Before I flew to Costa Rica to study yoga, before COVID-19 frightened the world into lock-down and everyone suddenly became oddly possessive of toiletries, I visited my favourite book shop (Much Ado Books in Alfriston) and collected a little selection of second-hand titles to take home in return for a donation of peanut butter and tins of beans for the local food bank (this is how things work in the countryside sometimes).
One of the books I picked up was The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Lyer, published by TED Talks. At the time I was very much absorbed in the mindset of travel – preparing as I was to fly across the world to an entirely different continent for a month. For this reason, the idea of achieving enlightenment and expansion of the mind by going absolutely nowhere naturally piqued my interest.
I like to think that books find their way to us when we need them most. Don’t question the science on this, just go with it. How was I to know, when I took home a book about the beauty of self-isolation and stillness, that in mere weeks the entire world would be in lock-down, with everyone confined to their homes to avoid spreading and contracting a highly contagious virus? Sure, it was already happening in China but lots of things happen in China that don’t happen at home. The consumption of wild bats and pangolins, for instance.
Fast forward four weeks and I’ve returned from the jungle to Orwellian England: people are being issued on-the-spot fines for being outside. To be honest I’d forgotten all about The Art of Stillness until yesterday, when I spotted it on my shelf while morosely searching for something to give my own writing some much-needed momentum. I’ve since finished it (it’s very short and quite frankly I have the time).
The message it contains has never been so important
People are struggling. As a #smugintrovert, it has been hard for me to understand how retreating from normal life for a bit could possibly be a bad thing. I have no qualms about isolation – frankly I’m worried about coming out of it. But for some people, enforced isolation amplifies existing issues like depression and anxiety. Then of course there’s the added problem of so many people losing their income – not being able to pay bills, fears of debt, of eviction, of not being able to find food and supplies. Elderly and vulnerable people may be worried for their health. Perhaps the lifelines they relied on for supplies and company have dried up, leaving them feeling alone and helpless. I realise that telling everyone to shut up complaining and just do a bit of meditation doesn’t really cut it.
However, I do believe that a lot of us can be helped and soothed by opening our minds to nothingness. In modern life we are conditioned to keep moving. Keep achieving, keep earning, keep hitting those milestones: marriage, kids, house, promotion. This is not a natural state. It causes a lot of stress and mental health problems. By allowing ourselves to become consumed with movement and the illusion of progress, we’ve forgotten about the other things. The less tangible things that give life its colour: meaningful connections, compassion, nature, beauty, the simple enjoyment of music, art and creation…the wonder of being alive in a moment without thinking of its end, or what’s coming next.
We’re in a unique situation right now in which everything is coming to a standstill. The relentless movement of modern life is slowing, for the first time in our lives. Perhaps instead of panicking about it, we can use this time to stop and take stock. What really matters?
Anyway, back to the book
The book begins with Pico (a travel writer) driving up to Mt Baldy in California to meet the late poet, singer, songwriter (and general legend) Leonard Cohen. At some point between making love to a million beautiful women, drinking his famous Red Needle cocktail in back-country bars and writing epic 80-verse songs about love, death and getting head on an unmade bed, Cohen retreated to a monastery and spent forty years studying Zen Buddhism. Here the multi-millionaire megastar routinely spent days upon days sitting stock-still in a bare meditation hall doing absolutely nothing at all. When Pico asked why he did this, Cohen responded:
“Sitting still is the real deep entertainment. What else would I be doing? Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying new expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”Leonard Cohen
We’re all trying to get somewhere, but where are we really going? What are we really achieving and what for?
For my next point I’m going to steal the famous monologue from Trainspotting:
“Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?“
Okay ignore the bit about heroin.
In fact, swap heroin for stillness. Stillness in the Leonard Cohen sense isn’t just slumping on your sofa watching telly or scrolling through your social media feeds. It’s intentional and focused stillness. It involves stepping away from life, work, family, technology; finding a quiet place, breathing deeply and eventually quelling the thoughts that typically rampage through our minds stirring up the peace and filling us with fear and anxiety. I’m in no way advocating drug use but perhaps stillness is comparable to slipping into the state of intoxication bought about by a psychoactive substance? When we’re intoxicated we typically lose sense of time, reality and our selves. In meditation we ultimately do the same. It should be noted that meditation usually comes without the addiction, physical degeneration and agonising death generally associated with things like heroin.
How does being still benefit us?
In The Art of Stillness Pico goes on to investigate the effects of meditation. He mentions the uptake of stress reduction programmes across American corporations. For instance at General Mills staff were asked to switch off their phones and emails and put ‘Do not Disturb’ signs up on their office doors for a few hours each week. Eighty percent of senior executives reported a positive change in their ability to make decisions as a result of the downtime, while eighty-nine percent said they’d become better listeners.
He also brushed on how meditation is being used to help military veterans. In one trial, a group of macho, hard-drinking, tattooed soldiers with no interest in what they called ‘hippy dipshit’ were invited on a week-long yoga-based breathing programme. By the end of the course, the veterans reported significant decreases in symptoms of stress, feelings of anxiety and respiration rate. The group who didn’t receive the breathing training were entirely unchanged.
Try it, now
If not now then when? Lock the kids in the bathroom, turn off your phone, find an empty room/cupboard/corner, close your eyes and take a long deep breath through your nose. Imagine you are full of light. Think about what colour it is. Sigh out all the darkness, all the fog and uncertainty. Nothing exists but this moment. Don’t miss it.