The art of staying still

Illustration: Sudha Pillai

In the Torah, you will find a long chapter dedicated to the Sabbath—the day of rest. Sages urge their people to “wrap” themselves “in tzitzit (beautiful robes) to greet the Sabbath, the king.” After creating the world for six continuous days, God created menuchah (rest) on day seven. Because, the Sages say, without menuchah,“creativity would be unattainable”. In my contemporary world, menuchah translates to ‘remaining still’, and in our cacophony, I am convinced staying still is an important life skill.

Pico Iyer, traveller and writer, says in his The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, “In an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.” Travel has now become synonymous with constant motion—places to see, eat and shop. There are pictures to be posted on social media, and then there is that need to review every site you visit and dish you eat. We are constantly looking to experience more in the shortest time available. We are conditioned to being “productive” even when we are on holiday. Our travels are dictated by Instagram posts and listicles. Our mantra is ‘more’, and somehow we find we are always in demand. Our minds and our bodies are perpetually badgered and on call. In this constant commotion, everything, including our experiences, becomes superficial, undermining the core incentive of travel, which is to see, hear and feel acutely.

Sometimes, epiphany strikes us in the unlikeliest of places. It happened to me at the top of the Whistler Mountain, 7,500 feet above sea level, in Jasper, Canada. The sun was an over-sized diamond embedded in the bluest sky. I felt I could touch it if only I dared to reach for its brilliance. Spread before I was an inviting cloudscape. Mt. Robson, the tallest Canadian Rockies peak, was in the far corner — like a grampy with a watchful eye. The Columbia Icefields and its jewel-coloured glacier lakes were way down below. The panorama was magnificent.

Seeing the awe-inspiring vista through the viewfinder, I, like the rest of the people in my group, was busy clicking photos. Everyone was running helter-skelter, trying to get the best shot. I could hear the sound of a dozen shutters drowning mine. As I was zooming in on another shot, I experienced my ‘aha’ moment. There were two men, who like an island of calm, were living in the moment. No cameras, no reviews, no commotion. They were simply milking that art of stillness.

It is in silence that you can hear better, see better and feel better. When I put my camera down and remained still, I tasted the sweetness of the mist on my lips; the tenderness of the breeze on the nape of my neck, the fragrance of the clouds (they smell like the ocean), and the warmth of the sun on my skin. The blues became bluer and the whites whiter. In that stillness, I could feel my mind declutter. It is said that ancient practitioners of Chinese martial arts would practice the art of standing still to increase their energy levels, their mental and physical powers, and their awareness.

As a child, during summer holidays, I would often accompany my amateur photographer father on his photo-walks in Kerala. He, with his analog camera, slung around his neck, and me, with my bag of biscuits and water bottle, would plod through lush green fields and drag our feet on the banks of the river. We’d often stop to stare at the tiny wildflowers on the wayside and the ferns trellising on the moss-green rocks (if you press the fern hard on your forearm, you can get beautiful temporary silver tattoos). We would amble with no destination in mind.

When he came across something, he wanted to photograph, Dad would stand still. There was no question of pulling out the camera and going clickety-click. Film rolls were expensive, and you had to be judicious. We would sit and wait for the right light to fall in the right place so that my father could get the shot he had in mind. His nature shots involved a lot of waiting and remaining still. Sometimes it was just about chasing your breath. After those sessions, I always felt more energetic, more alive. I never understood why then. I do now.

Practising the art of stillness while travelling can be likened to stepping back from a large painting. You want to take in the whole picture.

Remain still. With no agenda. If you are lucky you might hear the rich gravelly voice of Louis Armstrong croon I see trees of green, red roses too/ I see them bloom for me and you And I think to myself what a wonderful world…

This was published in National Geographic Traveller India, September 2017 issue under the column titled Wayfaring