A Meditation into Asking Questions

“It is not good to talk about Zen because Zen is nothingness ... If you talk about it you are always lying, and if you don't talk about it no one knows it is there.” 

-Robert M. Pirsig in an Interview with The Guardian


The world I live in is the is its infancy of the internet—where humans seem at the pinnacle of access to information, yet critical discrimination of this information remains seldom practiced. Following, the expansion of the information age exploded into the infinite that currently feels normal but difficult for many to grasp, even those born in the 60s!  Pirsig was certainly a man ahead of his time, and perhaps ours too. He lives on today in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

A good friend recommended this book to me at a young age. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had read this book at fiften when she recommended it, instead of at twenty-three. I probably would have sat fighting the psychiatric system of the United States of America at a much younger age. That battle, I would probably have lost. I sit dumbfounded at Pirsig’s ability to pinpoint and argue a metaphysical point that will likely stand through many tests of times. Before I continue to talk about my ideas and find some sort of contracted gibberish, I will include one of my favorite quotes from the book.

“When one person falls to a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people fall to a delusion, it is called a religion.”

I do not include this to construct an argument on religion. That is too easy to do, and frankly unrewarding. My objective in including this epigraph is to point out how easily and quickly we fall prey to false promises and empty truths when we do not understand them for ourselves;

“when you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer… Supersition leads the waaaaayyyyyy” (Stevie Wonder)

to highlight the imperative of experiencing experience separated from form and through form. Perhaps what I am really trying to say is that digesting and working the material into your life is of utmost importance and certainly a lifelong pursuit. Whatever it is I am saying, the feeling that these words convey matter more than their meanings.

Religion is not the only example. Rationality exists in this bucket too. The absurdity of trying to enact anything rational from supposed chaos, or absurdity, points to a deep desire to a fundamental flaw in Western thought. Albert Camus took an interesting approach to resolving this dilemma. For the absurdist to ask questions and understand, he or she must understand a structure to evaluate the answer relative to the question, which requires another structure to validate that structure and further another structure to validate the previous structure… you might see a trend developing. Developing rationality requires a fundamental-ness to rationality! Yet where could this rational thought come from? It is a ghost. Despite its wispy nature, this is an endeavor that humans are unlikely to overcome, so we must try. Whether this is a flaw in human nature or flaw in understanding, I do not know, and is probably not the point anyway.

The Essay

We must ask questions to understand. But with an infinite number of questions surrounding any given phenomena and an infinite number of responses to the question and a touch of an infinite number of psychological and metaphysical mis-interpretations, the human can quickly lose itself in a sea of questions—some meaningful and others meaningless. But understanding how to ask the right questions presents a paradoxical dichotomy. How does one understand what questions to ask to get at the knowledge they do not know they do not know? Knowing what question constitutes, the “right question” would require an infinite amount of knowledge! Is this possible to connect with? Akin to Prisig’s ghost, this paradox further highlights the unfortunate conundrum in the human condition, at least the human condition according to western thought. By understanding Phaedrus’ metaphysical “Quality” we will work to connect with Quality by laying the groundwork for our values—values that lead us eventually to the right questions not because we as ourselves ask them but rather because the questions retch themselves forward in the correct moment. For the questions to arrive, we need to make ourselves a space that welcomes their arrival. This, we can understand somewhat as Zen—cultivating a garden so that the soil of our minds can maximize and absorb as much of the rain of life as possible, when it falls. So, what is Quality and how do we ask the right questions to understand? 

            Pirsig uses the word Quality to reference what is before there is is. I prefer the word Beauty. I believe they are synonymous.

What is “Quality”?

