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TEDSalon NY2014

Pico Iyer: The art of stillness

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The place that travel writer Pico Iyer would most like to go? Nowhere. In a counterintuitive and lyrical meditation, Iyer takes a look at the incredible insight that comes with taking time for stillness. In our world of constant movement and distraction, he teases out strategies we all can use to take back a few minutes out of every day, or a few days out of every season. It's the talk for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the demands for our world.

- Global author
Pico Iyer has spent more than 30 years tracking movement and stillness -- and the way criss-crossing cultures have changed the world, our imagination and all our relationships. Full bio

I'm a lifelong traveler.
00:13
Even as a little kid,
00:14
I was actually working out
that it would be cheaper
00:16
to go to boarding school in England
00:20
than just to the best school down the road
from my parents' house in California.
00:22
So, from the time I was nine years old
00:27
I was flying alone several times a year
00:30
over the North Pole, just to go to school.
00:33
And of course the more I flew
the more I came to love to fly,
00:37
so the very week after I graduated
from high school,
00:41
I got a job mopping tables
00:44
so that I could spend
every season of my 18th year
00:47
on a different continent.
00:51
And then, almost inevitably,
I became a travel writer
00:54
so my job and my joy could become one.
00:58
And I really began to feel
that if you were lucky enough
01:02
to walk around
the candlelit temples of Tibet
01:06
or to wander along the seafronts in Havana
01:10
with music passing all around you,
01:12
you could bring those sounds
and the high cobalt skies
01:15
and the flash of the blue ocean
01:18
back to your friends at home,
01:20
and really bring some magic
01:22
and clarity to your own life.
01:24
Except, as you all know,
01:27
one of the first things you learn
when you travel
01:30
is that nowhere is magical
unless you can bring the right eyes to it.
01:32
You take an angry man to the Himalayas,
01:38
he just starts complaining about the food.
01:40
And I found that the best way
01:44
that I could develop more attentive
and more appreciative eyes
01:46
was, oddly,
01:50
by going nowhere, just by sitting still.
01:52
And of course sitting still
is how many of us get
01:55
what we most crave and need
in our accelerated lives, a break.
01:58
But it was also the only way
02:04
that I could find to sift through
the slideshow of my experience
02:06
and make sense of the future and the past.
02:11
And so, to my great surprise,
02:14
I found that going nowhere
02:17
was at least as exciting
as going to Tibet or to Cuba.
02:19
And by going nowhere,
I mean nothing more intimidating
02:23
than taking a few minutes out of every day
02:27
or a few days out of every season,
02:30
or even, as some people do,
02:32
a few years out of a life
02:34
in order to sit still long enough
02:37
to find out what moves you most,
02:40
to recall where your truest happiness lies
02:43
and to remember that sometimes
02:46
making a living and making a life
02:48
point in opposite directions.
02:51
And of course, this is what wise beings
through the centuries
02:54
from every tradition have been telling us.
02:57
It's an old idea.
03:00
More than 2,000 years ago,
the Stoics were reminding us
03:02
it's not our experience
that makes our lives,
03:05
it's what we do with it.
03:08
Imagine a hurricane suddenly
sweeps through your town
03:10
and reduces every last thing to rubble.
03:14
One man is traumatized for life.
03:18
But another, maybe even his brother,
almost feels liberated,
03:22
and decides this is a great chance
to start his life anew.
03:26
It's exactly the same event,
03:30
but radically different responses.
03:32
There is nothing either good or bad,
as Shakespeare told us in "Hamlet,"
03:35
but thinking makes it so.
03:39
And this has certainly been
my experience as a traveler.
03:42
Twenty-four years ago I took
the most mind-bending trip
03:46
across North Korea.
03:49
But the trip lasted a few days.
03:52
What I've done with it sitting still,
going back to it in my head,
03:55
trying to understand it,
finding a place for it in my thinking,
03:58
that's lasted 24 years already
04:02
and will probably last a lifetime.
04:04
The trip, in other words,
gave me some amazing sights,
04:07
but it's only sitting still
04:11
that allows me to turn those
into lasting insights.
04:13
And I sometimes think
that so much of our life
04:17
takes place inside our heads,
04:19
in memory or imagination
or interpretation or speculation,
04:21
that if I really want to change my life
04:26
I might best begin by changing my mind.
04:29
Again, none of this is new;
04:33
that's why Shakespeare and the Stoics
were telling us this centuries ago,
04:35
but Shakespeare never had to face
200 emails in a day.
04:39
(Laughter)
04:43
The Stoics, as far as I know,
were not on Facebook.
04:45
We all know that in our on-demand lives,
04:49
one of the things that's most on demand
04:52
is ourselves.
04:54
Wherever we are, any time of night or day,
04:55
our bosses, junk-mailers,
our parents can get to us.
04:58
Sociologists have actually found
that in recent years
05:02
Americans are working fewer hours
than 50 years ago,
05:05
but we feel as if we're working more.
05:09
We have more and more time-saving devices,
05:12
