Footnotes to Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (One: Title and the “Author’s Note”)

Since 2014, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert Pirsig has become one of my favorite books and the launching-point for several of personally-meaningful private literary and philosophical endeavours. Given how frequently the book has been ignored, rejected or scorned by various kinds of critics, admission of an affection for the book would be a risky matter for someone with significant academic ambitions. But academic scorn (and, by the way, scorn for academia) are central considerations of Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), so maybe that’s an entirely appropriate state of affairs.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Book Summary by ...

So what is ZAMM? There are plenty of resources that will provide a brief plot summary or philosophical synopsis. These resources will advise that ZAMM is a semi-fictional narrative about a cross-country motorcycle vacation; that it is a critique of the human condition contemporary to the second half of the twentieth century. Some will suggest that it is a cultural exploration and a work of philosophy. Not many will suggest that it is a book of Zen nor that it is an attempt by a serious intellectual to develop an original metaphysical philosophy. Fewer still will mention that ZAMM is a critique of both Eastern and European Philosophy and Academia. Almost nobody talks about ZAMM as a critique of religion – particularly messianic religion. I haven’t seen anyone call ZAMM an epic monster story or supernatural thriller.

Many readers have described their first reading of ZAMM as frustrating, challenging, annoying, offensive and boring among many other descriptions. Others have found it uniquely compelling. Millions of copies of the book have been sold since it was first published in 1974. Brand new copies may still be purchased at most bookstores on any day you may visit. More than forty -five years later.

Despite anything nay-sayers may argue about ZAMM, it is extraordinarily subtle and integrated from cover to cover. I would argue that it is too subtle to fully catch the first time through. At least, that has been my experience. So let’s set considerations of Pirsig’s biography aside for the moment and start with what you may expect to find when you approach the book’s front cover.

Essential Read: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
One of the classic images of Robert Pirsig, one of the classic ZAMM book covers and his Honda CB77 Super Hawk

The book’s full title is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. Immediately, the juxtaposition of two (or, perhaps, more!?) very different and disconnected themes within the title is asserted. This approach carries on throughout the book. It is fundamental to the Pirsig’s philosophical and rhetorical approach. For readers who are not familiar and comfortable with juggling a variety of conceptual notions while following a story, this is warning that things may be more difficult than they seem.

In 1974, Zen was still a very new and mysterious topic in North America. While it may be more familiar to Western culture in this first quarter of the twenty-first century, mention Zen to most people and several key connotations and mysteries will come up in conversation. Nature and peaceful, relaxed environments, such as Zen gardens. Perhaps minimalist home design, meditation and strangely paradoxical puzzle-stories. Contemplation. Further conversation may yield the question “Is Zen a religion or a practice?” (Yes.) And the Zen enthusiast? Maybe someone wearing pyjamas or a robe sitting in meditation or telling paradox puzzle-stories with gnomish humour. Pristine, clean and sipping green tea.

And then there’s the motorcycle maintenance. Chemicals, wrenches, oil & grease, noisy machines, stinky exhaust. A motorcyclist? OK let’s re-phrase that….a “biker”? Wild. Unpredictable. Violent. The most likely interaction scenario probably involves a fear of physical or verbal assault. Unkempt and barbrian-like, a biker will probably be described as wearing some combination of denim and leather; the biker, so the stereotype will go, guzzles beer (at least).

Two completely different iconic representations.

Pirsig put two concepts together that do not feel that they go together. A contemporary pairing might be “Computer Code and Flower Arrangement” or “Theoretical physics and Cutting Stained Glass ”. Except that putting these two disparate things together is fundamental to Pirsig’s philosophy and the book’s design, To read ZAMM, you must be prepared to attempt to reconcile and synthesize concepts which you may have previously considered mutualy exclusive. The book is anti-dogmatic, in its own way. Already in the title, there is a lesson in its philosophy. The title warns that the reader should be thinking about and through a Zen-like perspective. But also about and through a modern scientific, technological perspective.

Alex Langlands | Patricia Lovett MBE
Alexander Langland’s Craeft: Not the only book to follow ZAMM in investigation of the relationship of the individual to technology in modern society.

At least.

However, even in the simple matter of the book ‘s title Pirsig is not quite done. Right in the middle of the title, Pirsig used the term “art” to foreshadow investigation of concepts from European Philosophy. Particularly Plato and Aristotle. He uses the word “art” as we might currently use the word “craft” (or as Alexander Langlands would have it, “craeft”). Art in this title and book is not a throw-away word. It is a functioning and significant philosophical term. It establishes that the book will consider the matter of craftsmanship and aesthetics in a philosophical Context. Langland’s book is not the only other book to follow ZAMM in examining this topic. Zamm also came decades before And it came decades before RIchard Sennet’s The Craftsman, Matthew Crawford‘s Shop Class as Soul Craft, among many, many others.

We’re not done exploring the layers of the book’s title.

The subtitle is “An Inquiry into Values”. This subtitle’s use of the term “Inquiry” establishes ZAMM as a philosophical exploration while “values” sets the book within a particular area of philosophy dealing with ethics and aesthetics. So what is ZAMM? According to the title, it is a philosophical inquiry into values.

This is an important observation. Pirsig and the publishers did not set the book as a work narrative fiction. Nor as some kind of proto-adventure travel book.

With all of this happening on title page, the first thing one finds inside the book is an Author’s Note:

Author’s Note: What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles either.

As with the title page, every sentence and phrase here requires attention. I contend that this author’s note is a kind of Zen koan (those paradoxical puzzles) for the reader.

Process and Reality by Alfred North Whitehead
A.N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality – Arguably, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism is the setting for Pirsig’s “Metaphysics of Quality”

That this passage is called the “author’s note” hints at one of the challenging features of the book: identity. Over the course of ZAMM, the main character of the book is never explicitly named or referenced as “Robert Pirsig”. In most discussions of ZAMM, there is reference to “the narrator” and to “Pheadrus”. Through the course of the book, Phaedrus is revealed as younger and different version of the narrator. Generally, it is presumed that Robert Pirsig (the author) is both the narrator and Phaedrus. However, with the book’s inherent emphasis of separate identities, it cannot be assumed that the characters in the book are genuine depictions of Robert Pirsig and his friends and family.

The author’s note states that the events of the book are based on actual occurrences. So we can be reasonably confident that Robert Pirsig took a motorcycle trip with his son, Chris and a few friends. Indeed there are readily-available photographs of the trips as well as external interviews of people upon-whom characters in the book are based. Interestingly and tellingly, the term “actual occurrences” is strikingly similar to Alfred North Whitehead’s term“actual entities” from a book that is widely regarded as one of the most difficult and dense books of twentieth-centurty European philosophy, Process and Reality. Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” (what resulted in at least one known philosophical offshoot called Process Theology) is deeply embedded in Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. Pirsig mentions Whitehead in ZAMM, though the reference is brief and may not at first be noted as a significant clue to Pirsig’s philosophy.

Today in motorcycle history: Today in motorcycle history ...
Another great classic ZAMM cover, you can almost miss “An Inquiry into Values”.

The author’s note states that the events have been altered for rhetorical purposes, but are basically true. Pirsig spends considerable time defending rhetoric in ZAMM. In reading ZAMM, it isn’t unreasonable to consider it a work of rhetorical argument. That this term is included in the author’s note is another hint of things to expect in the book.

Pirsig then ends by commenting that the book is not to be confused with an explanation of Zen or Motorcycles. Pirsig is playing a bit of a game here. ZAMM does not spend much time in explaining or analyze these things. Instead ZAMM demonstrates them in action. If meditation is Buddhism in practice, Pirsig presents motorcycling as a Zen in practice.

Pirsig positioned ZAMM such that it should not be considered as fiction nor as non-fiction. As occurs frequently in ZAMM, Pirsig demonstrates a rejectiong of dualism in preference to synthesis. He placed the book as a book of philosophy that depicts, rather than explains its philosophy.

At the beginning of this article, I argued that ZAMM is a book “of philosophy” and “of Zen”. I used that phrasing to indicate that the book is a product of these traditions. It is an outcome. It is a rhetorical depiction. It is an effect of those causes.

In many respects, it is better than many of its critics give it credit for.


External References and Links

  1. References Coming soon.

Footnotes To Buddhism’s Four Seals

This essay was originally drafted as a reaction to Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s 2008 book What Makes You Not a Buddhist. I did not enjoy the book the first time I read it. Probably, I wanted the book to be something other than it is. Now, a few years later, I appreciate it significantly more by taking an altered perspective. While I still don’t agree with or support what seem to be Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s motives in publishing the book nor some of his insights, the author does a reasonable job of featuring the “four seals” for a non-Buddhist to consider. There may be better and/or more authoritative books on Buddhism, but it is a place to start.

Buy What Makes You Not a Buddhist | Booknese - Books By ...

Khyentse suggests a number of ways that a person may not be a Buddhist but the main theme is that affirmation of the “four seals” is the fundamental and essential gatekeeper. “Four Seals” is another way of saying “four central doctrine” or “four dogmatic beliefs”. So what are they?

  • All compounded things are impermanent.
  • All emotions are pain.
  • All things have not inherent existence.
  • Nirvana is beyond concepts

Khyentse spends 125 pages explaining these doctrines and how they might apply to various aspects of contemporary human experience. As with my inquiry into the Lee Family Philosophy, this is not a book-review and I do not intend to reproduce the book in encapsulated form. This is an inquiry into the “four seals”.

