Flashback: ‘Between restlessness and exhaustion’ (1974)

(During the motorcycle odyssey described by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he brought along a copy of Thoreau’s Walden, a book I’ve described as “my old testament.” It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that I consider Pirsig’s 1974 classic “my new testament.” I first read Zen 40 years ago, night after night by the light of lanterns and campfires, while undertaking a motorcycle adventure of my own.)

“Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. 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.”

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

“It’s the way you live that predisposes you to avoid the traps and see the right facts. You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence. If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidances, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together.

“But if you’re a sloppy thinker six days a week and you really try to be sharp on the seventh, then maybe the next six days aren’t going to be quite as sloppy as the preceding six. What I’m trying to come up with on these gumption traps, I guess, is shortcuts to living right.

“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be ‘out there’ and the person that appears to be ‘in here’ are not two separate things.”

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