Zen and the Art of Homeless Shelter Maintenance

April 10, 2015


And so it happened that the 1974 classic by Robert Pirsig was sitting right there on the library shelf, the green and black binding catching my eye when I didn’t know I was looking for it.  But that’s how some of the most striking moments in life happen, isn’t it?  It took me three weeks’ worth of intermittent effort to finish reading it this time, 37 or 38 years after the first.  (It was published in 1974, but I had resisted reading it when it first hit and the tsunami of “You have to read this book” loomed over me every day.  A couple of years later I gave in.)  If you who are reading this hasn’t read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, know that I am only going to take one philosophical concept from the many.  If you have read Pirsig, I apologize for consciously minimizing the scope and depth.

Picture this: You and a friend are sitting at your cozy kitchen table.  On the checkered tablecloth sits the ceramic sugar bowl your grandmother gave you for your sixteenth birthday.  On the “front” of the bowl is a colorful sheaf of sugar cane.  On the “back” there is some very fine print down near the base.  You and your friend are seated opposite each other.  The sugar cane is facing your friend.  Question: Are you seeing the same object?  Exactly?  How similar, how different?  How would you be able to measure the degree of similarity/difference?  Now consider the task of having to describe the bowl to someone who not only cannot see this one but who has never seen one—doesn’t know the concept.  In the mind of that person, how close or far apart might the two descriptions seem?

Here’s another (trust me—it’s related): Take a moment and try to think very carefully about visual perception.  Isn’t there a moment—perhaps the tiniest of moments, detectable in time only through the measurement performed by the highest tech optometrist’s lens and sensing device—when your visual system is perceiving but the optic nerve has yet to connect with everything it will in terms of cortical perception and understanding?  In other words, can you imagine a moment in which your eyeball is out there all alone, an image landing on your retina, but stopping right there?  Okay, now move ahead to where your brain has an identified image.  But question, how does your mind know “what” the object is?  Why do you think it’s a sugar bowl?

Imagine a healthy baby, maybe 6 months old (trust me, I am not an expert in developmental stages!), lying on his or her stomach on a soft blanket on your living room floor.  A late afternoon summer sun is pouring through a window and the beams are being reflected off a silver candlestick, flickering across your child’s eyes.  You can see that the experience captures your baby’s attention, at least for a few moments longer than most of the other sensory experiences you have witnessed.  How and when will this child reach the point where they can think, “That’s sunlight reflecting off the candlestick.”?

What do you think of when you hear the term, “homeless person”?  What image immediately comes to mind?  Does the generic concept coincide with a visual image of a beaten woman?  An abused six-year-old?  A man begging God for help with his addiction?  Whatever picture enters a mind probably has more to do with that person’s history of experience and exposure to “information.”  I know that I am one of the few who has gotten to rub shoulders with thousands of people experiencing homelessness.  A relative few have been manipulative, irresponsible adults; far more have been or will be a beaten woman, an abused child, or an adult begging God for help.