– The game of problem solving –
Emancipation of an engineer
For no apparent reason the vehicle suddenly slowed down. We had been slow anyway, climbing a long steep grade from the coast up into the mountains. Instinctively I disengaged the clutch and wanted to shift down, but with a strange groaning sound the truck immediately came to a stop and stood in its track, not rolling back an inch, even without applying the brakes.
I knew this was serious trouble. We looked at each other without saying a word. Is this one of those nightmares coming true, one of those bad dreams that had kept me awake in endless nights when this whole project was still a fantastic plan? Is this one of those things finally happening that I spent so much brain energy to prepare against?
The motor was still running fine. I checked all the instruments again and reluctantly stepped out to have a look from outside. A little bit of blue smoke, neatly curling upward from the transfer case, immediately signaled enough information for a devastating diagnosis. “This is it!” I said in my familiar tendency to acknowledge the full drama of a situation: “This is the real one! Transfer gear kaput !” And I started to pee right where I stood. Parvin only said “Hmm” in her equally time-tested tendency to not follow me with my quick conclusions under such circumstances. And she began to put on her shoes, which she always takes off while sitting in her copilot seat, causing predictable delays, of course, whenever something happens.
I stood there and felt my old thinking machine engage – the first stage of my problem solving mode. Unknowingly, I was watching the stream of pee running down the road in strikingly beautiful, intricate meanders, unpredictable, erratic and yet just inescapably following the law of cause and effect and the path of least effort. I stood there, and if my thoughts would make noises, there probably would have been a very intense, uninterrupted rattling for a few minutes. But there was dead silence. We were a hundred miles away from any civilization, hadn’t seen a single car on the road that day; the sun was not hot yet but gaining force every minute.
Parvin came along and put her arm around me, and the ‘rattling‘ stopped for a moment. She gave me this little smile that probably nobody else would ever detect, that is not more than a peculiar change of color around her eyes but speaks of a lifetime together. Haven’t we been in situations like this so many times before? When things got nasty! As individuals we both disliked these moments, each one in his and her own way. But moments of crisis had often revealed a magical quality, an almost joyful intensity and delightful aliveness when we met them together, when we met them as this other entity we were, as a unit. We smiled at each other, but it was neither me nor she who did this smiling. It was this other superior identity, something new, borne the moment we met, intuitively blinked into existence with a look into each other’s eyes, so many years ago, something, in a mysterious way more real than our selves.
For a moment I reveled in this sweet feeling of familiarity. This is how it feels when you think you have a “problem”. Later it can become a huge story, a chunk of life, or, in a few minutes, it might – poof – vanish and leave only a flood of relief. I felt the wonderful potential of this situation. I had no idea what was going to happen. How uncomfortable, how threatening to not know, but then how delicious, how interesting, to not know.
“This is it”, I laughed, “let’s see how this one turns out!” I climbed behind the wheel again, restarted the engine and killed it several times by revving up and trying to engage the clutch. Nothing, our truck stood there as if struck by lightning. Then I put it into reverse, engaged again, and with a terrible screeching noise the machine started moving. I backed it up – at least off the road, I thought – and tried forward again. This time it worked. It made awful grinding noises but moved.
What to do? We were in Mexico, as remote and far away from any help as you could possibly be and half a world away from spare parts for our 1960 – 7.5ton – 4×4 – German Mercedes truck, our house, our transportation, our refuge, and sometimes our identity (as strange as this may sound today). We had just spent 3 weeks down at the ocean on a lonely beach. We had built a rock wall around the truck for wind protection, so it looked like a solid house. We were living in paradise, all by ourselves, in a place no one in his right mind would ever drive to – unless he had the dream-vehicle we had that had everything and could go virtually anywhere (we had water at least for a month, enough diesel for 1500 miles, etc. etc.). We were exploring, fishing, windsurfing, playing and dreaming – finally dreaming again how it might be further south beyond those blue mountains in the distance. This mysterious restlessness that seemed to follow us like our own shadow had pulled us out of a paradise once again. A paradise we had dreamed to find but then, when it was all there, so perfect, so incredibly beautiful, we somehow couldn’t quite believe it. We had finally left and were looking ahead, following a road again. A road: this illusory direction, this arbitrary accidental path, that may be nothing but a manifestation of a collective human habit, the habit of changing location. Following a road: this trance-like pseudo activity, in which you are mostly unaware of being entrapped in mere repetition, in reenacting what had already happened here before, over and over again.
