With machines coming to seem part of our nervous systems, while increasing their speed every season, we’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off–our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk. –Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness
At some point, we stop breathing; we forget to recognize the sound of our own breath. It’s rhythm and pantomime become lost upon us, and the heart that was once a steady metronome, a slow-beating tick of a clock, now beats so fast, so furious, that all we want to do is flee ourselves. Our desire to crawl out of our skin, which is merely paint on a wall covering a house that is crumbling, is real. We live our days tethered to a color-coded calendar while our ankles are chained to a desk. While we talk about how the desk might be in ensconced in an office or in a workspace cum playground for which we pay vast sums of money to occupy–in the end, it’s all the same, really. We’re all chained to something. We have become masters of routine; we live to a repetition that carries its own symphony. We endure noise and stress simply becomes we’ve become accustomed to it, it’s common.
Notice how the days become photocopies of themselves with minor variations? Notice how we rush so fast through this waking life? And to what or whom are we running? Death? Because that’s the last stop. No chargebacks, no refunds, no going back.
For most of my twenties and early thirties, I was consumed by my own personal velocity. I had to get there, regardless of whether I knew the destination of my location, and I had to get there now. Or preferably yesterday. I overscheduled, I thrived on efficiency, became obsessed with technology, and I lived my life, as my friend Amber would say, in ten-minute increments. There was no time. There was never enough of it. And that’s when I found myself, at 37, worn out, depleted, sick, cynical, angry, and dark.
It’s taken me two years to get myself right again. I think about Humpty Dumpty, the nursery rhyme we knew as children, and I wondered what happens when you fall and you try so desperately to put yourself back together again. What if you’re left with cuts from the shells? You’re broken and you wonder how it is you got here, and how you can stop the breaking. How do you stop what you’ve already started? I took a trip to Europe where I convulsed for the first half of the trip, and it was only when I arrived in Biarritz, a sleepy seaside city in France (during off-season), did I come together again. I spent days by the water, doing nothing. I fixated on the barnacles that covered the undersides of fishing boats and giant rocks. Come evening I read up on the crustaceans and their unhealthy attachments. When the storms came out from the sea painting the waves black, I watched surfers tread further out and I photographed a beach so naked and cold that it awakened something in me. Later, I sat in a hotel room and began what would be my second book, a novel about three generations of a family bent on ruin.
Since, I’ve never read as deeply or as completely. I’ve never enjoyed so fully the space of my own company and the silence surrounding it. I traveled to India, Ireland, Fiji, Australia, Korea, Thailand, Spain, most of France and Italy and felt everything. I spent days in New York completely alone and loved it. It was as if I’d been sleeping through my waking life and I just felt the sting, the jolt, of waking up. This is what life is when you live through it rather than ahead of it. This is the depth of sorrow, pain, joy, love, heartache, and pride.
Going nowhere, as Leonard Cohen would later emphasize for me, isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so you can see the world more clearly and see it more completely –Pico Iyer
I’ve finished Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, and I’m still in awe over how a tiny book could have so much impact. From war veterans suffering from PTSD to Leonard Cohen and Buddhist monks, Iyer’s book is a meditation, a sermon that preaches mindfulness and quiet. We are our own cathedral and rarely, if ever, do we pay reverence to ourselves. We don’t allow for slumber or rest–we consider it weak or wasteful to squander time when really we’re just living it, loving it, savoring it.
Over the past few months I’ve started to walk slower; I’ve noticed the shape and space of my own solitude. I’ve slowed down in every way I possibly can. My pauses are pregnant and I’ve turned off my phone to listen to the sounds of my commute.
On my way down to Nicaragua, I boarded two flights. On both, I remained completely still. I didn’t fiddle with a magazine or obsessively check email–I just sat still and stared out at the clouds. You can’t even imagine how difficult this was for me. I like to move, fidget, and read as much as possible. And after five hours of self-imposed stillness, I not only became acutely aware of my own exhaustion from the past few weeks, but I started to have ideas. I had ideas for short stories, projects for this space and places I want to go. I ignored all the pragmatic constraints that plague me constantly (money, money, money) and just listened to the sound of my breath and how much my heart ache to create.
And then I found myself at the ecological reserve–a place quite literally in the middle of nowhere, facing a volcano. There’s no WIFI or television in my room. Very few people are on the property and all I can hear are birds. While much of my week in Central America will be about visiting villages, volcanos and natural beauty, my evenings will be spent in solitude. Reading, thinking, being still.
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 standing still –Pico Iyer
Imagine if you sat still in your bedroom for 15 or 30 minutes. Imagine if you slowed down your walk. Picture an evening spent with someone you love and exchanging fewer words than you normally would. Think about what it would be like to shut off everything, just for one hour, a night. Imagine looking up at the sky without feeling a need to photograph it. Imagine hearing someone speak without a need to quote them in a tweet. Imagine asking yourself, how do I feel right now, right this very moment? Imagine what it would be like to feel joy.
I’m really thrilled for where all of this will take me.