Saturday, January 30, 2010

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I''m reading a sort of biography of Persig right now. (Zen and Now, Mark Richardson, Amazon) It's bringing back the memories associated with Persig's life changing writing. He's only written two books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Leila. Both have had profound impact on my life, causing me to reconsider just how I looked at little things and at society and relationships as a whole.

I'm ashamed of the first time I heard of Zen. It's a reminder of my own arrogance and stupidity. I was in medical school. One of the most beautiful women in the world, a soft spoken, dark haired, girl who sat near me at the front of a class showed me the book and said, "I'm reading, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It's really good. I think you'd like it."

Now I don't know why but I am often taken aback by people who presume to know what I'd like. It's a worse feeling in areas where I assume myself an expert. At the time I was young and presumed myself an expert in 'enlightenment'. Hadn't I sat cross legged for countless hours. Hadn't I studied in theological classes and ashrams for days on end. Hadn't I muttered om for whole days with others, done the prayers of the west and the prayers of the east and had a few spiritual experiences that were by most standards 'out of this world'.

None of all that godly encounter however pierced the pride I had, expecially as a high minded missionary oriented medical student among so many philistine classmates some of who were mere technicians while others saw medicine as a means to the end of financial success. Somehow I thought I was hip, slick and cool to boot. Married to the beauty queen medical student, lauded by department head after department head asking me to join,and publishing papers in prestigious journals. I was a 'star'.

In my own mind, at least. As often I felt thoroughly disgusted with myself, like I knew nothing, would never complete the next stage of advancement, that someone would find out so much of it was sham. I didn't feel smart. I struggled with so many equations. I worried all night over a patients illness and spent hours in libraries and talking to colleagues second guessing my every decision. Yet, I laughed and danced and sang and strutted and looked good on the outside most of the time. I comforted people. I was invincible. I was as often as not praying beside my bed, "Please God help me through this day." What I most wanted was to get off the plant, escape. I was overwhelmed. Getting A's does that. I'd failed and it seemed I'd never again feel safe it wouldn't happen again.

Like that first fight that went on for hours, Bruce and I tearing up the lawn and garden wailing on each other to a draw. Prior to that I'd jump kicked someone in the head and they'd gone down. I punched another in the jaw and they'd been taken away by ambulance. I'd defended friends and girlfriends with fists and feet and words till the day I met Bruce and knew a different type of fear. Usually I didn't win something because I didn't care. Often I 'let" others win. But that day I'd felt I was in a fight to the death and was thankful perhaps that Bruce didn't kill me. After all the punching and kicking we'd hung on each other unable to lift our arms to punch bare knuckled again, bruised and bleeding, we'd fallen to the ground gasping for breath. After that I never fought again without knowing I could lose.

Intellectually it was the same. I knew everyone depended on me. I knew so many looked up to me. I knew that I was admired and envied. There are always those who hate you for being or hate you because you are good but the group liked me. I knew that but I also feared that I'd 'choke'. It was a term we used in sports. The team depending on you at that moment and then at that moment, that very moment the gods of fate laugh and throw a wringer and yes, 'you choke'. The guilt and shame are intolerable. Your team mates don't look you in the eye. You're are failure. You've let them down. But mostly you've reminded them of their own vulnerability. The bully lords it over you then. There's always that loser who gloats then to see you fall. It's all there in the ancient greek writings, hubris. Pride goest before a fall.

"Thank you. I told her. I've read Zen and the Art of Archery by the French Philosopher. I guess this Persig is doing some sort of knock off on that original work. I loved Watt's writings on Zen. Have you read either of them."

"No," she said. Giving me a sad look. She was a pure soul. I think she was Jewish. Like St. Theresa the great mystic of Christianity. Her father was a gentle genius, one of the great researchers of our time. Her eyes were wells of infinite patience. I think she sighed sadly seeing in my response the years I'd need before I'd understand that moment. Today I'd beg forgiveness. Today I'd wish a thousand times over for the graciousness that would have said, "Thank you.(period)"

But I could be thick. As I get older those moments of supreme stupidity seem to leer at me out of the past. Those times when a friend or a stranger reached out to me to be simply human and I responded with inhumanity, unable to let go of the struggle, feeling threatened, misinterpreting, or just being disdainful. All that time when I had no idea of what was the 'right size' and had so little idea of who I was and kept getting bashed and battered by even stupider men who were even more afraid. It really was a rat race and later at the top of some Hamburger Hill of the soul one wondered why you had to lose a bit of self to get to the top of a landfill.

Looking back I see that I somehow needed those titles and the houses and the vehicles, the women, and the money and the accolades. Like Siddhartha on his way to being Buddha. There's no winning in the criticism of wealth if you really want it like Marx and the communists. But if you've had it and found that it all was 'meaningless' like Ecclesiastes. Like Siddhartha and St. Francis or even that whore monger St. Augustine you know you can't get to there from here and have to let go of the baggage to get to the top of Everest. The climber paradoxically drops his oxygen tank to reach the heights. And over and over again I am asked to give up that which I believe I need to know I am truly free, only in the bondage of the Lord.

The ego is a weird thing.

Persig wrote of quality and truth and presence. Years after that first encounter with Zen I picked up Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, humbled by the vicissitudes of normal living. I read it for the first time, regretting I'd not read it when it first came my way. Regretting so much more how I'd not appreciated that young woman's gesture of simple friendship. She was an Angel. I never lifted my eyes above her youthful sexy body and pretty head to see her halo but instead grunting and farting I'd knuckled dragged my way along my path too proud by half.

Zen is about humility and presence. It's Sermon on the Mount. It's about riding a Honda and not a Harley. It's about riding a Harley too. But mostly its' about seeing and listening. It's about time.

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