Against the Drumbeat: The Art of Stillness

In stillness there is richness – richness of attention, timelessness, connection, possibility, peace. The need to carve out moments to quiet the noise of modern life or anxious voices swirling in our heads has never been greater. Our mental health depends on it. May we learn to make space for quiet moments so we can disappear into the miracle of the world, to appreciate the sun peeking through a bank of clouds, listen to the waves make music, or the very breath that animates us. May we echo the words of the poet Pablo Neruda who invites us to “count to twelve and…all keep still” so that we can inhabit these delicious moments, and flourish.

Here’s Neruda’s magnificent poem, entitled “Keeping Quiet”

Keeping Quiet
By Pablo Neruda

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
This one time upon the earth,
let’s not speak any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden uneasiness.

The fishermen in the cold sea
would do no harm to the whales
and the peasant gathering salt
would look at his torn hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars of gas, wars of fire,
victories without survivors,
would put on clean clothing
and would walk alongside their brothers
in the shade, without doing a thing.

What I want shouldn’t be confused
with final inactivity:
life alone is what matters,
I want nothing to do with death.
If we weren’t unanimous
about keeping our lives so much in motion,
if we could do nothing for once,
perhaps a great silence would
interrupt this sadness,
this never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death,
perhaps the earth is teaching us
when everything seems to be dead
and then everything is alive.

Now I will count to twelve
and you keep quiet and I’ll go.


Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, Simon & Schuster, 2014.

In The Art of Stillness, British-born essayist and novelist known for his travel writings, investigate the lives of people who have made a life seeking stillness: from Matthieu Ricard, a Frenchman with a PhD in molecular biology who left a promising scientific career to become a Tibetan monk, to revered singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who traded the pleasures of the senses for several years of living the near-silent life of meditation as a Zen monk. Iyer also draws on his own experiences as a travel writer to explore why advances in technology are making us more likely to retreat. He reflects that this is perhaps the reason why many people–even those with no religious commitment–seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation, or seeking silent retreats. These aren’t New Age fads so much as ways to rediscover the wisdom of an earlier age. Growing trends like observing an “Internet Sabbath”–turning off online connections from Friday night to Monday morning–highlight how increasingly desperate many of us are to unplug and bring stillness into our lives.

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