            Phaedrus, Pirsig’s character name in the book to represent his philosophical mind, embarks on a quest to define Quality. His main qualm lies in the fact that you know when you have it (Quality) yet cannot define it. Phaedrus understands the classic objective-subjective duality in terms of Quality. If it (Quality) were entirely subjective, one would never be able to talk about it, but if it were entirely objective, one would be able to define it. Essentially, any definition forces Quality into a box that limits Quality into something it is not. Languages are mere utterances of structure that stitch an overlay onto the surroundings so that we can understand. Quality is transcendental. Turning to more metaphysical language, Pirsig zooms past the subjective vs objective modes of understanding and process the third mode of understanding, that is Quality. Continuing, he proposes that all understanding, subjective and objective, disseminate from Quality. He articulately implodes the anthropocentric mode of understanding: the subject-object relationship, the chicken or the egg, finding an answer after the search or presupposing a search before an answer. By stating Quality as a prerequisite, anything that exists connects with the force of Quality, and our values determine our ability to be conscious of different Qualities. 

Why asking questions is important

            Quality, existing outside the realm of subjective and objective understanding reveals itself in response to inquiry. Thus, the answer is only as good as the inquiry. The question frames everything about the answer—the approach, the bias, the topic the answer can address. For example, if I asked you, the reader, “what color is the sky?” In order to answer the question, the reader will respond with a color. Of course, there exist many colors for the reader to choose from, but the reader will still answer with a color. An answer that was not a color, perhaps “cloudy” would be a meaningless answer. (I am well aware that “cloudy” conjure some sort of color association but for the sake of the idea we will understand “cloudy” as an adjective that is not a color). Phaedrus, studying chemistry at University of Minesota, understood this well and captivated himself with his ability to postulate a hypothesis, test it, and use the results to disseminate information. He quickly found, however, that, as he asked questions, doors revealed themselves to frame an answer but each answer revealed a new door to open which unleashes a flow of understanding that could never satisfy the original question but instead ordered upon new questions—thus elongating his pursuit of knowledge. 

If we understand the process of solving problems (obtaining knowledge) to knocking on and opening doors and following that a door cannot open unless we call it to open. Thus, we cannot find answers unless we ask questions. Due to the seemingly unlimited nature of the human mind, there exist infinite doors through which to frame the world. If we do not understand the vast formations of different looking doors, then we may pass certain doors without having the faintest idea the door existed. We may also mistake walls for doors, which is a painful mistake to make. Even worse, sometimes we build the labyrinth when there is just an open field fit for frolicking. Problems, and questions, follow the same idea and we need to make sure we refine our attention enough to recognize them when they are there, identify them correctly, and not create them where they do not exist.

The door analogy simply means that there are infinite frameworks of understanding we can apply to each question, feeling, phenomena, etc; following there exist infinite doors to follow each satisfactorily constructed, opened, and passed through door. Science for example, is a great door. When Newton discovered that everything fell toward the earth, he labeled this phenomenon, gravity. Things have almost always fell toward other things but humans did not understand it within a system of thought. Science exists as a door to discover, label, and confirm understandings of phenomena. Any time a scientist discovers something that is undefinable, they define it… obviously. When Einstein discovered that there is a cosmological speed limit and that space and time bend around, he called it special relativity. And what happened when scientists discovered that the universe is comprised 27% of something undefined? They defined it as dark matter. Science is about as scientific as ghosts are real. Pirsig explains this relating ghosts to science in a brilliant soliloquy.

“Because they’re (ghosts) un-sci-en-ti-fic…They contain no matter, and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science do not exist except in people’s minds… Of course, the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people’s minds. It’s best to be completely scientific about the whole thing and refuse to believe in either ghosts or the laws of science. That way, you’re safe. That doesn’t leave very too much to believe in, but that’s scientific too” (Pirsig, 39)

Pirsig admits his explanation contains facetious humor. But he has a subtle point. Clearly, the laws of science do not contain any substance outside of the human mind–converting energy into attention into thought constructs the substance within the human mind, a labyrinth of walls and doors leading to passage ways that lead to more doors! Following the many laws of physics and logic, then the ghosts are real and as scientific as the laws of science are scientific.

“Oh and the laws of physics and of logic… the number system… the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe so thoroughly in them they seem real.”

“What I’m driving at,” I say, “is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed.”

“Sitting there having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s minds because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere–this law of gravity still existed?”

