The Art of Stillness (2014) reflects on the importance of slowing down and welcoming moments of quiet in a chaotic world. Iyer explores the lives of writers who’ve sought stillness and draws on his own life as a travel writer.
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Who is it for?
- Anyone feeling burnt out by our fast-paced world
- People seeking stillness
- Leonard Cohen fans
What’s in it for me? Find out how to embrace the present moment by cultivating stillness.
Travel writer Pico Iyer has journeyed around the globe for decades – from Cuba to Tibet to Easter Island. But you might be surprised to learn that, for him, the most invigorating trip is going nowhere and sitting calmly.
That’s because, in our age of constant movement, if we don’t pause and reflect from time to time, we end up feeling like we can’t catch up with our own lives. Sitting still lets us gather perspective. It helps us transform memories into insight.
In these summaries, you’ll learn how sage minds from Proust to Emily Dickinson found richness in solitude – and why it’s more important now than ever to open up space inside your life for brief moments of stillness.
In these summaries, you’ll learn
- how Leonard Cohen went from globe-trotting pop singer to Zen monk;
- why Matthieu Ricard is considered the happiest man in the world; and
- why you should observe a Secular Sabbath.
Sitting still helps us regain perspective.
In 1998, author Pico Iyer visited his boyhood hero, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, during a surprising chapter in Cohen’s life. The suave, wandering troubadour had traded in his Armani suits for monastic robes and was living at a monastery in the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles.
At the Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Cohen’s name was Jikan – meaning the silence between two thoughts – and he was the student and personal assistant of Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki. He spent most of his days in near silence: meditating, doing odd jobs around the center, or sitting wordlessly with Sasaki.
Like the author, Cohen had always been a traveler. His debut album includes four songs that revolve around the word “travel.” In one song, he sings goodbye to a lover because he has to “wander in my time.” So when Cohen told Iyer that he found sitting still to be “the real deep entertainment,” Iyer wondered if Cohen was being serious – as the influential artist was known for his irony.
But Cohen was earnest about his Zen practice – and not because he sought purity or religious devotion. Instead, it was about confronting the terror and doubt that had plagued him throughout his life.
Cohen wondered aloud about what else he might have been doing: settling down with a new woman? Trying new drugs? Sipping expensive wine? He reflected, finally, that stillness seemed “the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.” His newer songs would go on to reflect this. He sang about his stays at the Zen Center: “I needed so much to have nothing to touch / I’ve always been greedy that way.”
Iyer was stunned by the contrast between Cohen’s current monastic seclusion and his previous life as a globe-trotting performer. But the author had experienced a similar impulse – albeit less extreme.
At 29, the author had the life he’d dreamed about as a child. He was a journalist for Time magazine writing about world affairs, with fascinating assignments that sent him around the globe. He lived in an apartment on Park Avenue and 20th Street in New York City. He vacationed everywhere from Bali to El Salvador.
But he felt like something was missing. He was moving so quickly from place to place that he never paused to ask himself if he was truly happy. So he decided to quit his job, leave NYC, and spend a year living in Kyoto, Japan.
By going Nowhere, we rediscover our passion for the world.
At the time, Iyer couldn’t explain why he suddenly needed to trade in his cosmopolitan life for a small, single room in Kyoto. His dad chided him for becoming a “pseudo retiree” – after all, he’d sent Iyer to institutions that encouraged him to “get somewhere,” not go nowhere.
But in retrospect, Iyer realized that was exactly what he needed: to “go Nowhere.” He had to step away from the busyness of his life in order to truly appreciate each moment. Life mostly takes place in our heads, and when there’s too much distraction, it can be difficult to see the big picture.
One way to describe “going Nowhere” is that it’s when you sit still long enough to turn inward. While Cohen and Iyer opted to move to remote places, you don’t have to physically relocate to go Nowhere.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It matters not where or how far you travel – the farther commonly the worse – but how alive you are.” Thoreau was one of the great explorers of his time, yet is best known for his meditations on nature and turning inward.
That’s why going Nowhere also doesn’t mean going on vacation. There are many worthwhile reasons to travel – but when you feel off, having a bustling itinerary will only add to the mental clutter. That’s because no matter where you go, it’s your perspective that informs your experience. So you have to be willing to embrace stillness to glean insight.