Hermann Hesse - Wikipedia
Herman Hesse

Early in the book Khyentse suggests that these doctrine should be taken in a literal way rather than a metaphorical or mystical way. If one accepts that the authoritative definition of a Buddhist is a person who believes (affirms, acknowledges, or whatever term one might prefer) these four doctrine on a literal level, then I am certainly not a Buddhist. Mind you, there’s no particular reason to expect me to be a Buddhist. I didn’t grow up in a Buddhist culture or home. I’ve had an extremely limited exposure to Buddhist practices (diverse as they certainly are). Even my literary and philosophical investigation of Buddhist-oriented literature is extremely narrow. I don’t even have an active interest to “be” any particular “ist”. But I have an active and respectful interest in Buddhist perspectives that has occupied a fractional part of my attention over several decades. Initially this interest began as a literary interested stimulated by Robert Pirsig’s books (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila) on the one hand and Herman Hesse’s books ( Siddharta, Magister Ludi, Der Steppenwolf) on the other. Perhaps it also comes of growing up during the 1970’s.

So the four seals.

What makes me not a Buddhist (per Khyentse) is that I can’t give all four of those doctrine a full and complete literal pass. That is to say, if we are to set metaphorical, mystical, rhetorical and other referential “truths” aside, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to affirm these doctrine. Two of the doctrine don’t provide reliable information while a third requires some grudging qualification of the terminology.

Terminoloy is a significant factor. There’s no certainty that the specific phrasing of the “seals” that Khyentse’s book presents is adequate to whatever may be intended of the concepts. Certainly, one may wonder, as with any text, whether the particular words, as rendered in one’s contemporary language contain the same meanings as in some other language and/or time. What if its just a bad translation? What if Khyentse’s definition of “emotion” or “pain” is different than mine? All philosophy must, tediously, begin with a definition of terms. However, given the assertion that the doctrine be taken literally, it must be assumed that some significant care was taken in word choice when the book was published.

Tentatively, however, moving forward with a generous (and perhaps mistaken) assumption that the language is precise, accurate, authoritative and may be taken literally, let’s have a look.

All Compounded Things Are Impermanent

This doctrine is, in my opinion, the most concrete and supportable of the four truths. The two sides of the equation that one has to deal with are “compounded things” and “impermanent”. It may be a quirk of my own that I find the most certainty in a doctrine which focuses on physics. Here we have space, matter, processes and time.

A. N. Whitehead's Process Philosophy (introductory notes ...
A.N. Whitehead

In Process and Reality, A.N. Whitehead used the term “actual entity” as a rough equivalent to “all compounded things”. Physics, specifically particle physics, shows how our reality of matter, space and process are composed of interactions and combinations of particles. This is “compounding”. Particle and interaction. Matter and process. Two particles combine or repel and there is a result. The result is a compound thing (entity). That compound thing may then further compound to result in an even more compound thing. Particle. Atom. Element. Molecule. Organism. Consciousness. Society.

Whitehead called his philosophy a “Philosophy of Organism”. This seems to be a philosophy of the doctrine that “all compounded things are impermanent” where the term “organism” may be roughly equated to “compounded things.”

The second factor in the term is more easily dealt with. Time. Duration. Buddhism, Whitehead and Physics all seem to be on the same page. Things that exist (compounded things, actual entities) are not timeless. They are not infinite. They have a quality of duration. They are “of time”. I would further suggest that time is equally “of compound things”. They are inseparable and inherent qualities of the same thing.

Score: If the “four seals” are considered each to be of equal value, I would rank my acceptance of “all compounded things are impermanent”, as so far explored, to be a full twenty-five out of twenty-five points.

All Emotions are Pain

This doctrine is, in my opinion, one that is least defensible as a literal statement. The terms “emotion” and “pain”, while occupying adjacent conceptual space to one another, do not necessarily refer to the same things.

Emotions include happiness, sadness, anger and other familiar concepts, but emotion also includes more complicated concepts such as curiosity. It seems simple to reconcile some of the more familiar emotions with pain, but there are a variety of emotional concepts which cannot readily be reduced to “pain”.

So what is “pain”. Physically pain is a kind of negatively experienced sensory input suggesting harm or potential harm to the organism within-which the pain is experienced. It is a neurological warning signal recommending aversive action. There are a variety of ways that the term “pain” is extended from this neurological-based definition to include other negative experiences. Whether it is appropriate and correct to lump all negatively-perceived experiences as pain or not may well be “to the point” of this doctrine. I tend to think this becomes an over-simplification.

For purposes of this doctrine, it also seems to be an over-simplification to suggest that all emotions are a warning of coming “pain”. It is an unreasonable extension. “Sooner or later you’ll suffer” or even the ability to extrapolate future suffering from the limited duration of pleasure is not the same thing.

It would seem to be more precise and accurate to articulate the doctrine as “all emotions eventually result in pain”, “all emotions lead to suffering” or even “ all emotional states should be perceived as a reminder of coming pain and suffering”. But that is not the doctrine, as typically rendered.

Note that I have used the term “suffering” but the doctrine does not. Pain and suffering are adjacent but separate concepts. Suffering is an emotion. To suggest that all emotions lead to the emotion of suffering is not as indefensible as all emotions are pain.

Score: “All emotions are pain” can’t earn a full twenty five points. There’s too much that requires qualification and/or re-definition of the concepts. That being said, some of these qualifications provide a valuable window to view human existence and experience. Provisional as any scoring might be, I’ll give this maxim ten out of twenty-five.

All Things Have No Inherent Existence

This doctrine seems to be a corollary of “All compounded things are impermanent”, or at least dealing with the same physics. The two factors are “things” and “inherent existence”.

Body and Mind - One unit or Two? | The GOODista Blog
Monism: one substance or two?

This statement of reality breaks down, as many things do, at the subatomic level. There is a suggestion here of monism – that everything is really a single substance. It is this single originating substance that has been compounded in different ways to result in the appearance of diverse substances. This hinges on explaining what “things” means.

A.N. Whitehead used the term “entity” and “actual entity”. If “all things” means there is nothing that isn’t compounded, there is the problem of how to categorize the pre-compounded monist substance. If the definition of “thing” excludes this substance, then that is a convenient way to validate this doctrine. Whitehead describes a primordial entity as an allowance.

Similarly, if existence is taken to mean “truly is”, it is paradoxical, at best, to argue for a monism where something both does exist and does not exist. Buddhist philosophy isn’t uncomfortable with paradox.

Score: as with the previous maxim, a problem I have with “All things have no inherent existence” is the absolute scale of the statement. I am able to full-on accept “all compounded things are impermanent” based on the qualification that the statement covers only “compounded things“. Still, this doctrine is largely, if not wholly, a corollary of the first. Fifteen points out of twenty-five.

Nirvana is Beyond Concepts

This is also a difficult doctrine as a statement of reality. “Nirvana” is a concept. It could be argued that “nirvana is a concept of that which is beyond concepts”. Khyentse’s urging that the doctrine be taken literally runs afoul of a doctrine which refutes that it can be taken literally.

Here it is almost impossible not to reference Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Philosophicus argument that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Wittgenstein: vida/obra del filósofo que se retó a sí ...
Ludwig Wittgenstein

If one describes “nirvana” as a state of being, it is within conceptualization. And it also becomes fair game to examine. But all of mysticism hinges on some element being placed outside of understanding or comprehension.

Score: Buddhism, Zen and a variety of mystical fields often derive their attraction from their paradoxical-seeming principles. A suggestion that “human language is not adequate” should , in most cases, be modified to say “human language is not yet adequate”. That any given speaker or listener isn’t competent to explain at a certain point in time, does not mean there will never be competent speakers and listeners. Additionally, I don’t think this version of the doctrine is well-phrased by what may be intended by the doctrine. “Nirvana is beyond concepts” ranks lower than other versions of this doctrine that I’ve seen. If the doctrine were “Nirvana needs to be experienced, not explained”, then it would rank much more highly with me. As currently expressed, five out of twenty five.

Provisional Summary

Clearly, I am not an expert in Buddhist philosophy nor of the religions and practices that have been built upon it. I doubt that it is common practice to rank one’s relation to the doctrine as a percentage-score. But I like to quantify things, including the degree to which I am likely to integrate ideas into my thinking. That I agree with about fifty-five percent of these doctrine is interesting information.

It is also interesting to observe that if the “four seals” are taken to be the absolute foundation upon-which all the rest of reality is built, then there remains a great deal to be reconciled in the provided “literal statements”. I do not assert that these doctrine are “wrong” nor that those who may uphold them to be accurate literal statements of fact are in error. However, as statements of literal truth (fact), I find that they do not convince me beyond a generously weighted 55%. As predicted by the book title, I am not a Buddhist.

However, as cultural, metaphorical, rhetorical, mystical or referential statements, these doctrine are interesting and offer a particular kind of window to introspection – not to exclude the fact that some Buddhist practices upon which these doctrine are founded (eg. meditation) are extremely beneficial and worth exploration quite apart from the doctrine.

None of my reluctance to fully affirm the four seals as accurate factual statements takes away from these statements as extremely helpful in an investigation of reality and existence. Quite the opposite – I recommend serious consideration of these assertions as a metaphysical starting point. Regardless of the vantage point that one may fully support, one shouldn’t see and experience reality from that single point.


Version Note: Any and all essays or articles on http://www.ericadriaans.com are provisional and subject to alteration based upon editorial needs, new information, further consideration or altered perspectives as they may arise.

Original Publish Date (V 1.0 – February 4, 2021)


External Reference and Links


Version Note: Any and all essays or articles on http://www.ericadriaans.com are provisional and subject to alteration based upon editorial needs, new information, further consideration or altered perspectives as they may arise.

Original Publish Date (V 1.0 – February 4, 2021)


External Reference and Links

Footnotes to a Process: An Inquiry into Meditation

On February 11, 2021, I decided to explore the practice of meditation. This is what happened and how I proceeded.

