Pico Iyer

The Art of Stillness

“Movement makes richest sense when set within a frame of stillness.”

The greatest adventure is sitting still with ourselves. “Go into yourself,” urged German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Nevertheless, this personal journey takes a feat of perseverance that unnerves multitudes.

Pico Iyer (born 11 February 1957), a travel writer who humbly grabs us by the lapels with his empathetic and observational writing, has made a career of not sitting still. But in The Art of Stillness, he sets aside travel and urges we do the same.

The idea behind Nowhere—choosing to sit still long enough to turn inward—is at the 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.

Iyer rationally acknowledges that this sitting still and inward dive is easier for some than for others. Comedian and writer John Cleese wrote of the perils of sitting and doing nothing: “There are not many jobs where you can produce absolutely nothing in the course of eight hours and the uncertainty that produces is very scary.” Roald Dahl couldn’t understand how anyone could write more than two hours a day.

Yet, for others, this stillness is so essential we form our existence and our profession around it.

Writers, of course, are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time going nowhere. Our creations come not when we’re out in the world, gathering impressions, but when we’re sitting still, turning those impressions into sentences. Our job, you could say, is to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. Sitting still is our workplace, sometimes our battlefield.

Pico Iyer - The Art of Stillness
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The nature of sitting still, working, and focusing sometimes requires a disciplinary process that allows us to focus on what matters. It can also come from changes in pace; interjecting moments of play alongside work.

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 made 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.

Pico Iyer - The Art of Stillness
New Hampshire mountain path. “The Mountain gives itself most fully when I have no destination.” wrote Nan Shepherd in The Living Mountain. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Iyer introduces us to other stillness worshippers, including Leonard Cohen, Canada’s most famous monastic, who once mourned being interrupted by a spider.

One evening—four in the morning, then 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.

Those of us who long for stillness and uninterrupted quiet know all too well the fear of being interrupted. And then there is the agitation. Yet, the art of doing nothing, going nowhere, is something vital we can carry with us always, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

Sussex field, morning. Featured in Pico Iyer's "The Art of Stillness" in the Examined Life Library.
“Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of the little things in others” wrote scholar Kakuzo Okakura in his ode to the stilling pleasures of the tea ceremony. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Stillness is heavy, weighty. As physicist Alan Lightman noted, “Mental downtime is having the space and freedom to wander about the vast hallways of memory and contemplate who we are.” Stillness isn’t for everyone at all times. I pick my vehicles carefully—tea and poetry are rituals that ease the way. Trite, I know. But effective.