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Puerto Rico: Going Somewhere to Be Nowhere; Pico Iyer on “The Art of Stillness”

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It’s possible to find moments of stillness, even in Old San Juan. On quiet backstreets, frenetic city life melts away. Outside an old soda factory, now a bar, these gentlemen chatted as if they had all the time in the world.

 

I spent last week at the old Rockefeller resort at Dorado Beach in Puerto Rico.

My experience at this luxurious spot, now a Ritz Carlton Reserve, has varied from year to year, but the last thing I expected to find there was the gift of time. Or, as poet George Dee Vuy wrote, “stillness in the maelstrom.”

My first year, both the newly redesigned resort and I were finding our footing.  The next year our most entertaining Puerto Rican adventures took place on the hilly Ruta de Lechon, the “roast pork route,” about as far from the upscale Ritz as it’s possible to get.

 

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This year I slept, in and out of the sun, swam for leisurely hours in a filtered saltwater pool, splashed through warm tropical downpours that came and went as suddenly as the turn of a spigot. I indulged in deliciousness—citrusy red snapper and avocado seviche by the pool, pan sautéed snapper and sweet plantains on the Caribbean shore.  At breakfast every morning, rich café con leche made by coffee maestro Luis Julio.

 

I chatted, but more often lay in companionable silence with Serendipity (who was content simply to have escaped Boston’s endless winter), drank mojitos and other intoxicating tropical drinks, drifted to sleep while being serenaded by tiny tree frogs (the coquies) whose symphonic warbling creates a perpetual soundtrack for the night.

 

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This time our driver Raymond and I ventured up into the Cordillera Central, the misty mountains that run like a spine across the island, dividing the Atlantic side from the Caribbean.  We put in time at a coffee farm, but more memorably, met Nelson, an elderly roadside artist who creates eccentric tableaux out of castoff toys and empty soda bottles.  When I asked to take his photo, he skittered down the road in protest.

 

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The herb garden is planted with medicinal as well as culinary herbs.

I tasted creamy guanabana ice cream in the old city of Ponce, had an intense massage from a man who’d recently studied in Thailand, spent a morning in the resort’s semi-formal herb garden.  Planted not only with chef-y herbs like lemongrass and Thai basil, the garden is also a repository of indigenous medicinal herbs like the white-flowered Juana La Blanca, well known on the island as a sure cure for kidney stones.

Does it sound like I did a lot?

Funny, because I felt as if I spent the whole week doing almost nothing.  And that was fine.

More than fine, it was wonderful.  My brain fizzled almost to a halt and I lay in a semi-torpor for much of the day.  I gave up any pretence of a schedule, let obligations go (most of them, anyway).  I was happier and more relaxed than I have been in months, maybe years.

 

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In the relaxation room, as sunlight filters through the curtains, there is little sense of time passing. The hands of the clock have no meaning.

It was especially interesting to see how time slowed to a crawl—and to notice how rich that felt.  I had time to watch spiny lizards dash across the warm paving, listen to the waves crashing against the granite rocks that shelter the beach from the relentless Atlantic surf, to savor the flavor of strong dark coffee topped with milk that’s been cooked just enough to become thick and a bit sweet.  (Recipe for café con leche coming soon.)

Vacation time can be the ultimate luxury, especially if you don’t cram your days with must-do’s.  There are no clothes to wash, no emails to return, no beds to make, no food to cook, no posts to write (sorry!).  If you can forgo tantrums about reserved beach chairs and not feel compelled to boast about last night’s $1,000 sushi dinner—sadly, we overheard all this and more—you can briefly enjoy the “simple” life in which the toughest decision to make is whether to order the squid ink pasta with shrimp or the roasted pork with caramelized mango for supper.

This is the only place I’ve ever stayed where I was admonished, ever so gently, to put away my mobile phone.

I feel lucky to have been able to spend a week at Dorado Beach.  It is a dream bubble that has nothing to do with the real world, anywhere, but most especially with this heartbreakingly beautiful tropical island where decades of bad economic policy have created devastating cycles of poverty and diminishing opportunities for most people.

But a week in the bubble gave me the opportunity to think about time.  About how I feel that, in my first world real life, there is none. I realized that when I made my list of bare necessities for 2015, I left out the biggest one of all: time.

Like you, perhaps, I am so tightly scheduled that I sometimes wake with a feeling of panic in the morning, already knowing there’s no way I’ll accomplish even half of what I “must” do.  And this creates a vicious circle of stress that feeds into the sense of having no time for myself, no time to have fun, no time to daydream.

 

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When I came home, amongst all the boxes that constitute my chosen form of retail therapy—hello, beautiful copper top for my new DeBuyer sauce pan, where have you been all my life, flowery summer dress?—was a slim, 74-page book by Pico Iyer.  It’s called The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere.  (It was also the subject of Iyer’s latest TED Talk, which you can see here.)

There are a couple of big thoughts in this little book.

One isn’t new, but it pithily expresses what may be the biggest personal problem for those of us who reside in the first world:  terminal busy-ness.

Iyer writes: “We have a sense of running at top speed and never being able to catch up….[Because of technology] we’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off—our holy days as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night.  More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desks.”

The second idea is actually a solution: making time for moments of stillness.  After a few unplugged days with Leonard Cohen at the California monastery where the singer-songwriter has spent many years–at the time, Cohen often just sat quietly with the aging Japanese abbot, glass of Courvoisier in hand–Iyer stumbled upon an unexpected secret: the sheer luxury of quiet, uninterrupted hours for himself.

As Cohen described it, sitting still was “[r]eal profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment.” Can you imagine?

Later Iyer,  privileged author and Time Magazine correspondent, world traveler and friend of the Dalai Lama, a man who thrived on a “wonderful diet of movement and stimulation in New York,” gave it all up to spend a year “in a small single room on the backstreets of the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto” in hopes of discovering “joys less external and ephemeral.”

For him, this meant going somewhere to be nowhere: “choosing to sit still long enough to turn inward” and radically change the way he looked at life.

Few of us are able or even willing to chuck it all to go live on a Kyoto backstreet, or hole up in a monastery for a week. But we can make the decision to go “nowhere” on a regular basis.

Iyer calls this taking a “secular Sabbath:” carving out as little as half an hour to simply sit and let thoughts come and go as they please, or a whole day that “becomes a vast empty space through which we can wander, without agenda…a retreat house that ensures we’ll have something bright and purposeful to carry back into the other six days.”

Even a long plane trip, he claims, can refresh us if we just sit quietly, not talking, not reading, not watching movies or playing games on our mobiles.

I had a taste of this last week.  I went somewhere to be nowhere, as it turned out, and came home with the ultimate prize:  that elusive sense of well being and contentment.

The trick, of course, is how to merge these moments of stillness into daily life.

Have you discovered ways of being still?  Is being still pleasurable or is it a challenge?  Please send me your thoughts.

 

 

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