The urgency of slowing down (The Art of Stillness)

Much I could share with you about this weekend as I sit here with my beach-tousled wet hair. To be honest, though, mostly I felt arrested with uncertainty for a good part of it (nothing new here), and this morning I went running to clear my head.

I’ve been trying to listen to Podcasts to exercise my listening attention span. Little-known fact, I’m actually a terrible listener. Rather, my listening comprehension skills can be inhibited because I get distracted easily. I have to work really hard at listening. This is why I always write notes verbatim, to hide this fact and make up for this weakness.

As luck would have it, a few months ago I had downloaded On Being’s interview with Pico Iyer, entitled The Art of Stillness. (Here is the transcript if, like me, you are a stronger reader than listener.) Serendipitously, I just started reading a book about traveling that references a quote of his in the first few pages.

As I ran along the water wrestling with my feelings of having to compete with worlds beyond my reach, Iyer’s words calmed me and filled me with hope that stillness can be the answer. It is my daily work to be enough for myself, to remember that “the point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or the mountaintop, but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world.”

It’s funny, when we go to an airport, nowadays, there are so many recharging stations for devices and very few for our soul.

Krista Tippett mentions Iyer’s insistence that we are rediscovering the “urgency of slowing down.” Iyer responds, “Well, I think we’re all feeling dizzy.” I struggle to remember that I choose where my attention goes, and I choose what I feel I’m “competing” with.

We got onto this accelerating roller coaster that we never quite asked to get on, and we don’t know how to get off…

And so I sometimes think that travel is how I get my excitement and stimulation, but stillness is how I keep myself sane. You know, Pascal, wonderfully, in the 17th century said our problem is distraction, but we try to distract ourselves from distractions. So we get even worse in this vicious cycle. So the only cure for distraction is attention. And I go to my monastery, and I go to Japan because they are cathedrals of attention. And they’re places where people are very attentive and where people like me can try to learn attention.

This relates to Mary Oliver’s discovery that “attention without feeling is just a report.” More and more, I try to slow down and examine my feelings of urgency or comparison or envy or hopelessness by becoming more aware of my immediate world, and being more grounded by practicing attention towards my inner being. Only then can I face outward and find the people to whom and activities/thoughts to which I should gift my attention.

But I mean, I was reading recently that there’s some new study of that as people — when we’re young, we’re kind of hardwired to find excitement and to find satisfaction in novelty. And that as we age, we more naturally find excitement and satisfaction in what is ordinary, in patterns and habits and kind of the everyday contours of our lives.

As Iyer says, “not everyone leans into stillness” even with the passage into older age. I can see some of my friends forever being caught up in the frenzy of novelty.

But I do believe that we have the ability to choose our ride rather than let ourselves feel carried away by currents we never decided to follow and rollercoasters we never hoped to get on. I can choose how to react, and I can choose the degree of vulnerability that I feel. It takes practice, it takes time. At first glance, the inside world can seem less appealing than the shiny, sparkly enticement of the outer world. I ask myself what my definition of luxury is. I try not to allow others’ expectations or desires dictate what my luxury looks like. I stop and ask myself whether the outer world that seems so terrifyingly impactful at the moment really reflects on the landscape I’m interested in at all.

And at some point, I thought, well, I’ve been really lucky to see many, many places. Now, the great adventure is the inner world that I’ve spent a lot of time gathering emotions, impressions, and experiences. Now, I just want to sit still for years on end, really, charting that inner landscape because I think anybody who travels knows that you’re not really doing so in order to move around — you’re traveling in order to be moved. And really what you’re seeing is not just the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall but some moods or intimations or places inside yourself that you never ordinarily see when you’re sleepwalking through your daily life.

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