Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

By Robert M. Pirsig

"Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial to technical work. It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good work and that which destroys it is bad work. The specs, the measuring instruments, the quality control, the final check-out, these are all means toward the end of satisfying the peace of mind of those responsible for the work. What really counts in the end is their peace of mind, nothing else. The reason for this is that peace of mind is a prerequisite for perception of that Quality which is beyond romantic Quality and classic Quality and which unites the two, and which must accompany the work as it proceeds. The way to see what looks good and understand the reason it looks good, and to be at once with this goodness as the work proceeds, is to cultivate an inner quietness, a peace of mind so that goodness can shine through.

I say inner peace of mind. It has no direct relationship to external circumstances. It can occur to a monk in meditation, to a soldier in heavy combat or to a machinist taking off that last ten-thousandth of an inch. It involves unselfconsciousness, which produces a complete identification with one’s circumstances, and there are levels and levels of this identification and levels and levels of quietness quite as profound and difficult of attainment as the more familiar levels of activity. The mountains of achievement are Quality discovered in one direction only, and are relatively meaningless and often unobtainable unless taken together with the ocean trenches of self-awareness–so different from self-consciousness–which result from inner peace of mind.

This inner peace of mind occurs on three levels of understanding. Physical quietness seems the easiest to achieve, although there are levels and levels of this too, as attested by the ability of Hindu mystics to live buried alive for many days. Mental quietness, in which one has no wandering thoughts at all, seems more difficult, but can be achieved. But value quietness, in which one has no wandering desires at all but simply performs the acts of his life without desire, that seems the hardest.

I’ve sometimes thought this inner peace of mind, this quietness is similar if not identical with the sort of calm you sometimes get when going fishing, which accounts for much of the popularity of the sport. Just to sit with the line in the water, not moving, not really thinking about anything, not really caring about anything either, seems to draw out the inner tensions and frustrations that have prevented you from solving problems you couldn’t solve before and introduced ugliness and clumsiness into your actions and thoughts.

You don’t have to go fishing, of course, to fix your motorcycle. A cup of coffee, a walk around the block, sometimes just putting off the job for five minutes of silence is enough.When you do you can almost feel yourself grow toward that inner peace of mind that reveals it all. That which turns its back on this inner calm and the Quality it reveals is bad maintenance. That which turns toward it is good. The forms of turning away and toward are infinite but the goal is always the same.

I think that when this concept of peace of mind is introduced and made central to the act of technical work, a fusion of classic and romantic quality can take place at a basic level within a practical working context. I’ve said you can actually see this fusion in skilled mechanics and machinists of a certain sort, and you can see it in the work they do. To say that they are not artists is to misunderstand the nature of art. They have patience, care and attentiveness to what they’re doing, but more than this--there’s a kind of inner peace of mind that isn’t contrived but results from a kind of harmony with the work in which there’s no leader and no follower. The material and the craftsman’s thoughts change together in a progression of smooth, even changes until his mind is at rest at the exact instant the material is right.

We’ve all had moments of that sort when we’re doing something we really want to do. It’s just that somehow we’ve gotten into an unfortunate separation of those moments from work. The mechanic I’m talking about doesn’t make this separation. One says of him that he is “interested” in what he’s doing, that he’s “involved” in his work. What produces this involvement is, at the cutting edge of consciousness, and absence of any sense of separateness of subject and object. “Being with it,” “being a natural,” “taking hold”–there are a lot of idiomatic expressions for what I mean by this absence of subject-object duality, because what I mean is so well understood as folklore, common sense, the everyday understanding of the shop. But in scientific parlance the words for this absence of subject-object duality are scarce because scientific minds have shut themselves off from consciousness of this kind of understanding in the assumption of the formal dualistic scientific outlook.

Zen Buddhists talk about “just sitting,” a meditative practice in which the idea of 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 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 one has this feeling then he also sees the inverse side of caring, Quality itself.

So the thing to do when working on a motorcycle, as in any other task, is to cultivate the peace of mind which does not separate one’s self from one’s surroundings. When that is done successfully then everything else follows naturally. Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all."