If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Saturday, 24 October 2009


Writing the previous post reminded me of a passage in ZAMM (link below) on 'stuckness'. It's one that stuck (heh) in my mind for a long time after I first read the book. I've found the whole passage and I'm going to copy it here. If you don't like philosophy, or mechanical things, or non-traditional approaches to problems, look away now. Your loss.

The passage starts with a hypothetical situation - you are trying to get a screw out of a side-cover and it won't turn. In your haste, you have applied too much force and have torn out the slot, so that your screwdriver will no longer work. (Anyone who has worked on Japanese bikes up to about 1990 will remember the engine screws made of pressed milk-bottle tops that they used to use.) So now you are stuck. In Pirsig's words:

Normally screws are so cheap and small and simple you think of them as unimportant. But now, as your Quality awareness becomes stronger, you realize that this one, individual, particular screw is neither cheap nor small nor unimportant. Right now this screw is worth exactly the selling price of the whole motorcycle, because the motorcycle is actually valueless until you get the screw out. With this reevaluation of the screw comes a willingness to expand your knowledge of it.

He continues:

You're stuck. Stopped. Terminated. It's absolutely stopped you from fixing the motorcycle.

This isn't a rare scene in science or technology. This is the commonest scene of all. Just plain stuck ...

This book is no good to you now. Neither is scientific reason. You don't need any scientific experiments to find out what's wrong. It's obvious what's wrong. What you need is a hypothesis for how you are going to get that slotless screw out of there and scientific method doesn't provide any of these hypotheses. It operates only after they're around.

This is the zero moment of consciousness. Stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It's a miserable experience emotionally. You're losing time. You're incompetent. You don't know what you are doing. You should be ashamed of yourself. You should take the machine to a real mechanic who knows how to figure these things out.

It's normal at this point for the fear-anger syndrome to take over and make you want to hammer on that side plate with a chisel, to pound it off with a sledge if necessary. You think about it, and the more you think about it the more you're inclined to take the whole machine to a high bridge and drop it off. It's just outrageous that a tiny little slot of a screw can defeat you so totally.

What you're up against is the great unknown, the void of all Western thought. You need some ideas, some hypotheses. Traditional scientific method, unfortunately, has never quite gotten around to say exactly where to pick up more of these hypotheses. Traditional scientific method has always been, at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It's what you think you know, but it can't tell you where you ought to go, unless where you ought to go is a continuation of where you were going in the past. Creativity, originality, inventiveness, intuition, imagination - "unstuckness" in other words - are completely outside its domain ...

Let's consider a reevaluation of the situation in which we assume that the stuckness now occurring, the zero of consciousness, isn't the worst of all possible situations, but the best possible situation you could be in. After all, it's exactly this stuckness that Zen Buddhists go to so much trouble to induce; through koans, deep breathing, sitting still and the like. Your mind is empty, you have a "hollow-flexible" attitude of "beginner's mind." You're right at the front end of the train of knowledge, at the track of reality itself. Consider, for a change, that this is a moment to be not feared but cultivated. If your mind is truly, profoundly stuck, then you may be much better off than when it was loaded full of ideas.

The solution to the problem often at first seems unimportant or undesirable, but the state of stuckness allows it, in time, to assume its true importance. It seemed small because your previous rigid evaluation which led to the stuckness made it small. But now consider the fact that no matter how hard you try to hang on to it, this stuckness is bound to disappear. Your mind will naturally and freely move toward a solution. Unless you are a real master at staying stuck you can't prevent this. The fear of stuckness is needless because the longer you stay stuck the more you see the Quality-reality that gets you unstuck every time. What's really been getting you stuck is the running from the stuckness through the cars of your train of knowledge looking for a solution that is out in front of the train.

Stuckness shouldn't be avoided. It's the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors. It's this understanding of Quality as revealed by stuckness which so often makes self-taught mechanics so superior to institute-trained men who have learned how to handle everything except a new situation.

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Chapter 24

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