Zen and Pickles

Zen and Pickles

Zen and Pickles-

During college I picked up a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Cool title, the book was pink and I knew a decent amount about wrenching on motors, so I thought I’d give it a read. As I went through it, I quickly realized that book was about a lot more than motorcycle maintenance, and then again, it wasn’t.

For a long time that book has stuck in my mind for some reason. More than most books I’ve read. There was one central concept that jumped out at me from the story, and that was quality. The author’s attempt to understand and know quality. It eventually drove him insane, but a few rounds of electro-shock therapy zapped him back into a functioning state. Strong overtones of the premise of Icarus and flying too close to the sun.

Pirsig, the actual author of this story within a story, and his previous life “Phaedrus” character, approached things differently. Romantic vs classical philosophy exemplified. Two approaches to thinking and being that seem to be at odds, but that always seemed to lead toward one another.

The problem that eventually drove Phaedrus insane was that he wanted to clearly be able to cut a line that divided quality into good and bad. To know the exact thing that would differentiate good qualities from bad. To understand the difference between the two, even beyond being able to clearly identify what has quality and what does not.

Confusion, Trying to Know the Un-knowable

I’m not abundantly trained in academic philosophy and my vocabulary on the topic is limited, but this situation that Phaedrus created, was ultimately un-knowable with the methods he was using. A universal and specific cleaving line of quality wasn’t reachable. The quality of hardness may be good in a piston, but bad in a crankshaft…  Then that meant the purpose determined which qualities were desirable, and so it was a very context dependent situation, which for Phaedrus, and his model of thinking, seemed to move every time he tried to put a finger on it. So in an attempt to keep slicing to pull apart the layers of questions that would lead him to truth, he eventually went in circles and was caught in a nearly endless loop of thought that lead nowhere but madness.


There are some interesting quotes about insanity that bounce around in my mind. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.” is one of my favorites. People tend to do this sort of thing in life nearly all the time. The problem is two-fold. Our brains are machines and need conscious input to change methods. Our brains also tend to function on methods that don’t tend to lead to a foundational understanding.

In a way, ZAMM (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) helped me “see” how properly messed up a lot our thinking is. How improperly we use our brain. How over-confident we are in our ability to think clearly.

Through that, it helped me come to sort out some of the stuff that had bugged me for years. Brilliant people, with huge brain power, resources, advantages and knowledge that were addicts, destructive and miserable. Simple farmers and mechanics who lived in abundance, happiness and peace. This seemingly endless quest to be told what to do, while at the same time rebelling against authority. These paradoxes point to a fractured understanding of what is really going on here.

Method of Thinking and Method of Knowing

Another thing this book really opened up for me was how powerful and how limited metaphors and analogies are. The entire book was written as a model within a model, where a story was told that seemed to uncover lessons and truths, but that was all framed again within a story with frameworks and filters. The illustrations pointed at things the author wanted us to see or investigate, but that ultimately were not the actual thing to be uncovered.

Most people I talk to, who have read the book, think it is about radically different things. Again, this so very close to giving us a key insight into what is really going on with the world and with us. We understand so little of the way our brain perceives things but we 100% trust what it is telling us.  That leads us to believe that we know what is going on, because the brain is telling us what is going on, including believing blindly that we understand how the brain works on problems, even though we have never properly thought it through. That’s dangerous.

The cultural norms of unresolved confusion

As a competitive athlete in a somewhat violent sport of American football, I realized how much of what we do in life is much more confusing than we observe. We have rules in one part of our life that let us run full speed head on into one another, trying to hurt each other… but “outside the lines” government says it is illegal… unless you represent the government and therefore have a license for violence again under the rule of law, which is ultimately determined by a single judge… So we grow up surrounded by this scenario, I put on a certain uniform and I can hit people and get paid for entertaining.  People buy my uniform and wear it and tackle people in the front yards across america. I take off the uniform and I can’t do that or I’ll go to jail where I actually can’t get paid. I put on a different uniform and I can arrest people.  I take off that uniform and it’s kidnapping.  I put on a police uniform and I’m not a cop and that is a crime.  It’s like tying a towel around our neck with a clothes hanger and claiming we can fly.  We have grown up pretending so much that we now believe it all.  All in our mind.  Much of it very arbitrary.  All these different rules without any seeming organization to the whole thing.

In school, the offer of preparing for life, has been morphed into preparing for a job. That morphed again into preparing for college. That has now moved beyond being prepared toward qualifying for competitive schools, which moved again into grades. Other factors helped move things this way, but now, somehow, a score on a test is what our kids think they are trying to “get” from school.

By now, the country is full of people with the cultural norm of arbitrary rules. The United States for instance, has, as a concept, the Rule of Law. Far from being what actually exists, there are laws, then case laws, and then cases go to trial, lawyers are involved, juries are chosen who seem favorable to either side, and ultimately, a judge governs what is allowed based on how that judge interprets and recalls all these legal frameworks. Our entire country operates on the principle that we can’t know for sure.

It’s not that surprising that people are driven to mental illness and drawn to extremism. At least they have some absolute boundaries and absolute freedoms. Kill a man and you’re a murderer. Kill ten, you get slapped with mass-murderer. Kill ten of the same type and you’re a serial killer and probably need “help”. Kill 100,000 and you are either a conqueror or a liberator, depending on which side you were on. Arbitrary.


Far from having all the answers, I realized that a step before the answers is a question. Likely a series of questions that are positive, lead to understanding and are knowable in some way. The book helped me not be so confident in what I believed. It helped me see how messed up we can get by trying to go all the way down a road that is ultimately circular.

For a couple decades after reading, from time to time a memory of the book and the characters would come to mind as I was assessing my life and my thinking. I’d gone to school for decades to learn facts, and hadn’t ever been trained to think properly. How ass-backward was that? In a way, what came out of this type of pondering was that I needed to know what question to ask and to work on. I needed to know how to work on questions. I needed to be able to prioritize which questions were important and knowable. Those were the right questions, at least to start. They led, as all questions have to either lead or be based on, “how do I know what is true”. Without that, we are without a foundation, and may very well find ourselves much like Phaedrus.

From where I am now, the book is a great illustration of the place most of us live, most of the time. The pickle of being stuck in confusion and blurriness. The precarious edge and dichotomy we try to balance. The yearning for a model to blend classical with romantic. A desire of to dissolve the madness of having two goals at the same time. Being able to enjoy the experience and understand the nature of it, all at once. A search for a method of using our minds that doesn’t lead us to madness and insanity.

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