The value of stillness


As Tom Waits once crooned, “I never knew I needed you until I was caught up in a bind,” so perhaps it’s not as ironic as it first appears that Pico Iyer, an essayist best known for his peripatetic lifestyle and travel writing, has plenty to say about stillness. It’s often only when we feel a lack of something that we learn to value it, and in the current world of 24-hour electronic stimulation and constant information bombardment, we start to feel the need for a little solitude and peace.

It’s a problem that many remote workers can identify with and one Iyer (who works in Japan with colleagues half a world away) recently spoke to Knowledge@Wharton about in depth. In the lengthy interview he identifies the lack of stillness in the lives of many plugged-in professionals, saying:

Almost everybody I know has this sense of overdosing on information and getting dizzy living at post-human speeds. Nearly everybody I know does something to try to remove herself to clear her head and to have enough time and space to think. Some of my friends go for runs every day. Some do yoga. Some cook. Some meditate. 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.

It’s a problem that Iyer himself solves with pretty extreme means, living in Japan without a TV or a cell phone and sharply rationing his time online. But he’s also conscious that this solution wouldn’t be possible without the technology he so drastically limits. “I couldn’t live in rural Japan on a tourist visa while my family and my bosses are in New York without technology. It’s only e-mails and fax machines before that that allow me to live 6,000 miles from the office,” he says. But as much as he values the tech that gives him location independence, he also deeply values silence. Why?

In my experience, silence is where we come upon depth and spaciousness and intimacy. It’s also where we find things inside ourselves we didn’t know we had inside ourselves. When I’m talking superficially to a friend or answering an e-mail or going through my round of activities, I’m really talking from the surface of my personality. And there’s very little that comes out of me that surprises me. But when I’m in silence and I can collect myself, so to speak, and begin to think slowly down through the depths of myself, it’s an amazing journey into a kind of outer space, except it’s inner space, into these areas that I never would have imagined exist. . . .

I think silence is both the cradle of creativity and the one place where you can see what to do with your noisy, non-silent life. In some way, I’ve always felt that the paradox of any technological revolution is that you need to go offline in order to find wisdom and emotional clarity to make the best use of your online life. Online is an amazing wonder world, but you have to step back from it in order to see how to navigate it. I think that’s where silence helps.

If Iyer’s crisp explanation of the need for stillness jolts you into realizing that you have too little quiet time in your life, but living in the Asian countryside either isn’t possible for you or isn’t your cup of tea, how do you proceed? Iyer notes that there are many ways to bring stillness back to your days and speaks approvingly of some companies’ efforts to give their employees space to find solitude:

When I was visiting the campus at Google, for example, I was impressed to see the meditation rooms and the trampolines and the playpens and the way that the company makes sure its workers have a lot of time free from the office, because that’s where creativity takes place. When I wrote the piece in The New York Times about quiet, I was impressed to hear from one of the leading voices of Silicon Valley who wrote to me and said, many of us here observe an Internet Sabbath. We’re the ones who have helped to give the world the Internet and who’ve helped to expand possibilities with it. But we also know that it’s really important for us to spend a day every week or a couple of days offline to nourish ourselves and to be able to have the vision to see how best to guide the Internet revolution.

I was struck that it was Intel that was the one that experimented with enforcing quiet time, four hours of uninterrupted time every Tuesday for 300 of its workers. It realized that only by turning off the machines could people come up with the ideas that would make Intel a visionary company.

If you’re intrigued, check out the long but interesting interview for more on meditation, multitasking and what, if anything, is wrong with kids these days.

Do you have enough stillness in your life and, if not, how could you get some more?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Pierre -M-

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