Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: Chapter 2: Impression

Well, subtly, chapter 2 takes a different “turn.” Whereas chapter 1 struck me as an open-ended set up and examination of the relationship between the Narrator and the Sutherlands and all that it entailed in terms of contrasting life views, chapter 2 shows a different side of the Narrator. Now we watch as he falters and his iron, fix-it-all, biker superhero facade begins to slowly tumble. Melts away like one of those witches in Wizard of Oz. He reveals past weakness and even present ones as we witness the ease with which he is distracted by thoughts and the passing highway. In fact, the countryside and the repetition he celebrated earlier appears to be that which distracts him and weakens his hold on reality in this chapter. It’s a bit rattling actually. Apparently he is in the “mood” which helps weather the most monotonous of roads.

I argued that physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong. Then you fasten on to whatever thing is uncomfortable and call that the cause. But if the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn’t mean much.

And part of this mood is the remembering. Lots of it.

Most notably his recollections about the Storm Story in which he almost drowned himself and Chris in a fit of noobiness a few years previous…a story which so steals his present state of concentration that he drives right past the exit he was scheduled to turn off. This forces John to speed up and flag him down in order to point out that he better stop or they’ll end up at the North Pole. Whereas the first chapter saw the Narrator take control of the mechanical situation, chapter 2 sees him stumble in a fit of non-focusing (which is what the driving and thinking is). When he focuses on a specific problem that needs to be repaired, all is well. When the focus is on thoughts and personal history, the thought pattern is diffuse, and there is no focus.

This motorcycle trip symbolizes an inner trip, a self examination, or as the book’s title calls it, an inquiry. Leaving Minnesota for the flat plains of the Dakotas is a natural evolution toward a higher plane of concentration. More symbolism. The straight linear highways of the Dakotas are not an accident, this is a tool contrived by the author which allow the next stage of this personal Chautauqua to commence. It’s as if the narrator is addicted to the state of absolute concentration. A state of existence which alienates him from his environment. And a couple of tales from his spiritual evolution
help him show us a road map to his present state of being. And he seeks to draw others in, including Sylvia who he tries to dissuade from making the trip by airplane. For the road offers so much!

I hope later she will see and feel a thing about these prairies I have given up talking to others about; a thing that exists here because everything else does not and can be noticed because other things are absent. She seems so depressed sometimes by the monotony and boredom of her city life, I thought maybe in this endless grass and wind she would see a thing that sometimes comes when monotony and boredom are accepted. It’s here, but I have no names for it.

Discovery through absence and loss of distraction of the conscious ego.

The first was the rainy road trip with his son. He has absolutely no awareness of how to read the weather back then. He had no awareness of how to diagnose his bike’s problem either. Awareness. That is key. Knowledge is fine, but awareness is the fuel that puts the knowledge to work. Fortunately he has advanced in the time since these stories, he now has a rounded and global perspective. He is trained, self-trained. Elevated. The juxtaposition has been made clear in the first 2 chapters. The 1st chapter introduced his mastery of motorcycle maintenance; the 2nd chapter introduces his mastery of the weather. Essentially, his mastery of the road trip. Of life’s journey. Which is he will now express as his Chautauqua. When overlaid against his past, a revealing glimpse into his helpless past. And now, wallowing in that history, he turns helpless again. Fails to warn of the storms and fails to turn off the correct exit.

In fact, the entire chapter is virtually a mind exercise. There is a lot of riding but even more thinking. He is lulled into a blinding detachment by virtue of the road.

Only twice is he roused back to reality in this chapter. First, as he contemplates the impending weather, the approaching storms. But lulled away by memories of storms and inclement weather. Then jarred back to reality by the missed exit, only to be lulled into a trance yet again, this time with remembrances motorcycle mechanics.

I found the second trance very revealing. It concerns a disastrous garage experience with his failing motorcycle. His condemnation of the inability of people to take things seriously, of their ability to be mindful and fully immersed in one activity without the distractions of the clock or the promise of as-yet non-existent worlds, those which are ushered in when the clock strikes 6 p.m.. And he pins it all on a younger generation…the garage is staffed by young kids listening to loud music. He is struck by one common trait they all share:

…their expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easy-going—and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered there themselves and somebody handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job.

After a description like that, you know a disaster is in the making.

Once again, the generational schism comes into play in the narrator’s world view. In chapter 1, it was the previous generations and their slower-paced and narrow but deep path; contrasted with the current generation which is broad but shallow. Humans inevitably evolve toward shallowness and it is technology that he faults, is it not? The death of the Chautauqua? In the Chautauqua, there is only the music or the speech or whatever other entertainment is on display and that is all there is. Nothing else to worry about or become distracted by. Hence, previous generations were more skilled in the art of mindfulness. Now you walk into a garage and kids are listening to music, thinking about life after the clock rings, chewing gum…directed thought is nowhere to be seen or experienced. And the workmanship shows this. Scattered, clumsy, rushed. He faults people and their lack of single-mindedness. At fault is modern society’s ill-founded and unnatural desire to entertain all senses at once with sensory garbage. These garage workers, the manual authors whose work he edits…they all share an affliction:

But what struck me for the first time was the agreement of these manuals with the spectator attitude I had seen in the shop. These were spectator manuals. It was built into the format of them. Implicit in every line is the idea that “here is the machine, isolated in time and in space from everything else in the universe. It has no relationship to you, you have no relationship to it.

Chapter 2 is a turning point for it marries the two concepts in the title: Zen and motorcycle maintenance. And we finally see that these two seemingly disparate concepts have much in common, at least for the purposes of this Chautauqua. The Narrator even lays out the blueprint for this Chautauqua, which is Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. After rehashing the two illustrations, the Narrator attempts to explain his purported aim, the “inquiry” so to speak, by referring to the incident in which he discovered the problem plaguing his bike after the mechanical group of flunkies in the garage could not, a problem he discovered while simply fiddling with the engine parts. A state of detachment, not looking for causes; a state of existing with the motorcycle’s inner mechanicals:

On this trip I think we should notice it, explore it a little, to see if in that strange separation of what man is from that man does we may have some clues as to what the hell has gone wrong in this twentieth century. I don’t want to hurry it. That itself is a poisonous twentieth-century attitude. When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things. I just want to get at it slowly, but carefully and thoroughly, with the same attitude I remember was present just before I found the sheared pin. It was that attitude that found it, nothing else.