Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 24, 2009

Zen, Motorcycle Maintenance & the Art of Recovery

Part 1 of a 7-Part Series on Spirituality, Self-Image and World Religions

A shelf in our hall closet decided to fall down yesterday — for no reason in particular. No new weight or shifted materials. It was just the metal shelf bracket’s time to die.

Meanwhile, our fifteen-year-old freezer had a drainage hose clogged last month, and ice kept stacking up on the floor of the freezer. (I fixed it myself, with much grunting and swearing, by putting much frozen food out on the 23-degree porch outside, thawing and washing the fridge/freezer, and canceling some other plans for a fun activity as a family.) Oh, here’s a bad one: our four-year-old digital video camera –a fairly expensive one that does not even get used much– has nevertheless been “in the shop” twice since we bought it, and now needs to go back again. It’s a lemon, even though the name on it says Canon. In Wisconsin at the cottage, I put in a new sump pump when the old one stopped working back in the fall. And at work this month, I’ve found that the one copier all faculty must use is famously temperamental, and can put me in a real bind if it decides to have a bad day.

We’ve all heard it before. Life is 95% maintenance, and only 5% production… or something like that. But it still bears repeating, because we tend to forget such basic wisdom. Things get messed up. “The best-laid plans, etc etc”…. “Everything Is Broken“, sang Bob Dylan in 1989. He is one of the great Wise Men, the true shamans, of our times.

[ BTW, in case you are wondering: no, I do not have a motorcycle, neither functional nor broken. Nor have I read more than the first chapter or so of that famous 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though I did not have a big philosophical problem with what I read. Robert Pirsig’s catchy title, and motorcycles breaking down, and the role of religion and philosophy in body and spirit “maintenance”, are the main reasons I chose the above title. It was just meant to catch your eye. (Is that so wrong?) ]

So… Maintenance. It’s a pain in the ass. Yet we humans, mostly because we want to just relax and enjoy the fruits of our civilization, trend toward consistent and toxic denial of  this reality: the fundamental reality being that life is hard. And that things fall apart. And that we make mistakes. And that we all die in the end.

And that sin is real, to put a Christian theological spin on it.

Victory over sin, over chaos, is possible. Yes. Life is also beautiful. Yes. God is there. Absolutely. But specific victories are not always certain, and they are almost never permanent, requiring no maintenance whatsover by God or Man. No. Instead, victory, joy, and the “peace that surpasseth understanding” (Phil 4:7) requires relaxed but vigilant attention, by God first and always, but also by us as we act in, or live in, God’s grace.

If we’re over the age of reason  (which is seven, according to ancient Roman Catholic conceptions of human development), then to say that life is hard is probably to state the obvious. We know from an early age to expect that the system will break down, somewhere. We have seen it happen: at school when someone does not take turns but is not called on their misbehavior, at playtime when the $.39 plastic Chinese-made toy suddenly breaks under normal use, or at home when we destroy something or disobey our parents, despite full awareness of the rule that we chose to break. We can’t help ourselves sometimes. “The devil made me do it”, people sometimes used to say, half-jokingly.

So we cannot depend completely on any human system, nor can we depend on ourselves or our fellow travelers completely. Mistakes will be made. Accidents happen. Into each life a little rain must fall. (Ah shaddup, you cliche-monger…) This dawning realization can lead to anxiety, insecurity, maybe even a mild existential dread.

I’m seeing that anxiety dawning for the first time lately in my son, who’s six and a half. Like him, most humans intuitively come to know early on that the seeds of death (and birth) are present in each life, in each day, if one has the guts to notice them. A mild smell of decay or mold can remind you. A spiderweb in the corner of the room (the “hunter” in our midst). Stubbing your toe when rushing out the door too fast, i.e. not being present to yourself in the present moment, but instead running either toward or away from death in some vague, unconscious way.

This self-awareness, and our consciousness of mortality, are the main phenomena that separate us from the animal kingdom. (That and language. And Twinkies.)

Yet that awareness of our mortality, of the brokenness and limitations woven into each life, is also the reason for friendship, ministry, family and even compassionate selflessness itself. We bear it all, together. We can give, and live, unconditionally. Mortality and community are also reasons for a greater appreciation of each moment. We stop taking others, ourselves, God, and life itself for granted. We stop needing reality to be something it is not.