“Well, I predict if that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. That the law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense… and what that means is that the law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant, barbaric, and superstitious about our own.”

 The difference between ghosts and the laws of science lies in the amount of conscious energy directed toward a similar idea. More people in this time of humanity believe in science than ghosts!

Just because science is a ghost does not mean that it is meaningless, but the fact that gravity DID NOT exist before Newton discovered presents a tough hurdle for many Westerners to overcome. It requires us to understand truths about the Self and the universe that words cannot convey. Pirsig likens science to a belief because IT IS; it is one we can continuously reaffirm (justified through our method of thinking, engaging, creating, understanding) –similarly to how many human cultures throughout history reaffirmed their modes of belief, linking good rains to sacrifices to a sort of rain God. Science exists as a system of values enacted through the human desire to understand–similarly, the motorcycle is a system of values manifested via steel, and a restaurant a system of values manifested via food. Circling back to the imagined (real) doors and likening them with ghosts, we can extract an important point. I suggest (and I believe Pirsig does too), that the question about what exists outside the doors is meaningless, and quite literally does not exist. The only way our world exists is through our perception through which we come to know the world exists! It is silly to think anything else will not lead anyone anywhere useful, except perhaps to the limit of human understanding which circles the human back into realizing that our perception, or mind, creates all phenomena via the doors we find, open, and walk through.

I will note, for the reader, that the critique of science is not a critique of the scientific process. The scientific process, for what it is designed to do, works great. But by liking science to a faith, we see how science is just as useful as its scope provide. As a mode of understanding that categorizes and disseminates information, science works excellently. But science blinds humanity’s imaginative scope, rather how imaginatively vast the scope can become, among potentially other things, but that is not my point. The point I want to hammer here is the importance of understanding the scope of understanding, when it is useful and when it is not fit for the problem or question–becoming intimate with whichever ghosts (doors) we find. Just like it would make no sense to hammer a nail with a screwdriver (unless under dire circumstances we had to), we must remain cognizant of the usefulness of certain perspectives or understandings and apply them when the problems they are designed to tackle arise.

If there is an infinite configuration of doors, how do we know which ones are worth finding, opening, and passing through? It may seem an impossible question, but we can find a resolution to the dilemma of infinite doors. While each question exists and is as real as the other, the answers that we understand are the ones that we can verify and repeat among other perspectives–of course driven by a similar narrative, language, and understanding.

So how can we justify following a line of answers?

            The imaginative scope, and the resulting goals, mark the waypoints that guide the scientist in his or her pursuit. Since scientists, a lot like philosophers (and even humans in their day to day lives), must make assumptions to make an assertion and then prove that assertion right or wrong, the assumptions we make hold significant weight in exacting a conclusion. Following, the criteria by which one measures an outcome limits the scope of the answer. Any scientist (human) who does not have proper moral, logical, creative, and spiritual connection is almost certainly barking up the wrong tree.  My favorite example is that which Carol Gilligan’s work exemplifies,

The researcher was not allowing for the answers to show up. She noticed that researchers in the 1980s forcibly extracted masculine ethical principals from developing girls (around age seven) because they framed the questions that way. The girls wanted to help the family secure the medicine to save one of its members by helping the doctor, paying on credit, or some other form of web-weaving activity. Instead the investigators negated their questions and forced them into a steal the medicine or the family member dies type of situation. Eventually, Gilligan re-designed the experiment to allow for more varied answers and published papers showing that women tend towards more web forming ethical choices whereas boys will tend towards getting the job done most efficiently.

Our filters work well to inhibit observations. As a disseminator of information, the scientist wields power by carving the criteria for what constitutes a “good” criterion. But we do not need scientists finding “good” results. We need scientists carving out Quality results. To encounter this Quality, the scientist must make him or herself a place where Quality can arrive.

“So, we preselect on the basis of Quality, or, to put it Phadrus’ way, the track of Quality preselects what data we’re conscious of, and it makes this selection in such a way as to best harmonize what we are with what we are becoming.” (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).

