Original Seeing

Since Robert Pir­sig put this very well, I’ll just copy down what he said. I don’t know if this story is based on re­al­ity or not, but ei­ther way, it’s true.

He’d been hav­ing trou­ble with stu­dents who had noth­ing to say. At first he thought it was laz­i­ness but later it be­came ap­par­ent that it wasn’t. They just couldn’t think of any­thing to say.

One of them, a girl with strong-lensed glasses, wanted to write a five-hun­dred word es­say about the United States. He was used to the sink­ing feel­ing that comes from state­ments like this, and sug­gested with­out dis­par­age­ment that she nar­row it down to just Boze­man.

When the pa­per came due she didn’t have it and was quite up­set. She had tried and tried but she just couldn’t think of any­thing to say.

It just stumped him. Now he couldn’t think of any­thing to say. A silence oc­curred, and then a pe­cu­liar an­swer: “Nar­row it down to the main street of Boze­man.” It was a stroke of in­sight.

She nod­ded du­tifully and went out. But just be­fore her next class she came back in real dis­tress, tears this time, dis­tress that had ob­vi­ously been there for a long time. She still couldn’t think of any­thing to say, and couldn’t un­der­stand why, if she couldn’t think of any­thing about all of Boze­man, she should be able to think of some­thing about just one street.

He was fu­ri­ous. “You’re not look­ing!” he said. A mem­ory came back of his own dis­mis­sal from the Univer­sity for hav­ing too much to say. For ev­ery fact there is an in­finity of hy­pothe­ses. The more you look the more you see. She re­ally wasn’t look­ing and yet some­how didn’t un­der­stand this.

He told her an­grily, “Nar­row it down to the front of one build­ing on the main street of Boze­man. The Opera House. Start with the up­per left-hand brick.”

Her eyes, be­hind the thick-lensed glasses, opened wide.

She came in the next class with a puz­zled look and handed him a five-thou­sand-word es­say on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Boze­man, Mon­tana. “I sat in the ham­burger stand across the street,” she said, “and started writ­ing about the first brick, and the sec­ond brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop. They thought I was crazy, and they kept kid­ding me, but here it all is. I don’t un­der­stand it.”

Nei­ther did he, but on long walks through the streets of town he thought about it and con­cluded she was ev­i­dently stopped with the same kind of block­age that had par­a­lyzed him on his first day of teach­ing. She was blocked be­cause she was try­ing to re­peat, in her writ­ing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to re­peat things he had already de­cided to say. She couldn’t think of any­thing to write about Boze­man be­cause she couldn’t re­call any­thing she had heard worth re­peat­ing. She was strangely un­aware that she could look and see freshly for her­self, as she wrote, with­out pri­mary re­gard for what had been said be­fore. The nar­row­ing down to one brick de­stroyed the block­age be­cause it was so ob­vi­ous she had to do some origi­nal and di­rect see­ing.

—Robert M. Pir­sig,
Zen and the Art of Mo­tor­cy­cle Main­te­nance