going nowhere

You will probably have come across Pico Iyer (1957) in the course of your reading. He’s a British born writer and traveller, well published (NYT, New York Review of Books, Harper’s and others). I picked up his book The Art of Stillness (Simon and Schuster, 2014) because I liked the subject. The subtitle is “Adventures in Going Nowhere.” In his introduction he describes going on a retreat in the San Gabriel Mountains in California and being served by a small, shaven-headed man in his sixties, wearing a threadbare monastic robe, and whose name in the monastery was Jikan, referring to the “silence between two thoughts”. This man, formerly “an Armani-clad man of the world”, told Iyer that he had developed a passion for sitting still as the most practical way of working through his habitual confusion and terror. “Nothing touches it [sitting still], except if you’re courtin’. If you’re young, the hormonal thrust has its own excitement.”

Some twenty years later that Spartan disciple died after another recent successful world tour that brought him 10 million dollars, or so I read, after he had declared bankruptcy when a business manager reduced him to penury. “Going nowhere,” as he had described it to Iyer , " was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.” I guess Leonard Cohen had been everywhere else; where else was he going to go but up? Or down? Or nowhere.

“Going nowhere,” writes Iyer, “as Cohen had shown me, is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one’s senses.” It probably helped the poet to write song lyrics, to which he devoted an enormous amount of time to perfect.

I hadn’t expected this little book to be an oblique resumé of Cohen’s life. Iyer picked up on the poet again when Cohen was 73, onstage during a six-year global concert tour. Later, Iyer also noted the success of “Hallelujah”, Cohen's iconic song for Canada, sung memorably by kd lang at an Olympic celebration, and covered by an astonishing number of American recording artists.

“In an age of distraction,"  Iyer writes, “nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.

And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.”

He concludes: “I think the place to visit may be Nowhere.”