Our value structure is a knife that decides what our attention gravitates toward; thus all results, pursuits, and publications mirror the Quality of our being. So if the scientist wants Quality research, the scientist needs to refine their attention so to encounter Quality. Their attention becomes a knife that cuts and categorizes information. And we MUST use a knife (at least in Western culture anyway)! Language is a glaring example of a knife. Without the knife, we cannot communicate; the experience of this nothingness is pleasant, yet we must refine to share and help others to realize this for themselves. But in using the knife, we cut out and water down certain experiences. Whatever criteria we use to select our values mirrors itself in the information we find, thus highlighting the importance of the importance of the process of electing values.

Limitations of our Knife

The knife, a tool: like lens, spoons, flints, etc. has its limitations—and including the metaphysical knife I continue hammering about. The knife has a specific use (and sometimes uses that dictate its usefulness. In some cases, a tool may be used outside its intended purpose. One can use a hammer to hit a golf ball if one desires, and it would work! But this would be an inefficient use of time and energy as golf balls exist outside of a hammer’s useful scope. These tools represent technology, a mode of categorizing and disseminating information in an efficient or artful manner. Martin Heidegger has some wonderful words to say about technology.  

“Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly pay homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.”

A knife can only be useful insofar as its causis formalis, its intended purpose. This highlights, not the importance but the necessity of envisioning the result for which we elect our knife (our values) that ask the questions which Create the answers. In a metaphysical perspective, the knives represent modes of understanding (classical v. romantic thought), language, and music. The answer to electing the values relaying the questions that the values create mix together to form a soup of a difficult conundrum; if the values create the knife which elects the questions which herein reveal the answers by which we ought to form our values, then we are left with two important questions. The first question is popular in Western culture—where do we start? The second question—what does Quality have to do with this!?

Practice, Practice, Practice

            Here, we arrive at the bread and butter of Pirsig’s metaphysical findings—that Quality births all understandings: subjective, objection, classical, romantic, rational, logical, etc.! The value we place on things determines the extent to which we connect with Quality. From a Zen perspective, the issue is that there is no elector or elections, no chooser of choice, the valuer of valuing. So how does one find this? The attention we dedicate toward reforming our attention (or rather stripping it of egoistic distinctions) to generate different (new to us) values dictates our ability to build toward Quality. We thus must practice building our attention: this is called mindfulness, consciousness, perception, gosh the words become so closely intertangled that to distinguish greatly between them at this point would miss the point. This is the subject we cannot talk about, Zen, Vipassana, etc. because it is an such an inward practice and mysterious practice that it is not something that we can project outward and analyze. It is of feeling, of sentiment, of the spirits that guide us beneath conscious and unconscious perception. Pirsig believed, and I agree that it is paramount that we practice because there exist many natural and human made value traps threatening to drown us in the modern sea of information.   

“Of the value traps, the most widespread and pernicious is value rigidity. This is an inability to revalue what one sees because of commitment to previous values… The facts are there but you don’t see them. You’re looking right at them, but they don’t yet have enough value. This is what Phaedrus was talking about. Quality, value, creates the subjects and the objects of the world” (399). 

Following, the subjects and objects that we interact with present themselves in the way that our values will let them! Returning to the question that plagues Western thought, “where does this start,” has no meaning in the intertangled interaction of subject-object-value-Quality. It all happens at the same time whether we are conscious of it or not. This holds up logically because outside of Western thought, there is no “I” to be conscious of things.  The only thing we are left with after this is the process of refining our attention. Asking questions, practicing dismantling our egos, electing and enacting our values will result and rinsing and repeating, I hypothesize, will drop us into a flow of finding the right questions which lead us further into more right questions.

Before I wrap up this meditation, I would like to retouch on the theme of the ghost.

