Zen and the Art of Education

Trip Start Sep 01, 2006
Trip End Dec 18, 2006

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

"Drifting is what one does when looking at lateral truth. He couldn't follow any known method of procedure to uncover its cause because it was these methods and procedures that were all screwed up in the first place. So he drifted. That was all he could do." (Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

So I'm back at school and really don't feel like I have been slacking, but with only one class once a week, the obvious question is: why have I still basically not done a thing on my thesis?

The easy answer that I've been giving everyone is that I'm in a pretty major crisis about my topic and whether it is right for me at all. But that is just half the story, just a cover, for what I am realizing I have really been up to.

Among other things, what I've been doing is rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), by Robert Pirsig. The first time I read it was the summer of 2001. I was living and working in the boreal forest in the Yukon, and a friend had recommended it to me, jokingly calling it her "bible". I remember having a hard time getting through it, its concepts not always easy reading on those lonely exhausted nights after 16hours in the field. But I did finish it, and it had a profound yet subtle effect on me, that I have a hard time pinpointing even now. It is itself a travel book, paralleling two journeys - a physical one by motorcycle across the western United States, and a mental one through philosophy and metaphysics. I brought it with me to Finland last year along with a few other "comfort books", with the vague notion I might want to reread it at some point, but as it started to gather dust on my bookshelf, it seemed to have been a silly thing to have lugged overseas. But when I woke after my first good night's rest here this September, feeling at a complete loss over my thesis topic, feeling unsure about even the basic direction to face in trying to take my first step forward, I picked it up off the shelf, curled up on my single bed that is also my couch, and started to read. Procrastinating? Maybe... maybe not.

A few times in this blog I have alluded to the calm state that I find myself in here. I think I can start to explain better what I mean. It is not just the reality of living in a smaller city, where forested hills are visible on the horizon at the end of every street. It is not the fact that I have time to do dishes and fold laundry, per say. It is what the HAVING of that time allows me - space. Space to think, really think things through in their own time, rather than in the hurried small scraps of time that I manage to squeeze into my day in Canada. There is so much more freedom to create my own schedule and find my own rhythm here. Because it is so much more self-motivated and driven, I think the Finnish education system sets up the possibility of real learning much better than the more rigid Canadian system. Here I am allowed lateral drift, which is the name that Pirsig gives to those periods you are looking for something but you don't know what it is... "lateral knowledge is knowledge that's from a wholly unexpected direction, from a direction that's not even understood as a direction until the knowledge forces itself upon one." ZAMM articulated this in a way that helped me realize that what I have been doing, still am doing, is not a waste of time. Far from it. I have been thinking. That I have been feeling weird and kind of guilty about this, is a pretty sad statement about how we are generally taught to view school. Shouldn't thinking be one of the most important things we do, especially at the master's level? When we are forced to rush forward, in any direction as long as you get there in the end, we can end up somewhere we really never wanted to go. I think it is a major problem with our society in general, this rush, this lack of time to fully process decisions and ask the deeper "why" questions. I also think that our Canadian university system in particular sets up a very unhealthy environment for this kind of abstract, but so vital, thinking.

So I find myself in a strange position. On the one hand, I have pretty much accepted that this program is really not right for me at all, so at this point I am facing the challenge of making the best of it. On the other hand, it is this alternative format of the Finnish education system, and the process of trying to bend what I am really interested in to fit into the boxes of this program which has forced my thinking to go in some new and unexpected directions, that have lead me to the place that I am right now. Which IS a good one, overall. I am slowly feeling clearer and clearer about the bigger picture of my life and path, and I doubt I would be here if I hadn't gone through the past year. All of it. I guess that is life - more than just a case of more hindsight being 20/20, it is useless to begrudge or regret mistakes in the past that have led you to becoming the person who is able to see them, now, as mistakes, and understand why they happened. If you hadn't done those things, you would not have grown from them. You would be different, often less, than you are. It is exciting, sad, frustrating and beautiful all at once. So you just keep living it out.

Oh, and about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance... well, I am about 2/3 of the way through it now and although I plan to finish it this time too, my views on it have changed considerably. The most striking thing for me to realize is how far I've come in developing my own thinking and ideas, and how much I've learned about philosophy, although I still to this day have never taken a single philosophy class. It no longer seems so mysterious and all-knowing - I see many flaws in the statements put forth as fact or truth in the book, and I am taking it all with a rather large chunk of salt. Still, I see nuggets of wisdom and interesting paths to explore, and it is just so interesting to reread from this 5-year-later perspective. It is like when I reread Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, the other book I read for the first time in 2001 that was instrumental is my whole worldview shifting beneath my feet like an earthquake - I can see why it impacted me so much back then, and I am thankful and proud of myself that I didn't just accept it as truth and stop there. This is probably one of the most important lessons children should ever be taught in school: no matter how much you believe what you read, never accept it as the whole truth and never stop there. It is by stopping that we get stuck, and when we are stuck, things can get pretty mucky and nasty.

Something that both of these books have in common, that makes them in many ways so popular, is that they take big complicated ideas and distill them down into books that are relatively easy and enjoyable to read. Of course, this means that the author will by necessity (over?)simplify things, but do they acknowledge it? This is one of the reasons that I believe so strongly in academia. When working properly, it helps to keep egos at bay, and promotes the flowing and exchanging and building of ideas collectively. I believe in it for the same reasons I believe in consensus decision making - even if it is complicated and takes time to get there, it is better to have ideas that have stood these tests of process and the input of many in a visible process. You get that with academic peer-reviewed journals. You do not get that with books like ZAMM.

Regardless of the merits of academia vs just writing your ideas down on paper and publishing them, I was starting to feel suspicious about the sweeping conclusions ZAMM was coming to, so I started googling. I found a number of websites where people seemed to be worshipping Pirsig as a sort of modern day guru (one was his own), but I also found many critical sites, including a great transcript of an interview he gave a philosophy magazine journalist that asked many of the questions I had nagging in my head too. But this phenomena itself is something so new that I still am startled how naturally I do it, only realizing afterward how truly novel it is: Here alone in my flat on a Saturday morning, I can virtually engage in a many-voiced debate about almost any topic I can think of... and now a few minutes later, I sit here, in my own way adding to that debate. Pretty wild for a girl who could already drive a car by the time she first surfed the net.

Somehow it's almost time for me to get ready for our housewarming party tonight. And I guess that's another day that has slipped by without me getting any "school work" done. But then, that is just a matter of perspective.

copyright lisa cockburn 2006
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