Pico Iyer’s “The Art of Stillness” [Book Review & Summary]

The Practice of Stillness

Escape from the Mayhem

Our everyday lives are so busy. Our days are so full. Our world is so noisy.

We fill our lives with activities. We are at the mercy of our commitments. We have an incessant need to be occupied. We hasten. We seek to do something—anything.

Often, our identities are defined by mere ‘doing,’ not ‘being.’ Many of us struggle to find a few minutes to just sit quietly and clear our heads. We cannot afford some space to think and just be. We hardly ever pause to contemplate our experiences or reflect on the life we’ve been missing in a world overwhelmed by distractions.

Distractions disrupt our peace. The French scientist and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in Pensees, “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries” and added that “the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”

To counter all of our exhilarating movement, we must balance it with an escape. We need space and stillness. When we remain still, we are struck by the realization that our noisy outer world is nothing but a reflection of our cluttered inner world.

Stillness: “Clarity and Sanity and the Joys that Endure”

Celebrated globetrotter and travel writer Pico Iyer’s “The Art of Stillness,” an expansion of his TED talk, is an inspiring analysis of the need to escape the persistent distractibility of the mundane. Iyer makes a persuasive argument for the startling pleasures of “sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”

Pico Iyer and his family lives in a modest home in the countryside near Kyoto without internet, television, mobile phones, or even cars.

The book’s promo includes excerpts from Iyer’s talk:

We all know that in our undermined lives, one of the things most undermined is ourselves. Many of us have the sensation that we are standing about two inches away from a huge canvass. It’s noisy. It’s crowded. And it’s changing every second. And that screen is our lives. It’s only by stepping back and holding still, that we can begin to see what the canvass means.

One of the first things you learn when you travel is that nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it. I find that the best way I could develop more attentive and more appreciative eyes was, oddly to go nowhere … just by sitting still.

In the age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still.

The Importance of Taking a Timeout From Busyness

Subtitled “Adventures in Going Nowhere,” Iyer’s insightful 64-page book provides several examples of stillness in practice. Iyer gives us glimpses into the lives of a privileged few who have found peace.

For example, legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen discovered the supreme seduction of a monastic life. In 1994, after constant indulgence as an incessant traveler and international heartthrob, Cohen moved to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California, embarked on five years of seclusion, served as an aide to the now-107-year-old Japanese Zen teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, and got ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk.

Leonard Cohen, Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen had come to this Old World redoubt to make a life—an art—out of stillness. And he was working on simplifying himself as fiercely as he might on the verses of one of his songs, which he spends more than ten years polishing to perfection. The week I was visiting, he was essentially spending seven days and nights in a bare meditation hall, sitting stock-still. … Sitting still, he said with unexpected passion, was “the real deep entertainment” he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. “Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.” … “This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”

Typically lofty and pitiless words; living on such close terms with silence clearly hadn’t diminished his gift for golden sentences. But the words carried weight when coming from one who seemed to have tasted all the pleasures that the world has to offer.

Sitting still with his aged Japanese friend, sipping Courvoisier, and listening to the crickets deep into the night, was the closest he’d come to finding lasting happiness, the kind that doesn’t change even when life throws up one of its regular challenges and disruptions.

Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.

From the Mayhem of Thought & Action to The Stillness of Being

Iyer contends that the best place to visit in these frenzied, over-connected times is nowhere:

'The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere' by Pico Iyer (ISBN 1476784728) At some point, all the horizontal trips in the world stop compensating for the need to go deep, into somewhere challenging and unexpected; movement makes most sense when grounded in stillness. In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.

Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that anyway keep me company twenty-four hours a day. And it’s only by going nowhere—by sitting still or letting my mind relax—that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out.

Iyer’s “The Art of Stillness” isn’t a self-help manual and doesn’t give specific, actionable advice on how to achieve stillness. Quiet reflection and mindfulness meditation could move one’s mind in the direction of uplifting tranquility and natural stillness.

Idea for Impact: Occasionally, Try to Not Do Anything and Just Be

Take a break from your day to reflect, to recharge and to reassess. Take a vacation from your accelerated life. Just be with yourself, genuinely center, and quiet the mind.

You can achieve this centered state and contemplate when your exterior is noiseless. Then, during those still and silent moments you can come to terms with your experiences and struggles, your hopes and despairs, your ideas and judgments, your fears and fantasies.

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