I was given a beautiful little book recently. It is really more an extended essay bound in hardcover and delightfully illustrated with enough space to embody the author’s thesis.

The Art of Stillness, by travel writer Pico Iyer who has spent most of his 58 years in motion as a professional travel writer, ironically extols the virtue of being still. Iyer has discovered, as the book’s subtitle describes it, “Adventures In Going Nowhere.”

“Nowhere” is a place Iyer has found within himself. It is he suggests, not a place to be feared, but a place to recover from the ravages of our highly driven culture.

Iyer’s book is worth reading in its entirety. He has some deeply important and wise things to say about our culture and the importance of stopping for a moment in the midst of the rush that so often characterizes our lives. Much of what he writes feels precisely like words I hear myself saying all the time. And yet, at the end of Iyer’s words, I found myself puzzled.

Here are a few quotes from Iyer. My puzzle comes at the end.

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. 13

at some point all the horizontal trips in the world can’t compensate for the need to go deep into somewhere challenging and unexpected. Movement makes richest sense when set within a frame of stillness. 15

Heaven is the place where you think of nowhere else. 15

Nowhere can be scary, even if it’s a destination you’ve chosen; there’s nowhere to hide there. 32

You don’t get over the shadows inside you simply by walking away from them. 37

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. 46

The Sabbath recalls to us that, in the end, all our journeys have to bring us home. And we do not have to travel far to get away from our less considered habits. The places that move us most deeply, as I found in the monastery, are often the ones we recognize like long-lost friends; we come to them with a piercing sense of familiarity, as if returning to some source we already know. 55, 56

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 me 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. 62

The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich is not to enrich the sanctuary or mountaintop but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world. 63

In an age of speed… nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.

In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.

And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still. 66

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Pico Iyer’s little book embodies for me a puzzling mystery.

In his book Iyer describes his visits to monasteries; he speaks about “God”, quotes extensively from Trappist monk Thomas Merton, recounts the words of the Dalai Lama, and speaks lyrically of the benefits of adopting a Sabbath practice.

It is in a reference to the significance of Sabbath that the puzzle which haunted me throughout the book crystallized in my mind. Mr Iyer writes,

Of course, for a religious person, it’s also very much about community and ritual and refreshing one’s relationship with God and ages past. But even for the rest of us, it’s like a retreat house that ensures we’ll have something bright and purposeful to carry back into the other six days. 55

In the end Iyer enters silence, stillness and solitude in search of “something bright and purposeful”. He is looking in silence for what Leonard Cohen apparently calls “the real deep entertainment” (3). Iyer seeks a stillness that has “nothing to do with piety or purity” (3). He is on a journey he hopes “that makes sense of everywhere else” (4).

Iyer wants “fresh time and energy to share with others” (4) and to “come closer” to his “senses” (6). Iyer sums up his vision for silence as a place that “is simply about how one person tries to take care of his loved ones, do his job, and hold on to some direction in a madly accelerating world.” (6) In silence Iyer believes he will come to “see the world more clearly and love it more deeply” (13). He will develop the skills to change his life by “changing the way I look at it” (13), taking “in the larger picture” (42), and gaining “clarity and focus” (46).

Iyer asserts that sitting still has the power to get him “as wide-awake, exhilarated, and pumping-hearted as when you are in love” (17).  Even Sabbath practice serves a pragmatic purpose. Iyer writes “the more time I spend away from my work, the better that work will be, most often” (54)

In the end for Iyer silence is another tool in his professional kit that has the capacity to further his career as a writer. He explains that the “thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out (62).”

All of these things Iyer hopes to find in silence and stillness, may indeed be valuable by-products of stopping and settling into deep quiet. But in my spiritual practice of silence, stillness, and solitude, the by-products are not the goal. The silence itself contains its own purpose.

In silence my heart opens to the gentle voice of a divine Presence who speaks at the edges of my consciousness and whose voice, I believe, can be heard in all of life. Stillness sensitizes me to the movement of a Love that is more vast than anything at which I might ever aim in the small vision of life my mind is capable of grasping. In solitude I open to a living communion with the Source of all creation in whose absence the miracle of life could not exist.

I find myself puzzled that Iyer is able to return from his “adventures in going nowhere” without feeling called by something more transcendent and mysterious than simply those gems that are “bright and purposeful.”

There is a lonely absence that haunts Pico’s words. It seems perhaps, in his journey to “Nowhere”, although he has found much of utilitarian value, Iyer has ultimately encountered only that absence that keeps the world rushing so frenetically from one “exhilarated, and pumping-hearted” experience to another.

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