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Published on: 07/30/15 2:32 PM

Book review: The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer

Still and tranquil

The Art of Stillness/Adventures in Going Nowhere/Pico Iyer/A TED Book

And now the peripatetic traveler, the veteran travel writer, switches tracks and writes this eulogy about going nowhere. About sitting still, about being at peace with yourself and your surroundings. A totally irresistible concept, if you think about it.

It`s an art of course, the art of stillness. And the wonder of it is, Iyer makes it sound so doable. In fact, he points out that in Silicon Valley, many a giant company is encouraging people to switch it all off for a set period, to go still, to tap into their inner silence. He tells us how companies now have meditation rooms, stress reduction programmes, mind training sessions.

He tells us that gravel-voiced Leonard Cohen, once part of Andy Warhol`s Factory set, frequently goes to a Zen centre to recharge himself. `What else would I be doing,` asks Cohen. `Starting a new marriage…raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? ` And the sense of it strikes the reader most forcibly. Going nowhere, according to Cohen, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.

Pico Iyer takes that ball straight to the goalpost, and as the reader watches with appreciation, scores a neat goal.

A lot of what Iyer reiterates is precepts we have read and heard before but no less potent for the repetition. It`s not our experiences that form us but the ways in which we respond to them. As the Bard of Avon said: There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

What are these golden rules, anyway?
* That sitting still is following a rule of contemplative life.
* That you do not sit down and solve problems, you bear with them until they solve themselves, or until life solves them for you.
* That stillness can enable you to listen to something out of earshot.
And this, my personal favourite: that 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.

In sitting still, one is stepping back from the canvas of life to take in the larger picture. It`s more recollection than discovery. The payoffs are rich and satisfying, avers Iyer.

Sit still and fall deeper in love with the world around you. Sit still and let fresh imaginative thoughts come to you. Sit still and recharge yourself to face the world once again. Step away now and then, so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

Which of course, has the reader asking plaintively: what exactly is sitting still? Why, it is clearing the head and stilling the emotions. Iyer tells us we could start small, just take a few minutes each day to sit quietly and do nothing, letting what moves one rise to the surface, musing on how making a living and making a life sometimes point in opposite directions.

Sitting still gets you wide awake, exhilarated, `pumping-hearted` as when you are in love. It can`t get any better now, can it?

Iyer explains the Buddhist concept of blue skies being the state of the mind. The sky may occasionally be obscured by clouds but all you need is the patience to sit still until the blue shows up again.

He talks of the poet Emily Dickenson who well knew the concept of stillness bound as she was to a life of self- imposed seclusion. Leading on from there, Iyer cautions that stillness can also lead to doubt and dereliction, and how perfecting the art is actually a lot of hard work. A man sitting still is often alone with the memory of all he doesn’t have. And what he does have can look very much like nothing. My only grouse is that he doesn’t go further down that path, at least not in this book, reverting to odes to stillness instead.

The pages are interspersed with beautiful land and waterscape photographs by Eydis Einarsdottir, who also writes a brief and moving note about how these photographs are but her way of sitting still and let the beauty of Nature wash over her camera eye and herself.

And after reading and absorbing the contents of this slim, thought-provoking book, I went on to hear Iyer give a TED talk on the art of stillness. I followed that up with listening to Matthieu Ricard the biochemist turned Buddhist monk mentioned in the book, deliver a talk on happiness, `Simplifying one`s life to extract its quintessence…`

And then I pulled up some of the amazing Leonard Cohen’s songs for a listen. Iyer refers to the singer turned monk, (something of a boyhood hero to the writer) at length in the book. And if you ask me, that is the true triumph of Pico Iyer`s book. It makes you think, it makes you pause, it makes you take connecting trails, all towards some point of stillness.

Related Links:

Book review: A Beginner`s Guide to Japan by Pico Iyer


BuddhismLeonard CohenPico IyerreflectionsThe Art of Stillness

Sheila Kumar • July 30, 2015

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