Tuesday, April 25, 2017

In Loving Memory of Robert M. Pirsig | My Plato

Today I say 'Goodbye' to a friend I never met--a mentor I never thanked. A 'Qualified' and beautiful mind who, in sharing his life story, also shared some very deep truths with the world.

Robert M. Pirsig positively changed my life.

Mr. Pirsig has influence many thousands of individuals since he published his semi-autobiographical work "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". As relevant a book today as it was in its first printing in 1974, it literally transcended the generation gap between me an my own father. We've had many great discussions based around Mr. Pirsig's observations of quality, form, and function. I remember seeing that book on my dad's end-table as a child, and thinking that it was literally the owners manual to his Honda Trail 90. I never actually encountered it myself until I was living on my own. After my most recent reading of it, a couple of years ago, it was interesting to share that memory with my dad, and have him announce that it has been too long since he read it. I promptly loaned it to him!

I have always been an avid reader, but up until the ages of 17 - 19, I read mostly fiction. The sort that I knew would interest me, because it always had. Not acknowledging the fact that I chose to read things that came from familiar sources, and that I was, in a way, depriving myself from reading anything that might make me think of the world differently. Isn't it funny? Not knowing what you don't know, and feeling that what you do know is all that matters... At some point, I started to realize the power of writing, and how ideas could be spread like contagion, if one was willing to be exposed to new ways of thinking. Eventually I started really seeking in my reading to learn something new, and gain different perspective. I was looking for answers to very big questions, and just beginning to understand the value of questioning. I was only really considering asking the hard questions in my mind, but I was ready to start that process. Something about challenging my own "givens", was really exciting, and the process of discovering and confronting these little loops in my logic became a sort of pursuit of its own. Just the same, I don't think it would have taken root had I not encountered Pirsig so early in that process. It happened so completely organically, I have to say that it speaks to the power of the book itself. My broad curiosity of philosophy lead me almost directly to that book. I found Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the tiny philosophy section of a Memphis bookstore, while I was looking for a copy of Sartre's "Existentialism & Human Emotion". I flashed back to seeing my dad's copy. I had dabbled in reading some Taoist philosophy, but still had very little understanding of 'zen', so I thought I would grab a copy for myself. The selection was so very small, and yet this book definitely made their list. It is indispensable to any philosophy canon, no matter how modest. That impulse purchase marked a step onto a path that has changed my life in so many ways, I can honestly say it is impossible to know who I would be today without considering that book's role. I suppose everything one does in life has that potential, but that book-- and its author-- definitely stand out in the course of my life. Literally just last week, I had to verify my identity with Mr. Pirsig's name!

Although I have read the book multiple times, the first reading was so powerful, it was like discovering alchemy. My young mind was as close to tabula rasa as it had ever been. The truths he addressed seemed as tangible and real as gravity itself, and I was astounded at his grasp of it. I was drawn in from the very start, and enjoyed every mile of the ride. It is very difficult for me to really put a finger on how I choose the books I read. Sometimes, I read books just to be able to check them off a list, and be able to say "I've read that". Some books, I feel accomplished with each page I finish. Sometimes a book will speak to me so loudly that I know I must read it, even when I have no idea why. This book was like that. I bought it on impulse, and yet I almost feel that it was put in my hands by the universe itself. I was both excited and intimidated by it. I wanted to read it on one sitting, but I also knew I couldn't ingest it that way. I think it actually cured me of the tendency to speed read. I used to breeze through 400-page books in a matter of hours. But Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not a book to be engaged with lightly. Though it is Beautiful and poignant, it's not a light read at all. I used to get away with reading very haphazardly. I could be distracted, realize that I had not been paying attention as I read the last page or so, and simply start paying attention without ever feeling that I had missed something. With Zen/tao/mm, I found myself reading very deliberately, and re-reading again to be certain I had not missed anything. It was immersive in that I couldn't allow myself to be distracted, or I would be lost completely. Each line was a line of reason, and to miss something was like jumbling a math formula. I learned to slow down, and I even developed an appreciation for reading at the same speed with which an orator might speak. This may have been my first real experience with mindfulness, and Zen. Slowing down to pay attention-- Relishing the journey, whether a bike trek or "an inquiry into values". And although I don't consider myself an authority on the work, I feel that the recognition and appreciation of quality seems to rest in prolonging the experience of it. If the book had not been one of quality, I would have disengaged from it. But it held my attention, I believe, because of its commensurate (upper-case) Quality.