but sometimes, it seems,
less and less time.
05:15
We can more and more easily
make contact with people
05:18
on the furthest corners of the planet,
05:21
but sometimes in that process
05:23
we lose contact with ourselves.
05:25
And one of my biggest surprises
as a traveler
05:29
has been to find
that often it's exactly the people
05:33
who have most enabled us to get anywhere
05:36
who are intent on going nowhere.
05:39
In other words, precisely those beings
05:42
who have created the technologies
05:44
that override so many
of the limits of old,
05:46
are the ones wisest
about the need for limits,
05:50
even when it comes to technology.
05:53
I once went to the Google headquarters
05:57
and I saw all the things
many of you have heard about;
05:59
the indoor tree houses, the trampolines,
06:02
workers at that time enjoying 20 percent
of their paid time free
06:05
so that they could just let
their imaginations go wandering.
06:10
But what impressed me even more
06:14
was that as I was waiting
for my digital I.D.,
06:17
one Googler was telling me
about the program
06:20
that he was about to start
to teach the many, many Googlers
06:23
who practice yoga
to become trainers in it,
06:27
and the other Googler was telling me
about the book that he was about to write
06:30
on the inner search engine,
06:34
and the ways in which science
has empirically shown
06:37
that sitting still, or meditation,
06:40
can lead not just to better
health or to clearer thinking,
06:43
but even to emotional intelligence.
06:47
I have another friend in Silicon Valley
06:50
who is really one
of the most eloquent spokesmen
06:52
for the latest technologies,
06:56
and in fact was one of the founders
of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly.
06:57
And Kevin wrote his last book
on fresh technologies
07:01
without a smartphone
or a laptop or a TV in his home.
07:05
And like many in Silicon Valley,
07:10
he tries really hard to observe
07:12
what they call an Internet sabbath,
07:15
whereby for 24 or 48 hours every week
07:19
they go completely offline
07:22
in order to gather the sense of direction
07:26
and proportion they'll need
when they go online again.
07:28
The one thing perhaps
that technology hasn't always given us
07:31
is a sense of how to make
the wisest use of technology.
07:35
And when you speak of the sabbath,
07:40
look at the Ten Commandments --
07:42
there's only one word there
for which the adjective "holy" is used,
07:44
and that's the Sabbath.
07:49
I pick up the Jewish holy book
of the Torah --
07:51
its longest chapter, it's on the Sabbath.
07:54
And we all know that it's really
one of our greatest luxuries,
07:57
the empty space.
08:01
In many a piece of music,
it's the pause or the rest
08:03
that gives the piece
its beauty and its shape.
08:07
And I know I as a writer
08:10
will often try to include
a lot of empty space on the page
08:12
so that the reader can complete
my thoughts and sentences
08:16
and so that her imagination
has room to breathe.
08:20
Now, in the physical domain,
of course, many people,
08:25
if they have the resources,
08:28
will try to get a place in the country,
a second home.
08:29
I've never begun to have those resources,
08:33
but I sometimes remember
that any time I want,
08:36
I can get a second home in time,
if not in space,
08:40
just by taking a day off.
08:44
And it's never easy because, of course,
whenever I do I spend much of it
08:47
worried about all the extra stuff
08:50
that's going to crash down on me
the following day.
08:52
I sometimes think I'd rather give up
meat or sex or wine
08:54
than the chance to check on my emails.
08:57
(Laughter)
09:00
And every season I do try to take
three days off on retreat
09:01
but a part of me still feels guilty
to be leaving my poor wife behind
09:05
and to be ignoring
all those seemingly urgent emails
09:09
from my bosses
09:12
and maybe to be missing
a friend's birthday party.
09:14
But as soon as I get
to a place of real quiet,
09:17
I realize that it's only by going there
09:21
that I'll have anything fresh
or creative or joyful to share
09:23
with my wife or bosses or friends.
09:27
Otherwise, really,
09:30
I'm just foisting on them
my exhaustion or my distractedness,
09:31
which is no blessing at all.
09:35
And so when I was 29,
09:39
I decided to remake my entire life
09:41
in the light of going nowhere.
09:44
One evening I was coming back
from the office,
09:47
it was after midnight, I was in a taxi
driving through Times Square,
09:49
and I suddenly realized
that I was racing around so much
09:53
I could never catch up with my life.
09:57
And my life then, as it happened,
10:00
was pretty much the one
I might have dreamed of as a little boy.
10:02
I had really interesting friends
and colleagues,
10:06
I had a nice apartment
on Park Avenue and 20th Street.
10:08
I had, to me, a fascinating job
writing about world affairs,
10:12
but I could never separate myself
enough from them
10:17
to hear myself think --
10:20
or really, to understand
if I was truly happy.
10:21
And so, I abandoned my dream life
10:26
for a single room on the backstreets
of Kyoto, Japan,
10:29
which was the place
that had long exerted a strong,
10:34
really mysterious gravitational pull on me.
10:37
Even as a child
10:41
I would just look at a painting
of Kyoto and feel I recognized it;
10:43
I knew it before I ever laid eyes on it.
10:46
But it's also, as you all know,
10:49
a beautiful city encircled by hills,
10:51
filled with more than 2,000 temples
