THE ART OF STILLNESS: Adventures in Going Nowhere (TED Books). By Pico Iyer. Simon & Schuster. 96 pages. $14.99.
In September 2014, TED Conferences partnered with Simon & Schuster to publish a 12-title series called TED Books. According to the description, TED Books are “short enough to be read in one sitting, but long enough to delve deep into a topic.” In a Q&A on the TED blog, curator Chris Anderson says the idea came from the explosive growth of ebook platforms and a concern that “people are so time-constrained.”
The first TED book in the series is Pico Iyer’s “The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere” in which the travel writer encourages readers to slow down.
Iyer has been traveling since he was 9 years old. He’s a British-born journalist who writes for Time magazine, Harpers, The New York Times and other publications. His inspiring 14-minute TED talk on the “Art of Stillness” aired in 2014. Iyer’s promise that, “in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still,” gave this working mother hope.
Iyer informs us that the art of sitting still has been around since the age of antiquity, but the infiltration of technology into our private lives, and our inability to unplug, means that we need to be still now, more than ever. He recalls a moment when he was 29 years old and realized that he was “racing around so much that he could never catch up.”
He was living his “dream life,” with a great job, friends, family and success, and he gave it all up to move to a two-room apartment in Japan in an effort to slow down. This new life gave him days that stretched ahead of him “like an open meadow.” He continued to travel — his livelihood depended on it — but he did so conscientiously, with space for calm and quiet.
Iyer cites data about American companies that have embraced stress-reduction programs “in part because workers find unclogging their minds’ arteries to be so exhilarating.” At Aetna, many saw their stress levels drop by a third after only an hour of yoga each week. General Mills has meditation rooms because science has shown that meditation improves blood pressure, boosts immune systems and changes the architecture of our brains.
Acknowledging skeptics, he relates the time he was in the middle of a radio interview and received a call from single, working mother who complained that she didn’t have the luxury of meditating for hours each day. He writes: “It’s precisely those who are busiest, who most need to give themselves a break.”
He tells of sitting next to a woman on a 12-hour flight who did nothing the entire time. This sounds like torture to me. Why would you fly without a good book? But Iyer promises that the rewards of sitting still are worthwhile.
I wanted to like this pocket-sized, illustrated book and hoped it was the kind of volume that gets passed from one friend to the next, but the whole time I was reading, I kept thinking that the TED Talk was better. This expansion into books feels greedy, as if TED executives are not taking Iyer’s advice, but sprinting ahead to find another platform to master.
Reviewer Amy Mercer is marketing and communications manager at the Gibbes Museum of Art.