With what Zen Buddhists and 12-Step programs call practice (Christians call it discipline, and above I’m calling it “maintenance”), we can stay mindful that, by God’s grace alone, peace and fellowship and joy and fullness of life actually do attain the upper hand quite often, despite all that brokenness we discussed above. That mindfulness and gratitude — the increasing appreciation for the Gift of Creation — is actually one of the main points of connection Christianity has with Buddhism and Islamic Sufism, as alternate views of life. (I’m tempted to call them competing views… but that’s a whole other road to go down. Another day, perhaps.)

I’m going through some serious stuff these days, as you might guess from the above references. Battling some addictive parts of my own malformed brain, or soul, or wherever one wants to peg the source of addictions. Mostly I’m doing okay, but I’ll be taking the next few days up here on the blog to continue sorting it out, maybe looking for help from my readers. For fellowship happens on the internet these days, too, doesn’t it?  We work the mine together, finding new ways to engage with this sticky problem of maintenance, growth, and recovery of a peaceful, secure self-image and a healthier relationship with others.

So put that motorcylce helmet on, and hop up behind me. It’s gonna be a winding, pothole-filled road for a few days.



  1. That hit the spot.
    You didn’t just finish reading Robbins’ “Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates” did you? Coincidence.

    “Switters supposed he couldn’t blame them: nobody had a greater disdain for maintenance than he.”
    “The nomadic life had its drawbacks, but Switters would be the first to cheerfully admit that it cut way down on maintenance. When he considered that he had not one blade of lawn to tonsure nor brick of patio to patch; when he considered that no overly friendly stranger had ever tried to sell him storm windows, aluminum siding, or a Watchtower magazine, he’d avoided (thereby sparing his poor brain from being quibbled right down the to the stem), he had little choice but to rejoice.”
    “Despite his shortcomings in the areas of maintenance and religion, they seemed generally unresentful of his presence among them. At least he didn’t exacerbate their ingrained fear of maleness. Was is not such a fear that had led them to marry the mild and distant Christ, the one male figure who would threaten them with brutish strength or callous sexuality?”
    “The Moslems and the Christians are each insisting that their way to God is the only way, so if only one side is right, then those on the other side…”
    “Suppose the neutral angels were able to talk Yahweh and Lucifer— God and Satan, to use their popular titles — into settling out of court.”
    “Think about it. Would Satan get New Orleans, Bangkok, and the French Riviera and God get Salt Lake City?”
    “Would Satan get Harley Motorcycles; god, Honda golf carts?”

  2. No, I have not read _Fierce Invalids_, but I do like Tom Robbins alot. He’s one of the few to approach matters of culture clash and religion with a sense of humor, and of magic (the supernatural, the mythic), and yet a basic and honest seriousness or acceptance about what a mess we’ve made of ourselves and the planet.

    I laughed at the “settling out of court” excerpt above.

    And while I think there’s a “not” missing from the sentence about a mild Christ, my work on male spirituality recently (led by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr) discusses some of the same historic perceptions and misperceptions. While I think the historic Jesus/Y’Shua had “balls” aplenty, churches in subsequent eras tend to neuter him somewhat.

    Thanks for the book recommendation.

  3. Hey thanks for your blog! I really like it. I’ve thought about a lot of these issues over the years. Maybe you’d like to read my book, the 12-Step Buddhist, which just came out. I’d love to hear your thoughts on is, as we’ve been down a similar path.


  4. Thank you, Darren. I did go to your website by clicking your name above, and suggest my readers do the same. Lots of good material. I especially liked the theory on your blog page about many addicts being “super-feelers”, who perceive deeply (though not always consciously), then use their addictions to numb out and cope with how much the beauty, ugliness, decisions and implications of everyday life stir them up emotionally. I may pick up the book, and we ought to keep talking.

    However, I must also admit that I presently hold back from full participation in both 12-Step spirituality and Buddhist practice. Whether I’m too “stuck” in a Christ-centered or more traditional view, or just deeply committed to it, I’m not always sure. But the most I can hope for at this point is to build useful bridges to 12-Step programs and to Buddhism from where I’m at (which is philosophically Christian). I can’t in good conscience *live* in those other places, because it would be a move away from some “center” I have identified within me (like a refusal of a God-given gift). My God is territorial, in other words. Or maybe I’m just scared of the work it takes to _intellectually_ integrate these various approaches, which nevertheless to my _heart_ each seem sound in significant ways.

  5. […] a number of previous blogs already getting into the nitty-gritty of this stuff, beginning with this post on Zen. But as I said above, I have focused more on how Jesus’ ideas and contemplative life tie into […]

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