Living Intentionally (And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

Everyone I know wants to live a fulfilled life. Almost everyone I know would agree that paying a little more attention would make our lives better. Living intentionally is simply a lifestyle that attempts to live according to our values and beliefs. Although the term “Living Intentionally” may be a bit clichéd, the underlying premise is timeless. Prioritizing your life so that your values and interests determine your lifestyle is vital for anyone who wishes to live a fulfilled life.

living intentionallyI really enjoy reading. I try to read a few different books each month if possible. And, if not a book, I’m spending hours reading different types of content across various other mediums. Rarely does a book capture a concept so eloquently that it sears into my psyche. I don’t read a lot that falls within the philosophy genre. I do however enjoy stories that illustrate philosophical points in entertaining ways. Zen and the Art does have a way of polarizing readers into camps of love or hate. I wouldn’t say I love every aspect about the book, but several passages are incredibly mesmerizing.

I stumbled upon the 1974 modern classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, after seeing a post about it make the front page of reddit earlier this year. I wasn’t really looking for zen and I’ve never owned a motorcycle. Although I actually do have my motorcycle license, I spend a lot more time on the bicycle than anything else. I think biking is actually even more connected and a better illustration of intentionality than a motorized cycle.

A simple passage from the beginning of the book gives an awesome perspective of life through the eyes of an individual riding a motorcycle across the United States on vacation. The passage is a reflection in moment of introspection:

You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a [bike] the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere. We are just vacationing. Secondary roads are preferred. Paved county roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are the worst. We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on “good” rather than “time” and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes.

Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable, as well as safer. Roads free of drive-ins and billboards are better, roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is, where when you stop to ask directions or information the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you’re from and how long you’ve been riding. -R. Pirsig

In India there was a moment. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the emotion that was piqued. I felt like I understood something. Something on a deeper level than ever before. I couldn’t immediately articulate the full context of the moment. It actually took plenty of reflection, thought, and time to process the nuances of the emotion I was feeling. It was one of those strange epiphanal moments where you simply feel like you have more understanding in the current moment than you’ve had before. It often takes on a life more than the simple actions or environments that exist in the exact instant that you are experiencing it. For me, it was watching a bus drive past.

DSC01174This wasn’t an ordinary bus. And I wasn’t riding in it. I was actually packed three deep breathing in diesel fumes on the back of moto-rickshaw struggling to keep up with slow-moving traffic. And then it happened. The brand new, beautiful tour bus passed. Filled with fancy things like air condition, televisions, fanny packs, rich white people, guides, and bathrooms with toilet paper. The feeling was strange. A twinge of envy rushed over my body. Man, it would be nice to be riding in that. What am I doing here? I’m rich. I could be in there. But then the second wave came over. The people on the bus, as they looked at us, with bold indifference- boarding on sleepiness. The lack of emotion. The glazed over eyes you only get from being whisked from one photo-op to another. There was something missing. And, ironically, I wasn’t the one missing something. As comfortable as they were, I couldn’t help but think to myself, they are the ones missing out.

Jaipur farmers marketAlthough the destination pictures will turn out the same, there is still something missing. Something about the heat, the smell of cloves, cinnamon, curry and poverty, the air, the sounds, the people, the wind. Something about the bright colors, the interactions, the rubbish, different languages and the sweat. There are some things that can’t be captured in a post card. The portion of the experience that doesn’t make it on film. The difference from merely seeing an image and feeling the real thing. The difference between reality and the imposter.

That day, something changed in me. And honestly, that may have been a turning point in my life. I won’t know for sure until I’m old, but I’ll stay attuned to the answer. What was it? It was the simple realization that our noblest of pursuits often leave us unsatisfied. The moment when you find that simplicity can be superior than the complexity of luxury. The point where you realize that luxury can be a distraction to the emotion that is reality. The subtle irony that leaves us with the conclusion that the ultimate pursuit of luxury is empty. The fact that reality is better served, not on a television screen, but out, in it.

When things are real, you get dirty. We spend a lot of our time, energy, and money avoiding the dirt. We spend a lot of time working our way up the hedonic treadmill of incremental comfort. And the sad part is, once we are looking though the glass, we forget what it is like on the outside. There is simply something missing from the reality of life and the screen in our head.

If you watch enough tv, that becomes your experience. Watching sports, celebrities, reality tv, “news”, outdoor recreation, love, and romance replaces the real experiences with something commercialized, false, and unrealistic. The pornography of life- that fake representation of life that supplants the beautiful mess that is human interaction. We don’t have time to live in the moment when we are spending too much of it watching the moments of others through a glass wall. If you watch enough tv, it becomes your reality. The square box on four wheels that moves us around becomes the screen which we view life. But it doesn’t have to.

How do we live life? The short answer: ride a bike. Well, not just any bike, but use the bike as a metaphor for simply participating in life. Riding a bike is connecting to the physical world, a step away from the television smoke screen and a nudge towards the realities of life. Biking combines life prioritization, finance, exercise, environmental consciousness, and being awesome all into one single outdoor activity. And, after time, the change will happen. Instead of envy washing over you as the newest shining suv zooms past, you will gain little pleasure from the internal satisfaction that arises knowing that you are not the one missing out- you are the one living life. So, go outside, don’t be afraid of getting a little dirty. Being out in the real world is complicated and challenging. But it is worth it. Always remember, the messy real is better than perfect fantasy.

6 thoughts on “Living Intentionally (And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

  1. I would like to say your writing has evolved into something I gleefully look forward to every other week or so, but that would be a lie. Truth is, it’s been phenomenal since Day 1. Thanks for the post. It’s exactly what I needed this week.

  2. Intentional living is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Are my actions, my words, my thoughts aligning with the man I want to be? Are our purchases aligning with our final goals?

    Awesome post Stephen.

  3. I subscribe to a couple blogs. The likes of ZenHabits, David Cain, MrMoneyMustache, Riskology, Tim Ferriss, The Minimalists, and Tynan. All of which are great. This might be the best piece I’ve read in the past year.
    Stunned. Keep it up. You’re awesome.

  4. I bike every single day. I’ll go weeks without driving my car. I got in it the other day and I was like, “Wow, there are a lot of blind spots in here.”