12 May, 2008

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I know, this is a funny topic for me.

I read this book in 1983, and hardly remember anything about it. I liked it at the time, for what it was. And of course, what it was was an anti-Christian bit of cultic and heretical propaganda. :-)

I was studying to be a theoretical physicist (at a local junior college - don't ask), but I about half-wanted to be a mechanic. So this little book offered me a twofer deal I couldn't pass on. It gave me a chance to learn about Zen in a kind of semi-safe way, and a chance to learn about mechanicking from a distance. I would be hard pressed to say of which of them I was most scared. Zen was frightening in an eternal way, but mechanicking was frightening in a very visceral man's-man kind of way that left me feeling quite hopeless. Learning about mechanicking from a Zen mystic seemed about right for a wannabe like me.

I think I remember two things from the book. The first is, "Never by a 2-pound hammer - you might be tempted to use it!" But that phrase may never have appeared in the book, or if it did it might be completely stolen from mechanics all over the world.

The second one I'm absolutely sure of. I won't put quote marks around it, because I am giving you 25 year-old impressions of what it meant to me at the time, and there's no telling exactly what he really said. It went like this.

Turn off your radio. Zen is about being in the now, wholly present in the moment that is. Life is about being in the now. But if the thing that you are doing is fixing a motorcycle, how can the thing you're doing be listening to the radio? And if the thing you're doing is listening to the radio, how can it be fixing the motorcycle? Do what you're doing with all your being.

That hit me hard. I was always trying to do two things at once, and no matter how eternally damning Zen might be, the joker was right. I simply could not do two things at once, and even if I could, I could not do them both with all my heart. I could not do them both to the glory of God.

I never forgot that. For a year or two of my ten under the hood, I listened to the radio while I turned wrenches. I spent months listening to a rotation of a handful of tapes and crying to them as often as not. But for the most part, I found I was happier when the radio was off and I was pleasantly cursing the problem at hand. [Mechanicking really is calculated to drive a man to despair. If it were not for the (even if they're sometimes pyrrhic) victories at the end of every nightmare, I'm sure we'd all quit.]

The other night, I told my small group that I'd turned off the radio in my car 2 years ago. You should have seen the jaws drop. But yes, I sit in traffic in complete silence, just listening to the engines of all the cars around me, and the blowing of the heater fan, and how the sounds play off the brim of my hat. Sometimes I play my harmonica, but not even much of that these days.

And it helps.

It's an odd thing. I committed years ago that once I got on the road, I was done trying not to be late. Once I was on the road, nothing I could do would get me there more than 2 minutes faster, so I'd just be an extra 2 minutes late rather than frazzle myself every morning and evening. Once I'm on the road, I pick the lane that is easiest on my attitude, and drive fast enough to keep the guy behind me from getting mad. If I can't drive that fast, I move over. If 6 people pull in front of me, I might speed up, but not because I'm mad. (Yes, sometimes individual morons irritate me, but usually not more than once a week.)

And since I'm not in a hurry, and not on edge, and not looking for that 3 car-length advantage every 10 seconds, I can let my mind go where it will.

The radio kills that mindset, and yes, I mean Christian radio. It takes my mind where I don't want to go. Once or twice in each trip, I might hear a song that connects with me, but more often than not it's a song that connects with where I was last week. I end up being happy the song meant a lot to me last week, and singing it with joy, but it's last week's joy.

I'm not against the radio itself. 4 years ago, just after the divorce, the radio was a near-constant blessing to me, and I listened to it every minute. Today, though, it isn't. The song, "Be Still My Soul," moved me a couple weeks ago. So, I spent a week memorizing it in the car. (Have you EVER known a song to be so hard to memorize???) I did it at my pace, and with my convictions, so it felt like it was mine. It felt peaceful and comforting. At it's best, the radio seems to dangle the hope of something beautiful much more often than it delivers, so I guess I'm against it a little bit, but I'll probably turn my radio back on some day.

So, I thought about all this.

And I thought, "Why does Zen do this kind of thinking, and Christianity doesn't?"

Why does Zen have so much to say about getting up in the morning and making breakfast and getting ready for bed at night, and Christianity doesn't?

It's just something to ponder.


Anonymous said...

I read this book 12 or 13 years ago. I don't remember much--just a few random feelings here and there from some of the stories in the book. I think we must have been moving at the time, so I was in between library cards and desperate for something to read. This was a book my husband had, and I hadn't read it, so, even though I wasn't interested in either Zen or motorcycle maintenance, I was in need of a book fix, and this one worked :) (it WAS, afterall, much more interesting than the telephone book!)

kc bob said...

I am not anti-multitasking.. who could drive and not multitask :)

I do think that we need time to be alone with our thoughts.. for that reason I also stopped listening to the radio on my morning commute back in the 90s. I do occasionally listen in the afternoon though. :)

I looked Zen up and Mr Dictionary says it is:

An approach to religion, arising from Buddhism, that seeks religious enlightenment by meditation in which there is no consciousness of self.

I find this idea to be silly.. seperating myself from the Spirit.. seems absurd.. seems a bit like navel contempltion. Hope this doesn't make me a fundy but I prefer to meditate on the scripture.

