Tuesday, February 16, 2016

#TBRChallenge Reading: The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer

2016 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere
Author: Pico Iyer
My Categories: Nonfiction
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Series Catch-Up
(Ahem, so my book doesn't match the monthly theme. The book I'd planned to read hasn't arrived yet, so I had to substitute this book.)

There is such a meditative quality to the book. It's a book about meditation written in the same quiet vein. That is what I like best about Pico Iyer's writing. His words reflect his subject matter. Take for example, one of his beloved essays In Praise of the Humble Comma. It entertains while showing the practical and metaphorical uses of commas by doing so in the text. He brings that same demonstrable ability to The Art of Stillness.

Leonard Cohen is someone who keeps cropping up in the narrative like a coda. Famous for his Hallelujah Chorus, what is less known is that he frequents a Benedictine monastery in Southern California in monks' robes for months on end. Of his meditation practice, Cohen explained to Iyer:

"Sitting still, he said with expected passion, was 'the real deep entertainment he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. 'Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.' Going nowhere was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else."

You hear so much about meditation as a calming aid, something that grounds you in your day-to-day functioning. In fact, taking time out to sit still will allow you to "find fresh time and energy to share with others". So somehow, taking time out for yourself is offering more of yourself to the world. This reminds me how people regularly tell me, I'm too busy to meditate. It's precisely when you're so busy and stressed that taking time out to sit still for a few minutes will allow you to engage with the world with renewed enthusiasm and energy. You'll bring a focused attention to the world that'll elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Let me hasten to add here that I'm a novice meditator. So look to Iyer's words and not so much to my adumbrations.

"Hurrying around in search of contentment seemed a perfect way of ensuring I'd never be settled or content. Instead, talking about stillness is a way of talking about clarity and sanity and the joys that endure."

This reminds me of something Marcus Aurelius wrote: "If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment." So your reaction to something is what really causes the pain, not the thing itself. Since your reactions are presumably under your control, you can choose to be happy instead of unhappy. You can choose to be calm instead of harried. You can choose to re-engage with the world differently than how you did with your initial gut reaction. To this Iyer quotes Thoreau (Iyer often quotes Thoreau): "It matters not where or how far you travel but how much alive you are."

Of writers, Iyer writes: "Writers, of course, are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time going nowhere. Our job is to turn through stillness, a life of movement into art." In my post What Are Morning Pages?, I wrote that writing Morning Pages is a valid form of meditation, because writing in the still early hours of the day allows you to pour your thoughts unedited onto the page.

Dr. Matthieu Ricard was a brilliant molecular biologist who gave it all up to become a Buddhist monk. Ricard travels extensively as the Dalai Lama's translator and gives lectures on and about Buddhism. When Iyer asked him how he deals with the hassles of travel and jet lag, he said: For me a flight is just a brief retreat in the sky. There's nothing I can do, so it's really quite liberating.

Then Ricard talked about how the Buddhists look at the nature of the mind as clouds in the sky. In short: If there are dark clouds passing up above, it just means that the blue sky is hidden. You just need the patience to sit still until the blue shows up again. This is about how things change all the time and how nothing changes at all. This is about motionless journeying, how the same place looks different even though you go nowhere and do nothing. To this Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, wrote: "One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life solves them for you."

Referring back to Ricard's retreat in the sky remark, many of us go on vacation looking to de-stress from our hamster's wheel lives. We arrive at our destination stressed hoping to relax over the break. In contrast, Iyer had this experience. He encountered a German woman en route to a holiday in Hawaii. For the entire Frankfurt to L.A. flight, she sat in complete stillness, without sleeping or entertaining herself in any way. At the end of the flight, he asked her how she was doing. She said that she was a social worker who had a very stressful job. So she was using the flight over to Hawaii to get all the stress out of her system so that "she could arrive in the islands in as clear a state as possible, ready to enjoy her days of rest." So simple, isn't it? And so sensible.

I can't seem to stop talking about this book. Ah, just go and read it.

The book's best summarized by this illustration by Maurice Sendak for the book Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss:


Erin Burns said...

That just sounds lovely.

P.S. You are not the only one whose TBR book of choice didn't show up on time.

Keira Soleore said...

Thanks for visiting, Erin. Just checked out your TBR post. Looks like our busy libraries had long hold lists for the books we wanted to read.

You're so good with getting only the books you want to read. I have a TBR list of books I have bought, and I also borrow heavily from the library. I put holds on All Things and then sometimes they all come up at the same time. Aiee! Then I'm like a mad reader and/or have to contend with late fees.

Sorry you're suffering through a reading slump. Hope you find just the right book that'll get you out of it.

Erin Burns said...

They really did, some of those books had 30-40 people ahead of me. I take it as a good thing that so many are reading though. And I was a seriously broke college student and had stayed seriously broke for several years after I got my doctorate, so it became habit. there are few things to be grateful about poverty for, but perusing other people's stuff makes me see maybe there was one thing ;)

Vassiliki said...

I am a strong supporter of sitting still and quiet. Having grown up Greek Orthodox, sitting still during the 3-4 hour liturgies every Sunday was my norm. It wasn't until I had kids and found myself constantly chasing them during my "still time" that I realised how much I needed it. This book sounds fabulous. I am putting in a library reservation immediately.

Keira Soleore said...

@Erin: I love my library system. So far in all my years of reading there hasn't been a single book that my library hasn't been able to find in their catalog, buy, or borrow from interlibrary loan. I feel so blessed to have free access to such wealth.

Our library has a rule that if there are more than four people waiting for a book, then they buy another copy of the book. So hold wait times are rarely horrendous, and I don't have to read that hot book on release day, so I'm an ideal library patron.

Keira Soleore said...

@Vassiliki, I love Iyer's style of writing., in general, and particularly in this book. The book also has gorgeous panoramic photographs of Icelandic scenery that I know you will love.

I'm a fledgling meditator myself, so have a lot to learn.

azteclady said...

This sounds like a lovely read--though I'll say, I've never 'gotten' meditation. My mind is not a restful place, and I tend to just start obsessing about things in the never ending "to do" list.

Keira Soleore said...

@Azteclady: It is my understanding that there's no right way to do meditation. I'm a fledgling so I find my mind frequently wanders, sometimes frenetically, and I have to constantly call it back to concentrate on my breathing. That is the one thing that I use to avoid the incessant thought jangle.

Dorine said...

What an interesting book and thoughtful review! I was just commenting this week about how much I love the quiet in the morning after it has snowed all night long. I woke up to that this week and just had to stand on my front porch and listen to the silence. And the occasional plop of snow as it fell off the trees to the ground.

Keira Soleore said...

@Dorine: Thank you for visiting! As you can tell, I loved this book and I love Iyer's work. Have you read his book on the Dalai Lama?

Ohhh...I can just picture the scene that you're writing about. That hush that's so alive with possibilities. It feels so meditative just looking out at that scene.