Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mechanics

After another fraught week remote working in a pandemic working twice as hard to do half as much, I was at it again all Saturday morning before finally springing free for the afternoon, but I had a lot to do and I was already off-kilter from a two hour meeting.  I walked into my happy place (the garage) after once again spending too much time trying to work with people badly through screens (one of the joys of a pandemic is WAY too much screen-time) and went about reassembling the Tiger, which was causing anxiety by occasionally not holding an idle and stalling.  

The Tiger rebuild began poorly.  I couldn’t find one of the two retaining bolts for the spark plug top I’d taken off the week before.  In the days between taking it apart and waiting for Amazon to get its finger out and deliver new spark plugs, the bike must have been jostled in my too-small garage and the bolts rolled off the head where I’d evidently left them.  I know better than that.  If I remove fasteners I usually put them in a container in groups or loosely reattach them to where they came from so they’ll be there when I come back.

While that was going on I got Lloyd’s message from Mostly Ironheads saying that I could bring the Fireblade in for a safety, so I cleaned up and got it over there for that.  He has some fantastic projects going on, I’ve got to see if he’ll let me do another round of photos – that shop is half working garage, half motorcycle museum.  (He did let me do another round, they’re here).

Back in the garage I was now frazzled with things going on in multiple places and the Tiger rebuild frozen by a lost bolt.  I found a replacement, but doing things half-assed means doing them for way longer than you need to.  It makes me feel like I’m my own make-work project.  I was angry at myself and swearing as I put it back together.  I took it out for a ride in the clearing afternoon weather (it had been threatening rain all morning), but the intermittent stall still happened, even after all the pain in the ass parts ordering waiting during a social distancing slow down.

I put the Tiger up on its stand and figured I’d take a run at it again the next day.  Then Lloyd called saying the ‘Blade was all good except tires – so now I have to try and find some tires, in a pandemic (I did, Revco is fantastic).  I brought the Honda home got into a ridiculously complicated plan for suspending it so I could remove both wheels at once.  The end product looked more like a roof mounting for a sex swing when I finally gave up on it and locked up the garage for the night.


The next day I spent the morning brain storming ideas for a work project and then finally got to the garage mid-afternoon.  My mind-set was completely different this time.  Instead of being weighed down by worries from a meeting, I was buoyant from just having thought my way out of them.  In a good mood and with the importance of keeping my shit organized clearly at front of mind, I went about fabricating chocks for the front wheel of the Honda and attached them to Jeff’s motorcycle stand.

They worked a treat and before I knew it the CBR was suspended and the wheels were off.  The brakes were pretty grotty, so taking it all apart, even if the pads and rotors do all meet MoT safety standards, wasn’t a bad thing.  The music was playing, it was a cool, sunny afternoon and I was getting shit done.

As I disassembled the Fireblade, I was Sharpy marking parts, taking photos and batching fasteners together so I can find everything when I reassemble.  I’ve been mechanicking for too long not to do this, but a callous disregard for shop etiquette gave me the result I knew I deserved the day before, but not this time.  The jigs we create make the jobs we do possible, and vice versa.

What had taken me twice as long to do badly the day before, took me a fraction of the time to do better the next day.  Instead of spiralling into anger and frustration, I was in the zone.  Problems still occurred, of course.  This is mechanics where I’m dealing with immutable reality, I have to bend because reality won’t, but rather than succumb to those problems I was agile and adaptive.  I can hear the sound of one hand clapping when I’m in the zone like that.  It feels effortless and completely engaging.

The Honda was sorted so quickly I turned to the Tiger and began the astonishingly fussy job of taking the fuel tank off (again).  What was tedious the day before became a matter of minutes the next day.  With the tank and air-box off (again), I looked over the idle control valve under the air-box and discovered one of the tubes going into the back of it was loose.  I cleaned up all the connecting and ensured they were tight and put some gasket compound on the rubber gasket to help it seal where it was squashed.

The whole thing went back together again equally quickly and the bike started and ran, so I shut it all down and cleaned up (some more good shop etiquette I’d been ignoring).

I’d gotten two days of work done in one, but it didn’t feel like it.  Disappearing into the garage is one of my favourite things to do, but doing it when you’re frazzled and fraught can mean you’re bringing a lot of negative energy in with you.  That negativity can make you ignore best practices you’d otherwise follow and might result in simple jobs becoming much more frustrating than they need to be.

Just like when you’re riding, you need to find your inner zen when wrenching.  Not only will it make you a better mechanic, but it’ll also make the work itself a joy.


A couple of days later I was working through week six of the Science of Well Being course I’ve been taking and it went over the state of flow and how it induces a sense of happiness.  There is a lot of research into flow states, especially in terms of peak performance in sports, but any complex task, from painting to mechanics, will offer that moment when you’re balancing your skills with your situation in a way that’s so engaging you forget yourself.  That’s actually what you’re doing in a state of flow, you’re so immersed in what you’re doing that you don’t have any mental acuity left to self realize.

Sony’s mission statement:  what a place to work that would be!
If that doesn’t clear it up for you, maybe the TEDtalk by the guy who invented the concept of flow will:

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