The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere
This is an elaboration/review of the book by Pico Iyer.
How do you slow down?
What do you mean by going nowhere?
And how can we slow down with our busy business and family life?
In this episode Sean talks about
Part 1: The Passage To Nowhere
Part 2: The Charting of Stillness
Part 3: The Internet Sabbath
4 am is the most difficult part of my day.
And it's not for the reason you might be thinking. It's not difficult because it's so early in the morning. For me it's quite the opposite. For close to 20 years I've been rising at 4, sometimes a bit earlier, without the need of an alarm. The sound and feel of 4 am is embedded in my system and I instinctively know when to wake up.
Which is where the problem begins.
Within seconds of waking up, I'm completely awake
I feel as though my brain is a train leaving the station, and I, as the train driver need to keep up. Five minutes later, I've walked out of the door, across to the office next door and I'm already at work. At this time of the day, and without the need of any coffee or tea, I can start to write a book, work on a presentation or take on the endless flow of e-mail.
So how do I slow down?
That was the question I asked myself as we slid into our December break. We're all so alert, so full of this persistent need to work, to learn, to keep going at high speed. How do we slow down without losing momentum? And if we were to slow down, where would we get the time to slow down? This last question seems to cut right to the core. That we have no time to do what's most important to us. Which is why I started first listening to, then reading a book I'd bought almost two years ago.
Yes, the irony wasn't lost on me. It took two years to get to the book, but as December rolled along I listened to it once, then a second time, before getting a physical copy from the library.
The name of the book? The Art of Stillness: Adventures In Going Nowhere.
A book by writer, traveller, Pico Iyer. And let me tell you my short journey about going nowhere in a hurry.
We'll look at three elements of the book, and it's a very tiny book, spanning just 74 pages. When listening to it on audio, I think I was done with listening to it in a few hours. Even so, less is more. That's the agenda of the book and the lesson I learned.
Here are the three things we'll cover:
– The Passage To Nowhere
– The Charting of Stillness
– The Internet Sabbath
Part 1: The Passage To Nowhere
Sitting still is a way of falling in love with the word and everything around it.
That's an interesting thought, isn't it? And within three pages of “The Passage to Nowhere”, author Pico Iyer makes you want to slow down, but not just feel like you're getting off the motorway, but instead coming to a complete standstill. A stillness so unusual that if you close your eyes, you can hear the computer gurgle, feel the caress of the breeze, even your heartbeat seems so much louder.
Iyer, despite the Indian sounding name, was born in Oxford, England in 1957
By the time he's twenty-nine, he's got an office on the 25th floor in midtown Manhattan; an apartment on Park Avenue and 20th Street and a job that most writers only dream about. He covers apartheid in South Africa, the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, the chaos that enveloped India during prime minister Indira Gandhi's assassination. He wrote extensively for Time Magazine and took long vacations in exotic parts of the globe. The very thought of going nowhere was an incredibly alien concept.
And yet the constant excitement has a finite boundary
If you listen closely enough to life, it speaks to you in a whisper. Pico Iyer found that he couldn't hear that whisper. He was racing about so much that he never had a chance to see where he was going, or truly enjoy what he was doing. He never had a chance to check if he was truly happy.
Writers have a funny way of going to their core
Some hit the bottle, others write endlessly. Iyer decided to retreat to Kyoto. Now I don't know if you've ever been to Kyoto, but it's one of the most amazing cities in the world. There is a richness in the palaces and temples of Tokyo that's hard to imagine, let alone replicate. Iyer decided to leave behind his dream life and spend a year in a small, single room on the backstreets of Kyoto. He craved a sense of stillness.
In the early part of his book he talks about how not so long ago, our greatest luxury was access to information. There was no such thing as too many books because a book was savoured. Information was a slow drug. Today it's the freedom from information that we seek. The chance to be still is what Iyer calls the “ultimate prize”.
“I'm not a member of any church, and I don't subscribe to any creed; I've never been a member of any meditation or yoga group,” say Iyer. And by the time I had hit this paragraph, it struck me that
I was in a remarkably similar position; we all are, in fact. We're all rushing around, slightly overwhelmed at the amount of information we have to process and implement. We're not necessarily a member of any meditation or yoga group and yet there's this obvious desire to slow down until Pico Iyer takes it one step lower. We need to be still; go nowhere.
