The art of stillness, going nowhere and doing nothing

I would dread it, if I had to spend my life like how we are expected to spend our birthdays. The pressure of making the day unique and being on a 24-hour long euphoria takes the wind out of my sails. I have given almost everything a try. Spending a fortune on dinner or drinks leaves a bigger hole in my pocket, than the pocket itself. Purchasing something online or window shopping at a mall has ceased to be unique any more. It is exhausting for the phone battery and myself to respond to incessant calls and a bevy of messages. “And the more we can contact others, more, it sometimes seems, we lose contact with ourselves”, says the man whom I am spending my birthday with. The multiplicity of social media platforms has complicated matters further. The idea of having a quite day with a loved one at home is the least of the evils but supremely boring. If the birthday is not on a holiday, then maintaining business as usual is a way, how I would never want to spend the day.

What to do and how to do is the question, then.

While growing up, we used to have an unsaid ritual and belief amongst us school friends-how we spend the 24 hours of 1st of January each year, is how we are going to spend the whole year. Some of my friends would open a book to read at midnight, others called someone they cared about and a few cared two hoots about this illogical belief. The thought, however, has lingered on and has duplicated for birthdays as well.

Birthdays are a time for reflection, like New Years. To find the perfect balance of socialisation and isolation is an art that I am attempting to perfect since so many years.

As Pico Iyer says, “Heaven is the place where you think of nowhere else.” This year, the birthday not falling on a weekend has turned the celebrations into a a three day affair. One of which I have curated to be a bicycling trip by my self in the jungles of Africa. Circumstantially so, I do not have an option of ‘rocking’ things in a pub. Or be around the people I would have wanted to be. Where I am, there is nothing. This is a wood-house by a river, inside an equatorial forest of Africa. So the spirit of doing nothing and going nowhere, is what is supreme. For the first time, scaricity is synonymous to abundance. Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century mathematician so rightfully once said, which stands the truest now, more than ever.

“All the unhappiness of men, arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.”

But on birthdays, like in life, we make do with what we have. As my bicycle arrives from India just in time, I pack my bulky camera, some sandwiches, mosquito repellant, a few water bottles and a very short read by Pico Iyer, ‘The Art of Stillness’ that begins with this quote:

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” —Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz

Perfection! Pico Iyer, being the man I am spending my birthday with. Not in person, in print. Reading ‘The Art of Stillness’ writtn by him.

Never else in my life has abundance felt so pompous and futile. It is surprisingly how little we need to get by. The ‘getting by’, a means to the end, the attaining elusive happiness. The staggering facts put forward by Pico Iyer make me want to stand still and do nothing this birthday.

After Admiral Richard E. Byrd spent nearly five months alone in a shack in the Antarctic, in temperatures that sank to 70 degrees below zero, he emerged convinced that “half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need.” Or, as they sometimes say around Kyoto, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”

Yet the days of Pascal and even Admiral Byrd seem positively tranquil by today’s standards. The amount of data humanity will collect while you’re reading this book is five times greater than the amount that exists in the entire Library of Congress. Anyone reading this book will take in as much information today as Shakespeare took in over a lifetime. Researchers in the new field of interruption science have found that it takes an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. Yet such interruptions come every eleven minutes—which means we’re never caught up with our lives.

Birthdays are perfect opportunities to hit the reset button and start afresh. An opportune time to reflect and change course. To analyse the choices made so far and make some new ones. No other date is as personal to whisper to yourself and the universe what your heart truly sings for and dances to. To unspeak the lie we successfully tell ourselves and convince everyone around of in a measure of a day. To look in the eye the truth that we already know but feel secure to think of it only in the dark and quite of night. Stripping down, as Pico Iyer puts it,

“To me, the point of sitting still is that it helps you see through the very idea of pushing forward; indeed, it strips you of yourself, as of a coat of armor, by leading you into a place where you’re defined by something larger”

It doesn’t come easy. Accepting the fact that you need to do thing, prove nothing to anyone, share nothing on social media, fight with or argue with no one, the absolute dispensability of self in this big wide world is a very sad but liberating awareness.

“…doing nothing for a while—is one of the hardest things in life for me; I’d much rather give up meat or wine or sex than the ability to check my e-mails or get on with my work when I want to”, and I agree!

He adds, “It takes courage, of course, to step out of the fray, as it takes courage to do anything that’s necessary, whether tending to a loved one on her deathbed or turning away from that sugarcoated doughnut.”

Stillness is however, not inaction. “Stillness has nothing to with settledness or statis. The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or mountaintop but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world.”

Making the birthday your own, every year, is the truest celebration. As I close the last page of the book, this will have more meaning to me now.

“In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.

In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.

And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.

You can go on vacation to Paris or Hawaii or New Orleans three months from now, and you’ll have a tremendous time, I’m sure. But if you want to come back feeling new – alive and full of fresh hope and in love with the world—I think the place to visit may be Nowhere.”

This is what Leonard Cohen had asked Pico Iyer when he had turned Jikan, his monastic name, meaning silence between two thoughts.

“What else would I be doing? Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”

Pico Iyer observes, “Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else. Sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it; I’d seldom thought of it like that.”

‘The Art of Stillness’ is an essential read for people who lie in or in between either of the spectrums, who are in constant flux or are rock steady. At some point in our lives, we have been either of the two. It is a sumptuous read for those looking for sanity, trying to make sense of things or lost and waiting to be found.

“So much of our lives takes place in our heads—in memory or imagination, in speculation or interpretation”, say Pico Iyer. With that thought, I finish reading the book.

After having done nothing, I pick up my bicycle, and head to my nowhere, because, “At some point all the horizontal trips in the world can’t compensate for the need to go deep into somewhere challenging and unexpected. Movement makes richest sense when set within a frame of stillness”.

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