Traveling by car is like watching life on a screen, writes Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, his now classic account of a motorcycle journey with his 11-year-old son that is really an inquiry into values.“You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone.”
The secret of motorcycle maintenance—and of living a life that has value—has to do with drawing our attention to the quality of what confronts us here and now. No matter what we are thinking about or doing, according to Pirsig, we can cultivate a double awareness—attentive to our thoughts and the work we are doing, yet sensitive to the quality of what is happening, to what is unknown.
Somethims life delivers great shocks that give us a taste of what it means to be open to quality, or a new quality. Right after the attacks on September 11, there seemed to be a new quality of presence all over Manhattan. One local journalist noted a general “suspension of distraction.” New Yorkers on the subways and streets were making eye contact, acknowledging that we lived in a shared world, surrounded by mystery. It was as if the shock of what happened had jarred most of us loose from our self-enclosed thoughts and certainties. There was widespread acknowledgment that we didn’t know anything about the way the world worked. But we knew that life had value.
“The only thing we know is that we know nothing and that is the highest flight of human wisdom,” writes Tolstoy. Briefly, New Yorkers were wise. But this soon passed. Then we got to see what it means to be closed, to contract in fear.
On Christmas Eve in Grand Central Station, I’d seen heavily armed National Guard troops and police officers surround a deranged old homeless woman who had pushed her shopping cart into the terminal to take shelter from a freezing winter rain. She’d stood clutching a broken doll, looking bewildered as the officers poked through the possessions that were spread out on the ground around her. I noticed one young officer in particular. His stance was stern but he had a pitying, questioning look in his eyes, as if he were watching himself and was incredulous that all that training and readiness to face danger had come down to this. Life can be like this, I thought as I watched him. It can carry us along passively, even when we have the best intentions.
The real truth of who we are is situational. It appears in the midst of real-life situations. It cannot be taken out of context. Everything has a different quality up close, as Pirsig writes. Events have hidden reserves, surprises, meanings–quality–up close.
We (or at least I) want to be aware and present and we don’t want it. We (I) long to be more open, to be liberated from our separation from others, from life. Yet another force in us pulls against it, insisting on our views and opinions, as if we (ok, I) can only bear so much reality.
This tendency to split , to close the borders, defend ourselves against invaders, goes deep. Thomas Merton compared the way our ego-centric consciousness splits off from the selfless awareness of Being with original sin. If this is the case, even single-cell organisms–even our own cells–are sinners, because they can discern the difference between self and other, reflexively defending itself against invaders.
Yet it is always also possible to go beyond the mechanical, beyond what has come before. These days, scientific studies are revealing that even genetically identical E.coli bacteria express individuality, behaving in different ways in identical conditions. Even in microbes, the same genes and the same genetic network can lead to different fates.
What does it take to be open? How can we stay open longer?