Can going nowhere be a journey?
The pandemic certainly had many of us going nowhere. I canceled vacations that had been planned in 2020 and this year. The term “staycation” predates the pandemic but it is that idea of staying where you are or only traveling nearby. Travel can be wonderful. It can also be stressful.
It would seem counterintuitive to say that in this time of having more ways to connect than ever before that we often feel the need to disconnect or “unplug.”
Pico Iyer is a British-born writer known for his travel writing. At one point in his life, he decided to go to Kyoto and live in a monastery in order to learn about Zen Buddhism, the city and Japanese culture. The culture he wanted to explore was an older Japan of changing seasons and silent temples. And there, he formed a relationship with a Japanese woman. This experience led to him writing The Lady and the Monk.
He has written other books about his travels into other cultures. Video Night in Kathmandu and The Global Soul are two of them. From the subtitle of The Global Soul – “Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home” – you get a sense of the feeling that some people have these days of not really having one “home” in any traditional sense.
So, it might not be surprising that someone who so often travels might decide at some point to go nowhere.
All this background is to introduce the book I listened to recently by Iyer about stillness. In it, he writes about others who have found stillness and remaining someplace as being a journey. From Marcel Proust to Blaise Pascal to Phillipe Starck and more recently Leonard Cohen, he writes about people who make the choice to spend years sitting still and going nowhere. “Nowhere” becomes a kind of destination.
There are elements of the contemplative life found in the book, though that is not what it is really about. Iyer has known the 14th Dalai Lama since he was in his late teens when he accompanied his father to Dharamshala, India. But Iyer does not have a formal meditation practice. He does practice regular solitude. He will visit a remote place to practice solitude too.
In The Art of Stillness, Iyer looks at old and new “wanderer-monks” and his own travel experiences. One of his conclusions is that advances in technology are making us more likely to retreat.
He does not promote or reject attaching a religious commitment to this practice of stillness. Many people have meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other practices without a religious or even formalized spiritual element. All of these things call back to ancient practices.
I will go in the woods near my home this week. Maybe I’ll read there a bit. Maybe I’ll draw. Maybe I’ll just bathe and observe. All good.
More about Pico Iyer’s journeys at picoiyerjourneys.com