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Finding Stillness in an On-Demand World

This article was based on the TEDSalon NY2014 talk, “The art of stillness,” by Pico Iyer: 


A Love of Travel

Pico Iyer describes himself as a lifelong traveler. Even as a child, he figured out that it would be cheaper to go to boarding school in England than to the best school near his home in California. From the time he was nine years old, he was flying alone several times a year, just to go to school.  The more Iyer flew, the more he came to love flying. After graduation, he continued traveling, and eventually landed a job as a travel writer.


Finding Stillness in an On-Demand World 1 

Iyer began to feel that if you were lucky enough to walk around the candlelit temples of Tibet or to wander along the seafronts in Havana, you could bring the magical sights and sounds you experienced back to your friends at home. Except, one of the first things you learn when you travel is that nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it.


Going Nowhere

What Iyer found was that the best way to develop more attentive and more appreciative eyes was, oddly, by going nowhere, just by sitting still. Sitting still is how many of us get what we most crave and need in our accelerated lives, a break. This was also the only way that he could find to sift through the slideshow of his experiences, while also making sense of the future and the past. Going nowhere for Iyer, became at least as exciting as going to Tibet or to Cuba.

This is what wise beings through the centuries have been telling us. More than 2,000 years ago, the Stoics were reminding us that it’s not our experience that makes our lives; it’s what we do with it. Imagine a hurricane suddenly sweeps through your town and reduces every last thing to rubble. One man is traumatised for life. But another, maybe even his brother, almost feels liberated and decides this is a great chance to start his life anew. It’s exactly the same event, but radically different responses.


Change Your Mind to Change Your Life

“There is nothing either good or bad”, as Shakespeare told us in Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.”  Much of our life takes place inside our heads, in memory, imagination, interpretation, or speculation. If you really want to change your life, you need to begin by changing your mind.

In our on-demand lives, what is most on demand, is ourselves. Wherever we are at any time, our bosses, junk-mailers, our parents, and so many others can get to us through email, social media, and with text messages. Sociologists have actually found that in recent years Americans are working fewer hours than 50 years ago, but we feel as if we’re working more. We have more and more time-saving devices, but sometimes, it seems, less and less time. We can more easily make contact with people on the furthest corners of the planet, but sometimes in that process, we lose contact with ourselves.


Letting It All Go

At 29, Iyer decided to remake his entire life in the light of going nowhere. He realised that he was racing around so much that he could never catch up even though he loved his life.  He had interesting friends and colleagues, a nice apartment on Park Avenue and 20th Street, and a fascinating job writing about world affairs. However, he found that he could never separate himself enough from all of it to hear himself think and understand if he was truly happy. So, he abandoned his dream life for a single room on the backstreets of Kyoto, Japan. He doesn’t need a cell phone at home.  He almost never has to look at the time. Living in the middle of nowhere, with no bicycle, no car, and few distractions, Iyer realised that he now has what he prizes most, which is days and hours.


Finding a Space for Stillness

One of the beauties of travel is that it allows you to bring stillness into the motion and the commotion of the world. More people are taking conscious measures these days to try to open up a space inside their lives. Some people go to black-hole resorts where they’ll spend hundreds of dollars a night in order to hand over their cell phone and their laptop to the front desk on arrival. Some people, just before they go to sleep, instead of scrolling through their messages or checking out YouTube, just turn out the lights and listen to some music for a better night’s sleep.  

Something deep within us is searching for the sense of intimacy and depth that we get from people who take the time and trouble to sit still. Many of us have the sensation that we’re standing about two inches away from a huge screen, and it’s noisy, and it’s crowded, and it’s changing with every second, and that screen is our lives. It’s only by stepping back, and then further back, and holding still, that we can begin to see what the canvas means and to catch the larger picture.

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