In 2011 essayist and travel writer Pico Iyer wrote a piece for the New York Times on The Joy of Quiet. From that piece has come a wonderful TED talk in 2013 about Where is Home? in which Iyer asserts that it is stillness that gives movement meaning. This has been followed by a slim book in 2014, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere.
The book is a meditation of sorts on the adventure that is being still and staying in one place. But talking about stillness, Iyer says is “really a way of talking about clarity and sanity and the joys that endure.” Iyer spends many pages talking about Leonard Cohen who spends a good amount of his time in a monastery in the mountains of southern California practicing the art of stillness. He talks about other people he has met, like the woman who sat next to him on a twelve-hour flight. She did nothing but sit quietly the whole time, no reading or looking at magazines, no doing the sorts of things you do on an airplane in order to endure the time you are on it. She just sat, quietly alert. It turns out she was on her way to vacation in Hawaii and she used this time as a way to disconnect from her overly busy life so when she touched down on the island she’d be fully present and relaxed.
But you don’t have to go to a monastery or take a vacation to a faraway place in order to get away from it all. Staying put, going Nowhere, is an adventure all on its own because you never know what you might find. There are all kinds of things waiting to be discovered. Iyer quotes Henry David Thoreau:
It matters not where or how far you travel — the farther commonly the worse — but how much alive you are.
Going Nowhere and sitting still is a journey but it is an inward journey. We hurry around trying to find happiness outside ourselves when, if we would only sit still, we’d find that happiness lies within. Cohen told Iyer that sitting still is “a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”
Iyer is well aware that sitting still is very hard:
Nowhere can be scary, even if it’s a destination you’ve chosen; there’s nowhere to hide there.
And he acknowledges,
It takes courage, of course, to step out of the fray, as it takes courage to do anything that is necessary, whether tending to a loved one on her deathbed or turning away from that sugarcoated doughnut. And with billions of our neighbors in crying need, with so much in every life that has to be done, it can sound selfish to take a break or go off to a quiet place. But as soon as you do sit still, you find that it actually brings you closer to others, in both understanding and sympathy.
Just like the paradox of exercise giving you more energy, taking time to sit still and be quiet and going Nowhere, gives you more time and energy to share with others.
The Art of Stillness is a beautifully written, gentle, simple book. Yet, as with Thich Nhat Hanh, the simple is not easy. If it were so easy to sit still we’d all be doing it and we’d all be much better off for it. But instead we fill every minute of the day and complain about still not having enough time. It is as though we are afraid of stopping, afraid of what might happen if we took five minutes, ten minutes to sit still and quiet. I very much liked that Iyer makes it into a great adventure. It puts a different perspective on going Nowhere. Because in going Nowhere we really are going Somewhere. Do we dare take that journey?