Books

Book review

‘The Art of Stillness’ by Pico Iyer

Writer Pico Iyer cites meditators from Leonard Cohen to Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.
Derek Shapton
Writer Pico Iyer cites meditators from Leonard Cohen to Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.

After decades as a travel writer, Pico Iyer has fallen in love with being still. His new book, “The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere,’’ is a bustling paean to the stationary life. His reflections on the value of the meditative mind are quite global, leaping from the novels of Marcel Proust to the songs of Leonard Cohen, from a remote mountaintop in California to the back streets of Kyoto.

More essay than book in length, the work’s brevity seems designed to accommodate the very busyness Iyer decries. But he embraces this irony: “It’s deliberately short, so you can read it in one sitting and quickly return to your busy (perhaps overbusy) life.” After all, there is no inherent reason a book praising inner quiet must be a voluminous tome; the fact that you can absorb his message on a short plane trip increases its odds of reaching a broader audience.

But the slight tension between its length and argument reflects a broader ambiguity that his provocative book never quite resolves: Is contemplative stillness valuable just as an occasional antidote to the stress and distraction of modern life, or is it always a good way to live?

Advertisement

Iyer’s argument is an engaging amalgam of memoir, reportage, and literary essay. The personal sections recount the pleasure and perspective he derives from interrupting his travel obligations to stay still in a single place. He began this practice in his early 30s, spending a few days at a Benedictine retreat in Northern California. After some squirming, he started to feel the same deep attunement to the present moment that many meditators report. Normally neglected details — the sight of the sea, a grazing deer — acquired the luminous glow of revelations.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

His career in journalism also supplies some evidence for the virtues of quiet attention. He describes meeting Cohen on a California mountaintop where the singer spent days at the Mount Baldy Zen Center meditating, doing odd jobs, and enjoying the friendship of an elderly Japanese abbot. Cohen called sitting still “the real deep entertainment” and “the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”

Iyer also dips into the lives and works of such authors as Proust and Emily Dickinson to bolster his case. Both figures lived relatively cloistered lives. And yet almost any page of Proust or poem of Dickinson refutes the idea that sitting quietly in a room must be an exercise in dullness. The first line of a famous Dickinson poem Iyer quotes offers a nice summation: “The Brain — is wider than the Sky.” Iyer uses a fluid blend of argument and anecdote to make a persuasive and eloquent case that contemplating internal landscapes can be just as rich an experience as traveling through external ones. The fact that he has traveled to some of the world’s most obscure corners only strengthens his credibility as a defender of stillness.

At points, however, it appears the book’s origins as a TED talk slightly weaken the cogency of the argument. Iyer strangely, and unnecessarily, seems to feel the need to a give a nod to the series’ tech roots. His praise of people who work in that industry, for instance, feels more like flattery than analysis. He declares that, “[t]he very people, in short, who have worked to speed up the world are the same ones most sensitive to the virtue of slowing down.” Yet the prophets of his book are not primarily giants of Silicon Valley; they are figures like Thoreau and Dickinson, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, not Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

He also neglects to explore a deeper ambiguity in his argument. Is meditative stillness an accessory that anyone can easily jam into an already crowded life, or does it require fundamentally transforming the way we live? Perhaps any small attempt to embrace that kind of attentiveness is positive, but at points Iyer seems to downplay the tremendous difficulty of attaining it.

Advertisement

He does tell one anecdote about Gandhi, however, that suggests just how hard it can be. One day Gandhi woke up and said, “This is going to be a very busy day. I won’t be able to meditate for an hour.” His friends were surprised by this departure from his standard discipline. Then he added, “I’ll have to meditate for two.”

Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.