and shrines,
10:54
where people have been sitting still
for 800 years or more.
10:57
And quite soon after I moved there,
I ended up where I still am
11:03
with my wife, formerly our kids,
11:07
in a two-room apartment
in the middle of nowhere
11:09
where we have no bicycle, no car,
11:12
no TV I can understand,
11:14
and I still have to support my loved ones
11:16
as a travel writer and a journalist,
11:19
so clearly this is not ideal
for job advancement
11:21
or for cultural excitement
11:25
or for social diversion.
11:27
But I realized that it gives me
what I prize most,
11:29
which is days
11:34
and hours.
11:36
I have never once had to use
a cell phone there.
11:37
I almost never have to look at the time,
11:40
and every morning when I wake up,
11:44
really the day stretches in front of me
11:46
like an open meadow.
11:49
And when life throws up
one of its nasty surprises,
11:52
as it will, more than once,
11:55
when a doctor comes into my room
11:57
wearing a grave expression,
11:59
or a car suddenly veers
in front of mine on the freeway,
12:01
I know, in my bones,
12:04
that it's the time I've spent
going nowhere
12:07
that is going to sustain me much more
12:10
than all the time I've spent
racing around to Bhutan or Easter Island.
12:12
I'll always be a traveler --
12:18
my livelihood depends on it --
12:19
but one of the beauties of travel
12:21
is that it allows you to bring stillness
12:23
into the motion and the commotion
of the world.
12:28
I once got on a plane
in Frankfurt, Germany,
12:32
and a young German woman
came down and sat next to me
12:35
and engaged me
in a very friendly conversation
12:38
for about 30 minutes,
12:41
and then she just turned around
12:42
and sat still for 12 hours.
12:44
She didn't once turn on her video monitor,
12:48
she never pulled out a book,
she didn't even go to sleep,
12:50
she just sat still,
12:54
and something of her clarity and calm
really imparted itself to me.
12:56
I've noticed more and more people
taking conscious measures these days
13:02
to try to open up a space
inside their lives.
13:06
Some people go to black-hole resorts
13:09
where they'll spend hundreds
of dollars a night
13:12
in order to hand over
their cell phone and their laptop
13:14
to the front desk on arrival.
13:17
Some people I know,
just before they go to sleep,
13:19
instead of scrolling through
their messages
13:22
or checking out YouTube,
13:24
just turn out the lights
and listen to some music,
13:26
and notice that they sleep much better
13:29
and wake up much refreshed.
13:32
I was once fortunate enough
13:35
to drive into the high, dark mountains
behind Los Angeles,
13:37
where the great poet and singer
13:42
and international heartthrob Leonard Cohen
13:45
was living and working for many years
as a full-time monk
13:48
in the Mount Baldy Zen Center.
13:52
And I wasn't entirely surprised
13:55
when the record that he released
at the age of 77,
13:57
to which he gave the deliberately
unsexy title of "Old Ideas,"
14:01
went to number one in the charts
in 17 nations in the world,
14:06
hit the top five in nine others.
14:09
Something in us, I think, is crying out
14:12
for the sense of intimacy and depth
that we get from people like that.
14:15
who take the time
and trouble to sit still.
14:19
And I think many
of us have the sensation,
14:23
I certainly do,
14:25
that we're standing about two inches away
from a huge screen,
14:27
and it's noisy and it's crowded
14:31
and it's changing with every second,
14:33
and that screen is our lives.
14:35
And it's only by stepping back,
and then further back,
14:38
and holding still,
14:42
that we can begin to see
what the canvas means
14:44
and to catch the larger picture.
14:46
And a few people do that for us
by going nowhere.
14:49
So, in an age of acceleration,
14:54
nothing can be more exhilarating
than going slow.
14:56
And in an age of distraction,
15:00
nothing is so luxurious
as paying attention.
15:02
And in an age of constant movement,
15:06
nothing is so urgent as sitting still.
15:09
So you can go on your next vacation
15:13
to Paris or Hawaii, or New Orleans;
15:15
I bet you'll have a wonderful time.
15:18
But, if you want to come back home
alive and full of fresh hope,
15:22
in love with the world,
15:27
I think you might want
to try considering going nowhere.
15:29
Thank you.
15:33
(Applause)
15:35

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About the speaker:

Pico Iyer - Global author
Pico Iyer has spent more than 30 years tracking movement and stillness -- and the way criss-crossing cultures have changed the world, our imagination and all our relationships.

Why you should listen

In twelve books, covering everything from Revolutionary Cuba to the XIVth Dalai Lama, Islamic mysticism to our lives in airports, Pico Iyer has worked to chronicle the accelerating changes in our outer world, which sometimes make steadiness and rootedness in our inner world more urgent than ever. In his TED Book, The Art of Stillness, he draws upon travels from North Korea to Iran to remind us how to remain focused and sane in an age of frenzied distraction. As he writes in the book, "Almost everybody I know has this sense of overdosing on information and getting dizzy living at post-human speeds ... All of us instinctively feel that something inside us is crying out for more spaciousness and stillness to offset the exhilarations of this movement and the fun and diversion of the modern world."

More profile about the speaker
Pico Iyer | Speaker | TED.com