“Spa in the Sky”

Have you ever felt run off your feet? Busy, busy, busy? Totally occupied with a thousand things, all of which you want to do, but which all too quickly fill your days?

That’s been me the past few weeks. October seems to have been so busy a month: family dinners, the renewal of the opera and concert season, multiple medical appointments, working out at the gym, runners to cheer for, guests to entertain, a quick trip to Vancouver, people to visit, Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en, home repairs, organizing our upcoming vacation, doing some writing, getting the garden ready for winter. The list goes on. And on top of that, the persistent dreadful drone of the American election.

At the #6DegreesTO event in Toronto in September, I picked up the most marvellous little book by Pico Iyer, one of the “Framers” invited to talk about Inclusion. Iyer is a well-known essayist and travel writer born in Britain and now based in Japan and California. He writes regularly for Harper’s, The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. His book is The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014, TEDBook, Simon & Schuster).

His description of Leonard Cohen at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles immediately engaged my attention. I had no idea that Cohen had spent 40 years meditating with the abbot there, or that his monastery name is Jikan which means “the silence between two thoughts.” Apparently, Cohen practices the silence of meditation as avidly as he crafts his poetry and his songs.

Iyer invites his readers to “take this book… as an invitation to the adventure of going nowhere.” He describes how he left his dream life as a writer in Manhattan and around the world to live in a tiny single room in the back streets of Kyoto. “Going nowhere… 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.” When so much of our lives are lived in our heads, perspective comes not from what we do or where we have been but from how we reflect on it. A real change in life can come from changing “the way I look at it.”

Iyer writes about how freeing up the mind to “play” fosters creativity. He gives the example of Google’s headquarters where employees spend a fifth of their time lounging in tree houses, jumping on trampolines, or practicing yoga. Every building on the campus of General Mills in Minneapolis has a meditation room. Apparently one-third of American companies offer “stress-reduction programs” to their employees. And then there is the institution of the Sabbath, the traditional day of rest, which has existed for a reason and which we increasingly erode to our detriment.

He writes of his meeting with Matthieu Ricard who is known as “the happiest man in the world” and who has written that “Simplifying one’s life to extract its quintessence is the most rewarding of all the pursuits I have undertaken.” When Iyer asked him how he deals with jet lag, when he is in such demand all over the world, Ricard replied, “For me, a flight is just a brief retreat in the sky. There’s nothing I can do, so it’s really quite liberating. There’s nowhere else I can be. So I just sit and watch the clouds and the blue sky. Everything is still and everything is moving. It’s beautiful.” Iyer relates how he met a young woman on a flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles who sat down and just sat there, “apparently at peace” throughout the entire flight. When Iyer finally spoke with her she said she was a social worker from Berlin en route to a vacation in Hawaii. “Her job was exhausting… (and) she liked to use the flight over to begin to get all the stress out of her system so that she could arrive on the islands in as clear a state as possible, ready to enjoy her days of rest.” I think I will try that the next time I fly. 

It is a beautiful little book, with stunning photographs taken by Icelandic/Canadian photographer Eydis S. Luna Einarsdóttir who lives in Vancouver and travels every year to Iceland. This book is a companion piece to a 14-minute TED TALK by Pico Iyer. Also check out the TED TALK by Matthieu Ricard “The habit of happiness.”

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