For me, 2014 was a year of significant change stimulated by what seemed to be an assaults-from-all-corners 2013. 2014 was a year that I began my response to all of those difficulties. I increased my pursuit of a number of philosophical and practical matters. In February of 2014, I decided that it would be the year I found out what it was like to ride a motorcycle – so I bought a 1980 Yamaha Maxim 550 XJ (as may be seen on the homepage of this website). In March of that year, I also picked up Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to see what it was all about. It seemed to be a suitably hoakie “bike” thing to do. I didn’t expect to discover a book that would help me down several unexpected and delightful conceptual paths – including, eventually, meditation.

While I had some very limited awareness of Zen Buddhism and meditation earlier in my earlier life, I can comfortably trace my current exploration back to reading that particular book in that particular year.

So fast-forward a few years.

Buddhism in the Forests of Sri Lanka - thomas m wilson

Immediately prior to my first genuine attempt to meditate, I had begun a second reading of Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. My first reading of the book was in 2017, when it was first published. I appreciated Wright’s examination of meditation and the (Buddhist) philosophical principles upon-which meditation is based.

Here I will note that I do not consider myself to be Buddhist (see Footnotes to Buddhism’s Four Seals). I did not grow up in a Buddhist household or culture; I don’t participate in any Buddhist organizations; I have a relatively limited knowledge of Buddhist thought, having read only a handful of contemporary books about Buddhism. But none of that suggests to me that meditation isn’t capable of observable impacts. Indeed, Wright lists several practical reasons why meditation may be a beneficial daily practice. I recommend reading Wright’s arguments.

I had also recently read an article where the author attempted to savage both meditation as a practice and contemporary western Buddhism as a religious context. In this article, the author’s primary argument against Buddhism (broadly) and meditation particularly is anecdotal evidence that may be summed up as “all that happened for me is that I fell asleep“. This was augmented by suggesting that other anecdotal evidence amounts to a lot of over-educated Western elites who appreciate the aesthetic experience of a Buddhist lifestyle. A reduction of the argument: it’s all a bunch of pretentious twaddle with no science backing it.

If I’m honest, I found the article easily as pretentious as those it criticized. Reading a small handful of books with practical tips and a serious mind would have prevented both falling asleep and approaching meditation with expectations of major change on a few occasions. Wright’s book also provides a starting point to investigate scientifically-validated evidence that meditation does have an impact-to or alteration-of brain activity.

And a starting point to attempt meditation as a practical experiment.

Anything I experience will necessarily be anecdotal evidence. I don’t have any clear expectations. But here’s the thing. I have decided that I will place my meditation at a strategic position in my day. None of this…let’s try it at bed time stuff(meditation is not sleep preparation) nor any let’s start the day with it (it’s not gonna happen – plus I’ve already attempted to schedule Tai Chi exercises in the morning – see Tai Chi in the Morning) malarkey. No. I am scheduling the meditation exercise at the end of my formal work-day and before the evening’s chores and recreation begins.

Currently, I work in a home office and so stepping away from my desk and toward an appropriate place to meditate will be simpler than the decades of commuting that I used to endure. Then again, maybe all that driving functioned as a form of meditation.

At that time of day, I am usually still alert, though often fatigued and in need of time away from a screen.

Up-front acknowledgement: my early meditation attempts have not been “daily” but have been frequent enough to be a meaningful routine, if not quite a full-on habit.

Meditation One

On my first day of meditation, I approached the activity with as much pragmatism (practicality) as possible. Even though it wasn’t a regular work day for me, at approximately the same time as I would usually finish work, I prepared for the meditation. For me, this meant putting on loose-fitting track pants, a t-shirt and a zip-up hoodie. It’s the same stuff I wear for Tai Chi in the morning.

Next, I chose a quiet room in the house where I could sit reasonably comfortably for the session. I chose to darken the room by closing the curtains. I also chose to forgo any kind of background music or sounds. My plan is to reduce external stimulation to a minimum. I expect this to boost my ability to focus on my breathing. During this session, there was little outside or distracting sound. Essentially all I had was the periodic shuffling of the dog competing with my tinnitus.

With meditation, particularly Zen meditation, the matter of posture seems to be a big thing. As an outsider, it even seems as though it has been ritualized. I’m tempted to consider this an exaggerated issue. Per the previously cited criticism, I’m not looking to replicate an iconic pose nor reproduce an aspirational “lifestyle”. I want to see if meditation seems to have an effect on me.

I found the Zen Mountain Monastery web-page on the subject to be a comforting and valuable resource. Not least because practical and reasonable arguments are included for adopting one of several postures. Foremost of these is that meditation requires a person to be aware, awake and relaxed. The objective is an engaged attempt to observe one’s mind (also noted in Wright’s book). Second, by sitting with a straight back, I may be able to breathe in a different way than when sprawled, reclined or even laying down. Diaphragm expansion. These seem practical reasons.

The Buddha Mudra - The Bray Meditation Space
“Homeless” Kodo Sawaki Roshi

It is difficult to tell whether Kodo Sawaki, pictured here, is in a full lotus or something else. Sawaki, a renowned figure in Japanese Zen Buddhism has been cited as saying zazen is good for nothing. That’s pretty much a Zen puzzle and seems to deal with at least one of Buddhism’s four seals. I’ve also referenced Sawaki in titling these writings as “footnotes” (see On Footnotes). He argued that all of Buddhism is a footnote to zazen (meditation).

But back to posture.

Even in my more-flexible youth, I could never comfortably sit in the full or half Lotus positions for more than a few seconds. Now, at more than fifty years of age, it isn’t going to happen. However, I can achieve something that approximates the recommended Burmese position and that seems to have worked. I manage to remain in essentially the same position for half an hour to forty-five minutes. I was relaxed and awake. Great start.

As for the duration and as already noted. First session: half an hour. I’m not sure whether thirty minutes is a recommended duration for a meditation session. Practically, however, it makes sense. It is long enough to be a meaningful period of time but not so long that it is likely to be interrupted or filled with an is-it-over-yet anxiousness.

Once in the position, There was an adjustment period to let my body relax. Shift the legs a bit. Notice my hunched, tensed shoulders. Deal with the perpetual sinus issues. Distraction by the tinnitus in both ears. Physical discomforts. I usually deal with these kinds of things reasonably well, anyway. As we get older, we settle into our discomforts.

As to thoughts. Again, I am reasonably well-aware of how thoughts and emotions come and go. Even in my teens, I was aware of the volatility of emotions and recognized a personal need to detach and self-dampen the urgency of emotions. I wasn’t surprised or irritated with myself when thoughts came. Nor was I particularly surprised by their contents. It was unbidden material, but mostly predictable stuff from my day-to-day life. But I also didn’t pursue these thoughts for long. Only once during the thirty minutes did I find that one thought had led to another and another before I was aware that it had happened.

In Robert Wright’s book, he referred to thoughts thinking themselves. It’s this observation that your brain is producing thoughts without the active direction of your pre-frontal cortex. Unbidden thoughts.

For many years, I have discarded physical objects which I believe may bring with them unbidden emotion. Relating this to unbidden thoughts, Wright refers to “affective associations”. It is the “baggage” that people will (usually derisively) talk about. I actively eliminate physical objects that may bring unwanted “affective associations”. If meditation allows one to similarly discard unbidden thoughts and emotions (and their affective associations), then that would be a valuable outcome of meditation.

I found myself exploring the different places in my body where breathing occurs. How it feels. Diaphragm. Lungs. Nose. Mouth. This was a kind of thinking as well. Having experienced pneumonia, a pulmonary embolism and a chronic cough, I’m already well-tuned to notice the various physical sensations that accompany my own breathing, Indeed, during my morning Tai Chi, I have incorporated some deep-breathing in an attempt to improve the experience. Noticing isn’t a problem.

I’m not an overly mental-image-driven person. I thoroughly enjoy art, architecture and the collective wonders of light and vision but vivid “movies” of my life or experiences don’t play for me when I close my eyes. I can, with concentration, create images but my thoughts are not driven by visual images.

I ended the session feeling positive, relaxed and aware. Thirty minutes of engaged non-stimulation. A bit refreshing.

February 2021 Meditation Two

On my second day of meditation, I was able to replicate all of the preparatory details and the duration of the meditation period. Indeed, the duration may have been slightly longer.

My second day was a regular work day for me and this may have impacted the experience. I found it more difficult to become physically settled, although the hunched shoulders were no better or worse. My cough was slightly worse, probably a factor of medication timing. Overall, more thoughts distracted me from focusing on and counting breaths. The thoughts continued slightly more frequently, though I don’t think they were any more pressing or urgent. The content of the thoughts was little different, being related to my day-to-day affairs and the relatively small number of people I have personally met and interacted with in recent years.

What was most distracting was thoughts that arose as a kind of answer to the question “what will my brain come up with as I avoid trying to think about anything”. It is a ludicrous proposition. Overall, I focused on my breath less than I did the first time. I easily had a ten-to-one ration of fuss and distraction to concentration. For a period of time I had success studying the grainy blackness that appears when I close my eyes in a darkened room. The tinnitus in my ears was less intrusive. I did not end feeling as refreshed as the previous day, but I felt slightly more relaxed and energized than spending the same number of minutes with a screen of some kind.

February 2021 Meditation Three

For this meditation, I delayed the activity approximately one hour, which time was spent walking the dog plus a brief interval of screen time after the walk. I needed a bit of time to shake off the cold February air before trying to meditate.

Again, things didn’t go as well as my first day, but better than my second. I would rate my fuss and distraction (F&D) to concentration as seven to one. My range of thoughts remained dominantly within my day-to-day but I had a few more distant memories occur and a longer sequence of thoughts that seemed to take over a period of time. I had recalled a car I once owned (automotive pre-occupations are a familiar thing for me) and recalled certain features of the car. The interior, the overall exterior design, the motions of the manual transmission.. Notwithstanding the extended distraction, I would rate my focus as reasonable.

