Wednesday, February 8, 2017

On Pico Iyer's The Art Of Stillness: Adventures In Going Nowhere


So I finished Pico Iyer's essay The Art Of Stillness: Adventures In Going Nowhere.

It's an argument for stillness, of going nowhere as going somewhere, the specifics of which aren't precisely laid down. It's not an argument for mindfulness, which is stillness comprised of meditation, a virtually emptying of mind by reducing and refining consciousness down to a single, sustained point of concentration wherein mind's wandering is a lapse. Iyer is all for letting the mind roam free and unstructured in a frame of quiet solitude. 

But there's an unhelpful ambiguity in Iyer's argument. Is stillness valuable as a temporary respite to counteract the stresses-become-distresses in our lives; or is it a transformative way to live? The ambiguity leads to a dilemma in Iyer's argument. 

If stillness is to be a transformative way to live--Iyer describes weeks spent alone in cabins and monastic rooms, describes forsaking a richly material life in New York to live in back street Kyoto with few scant possessions and at first knowing no one; he points to Thomas Merton's quarter century in a Kentucky monastery; he points to Leonard Cohen spending oodles of time in a simple room on a mountain side just outside of LA--then what he argues for is impractical as being much too far for virtually all of us to reach. 

But if stillness is just taking quiet time out, an at hand antidote to stress-become-distress, distraction, over-busyness and sensory overload--sit quietly for 20 minutes each day; take time out at work to sit and do nothing; step away from and outside of all that distraction; (Iyer notes corporate incorporation of these kinds of stillnesses and heaps praise upon them;)--then his advice is banal and glib. 

These tense opposites are self cancelling. Glibness and banality belie what seem the impulse and examples in his argument towards transformation. And transformation belies the quick fixes of stillness he points to.

Finally, there is something grating in his essay. Here, as an instance of that,  I'll repeat what I wrote when I was still mid book:

....I'm reading Pico Iyer's small book length essay The Art Of Stillness: Adventures In Going Nowhere, an argument for stillness but not, as I read it, for mindfulness.

My own mind may have wandered, and I may have to reread the section, but as a model for the stillness Iyer argues for, he calls as an example on Thomas Merton. Merton, a former somewhat large liver, took himself to a monastery and then once in the monastery insisted on a more secluded part due to not enough silence and stillness in its main quarters. 

Iyer then briefly recounts 51 year old Merton's affair with a 19/20 year old student nurse whom he met while in hospital convalescing, and recounts his obsessive calling her in breach of the rules when, after giving her up, he was back in the monastery. One of his fellow Monks ratted him out. 

Not mentioned by Iyer, a couple of years after the affair, Merton confessed/wrote:

--I suppose I regret most my lack of love, my selfishness and glibness (covering deep shyness and need of love) with girls who, after all, did love me, I think, for a time. My great fault was my inability really, to believe it, and my efforts to get complete assurance and perfect fulfilment. So one thing on my mind is sex, as something I did not use maturely and well, something I gave up without having come to terms with it. That is hardly worth thinking about now – 25 years since my last adultery...

Not mentioned by Iyer, Merton died under mysterious circumstances in Thailand. Some theorize it accidental, others suicidal.

Be that as it may, Iyer, seemingly, doesn't give the complexity and, likely, failure of Merton's attempt at a life of stillness its due. ("Seemingly," because the Merton part is what I have to reread more mindfully.)  

And this lack of dueness goes to my present gnawing dissatisfaction with Iyer's overall argument for going nowhere, for sitting still, one part of which I quite like, but the rest I'm not trusting. I'll let these various feelings marinate until I finish Iyer's book. 

 I can sum up my immediate feelings by noting and crudely paraphrasing Thoreau's statement, as I remember it, that he need not go out far in the world when he has not yet explored his own backyard. It's good to know well what is immediately about you but that *has* to be set against missing the varied and many sheer wonders of the world.

P.S. I reread the Merton part. Iyer's undeveloped, thrown-out-there point, as he misses forest for trees, and misses trees for forest, is that stillness, even after 25 years of it for Merton, offers no escape from our shadows..

That's what's grating. The insult to grappling with complexity and negative capability by short changing them with glib examples and snippets of name dropping anecdotes, examples and quotes which, finally, seeing the essay whole, seem only a few steps up from fortune cookie bromides.


  1. Nicely written. But just because something may be "virtually unattainable" for most, doesn't mean it's not worthwhile. I believe that L.Cohen had a complex relationship to the idea of seclusion. I recall him being sort of cynical about it at one point. But all I could find quickly was this great interview on Fresh Air. What a guy.

    1. Im not knocking Cohen's idea(s), only Iyer's essay.

    2. Yours is first comment in 9 years. I'm on a roll.

  2. And hard to reach goals are fine, but the problem is with the wavering in his argument as noted and that he's muddled in his idea of what stillness is. He touts a big idea in a self help context.

  3. Beautifully written. I wish I were built that way to try out stillness and mindfulness . Worth the try at least