Here endeth the rant! Happy Tuesday CP!

Beyond Words said...

Great post. Christianity has a lot to say about being in the "now," it's just packaged differently than Eastern thought and we miss the point. Wed've made it a religion that's goal-driven, and we fail to practice the disciplines of silence and contemplation that train us to be in the presence of God--which is very Zen-like--except when we lose ourselves, we find ourselves in relationship with God.

Bill Heroman said...

Hey, Kev.

Calm, slow driver AND no radio? That's just called getting old, man! ;)

Seriously, though. I'll let you decide how (or if) this intersects with what's on your mind, but you reminded me of a great quote.

This brother from VA once shared about how the nirvana Buddhists seek is rarely attained but often described as "nothing". The surprise was when he said, "And that's exactly right."

If you think about it, proper meditation and getting past oneself CAN be done whether or not one is filled with God. When zennies spend years trying to quiet the mind, surely some are pretentious about it but some seem to genuinely succeed - at least to some degree.

Now, imagine a real christian non-pretense-iously, actively, actually, honestly seeking out the Lord's presence deep inside of them.

We can find him in a moment, and we can find him more deeply after years of "practice". (IE, Bro.Lawrence)

But when we quiet our minds, there is some similarity to zen buddhism.

It's just that they find "nothing".

And we have Jesus Christ where that hole used to be.

Missy said...

Good grief. If I were a man, I'd be you. :)


Milly said...

I don’t like to speed and I hate being late so I give myself ample time. I don’t care for road rage. Something my husband’s made an art of. I’m a mood listener in the car. If they aren’t playing what I need then off it goes. I don’t keep CDs in the car unless I’m in the mood.

I’ve never given Zen a lot of thought. I did at one time have a small Zen garden in my kitchen next to the poetry books, Bible, and a small flute like pipe thing. (Ok day three of a head banger has knocked the word out of my head) I like to relax when I cook.

I’m the mom of an eight year old I have to multitask. Boy do I have to multitask!

>Why does Zen have so much to say about getting up in the morning and making breakfast and getting ready for bed at night, and Christianity doesn't?

It seems like a bit of a trap to me. We know that eating breakfast is important, we know that if we ate at 6am and skipped lunch that by dinner we’ll be shaking. I know that for sure because my boss forgot to give me my lunch break today. Yes I reminded him and he still forgot. So day three and I’m ready to take more pills and crash. Zen, will fail us because we know that at some point we will be failed by someone. When we blow up God forgives us. When we lose the Zen who’s there to forgive? Zinnypoobah? I’ll take God every moment of the day and night.

Anonymous said...

As a mechanic I share in your frustration of trying to repair something that was put in a space two sizes too small.

Christianity tends to focus on our hope for the future to get us through the present. While that hope is real, it is not sustaining. Our worship and faithfulness in the present get us to that point in the future. For some reason most of us separate our Christian beliefs and practices from our daily lives. We just don't see how being the best mechanic we can be is honor to God.

Oh, I tend to listen to talk radio so I don't fall asleep behind the wheel.


Kevin Knox said...

Such great comments!

> I’ll take God every moment of the day and night.

Thanks for this one especially, Milly. Amen. :-)

You know, I have a pretty easy time understanding the whole idea of Zen, but then I pretty much naturally fit the mold of any religion. It's one of the things that most made me doubt Christ. If I'd been born in Sri Lanka, I'd have had a hard time picking between Buddhism and Christianity, because I would want both.

In the end, it's exactly what Milly said. Christ is there, and no one else is.

And I think that's what Christianity has for our daily lives. Eclexia has a way of applying "God with us," to every part of our lives, all the ugly and all the boring and all the stressful and all the good. I think that says it perfectly. I think as Christians we really draw too little comfort from Emmanuel.

Praise the Lord nd thank you for all your kind and fun answers.

Anonymous said...

Christianity in the West has lost the spiritualism inherent in the Jewish tradition from whence it arose. Westerners, being of a more structured and rational mindset, have made it all about knowledge: the knowledge of Christ and the grace of the cross is how one is saved.

But Christianity is not a Western religion. It is a religion that transcends culture, and is both Eastern and Western. In the East, Christianity is more about living rather than knowing. This is evidenced by the notion of "theosis" in the Eastern Orthodox Church versus "conversion" in the Western church. Eastern Christians are saved throughout their lifetime...it is not a single moment that separates them from the "unregenerate". They were saved through the cross, are being saved as they live according to the Scriptures, and will be saved upon their entrance into paradise.

I encourage you all to look into the Eastern Church. It is here that the "zen" half of Christianity is found: a life lived in Christ. I found peace in this church after struggling through the shallow waters of Protestantism for a few years. It made the faith so clear and made it a living faith, not a record of knowledge we can turn to in times of trouble.

Dave Sarks said...

Great post. As a Christian I find a lot of these books to actually take me to places where many of the Christian books that I have read in the past simply don't. Sometimes, like you, I find God in the simple things, and sometimes just sitting back and listening to the noise in the background is so much more peaceful.

I've linked this post from my own thoughts on the book.