The Therapeutic Power of Observation
I was about fifteen when I first read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values. Growing up in a conservative Mormon community practiced in the art of discouraging anything beyond very narrow deviation from the norm, a book title that included both a reference to an exotic eastern religion and motorcycles seemed to walk right up to the line without stepping over it.
In all honesty, I cannot say that I remember where I first heard of Pirsig’s book or that I had any real inkling what to expect upon reading it. However, I had heard enough to acquire my own copy. Thirty-five years later, I still have and treasure my heavily underlined and annotated paperback. Its tattered cover is held together by clear tape wrapped around the spine holding together its faintly yellowing pages.
The book was first devoured in the early summer weeks following the end of my sophomore year of high school. Mom was raising me alone and all my siblings were much older with families of their own. Though technically not an only child, my life was in many ways indistinguishable from one.
With mom at work all day, I was left alone at home to find my own means of passing the time. While Boy Scout camps and various church youth activities broke up the long summer months between my sophomore and junior year, much of my spare time was spent reading. My room occupied about a third of our house’s unfinished basement providing me with a cool and private place in which to become more-or-less comfortable with solitude. The basement even had its own backdoor, enabling me to escape undetected into the night for a walk up to the mouth of a nearby canyon now and then.
But it was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that first empowered me to tentatively crawl out of my teenage cave into the light. I had been keeping a journal for a while by this point and had thoughts of becoming a writer dancing around in my head. So, I was intrigued by Robert Pirsig’s take on education, quality, and the arts of rhetoric and writing. “And he became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules,” he wrote, “putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it still sounded right and changing it if it didn’t.”
About midway through his book, Pirsig provided me with an example of experimentation that I took it upon myself to try that summer. The book’s protagonist tells a student who wants to write “a five-hundred-word essay about the United States” to narrow her focus, suggesting instead she “narrow it down to just Bozeman,” the Montana town where their university was located. When she had nothing done the day the paper was due the student explained that “she just couldn’t think of anything to say”, so the professor suggests she write just about the main street in Bozeman, but a day or two later the student was still blocked. Finally, he suggests she “Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.” The student followed his advice and found it difficult to stop writing.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, leaving a teenage boy home alone all day is not necessarily a recipe for trouble, provided of course he cleans up before mom gets home. For example, it is possible to rearrange the furniture to carry out a little creative experimentation without being detected.
Within a day or two of reading the account of the student who found inspiration by starting with a brick, I moved things around a bit in the living room in an effort to set up a temporary study from which I could comfortably study the red brick house across the street through the front window. Following the instructions laid out in the book, I began with its upper-left hand brick.
I did not save a copy of that experiment. It is just as well as it is doubtful it was any good. Regardless, the effort made an impression on me. Now, more than 30 years on during a global pandemic and the lengthy periods of isolation it brings with it, the practice of paying attention to the little stuff first that Robert Pirsig encouraged recommends itself as one possible remedy for the creative and emotional blockage that many of us are currently struggling with.
Under normal circumstances, contemporary life not only affords us too few opportunities for careful observation but often actively discourages it. Time spent looking outside our window for the purpose of paying attention to something as trivial as a brick, a shrub, a car, or a street lamp is about the most wasteful thing a person living in a society dedicated to productivity and consumption could spend their time doing.
Yet it is precisely this failure to pay careful attention to our surroundings that have brought us collectively to this point. To the extent we consider the things around us at all we tend to do so through a utilitarian lens. We are more concerned with what the objects that fill our lives can do for us, either individually or as a society, than with contemplation of the thing itself.
Even the most mundane object has a history. The brick in the upper-left-hand corner of the building across the street providing shelter from wind, rain, and the sun is the product of centuries of trial and error. To make a brick it is first necessary to learn how to start and maintain a fire, to mine the necessary materials from the earth and combine them in a way that maximizes their strength, and finally to bind them together into a wall that can endure for at least the better part of a lifetime. It is possible to write a book on the history of civilization starting with a single brick.
Should you be inclined to take advantage of our change of circumstances by spending a few hours considering something seemingly insignificant, there is no need to start with a brick. The world provides a practically infinite number of other possibilities. Nor is there any reason to worry about the quality of the writing or the logical consistency of the path you find yourself following. The experiment can be for the benefit of an audience of just one.
In his 1911 book, My First Summer in the Sierra, the naturalist John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” As I recall, the several pages I wrote as a teenager in my makeshift study that day quickly filled with random thoughts regarding the shade cast on the brick by the maple in my neighbor’s front yard and the view of the mountains behind it, to say nothing of wild speculation about where the materials from the brick came from and how many people were involved with bringing it to the location where it still rests to this day. The irony that it took a microscopic virus originating halfway around the world to remind me of the value of small things as windows into an interconnected world is not lost on me.