Pirsig was Right. There is Zen in Motorcycle Maintenance

It’s not only about the ride. The ride is great. But after spending parts of several weeks bringing a thirty-year-old motorcycle back to life, I’ve discovered it’s also about the joy of working with your hands, the smells of the garage and the sound of a motor roaring to life after a long, long sleep. Tactile. Auditory. Visual. Visceral.

The 1977 BMW R100RS sat idle for at least ten years. I started it once or twice in that time, but rubber bushings had deteriorated, water had collected in the transmission, brake pads had become soiled, electrical connections corroded. It was a shell of the beauty it once was. Glamor on the outside and corrosion on the inside.

I methodically cleaned electrical contacts, changed fluids and replaced parts that were bad. It’s been a long, tedious process. Not boring, but life-giving. I call it methodical because method is necessary. Doing electrical or mechanical work piecemeal is likely to lead to ongoing frustration. I need the benefit of a methodology. It leads to a way to manage a problem whose result is apparent but whose cause is unknown.

Why won’t that switch work? Where exactly is the fault? How do I trace it down? Test the voltage from the battery to the first connection and measure it. Then test the next section until the voltage drop is isolated. Method.

When I’m working on the bike, my mind is freed from the concerns of the day and it probes deeply into the mechanics of the machine. It’s not only right there in front of me in metal, it’s in my thoughts and imagination. Sometimes it’s necessary to visualize how each part contributes to the whole. In fact, when troubleshooting it’s required. It’s about connection. Each part is connected to another and they interact. A weak part will shut you down on the side of the road. The machine is only as strong as its weakest part, to cut to a cliche.

Connection leads to coherence.  All the parts working together create movement. Coherence is the life of the machine. As the bike, I also need coherence. I live a life disrupted by events, sometimes it seems moment by moment, day by day. Coherence  escapes me in that setting. But in the garage with wrench in hand, coherence gives me focus and reassurance, and leads me forward.

It’s been liberating in another way. I’ve not worked with a wrench for many years; not gotten oil under my fingernails since I can’t remember when. I’m a general secretary, that’s a ceo, if you’re not familiar with church language. This role isn’t really compatible with mechanical work in the garage for many reasons.

I work with my mouth, not my hands. I put together organizational parts, not physical nuts and bolts. But working with nuts and bolts is a part of who I am and as I grew into new directions, I left that part out. I’m rediscovering just how important it is. It’s necessary for me in order to be a together coherent human being, well-rounded and functional. I need to get my hands dirty.

And finally, there is precision, even in the art of maintaining. It’s true that intuition helps you to imagine the cause of a problem, but solving it comes down to precision. I mean more than using the correct size wrench on a nut. That’s precise also. If you don’t use the correct wrench you’re likely to round off the head of the bolt, but there’s more here than that obvious point. It’s about testing, verifying, measuring and outcome.

Some bolts require specific torque. Points and plugs operate with a precise gap. Carburetors flood when the fuel level is too high. When these (and many other settings) are precise the machine runs optimally. It’s exciting when this happens. Uplifting. Soul satisfying.

In my line of work precision is sometimes hard to come by. Not always, but enough to make it difficult at the end of the day to know what has been accomplished. It’s not ineffectiveness nor muddleheadedness. It’s the difficulty of knowing if you’ve made progress in work that isn’t concrete and specific, that can’t be contained in a physical way and measured. Work whose product may not appear but with the passage of time. Sometimes you only know it’s working after it’s working, when an event has been successful, an individual life has been changed, a group has taken up a cause and acted.

As I wrench around the garage, I think about this. Robert Pirsig was right. There is zen in motorcycle maintenance

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