The most interesting barrier to concentration has been the dilemma of anticipating that I am about to experience some unplanned thought and wondering what it might be. This anticipation, although not directed at any particular thing, is interesting because it seems to be counter-productive yet it also seems to be part of the process.

February 2021 Meditation Four

This experience seemed to be slightly more aligned with my first meditation than the intervening two. I was able to remain detached from thinking for longer periods. Within the forty minute period, there was one fifteen minute period when my persistent throat irritation as well as my tinnitus went essentially out of my attention. I began by attempting to observe different part of my body and noticed I was able to isolate and observe various parts of my my body. First the tension around my eyes. Now the position and feel of my shoulders and arms. Then the posture of my abdomen, And so on. This directly led to physical irritations receding in my awareness. Strangely, I had one incredible urge to make a distorted face.There didn’t seem to be a preceding reason or thought to this urge.

Thoughts persisted to arrive with one extended period which challenged me to consider the difference between a dream and a pursues thought. Generally satisfying,

February 2021: Meditations Five To Ten

These sessions have been either a waste of time or have shown no real reason to offer further comment. On one session, I wasn’t ready-to-go and so it was a half-an-hour in a dark room. Another session I completed a 20-minute Tai Chi practice immediately prior to the meditation. I found the time to be more restful on that occasion.

I even tried a routine of lifting weights for twenty-time minutes, practicing Tai Chi for twenty minutes and finishing with a thirty-minute meditation session. This routine seems as though it ought to yield a maximum effect of meditation as the exercise should provide both a clearing of physical tensions as well as a period to let stray mental activity have their play. This is a routine I will attempt to maintain as all three activities: weight-lifting, Tai Chi and meditation are things which I carve time out of my day to execute. This is an important note as I perceive these things as things that are external to my day rather than natural and resident features of my day such as getting dressed or drinking a cup of coffee. None of them are habits.

March 2021Meditations Eleven to (?)

Interim Summary

I do not have a prescribed end-date for this experiment. I’ll let it go as long as it is interesting. This essay will be updated from time to time as I have more (or different) things to say.


External References and Links

  1. Zen Mountain Monastery: https://zmm.org/teachings-and-training/meditation-instructions/

Footnotes: Tai Chi and Movement as Metaphor

Who hasn’t heard or seen Tai Chi described as meditative movement? It’s an extremely appealing description. As a beginner, I can’t claim to have attained a meditative state. After six or eight months of not-quite-daily practice, the flailing of my limbs is starting to require less conscious effort and feels less awkward. When I think of the movements and even while performing the movements, I am struck by the metaphorical nature of Tai Chi.

To help explain what I mean by the metaphorical nature of Tai Chi, I’m going to posit a definition of Tai Chi. At the most practical and fundamental level, Tai Chi is a formal collection of 108 human movements. This practical definition is a denotative type of definition. It describes only the thing in itself. Just the movements of Tai Chi without anything else. The most basic fact of Tai Chi. All of the elements of meaning contained in my suggested definition refer only to the physical practice of Tai Chi.

Any definition that would move beyond this basic, practical definition would have to include elements of meaning outside of the physical practice. Any extended definition would be more connotative in content and would communicate information about the broader world.

For example, if I modified my definition to say Tai Chi is a formal collection of 108 specific human martial arts movements, the definition becomes dependent upon what “martial arts” may mean. To say “martial arts movements” connotes (infers, imbues) additional meaning that has nothing to do with the movements themselves.

Such added connotative elements of meaning would be relational or metaphorical in nature. Tai Chi is replete with these connotative and metaphorical meanings.

The Movements Themselves

108 movements is a lot of movements and I will not attempt to evaluate them all in this article. But I do think it is worth exploring the metaphor of one or two of the movements.

One of the most iconic of Tai Chi’s movements is “Single Whip”. Even if a person doesn’t know the name and hasn’t practiced the motion, it is instantly recognizable as Tai Chi. Of itself, the motion is just a motion. The arms and legs moved in a particular set of patterns. But observing it immediately conveys “Tai Chi” and/or “martial arts” to whoever the witness may be. It probably also suggests a number of other things, based on that witness’s experience. But at the barest minimum, it says “Tai Chi”. This one motion is a symbol of Tai Chi and a symbol, if not quite a metaphor, for martial arts. By suggesting “Tai Chi” or “martial arts”, the single whip movement communicates information not only about itself, but about the broader cultural world.

Tai Chi Single Whip - Wikipedia
Singe Whip Image Courtesty of Wikipedia: Tai Chi Single Whip (or Taichi Single Whip) is an outdoor sculpture by Taiwanese artist Ju Ming, installed in Montreal‘s Victoria Square, in Quebec, Canada

Consider also “Calming Waters” or “Calming the Waters”. This simple movement is one of my favorites exactly because of the metaphorical value that the movement communicates. In this movement, the Tai Chi practitioner stands in a ready position – legs slightly apart, feet pointed straight ahead and apart. The feet may be only slightly apart or perhaps up to 12-18 inches apart. The arms are in a resting position. Then one raises their hands up to shoulder height, palms out and slowly lowers them to a horizontal position with the arms not extended. There is no pressure or tension through the arms. As one of the feet steps forward and about 35 to 45 degrees to one side, the arms extend. At the apex of the step, the arms are at their maximum extension within the movement without having stretched or locked the arms. There’s no tension in the movement. At the apex, the arms begin to withdraw from the extension with a slight outward circular motion, remaining in the horizontal, where each hand traces a half circle and returns to nearly meet at the body. During this motion, the Tai Chi practitioner shifts their weight from the ball of their foot to the heal and the toes are raised from the floor. The motion of extending arms is repeated and weight is shifted back to the ball of the foot. The movement’s entire cycle is repeated as long as seems needed and then the Tai Chi practitioner returns their arms and legs to their ready position. The same motion for the other side may be attempted or some other motion in the Tai Chi practitioner’s routine may follow-up.

This is “calming the waters”. The motion is a metaphor of calming or smoothing out a horizontal surface. Observing the motion, it is an elegantly simple routine. Performing the motion is wonderfully easy and relaxing. It also conveys the idea of smoothing out a surface. Of itself, “calming the waters” is a sequence of movements. When observed or performed, it suggests other matters. Perhaps it calls to mind walking in a shallow pool. Perhaps it suggests smoothing out the difficulties and hassles of daily life.

Naming of the Movements

108 is a lot of different movements to remember, so they aren’t denoted by numbers. Instead, each of the movements has been given an evocative name such as “single whip”, “brush knee” or “calming the waters”. It is much easier to remember the movement referred to as “brush knee” than if it had been called “Movement 23”. “Brush knee” is a connotative name that conveys an idea of what the movement might be. “Movement 23” would be a denotative name that could be found in a nicely-ordered manual, but the name itself wouldn’t tell you anything about the movement.

The names of the movements, as a function of their mnemonic value, have a metaphorical value. The names are memorable because they are metaphorical – they refer to something else. They connote meaning. When I perform the movement called “calming the waters”, I am not literally (denotatively) calming any water. The movement is not even a pantomime of calming water The movement refers to the action only as a mnemonic device and as a metaphorical ideal.

Tai Chi as Poetry of Movement

Each movement within the 108 movement set known as Tai Chi is both itself, the denoted movement and the metaphorical name that has been applied to it. This is the beginning of the poetry within Tai Chi.

In an art where each movement has imbued metaphorical values, the complicated dance that emerges from combinations of these movements approaches a poetry. Instead of aural rhymes and rhythms, there are rhymes and rhythms of movement. During my practice, I include frequent returns to “calming waters” as that seems to be what my Tai Chi is currently about.

Tai Chi as Metaphor for Physical Combat and Living

As a martial art, Tai Chi is a symbolic representation of physical combat. It is not physical combat. Indeed, there are martial arts critics who are enthusiastic to indicate that Tai Chi is not an effective physical combat methodology. To whatever extent this is correct, I am not terribly concerned about whether Tai Chi makes for good combat. What cannot be denied is that Tai Chi is a movement metaphor for physical combat. It is an idealized form of what combat may be. By extension, Tai Chi is also a metaphor for living and engaging with the challenges and problems of life. Not everyone actively views life as a set of conflicts and problems to be engaged, but Tai Chi provides a set of physical movements to express whatever may be their perspective and experience.

As a symbolic or metaphorical representation of engaging with life, Tai Chi is a wonderfully expressive art form.

Tai Chi as Meditation in Movement

I’ve already admitted that a meditative state while practicing Tai Chi is currently outside my ability. I simply haven’t put the hours in for the movements to be comfortable, natural and effortless. For those who do attain a meditative state during their practice, I expect that the metaphorical qualities of the movements must either entirely subside or entirely transcend during the practice.

On Footnotes

What is a “footnote”? Merriam-Webster defines it as “a note of reference, explanation, or comment usually placed below the text on a printed page” and secondarily as “one that is a relatively subordinate or minor part (as of an event, work, or field)”.

The “blog” section of my website – the area where I generate and update articles – is now titled “Footnotes”. I’ve selected this name in recognition of separate areas of investigation that I expect to meet in my articles. More particularly, I am citing comments by Alfred North Whitehead and Kodo Sawaki.

In 1929, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), the English mathematician and philosopher who co-authored Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell, published Process and Reality. The book is one of the twentieth century’s

A. N. Whitehead's Process Philosophy (introductory notes ...
Alfred North Whitehead

most startling, sophisticated and complex works of original philosophy. In Process and Reality, Whitehead commented that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” It is not Whitehead’s only pithy, clever and cutting comment in the book.

“Homeless” Kodo Sawaki Roshi (1880-1965), one of Zen Buddhism’s most highly regarded teachers is attributed with the comment that “All of Buddhism is a footnote to zazen.” Not Sawaki’s only profound comment, either.

