Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Thoughts from the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"

author:  Robert M. Pirsig

I read this book in about 1980 in university.  It was assigned reading in my first year English class at the Royal Military College of Canada.  I would say it was highly influential to me at the time and has never really left me.  Some quotes:

Chapter 1.

"I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?," a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and "best" was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for."

Chapter 14.

"This divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated. Rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture, so divorced from its roots by centuries of intellectual wrong turns that just to associate the two sounds ludicrous."

Chapter 17.

"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."
"The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment…He rejects the here, is unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then it will be "here." What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it is all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant."

Chapter 24.

"Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors. It’s this understanding of Quality as revealed by stuckness which so often makes self-taught mechanics so superior to institute-trained men who have learned how to handle everything except a new situation."

Chapter 25.

"The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That’s impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is ... not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both. When this transcendence occurs in such events as the first airplane flight across the ocean or the first footstep on the moon, a kind of public recognition of the transcendent nature of technology occurs. But this transcendence should also occur at the individual level, on a personal basis, in one’s own life, in a less dramatic way."

Some further thoughts.

I would only add here, that humans have engaged in technical thinking for a very long time.  They keep pushing back the date for the first boats.  I haven't looked at the latest data, but almost certain crossings to Japan, the island of Melos in the Mediterranean, and to Australia now seem to have occurred during the last Ice Age, if not before.  Highly refined pressure flaked lithics appear also during and well before the last Ice Age. The oldest known bone flute is 40,000 years old. And those are only surviving fragments of evidence of early technology, so these offer only a glimpse of the breadth and time depth of human technical capacity. 
From what I have learned of these cultures, in the Blackfoot, Ojibwe, Mi'kmaq and Salish traditional world view, innovation was tempered by a desire to live in concert with the animals, plants and birds on which they relied.  While they may not have always been successful in doing this, it certainly was a cultural value.  There, I think, may be the main difference between how we do technology today, and how it was done in the past, for thousands and thousands of years.

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