A deep dive into stillness and joy

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BOOK REVIEW
The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere
By Pico Iyer
Simon & Schuster, a TED Original, 2014
ISBN: 978174678472-4
74 pages

TED talk is available at go.ted.com/stillness.

Nowhere, Pico Iyer claims, is the most interesting destination.

Iyer, a travel writer by trade, makes this pronouncement in a new work, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. The book accompanies a 15-minute TED talk, and runs only 74 pages—compact enough to finish in one sitting.

He describes having, as a young man, a dream job as a global affairs writer at Time magazine in New York City. The lifestyle was frenetic and, oddly, gave him pause: “Something inside me felt that I was racing around so much that I never had a chance to see where I was going, or to check whether I was truly happy.”

He quit, and went to Kyoto, Japan. In his single room on a back alley in the ancient city, the thrill of open time stretched out before him “like a meadow.” He was hooked.

Kyoto set him on a life path with recurring trips to “nowhere,” even as he made his living by going places.

What drew him back?

“I felt the liberation of not needing to take my thoughts, my ambitions, myself—so seriously,” he writes. He returned from these sojourns refreshed, whether “nowhere” meant practising stillness at home, visiting a monastery or claiming the hours of a long flight for no agenda at all. Stillness brought new acuity to his art, and cultivated a happiness that motivates the book.

“I don’t claim to have any answers,” Iyer offers, with unconvincing modesty. It’s unconvincing because the work has the marks of a manifesto. Without claiming any religious faith—though clearly influenced by Buddhism—he defends stillness for both its intangible pleasures and practical benefits.

“In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.”

Most wanderers in harried modern life feel the intuitive truth and pull of his thesis, but actually doing it seems elusive. Many apparently need a more compelling “why” before embarking en masse to nowhere.

The Art of Stillness offers health and happiness as the main rewards of stillness. In contrast, many Christian practitioners of stillness identify a deeper “why” behind their regular pouring out of the mad rush. Emptying, for them, is neither an end in itself nor simply a means to personal happiness. For the disciple of Christ, it promises a refilling with his mind and heart, in order to be his hands and feet to the world. Augustine writes early in Confessions, “Thou has created us for thyself, and our heart knows no rest, until it find repose in thee.” Solitude and stillness, however enjoyable, cannot on their own redeem our restlessness.

Iyer’s conclusion could perhaps be stronger if he highlighted the “why” of stillness beyond personal development. But it remains convincing. His writing is winsome and clear. His credentials as a travel writer give him special authority, and he successfully sells the importance of going nowhere.

“In an age of constant movement,” he writes, “nothing is more urgent than sitting still.”

Wise words.

Michael Wightman is a journalist based in Saint John, N.B.

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