JANUARY 11, 2015
TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS AGO when I began to practice Buddhist meditation, I didn’t tell anyone for fear of seeming weird, or — worse for a university professor — stupid. In America back then what did most of us know of Eastern religions, other than the white-bearded, giggling Indian Maharishi Yogi, guru to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, who claimed he could teach people to levitate?
However, before the Maharishi, the way to religious enlightenment had been paved by such Christian spiritual leaders as Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating, both heavily influenced by Asian spiritual figures, including the Dalai Lama, the Japanese writer D. T. Suzuki, the Thai Buddhist monk Buddhadasa, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
My first teacher, Shinzen Young, was one of the early guard of Western vipassana meditation teachers in the 1970s (among them Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield), many of whom were trained in Asia and Japan. Shinzen, who continues to work with students worldwide, speaks fluent Japanese and was the translator for Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, the Rinzai Zen teacher who founded dozens of Zen Centers in this country, most notably the one at Mount Baldy in Southern California.
Shinzen’s intent has always been to teach meditation techniques and general philosophy minus cultural trappings. Back in 1987, at my first weekend retreat with him, we participants got the giggles. Sitting on a cushion in silence for minutes — or hours, it seemed like — felt too silly for words. One stifled titter would infect us all. I would never have stayed with the practice if he hadn’t approached it as he did: “Meditation is the hardware. You can run any software on it you wish,” he said. Meaning that the method is applicable to any religious practice. He calls his approach “The Science of Enlightenment”: a very specific way of becoming more aware of our senses, of learning to stay with what’s actually here. Nothing mystical-schmystical.
After that weekend, I noticed that the world seemed subtly brighter, as if someone had stripped off the hazy film in that Claritin commercial. Hooked on that clarity, and wanting more, I started meditating every day. But it was at least ten years before the cultural mainstream began to notice what meditation is and does — and then I felt I could come out of the closet, so to speak.
In the last decade, more and more Buddhist texts have been translated and made available; in general, the publication of books on meditation and Buddhist practice has skyrocketed. Routledge published 25 in 2014. An Amazon search for Buddhism turns up 34,575 books for sale at the moment, plus mala beads, wall calendars, bells, amulets, and Buddhist baby clothes.
Pico Iyer’s beautiful little book The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, an extended TED talk about the value of silence, appears within this rich swirl of Buddhist teachings and traditions. You’d think one more such book wouldn’t be necessary. By now most people know something about meditation, however distorted their understanding might be.
But Iyer’s book fills an important niche. It’s attractive, pocket-sized, deliberately written to be read in one sitting, he says. Though Iyer claims not to be a Buddhist, he begins the book with a visit to his friend, songwriter and musician Leonard Cohen, who has retreated to a small place in the San Gabriel Mountains to “make a life — an art” out of stillness. Cohen tells Iyer that this is “simply the most practical way he’d found of working through the confusion and terror that had long been his bedfellows”; sitting still is “a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.” Iyer, in turn, “began to think about how liberating it might be for any of us to give it a try.”
Iyer, whose Indian father introduced him to the Dalai Lama when he was a boy, is also the author of The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. He has visited with the Dalai Lama in his apartment in suburban Japan for 35 years, and followed him on his global travels for “at least that long.” At first, given their friendship, it was a bit surprising to me that he does not, in this small book, allude to the deep teachings of Buddhism.
But that seems to be the point. Iyer wants to make the conscious practice of stillness palatable to everyone. So he shies away from the word “meditation.” He announces that he’s never been a member of any meditation or yoga group. Talking about stillness, he says, “is really a way of talking about clarity and sanity and the joys that endure.” What he means, he emphasizes, “isn’t […] turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”
The Art of Stillness points the reader down the path of enlightenment with almost no reference to the ancient teachings that show us this path. Instead, the book contains the core of Buddhist practice by referencing non-Buddhists. For instance, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” And from Pascal, “All the unhappiness of men arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.” Iyer also quotes William James, Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, Mahatma Gandhi. He describes his own path, from his harried time in New York to what he calls “Nowhere” — his present life in Japan, in a “doll’s house” apartment with his wife; “no car, no bicycle, no bedroom or TV I can understand.” In six short chapters, set apart from each other by gorgeous photos of changing sea and sky horizons by Icelandic-Canadian photographer Eydis S. Luna Einarsdottir, Iyer presents a continuum of the practice. He begins with what it is, what it can do for us. (He cites recent scientific studies of the brain that show all indicators of happiness to be “off the charts” among longtime meditators.) He then offers some inspirational vignettes from Afghanistan, Silicon Valley, and General Mills; he lays out the principles underlying what he calls “a secular Sabbath”; and finally, returning to Leonard Cohen’s life and music, he considers the courage it takes to step out of the fray.
How much courage it might possibly take is illustrated with a story in Chapter 3, “Alone in the Dark.” During a visit to Louisville, Kentucky, Iyer was driven to the monastery where Father Thomas Merton had lived for over 25 years. A devoted monk-guide there apparently likes to read at random to the visitors from one of Merton’s journals: “To bring his spirit into our company,” he explains. This time the passage turns out to be about Merton’s anguished struggle with his vow of chastity, which meant giving up a relationship with a young nurse with whom, during a hospitalization, he’d fallen desperately in love. He ends with this: “I am flooded with peace […]. I have surrendered again […]. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife.” Iyer ends this section by noting, “You don’t get over the shadows inside you simply by walking away from them.”
If Iyer does not confide specifically how stillness has aided him with his own struggles, he does remind us that he has lived the alternatives. He’s traveled nearly everywhere gathering material for his astonishing number of magazine stories, newspaper articles, and books — a mind-boggling number of magazine and newspaper articles (in such publications as The New York Times, New York Review of Books, Time, Financial Times, and Kyoto Journal) documenting his observations and concerns through almost every country on the globe, not to mention 13 books on a vast range of subjects, attest to his worldliness. “To me,” he says, “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.”
The nature of a TED talk is to inspire and open up new avenues of thought. One has to start somewhere. For the considerable number of people who can’t imagine themselves cross-legged on a cushion and chanting sutras, Iyer’s book is a worthy contribution. All we have to do is sit still for a while. No other rules. The word for it in Zen is shikantaza — Iyer’s “Nowhere” — or, as my teacher puts it, resting in space.
And the art of stillness needs no more introduction than Iyer’s brief and engaging testimony to begin drawing us in. “One of the beauties of Nowhere is that you never know where you’ll end up when you head in its direction,” he writes. “The deeper blessing — as Leonard Cohen had so movingly shown me, sitting still — is that it can get you as wide-awake, exhilarated, and pumping-hearted as when you are in love.”
Some will perhaps go a lot further with the practice; others not. But any small opening in our anxious and overwrought lives seems a good idea.