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Philosophy

Pico Iyer on Stillness and Why Your Next Vacation Should Be Nowhere

Image from: www.bostonglobe.com

“Fear keeps pace with hope,” said Seneca in his letters. “Nor does their so moving together surprise me; both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts so far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present. … No one confines his unhappiness to the present.”

Perhaps the greatest source of our unhappiness is a profound failure to appreciate this moment, right here and right now, stripped away of judgements and expectations while exercising the appreciation of every breathe we take. The practice of meditation or stillness has permeated our fast culture with both scientific and philosophical literature. The promise of lower blood pressure, reduced stress, clarity in thinking, improved creativity, and even neurological changes, of course, meets resistance and ignorant criticism.

I was in an uncomfortable position to change my mind about two years ago when I suffered from guttate psoriasis. I remember perfectly how my dermatologist walked into the room, immediately knew, and got straight to the point. “There is no pill or cure for this, only treatments. But may I be very candid with you? You need to meditate. You’re too stressed.”

I was so taken aback by this admonishment that I even started with the judgements like “hippy bullshit.” I wanted consumables, not empty promises. I walked out of that office furious, confused, and hopeless. That night I did some reading on meditation, came to a conclusion, and gave it a try before I went to bed. I didn’t even last a minute; thoughts of self-hatred slowly whistled in the back of my mind like a forgotten tea kettle in the kitchen.

However, when reality sinks in, and you finally realize and accept that the only cure to this awful autoimmune disease is to find inner peace, you will search for it like you lost your dog. I meditated everyday, sometimes three times a day. Whenever I looked in the mirror and was on the verge of screaming and breaking down, I walked into my room, sat down, and closed my eyes. Where was I going?

Pico Iyer, a British-born essayist and author, spent most of his life traveling. In 2014, he teamed up with TED to publish his fascinating book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. It’s funny, if you think about it, a writer who’s life’s work is about documenting personal journeys and covering important events, but is now tasked to write about one of his greatest adventures of all: going Nowhere.

As Iyer beautifully says about going Nowhere:

“The idea behind Nowhere—choosing to sit still long enough to turn inward—is at heart a simple one. If your car is broken, you don’t try to find ways to repaint its chassis; most of our problems—and therefore our solutions, our peace of mind—lie within. To hurry around trying to find happiness outside ourselves makes about as much sense as the comical figure in the Islamic parable who, having lost a key in his living room, goes out into the street to look for it because there’s more light there. As Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius reminded us more than two millennia ago, it’s not our experiences that form us but the ways in which we respond to them; a hurricane sweeps through town, reducing everything to rubble, and one man sees it as a liberation, a chance to start anew, while another, perhaps his brother, is traumatized for life. ‘There is nothing either good or bad,’ as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, ‘but thinking makes it so.’
So much of our lives takes place in our heads—in memory or imagination, in speculation or interpretation—that sometimes I feel that I can best change my life by changing the way I look at it. As America’s wisest psychologist, William James, reminded us, ’The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.’ It’s the perspective we choose—not the places we visit—that ultimately tells us where we stand. Every time I take a trip, the experience acquires meaning and grows deeper only after I get home and, sitting still, begin to convert the sights I’ve seen into lasting insights.”

When I was struck with guttate psoriasis, I was a few years into writing and had some momentum behind me. Self-awareness wasn’t a topic that occupied my mind like it does today, but how I practiced and studied self-awareness sprung from this unforeseen event. It was through meditation that I was able to tune deeply into my thoughts, and to experience stillness like never before. For the first time in my life, I really heard myself. I took individual thoughts or concerns or insecurities, put them in the light, and then put them to the test—what purpose do you serve, why are you occupying my mind, and how long will you last?

Over time, my insecurities of going out into the public, or even being around my closest friends, diminished. Every day I got closer to accepting what was happening to my body internally and externally. I developed a strong faith that this adversity would soon be over, and that I would be stronger because of it. Within three months—whether this was from the light therapy treatment, or a better diet, or meditation—my skin went back to normal. The experience had such an impact—physically, because it left scars—but also emotionally and spiritually. That memory of who I was, in that time and place, became a catalyst for everything that I’ve grown into.

Iyer in the introduction shares a moment when he visited the legendary musician and songwriter, Leonard Cohen. Cohen lived a lifestyle that is usually associated with “legendary musician.” But later on in his life, he sought something entirely different, and traveled to the mountains to make an art, and life, out of stillness. As Iyer reflects:

“One evening—four in the morning, the end of December—Cohen took time out from his meditations to walk down to my cabin and try to explain what he was doing here.

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.’

Was he kidding? Cohen is famous for his mischief and ironies.

[…]

Being in this remote place of stillness had nothing to do with piety or purity, he assured me; it was simply the most practical way he’d found of working through the confusion and terror that had long been his bedfellows.”

