By Kaye Olsson, I Start Wondering Columnist
When is the last time you simply stopped doing everything and allowed yourself to be alone with your thoughts? Can you even remember a time when you shut out the rest of the world to just be still?
If you are like most women, each day is usually filled to the brim with activities that demand attention, and thoughts of stillness are rarely squeezed into the busy equation. But, in his book The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, author Pico Iyer emphatically tells us that being still is exactly what we need to be doing.
Iyer is a professional travel writer who is constantly on the go and has experienced many of the world’s most fascinating destinations. Yet, he discovered that by “going nowhere” and simply allowing his mind to be still, he could develop more attentive eyes that could better appreciate his surroundings. So, at the age of 29, he left the fast-paced culture of New York City and moved to a single rented room on the back streets of Kyoto, Japan. This small, quiet space gave him the respite he needed from a life that was constantly in motion.
Although The Art of Stillness was published in 2014, I read it for the first time about a year ago—then promptly re-read it three more times because the ideas seemed so profound. It made a significant impact on me and caused me to completely rethink my impressions of alone time. Western society rewards us for being outwardly productive and idle behavior is often frowned upon. So the coping mechanism I had developed for dealing with various losses throughout my life was to keep my schedule filled with activities, hoping that being busy would provide a suitable distraction from my grief. I was afraid of being left alone with my thoughts and emotions.
But rather than viewing solitude as a curse or something to be avoided, Iyer describes it as the ultimate luxury and something to be savored. Sitting still for a few moments, hours, or even days grants us what we most crave in our harried lives: a break. He says this stillness “gives us a chance to find out what moves us most, to recall where true happiness lies, and to remember that sometimes making a living and making a life point in opposite directions.” In other words, sometimes the most important thing we can do is to be still and let our minds think.
Taking a Break
In the current era of cell phones, social media, and continuous communication, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. People can become addicted to the constant streams of information, leading to a sense of restlessness and anxiety. I've noticed more and more friends around me who are taking conscious measures to escape these distractions. Some people take a “technology sabbath” where they turn off their electronic devices for a day or a weekend. Others escape to “off the grid” locations for vacations that are devoid of cellular networks or internet service.
I admire these people who take the time and trouble to sit still. It’s easy to have the sensation that we're standing about two inches away from a huge screen that is noisy, crowded, and changing every second— and that screen is our lives. It is only by stepping back, and remaining still, that we can break free from this cycle of busyness. Only then can we begin to interpret the larger picture and see what the canvas means. Then, when life inevitably tosses us a nasty surprise, it will be the strength we developed during those quiet times that sustains us.
I think Pico Iyer sums it up best by saying:
“In an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. And in an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still. So you can go on your next vacation to Paris or Hawaii, or New Orleans; I bet you'll have a wonderful time. But, if you want to come back home alive and full of fresh hope, in love with the world, I think you might want to try considering going nowhere.”