It’s been thirty-six years since I read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. I was twenty-one, had never been to the US and was still two years away from buying my first motorbike, so the setting of the book, which describes biking across the back-roads of America, was more exotic to me than some of the philosophical ideas that it set out to explore.
It was a good piece of writing that let me ride pillion while Robert Pirsig took a perfect line through the curves of the meaning of value and quality, and the virtues of gestalt-based intuition over rational analysis. What can I tell you, I’ve always had a weakness for that kind of stuff.
Much of the book flowed through my mind without leaving a noticeable trace, but one image stayed with me and became part of my personal navigation system: Pirsig’s description of the South Indian Monkey Trap.
“The trap consists of a hollowed out coconut chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be grabbed through a small hole. The hole is big enough so that the monkeys hand can go in, but too small for its fist with rice in it to come out. The monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped by nothing more than his own value rigidity. He can’ t revalue the rice. He cannot see that freedom without rice is more valuable than capture with it.
My younger self went: “Stupid Monkey” and took great pleasure in identifying people who were clutching their handful or rice, unable to make the rational choice.
Of course, it turned out that I was a pretty stupid monkey myself. I still am.
Like many people, my handful of rice is a fistful of dollars. I get paid a lot of money for spending my time and my intellect on being a management consultant. I have no passion for it but I am pretty good at it. So I kept my hand in the coconut, tugging at the chain, telling myself that my passion was for other things and I ought to have the courage to pursue them, that I ought to reject the long hours and the hundreds of nights a year away from home and be the real me. Except, that I couldn’t let go of the money and, after a while, I couldn’t let go of the kudos of being good at something that my clients and some of my colleagues see as difficult.
As I entered my fifties, the monkey trap started to chafe and I began to plan to retire as soon as I could. Except, seven years later, I’m still here. Partly that’s because, a year or so ago, I found a new coconut to stick my fist in: we sold the consultancy that owned a small part of. My share of the proceeds gave me enough money to be able to retire and live a simple life. BUT… while I got most of the money up front, a portion of it will only be paid out if I’m still with the company after three years. I have enough money. I could walk away at any time. Except, if I keep my hand in the coconut for just a little longer, I’ll have an even bigger pile of rice.
So here I sit.
O.K, Perhaps not so stupid. Many people have to work a lot harder for a lot longer. I’m not complaining. I’m just a bit surprised to find that knowing I’m a stupid monkey doesn’t stop me from being one.
The Americans have a saying (at least I think it’s the Americans, I haven’t been able to track the origin down):
“LET GO OR BE DRAGGED”.
Why would you need a saying like that? Letting go is the most logical response. The saying is there because actions are more often driven by reflex than by logical thought. If I’m pulled, I hold on tight. Then I’m in a struggle and letting go feels like losing. So I hang on and I get dragged.
Half the things I own seem to drag me along behind them. I have to store them, protect them from being stolen, learn how to use them properly, and clean and maintain them afterwards. If they would only stop pulling for a while I might find… myself? inner peace? – probably not. I hope I might find the sense to use what I need and let it go when I’m done. I’d like to own less and enjoy what I have more. I find myself wanting to follow the advice that the textile designer, William Morris, gave back in 1880:
“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Of course, that advice is easier to follow when you have the money to back it up but it still takes a surprising amount of effort to let go.
Fortunately, my wife, the only person I will never let go of, feels the same way.
Perhaps together we can let go slowly so that by the time I figure out how to smash that damn coconut, we can live more by choice and less by reflex.
Perhaps we can let go and it will be O.K.