The Buddha Mudra - The Bray Meditation Space
“Homeless” Kodo Sawaki Roshi

While I currently have no evidence that Whitehead and Sawaki were aware of each other’s work or perspectives, the similarity of the two comments is striking enough that it can’t be ignored. Separated as they were by only 20-years in age, certainly we may consider the two thinkers to have been contemporaries. Their respective comments were directed to different genres of philosophy – Buddhist philosophy and Western Philosophy – but the intents of the comments are identical. It would be pleasant to believe that Sawaki and Whitehead would have been in agreement on each other’s outlook. Based upon a relatively modest exposure to their respective writing, through and the traditions they came from, I expect they would have found agreement on a great many other matters.

The sameness of the comments is an elegant and profound underscoring of the similarities and differences between the Buddhist (and perhaps more broadly, Eastern) philosophy and the European (and perhaps more broadly, Western) philosophy. The emphasis on action and practice in the east; the emphasis on theory and words in the west.

“Footnotes” seems to be the most apt explanation of what my articles (blog posts) are all about. My articles are explanations and expositions; they are also subordinate parts to the subjects that they cover and to the living of a life. For all of that, I hope that they are valuable in themselves.


External References and Links

  1. http://www.sanshinji.org/sanshin-style-blog/kodo-sawakis-no-frills-zazen
  2. Photo Credit Sawaki: https://braymeditationspace.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/the-buddha-mudra/
  3. Photo Credit Whitehead: http://www.philosopher.eu/texts/1248-2/
  4. Uchiyama, Kosh and Okumura, Shohaku. The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo. Wisdom Publications. Boston. 2014.
  5. Whitehead, A.N. Process and Reality. 1929

Scenes from an Epic 1

Detail of the BX Building in St. Thomas, Ontario.
Photo by Eric Adriaans

Scene 1

Old engine 5700 sits solid and quiet
As winter snow drifts and glides down. Ceaselessly down.
This town is more than two hundred years old
But nobody seems to notice the history standing silent in the air.

5700’s massive boiler sits hollowed, humbled; empty in the empty yard
Black and green. Militarily austere. Her working days long dead.
And the town hustles along, quietly losing its history.
Maybe we’re all too busy, too tired or too hungry to care.

5700. Exposed. Frozen. Standing with a gaudy tour car bundled in a tarp;
Green. Cold.  Tiny hints of summertime thrills peek out
From the gawker-car’s shawl. Remembering disposable income spent on…
...What? Maybe history. Receding from memory in a seasonal burial.

5700 hunches under the pristine white power of a cellular tower
Beaming communications around the globe – through space and time.
5700 glares down the tracks past the BX tower from whose windows
You can’t see the future, only a bloody century’s war memorial

And a vacant lot, still haunted by memories of the Sutherland Press
Whence issued biscuits, chocolates, tobacco boxes and paper products;
Now just another main-street vacancy,  idled for an indefinite future
Whether an hour, a year or a decade. The mean times' homilies.

Further on, the Old St. Thomas Church sits emptied but of trees and graves
The voices of the annual carol perhaps still resonating a quiet tradition
Though the caroling is done, the cider done, the tarts and cookies gone
I seem to hear the old bell's toll, toll, tolling of years and families.

And I’m staring out this window as winter comes floating down
A vibrant colouring of history lays at my feet
This yard once radiated the smoke and power of young industries
Radiates now through twists of optic fibres carrying my voice

I want to clamber over that blue fence there blocking access to 5700
Keep off.  The tangible past is off limits. But,
I want to embrace two hundred years of history churning forward still
I want to chuff chuff chuff down the tracks to live and rejoice

Instead, my voice smokes down the fibre optics
To New York. Vancouver.  New Orleans.  Chicago. Wherever.
Plastic and glass. Digital memories of 5700 and parallel rails
This place, this work and its ghosts sitting at town's heart after 200 years

The spirit of the community boils along, though 5700 sits frozen 
And the wind that blasts down the long avenue 
No longer carries shrieking steam-whistles nor billowing coal smoke 
The past long-yielded to the demands of new electronic frontiers. 

The locomotive idles in the quietly piling winter snow 
And the past has never been closer at hand. 
In another few hours I’ll crunch crunch crunch along the cold streets
To home, warm with family and filled with the promise of a New Year.

Footnotes to Being Water: An Inquiry into The Lee Family Philosophy

As a happy coincidence to my decision to practice of Tai Chi, I stumbled-upon Shannon Lee’s Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee at my local public library. The book clearly acts as much as a bridge to Shannon Lee’s podcast as it does the Lee family’s legacy and philosophy. Naturally, all of these things are interconnected. This broader connectedness led me to title this essay as An inquiry into the Lee Family Philosophy (LFP).

It is the rare person that does not have at least a passing awareness of Bruce Lee, the martial artist and cultural icon. Notwithstanding a general awareness of Bruce Lee and his family, I have completed no other study of Bruce Lee or his ideas as they may have been originally documented or expressed. Shannon Lee’s book serves, therefore, as the initial and primary conduit to whatever I may learn of (or through) Bruce Lee and the LFP.

This outlook is not intended as neither a slight to Bruce Lee nor a particular compliment to Shannon Lee. Clearly the book identifies Bruce Lee as the primary source and inspiration of its themes and ideas. Equally clearly, Shannon Lee is the book’s author and the current curator of the ideas it contains. It is an acknowledgement of their several roles and contributions to suggest that the book is a king of collaboration between these two Lee family members. Collaborated may seem an odd term to use given that Shannon Lee did not have the opportunity to discuss these ideas with a father who died in 1973. It is however, the best term to convey a unique intimacy of ideas as they have eddied through a family over the course of multiple generations.I feel justified in this approach given that Shannon Lee wrote in the introduction of the book, “It might surprise you that I am not that precious about the material. I’m not a Bruce Lee purest about anything other than his energy. I do not practice an academic exactitude with his words. Where I have found it useful to illustrate what I want to say, I have combined quotes and edited quotes to make them more digestible.” (pg. 7) More on this a bit later, but I am pleased to follow a similarly non-academic position.

As mentioned, I decided to read Be Water, My Friend as an extension of a personal objective to learn and practice Tai Chi. Bruce Lee is famous for having practiced and trained in Kung Fug as well as for developing his own martial arts system, Jeet Kune Do (JKD). Be Water, My Friend, is not a book which explicitly promotes JKD, nor is it a deeply detailed book about the martial arts. For me this is fortunate, as I am almost wholly devoid of interest in physical combat. Excepting where LFP utilizes physical combat as an operative metaphor, there seems to be little reason to spend much effort to maintain JKD as an irreplaceable element of LFP. The book does argue that there is Importance in having a physical manifestation of one’s philosophy. For Bruce Lee, that was JKD. For others , something else may be more appropriate.

The book would comfortably be considered a “self-help” genre book. It is about a particular perspective of life and living. Shannon Lee seems to have ambitions that Be Water, My Friend be considered a book of philosophy. Such an ambition may or may not be a reasonable desire, depending upon what a person considers “philosophy”. That is a genuine consideration. There are professional philosophers who reject popular and non-academic approaches. However, if one considers the attributed writing of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius (the Stoics) to be books of philosophy, then there’s good reason to label Shannon Lee’s book the same way.

LFP concepts, ideas and expressions are frequently similar to ideas I have encountered or investigated elsewhere, even if not (yet) documented on this website. What Shannon Lee has done in Be Water, My Friend is to collect and re-present her family’s interpretation of these ideas that anyone may find with a certain degree of investigation. It is a curated and customized collection of wisdom.

I do not intend to try to reproduce every salient point of Shannon Lee’s book nor will I pretend to present all that there may be within the Lee Family Philosophy. This isn’t a recitation of someone else’s ideas nor is this a book review. This essay is an interpretation of what one person has found in the LFP and how it connects with related notions and inquiries. These are footnotes.

The LFP Foundational Maxim

Following the handful of nearly-blank title pages that sits at the beginning of most books, Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee begins with an exhortation, presumably written by (but not expressly attributed to) Bruce Lee. The exhortation functions as a foundational maxim of the Lee Family Philosophy:

Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a teapot; it becomes the teapot. You put it into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. Now water can flow, or it can crash! Be water, my friend.

As printed in the book, the above exhortation appears as lines of a poem might. In this essay, I have reformatted the exhortation as a paragraph because it seems to suit the exhortation better than the format I found in the boo

Does the form of this small passage matter? It does and it doesn’t.

Glass teapot with boiling water and drops of condensation ...

It may be reasonable for the passage to be considered a poem given that it uses imagery-laden language and metaphor to convey a particular message or meaning. The words also seem to have been chosen with some care to be evocative and memorable. There is a rhythm. However the reach me like a prose paragraph. As a poem, I would not be satisfied.

The passage feels like a technical instruction. There is a linearity to the communication that is not as playful and exploratory as a poem ought to be. I appreciate the explanation that water may take on the shapes of the containers it is poured into. I consider the ways that this applies to my practice of Tai Chi or my way of experiencing and living.

However, it does not matter how the words are conveyed on paper. The words are only a stand-in for a view of reality that is being described. The poetry or prose doesn’t matter…it’s an understanding of the need for fluidity that is important. As will be explored later, the words are just a finger pointing to the moon. To get caught up in the gesture of the hand misses the point.

This difference of possible presentations – poetry versus prose helps to feature a difference between Tai Chi and other martial arts. I would say that Tai Chi is a poetry of martial arts where Jeet Kune Do, karate and many others are the practical prose of martial arts.

Tai Chi is a formal system and collection of movements that serve as a metaphor of combat; many other martial arts are combat.

