mostly edited, structured pieces of writing (in the process of migrating from Medium)

Being still in order to be alive

on disengaging to engage better

I couldn’t fall sleep last night, so I thought of listening to a podcast. I don’t usually listen to podcasts because they make my head hurt if I listen to them through earphones. But I was alone, so I decided to play one through a speaker located far enough away from me instead.

I scanned through hundreds of episodes on “On Being”, and the one that jumped out was titled “Pico Iyer: The Art of Stillness”. Of course I had to listen to the one on stillness.

I wasn’t disappointed, because minutes in he said:

“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 travelling 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.”

You’re travelling in order to be moved.I felta sense of recognition when I heard that, a feeling one gets when they hear something profoundly familiar gets articulated in language.

Travel has changed me, and it still does. But not in the way it used to, when I simply overloaded myself with stimuli of new sights and sounds. I have begun to go to places just to be still. I thought one could be still anywhere so I tried to be still at home. Yet there is this indescribable harmony when I am in a place that is full of stillness. Pico Iyer describes his so beautifully:

“And I got out of my car at this monastery, and the air was pulsing. And it was very silent, but really the silence wasn’t the absence of noise, it was almost the presence of these transparent walls that I think the monks had worked very, very hard to make available to us in the world… And somehow, almost immediately, it was as if a huge heaviness fell away from me, and the lens cap came off my eyes. And suddenly, I was seeing everything from great immediacy and it was almost as if little Pico had disappeared and the whole world had come in to me instead. And, I remember a Blue Jay suddenly alighted on the fence outside my window, and I watched it rapt as if it was the most miraculous thing that had happened. And then bells began ringing above, and it felt like they were ringing inside me.”

I don’t think I’ve been to a place deliberately facilitated to be spiritually still like a monastery. But I’ve come close to the stillness provided by the generosity of nature, I have felt something close to what he experienced — feeling my soul sing when all the noise that typically surrounds me falls away in reverence of natural harmony and beauty.

These moments are far and few in between, and in my regular living in cities I am led to believe that reality is harsh, quick and ugly most of the time. I forget who I am, who I can be, I get caught up in all that noise and manipulation and cruelty.

But nature is generous. It is filled with decay and killing, but balanced withaliveness and nurturing. It is harmonious, if we let it be, if we stop neglecting its existence. If we are lucky, we get to experience being surrounded by it, and with even more luck, just being with it reminds us that we are too — like a sadly forgotten fact — a part of nature.

I want to be still. Since leaving my previous life behind I have sought to explore what Pico Iyer calls the inner world/life. During the past two years I have often felt guilt that I’m selfish or that I’m selling out because I’ve given up engaging with the “real world”, in order to engage with myself.

But I’ve changed so much, changed in ways that wouldn’t be possible with the demands of a career and the life I used to live. It has been painful and sometimes I feel like I’m going in circles driving myself crazy, but if I have the perspective to zoom out and look at how far I have come: there is a transformed self slowly emerging out of me. A self that is more generous, less anxious and reactive, more willing to give a little space to other people and myself, less stuck in old patterns of behavior and thinking.

I couldn’t find it in the official transcript (I listened to the unedited version), but Iyer speaks of the Dalai Lama who meditates 4 hours a day so he’s present the rest of the 8 hours while being with people and performing his duties.Then, he mentions Leonard Cohen who went away for five years to be a monk so he could come back and gift his music. His whole point is that we have to disengage to engage better:

“Each person, I think, now, has to take a conscious measure to separate yourself from experience just to be able to do justice to experience and to process, as you said, and understand what is going on in her life and direct herself…So to neglect our inner lives is really to incapacitate our outer lives. We don’t have so much to give to other people or the world or our job or our kids.”

I know I’m massively privileged to take time off from the demands of life and be on this journey. I know that it isn’t even a choice for most people. Yet here is a time and space for me to become, and if I don’t take it, I will always be hurting more than I am capable of living and giving. I would stay as the small, tired, anxious person I was, trying to save myself by attempting to save the world.

I no longer have ambitions of trying to make the world better, whatever that means. If I can do just one thing in my life, I want to figure out what it means to live and be human, on my own terms. I want to know what it is like to truly love and revere life, to be capable of taking life’s suffering equanimously. If I can do just this one thing, I would pat myself on the back and say that I have lived well: to model a way of life that is different from what we’ve conditioned to believe in, to provide an alternate narrative in this world full of stories and imaginings, to be a person who has sought the relief of death all her life — becoming a person who has the courage to hold both the expanding pain and heartbreaking beauty of being alive.

I woke up this morning to the most magnificent sunrise I have ever seen in my life. I tried to capture the moment with my phone camera, but failed:

But in that one moment everything made sense. I know it is temporary, just like everything is, but perhaps eternity lies in the disappearing transcendence of a passing moment. And we have to be still to notice it.