However, like all areas of life, there is a balance, and sometimes the adventures of going Nowhere can lead first to a dark path. As Iyer states:

“Nowhere can be scary, even if it’s a destination you’ve chosen; there’s nowhere to hide there. Being locked inside your head can drive you mad or leave you with a devil who tells you to stay at home and stay at home till you are so trapped inside your thoughts that you can’t step out or summon the power of intention.
A  life of stillness can sometimes lead not to art but to doubt or dereliction; anyone who longs to see the light is signing on for many long nights alone in the dark.”
How I wish I read that at the time I started! I remember clearly every time I closed my eyes, I didn’t appreciate or enjoy the moment; my mind instantly became flooded with self-doubt and self-hate. But eventually those long and alone nights peeled away bit by bit, enough for some light to creep in.

This practice of mindfulness and meditation is certainly picking up speed. Pico Iyer states that companies like General Mills, Intel, Aetna, and even Congressmen readily implement the practice of meditation or stillness throughout work. He says:

“The computer chip maker Intel experimented with a ‘Quiet Period’ of four hours every Tuesday, during which three hundred engineers and managers were asked to turn off their e-mail and phones and put up ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs on their office doors in order to make space for ‘thinking time.’ The response proved so enthusiastic that the company inaugurated an eight-week program to encourager clearer thinking. At General Mills, 80 percent of senior executives reported a positive change in their ability to make decisions, and 89 percent said that they had become better listeners, after a similar seven-week program. …
It can be strange to see mind-training—going nowhere, in effect—being brought to such forward-pushing worlds; the businesses that view retreats as the best way to advance may simply be deploying new and imaginative means to the same unelevated ends. To me, the point of sitting still is that it helps you see through the very idea of pushing forward; indeed, it strips you of yourself, as of a coat of armor, by leading you into a place where you’re defined by something larger. If it does have benefits, they lie within some invisible account with a high interest rate but very long-term yields, to be drawn upon that moment, surely inevitable, when a doctor walks into your room, shaking his head, or another car veers in front of yours, and all you have to draw upon is what you’ve collected in your deeper moments. But there’s no questioning the need for clarity and focus, especially when the stakes are highest.”

If you look at the different kind of problems and adversities we face throughout our lives, meditation or stillness is the most difficult to start and commit but seemingly the most rewarding and lasting. The easier escape paths are ephemeral but instantly gratifying like buying stuff, participating in vices, willfully ignoring it, creating self-delusions, and attacking the problem with the same mindset that created it.

How easier it would have been to take a pill and watch the psoriasis disappear, but how easily I would have missed one of the greatest life lessons that no book or class could provide. The experience of overcoming that adversity, not with cheap tactics but rather with a skill that can aid me at any time and any place, is only able to be appreciated in hindsight.

Attaining inner peace can start in early life or later down the road. When we start isn’t as important as our commitment to build the habit, to let it be part of who we become. As Pico Iyer says about the pursuit of inner peace:

“This isn’t everyone’s notion of delight; maybe you have to taste quite a few of the alternatives to see the point in stillness. But when friends ask me for suggestions about where to go on vacation, I’ll sometimes ask if they want to try Nowhere, especially if they don’t want to have to deal with visas and injections and long lines at the airport. One of the beauties of Nowhere is that you never know where you’ll end up when you head in its direction, and though the horizon is unlimited, you may have very little sense of what you’ll see along the way. The deeper blessing—as Leonard Cohen had so movingly shown me, sitting still—is that it can get you as wide-awake, exhilarated, and pumping-hearted as when you are in love.”

[…]

“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 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.”

The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere is a beautiful, concise and insightful read. We can only hope that as time goes on, as the culture matures, people will remove the images that are tied to the practice of meditation and not feel like an outcast to such an enriching practice. The reason why it’s so difficult to start this practice, or to even give it a chance, is because of the labels that are associated with it, as well as the tempest of thoughts that we have to deal with when we are alone, without any proper guidance or nurturing.

Sitting still and finding inner peace is not part of the curriculum of the fast American lifestyle; in fact, to many, it may be a sign of weakness and a waste of time. But a great life cannot thrive with a cheap foundation. Sometimes what we think is helping is only distancing us farther from the solution. Maybe Pico Iyer is right—maybe we need to taste the alternatives to see the point in stillness. But how difficult it is to see the point when the culture conveys a different belief on how life ought to be lived.

And how much we owe it to ourselves to figure out the answers on our own, to ignore what others are saying for just a moment, and to give practices like meditation and mindfulness a fighting chance. What would my life have become if I stormed out of that dermatologist’s office, continued eating bad, being stressed out, and mad at life?

I returned to her about a year or two later because something in my diet was causing severe acne. Again, she gave the solution (which wasn’t meditation but rather to stop eating protein powders). But as I was leaving the office, I turned around the last minute and gave her a sincere thank you for introducing me to the practice of meditation, and while we can’t confirm that it was the only panacea, it was something that provided hope, set me on a path of self-awareness, and ultimately changed my life.

Also see Pico Iyers fabolous TEDTalk:

— PAUL JUN