The impulse to devour the book was balanced by my desire to contend with it. I found myself experiencing a certain sense of elation, as I picked up on the concepts he was addressing. This elation was, in a very real and profound sense, liberation. The type of liberation that Plato spoke of in his Allegory of the Cave. He granted me nothing short of permission to evolve myself as a human being, and own the fact that I am capable of higher reasoning than simply problem-solving my way through life. I was a very self-conscious, introverted, and indoctrinated individual. All these aspects of my upbringing factored into my efforts to re-define myself. I was looking for substance that resonated with truth. I had spent so much effort trying to extract nuggets of truth out of a belief system which had resonated as patently false since my earliest memories. I was in the process of challenging that belief structure, but I really didn't know where to start. Zen gave me a firm foothold in following my own intuition, and not compromising my own senses by blind obedience and deference to authority on the big questions. I remember thinking--repeatedly--"What a brave thing to say....", because I was very afraid of the consequences of thinking for oneself. And yet I was often as incredulous. Ready to argue. In fact I still remember putting the book down because my own thoughts were so rapid and distracting that I had to take time to sort them out-- bounce them off someone else. I identified with his experiences, both as a technician and a 'romantic', and ultimately I guess that bothered me somehow. How could he presume to have anything to teach, when his own process was so riddled with doubt and uncertainty? Did he not admit to being a blue-collar philosopher? At the time it struck me as a paradox of its own... But he had done his due diligence. He had done his homework. And I admired his effort to answer the unanswerable question, if only for himself. And he wasn't forcing his ideology. In fact, if anything I felt that he was talking around it, because he was so delicate in his approach, and thorough in his logic. I was hungry to sink my teeth into the nitty-gritty, the meat and bones of the subject: "what is quality?" I wanted to know! Before, I didn't even know I wanted to know, but now I was obsessed.

His thesis was balanced out with a meditation on the beauty of nature. At times I felt like he was intentionally stringing me along, ending his chapters on a cliff-hanger. He would start to approach the topic directly--occam's razor drawn-- and then, instead of cutting in, he would cut away... A scenic view would absorb his attention, and suddenly describing the expansive landscape became as important as the truth he was questing after, as if it were that truth itself. But it felt like a commercial break. When he returned to his thesis, he was back to treating it in broad strokes, and I wondered if he really knew what he was talking about? Or whether he was going to have a sly cop-out, like the host of Unexplained Mysteries--introducing the topic with a voice authoritative and engaging, but ultimately with little substance to offer the discussion. Sometimes it seemed like it would be impossible for him to 'qualify' his statements, I could almost envision the closing line of the book: '...can we ever know the nature of Quality? Or, like the Bigfoot and the Chupacabra, will it continue to evade the scrutiny of the scientific mind, as it has for ages?'. It was like reading a thriller novel, because it welled up this anxiety in me--"can the question be answered?" my own adolescent insecurity, meshed with my inherent stubbornness, and determination to prove my intelligence were all coming to the surface as I watched Mr. Pirsig put it all on the table. The stakes were so high I marveled that he was so cool and collected. That's what was so engrossing about it. I had so much respect for someone who could be frank about his own struggles and doubts, and yet so confident of himself to take on such a tremendous question as the nature of quality. He went about it by asking a question, thinking aloud, and then questioning his thought process to determine if he was being reasonable, or delusional. Witnessing that process was such a powerful experience. I had a strong background in arguing a point from within a given set of prescribed credenda, without considering any other position-- always from trying to argue for the truth of a belief that was predetermined to be true. A sort of feigned reasoning, which prohibited scrutiny, and instead demanded that the mind align to the concept. I was pretty good at doubting my doubt, and affirming something hard to believe. But I was altogether novice as scrutinizing, criticizing or challenging. I had always been taught that I had the truth, and that it was merely a process of accepting it, and incorporating it. But here was an authentic process of seeking truth. Here was someone sloughing off the desire to align his beliefs with those of a certain community (academia), or the world at large, or even his close friends. I was recognizing my own thought patterns. In ways completely separate from the topic, I was expanding my own mind. I was starting to see myself in that process.
 It was kind of perplexing for me to have to wonder to what extent he was aware that his writing could have this effect. Like a hypnotist, he was guiding the stream of thoughts entering my mind. Every so often, his words would seem irrefutably to confirm that he knew my thoughts. Like Poe's Detective Dupin, he was remotely observing my thoughts, and intimately relaying them to me. It was fascinating and off-putting at the same time. And what is more, he never assumed authority. He beckoned me to listen, but he didn't prescribe dogma. He invited me to think for myself, to discover my own truth. Ultimately, in inviting me along on his 'Chatauqua', he managed to acquaint me with the intention required to approach the unquantifiable-- a certain sense of humility, and caution. But also a certainty that I was capable of arriving at the Truth. It was as if he were asking the question as a mental exercise, and that in following along, it was as if he was intentionally exercising my mind as well. That he was asking questions that would demand that I turn introspective, and challenge my own assumptions. It was as if he was in my mind more than I had been, tapping the dilapidated rafters along a mineshaft and asking "think this could withstand an earthquake?" And each tap rumbled and reverberated, as if it might start that earthquake! I realized I had been relying on faith-- simply hoping my supports were sufficient, and that I would know when I struck the truth, because it would be self-evident, self-justifying, and entirely worth the risk. I was learning to appreciate the slow and deliberate means of getting to the gold. I had to be meticulous in setting my support beams if I wanted to survive the process of mining deeper understanding.