Be Water

Clearly, the central Lee metaphor is to “be water”. The introductory exhortation is a call to the audience to personify the flexibility of water as it responds to its environment. The depictions of water within various vessels is to suggest that people should adapt to the circumstances within which they may find themselves. It is an exhortation against inflexibility and rigidity.

In Philosophy for Polar Explorers, Erling Kagge re-tells what he calls a “Classic Zen Buddhist pilgrim’s tale” about a wrestler named O-Nami. You may currently find a version of the story on “The Liar” blog. The tale describes a wrestler who visits a Zen teacher where he learns to meditate and overcome personal obstacles. O-nami, which means “Great Waves” was given a similar message to “be waves”. The similarity of LFP’s “Be Water” and O-Nami’s “be waves” is to establish that each is a particular version of a metaphor within a larger archetype.

KATSUSHIKA HOKUSAI (1760-1849), EDO PERIOD, 19TH CENTURY ...

Empty Your Mind

The entreaty to ”empty your mind”, is a familiar refrain from Buddhism, meditation and other methods or philosophies. It is a requirement to adopt an attitude of openness, or a beginner’s mind. The concept that “emptying” of one’s mind of pre-conceived notions, judgments and expectations is requisite to progress is not unique to LFP. Nor exclusive to Asian philosophies. Certainly Rene Descartes required this at the beginning of Meditations on First Philosophy.

Some years ago I was struck by how many false things I had believed, and by how doubtful was the structure of beliefs that I had based on them. I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I needed—just once in my life—to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations.

There is a similar requirement for receptivity, though expressed in very different terms, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria:

it was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith

Daoism, Zen, Buddhism

LFP is clearly linked to Daoist Philosophy through Bruce Lee’s teacher, Yip Man. This connection is clearly demonstrated in the exhortation to “be whole”. This is a reference to ideas of the completeness of yin and yang.

The second chapter of Be Water, My friend is largely devoted to the requirement to empty one’s mind. There seems also to be a strong connection to Zen concepts. Shannon Lee also states that her father followed (Jiddu?) Krishnamurti.

On page 43, Lee writes “There is only ever the right here and the right now.” As a stand-alone statement, I orient this as LFP but heavily drawn from Daoism and Buddhism.

LFP as a Process Philosophy

According to Bruce Lee, “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” (pg. 8). This position recalls various perspectives of reality and even tends to suggest the notion of being as “becoming”. In this, I am reminded of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality. A thorough review of that book is currently beyond the scope of these brief notes. For now, I will merely observe that “life is a process” is not inconsistent with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.

In Be Water, My Friend, LFP asserts that a physical practice, or implementation, is essential to any philosophy of living. As a martial artist, Bruce Lee’s physical implementation was Jeet Kune Do; for Robert Pirsig, the practice of riding a motorcycle was the manifestation; for another person, it may be painting, sitting in Zazen, practicing Tai Chi or some other process. The reality is the physical practice, the process.

Flow

How To Reach Flow State (Using 10 Flow State 'Triggers')

In the book and on the podcast, Shannon Lee spends considerable time on “flow”. In my investigations of this concept, I found psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience which he seems to have been promoting in an academic environment since the 1970s. Certainly contemporary to Bruce Lee’s practical approach to the same subject matter. With the rather rigorous investigations of flow as part of physical, and by this I may actually emphasize athletic, experience, it is no surprise that the concept is found in LFP, which emphasizes a need for a physical enactment of the philosophy.

LFP as Metaphorical Expression of Life

The configuration of the LFP within a set of metaphors is not novel nor are its individual precepts entirely unique. That really isn’t the point. The LFP is a particular tributary of larger bodies of thought.

A personal philosophy (and one may almost interchangeably use the term “personal mythology“) functions, for the individual adherent, as a lake fed by the tributaries of concurrent and previous iterations of the philosophy. In turn, the personal philosophy may function as an estuary to a larger sea of cultural mythologies and ultimately the global oceans of universal human mythologies. This reminds me of an essay by Umberto Eco titled The Liquid Society. Eco had drawn the term, Liquid Society, from Zygmont Bauman as a depiction of contemporary society. The essay is work reading.

Shannon Lee argues that “martial arts is a perfect metaphor for life. There are few disciplines where the stakes are so personal and so high as in a fight…..the threat of physical harm.” (pg. 11). While I do not fully agree with this position, it is a compelling argument. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig uses motorcycling as a metaphor for living – emphasizing motorcycling’s inherent dangers as the symbols of life as inherently dangerous. Similarly, Jules Evans published Philosophy for Life: And Other Dangerous Situations in 2012. There is something odd about this trend to view life and living as inherently dangerous, or in the case of LFP as inherently a situation of competition and conflict.

When Shannon Lee suggests that martial arts is a perfect metaphor for life, or when Robert Pirsig does the same with the motorcycle as a metaphor of the person, they are offering a lens through which they believe insights may be gained.

Lee’s depiction of the martial artist as an ”artist of movement, expressing yourself powerfully in the immediate, unfolding present with absolute freedom and certainty” is romantic and, perhaps exciting but nothing about this passage suggests that competition and conflict is necessary. It could as readily refer to a figure skater or a Tai Chi practitioner.

Translating philosophy from ideas to action. Avatars not metaphors.

There is, however, a parallel communication, and that is the LFP as avatar of Bruce and Shannon Lee and “the metaphysics of quality” as avatar of Robert Pirsig. These philosophies “are” Bruce Lee and Robert Pirsig. When Shannon Lee states that she is a purist of her father’s energy, she is talking about the avatar of Bruce Lee. The philosophies are informational artifacts of the person. They remain in the place of the people after they are gone. In a note that Pirsig wrote about his books Lila and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he described a “pattern” of people after they had died – in his case, he was describing his reactions to his son’s death. The pattern he described is that avatar that I describe and the “energy” that Shannon Lee is a purist of.

Certainly other kinds of avatars can and do exist. Some people leave a great many avatars, others none or almost none. Any artifact may be an avatar. In the case of Bruce Lee, his films are an avatar. How he moved and acted on the screen, embodying his martial arts is translation of his ideas into action. Robert Pirsig’s Honda CB77 Superhawk is an avatar. It’s functioning as a machine is a translation of his ideas into action. Any crafted thing, and here I include written documents and poetry (especially poetry), is a translation of ideas into action.

Minnesota's Robert Pirsig, author of 'Zen and the Art of ...

Provisional Summary

The LFP contains several deeply-embedded cultural sources, but attempts to set itself apart. Shannon Lee shares a story of Bruce Lee’s early attempts to share and teach a modified version of Wing Chun Kung Fu. He wanted to shake off what he called a “Classical Mess” to include his own innovations. In this sense, Bruce Lee was a modernist.

Bruce Lee brought Asian martial arts to North America but also sought to innovate within those traditions. Lee studied philosophy at the University of Washington to help him to “infuse the spirit of philosophy into martial arts.” Lee had a drive to connect the physical practice of his life. The process of his life with a coherent philosophy. Shannon Lee helps to communicate that drive (albeit, using terminology from Czikmentmihalyi) when she wrote “This state of constant independent inquiry that leads to new discoveries will be the means by which we uncover our potential and thus find our flow”

For LFP, the literal translation of Kung Fu as a skill achieved through hard work and discipline connects to another exhortation to “be yourself”. The specific metaphor….motorycles, JKD, Tai Chi, or whatever it may be is not the essential thing. “Man the living creature , the creating individual, is always more important than the established style or system.


Version Note: Any and all essays or articles on http://www.ericadriaans.com are provisional and subject to alteration based upon editorial needs, new information, further consideration or altered perspectives as they may arise.

Original Publish Date (V 1.0 – February 4, 2021)


External Reference and Links

  1. https://brucelee.com/podcast/
  2. Lee, Shannon. Be Water My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee.
  3. Pirsig, Robert. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
  4. Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality.
  5. Czikmentmihalyi, Mihalyi.
  6. Evans, Jules. Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous
  7. Teapot Image: https://www.freepik.com/premium-photo/glass-teapot-with-boiling-water-drops-condensation_3425642.htm
  8. https://itstheliar.wordpress.com/2020/12/12/great-waves/
  9. https://neo-ren.com/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi-flow-the-secret-to-happiness/

Footnotes to an Archetype: An Inquiry into “Leviathan”

In 2016, I published a small collection of poems which I titled Leviathan: The Biographia Isocratica of Adrian Kun. The title poem, my “Leviathan”, continues to be one of my personal favourites. I wrote the first draft of that poem about twenty years earlier. “Leviathan”, the word and image that I used as the poem’s title is a metaphor and archetype drawn from a vast source of cultural reference. This essay is renewed exploration of the mythologies of great sea monsters, under whatever name they may be found. For me, they are all “Leviathan”. My poem is a convenient point of departure to explore how and why humanity relates to the world through the metaphor of the great see beast. I expect the essay to grow over time as I am able to devote time to this particular inquiry. Whatever you may find here today could be altered tomorrow.

What is Leviathan?

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Leviathan is, potentially any great sea monster or beast. Leviathan is a sea dragon, the great white shark, Moby Dick, the kraken, megalodon, the kun form of the kun-peng.

The leviathan is one of the primal human archetypal concepts with origins in pre-historic societies. Quite possibly the archetype is hundreds of thousands of years older than the civilizations of humanity. I am convince that it is an archetype rooted in our evolutionary ancestors’ understanding of their natural world. My expectation is that a conscious and intelligent awareness of vast and powerful sea creatures pre-dates the Homo sapiens species. I doubt there has been a version of humanity that has not been aware of, and wary of, the creatures of the deep.

Self-absorbed as humanity tends to be, it may be valuable to recall to our own attention that there had been creatures of the deep long before there was a Homo sapiens. Sharks appear in the fossil record before trees. 450 million years. Primates diverged from other mammals about 85 million years ago. Homo sapiens, what we might call “contemporary humans” have existed for about 300,000 years. Leviathan are the creatures that came before us.

