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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values is a 1974 philosophical novel, the first of Robert M. Pirsig’s texts in which he explores his “Metaphysics of Quality”.

The book sold 5 million copies worldwide.   It was originally rejected by 121 publishers, more than any other bestselling book, according to the Guinness Book of Records.

The book describes a 17 day journey, by motorcycle, from Minnesota to California; by a father, son & married couple.

In the book, Pirsig explores the meaning and concept of quality.  Pirsig’s thesis is that to truly experience quality one must both embrace and apply it as best fits the requirements of the situation. According to Pirsig, such an approach would avoid a great deal of frustration and dissatisfaction common to modern life.

In the book, the Narrator describes the “Romantic” approach to life of his friend John Sutherland, who chooses not to learn how to maintain his expensive new motorcycle. John simply hopes for the best with his bike, and when problems do occur he often becomes frustrated, and is forced to rely on professional mechanics to repair it.

In contrast, the “classical” Narrator has an older motorcycle which he is usually able to diagnose and repair himself through the use of rational problem solving skills.

The book details two types of personalities: those who are interested mostly in romantic viewpoints, focused on being “In the moment”, and not on rational analysis, and those who seek to know the details, understand the inner workings, and master the mechanics.*

I feel the lessons learned in Pirsig’s novel can be applied to our approach towards overall health.  The comparison’s are quite obvious.  When we are young we tend to approach life without much regard for tomorrow.  We cannot imagine putting effort into preventing an issue that does not exist.  So when a health issue does occur we seek an immediate solution, one that does not interrupt the status quo.  We rely on professional’s to fix us up and get back on the same road that we just came off.

With experience comes wisdom.  After numerous trips to the mechanic, we begin to explore a preventative approach.  We slow down and take time to understand the mechanics of the system that provides us with life.  With that understanding we can begin to control the outcomes and adjust the input to achieve maximum output.

John could avoid a lot of frustration if he spent a little more time understanding his brand new motorcycle and the narrator would enjoy the trip more if he took time to smell the roses.

We need to understand our bodies are extremely complex and maintaining them is essential.  However, we also need to enjoy the day-to-day pleasures of being alive.  In the long run it does not pay to be a romantic regarding your nutrition.  Living in the moment is a dangerous way to live when applied to food.  However, obsessing on your daily caloric intake is no way to live either.  A life well lived is somewhere in the middle.  Find a balance that fulfills both sides.

It is difficult to enjoy being alive if you are sick; and if you have nothing to live for than what is the point of taking care of yourself?

A little prevention will make the trip a lot more fun.

 Pirsig aims towards a perception of the world that embraces both sides, the rational and the romantic. This means encompassing “irrational” sources of wisdom and understanding as well as science, reason and technology. In particular, this must include bursts of creativity and intuition that seemingly come from nowhere and are not rationally explicable. Pirsig seeks to demonstrate that rationality and Zen-like “being in the moment” can harmoniously coexist. He suggests such a combination of rationality and romanticism can potentially bring a higher quality of life.


*Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance