The Art of Stillness

Although tiny, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer is a quotable piece of inspiration, reminding us to slow down and simply be.

This small volume is filled with insight through the lens of a travel writer.

If you enjoyed Vagabonding by Rolf Potts, one of my all time favorite books, you’ll also enjoy this quick read. I found Pico Iyer’s writing to be reminiscent enough of Potts’ that it’s sparked a desire to go back and re-read Vagabonding.

The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer – 4 out of 5 stars


Whenever I read a book I highlight passages so I can read through its greatest hits should the mood strike. I used to keep these buried in the hundreds of miscellaneous text docs that I have in the iA Writer app on my phone. But in 2016 I started publicly recording them here.

If you find value in any of these book excerpts it’s in both of our best interest to support the author so they continue creating more works that we love. But, in all honesty, I frequent my local library extensively and I’ve found it to be an untapped treasure that very few people utilize to the fullest.

So whether you care to purchase the book or check it out from your public library, find a way to pay it forward. I hope this page succeeds at paying it forward in its own tiny way.

Excerpts from The Art of Stillness

[M]aking a living and making a life sometimes point in opposite directions.

The idea behind Nowhere—choosing to sit still long enough to turn inward—is at heart a simple one. If your car is broken, you don’t try to find ways to repaint its chassis; most of our problems—and therefore our solutions, our peace of mind—lie within. To hurry around trying to find happiness outside ourselves makes about as much sense as the comical figure in the Islamic parable who, having lost a key in his living room, goes out into the street to look for it because there’s more light there. As Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius reminded us more than two millennia ago, it s not our experiences that form us but the ways in which we respond to them; a hurricane sweeps through town, reducing everything to rubble, and one man sees it as a liberation, a chance to start anew, while another, perhaps even his brother, is traumatized for life. “There is nothing either good or bad,” as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.”

As America’s wisest psychologist, William James, reminded us, The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” It’s the perspective we choose—not the places we visit—that ultimately tells us where we stand.

Writers, of course, are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time going nowhere. Our creations come not when we re out in the world, gathering impressions, but when we re sitting still, turning those impressions into sentences. Our job, you could say, is to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. Sitting still is our workplace, sometimes our battlefield.

[G]etting caught up in the world and expecting to find happiness there made about as much sense as reaching into a fire and hoping not to get burned.

Just before I met him, Ricard had been the first participant in an experiment conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin. Scientists had attached 256 electrodes to the skulls of hundreds of volunteers and put them through a three-and-a-half-hour continuous functional MRI scan to test for positive emotions (and, in later experiments, compassion, the ability to control emotional responses, the capacity to process information). The subjects were similar in every respect except that some had given themselves over to a regular practice of stillness and the others had not. Ricard’s score for positive emotions was so far beyond the average of nonmonastic subjects that the researchers, after testing many others who had meditated for ten thousand hours or more and many who had not, felt obliged to conclude that those who had sat still for years had achieved a level of happiness that was, quite literally, off the charts, unseen before in the neurological literature.

Clouds and blue sky, of course, are how Buddhists explain the nature of our mind: there may be clouds passing across it, but that doesn’t mean a blue sky isn’t always there behind the obscurations. All you need is the patience to sit still until the blue shows up again.

“All the unhappiness of men arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.”
—Blaise Pascal

“Half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need.”
—Admiral Richard E. Byrd

One day Mahatma Gandhi was said to have woken up and told those around him, “This is going to be a very busy day. I won’t be able to meditate for an hour.” His friends were taken aback at this rare break from his discipline. “I’ll have to meditate for two,” he spelled out.

Stillness has nothing to do with settledness or stasis.

“One of the strange laws of the contemplative life,” Thomas Merton, one of its sovereign explorers, pointed out, “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.” Or, as Annie Dillard, who sat still for a long time at Tinker Creek—and in many other places—has it, “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend.”

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 sitting still.

You can go on vacation to Paris or Hawaii or New Orleans three months from now, and you’ll have a tremendous time, I m sure. But if you want to come back feeling new—alive and full of fresh hope and in love with the world—I think the place to visit may be Nowhere.