I'm a lifelong traveler.
Even as a little kid,
I was actually working out that it would be cheaper
to go to boarding school in England
than just to the best school down the road from my parents' house in California.
So, from the time I was nine years old
I was flying alone several times a year
over the North Pole, just to go to school.
And of course the more I flew the more I came to love to fly,
so the very week after I graduated from high school,
I got a job mopping tables
so that I could spend every season of my 18th year
on a different continent.
And then, almost inevitably, I became a travel writer
so my job and my joy could become one.
And I really began to feel that if you were lucky enough
to walk around the candlelit temples of Tibet
or to wander along the seafronts in Havana
with music passing all around you,
you could bring those sounds and the high cobalt skies
and the flash of the blue ocean
back to your friends at home,
and really bring some magic
and clarity to your own life.
Except, as you all know,
one of the first things you learn when you travel
is that nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it.
You take an angry man to the Himalayas,
he just starts complaining about the food.
And I found that the best way
that I could develop more attentive and more appreciative eyes
by going nowhere, just by sitting still.
And of course sitting still is how many of us get
what we most crave and need in our accelerated lives, a break.
But it was also the only way
that I could find to sift through the slideshow of my experience
and make sense of the future and the past.
And so, to my great surprise,
I found that going nowhere
was at least as exciting as going to Tibet or to Cuba.
And by going nowhere, I mean nothing more intimidating
than taking a few minutes out of every day
or a few days out of every season,
or even, as some people do,
a few years out of a life
in order to sit still long enough
to find out what moves you most,
to recall where your truest happiness lies
and to remember that sometimes
making a living and making a life
point in opposite directions.
And of course, this is what wise beings through the centuries
from every tradition have been telling us.
It's an old idea.
More than 2,000 years ago, the Stoics were reminding us
it's not our experience that makes our lives,
it's what we do with it.
Imagine a hurricane suddenly sweeps through your town
and reduces every last thing to rubble.
One man is traumatized for life.
But another, maybe even his brother, almost feels liberated,
and decides this is a great chance to start his life anew.
It's exactly the same event,
but radically different responses.
There is nothing either good or bad, as Shakespeare told us in "Hamlet,"
but thinking makes it so.
And this has certainly been my experience as a traveler.
Twenty-four years ago I took the most mind-bending trip
across North Korea.
But the trip lasted a few days.
What I've done with it sitting still, going back to it in my head,
trying to understand it, finding a place for it in my thinking,
that's lasted 24 years already
and will probably last a lifetime.
The trip, in other words, gave me some amazing sights,
but it's only sitting still
that allows me to turn those into lasting insights.
And I sometimes think that so much of our life
takes place inside our heads,
in memory or imagination or interpretation or speculation,
that if I really want to change my life
I might best begin by changing my mind.
Again, none of this is new;
that's why Shakespeare and the Stoics were telling us this centuries ago,
but Shakespeare never had to face 200 emails in a day.
The Stoics, as far as I know, were not on Facebook.
We all know that in our on-demand lives,
one of the things that's most on demand
Wherever we are, any time of night or day,
our bosses, junk-mailers, our parents can get to us.
Sociologists have actually found that in recent years
Americans are working fewer hours than 50 years ago,
but we feel as if we're working more.
We have more and more time-saving devices,
but sometimes, it seems, less and less time.
We can more and more easily make contact with people
on the furthest corners of the planet,
but sometimes in that process
we lose contact with ourselves.
And one of my biggest surprises as a traveler
has been to find that often it's exactly the people
who have most enabled us to get anywhere
who are intent on going nowhere.
In other words, precisely those beings
who have created the technologies
that override so many of the limits of old,
are the ones wisest about the need for limits,
even when it comes to technology.
I once went to the Google headquarters
and I saw all the things many of you have heard about;
the indoor tree houses, the trampolines,
workers at that time enjoying 20 percent of their paid time free
so that they could just let their imaginations go wandering.
But what impressed me even more
was that as I was waiting for my digital I.D.,
one Googler was telling me about the program
that he was about to start to teach the many, many Googlers
who practice yoga to become trainers in it,
and the other Googler was telling me about the book that he was about to write
on the inner search engine,
and the ways in which science has empirically shown
that sitting still, or meditation,
can lead not just to better health or to clearer thinking,
but even to emotional intelligence.
I have another friend in Silicon Valley
who is really one of the most eloquent spokesmen
for the latest technologies,
and in fact was one of the founders of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly.
And Kevin wrote his last book on fresh technologies
without a smartphone or a laptop or a TV in his home.
And like many in Silicon Valley,
he tries really hard to observe
what they call an Internet sabbath,
whereby for 24 or 48 hours every week
they go completely offline
in order to gather the sense of direction
and proportion they'll need when they go online again.
The one thing perhaps that technology hasn't always given us
is a sense of how to make the wisest use of technology.
And when you speak of the sabbath,
look at the Ten Commandments --
there's only one word there for which the adjective "holy" is used,
and that's the Sabbath.
I pick up the Jewish holy book of the Torah --
its longest chapter, it's on the Sabbath.
And we all know that it's really one of our greatest luxuries,
the empty space.
In many a piece of music, it's the pause or the rest
that gives the piece its beauty and its shape.
And I know I as a writer
will often try to include a lot of empty space on the page
so that the reader can complete my thoughts and sentences
and so that her imagination has room to breathe.
Now, in the physical domain, of course, many people,
if they have the resources,
will try to get a place in the country, a second home.
I've never begun to have those resources,
but I sometimes remember that any time I want,
I can get a second home in time, if not in space,
just by taking a day off.
And it's never easy because, of course, whenever I do I spend much of it
worried about all the extra stuff
that's going to crash down on me the following day.
I sometimes think I'd rather give up meat or sex or wine
than the chance to check on my emails.
And every season I do try to take three days off on retreat
but a part of me still feels guilty to be leaving my poor wife behind
and to be ignoring all those seemingly urgent emails
from my bosses
and maybe to be missing a friend's birthday party.
But as soon as I get to a place of real quiet,
I realize that it's only by going there
that I'll have anything fresh or creative or joyful to share
with my wife or bosses or friends.
I'm just foisting on them my exhaustion or my distractedness,
which is no blessing at all.
And so when I was 29,
I decided to remake my entire life
in the light of going nowhere.
One evening I was coming back from the office,
it was after midnight, I was in a taxi driving through Times Square,
and I suddenly realized that I was racing around so much
I could never catch up with my life.
And my life then, as it happened,
was pretty much the one I might have dreamed of as a little boy.
I had really interesting friends and colleagues,
I had a nice apartment on Park Avenue and 20th Street.
I had, to me, a fascinating job writing about world affairs,
but I could never separate myself enough from them
to hear myself think --
or really, to understand if I was truly happy.
And so, I abandoned my dream life
for a single room on the backstreets of Kyoto, Japan,
which was the place that had long exerted a strong,
really mysterious gravitational pull on me.
Even as a child
I would just look at a painting of Kyoto and feel I recognized it;
I knew it before I ever laid eyes on it.
But it's also, as you all know,
a beautiful city encircled by hills,
filled with more than 2,000 temples and shrines,
where people have been sitting still for 800 years or more.
And quite soon after I moved there, I ended up where I still am
with my wife, formerly our kids,
in a two-room apartment in the middle of nowhere
where we have no bicycle, no car,
no TV I can understand,
and I still have to support my loved ones
as a travel writer and a journalist,
so clearly this is not ideal for job advancement
or for cultural excitement
or for social diversion.
But I realized that it gives me what I prize most,
which is days
I have never once had to use a cell phone there.
I almost never have to look at the time,
and every morning when I wake up,
really the day stretches in front of me
like an open meadow.
And when life throws up one of its nasty surprises,
as it will, more than once,
when a doctor comes into my room
wearing a grave expression,
or a car suddenly veers in front of mine on the freeway,
I know, in my bones,
that it's the time I've spent going nowhere
that is going to sustain me much more
than all the time I've spent racing around to Bhutan or Easter Island.
I'll always be a traveler --
my livelihood depends on it --
but one of the beauties of travel
is that it allows you to bring stillness
into the motion and the commotion of the world.
I once got on a plane in Frankfurt, Germany,
and a young German woman came down and sat next to me
and engaged me in a very friendly conversation
for about 30 minutes,
and then she just turned around
and sat still for 12 hours.
She didn't once turn on her video monitor,
she never pulled out a book, she didn't even go to sleep,
she just sat still,
and something of her clarity and calm really imparted itself to me.
I've noticed more and more people taking conscious measures these days
to try to open up a space inside their lives.
Some people go to black-hole resorts
where they'll spend hundreds of dollars a night
in order to hand over their cell phone and their laptop
to the front desk on arrival.
Some people I know, just before they go to sleep,
instead of scrolling through their messages
or checking out YouTube,
just turn out the lights and listen to some music,
and notice that they sleep much better
and wake up much refreshed.
I was once fortunate enough
to drive into the high, dark mountains behind Los Angeles,
where the great poet and singer
and international heartthrob Leonard Cohen
was living and working for many years as a full-time monk
in the Mount Baldy Zen Center.
And I wasn't entirely surprised
when the record that he released at the age of 77,
to which he gave the deliberately unsexy title of "Old Ideas,"
went to number one in the charts in 17 nations in the world,
hit the top five in nine others.
Something in us, I think, is crying out
for the sense of intimacy and depth that we get from people like that.
who take the time and trouble to sit still.
And I think many of us have the sensation,
I certainly do,
that we're standing about two inches away from a huge screen,
and it's noisy and it's crowded
and it's changing with every second,
and that screen is our lives.
And it's only by stepping back, and then further back,
and holding still,
that we can begin to see what the canvas means
and to catch the larger picture.
And a few people do that for us by going nowhere.
So, in an age of acceleration,
nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow.
And in an age of distraction,
nothing is so luxurious as paying attention.
And in an age of constant movement,
nothing is so urgent as sitting still.
So you can go on your next vacation
to Paris or Hawaii, or New Orleans;
I bet you'll have a wonderful time.
But, if you want to come back home alive and full of fresh hope,
in love with the world,
I think you might want to try considering going nowhere.