Meeting a Zen Mechanic



Recently, I had the misfortune of having something in my engine break down in the middle of the road. It was lucky there wasn’t much traffic, so I called someone from over to figure out what was wrong.


I’m not exactly the best when it comes to cars, so I need professionals for anything more complicated than changing a flat tire.


The problem was simple, but also one that took a while to fix. Sometimes, these things happen. During this, me and Steve – the mechanic – started talking. I was mostly bored until I realised that I might be distracting him from getting his work done. At that point, the conversation got interesting.


As it turns out, he wasn’t distracted in the least. Steve said he’d been at this so long and seen this sort of thing happen so many times that he figures he could do the job with his eyes closed. He says he almost doesn’t think anymore once he knows what’s wrong, right down to reaching for tools at the right times.


He called it a very “Zen-like” experience. That made me curious because I’d heard the term before, but never really looked into what it meant. Mostly because it seemed like a catch-all term based on how people use it.


I’ll just gloss over the basics. Zen is a branch of Buddhism that focuses on an “empty mind” state to enlightenment. The basic idea is that you get wisdom and understanding of the universe and your place in it in small doses when your mind is empty of conscious thought. That’s when insight slips in.


Now, it may sound strange and esoteric, but take a moment to think about it. Have you ever had a task so mundane and so ingrained into your routine that you mindlessly go about it? When was the last time you paid conscious attention to, say, brushing your teeth?


Zen belief says that when we do things often enough, they become second-nature to us. Our mind empties, as we no longer need to think about the mechanics of it consciously. We just know.


That, according to the Zen school, is when insight into the universe trickles in. It’s kind of like having an idea in the middle of a shower, fleeting and insightful and beautiful. But it’s only there for a moment, unbidden and without warning.


That gave me a sense of confidence in Steve. If he’s seen this and fixed the problem often enough that he doesn’t have to think about it actively, I figure I’m in good hands.

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