These vast and preceding entities which humanity has so rarely understood….these archetypes of primordiality….necessarily became a fundamental metaphor of human experience which was exploited by a wide variety of individuals and cultures. Leviathan is a primary-order symbol that acts as a foundation for other symbols and metaphors.

Shark as (safely) seen at Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto circa 2013

Eric’s Leviathan

Despite the deep-roots of the leviathan metaphor that I was exploiting, the poem was not originally written with any intent to explore natural history. Instead the poem was an attempt to invert and re-position notions of the individual within a social and political structure.

My poem ends with a claim that “I am massive, I am Leviathan.” This declaration is a staked claim to the common and universal potentials of humanity; it is also an acknowledgement of the unseen components of my self that I sense swirling beneath the surface of my immediate awareness.

As a young student of literature, I focused my attention on Canadian and British literature and was therefore not aware of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself when I wrote my Leviathan. It would be a foolish endeavour (beyond humbling) to compare Whitman’s tremendous poem to mine. However, I can see that I was expressing similar notions to Whitman when I read the extraordinarily similar line, “I am large, I contain multitudes.

As “Leviathan”, individuals have the potential to be more, and different than what may be seen. The metaphor draws on an inversion of a concept employed by Thomas Hobbes in his political philosophy book, also titled Leviathan.

Flash Mob: Revolution, Lightning, and the People's Will ...
Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published a massive work of political theory through which he re-purposed the Leviathan metaphor. Hobbes’s use of the metaphor was to describe a national collective as the “Leviathan”. When all of the people are combined and united, they are a monstrously-powerful force, symbolically headed by a monarch. Hobbes’ Leviathan is an argument for monarchy but it is also an argument for a social contract that recognizes all people within a society.

Why did Hobbes use a monster to represent the human collective rather than some other metaphor? And why a sea monster rather than a land monster, such as Behemoth – another awe-inspiring Biblical creature that would have been familiar to his contemporary readers?

The choice of Leviathan seems, in part, to be based on the etymology (linguistic background) of the word itself which may be broken into root words of “lavah” (to connect or join” and “thannin” (a serpent or dragon”. The first root word establishes interconnectedness of the people. This was an important feature of Hobbes’s philosophy. The second root word has deeper cultural roots.

Clearly, basing the metaphor on a biblical source was familiar to his audience. For a Christian nation, as England certainly was at the time, the Biblical Leviathan was a familiar concept. Serpents and dragons are ancient concepts in England’s mythology such as St. George and the Dragon, Beowulf and other ancient tales. Symbolically, Hobbes extends the English (British) identity beyond merely slaying the dragon, to embodying and superseding the dragon. Hobbes is saying, when we unite, we are the monster others may fear….or as in the Biblical quote “no greater power”.

The use of sea monster also established a connection to the sea as a place of power for Britain.

Underpinning all of these associations is a awareness and sense of awe for the mysterious, immense and powerful creatures of the ocean.

Leviathan- biblical symbol: an enormous aquatic creature ...
Artist Not Known: This is one of the rare “Leviathan” depictions I’ve found online which I think captures the sentiments of Job 41:1 with a retained sense of naturalism.

Leviathan of Job 41:1

Given Hobbes’ use of the word “Leviathan” and the massive influence of the Bible on global culture and literature, it would be beyond reason to omit the depiction of Leviathan in Job 41:1. Despite being a biblical passage, at this juncture, we can set aside any analysis of the underlying theology of the text and focus on the awe-invoking depiction of a a monster of the deeps:

 “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words? Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life? Can you make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house? Will traders barter for it? Will they divide it up among the merchants? Can you fill its hide with harpoons or its head with fishing spears? If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of it is overpowering. No one is fierce enough to rouse it. Who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me. I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs, its strength and its graceful form. Who can strip off its outer coat? Who can penetrate its double coat of armor? Who dares open the doors of its mouth, ringed about with fearsome teeth? Its back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted. Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn. Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds. Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth. Strength resides in its neck; dismay goes before it. The folds of its flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable. Its chest is hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone. When it rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before its thrashing. The sword that reaches it has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin. Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood. Arrows do not make it flee; slingstones are like chaff to it. A club seems to it but a piece of straw; it laughs at the rattling of the lance. Its undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge. It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment. It leaves a glistening wake behind it; one would think the deep had white hair. Nothing on earth is its equal- a creature without fear. It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.

In reading the passage, it is clear that the creature being invoked was expected to be familiar to its contemporary readers as something as far beyond human conquest. This was power and strength incarnate. Unbeatable.

It is easy to see how and why Hobbes’ might want to invoke this image as something the British people might aspire-to. In a time when Hobbes described the average human existence as nasty, brutish and short, a political treatise offering to make the British people a nation of kings over all that are proud would have been appealing.

Beowulf

Beowulf is considered to be a gate-keeper to English literature. At one time, most students of English literature were expected to study the poem. While that kind of literary attention may or may not still be a feature of contemporary literary studies, this epic poem absolutely contains a valuable usage of the Leviathan archetype. And I’m not talking about the dragon that Beowulf fights at the end.

66 best The Story of Beowulf. images on Pinterest ...
A Karl Kopinski Artwork: Inspired by Beowulf?

Early in the story, Beowulf recounts a youthful swimming dare between he and a rival named Breca. The two young warriors challenged each-other to swim in the cold Atlantic. For Beowulf, the dare resulted in a deadly fight with sea-monsters.

Within the structure of the poem, this brief anecdote helps to establish Beowulf’s character as a fearless warrior and athlete but it also helps to reinforce a connection between water and dreadfulness. The youthful sea-fight is a foreshadowing of the dive that Beowulf must undertake to combat Grendel’s mother as well as a foreshadowing of the land-based dragon that Beowulf must face at the end of his life. As with the biblical leviathan references, it is often difficult to separate ocean-dwelling leviathan from dragon myths of sea, land and air.

Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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Moby Dick

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The Old Man and the Sea

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Jaws

Quint Robert Shaw Jaws Movie "sometimes..." Quote 8 x 10 ...

The Peter Benchley novel, Jaws was published in 1974. The movie followed in ’75. There may not be a more relevant and important iteration of leviathan in the twentieth-century film – nor in the modern conception of what leviathan means. Jaws established sharks in general, and the great white in particular as the sea beast that humans most dread. In 1978, the film Orca (based on Arthur Herzog‘s 1977 book) attempted to include the killer whale as an alternate leviathan representation. But Orca was derivative and didn’t capture public imagination as the sharks of Jaws had.

An important feature of the shark in Jaws is the enormous size of the fish. It is huge. One of the most dramatic and unforgettable moments in the film is when Roy Scheider’s character (Martin Brody) catches a first-glimpse of the shark and says, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

The Jaws film also clearly demonstrates that leviathan is a creature against which heroes may measure their deeds and mettle. Just as Beowulf recounted his swimming competition and struggles in Hrothgar’s court, Robert Shaw (as Quint) and Richard Dreyfuss (as Matt Hooper) compare scars and stories of their encounters with the dangerous creatures of the sea while drinking in the boat’s galley.

The scene in reminiscent, also of the opening of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when the narrator and his audience gather to share stories. Monsters and the void of the sea are deeply and permanently linked.

Gaze Into The Abyss Nietzsche Quotes. QuotesGram

Quint’s lines call to Mind Friedrich Nietzche’s famous passage, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

These are notions and insights of the leviathan mythology. The relationship between humanity and the monsters that it chooses to fight.

Interim Conclusion

My leviathan poem and this essay is a very small contribution to a vast and wonderful human heritage. Humanity’s relationship to the monsters of the deep is one of the primal orientations that occupies our species. Leviathan is the vast and unseen predator that can crush us, as individuals or as a collective. Our awe, dread, fear, respect, admiration totemic aspiration or whatever other affect we may put upon Leviathan are a fundamental motivating force in our lives.

We are leviathan.

Do you know of a ”Leviathan” poem or reference that should be included here? Let me know using the contact page.


External References and Links

  1. https://ericadriaans.com/2020/09/24/the-journey-begins/
  2. https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/shark-evolution-a-450-million-year-timeline.html
  3. https://humanorigins.si.edu/education/introduction-human-evolution
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Song_of_Myself
  5. Job 41:1 Rendering Courtesy of: https://www.christianity.com/bible/bible.php?ver=niv&q=job+41
  6. Image of a naturalistic depiction of the biblical Leviathan https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/423619908672037529/
  7. Image of a watery Dragon and Beowulf artist cited as Karl Kopinski: https://www.pinterest.ca/Ginwarrior/the-story-of-beowulf/
  8. https://karlkopinski.com/

Tai Chi in the Morning

Around 1971 or 1972, Townes Van Zandt wrote and recorded a hauntingly beautiful song called “Highway Kind”. Several terrific versions by different artists are out there ready to be enjoyed. The song first came to my attention via Lyle Lovett’s Step Inside This House. Lovett’s version is still my favorite, but other versions also have their appeal. This version featuring Twin Shadow (Live on KEXP), posted in 2014, deserves far more than the few thousand views than it has received so far.

The opening lines of “Highway Kind” never seem to fail to establish an ambiance suitable to quiet, introspective deep dives.

My days, they are the highway kind. They only come to leave; the leaving I don’t mind, it’s the coming that I crave. Pour the sun upon the ground, stand to throw a shadow; watch it grow into a night and fill the spinnin’ sky. Time among the pine trees, it felt like breath of air. Usually I just walk these streets and tell myself to care. Sometimes I believe me and sometimes I don’t hear. Sometimes the shape I’m in won’t let me go.”

