Robert M. Pirsig, American philosopher and author of cult novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died in 2017 at age 88 at his home in South Berwick, Maine, after a period of illness, William Morrow announced that April. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and its follow-up, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, Pirsig developed a theory of reality which he called the Metaphysics of Quality—not quite Zen, but highly inflected with Eastern thought nonetheless. In honor of his life and contributions both artistic and intellectual, soothe and/or challenge your mind today with a selection of wisdom from his books.
On seeing the world:
You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster.
Anxiety, the next gumption trap, is sort of the opposite of ego. You’re so sure you’ll do everything wrong you’re afraid to do anything at all. Often this, rather than “laziness,” is the real reason you find it hard to get started. This gumption trap of anxiety, which results from overmotivation, can lead to all kinds of errors of excessive fussiness… The best way to break this cycle, I think, is to work out your anxieties on paper. Read every book and magazine you can on the subject. Your anxiety makes this easy and the more you read the more you calm down. You should remember that it’s peace of mind you’re after and not just a fixed machine.
We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.
The solutions all are simple—after you have arrived at them. But they’re simple only when you know already what they are.
On how to fix the world:
The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle.
On fanatic dedication:
You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.
The world comes to us in an endless stream of puzzle pieces that we would like to think all fit together somehow, but that in fact never do.
On awareness of the present moment:
You can’t be aware that you’ve seen a tree until after you’ve seen the tree, and between the instant of the vision and the instant of awareness, there must be a time lag. We sometimes think of that time lag as unimportant, but there’s no justification for thinking that the time lag is unimportant—none whatsoever. The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality. The tree that you are aware of intellectually, because of the small time lag, is always in the past and therefore is always unreal. Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal.
On Sanity, and/or Truth:
Sanity is not truth. Sanity is conformity to what is socially expected. Truth is sometimes in conformity, sometimes not.
On enjoying the journey:
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 are no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an 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 that sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.
I think metaphysics is good if it improves everyday life; otherwise forget it.