The Art of Stillness: The Case for Taking a Timeout From Your Life

A slim book makes the case for taking a timeout from your life

The Art of Stillness, by journalist and novelist Pico Iyer, is meant to be read in one sitting. “It’s deliberately short,” he writes in the intro, “so you can … quickly return to your busy (perhaps overbusy) life.” The topic, as you may have guessed from the title, is the importance of unplugging, and Iyer, a longtime travel essayist and occasional Bloomberg Businessweek contributor, spends the brisk 64 pages persuading readers to chill the eff out.

Illustration by Cynthia Kittler

The book is broken into six chapters, all drawn from Iyer’s personal experiences, starting with an interview with the musician Leonard Cohen at his freaky-deaky Zen monastery in the mountains outside Los Angeles. Iyer calls Cohen his “hero since boyhood,” so he’s inclined to nod seriously as Cohen tells him that sitting still is his “real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment … the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.” This wisdom-via-thesaurus seems slightly preposterous during my commute in a packed New York subway, though to Cohen’s credit, it does remind me to be thankful I got a luxurious, germ-infested seat.

This is the second book from the TED Books imprint, a collaboration between the TED conferences, those orgies of motivational speeches, and Simon & Schuster. Deron Triff, TED’s director for global distribution and licensing, describes the partnership as a “mechanism to spread ideas,” i.e., PR for the brand, and says TED is responsible for selecting authors while Simon & Schuster helps with editing, design, and distribution. Iyer has already given one talk about the concept of home in a multicultural world and will release a free lecture on TED’s website about stillness on Nov. 26. Each TED hardcover costs $14.99—expensive for what’s essentially a long magazine article—and the company won’t release any information about its profit split with Simon & Schuster.

The latter half of The Art of Stillness is stronger than the Cohen run-in, and Iyer, whose prose is lovely, is persuasive about the distractions of technology and the benefits of keeping a sabbath, religious or not. There’s an amusing scene in which he visits Google to give a lecture and is greeted by a dude named Gopi who runs a “yogler” program to help employees get certified as yoga instructors. Gopi speaks of “how easy it was, day or night, to go into a conference room and close his eyes.” (Wake up, Gopi.) Iyer uses this to explore how businesses are embracing stillness, writing that “fully a third of American companies now have ‘stress-reduction programs’ … in part because workers find unclogging their minds’ arteries to be so exhilarating.” There are also numerous interesting anecdotes about important meditators throughout time, including the Dalai Lama and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. (All men, unsurprisingly. Historically, women haven’t had much time to sit down.)

After finishing the book—in that one subway ride—I agree that everyone should probably put more effort into being still. Or at least still-ish. This isn’t a self-help manual, and Iyer doesn’t give specific, actionable advice. He suggests taking time in the morning to meditate or going on a retreat or just occasionally doing nothing. For example, Iyer lets “his mind go foraging” on long flights. I recently tried this on a trip to London, albeit involuntarily, after my Kindle died and I discovered my seat-back TV was broken. Iyer writes of feeling “clear and refreshed.” I was bored and annoyed. Like most TED Talks, this book will briefly inspire. It’s a compelling call to change your life, which you’ll promptly forget about when faced with the choice between sitting still or watching Scandal.

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