Pico Iyer advocates for stillness in one’s pursuit of finding meaning and happiness

Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness. Adventures of Going Nowhere. Photography by Eydis Einarsdóttir

Published 2014 by Simon & Schuster/ TED Books, 96p


As a travel journalist and writer for Time Magazine, Pico Iyer has seen the world. He traveled from Korea to Paraguay, from Ethiopia to India and United States and ultimately moved to Japan for good with his wife and her children. He loved his work and all the traveling it implied but after decades of transitions he realized that the most comforting value of his life became being able to stay still and enjoy the moments of peacefulness and contemplation.

ArtOfStillness, photo by Eydis Einarsdottir
Photography from the book. Copyright: Eydis Einarsdottir

It was a visit in a monastery in a remote area near Los Angeles where Leonard Cohen had moved for a while to meditate and make art out of stillness that made Iyer comprehend the effect of serenity on the quality of our modern life.

The week I was visiting, he was essentially spending seven days and nights in a bare meditation hall, sitting stock-still. His name in the monastery, Jikan, referred to the silence between two thoughts…

…Sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it; I’d seldom thought of it like that. Going nowhere as a way of cutting through the noise and finding fresh time and energy to share with others; I’d sometimes moved toward the idea, but it had never come home to me so powerfully as in the example of this man who seemed to have everything, yet found his happiness, his freedom, in giving everything up.

The Art of Stillness analyzes the idea of meditation from ancient Greece and Rome to present times; it has been around as long as humans have been, Iyer says; we encounter it at the first philosophers that made stillness a way of living, at the 17th famous figure Blaise Pascal who said that the unhappiness of men arises from the fact that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber, at Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, Mahatma Gandhi and Leonard Cohen. All of them associated stillness with sanity and an ability of seeing the world more deeply. Why we need stillness more than ever? Because we live in a time when technology gives us access to everything but we seem to never really catch up with our lives.

In any case, few of us have the chance to step out of our daily lives often, or for very long; Nowhere has to become somewhere we visit in the corners of our lives by taking a daily run or going fishing or just sitting quietly for thirty minutes every morning (a mere 3% percent of our waking hours). The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or mountaintop but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world.

Stillness does not mean adhering to a religious cult but reaching the ability to change the inner pressure and the chaotic activity of the brain. Studies have shown that though Americans work fewer hours now than they used to work 50 years ago, they feel more overworked due to the speed and confusion of their existence. So more and more companies have now stress-reduction programs meant to assist people understand that we need to become more selective and more organized. There was an expression Iyer used and I really liked – we need to train our minds to stay alive.

Doing nothing is sometimes very difficult, we need to disconnect from the world, change routines and reconsider time but

In an age of speed, nothing can be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still. You can go on vacation to Paris or Hawaii or New Orleans, three months from now, and you’ll have a tremendous time, I’m sure. But if you want to come back feeling new – alive and full of fresh hope and in love with the world – I think the place to visit may be Nowhere.

Complement the book with Pico Iyer’s TED Talk on the art of stillness:


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