By Siddhartha Roy
In an age characterized by aggressive haste and information overload, Pico Iyer’s talk on the art of stillness points us to “one of our greatest [and mostly forgotten] luxuries” — the empty space one arrives at by being still. This empty space, I believe, is partly the answer to THE grand challenge of our era: countering the growing assault on our attention and the consequent lack of mindfulness in work, relationships and, most importantly, our inner lives. If one is constantly distracted by pings, tweets and emails and only superficially engaged, we risk becoming cogs in the distraction economy, possibly even losing the capacity for compassion, contemplation and deep engagement.
Pico talks about taking a vacation “in time,” by “simply sitting still and going nowhere.” This should not be confused with discursive thought (or even passive rumination), which is often a primary source of human suffering. Instead, engaging in practices like mindfulness meditation, running or simply sitting still for long periods of time can offer us a refuge from the dizzying pace of our lives and help us reset our inner compass to what really matters. For example, when working 16+ hour days and facing a dearth of active reflection time at the height of uncovering the Flint Water Crisis, running on the streets of Blacksburg, Virginia at 2 a.m. was the only way I could stay sane. Or the ten days I spent on a meditation retreat in the Himalayas a few years ago that pointed me to a deep and messy inner world I could access after prolonged periods of externally-imposed stillness.
Pico shares a crucial insight: it’s only by going to a place of real quiet that we’ll have anything fresh or creative or joyful to share with the world. This also calls for mindful consumption of (and sometimes abstaining from) content, even though we may be drowning in emails and good television. In a time when every headline is screaming for us to lose our minds, the need for more of us to be calm and clear so as to think, reflect and act better cannot be exaggerated.
Pico’s talk is an amusing paradox — a travel writer extolling the virtues of “going nowhere.” Take a listen. And then, if you are so tempted, go. Go nowhere.