes, the answer is right in front of us, but perhaps we’re not willing to see or accept it. If you’re stuck or feeling lost, get out of your head and think about what’s right in front of you.

Care about what you do

“Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.”

“When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things.”

With your personal and professional endeavors, take the time to identify things that you care about. While we often focus on outcomes (e.g., making money), we sometimes discount the means to those outcomes (e.g., the job we have that makes money) and how we feel about those means. But if you find things you care about, you will do a better job and enjoy the journey much more, which will ultimately help you achieve the outcome you desire and feel good doing so.

Classic vs. romantic thought

“A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance.”

Classical thought is often associated with the following: science, objectivity, rationality, reason, analysis, and matter. The other primary mode of thought is romantic in nature: art, subjectivity, emotion, and experience. Both forms of thought have their pros and cons and don’t give us a complete picture of the world if viewed independently.

“But now that for huge masses of people these needs no longer overwhelm everything else, the whole structure of reason, handed down to us from ancient times, is no longer adequate. It begins to be seen for what it really is—emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty.”

Reason, or classical thought, has helped us progress as a society to provide the basic needs for billions of people. But now that many of us have our basic needs met, the limitations of purely rational thought, like it’s lack of emotional, esthetic, and spiritual nature, are becoming clearer. And the human experience cannot be unlinked from these aspects missing from rational thought.

“To some extent the romantic condemnation of rationality stems from the very effectiveness of rationality in uplifting men from primitive conditions. It’s such a powerful, all-dominating agent of civilized man it’s all but shut out everything else and now dominates man himself. That’s the source of the complaint.”

Romantic thinkers condemn rationality for its coldness and limitations. But the only reason that the romantic condemnation of rationality is so strong now is because of the way in which rational thought helped us progress in ways to meet our basic needs and allow these romantic observations and appreciations to flourish.

“What’s wrong with technology is that it’s not connected in any real way with matters of the spirit and of the heart. And so it does blind, ugly things quite by accident and gets hated for that. People haven’t paid much attention to this before because the big concern has been with food, clothing and shelter for everyone and technology has provided these.”

Technology has helped provide our basic needs, but because it was designed for that purpose without concern for matters of the spirit and heart, it has had unintended consequences that are disconnected with romantic parts of the human experience.

Attack the cause, not the effects

“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.”

If we simply fight the system because we don’t agree with it, our efforts will have little effect. Because the system that we fight against is an effect, rather than the cause. We must understand and attack the cause of our problems or concerns to effect the change we desire.

The scientific method

“The whole purpose of scientific method is to make valid distinctions between the false and the true in nature, to eliminate the subjective, unreal, imaginary elements from one’s work so as to obtain an objective, true picture of reality.”

Science is concerned with the “objective” nature of things. It uses experiments to distinguish between what is true and what is false. But an important question to ask is the following: does the scientific method and its structure for pursuing the truth accurately represent what is actually true or meaningful in the world?

“An experiment is never a failure solely because it fails to achieve predicted results. An experiment is a failure only when it also fails adequately to test the hypothesis in question, when the data it produces don’t prove anything one way or another.”

This is a fantastically clear way to define the purpose of an experiment. I often use experiments in business to test certain hypotheses, and the most important thing is not to have a correct hypothesis that predicts the result, but rather to design an experiment that accurately tests the hypothesis you are exploring. That’s when the learning happens.

You fight for what’s in doubt

“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.”

When you believe in and fight for something, it’s often because that belief is in question. If it were an absolute certainty, you wouldn’t feel the need to fight for it. This is a helpful concept to remember as you think about those things you fight for.

Enjoy the sides of the mountain

“To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.”

Life is not about getting to the top of mountain; it’s about what you learn and experience in the process of moving to the top. That is, life’s about the journey, not the destination.

Don’t pursue things for self-glorification

“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 fear that the image is not true and someone will find out. That’s never the way.”

Even if you succeed in proving your point or becoming recognized for the glorious person you’ve set out to be, the journey of getting there will be exhausting and unfulfilling. And instead of feeling comfort and security, you will constantly look for new ways to prove this self-worth again, constantly living in the fear that someone will find out this image is not true.

Challenging dualistic thinking with Quality

“Quality couldn’t be independently related with either the subject or the object but could be found only in the relationship of the two with each other. It is the point at which subject and object meet. That sounded warm. Quality is not a thing. It is an event. Warmer. It is the event at which the subject becomes aware of the object.”

“This means Quality is not just the result of a collision between subject and object. The very existence of subject and object themselves is deduced from the Quality event. The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of the Quality!”

Instead of viewing the world dualistically as most Western thinkers do, Pirsig introduces a new concept, Quality, to show the source of our dualistic thinking. For Pirsig, Quality precedes the moment we intellectualize the world into subjects and objects. It is the event that creates the subject / object dichotomy in the first place.

Caring underpins a non-dualistic view

“Zen Buddhists talk about “just sitting,” a meditative practice in which the idea of a duality of self and object does not dominate one’s consciousness. What I’m talking about here in motorcycle maintenance is “just fixing,” in which the idea of a duality of self and object doesn’t dominate one’s consciousness. When one isn’t dominated by feelings of separateness from what he’s working on, then one can be said to “care” about what he’s doing. That is what caring really is, a feeling of identification with what one’s doing.”

When you enter a truly meditative flow state, you become one with the work you are doing. There is no longer the writer and the writing. The two merge into one in a beautiful way. Getting to this place requires a level of caring about the experience that’s happening.

How our fears relate to what we condemn

“We always condemn most in others, he thought, that which we most fear in ourselves.”

If you’re criticizing or complaining about someone or what they’ve done, is it because they are genuinely violating your values and beliefs, or is it because they show a quality or action that we fear most about ourselves? It’s worth thinking about next time you find yourself in this situation.

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