Bask in the desolating warmth of these lovely lyrics as I may, this is a kind of poetry that I’m unlikely to ever conceive. Not least because these are sentiments and feelings that I rarely experience. I do not now and never have craved mornings. More often, I will doggedly cling to the last wonderful sensations of a dark and quiet night. What is among my cravings, however, is to establish new connections within and understandings of life and myself. That craving makes this song an easy and valuable meditative partner for morning Tai Chi routines.

When I realized that my do-it-when-I-remember-to Tai Chi schedule did not qualify as a commitment, I started to consider what I could and should do about it. I decided that I needed to set a regular schedule for the activity that I could stick to. I also wanted a routine that could maximize any benefit I might derive from the practice. In my case, I settled-on the worst part of my day. Mornings. It makes a kind of sense…if this is my worst time of day, maybe including Tai Chi could be an improvement. Maybe I could capture some of that pour the sun upon the ground enthusiasm.

Tai Chi Vectors by Vecteezy

My usual morning, and still my first inclination, is a groggy, grudging, reluctant affair. I’m rarely able to consider food. On most occasions, a hot shower and a hot beverage are the two minimum requirements to get me going. Upon occasion one or the other of these two things may be skipped. Never both. This tendency of mine is a very old (and possibly quite incorrect) predilection – to focus on getting things done rather than on finding ways to make the present richer and more enjoyable.

Waking has always been a trial. Particularly now that I’ve solidly entered, if not absolutely passed, mid-life, waking and rising in the morning, I seem to viscerally experience the fact that my lungs and circulatory system are not strong, healthy systems. I seem to feel a still-thickening sludge pooling in my chest and limbs like the dirty black oil of an engine that’s 100,000 kilometers overdue for service. Despite my perception that I’m not terribly overweight and am decently active, this kind of feeling has grown, sometimes to awful proportions, in recent years.

One morning, I recalled the bouts of pneumonia that I’d experienced over the years. Wave after wave of liquid infection that left me wheezing and panting for weeks and months afterward. I also recalled the embolism that drizzled into my lungs and choked-off my youthful feelings of vitality. That morning, I decided that I’d rather get up and do some Tai Chi than let that feeling continue to grow.

Rather than hunkering miserably on a chair while the morning beverage came together, I acted. I ran through the Tai Chi moves I had been learning. Calming the Water. Over the drum. Brush Knee. Single whip. Several others. In fact, I was surprised by how many came to mind. I won’t claim that they felt natural and smooth. But they were there for me. I simply stood in the kitchen and ran through what I could.

I also decided it would be an interesting opportunity to bring some deep breathing into my day. Since I spend most of my day (metaphorically) tethered to the tools of my professional day, I don’t get much cardiovascular exercise. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic environment, I work at home and don’t benefit from the meager bit of walking that used to be my commute.

By combining the Tai Chi movements with the deepest breathing I can muster in the morning, I’m expecting to derive some benefit. It’s not going to replace a good 40-minute bike ride or any of the other genuine cardio activities you care to mention, but it must be better than what I had previously been doing: nothing. So now most mornings, I get about twenty minutes of movement and deep breathing.

In the morning, I find it easier to synchronize deep full breaths with the Tai Chi moves. This is partly because I’m focused on wanting those deep breaths. I am better-able to allow my breathing to guide the movement. I pay less attention to the movement to focus on the breathing. As a result the movement seems to flow easier.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig makes use of mornings several times, emphasizing it as one of his narrator’s favorite times to ride a motorcycle. Many others within motorcycle culture and literature have expressed similar sentiments about riding in the morning. In one scene, when the narrator arises after a bad dream and riding is not yet an option, he decides to warm himself up with a walk down the logging road that he and his son had camped on the night before,

But pines and sunlight are stronger than any dreams and the wondering goes away. Good old reality…..To warm myself I speed up to a jog and move up the road briskly. Good, good, good, good, good. The word keeps time with the jogging. Some birds fly up from the shadowy hill into the sunlight and I watch them until they’re out of sight. Good, good, good, good, good. Crunchy gravel on the road. Good, good. Bright yellow sand in the sun. Good, good, good.

The scene recalls elements of Van Zandt’s lyrics. I even have a notion that I could look forward to mornings when I will be able to see and feel the sun filtering through the branches of the forty-foot fir tree that dominates our backyard and then also through the south-facing windows that are only a step or two from my morning Tai Chi station.

Within the first weeks of my experiment with morning Tai Chi, I find that moving slowly, an important part of Tai Chi, is easier in the morning. I’m certain that this is partly a result of the focus on breathing; I also suspect that the pace of the day…the build up of the day’s demands, frustrations, excitements and all of the rest of it have not yet usurped authority over my pace. I’m not reacting to anything yet.

My most significant observation is that my deep breaths are not nearly as deep as they should be. I feel how shallowly and light my regular breathing is. I cough a lot and take it as a sign that I’m working a system that needs to be worked. But also in the first weeks, I feel that improvements are occurring. Perhaps each breath should be accompanied by the mantra: Good, good, good, good, good.


External References and Links

  1. Photo Credit: Tai Chi Vectors by Vecteezy
  2. Lovett, Lyle. Step Inside This House.
  3. Pirsig, Robert. Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
  4. Van Zandt, Townes. Highway Kind from Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972. Omnivore Recordings.
  5. https://www.discogs.com/Townes-Van-Zandt-Sunshine-Boy-The-Unheard-Studio-Sessions-Demos-1971-1972/release/4340258
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWNCqi3FLHs&list=RDZWNCqi3FLHs&start_radio=1
  7. Photo Credit: https://www.twincities.com/2017/04/24/robert-m-pirsig-million-selling-zen-author-dead-at-88/

Tai Chi after Fifty

Several months after my forty-fourth birthday, I purchased a battered and abused 1982 Yamaha XJ550 Maxim. It was my first, and so far only, motorcycle. I acquired the Maxim to fulfill a long-deferred curiosity and ambition. Learning to ride was an exciting, dangerous and extremely enriching personal experience. After a couple of successful seasons exploring Elgin County’s farm-and-Carolinian-forest-lined roads, I sold the bike. I felt that the curiosity had been satisfied and the ambition fulfilled.

Later, as my fiftieth birthday came and went, I began an approach to another long-deferred curiosity and ambition: Tai Chi. Learning Tai Chi may seem rather less exciting and dangerous than learning to ride a motorcycle, but I have expectations that it will be every bit as enriching.

Aesthetically, learning to ride a motorcycle and learning Tai Chi may seem to be very different endeavours appealing to very different types or people. In my own case, the two activities appeal to different parts of the same person. Riding a motorcycle can be brazenly loud and physically demanding. It also carries an ever-present threat of injury or death. Stop paying attention at the wrong moment and you could face the worst (or last) day of your life.

1982 Yamaha XJ550 Maxim circa 2014

Meanwhile Tai Chi is quiet, physically un-intimidating and carries an ever-present threat of peacefulness. Stop paying attention at the wrong moment and you could face being quite ungraceful.

Despite the external and overt aesthetic differences, the two activities have some very considerable similarities.

When I learned to ride a motorcycle, I started with a two-hour try-it-out course at the local community college. There was no point in jumping on any motorcycle without expert guidance to help keep my middle-aged skin and bones intact. By the end of the session, when the instructors let us novices ride around in first gear in a tight little circle, I was as convinced as ever that I wanted to try motorcycling for real. Five or six kilometres per hour hadn’t felt so fast since mastering a two wheeled bicycle. To be honest, that experience is long ago enough, that I’m not entirely certain that it was an exhilarating experience.

Deciding to learn Tai Chi during the social distancing climate of 2020, the only viable sources of expert guidance is the internet. And there’s no shortage of potential experts to choose from. Frankly, I’m quite pleased to learn in the seclusion of my own home. Compared to the possibility of

dropping a motorcycle or launching myself into some unforgiving obstacle amid a group of other students, waving my limbs around with a group of strangers is far more intimidating. At least with the motorcycle gear, a degree of anonymity is assured via the giant helmet strapped to my noggin.

Which brings up the matter of “gear”. With a motorcycle, the requisite gear includes protective equipment from head to toe. Riding without the gear is dumb. The idea is to reduce one’s vulnerability during an inherently vulnerable activity. With Tai Chi, I seem to get away with some loose, light clothing and a pair of moccasins. Is it fair to describe this as setting protection aside and connecting with the increasing vulnerability and frailty of a 50-plus year old body? I think so.

Whether riding a motorcycle or learning to waggle my arms in something that approaches a synchronized and intentional way, I am learning a new physical ability. Let’s not call it a skill yet. With the motorcycle, I was tremendously satisfied with the confidence and courage that I acquired as I learned. Learning something new, something with risk, is a terrific way to relearn who you are physically, intellectually and emotionally. with Tai Chi, I am experiencing the same learning and self-connection.

There is a maxim that is recited in any number of training environments that goes “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. While learning these activities, the good sense of the phrase emerges in different ways. With the bike, taking time to learn how to operate the clutch; how to smoothly change gears, how to be in control and attentive without being over-stimulated is a better done at slow speeds..and over time. With Tai Chi, learning to move slowly, how to be in control of breathing and movements without over-stimulating is just as challenging.

I don’t regret deferring the pleasure of learning to ride a motorcycle until I was in my mid-forties. I’d long out-grown an immature craving for speed – a craving that may have injured or killed me had I been riding at an earlier age. It was also a terrific opportunity to rearrange and enhance my sense of identity. That is a very valuable opportunity. I feel the same way about deferring the Tai Chi. Learning it now, I have no doubt that I am learning it differently and with greater care and pleasure than I may have at an earlier time in my life.


External References and Links

  1. https://negativespace.co/black-white-honda-motorbike/
  2. Tai Chi Vectors by Vecteezy