Traveling by car is like watching life on a screen, wrote Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, his 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. We can be attentive to our thoughts and the work we are doing, yet sensitive to the quality of what is happening, to what is unknown.
Sometimes life delivers a shock that give us a taste of what it means to be open to quality. A diagnosis comes in–ourselves or a loved one–or news of a death or an attack somewhere in the world. Suddenly a shared meal or a hug or a beautiful day takes on new meaning. We remember that we are live surrounded by mystery.
“The only thing we know is that we know nothing and that is the highest flight of human wisdom,” writes Tolstoy. Briefly, we are wise.
Sometimes, we shock ourselves. 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 storm. 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. His stance was stern but he had a look in his eyes that was pitying and also self-questioning, as if he were watching himself and was incredulous that all that training and readiness to face danger had come down to this particular moment. Life can be like this, I thought as I watched him. We can find ourselves behaving in ways we never dreamed we could, even when we have the best intentions.
That moment was just about the opposite of a glass of wine with a loved one in the French countryside. But it had quality. It had depth, surprise, feeling, meaning.
Allow yourself to remember a time in your life when a shocking incident made you are more aware of yourself and your surroundings. A death or a birth, an act of war or a moment of great peace, witness the way that sudden jolt of awareness opens us to the true richness and beauty of life.