The late Robert Persig (4-24-17): Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died yesterday (April 24, 2017). This book has had a continuing effect on me since my first reading during college. If I were asked to state in the briefest possible way why this book is so influential, my inarticulate attempt might be to say Persig compels us to examine, and more-fully contemplate, our lives rather than merely being swept along in a kind of half-asleep, herd-like, obsequious manner. And, that we possess an innate ability to sustain this level of self-reliance.

Immediately below, I am reposting my earlier 2013 blog post about Robert Persig and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a gesture of my continuing appreciation for him and his book.

My earlier 2013 blog post:

This is not a legal or tax post, in the event you wish to stop reading at this point. Rather, it includes a couple of key thoughts in response to my recent second reading of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig. I first read this book during college.

For reasons I do not address more fully here due to my desire to keep this post short(er), this is one of those powerful books that affects readers permanently.

Among the many threads of thought in this book, two are the subject of this blog post: Quality. And Death.

As a trust tax lawyer, I deal constantly with both quality and death. Quality in terms of seeking to find the differences that make a difference for a successful, efficient, effective outcome for clients.

Death in terms of a great deal of planning for clients in anticipation of death and in handling numerous after-death issues and problems, both tax and non-tax. I have had a number of very likable clients die over the years. With strong nostalgia, I feel sometimes as though I am an undertaker.

As to quality, one of the aspects I enjoy most about lawyering is that many problems crossing my desk do not trigger immediate, easy, solutions or answers.

Rather, in most cases the idea, kernel, or thread of a solution or answer ends up surfacing in due course, unscheduled during day or night. It is the subconscious working of the mind that most often is the courier delivering these ideas to the forefront of consciousness.

Persig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, discusses in a very convincing way the subject of “Quality” and “stuckness”, including his reference to this subconscious aspect of the mind, as follows:

  • “But now consider the fact that no matter how hard you try to hang on to it, this stuckness is bound to disappear. Your mind will naturally and freely move toward a solution. Unless you are a real master at staying stuck you can’t prevent this. The fear of stuckness is needless because the longer you stay stuck the more you see the Quality-reality that gets you unstuck every time. What’s really getting you stuck is the running from the stuckness through the cars of your train of knowledge looking for a solution that is out in front of the train.  .    .    .
  • 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.”

Back to my own comments. What I like about Persig’s notion of stuckness is that our accepting and relaxing into these stuck moments results in the most effective and successful way to get unstuck. This is in contrast to fuming, fretting, and remaining doggedly impatient or upset that you do not yet possess an immediate solution or answer.

Back to my reference to death. Persig’s son Chris, who at age 11 rode with Persig on the motorcycle trip described in the book, was stabbed to death 10 years later in San Francisco during a street mugging.

In the book’s “Afterward” that he added in 1984, Persig describes his persistent stuckness about his son Chris’s tragic death. This stuckness appeared to have no possibility of resolution:

  • “I [Persig] tend to become taken with philosophical questions, going over them and over them and over them again in loops that go round and round and round until they either produce an answer or become so repetitively locked in they become psychiatrically dangerous, and now the question became obsessive: ‘Where did he go?’ “

In an extraordinary, moving, and comforting passage within this Afterward, Persig gives a response to the “Where did he go” question. Persig’s response similarly is what I hope can ultimately be in line with my own reaction if one of my family members were to die.

Also, for me to include here the content and substance of Persig’s response to this question would fill up a much longer portion of this blog post. You can read the Afterward for yourself and draw your own conclusion about Persig’s response [Google: Afterward Zen]. And my own praise for Persig’s response to this death question is not to suggest other readers agree or disagree with the response.

Rather, in my view, and because universally we each ponder death from time to time, I personally believe Persig’s commentary – at least for me — is one of the more satisfying responses to this hard, difficult question.