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 (b. 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.”

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
Forest pond created by the overflow from the River Arun, Sussex. Water is so restless, aching to move without provocation. And yet, the reflection possible when there is such 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 and forget the rest. 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 field in the morning. Fragile stillness. 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.

I love stillness, but it’s a location at which it is difficult for me to arrive. So, I pick my vehicles carefully—tea and poetry are rituals that ease the way. Trite, I know. But effective.