June 8, 2020: The Zen Rider’s Alchemist

Something is going on.

I was told to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in 2013 by my NCOIC (my firstline manager in the army). I put it off until about last week—over seven years. And it turns out that book is actually excellent. That book really and truly blew my mind with its sophisticated take on the split between the rational and romantic. I had originally figured it was going to be wishy-washy self-help bullshit about living in the moment. —It’s not. I thought I was too smart for the book, but the truth was, I didn’t know enough about Platonic and Aristotelian thought to appreciate the book. It’s a top tier book written by a former professor with legit academic credentials. 5/5.
Then, almost one year later in 2014, I was told to read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho by my girlfriend at the time. I did not read it. I read an online summary. And I thought that I got it. I thought I already knew “the message”. Plus, at the time I was reading CG Jung’s take on “real” alchemy; I didn’t want to read a best-selling hack. Also, this was during a strange time in my life where I thought that I was about to crack the secrets of the universe: it had something to do with reality being constructed of tensions of opposites which I was learning to \”control\”, but what I had in fact discovered was that my ability to perceive-and-describe things was based on pairs of opposites—that human experience is largely based on a dialectic of sorts.
Anyway. In fact, I did not get it. I did not understand The Alchemist (nor the secrets of life). (The book had nothing to do pairs of opposites.) But I set it aside because I figured a top-seller like that is probably full of useless platitudes that tickle ears. The book slipped to the back of mind while I read more “important” things.
Today, a friend asked me if I had read The Alchemist. I said that I would read it soon. Then within the hour, I received a text saying that the Kindle that I had ordered was at my door—an omen. And so I am reading the book now, six years later. And the first thing that I am struck with is the simplicity of the book. In previously having read the first few pages, I had originally mistaken its simplicity for naivete, foolishness, vulgarity, and a lack of sophistication. But that is far from the case. The book’s simplicity is one of its virtues—a sign of graceful simplicity. Moreover, it contains wisdom that I was not ready to hear six years ago.
Sometimes the most valuable and important things are impossible to notice because of their apparent commonness and simplicity. The wisdom of The Alchemist is like this. I am not finished with the book but this stuck out so much to me that I had to write it down:
“You must always know what it is that you want.”
There it is. I feel it is profound—more profound, meaningful than many philosophy and political theory lectures I attended.
Coelho says that our true desires are the universe’s same desires, and the universe will conspire to help us achieve those desires.
Now before I talk about how the universe is fucking with me by giving me what I want I should first ask which desires are our true desires? I think our true desires come from our true self. I found a good answer to what our true self is in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Robert Pirsig, the author, says that a bike is a reflection of its owner—particularly when the owner takes care of maintenance. If the owner lacks patience, that lack of care is reflected in the bike. The subtleties of this relationship are most obvious to motorcycle riders and, if he is both attentive and reflective, to the owner himself.
I’ll give another example. Right now I am wearing raw denim jeans. First, this makes me a conceited asshole, which I feel the need to acknowledge. But. Second, these jeans are a reflection of who I really am. Raw denim fades according to how they’re worn. And these pants are fading most quickly around my ass because that’s what I do in pants. —I sit. When I noticed this, I was disappointed because I like to think of myself as being active and doing a variety of activities. But these jeans can’t lie. That is the difference between my real self and my ego/ideal-self.
I have gotten what I have wanted and asked for. It’s true. It’s just that things never quite turned out how I expected. When I graduated from college, I wanted to live in Seattle, and I did that.  When I lived in Seattle, I wanted a “well-respected job that pays well,” and I got that, but I was miserable, and I was spit out.
So what do I really want? Well, if I look around, apparently I wanted La Croix, because there’s a lot of empty La Croix cans sitting around me. But I have time, books, and a girlfriend. And next month, if things go according to plan, I will have solitude, because I will be camping in the desert for a month or so. Then I will start grad school a few months after that. So I guess that is what God or The Universe or The Great Magnet or my True Self has given me. But it still doesn’t seem to be quite right. Things feel too unstable and this flux is too chaotic.
Here are some thoughts about what I want (in no particular order).
  • Wisdom: to guard, grow, and nourish my soul.
  • A Motorcycle: To enjoy the ride-and-journey to new and old places—to enjoy something for its own sake.
  • Health: to be able to participate in life
  • To Write as a Craft: to bring value to the world and to develop my own soul.
  • Friends: with whom to share good and bad times.
  • A Family: to love and cherish; to grow with.
  • Wealth: enough to support my self/family, my passions and live a healthy life—and to donate the excess to charity.
  • The ability to find soul-satisfying meaning during the daily grind—some days in happiness, other days in pain.
That’s a start. But only a start. I get the feeling that we don’t get to choose our desires. We discover them and work with what we have. The above list is only a shadow what I have discovered so far. When it comes to this type of knowledge, what we know is written on our hearts.

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