Aside from being absorbed by the philosophy of Zen and (TAO) Motorcycle Maintenance, I was inspired by his writing itself. Perhaps not fully auto-biographical, his writing dealt directly with his personal struggle with a mental illness. Phaedrus, the ghost in the story, seemed to haunt his future as much as his past. It left me wondering about my own mental health. Since I identified so much with his feelings of being an outsider, of being in some ways too committed to the truth for my own good, I wondered to what extent I could trust that I was not, or might not become, certifiably insane. In the process of that first reading, I started to wonder if I should look to him like a coach, because it seemed that he had some great insights to offer in the ways of coping with mental illness. Looking back, I understand that it was just a lot of insecurity that made me anxious that I was losing my mind. That is to say, "losing my mind" was a fear I had, because of the repercussions associated. Homelessness, ostracization from society, family, friends... Nowadays I am not so much concerned with being homeless, being an outsider, having a small group of close friends, because I have a better sense of self, in any case. Homelessness is not actually such a bad thing if one can choose it... But it was a pretty scary thought to me back then, and I thought it was incredibly brave for him to be so forthright about his own struggle, risking rejection by sharing his truth. I feel like witnessing that actually served to calm my anxiety a lot, and that ability to relax my mind may very well have saved me from having a mental breakdown. The fact that I can be so frank about it now is interesting to me, because I find myself wanting to explain this aspect all the more, and my only worry that I have is that someone will be offended because they think I am treating it *too* lightly. The fact is, I have had several life-changing mental breakdowns. Perhaps not schizophrenic, or dissociative, but none-the-less world-shattering.  And while I am tremendously grateful that I have never been clinically diagnosed, let alone treated, I don't doubt at all that I could have had a very similar experience to his in similar circumstances. Maybe the extremity of his experience is lost on me (I don't know the intimate details, or extent of his treatments, only what is relayed in his story, and short "about the author" bio...) But the term 'coincidence' can't convey how directly I attribute Mr. Pirsig's story with my own sense of self, and trusting my own mind. I felt that his story was not an admission of weakness so much as a demonstration of strength, and seeing that allowed me to be more confident in my own ability to overcome my dark nights of the soul, when I wasn't sure I could handle another day in my own skin. Not to dwell on this too much, but this goes well beyond teenage angst, and even 'haunts' me today in many ways, but I can always see light at the end of the tunnel. Knowing that one could overcome such trials dealing directly with one's sense of reality, and reasoning, and then go on to become a powerful teacher in that same field--reason--, allowed me to trust myself more. I was 19 when I first read "Zen...", and I took for granted how very little I actually knew of the world. I feel fortunate to have latched onto such a great mind. Pirsig holds a special place for me, to the extent that I regard him as my own personal Plato.  believe that Plato was describing a man such as Robert Pirsig as the one who ventured into the light of day, and returned endeavoring to teach the rest of us.He asked all the right questions to help me discover the answers I sought. He shared with me his descent into the darkness, his adventure into the light, and he did his very best to relate that in a way I could understand. I The truth is, that we all sell ourselves short. We are all capable of much more, and often we simply need the insight and guidance of someone who has had to prove themselves to themselves as well. This process is an intricate part of being human, and as we find ourselves in different stages of our journey, we discover that we have been the willfully blind, the trusting pupil, the bold rebel, and even the concerned teacher... We are all in a struggle of escaping the cave of our own minds. The human experience *is* that journey. I will always be grateful to Robert M. Pirsig for demonstrating the beauty in that process.
Rest in Peace.