Eventually, Iyer had to get back to writing to support himself – which meant hitting the road again. But after trips to Argentina, China, Tibet, North Korea, Paris, and London, the impulse to go Nowhere was stirring again.
So he visited his mother in California, and then drove up to a Benedictine retreat house. Once he entered the remote little room overlooking the sea, all of the chaos in his mind dissolved. The house cast a spell of calmness, and he stopped taking himself so seriously.
He spent just three days there – but that brief interlude instilled a fresh excitement in him. He returned to the Benedictine house again for longer stays and was eventually inspired to incorporate stillness more permanently into his life. He and his wife moved to Japan, where they now live in a doll’s house apartment with few distractions: no bedroom, no TV, no car, and no bike.
Writers Marcel Proust and Matthieu Ricard embarked on the greatest journeys of their lives when they turned inward.
For a writer, stillness is at the heart of the job. It’s by sitting still, alone, that writers transform action into art – capturing impressions of the world and freezing them in time.
At Iyer’s desk in Japan, he has one constant companion: the twentieth-century French writer Marcel Proust. Once a social climber and dilettante, Proust was only able to write his epic work, Remembrance of Things Past, when he withdrew from society. Sequestered and alone for years, he penned his account of nineteenth- and twentieth-century high society and wartime through groundbreaking, introspective prose.
Sitting still allowed Proust to shape the main idea behind the seven-volume novel: how a fleeting moment can become something much larger and more permanent in our minds. He explored the ways in which we analyze our experiences, inspecting and stretching them until they become the story of our lives.
About a decade after visiting Leonard Cohen and writing about his monk life, Iyer traveled to Zurich to write about the 14th Dalai Lama. There, he met another Buddhist monk and frequent traveler to Nowhere: writer Matthieu Ricard, who was translating a discourse the Dalai Lama was giving.
Ricard was an unlikely monk. The son of famous French intellectual Jean-François Revel, he earned a PhD in molecular biology studying under Nobel Prize winner François Jacob. But he left a budding career in science to move to Nepal when he was 26 – where he learned Tibetan, took on monastic robes and became an attendant and student of Tibetan spiritual teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.
Confused about why his scientist son had become a Buddhist monk, Ricard’s father flew to Nepal to find out. Their dialogue during that ten-day visit resulted in the hugely successful book The Monk and the Philosopher, in which Ricard elegantly argues the Buddhist “science of mind” concept.
Today, Ricard is described as the “happiest man in the world.” He earned the title after demonstrating a never-before-seen level of happiness during a University of Wisconsin study on positive emotions – attributed to his having meditated for over 10,000 hours. Because he travels often to deliver lectures, attend conferences, and translate for the Dalai Lama, Iyer asked Ricard how he deals with jet lag.
“For me, a flight is just a brief retreat in the sky,” he responded. He explained that because there’s nothing he can do, or anywhere else he can be but in his seat, he simply watches the clouds. This is also the metaphor Buddhists use to explain the way our minds work: while clouds may pass by, there’s always a blue sky behind them. With patience and stillness, the blue inevitably appears again.
Stillness is hard work – even for those who devote their lives to it.
Sometimes, going Nowhere can inspire great art – but it can also lead to intense and unsettling feelings. This was certainly the case for American poet Emily Dickinson, famous for rarely leaving her home. Once, the author stayed in a cabin in Alberta, Canada, to read the letters Dickinson penned throughout her life. The passion in her writing was at times so affecting that he had to turn away.
Dickinson’s poems offer evidence of how a life of solitude can trigger both beauty and terror. In her hermitage, she unrelentingly explored her inner self – or, as she put it, “still – Volcano – Life.” She wrote about death beckoning for her, as well as feeling haunted by her own mind. “Ourself behind ourself concealed– / Should startle most,” she wrote.
The American Trappist monk Thomas Merton also struggled within his chosen life of solitude. He wrote about how stillness isn’t a sure path to happiness – and how happiness won’t be found at all “unless it is first in some sense renounced.” While paradoxical, the point is that it requires us to embrace nothingness.
Iyer learned about Merton’s crisis of faith when he visited the monastery where he lived for more than two decades. Merton’s former student gave Iyer a tour of the hermitage where Merton spent his last two years. There, the monk picked out one of Merton’s journals. He said he liked to read an entry at random when he showed people the hermitage, to feel Merton’s spirit with them.
