Zen and the Art of Negativity

If you’ve read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you’ll know there isn’t a particularly happy ending – at best, it’s…ominous. The narrator, who has some form of mental illness, as we discover through the text (my guess is schizophrenia – it haunts the brightest and the best, although it doesn’t discriminate, and, as a merely mediocre landlord to the beast, I could see certain similarities – the book was clearly either well-researched, or, more likely, written from personal experience.)

You’ll also be aware that negativity – John’s refusal to engage with “technology”, Chris’s refusal – or inability, since it’s suggested he’s displaying the same precursors to schizophrenia as were missed in my adolescence – to settle down and “behave”, the narrator’s absent past – frames everything of importance in the book, and also provides its backdrop – the “negativity” of the world above the timber line – snow, ice, cold, and short, sharp days. The high country of the mind, the wilds of intellectual pursuit. The boundaries of madness.

It’s the negativity of the book – the refusals, the failures, the ominous ending – that make it so compelling, so memorable.

The narrator doesn’t flinch from his condition, from the condition his son likely shares – schizophrenia is known to be inherited – he just sits with it.

That is the essence of Zen – that we do not deny feelings, but “just sit with” them; we don’t shriek “no negativity!” as we fling up our arms in horror – we sit with negativity, until the urge to run feels more like an old, favourite dressing gown – and then we look at what’s going on behind the feeling.

But the point is, we have to feel negativity before we can understand it, and we have to understand it before we can move on from it.

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