“Don’t Just Do Something. Sit There.”
— Sylvia Boorstein
The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer is the second of the new TED books. This beautiful series of essays, written by an esteemed travel writer, is about embracing the act of “going nowhere,” but still having profound journeys of the spirit.
The book opens with Iyer’s trip up into the California hills to meet with Leonard Cohen, who in 1994 joined a Zen Buddhist centre outside of Los Angeles and became an ordained monk. In Cohen’s words: “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.”
For the last five years, there is a place I’ve been going to do just that. It’s become an essential part of my life to make an annual trip to a monastery in New Brunswick, the home of an order of cloistered nuns. I arrive by train and spend at least five days and nights, being still and listening within. So many profound moments and insights have been my gifts in that silence.
To me, this place—the nondescript buildings and small tract of farmland alongside the train tracks in rural New Brunswick—has become extraordinarily beautiful to me. More beautiful than almost anywhere else in the world. And when I read Iyer’s words: “Nowhere is magical unless you bring the right eyes to it,” I knew that he got it too.
This means that the most stunning place in the world could be completely unseen and the most ordinary place could be lit up, all depending on who is doing the looking and what their state of mind (or heart) is.
So, what are these right eyes?
Fortunately, we all have them. It’s just a matter of taking the time to figure out how to find this different focus or put these “right eyes” on. For me, the key is simply stopping. It started with 10 minutes a few years back and has expanded to include this annual “time out” at the monastery.
What I discover every time is the spaciousness and peace that exist beyond what I think of as me. And this feeling, when it wells up in me, is like returning home. Like picking up a piece of my own essential nature that I misplaced and have just found again. It makes everything look and feel different. Kind of like the difference between watching a movie on an old black and white TV and the IMAX experience of today.
For many people, finding even 10 minutes a day is pushing it. So many of us are raising children, running our own businesses, tending to a garden, getting groceries, cooking supper, and volunteering on the side. There are always more things on that never-ending list. And then there are the things some of us do to stay fit and feel healthy (running or working out or yoga). Where the heck does sitting still for 10 minutes fit in?
But what I have found to be true—the kind of true that you have to experience for yourself—is that when I take time to sit and do nothing, time actually expands. I’m not kidding.
If you haven’t tried this yet, it won’t take long for you to notice that taking time to do nothing will actually make you more productive! You will feel less frazzled, you’ll cope with problems more creatively, and you’ll be just plain happier.
If you like empirical evidence, you’re in luck. There are published studies that prove all of this and more. Why do you think companies like Google and General Mills encourage “thinking” or “innovation” time where employees turn off all their devices and let their minds just roam? Because they’ve figured out that their workers are more creative and productive when their minds are given permission to become more expansive.
I don’t think these companies would ever say they are paying their employees to tap into the divine(!), but we’re all talking about the same thing. When we allow ourselves to be quiet, it’s like we’re opening the channel to something broader than us, but something that is an integral part of us.
When we stop doing and just sit, we say yes to being that channel. We allow something strong and mysterious to flow through us. Something that gives us access to more information, more knowledge, and more wisdom. We become the more that we already are (we just often forget).
And how can more of us, all being more, not be a good thing?