Surprisingly, the passage was about an encounter with a 20-year-old student nurse. While at the hospital for back surgery at age 51, Merton had unexpectedly fallen in love with M., as he coded the nurse’s name. He wrote hundreds of pages about his love affair with M. – his first since he’d taken a vow of chastity and solitude 25 years before.
For the author, this was crushing to learn. Merton, who possessed so much wisdom about the peace and truth that stillness brings, had become a teenage boy again during this period of his life.
But it was a reminder to Iyer that the inner self is constantly changing – even for those who dedicate their lives to stillness.
The more complicated the world becomes, the more important it is to practice stillness.
Wise people of every era and place have acknowledged the human need to go Nowhere – despite our best efforts to distract ourselves.
Seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal noted, “All the unhappiness of men arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.”
Meanwhile, the quiet life is now more elusive than ever. But the author was surprised to learn that the same people who helped develop the technologies that have sped up the world are actually the most sensitive to the importance of slowing down.
Take Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine. Though he wrote a book on how technology can “expand our individual potential,” he lives without a smartphone, laptop, or TV in his home. What’s more, many tech workers in Silicon Valley observe an “internet sabbath,” in which they turn off most of their devices for the weekend. They know that having endless information at our fingertips isn’t something to take lightly. We must learn how to sift through it and step back from it – so that we can see the bigger picture. Then we can draw upon that clarity when the stakes are highest.
That’s what Emma, a Stanford researcher and friend of the author’s, envisioned when she began studying how stillness could help treat PTSD. After raising enough money to fund a pilot study, she gathered a group of masculine, Midwestern military veterans to take part in a weeklong, yoga-based breathing program. They didn’t have much interest or faith in it, calling it “hippie dipshit.”
But after the program, they reported significant improvements in their symptoms. Their stress, anxiety, and even respiration rate had all decreased – while the subjects who didn’t go through the program remained unchanged. When she tested the group again a week and then a year later, the improvements held up. One veteran said she’d “brought him back from the dead.”
Emma’s husband, Andrew, a marine, also confirmed the effectiveness of sitting still. He initially began his own 40-day stillness program partly to prove it wrong and partly because his sense of discipline urged him to “see the mission through.” Not only did he find that the hour of concentrated attention made him uncharacteristically happy; it made him more selectively alert about potential threats and targets. He became effective at his job and better able to enjoy his daily life.
Everyone can integrate some stillness into their lives.
Like doing anything new, it takes courage to introduce quietness into your life. And it’s not easy. The author even admits that he’d prefer to give up meat, wine, or sex than not check his email. Yet, when he finally does manage what he calls a “Secular Sabbath,” he finds that, when he returns, the work he produces is better.
The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel referred to the Sabbath as “a cathedral in time rather than in space.” Iyer’s concept of a Secular Sabbath is about prioritizing a set amount of time to let your mind roam without direction or purpose.
Many of us feel tyrannized by the clock. But when you give yourself space not to worry about time, that’s when your most imaginative and unexpected ideas often arrive. During a period of rest, you’re reminded that simply listening can be more rewarding than trying to articulate all of your thoughts.
Perhaps you’re thinking that it’s selfish to take breaks from the demands of everyday life. Or maybe it sounds like something only privileged people can afford to do.
In reality, those who are busy and stressed benefit most from periods of stillness. After carving out even just a few minutes to go Nowhere, you gain a sense of clarity that brings you closer to people. And then you’re also able to cope with the commotion of the world more readily.
Perhaps the fact that Leonard Cohen has resonated with audiences for half a century is evidence. In 2012, Cohen released an album of slow, solemn songs with the decidedly unexciting title, Old Ideas. He’d always been concerned with suffering, darkness, and death, but now he explored those themes even more intimately. Though he was no longer living at the monastery, he’d brought a heavy dose of stillness to his new music.
And the album was a massive global success. As Iyer watched the album climb the charts of 26 countries, hitting the top five in nine of them, he was astonished. How were people all over this chaotic world still enamored with the 77-year-old Zen monk?
Maybe it was because, deep down, people want to be taken somewhere real – somewhere outside themselves, beyond distraction. Even if we talk ourselves out of going Nowhere, we’re drawn to the work of people who’ve journeyed inward and returned to the world tender, alive, and lucid. Perhaps what we truly long for is the invigoration of slowing down, paying attention, and sitting still.
