Zen and the Art of Tractor Maintenance

There is something inherently satisfying about fixing things. You get lost in the activity and enter a state of flow.

Zen and the Art of Tractor Maintenance
Photo by Jon Tyson / Unsplash

There is something that I find inherently satisfying about fixing things.  The whole process - taking something apart, finding the broken piece, replacing it, then reassembling it 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 was mowing the lawn.  I looked back and noticed several pieces of metal lying on the grass.  

I stopped the tractor and picked up a few of the metal pieces.  When I looked under the tractor, I realized that they were pieces of gears that burst through the bottom of the transaxle.

Photo by Bud Ward

When I got back on the tractor, I shifted through the gears and noticed that I no longer had 5th and 6th gear.  Since the tractor was still running and I never use those speeds, I finished mowing the lawn.  I put off the repair and continued to use the tractor for the rest of the summer.

When the next season arrived, I tried to mow the lawn, but I couldn't get the tractor out of 4th gear.  The transaxle was locked and needed to be replaced.  After checking with a local repair shop, it became apparent 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, and spark plug.  It took five hours, but I fixed it myself and saved a lot of money.  I did a victory lap around the yard as if I'd won the Daytona 500.  I shifted through each gear and confirmed that everything worked as intended. Success! Cue the dopamine rush.

This situation reminded me of Robert M. Pirsig's book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig describes how maintaining a machine is "tedious drudgery" for some, but an enjoyable pastime to others.  For me, I experience a Zen-like calm and sense of flow when while 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 and remembering how parts fit together.

When I'm fixing something around the house, I usually listen to music, an audiobook, or a podcast.  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've completed a repair. The more complicated and unfamiliar the project, the greater the level of satisfaction and feeling of calm. We grow by challenging ourselves and reaching outside of our comfort zones. Seek out these opportunities, and you'll be amazed by the impact they have on you.