The chapter on “The Passage to Nowhere” clarifies the issue
It's not about sitting at home and never going anywhere. Travelling opens up our minds, often makes us better, more interesting people. Stillness isn't about a location. You can sit in the middle of a Mumbai street, cars honking and be perfectly at peace, though admittedly the goal isn't about how far you travel but how alive you are.
Stillness it seems is the ultimate adventure; one I'd been on, but certainly not on a daily basis.
So as we slid into summer in this part of the world, I took my chance. In December, Auckland goes to sleep. Around the 20th of December, all the Christmas parties are done, kisses exchanged, and the city goes into hibernation. And it's not just Auckland. The entire country goes into an enforced vacation until mid, even late January. It was my chance to go on a trip I'd never gone before.
I started to meditate
I tried sitting in a Lotus position on the floor. I can do it quite easily as I sit on the floor most days at some point or the other. But I didn't feel comfortable sitting for long periods of time. My next try was sleeping on the floor, and despite the warmth of the season, I felt a bit chilly. So I climbed into bed, pulled the duvet over and that was my Goldilocks moment. I soon discovered that trips require a bit of planning. I scoured iTunes for suitable meditation music until I found the one that suited me best. I wanted to see what this trip to nowhere was all about.
Stillness like anything in life requires momentum
When I first tried to clear my mind, the momentum of the day cluttered it with thoughts of an even higher frequency. I might be sitting and doing nothing, and have no perceptible thought in my head. The moment I meditate, the thoughts, random thoughts burst through trying to shout over one another in an attempt to get my attention. But then the momentum dies down around the 30-minute mark. By the 45-minute mark, it becomes addictive, this meditation stuff.
And that's what takes us to the second part of this review: The Charting of Stillness. In this section, he talks about his friend and songwriter, the late Leonard Cohen. He also talks about Matthieu Ricard, a Frenchman who was called “the happiest man in the world.” What made this Frenchman so euphoric? Let's find out in the next part.
Part 2: The Charting of Stillness
When you look at Matthieu Ricard, you don't see a molecular biologist. Because even if you and I have not a clue about what a molecular biologist looks like, Matthieu Ricard doesn't look the part. And that's because he's wearing the robes of a monk, and has this endearing smile.
The University of Wisconsin was deeply interested in that smile
They attached 256 electrodes to the skulls of hundreds of volunteers and put them all through a 3 ½ hour continuous functional MRI scan. The researchers were searching for positive emotions at first. In later experiments they looked at areas of compassion, the ability to control emotional responses and interestingly, the ability to process information. The subjects were similar in most respects, except some had engaged in ongoing stillness, while others had not.
There was a marked difference between those who'd practiced the art of stillness vs those who hadn't
Those who'd gone through stillness for about 10,000 hours had achieved a sense of happiness that was beyond any records in neurological records.
Their happiness factor was literally, quite off the charts. And Matthieu Ricard explains that happiness is a muscle. That like a muscle it can be developed. His philosophy is based on how Buddhists explain the nature of the mind. And you don't have to be a Buddhist to understand the concepts of the blue sky.
If there are clouds, there is blue sky behind them. All you need is patience to sit still and the blue shows up again.
This blue sky analogy was interesting
Don't get me wrong. A blue sky is, at least to me, the most boring kind of sky. I love clouds, all kinds of clouds. My niece Marsha are even members of the cloud appreciation society. So the analogy kind of bugs me, because I think all clouds, without exception, are incredibly stunning. Even so, the analogy of the blue sky is pretty solid. We lead a life based on our terms, travel places I want to go.
Even our websites aren't built with some keywords in mind or driven by client's demands. We do the things that most interest us instead of being governed by what competition does. Still, there are clouds. Clouds of irritation, envy. They roll in quietly going from a nice, fluffy cumulus to a menacing cumulonimbus.
Theoretically, I want them to put those 256 electrodes on my head and I want them to find happiness, compassion, no desire to react to emotional triggers and the ability to process information in an unusual way. It was a journey I was willing to take. As I meditate under that duvet, I start off all busy in my brain and then I get on the road to stillness. There are days when I don't quite feel like leaving the room and heading to work, it's that addictive; that cool.
