Clémence Overall, Victoria Regional Meeting

Clemence OverallWhen a friend sent me a copy of article “Going Nowhere[1]” I discovered a commonsense response to a world increasingly frantic with technology, information, and busyness. Echoing the teachings of all major religions, Pico Iyer’s thoughts especially resonated with the Quaker practice of Silence. It also had a secondary, personal value: it affirmed my decision to take a sabbatical from a meaningful but all too cluttered life.

The author, a renowned travel writer and journalist, left his fast-paced job in New York City for a small modest room in Japan. He left behind what many would consider a dream life-exchanging status, higher pay and challenging work for simpler living. He wasn’t entirely sure why he was changing except that he felt he needed to balance the New York stimulation and movement with “Something simpler, and to learn how to make those joys less external and more ephemeral.”

He chose a new life in which he could actually take time to sit still in Silence, then mindfully construct his day. This is how he discovered that,

“Going Nowhere was the grand adventure that makes sense of everything else . . .that sitting still is a way to fall in love with the world . . . a way of cutting through the noise and finding fresh time and energy to share with others.”

I knew from my own experiences at Meeting that what he was saying was so true: how liberating it can be for any of us to sit in Silence. Silence can still the emotions, clear the head and seems to produce a quality of attention and kindness familiar to many Quakers.

Yet, like everyone else, outside of Meeting, I have little time for these moments of stillness. Most people I know are, like me, running, succeeding, producing, looking for a sense of safety and, it seems, only generating a stronger sense of malaise. Strangely, as technology increases, easing so many facets of my life, I seem to be more hurried and more controlled by outside forces. I rationalise my constant use of email, the cell phone and the Internet. I feel I have to be plugged in otherwise I will “get behind” in work and lose communication with others. In truth, the more contact and information I have, the less contact I seem to have with myself and the less real contact I feel I have with others. The moments I do pull away allow me to return refreshed, aware of others, and energised.

Still, it is not easy to jump out of the fray. There are social norms pressuring all of us. Personally since I was a young child, I have always loved busyness and movement. So, it is not easy to take time away: to take a week, a day or even an hour to sit still in Silence — but it is quickly becoming necessity for all of us.

A recent World Health Organization report noted: “Stress will be the health epidemic of the twenty-first century.” In response to this crisis, now one third of US companies are practicing Mind Training or Stress Reduction Programs, which teach people how to sit in stillness, how to go nowhere for a moment. For example, the computer chip maker, Intel initiated a “Quiet Period” for four hours, every Tuesday. Each Tuesday 300 engineers and managers turn off email and phones and put Do Not Disturb signs on their doors to make room for “Thinking Time.” The response to this intervention was so enthusiastic that the company and other US businesses across the nation have started other similar programs that experts estimate are saving these companies a whopping $300 billion a year.

Of course, American business didn’t discover the need for silence and stillness. Before the Quakers, philosophers from Greece and Rome to Mayan shamans in the jungle have been advocating and practicing mindful silence for eons. The great Quaker leader, Isaac Pennington, encouraged us to still what he called “the wanderings and rovings of mind.” Caroline Stephen writes: “The silence we value is not the mere outward silence of the lips. It is the deep quietness of heart and mind, a laying aside of all preoccupation with passing things – yes, even with the workings of our own minds; a resolute fixing of the heart upon that which is unchangeable and eternal. ”And, of course, William Penn put it simply: “Silence is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”

But, like many people, leaving busyness isn’t the only problem I struggled with in Going Nowhere. I had some emotional obstacles. I felt that it is selfish in the midst of earthquakes, of Baltimore burning, of refugees abandoned at sea just to step out of the turmoil for my own sense of peace. I have felt it essential to push forward, to advance, to help overcome some of the woes of the world.

Yet Pico Iyer reminded me that: “. . . sitting still helps you see through the very idea of pushing forward; it strips you of your armor by leading you to a place where you are defined by something much larger.” From this point you actually find yourself closer to others in compassion and understanding, closer to being able to respond with equanimity to problems. Of course, while sitting in Silence you don’t leave problems behind or even solve them. As Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and also a stirring writer on Silence, pointed out: “One of the strange laws of a contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems. You bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life solves them for you.”

There are so many ways to bring renewal and peace to this world. My past work as a clinical social worker was one. Art is another, and Meeting, a place where it can be invigorated. We all find our places of renewal. For me, now it is in this adventure of Going Nowhere, of beginning to explore something deeper beyond all the noise and movement, of trying to cultivate this art of Stillness because as Pico Iyer states so succinctly: “ In the age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. . . In the age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention . . .and in the age of constant movement, nothing can be more urgent than sitting still.”


[1] The Art of Stillness, by Pico Iyer. © 2014 by Pico Iyer. TED BOOKS/Simon & Schuster, Inc

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