"At some point, all the horizontal trips in the world stop compensating for the need to go deep, into somewhere challenging and unexpected; movement makes most sense when grounded in stillness. In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still." --Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness
Years ago, I was in a relationship with a busy person. Give him a problem, he solved it. Ask him a question and he answered it. Give him a task and he jumped to complete it. Give him downtime and he...filled it up with action. Give him silence and he raced to fill it. I used to take this personally, thinking that my company wasn't enough to satisfy him. I questioned whether or not something was wrong with me -- perhaps I was running on too slow a speed, was lazy, didn't do enough. I mistakenly thought that perhaps if I raced to keep up with him that our relationship would feel less distant, more connected. The opposite happened. I ended up feeling exhausted, resentful, and miserable. Then one day the lightbulb came on.
There's Nothing Like a Natural Disaster to Put it All in Perspective
A hurricane was headed straight for our location, forecasted to hit on the weekend. A few nights before I found myself on the phone with my partner while he drove to another state to help friends when the hurricane hit their city. I'll never forget the sound of his voice while we were on the phone -- pure excitement. It was like he was on a high, thrilled by the prospect of rushing to the aid of another in a trying time. No, there would be no staying home and hunkering down together during this natural disaster, for he was a man on a mission. Or, as I like to say, a man perpetually in motion.
It became so clear to me in that moment how wrong I had been about beating myself up for being me -- the one who went on a 10-day silent retreat and loved it, the one who needed time to herself to recharge, the one who preferred really connecting with someone rather than run around juggling people like balls. I realized that I was not wrong nor was he -- we were simply different people living our lives in different ways. Love didn't have all that much to do with it. It wasn't about whether or not we loved one another but about who we were and the life paths we were one (in our case they were neither intersecting nor complimentary)
Like in so many good stories, the hurricane became the metaphor for my life -- it swept through and destroyed everything in its wake...everything that needed to go, anyway. The actual storm raged on through wreaking little damage and the house was perfectly fine. Everything was still standing -- a little worse for wear, perhaps, but intact. Yet symbolically, everything had been destroyed leaving a clean slate on which to rebuild. I'd never felt so free. That's when I learned the beautiful lesson of what seems like everything falling apart can actually be everything falling into place.
The Busy Addiction
That was my first lesson in the busy addiction. As someone who's always been a big fan of downtime and quiet, I had a hard time understanding the constant need to run, to do, to juggle a million metaphorical balls in the air. Run from what, exactly? Then I got older, and all of the messages of "get 'er done" permeated and I started to wonder if I should kick things into high gear. Climb that corporate ladder, achieve this, strive for that, be my best self, broaden my horizons...blah, blah, blah. At one point I had a job in which I became the queen of appearing busy. I created documentation and systems and all sorts of processes that made those spinning wheels look like they were zooming off somewhere with clear direction and great speed. Yep, I'd advanced wheel spinning into an art form.
You know what they say -- when you don't listen the first time, you get a VERY LOUD message the second time. After perpetual motion man and I split up, I dated I-work-all-hours-of-the-day man. There were a lot of I'm in the car driving and can talk to you for 5 minutes before I get to the meeting moments. There were also a lot of "Things will slow down next week or next month" excuses. I used to hear that from Mr. Perpetual Motion all the time. Oddly enough, some crisis always cropped up just when things were supposed to slow down. This wasn't my first rodeo, so I recognized that I had gone and jumped into something that felt familiar to me. That eerie moment of deja vu hit and I thought, "Hmmmmm...this feels familiar, like I've done it before." Lightbulb on. [ostrich head cleanly ripped out from the sand]
Run Little Yogi, Run!
Into the light I was thrust and I could no longer deny it -- I was running too (You think it was an accident that I was attracted to super busy I-never-slow-down-because-I'll-sleep-when-I'm-dead guys? Oh hell no!!!!!!). I was filling my life with all kinds of stuff (trainings, outings, trips, relationships) in order to avoid being, feeling, going deeper. Granted, I wasn't running off trying to get ahead of a hurricane so I could pack my weekend full of superhero rescue feats, nor was I working 24/7 putting out fires and running around like a chicken with my head cut off or a manic juggler growing extra arms just to keep up with the number of balls I launched into the air. But I was spinning my wheels. That's when I thought back to that fateful hurricane.
For days after the storm hit, things slowed down. Roads were closed. The power was out. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. I remember sitting home one night, windows open, candle lit just enjoying the evening. I sat outside gazing at the stars overhead and smelling the air. Yep, smelling the air. I certainly didn't typically spend my days doing that. There was no internet surfing or cell phone checking. It was sitting or reading or just...being (and don't forget air sniffing). I actually enjoyed it. While everyone complained about the inconvenience of it all and the boredom, I secretly enjoyed the primitiveness of it, the simplicity. I'd go to bed earlier and wake up earlier. I ate simple food (no cooking). I walked more. I enjoyed the quiet of a neighborhood without power. Hell, I enjoyed the peace of a house without power -- no hum of the fridge, no TV in the background, no music playing, no buzz of the myriad of electronics plugged in all over the house. There was only quiet. Stillness.
The Art of Stillness
Maybe that's why Pico Iyer's soon-to-be-released book, The Art of Stillness, appealed to me. I adored the subtitle -- Adventures in Going Nowhere. In a culture where we're told that you want to get somewhere, something, someone and get there/it/him/her quickly (the faster the better), the book reminds me of the joys of my post-hurricane world. The book itself is simple -- a small, hard-covered 74-page mini-powerhouse filled with delightful stories, quotes, and some stunning visuals.
Iyer is a world-traveler, author, and essayist who champions the benefits of unplugging from our demanding and distracting technology-laden lives. Rather than keeping the stillness talk to ashrams and those who retreat to mountaintops far away from civilization, Iyer notes Internet Sabbaths adopted by many in Silicon Valley, stress reduction programs in Corporate America, and quiet time in offices. It reminds me of when I gave up having a TV in my home (don't miss it), incorporated white space (blocks of time in which I would do nothing but let my mind wander or create or daydream -- no information consumption, simply creating) into my day, and scheduled regular unplugged days when I wouldn't touch a computer and/or Smartphone.
Towards the end of the book, Iyer says:
"With every return to Nowhere, one can begin to discern its features, and with them its possibilities, a little more clearly."
Drop the Busy...Like it's Hot
That explains every retreat I've ever been on. I still remember how the monotony of a regular schedule of meditating, eating, and resting during a retreat led to giddy happiness. My mind emptied. I found myself inundated with ideas and possibilities rather than worrisome or negative thoughts. I can still see the radiant face of the woman who sat on the cushion behind me in the meditation hall on my Vipassana retreat. By the last day she was practically glowing. She was the true picture of love, peace, serenity, and fulfillment. It's what everyone is spinning their wheels striving for, isn't it? Yet it's not found in the busy. In his wonderful book, Iyer reminds us that -- although it takes courage -- it is possible to drop the busy. His final words say it all:
"I think the place to visit may be Nowhere."
I couldn't agree more.
You can find out more about Pico Iyer here. I highly recommend watching his TEDTalk, Where is Home. The Art of Stillness releases on November 4th. It's a book I'll be reading again and again to remind me when I forget and fall into the abyss of busy. I hope you will too.