We were on our way – when something stopped us.
“Let’s turn around and try to go back. As long as this thing is moving we might as well try to reach the beach again and figure out there what to do.” So we tiptoed down the road (as much as you could tiptoe with a “tank” like ours). We listened to the rumbling noises from underneath and kept holding our breath. And we actually reached the beach, simply reestablished our residence there and felt as if we were sent home again with a nasty homework to do now.
The rattling in my head had of course resumed and continued and revealed the bleak necessity to open up and disassemble the whole gearbox in order to get more information (for rattling) and maybe, only maybe, clues for action. This was by all means a major job, one I certainly had never done before, and one – considering the circumstances (don’t even think of spare parts) – not typically promising to be successful. But the rattling had clearly concluded: ‘no other options!‘ – Ok, next step of problem solving.
Now, was there something like a hesitation? I found me looking at myself with irritation and slightly amused disbelief. “What’s the matter, you are not jumping into action? What happened? Are you sick? I mean this is as serious as it gets. What are you waiting for? We are stranded here in the middle of nowhere, there is, god damn, a PROBLEM, go to work!”
The person talking was me, no doubt about that, I knew him better than anything else. But things really seemed to have changed lately. It was as if somebody else had grown up inside of me recently and reached a degree of authority that made me sometimes, to my own surprise, react a bit differently.
Things were not the same anymore since we broke away from the life at home two years ago, since we burned our bridges to the past and set ourselves free, since we “retired early”, to use this magical term that is as misleading as it is creating a mysterious identity. In this other life, short but extremely intense as it had been, we had been busy figuring out the rules, investigating the options, making money, trying to understand the purpose of the funny games of society, and trying to win them without getting too much involved and thereby forgetting to take life seriously. It had been a great adventure, a wonderful game, but then not more than that. I had always looked at it as a game, an episode, maybe a prelude. This preliminary interaction with the “establishment” – (didn’t we call it that?) – had taken place; the necessary arrangements had been made. Like choosing the role you want to play for example, finding out to what extent it was fate and to what actually choice. Like solving the damn money problem early on in order to supposedly be better equipped for dealing with the real search for meaning later on. (I had designed and invented things, Parvin taught Physics and Mathematics.) Our affair was “settled”, that play was over, we had graduated; was there a next game unfolding?
The guy talking there was a relic of this first stage of my life, a leftover from highly specialized conditioning. Praised enough, and rightly so. He always did what had to be done; he identified with the problems in order to solve them, and he was great at that. He never hesitated. But now, after this game was played and left behind, the whole concept of problem solving and goal orientation had slowly but profoundly changed, the inner dialog in situations like this wasn’t nearly that simple anymore.
I could still feel this old familiar habitual inclination to waste no time and act. I wanted to take on a problem, throw myself into action, regardless of other momentary feelings or moods, especially regardless of the actual condition of my body. I wanted to act in a rational pattern that was acquired but never really liked, never enjoyed, in fact often deeply resented and only executed, because questioning reason was, of course, out of the question. There also was a fairly new profound distrust in the reliability and expedience of habits, of behavior patterns as such, which made me often hesitate now. And there was an equally deep and new sense of interest and curious enjoyment in the complexity of the whole process of reaction itself, of decision-making, of the mysteriously “conditioned” freedom of choice.