The key message in these summaries:
When we go to a place of real quiet, we gather direction and refresh our lives with new energy, perspective, and joy. Many writers and spiritual practitioners who have pursued stillness were rewarded with lasting insights. You needn’t be intimidated by the idea of practicing stillness – even just a few minutes of sitting quietly every day can help you feel more present in your life.
About the author
Pico Iyer is an essayist for Time magazine, a TED speaker, and a novelist known for his travel writing. He’s a constant contributor to the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, Granta, and more than 200 other newspapers and magazines worldwide.
Pico Iyer is a British-born essayist and novelist long based in both California and Japan. He is the author of numerous books about crossing cultures, among them Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, and The Global Soul. An essayist for Time since 1986, he also publishes regularly in Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and many other publications across the globe.
A follow up to Pico Iyer’s essay “The Joy of Quiet,” The Art of Stillness considers the unexpected adventure of staying put and reveals a counterintuitive truth: The more ways we have to connect, the more we seem desperate to unplug.
Why might a lifelong traveler like Pico Iyer, who has journeyed from Easter Island to Ethiopia, Cuba to Kathmandu, think that sitting quietly in a room might be the ultimate adventure? Because in our madly accelerating world, our lives are crowded, chaotic and noisy. There’s never been a greater need to slow down, tune out and give ourselves permission to be still.
In The Art of Stillness—a TED Books release—Iyer investigate the lives of people who have made a life seeking stillness: from Matthieu Ricard, a Frenchman with a PhD in molecular biology who left a promising scientific career to become a Tibetan monk, to revered singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who traded the pleasures of the senses for several years of living the near-silent life of meditation as a Zen monk. Iyer also draws on his own experiences as a travel writer to explore why advances in technology are making us more likely to retreat. He reflects that this is perhaps the reason why many people—even those with no religious commitment—seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation, or seeking silent retreats. These aren’t New Age fads so much as ways to rediscover the wisdom of an earlier age. Growing trends like observing an “Internet Sabbath”—turning off online connections from Friday night to Monday morning—highlight how increasingly desperate many of us are to unplug and bring stillness into our lives.
The Art of Stillness paints a picture of why so many—from Marcel Proust to Mahatma Gandhi to Emily Dickinson—have found richness in stillness. Ultimately, Iyer shows that, in this age of constant movement and connectedness, perhaps staying in one place is a more exciting prospect, and a greater necessity than ever before.
In 2013, Pico Iyer gave a blockbuster TED Talk. This lyrical and inspiring book expands on a new idea, offering a way forward for all those feeling affected by the frenetic pace of our modern world.
Read an Excerpt
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.
“This book isn’t a meditation guide or a New-Age tract but rather a celebration of the age-old practice of sitting with no goal in mind and no destination in sight…. Rather than reading it quickly and filing it, readers will likely slow down to meet its pace and might continue carrying it around as a reminder.” – Kirkus (starred)
“[A] cool drink of water, in book form” – People
“[A] wonderful read in its entirety.” – Brain Pickings
“A bustling paean to the stationary life . . . Iyer’s argument is an engaging amalgam of memoir, reportage, and literary essay . . . Iyer uses a fluid blend of argument and anecdote to make a persuasive and eloquent case that contemplating internal landscapes can be just as rich an experience as traveling through external ones. The fact that he has traveled to some of the world’s most obscure corners only strengthens his credibility as a defender of stillness.” – Boston Globe
“A heartfelt manifesto to the benefits of ditching the cellphone and snipping up the frequent flier card, The Art of Stillness is anything but a self-help book or how-to guide for achieving inner peace.” – Associated Press
“In lesser hands this tiny volume might be a throwaway of glib, “new age” comfort-speak, but like Henry David Thoreau’s equally brief classic on another seemingly mundane exercise — walking — Iyer’s thoughtful nature leads him to peel back layer upon layer, nodding toward the infinite…. Plunging effortlessly beneath platitudes, this wafer-thin volume reminds us of what might just be the greatest paradox of travel — after all our road running, after all our flights of fancy to the farthest corners of the globe, after all our touring, our seeking and questing, perhaps, just perhaps, fellow travelers, there really is no place like home.” – New York Times Book Review
“[A] beautiful little book. . . fills an important niche. . . Iyer wants to make the conscious practice of stillness palatable to everyone.” – Los Angeles Review of Books