Wisdom of Life

Robert M. Pirsig: On the Wisdom of Life and Values

Dad?”
“What?” A small bird rises from a tree in front of us.
“What should I be when I grow up?”
The bird disappears over a far ridge. I don’t know what to say.
“Honest,” I finally say.

 

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“One of the most moral acts is to create a space in which life can move forward. The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.

Like those in the valley behind us, most people stand in sight of the spiritual mountains all their lives and never enter them, being content to listen to others who have been there and thus avoid the hardships. Some travel into the mountains accompanied by experienced guides who know the best and least dangerous routes by which they arrive at their destination. Still others, inexperienced and untrusting, attempt to make their own routes. Few of these are successful, but occasionally some, by sheer will and luck and grace, do make it. Once there they become more aware than any of the others that there’s no single or fixed number of routes. There are as many routes as there are individual souls.

You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence. If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidance, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together … The real cycle you’re working in is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Qaulity or fall away from Qaulity together.

Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all.

There’s an old analogy to a cup of tea. If you want to drink new tea you have to get rid of the old tea that’s in your cup, otherwise your cup just overflows and you get a wet mess. Your head is like that cup. It has a limited capacity and if you want to learn something about the world you should keep your head empty in order to learn it. It’s very easy to spend your whole life swishing old tea around in your cup thinking it’s great stuff because you’ve never really tried anything new, because you could never get it in, because the old stuff prevented its entry, because you were so sure the old stuff was so good, because you never really tried anything new.

The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there. Zen is the “spirit of the valley,” not the mountaintop.

To the untrained eye ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical. Both kinds of climbers place one foot in front of the other. Both breathe in and out at the same rate. Both stop when tired. Both go forward when rested. But what a difference! The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He’s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he’s tired. He rests at odd times. He looks up the trail trying to see what’s ahead even when he knows what’s ahead because he just looked a second before. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions and when he talks his talk is forever about somewhere else, something else. He’s here but he’s not here. He rejects the here, he’s 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.

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. 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 which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.

But of course, without the top you can’t have any sides. It’s the top that defines the sides. So on we go—we have a long way—no hurry—just one step after the next—with a little Chautauqua for entertainment.”

Excerpts from Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

***

~Robert Maynard Pirsig was an American writer and philosopher. He was the author of the philosophical novels Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.

Excellence Reporter 2020

Categories: Wisdom of Life

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