Everything looked like there was a problem, urgently waiting to be solved. In a way our life depended on it. But what did it mean? Was it really a problem? What is a problem other than an interpretation of things that just are, an interpretation that they are not the way I think they should be? Isn’t a problem nothing but a view? When did I decide to have this view?
So the day went by; we sat in the shade, amused about our so unexpected return to paradise. I only caught myself occasionally, turning my head and glancing over into the dark under the truck where a problem was looming like a growling animal, ready to attack. This strangely charged image suddenly triggered another thought: Here I am, carrying with me the full history of my evolutionary past. My human ancestors (not to speak of all the species before) must have gained a tremendous survival advantage when they had inherited this peculiar problem solving compulsion. They didn’t waste time to react to the potential danger of the threatening tiger in the dark, so they lived while the others perished due to their inferior survival skills. Now it’s in my genes too. I have these advanced survival skills, but do I really need them? And how about my skills to be happy? What is more meaningful, to live long or to live well?
The afternoon breeze kicked in. I felt like rigging my windsurfer again, and went for a dance with the wind. It was as if it had never worked so well before. My jibes were fluent and easy, and flying over the waves was as effortless as dancing to music. The joy was that it was possible, not that I could do it. There was “no problem”.
The evening came, the usual meditation at the campfire in the dark. When only the stars remained in the stillness of the night “the problem” had not disappeared, but it did not feel like a problem at all anymore.
Next day I went fishing – we needed food – and came home with a nice Sierra. And then, after another superb meal and a tea, when I finally did put on my overalls and crawled under the truck, I was relaxed, centered, and genuinely interested to find out what it was that seemed to cause so much trouble, what this situation really wanted to teach me.
Later it turned out that precisely this (until then) so extraordinary delay of my reaction was indeed the most influential teaching of this whole experience.
I cleared the ground, prepared the tools and took things apart. After lots of muscle straining acrobatics in awkward body positions and after most of the oil had spilled all over me, the amazing artwork of gear wheels and parts lay exposed, naked, gleaming wet with oil. When one transmission shaft felt strangely stuck and I tapped it loose with a hammer, it came off with a thud, and a shower of small parts came down, falling all over me. – Aha! A bearing had given up the ghost, completely disintegrated, the rollers crumbled and jammed so the shaft couldn’t turn anymore. – A broken bearing, that’s what had happened.
Voilá, analysis concluded, another step of problem solving completed. I noticed some considerable satisfaction: “Now I know!” But immediately a new pressure of not knowing began. Will I be able to do something about it? (Another facet of our human nature showing again: ‘We don’t drift from satisfaction to satisfaction, we always look ahead and go from anticipation to anticipation‘).
The typical strategy would be to remove the bad bearing and simply replace it with a new one. – Not possible! Removal and re-mounting would take a special device I didn’t have, and to try to get a new part was unrealistic. What was the problem now?
What we usually perceive as a problem is a situation that is related to our self as a person. A problem is an interpretation of a situation, the effect of a subjective “view”. One has to be conscious of one’s Self to even be able to have a problem. A problem can exist for me but not as such. The universe doesn’t know problems. Problems don’t exist, we invent them, we create them, and we have them. When you look closely, our mind is nothing but a problem factory. The mysterious and miraculous thing is that it is at the same time also an incredible “problem-solving machine”. So often this process of making and solving problems is our life. It consumes almost all our energy and often blinds us to the underlying universal “ok-ness”, the most basic quality of everything before we have a thought about it, the marvelous wholeness that allows and contains our unique nature to process and manipulate everything, and yet offers freedom.
I emerged from the ruins under the truck, took a bath in the ocean, and lay in the sun and did some more ‘rattling‘. The system with the defective subsystem was dead. What if I considered that not a problem but a new development in a play, a new rule in the game?
I drew pictures in the sand and started playing.
The transfer gear has the purpose to distribute the power from the engine to the rear and front axle. It provides basically two features:
1.) Split the flow of power into two separate paths.
