In a fast-moving world, practice 'stillness'

Pico Iyer: Stillness "can restore our sanity and balance; it can remind us of what we really want to be doing."

Story highlights

  • A growing movement encourages people to slow down, unplug and let the mind wander
  • Pico Iyer's TED talk, "The Art of Stillness," has been viewed almost a million times
  • Stillness seeks to bring insight and perspective by stepping back from one's daily existence

(CNN)As harried people everywhere will tell you, the pace of modern life seems to be constantly accelerating.

It feels like we're always rushing -- to our next appointment, our next business meeting, our next errand, our next plane. When we have a few precious minutes of downtime, we fill it on our phones, swiping from email to Facebook to "Candy Crush" and back.
No wonder there's a growing chorus of experts urging us to slow down and unplug. Or even -- horrors! -- to sit alone quietly with our thoughts. One of the leading proponents of this movement is essayist and travel writer Pico Iyer, whose recent TED talk, "The Art of Stillness," has been viewed almost a million times.
    "My sense is that so many of us are racing around these days, from text to phone call to Twitter to breaking-news update, that we never have time to collect ourselves, to direct ourselves towards what we love," Iyer told CNN in an email.
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    Stillness is a cousin of mindfulness, another fashionable concept that encourages people to live in the moment. But where mindfulness focuses mostly on calming stress, stillness, as defined by Iyer, seeks to bring insight and perspective by stepping back from one's daily existence.
    "It can restore our sanity and balance; it can remind us of what we really want to be doing -- and what we care most about," said Iyer, who was inspired in part by a woman he sat next to on a plane who ignored her seatback screen and sat quietly for 12 hours without talking, reading, sleeping or listening to music.
    He recommends that people take a few minutes every day, or at least every week, to be alone without distractions and let their mind wander.
    Of course, this can be difficult in 2015, when digital devices are constantly competing for our attention. But Iyer is not suggesting we give up our phones and laptops.
    "None of us would want to go backwards or uninvent all the machines that have made our lives so much brighter and healthier and more fun." Instead, he said, "it's up to us to take conscious measures to make sure we're not lost in the rush."
    Iyer's ideas may be catching on. Tech workers are unplugging with "Internet Sabbaths," companies are adding stress-reduction programs for their employees, and "mindful" practices such as yoga and meditation are flourishing.
    Iyer believes his talk (and related book) have struck a chord with people who feel overwhelmed by the demands of the digital age.
    "People are drowning in information and running around so much that they get nothing done," he said.
    "It's only by stepping back, I feel, that you can ensure that you're making a life as well as a living."