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Zen and the Art of Pond Maintenance

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I recently finished reading Robert Pirsig’s seminal work, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. One of the book’s core themes is the dissatisfaction everyone seems to share about the permeation of technology in our lives.

Pirsig’s take on the subject (in a hyper-condensed form) is that we are so uncomfortable with technology in our lives because we see it as an inaccessible other. Most of us aren’t able to experience the “beauty” of computers (or motorcycles) the same way we are able to experience the beauty of nature. While nature has beauty in appearance, technology generally only has beauty in the underlying form. Since most of us can’t appreciate this underlying form, as we are not mechanics or computer engineers, we become alienated from it.

Pirsig does not distinguish the ability to appreciate technology by profession, however. He delineates two diametric worldviews: romantic and classical:

The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. “Art” when it is opposed to “Science” is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience.

The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws – which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behaviour.

Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classical.”

As I sat in my house reading this, I looked out at the pond we have in our backyard. Although I call it a pond, at the time it was really nothing more than a giant sludge puddle. Our house was uninhabited for over a year before we moved in, and in that time the once-beautiful pond of Director Erich Vogt became nothing more than noxious reed and mud, decayed lily pads, and a thin film of slimy water. The pond obviously had some sort of decrepit mechanical system that powered it, but there was no clear answer to how to go about fixing it.

I thought to myself, “It would be amazing if someone were to figure this out.”

But reading this book made me question that habit. According to Pirsig, if one is to be at peace with their surroundings, they should be able to appreciate the beauty of underlying forms as much as outward appearances:

“The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha – which is to demean oneself.”

Upon reading that, I decided to investigate the workings of the pond. It became symbolic – if I’m going ever get closer to inner peace, I’m going to have to understand how this pond works.

Fortunately, it only took about a minute. I overturned a fake rock and found a plug and an outlet. When I plugged it in, the pond came to life! A pump began to suck up the slimy water and filter it through the garden, creating a beautiful (albeit disgusting) babbling brook. That was it! Simply by adjusting my mindset from romantic (looking at sludge) to classical (looking at form), I was able to power the pond, 6 months after moving in.

However, that was the easy part. Although I had discovered the form of the pond, its appearance was still nasty. That led to a second inquiry into form: the landscaping process involved in clearing the pond’s sludge. And I knew even less about landscaping than I did about pumps.

This path wasn’t as simple as plugging it in. I’ll spare the gruesome details, but essentially it involved lugging gallons of water, renting (and misusing) water pumps, getting covered head to toe in mud, and pissing off my roommates (who were also incredibly helpful). The pictures below tell some of the tale:

(Pictures removed, sadly)

The end result, however, was truly special. Although I don’t have a good “before” picture to contrast with, as I didn’t realize the project would become a philosophical milestone for me, I can assure you that what you see below is a far cry from where we started. The pond has become a special place of serenity and enjoyment for me.

“The way to see what looks good and understand the reasons it looks good, and to be at one with this goodness as the work proceeds, is to cultivate an inner quietness, a peace of mind so that goodness can shine through.”

Robert Pirsig on yard work

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