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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere

Overview: Ever thought about chucking it all and rebooting your life? That’s sort of what Pico Iye
r did; he headed for Japan.  Along the way he met musician Leonard Cohen, who had become a contemplative monk, steeped in the wisdom of being alone. Cohen told Iyer that stepping away from your daily work was so that you might see it anew and “love it more deeply.” The ironic subtitle of this book, by a travel writer no less, says it all: ‘Adventures in going nowhere.’  It also could have been called ‘the journey inside’ or ‘finding happiness without ever looking for it.’ So this is a book about experiencing the world within a “framework of stillness.” It’s also about being present. As the author says, “Heaven is the place where you think of nowhere else.” And in a hyper-speed world chock full of distractions, finding respite within ourselves might just be the best thing we can do every day.
1.     Charting Stillness: The author tells of his covering the Dalai Lama’s trip to Switzerland, where he met Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard, an MIT molecular biologist who left that scientific world for a more contemplative, inner journey. Ricard, who is renowned, especially for his TED Talk and appearances at Davos says: “Simplifying one’s life to extract its quintessence is the most rewarding of all pursuits I have undertaken.” Called the happiest man in the world, Ricard earned that reputation after having had his brain studied by neuroscientists. Employing special MRI equipment with amazing results, these scientists were able to objectively show Ricard’s ability to control his emotions and experience a level of compassion and happiness few will ever know.
2.     Needing Stillness: The author takes a trip to the monastery in Kentucky where philosopher Thomas Merton (also called Father Louis) went to be on his journey to nowhere. The science of interruption tells us that it takes up to 25 minutes to bounce back from a sudden, unexpected visit or phone call, which happens all day long for many of us! So we’re all fragmented and not fully present. In Google’s Search Inside Yourself Initiative, all Googlers are offered a course dedicated to helping them at work and in life. Research that supports their ‘going nowhere’ program leads to not only clearer thinking and better health but also to emotional intelligence. Indeed, mindfulness and meditation have become mainstream in corporations like Aetna, General Mills, LinkedIn, Twitter, and many others. And with good results. For example, at General Mills 80% of execs who attended a mindfulness program for 8 weeks reported a positive change in making decisions and 89% said they were now better listeners. Worth noting: According to the World Health Organization: “Stress will be the health epidemic of the twenty-first century.” And the simple act of mindfulness can help us work toward a cure.
3.     Getting Away: Ironically, the more difficult the day, the more time we need away from it—or the more breaks we need within it. The great Mahatma Gandhi once noted that the harder his day would be, the more time he needed to meditate alone. While this seems counterintuitive, it makes sense if you think of meditation like charging the battery of your mind. People need breaks. As the author warns: “…the clock is exerting more and more tyranny over us.” We need time to do nothing and just allow our minds to solve problems in a kind of stealth mode. Thomas Merton says that in the contemplative life, we need to sit down and let life solve problems for us. Letting the mind relax allows it the perspective and freshness to solve difficult problems.
4.     Final Words by the Author: The author comments in the last chapter about the value of going nowhere:“In an age of speed, I began to think, 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.”

The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer (TED Books, 2014), reviewed by Steve Gladis, February 2016.

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