And yet there's the obvious objection, isn't there?
Who has time to stand still, or lie still. To me, at least 30-45 minutes was an intrusion. While on vacation it's fine, because I truly do nothing, we're now back to work and that's a chunky 45 minutes out of the day. There's so much to do. How are we supposed to tackle yet another slice of the day slipping away for yet another activity?
This takes us to the third part: The Secular Sabbath as it's called in the book, but which I've changed a bit to the “internet sabbath”.
Part 3: The Internet Sabbath
What happens if you don't check your e-mails one day?
The elves come in, check your e-mails and your inbox is clear the next day, right? We know the price of not being on top of things.
Pico Iyer takes time to talk about the sabbath, but he stresses he's not stepping foot into any religion. Instead he talks about a secular sabbath. About a day every week, when you completely free yourself of work. And incredibly, you get off checking stuff on the Internet.
All this talk of meditation and taking time off gets some people a little upset
Iyer talks about the time he was on a live radio show. The woman calling in was clearly upset. “It's all very well for a male travel writer in Santa Barbara to talk about taking the day off,” she said. “But what about me? I'm a moth trying to start a small business, and I don't have the luxury of meditating for two hours a day.”
Two hours is clearly an exaggeration on the caller's part but the point is clear
We don't have time to meditate and we don't have time to stop checking e-mails and the internet. Yet it's precisely the people who are most under pressure that need to give themselves a break. Iyer suggests the poor, overburdened mother could ask her husband, her mother or a friend to look after the kids for thirty minutes a day. That would bring back a touch of freshness and delight to share with her kids and her business.
As you hear Iyer's words, it's still hard to accept that you can just walk away from the day
I struggled with weekends. My 4 am wake up time doesn't respect weekends and until late 2015 I'd be at work on Saturday and Sunday. “I'm only here for a little while”, I'd say to myself, but I'd often be doing something or the other until 9 or 10 am. On the weekends I was supposedly spending 10 whole hours at work. Whether it was productive work or not is completely debatable and here's why.
One weekend, my niece Keira came over and I was lying on the sofa. She said, “Seanny's always tired”. That was my moment of clarity. The weekends weren't helping me at all. So I stopped coming to work on the weekends. We have courses on
Psychotactics and their Friday assignment is my Saturday. For many years I'd say, “I need to check the assignment on the day itself.” Instead, I just told clients that if they finished their assignment by my Friday evening, I'd check it. If not, I'd be back on Monday. I expected pushback from clients. To my surprise I got none.
Many in Silicon Valley observe an Internet sabbath every week
All devices are turned off from say, Friday night to Monday. Kevin Kelly, is a spokesperson for new technologies and the founding father of Wired Magazine. Kevin takes off on month-long trips without a computer so as to get rooted in the non virtual world. “I want to remember who I am”, he says.
Even so, Kevin Kelly's methods seem a bit far fetched. Instead you can simply turn off your Internet connection for a day. My wife, Renuka and I go for a walk every day for an hour and a half. We try and get about 10,000-15,000 steps a day.
On Sundays however, we don't take the “workday walking route”
Instead we find another route and take a physical book or a diary in which to write or draw. I try and avoid the iPad or any kind of device that will get me back on the Internet. It's a constant challenge but it's completely invigorating. The simple act of putting the phone off and turning it on, 24 or even 48 hours later doesn't increase your workload by much. However, it does dramatically improve your ability to be more calm, more resilient in life.
What's been the result of all of this meditation and calmness?
Like Iyer, I stayed away from meditation for all these years. I convinced myself that my mind was blank enough when going for a walk or painting. And truly it was.
But conscious meditation is different for me. It almost always brings a rush of thoughts; of things that need to be done. Renuka tells me I'm sleeping better and my breathing is less shallow. Instead of reacting to events, I seem to let them pass like clouds, expecting that blue sky will show up shortly.
But easily the biggest change has been the morning train. Remember the train that starts in my brain and races out of the station at 4 am? Well, it doesn't do that any more. I now wake up, meditate and then go to work.
I still have the same day I used to have before. But somehow it's different. Now, I have more time.