Monday, January 22nd, 2018
a cycle called yourself

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1968, Robert Pirsig went on a motorcycle trip with his son Chris that took them from Minnesota to California.  Six years later, Pirsig’s account of that trip, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM), was published, after being rejected more than a hundred times by other publishers.

The author’s note at the beginning of the book reads:  “What follows is based on actual experience.  Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact.  However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice.  It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”

It’s not even really a book about Zen — there are only fifteen uses of that word, nearly half of them in one paragraph — the subtitle, “An Inquiry Into Values,” better reflects its purpose.

Motorcycles and their maintenance figure much more predominantly in the book, although it’s certainly not a how-to manual.  (The gearhead buying ZMM will be just as disappointed as the wannabe Zen acolyte, although there are invaluable process tips.)  The machines and the repairing of them serve as effective analogies for Pirsig to use to set up ideas for his “Chautauquas,” which he intended to be “like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.”University of Iowa | Here’s a short summary of that “traveling culture.”

The book covers a lot of ground.  As evidence, it appears in the top twenty sellers (even after all these years) in such diverse Amazon categories as philosophy, mental health, and travelers and explorers.  In the previous five postings in this series, I have examined different elements of Pirsig’s terrain in the context of the world of investments.  This final essay gets more personal.

At one point, Pirsig wrote, “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”

That’s a life-long job, and a full-time one too.  Pirsig:  “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 avoidances, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh?  It all goes together.”

So, in addition to everything else, ZMM is a self-improvement book, albeit one wrapped in layers of exposition.  It takes work.  I guess self improvement always does.

The last of my six-plus decades has probably been the most challenging one for me.  Every phase of life has its unique aspects, and hopefully now I have passed through the “happiness trough,”Abnormal Returns | Tadas Viskanta did a recent piece on it. although losing friends and family at an increasing rate keeps bringing back thoughts of what was and what might have been.

A medical issuethe research puzzle | Here’s my 2016 account of being “ripped from normalcy.” derailed me for awhile and the challenges of operating as a sole proprietor with lots of ideas and aspirations (when combined with the sense that time is running out) have made me feel like I’ve fallen short even when the evidence might suggest otherwise.  Mental accounting is full of distortions, twisting the balance sheet of life in unreliable ways.  That’s unwelcome, since it’s tough enough that there are real liabilities, mistakes of omission and commission, that need to be offset.  Carrying them is exhausting.

Pirsig, too, was riding with a heavy load, including a former self (“Phædrus” in the book), his philosophical quest, and the string of events that overwhelmed his promise and potential.

It was not an easy trip back.  There is a loneliness to the narrative as Pirsig struggled to put the pieces together.  Part of it was coming to “an understanding as to what it is to be part of the world, and not an enemy of it.”  Fighting for your ideas and principles is important, but there are ways to do it and ways not to do it.

We see that in our everyday interactions.  Pirsig recognized that the dialectical method, meant to get at the truth, could easily end up somewhere else.  Phædrus had found himself “exploding with anger at each new discovery of the viciousness and meanness and lowness of this ‘art’ called dialectic.”  There are those who use the power of their argumentation to destroy others or to advance ideas solely for the sake of their benefit at the expense of others.  Instead, the goal should be to be “a real Truth-seeker and not a propagandist for a particular point of view.”

For each of us, there is an ongoing tension between reason and emotion.  The trail of our decisions, our personal histories, veers from side to side.  Collectively, we see that in organizations too.  And certainly overall market behavior provides evidence to that effect.  At each level, we attempt a straight path, but it’s not in our nature to be able to hew to it.

The patterns of life (and commerce) are cyclical, so the “cycle” in the title has more than one meaning.  We are sometimes riding high and sometimes find ourselves in the ditch.  Knowing that each is coming someday doesn’t seem to help us prepare very well for either the good or the bad or the inevitability of the cycle itself.

“Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” has been attributedQuote Investigator | Here is a look at its various attributions. to a number of people, including philosophers mentioned in ZMM.  No matter the source, it is as true today as it was in ancient times, but we often can’t get outside ourselves long enough to remember it day to day.  (A lasting benefit of my health problem was being exposed to others coping with much greater problems; I watch a Cleveland Clinic videoYouTube | It gets me every time. on empathy every now and again to remind me.)

There was a distance between Pirsig and his twelve-year-old son as they crossed the country together.  (A few photos taken during the trip give a sense of the times.VentureArete | This is my favorite.)  That’s not hard to imagine.  Chris was having problems of his own and his father was deep in thought; each was struggling to find his own way in the world.

The book ended on a hopeful note.  A few paragraphs earlier, Chris asked if he could get a motorcycle one day, wanted to know everything he’d have to do to take care of it, and sought his father’s help in advance.

Then he wondered, “Is it hard?”

Pirsig’s response:  “Not if you have the right attitudes.  It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.”

The cycle called yourself may be humming along or sputtering right now.  It’s all part of the ride.

The six-part series on ZMM began with “across the great divides.”the research puzzle | It has been “about connections that were revealed to the art and craft of investing — and the people who pursue it — as well as a little of that ‘life’ stuff too.”