2.) Differentiate between two modes:
NORMAL: when only the rear axle is driven, the front drive is disconnected and idles without power.
4×4 MODE: when both axles are driven plus the transmission ratio is increased for more torque.
(Such gear interface is also often necessary because it allows for transferring the power in a non-linear, more adaptive way to other geometrical locations.)
The whole thing is a box with one input-shaft, 2 outlet-shafts, and a shifting lever sticking out. Inside are a bunch of shafts and gear wheels and a switchable claw-coupling.
When one bearing is blocked, over the meshing gear wheels the whole system is blocked.
The solution was this:
I removed the complete shaft with the broken bearing and reassembled the box without it, leaving 2/3 of the system unused. I removed the drive shaft leading to the front axle. I took the motor-drive shaft off the input and reconnected it to the front-drive outlet. I shifted the unit to 4×4 so the new input would be internally connected to the output and voilá, there was a completely new system, providing not quite the original functions but all you needed to drive the truck. The system was never designed to work this way. It was child’s play.
(Only after more than 4000 trouble-free miles was it all repaired by finally replacing the bearing.)
There was a most beautiful feeling of contentment when our diesel spoke again and we left the beach the second time (this time with a superfluous 8-foot drive shaft and a box full of unused parts stowed on the roof). Not only did we feel the relief to have escaped a catastrophe and the joy of having accomplished an act of “problem solving”, but there was a wonderful sense of having dropped another unnecessary burden, of having lightened up and having found a new degree of playfulness with life.
In our society we speak of “making” a living rather than living a life. Life appears more as a means to live than as the essence of our existence. So life is never played, at best it can be the outcome of play. And winning, in our society, is everything.
The art of play is to never completely forget that it is only play. In order to play well and to win, you have to be serious, but the point is to never cross that fine line beyond which it would be not play anymore but “earnest”. The pleasure of winning is merely a side effect and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself. Other aspects of play are to not really take it personally – especially when you lose – to never forget that your opponent is only an opponent, not a real enemy, etc.
It is immensely liberating to give up the war of experiencing life as a continuous process of problem solving and surrender into seeing life this way, as play. As play, in which problems are just conditions changing, situations evolving and passing, moments fleeting, and where a goal, other than just continuation, is only a concept for the sake of play. Play: something in which you prepare not against surprise but for surprise (redefining the whole idea of planning), in which winning (solving the problem) is ultimately pointless, compared to the joy of experiencing the full game, where identification with a role, with winning or losing – with the problem – is merely part of the play but not real.
In my own life, I did discover the inherent illusion of winning: It’s an idea, a concept; one can choose whether to die for it or shrug it off as unessential. And it was a mysterious delight to uncover the profoundly liberating effect of this insight. But it wasn’t so much the unmasking of the phenomenon of winning itself that inspired me to look further into this direction, it was the deep surprise that unmasking, that undoing a delusion is even possible, and that it is not accomplished by replacing it with another delusion, by changing your mind, but by being realistic about the mind itself, about what it can and cannot do, by seeing how entirely normal it is to be deluded. You cannot really directly “know” that you are deluded, you can only indirectly assume delusion by observing reality. And – what I also began to see – when delusion is not only an occasional mistake, allegedly due to accidental poor judgement, but in fact a universal, innate property of the mind, the language of the mind, so to speak – then anything we perceive, perception as such, is to be mistrusted. Or better: perception needs to be used with great care and skill. To learn such a skill of wise perception is more important than anything else.
And we resumed our great journey through this world of problems and picked up our other private game again: the play to name things you see on the way, to name them with metaphors and find who can touch the soul of it.
I found them: “Like the shadow of an angel.”
I contemplated the road ahead: “Like the thread of desire leading through the ocean of freedom.”
Parvin said: “The border between left and right.”
I suggested: “The result that only came into existence because one followed the other.”
And Parvin got the essence of the moment: “Like the track of your pee running down the mountain.”
Klaus written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010