Zen and the Art of Tractor Maintenance

Following curiosity and finding flow doing challenging things

I find repairing things to be deeply satisfying. 

It’s the whole process,  from taking something apart, finding a broken piece, replacing it, and reassembling a machine in the precise way it was designed.

It relaxes me and puts me into a state of flow.

A few years ago, I heard grinding and a loud bang under my tractor while I mowed the lawn. I looked back and noticed several pieces of metal lying on the grass.

On my next pass, I stopped the tractor and picked up a few of the pieces. Black grease covered my hands as I realized they were pieces of the gears from the transaxle.

When I got back on the tractor, I shifted through the gears and noticed that the 5th and 6th gears were gone. Since the tractor was still running and I rarely used those gears, I finished mowing the lawn. I put off the repair and continued to use the tractor for the rest of the summer.

The next season arrived and I tried to mow for the first time, but the transaxle was stuck in 4th gear and the brakes failed. Unfortunately, I discovered these problems as drove through one of the giant tiger grass plants in our front garden. 🤦🏼‍♂️

The transaxle was locked and needed to be replaced. After checking a few local repair shops, I decided that fixing it myself would cost one-third of the repair shop’s price.

As with many home repairs, the project expanded until I’d replaced the transaxle, belts, blades, air filter, oil, oil filter, spark plug, and brake pads. It took five hours, but I fixed it myself and saved a lot of money. 

I did a victory lap around the yard like I’d just won the Daytona 500. I shifted through each gear and confirmed that everything worked as intended. 

Success! Cue the dopamine rush.

The tractor project reminded me of Robert M. Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In it, he mentions that machine maintenance is “tedious drudgery” for some, but an enjoyable pastime for others. 

For me, there’s a Zen-like calm and complete focus where time disappears when I’m immersed in these projects.

I started taking things apart and fixing them when I was in elementary school. My first project, a flip-style alarm clock, didn’t go so well because I forgot to check how the strings and pulleys were arranged inside. 

When I finished, I could hear the motor running, but the numbers didn’t change. I learned an important lesson about attention to detail, but I fell in love with the process.

Finding Flow

When I’m doing a repair or building something, I’m completely focused on the task at hand and not thinking about other responsibilities or life issues.

I enter a deep flow state where time disappears and I don’t feel fatigue.

I feel great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment when I complete the projects. The more complicated and unfamiliar the project, the greater the satisfaction and feeling of calm. 

Substitute the word “activity” for the word machine in this quote from Pirsig’s book and the meaning extends beyond machine maintenance.

If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.

– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

It means that if what you’re doing produces tranquility (or calm, or flow), it’s the right path. If it disturbs you, it’s wrong until you either change the activity or your opinion of the activity.

We grow by challenging ourselves and reaching outside of our comfort zones. It changes how we think and feel.

Seek out these opportunities, follow your curiosity, and find your flow. 

You’ll be amazed by the impact it has on you.