“No one then would see the ghost Phaedrus pursued, but I think that more and more people see it, or get glimpses of it in bad moments, a ghost which calls itself rationality, but whose appearance is that of incoherence and meaninglessness, which causes the most normal of everyday acts to seem slightly mad because of their irrelevance to anything else. This is the ghost of moral everyday assumptions which declares that the ultimate purpose of life, which is to keep alive, is impossible, but that this is the ultimate purpose of life anyway, so that great minds struggle to cure diseases so that people may live longer, but only the madmen ask why. One lives longer in order that they may live longer. There is no other purpose. That is what the ghost says.” (101)

The ghost, I believe, stands for that “values matter”, that “rationality exists”, that “anything has an essence unique to itself.” Remember, ghosts are as real as we believe them to be real. So, the ghost tells us that values matter only insofar as we believe they matter. It follows that if we stopped believing in ghosts, that values become meaningless. And this, I believe, is true—not that values do not matter but that if we believe they do not then they do not. This charts us into territory that raises moral panic in many. And it should. For the philosophers who have attempted to wrestle this question, Albert Camus being a more famous one, they find themselves trapped in the recursive realm of logic, meaninglessness, the void—for that a truth based in logic is hardly a truth! Explained, only logic can conjure paradoxes that stump logic; if we look outside logic, the paradox’s existence ceases. The paradox in this case is that we can logic ourselves out of values mattering, but that is false!

By our very being in the world we touch with values, with Quality, and the belief that values do not matter is, without escape, still a value. Just because we can make the philosophical leap into understanding that values are simply ghosts, the panic it creates seems to show us that this leap only reveals a lack of substance which then pulls us to find it, to find the ghosts. The absurd logician fails to reconcile the fact that there is not “essence before existence” nor “existence before essence” but that essence and existence are intermingled. Our ability to create meaning in a “meaningless universe” is an absurd thought because it so obviously contains meaning, otherwise nothing would exist! To digress for a bit more, the absurdist (and nihilist who share similar traits) likely experience an intense period of disintegration; once the disintegration has completed the human would presumably be free to play around with values and beliefs and ghosts. Pirsig was likely joking because the absurd is funny, and this is an absurd point. He vividly demonstrates our ability to logic around the idea of existence, science, and Quality with the words we use. And often, the words we use do not reflect reality but instead a reality that we have created. So, we have no choice in encountering Quality and values and choices and thus must continuously work in finding it.

Proposing Some Questions

If Quality (Beauty) precedes existence-essence but is only found and created by existence-essence, then we must carefully exact ourselves so that we may have a chance of uncovering the Quality (Beauty). To avoid reifying either of these concepts, I can probably alike these ideas to God because the language begins to break down anyway. Though electing, observing, and re-electing does not guaranteed to exact results, we can improve our chances by electing values (and sticking to them but staying open to reevaluate them when we need to). If this sounds difficult, that is because it is. It also makes life wildly more fun, engaging, and playful. The questions we ask are not to uncover any particular “capital T Truth” but to put us on a path of Truth, which is an ever-changing idea. As new experience (Quality) generates itself in each moment, there is always new information to obtain and understand and integrate. Ending on the theme of questions, what types of values should we encounter? What does the nature of these values feel like? Are some values temporary while others more concrete? Typical top values include: honesty, compassion, accountability, and care. But what is the structure of these values and their entanglement? And are there limits to any of this? Our ability to ask questions generates, in part, the sea of information that threatens to drown the modern-day human, so I propose that the only way to know which of these questions are the right questions is to live them and write them and sit with them, be theme—for that we explore and we write and we sit so that we may understand the process of living. And by understanding how to live, we will gain a greater feel for the questions that deserve our attention. Only then, the answers to the right questions follow naturally.

            Once we learn about the nature of attention, we can let it go. Catching the ball, releasing the ball, spinning the girl, letting her twirl, filling up the tank, opening the throttle, we build up and break down build up break down build up break down build up break down. We become so used to asking, “am I doing it right?” “do they like the result?” “is it (insert adjective) enough?” yet we seldom ask ourselves, am I contributing enough, attending enough, cleaning enough, sharpening enough, etc. The attention goes where the energy flows. The energy flows where the attention goes, do you create the world or does the world create you? Who knows. Just remember to sharpen the knife occasionally.

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