The Art of Stillness

“Sitting still,” writes Pico Iyer in The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, is “a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”

The Art of Stillness is a persuasively argued case for the pleasures of slowing down and being in one place. The adventure of going nowhere but inside ourselves.

Today we’re going faster and faster in search of contentment and meaning. This is largely a recipe for ensuring we will never be happy. The modern diet is a wonderful cocktail of movement and stimulation.

After a thirty-year study of time diaries, two sociologists found that Americans were actually working fewer hours than we did in the 1960s, but we feel as if we’re working more. We have the sense, too often, of running at top speed and never being able to catch up.


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.

Our educational institutions tend to tell us the point of life is to get somewhere, not to go nowhere. But nowhere can be just as interesting.

[T]he nowhere I was interested in had more corners and dimensions than I could possibly express to him (or myself), and somehow seemed larger and more unfathomable than the endlessly diverting life I’d known in the city.

Too many of us see going nowhere as turning away from something rather than turning towards something.

Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

— Shakespeare in Hamlet

The idea behind choosing to sit still long enough to learn about yourself is simple and has been around for ages. Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus reminded us many millennia ago that it’s how we respond to our experiences, not the experiences themselves, which shape us.

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.

The best way to change our lives is to change the way we look at it. William James said “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. Every time I take a trip, the experience acquires meaning and grows deeper only after I get back home and, sitting still, begin to convert the sights I’ve seen into lasting insights.


The idea of going nowhere has been around longer than gravity. “All the unhappiness of men,” the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously noted, “arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.”

After spending nearly five months alone in a shack in the Antarctic where temperatures sank to minus 70, Admiral Richard E. Byrd declared “Half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need.” Or, as they sometimes say around Kyoto, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”

Those were the good old days right? Pascal and Byrd didn’t have to contend with the onslaught of technology and information that we face today.

Researchers in the new field of interruption science have found that it takes an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. Yet such interruptions come every eleven minutes— which means we’re never caught up with our lives.

And the more facts come streaming in on us, the less time we have to process any one of them. The one thing technology doesn’t provide us with is a sense of how to make the best use of technology. Put another way, the ability to gather information, which used to be so crucial, is now far less important than the ability to sift through it.

It’s easy to feel as if we’re standing two inches away from a huge canvas that’s noisy and crowded and changing with every microsecond. It’s only by stepping farther back and standing still that we can begin to see what that canvas (which is our life) really means, and to take in the larger picture.

Part of making better decisions is making time to think. Something that few of us are able to do.

The Art of Stillness is a wonderful meditation on the adventures of going nowhere. Complement with Dan Harris on how to be 10% happier.