When I was 29, I had the life I might have dreamed of as a boy: a 25th-floor office in midtown Manhattan, four blocks from Times Square; an apartment on Park Avenue and 20th Street; the most interesting and convivial colleagues I could imagine; and an endlessly fascinating job writing about world affairs—the ending of apartheid in South Africa, the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, the turmoil around Indira Gandhi’s assassination—for Time magazine. I had no dependents or responsibilities, and I could—and did— take long vacations everywhere, from Bali to El Salvador.
For all the daily excitement, however, something inside me felt that I was racing around so much that I never had a chance to see where I was going or to check whether I was truly happy. Indeed, hurrying around in search of contentment seemed a perfect way of ensuring I’d never be settled or content. Too often I reminded myself of someone going on and on about world peace in the most contentious and divisive of terms.
So I decided to leave my dream life and spend a year in a small, single room on the backstreets of the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto. I couldn’t have said exactly why I was doing this except that I felt I had enjoyed a wonderful diet of movement and stimulation in New York, and now it was time to balance that out with something simpler and learn how to make those joys less external and ephemeral.
As soon as I left the security of my job and plunged into the unknown, my father began calling me up, unsurprisingly concerned, to berate me for being a “pseudo-retiree.” I couldn’t blame him; all the institutions of higher skepticism to which he’d so generously sent me had insisted that the point of life was to get somewhere in the world, not to go nowhere. But the nowhere I was interested in had more corners and dimensions than I could possibly express to him (or myself), and somehow seemed larger and more unfathomable than the endlessly diverting life I’d known in the city; it opened onto a landscape as vast as those of the Morocco and Indonesia and Brazil I had come to know, combined.
I thought back to the day I’d wandered through an exhibition of Mark Rothko abstracts and felt myself drawn beneath the surface to a stillness that seemed bottomless and rich with every color; I recalled the time a friend had told me how John Cage had unearthed symphonies in the silences he’d set up in jam-packed auditoriums. More than that, I’d long been moved by the way Thomas Merton, gregarious traveler, heavy drinker, and wounded lover, had stepped into a Trappist monastery in Kentucky and become Father Louis, taking his restlessness in a less visible direction.
Going nowhere, as Leonard Cohen would later emphasize for me, isn’t about 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 idea behind Nowhere—choosing to sit still long enough to turn inward—is at heart a simple one. If your car is broken, you don’t try to find ways to repaint its chassis; most of our problems—and therefore our solutions, our peace of mind—lie within. To hurry around trying to find happiness outside ourselves makes about as much sense as the comical figure in the Sufi parable who, having lost a key in his living room, goes out into the street to look for it because there’s more light there. As Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius reminded us more than two millennia ago, it’s not our experiences that form us but the ways in which we respond to them; a hurricane sweeps through town, reducing everything to rubble, and one man sees it as a liberation, a chance to start anew, while another, perhaps even his brother, is traumatized for life. “There is nothing either good or bad,” as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.”
So much of our lives takes place in our heads—in memory or imagination, in speculation or interpretation— that sometimes I feel that I can best change my life by changing the way I look at it. As America’s wisest psychologist, William James, reminded us, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” It’s the perspective we choose—not the places we visit—that ultimately tells us where we stand. Every time I take a trip, the experience acquires meaning and grows deeper only after I get back home and, sitting still, begin to convert the sights I’ve seen into lasting insights.
Related: The Long Road to Sitting Still
This isn’t to suggest that travel is useless; I’ve often known stillness most fruitfully in a sunlit corner of Ethiopia or Havana. It’s just a reminder that it’s not the physical movement that carries us up so much as the spirit we bring to it. Henry David Thoreau, one of the great explorers of his time, reminded himself in his journal, “It matters not where or how far you travel—the farther commonly the worse—but how much alive you are.”
Two years after my year in Japan, I took some more concerted steps in the direction of Nowhere. Kyoto had given me a taste of stillness, but still I had to support myself by traveling, and in the previous few months I’d been lucky enough to journey all across Argentina, down to Tierra del Fuego, and then to China and Tibet and North Korea. I’d been twice in successive months to London and Paris, returning regularly to visit my mother in California. I had long, exciting voyages around Vietnam and Iceland coming up and felt more than spoiled for choice, able to refresh my engagement with the world every few weeks. But 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.
So I got into my car and followed a road north along the California coast from my mother’s house, and then drove up an even narrower path to a Benedictine retreat house a friend had told me about. When I got out of my worn and dust-streaked white Plymouth Horizon, it was to step into a thrumming, crystal silence. And when I walked into the little room where I was to spend three nights, I couldn’t begin to remember any of the arguments I’d been thrashing out in my head on the way up, the phone calls that had seemed so urgent when I left home. Instead, I was nowhere but in this room, with long windows looking out upon the sea.
A fox alighted on the splintered fence outside, and I couldn’t stop watching, transfixed. A deer began grazing just outside my window, and it felt like a small miracle stepping into my life. Bells tolled far above, and I thought I was listening to the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
I’d have laughed at such sentiments even a day before. And as soon as I went to vigils in the chapel, the spell was broken; the silence was much more a tonic than any words could be. But what I discovered, almost instantly, was that as soon as I was in one place, undistracted, the world lit up and I was as happy as when I forgot about myself. Heaven is the place where you think of nowhere else.
It was a little like being called back to somewhere I knew, though I’d never seen the place before. As the monks would have told me—though I never asked them—finding what feels like real life, that changeless and inarguable something behind all our shifting thoughts, is less a discovery than a recollection.
I was so moved that, before I left, I made a reservation to come back, and then again, for two whole weeks. Very soon, stepping into stillness became my sustaining luxury. I couldn’t stay in the hermitage forever—I wasn’t good at settling down, and I’m not part of any spiritual order—but I did feel that spending time in silence gave everything else in my days fresh value and excitement. It felt as if I was slipping out of my life and ascending a small hill from which I could make out a wider landscape.
It was also pure joy, often, in part because I was so fully in the room in which I sat, reading the words of every book as though I’d written them. The people I met in the retreat house—bankers and teachers and real estate salespeople— were all there for much the same reason I was, and so seemed to be my kin, as fellow travelers elsewhere did not. When I drove back into my day-to-day existence, I felt the liberation of not needing to take my thoughts, my ambitions—my self—so seriously.
This small taste of silence was so radical and so unlike most of what I normally felt that I decided to try to change my life a little more. The year after I discovered what a transformation it could be to sit still, I moved to Japan for good—to a doll’s house apartment in which my wife and I have no car, no bicycle, no bedroom, no TV I can understand. I still have to support my family and keep up with the world as a travel writer and journalist, but the freedom from distraction and complication means that every day, when I wake up, looks like a clear meadow with nothing ahead of me, stretching toward the mountains.
This isn’t everyone’s notion of delight; maybe you have to taste quite a few of the alternatives to see the point in stillness. But when friends ask me for suggestions about where to go on vacation, I’ll sometimes ask if they want to try Nowhere, especially if they don’t want to have to deal with visas and injections and long lines at the airport. One of the beauties of Nowhere is that you never know where you’ll end up when you head in its direction, and though the horizon is unlimited, you may have very little sense of what you’ll see along the way. The deeper blessing is that it can get you as wide-awake, exhilarated, and pumping-hearted as when you are in love.
From The Art of Stillness, by Pico Iyer. © 2014 by Pico Iyer. Reprinted with permission of TED BOOKS/Simon & Schuster, Inc.