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Travel writer Pico Iyer makes an ‘art of stillness’

Renowned travel writer talks to Brown community about calming down, finding home

In 1990, a California wildfire incinerated Pico Iyer’s family home. When Iyer reached safety, he filed a story about it for TIME magazine. Though he lost 15 years of notes and three of his unfinished books, Iyer managed to save one nearly completed manuscript and his cat, Minnie.

Now, at 62, the travel writer looks back on that inferno as the start of finding stillness in his life. Iyer’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, TIME, Vanity Fair and Granta, and his 13 books have been translated into 23 languages. During his talk and seminar hosted by the Cogut Institute last week, Iyer reflected on his journeys and how he has found stillness in modern life through solitary retreats and writing.

In a seminar the next morning, Iyer took questions about stillness and what it might look like at the University. In stillness, the mind is unoccupied and without deadlines to meet. “Anything that allows your mind to wander actually makes you more focused,” he said, adding that he has never had a meditation practice. Iyer acknowledged that college life challenges the practice of stillness and encouraged students to find a balance.

Iyer learned to balance his own frenetic globetrotting with experiences of stillness soon after the fire of 1990. With no home to return to, he spent months sleeping on his friend’s floor. In that period, another friend visited and told Iyer about retreats at a quiet Catholic monastery in Big Sur that had calmed down “even the most fidgety, phone-addicted and restless” of his high school students.

“Well, anything that works for a 15-year-old boy is probably ideal for me,” Iyer recalled thinking. Soon after, he drove several hours up Highway 1 and found the monastery. He spent three days alone in the quiet. “I felt happier, calmer and clearer than I could ever remember.”

Iyer found the religious side of his retreat “not ideal” but has since revisited the hermitage over 90 times without ever becoming Catholic. “I quickly saw that the place itself is not important,” he said. “What was important was my finding the resolve just to step out of my life.” By spending quiet time alone, Iyer has been able to return to his loved ones with joy and energy rather than anxiety.

Iyer anchored his lecture in the teachings of a hermit he met on a mountain in 1995. After Iyer pulled into the Mount Baldy Zen Center parking lot, he was met by a man he described as a “rather weathered figure in a ragged gown.” Soon, he discovered that the Zen monk before him was in fact his boyhood hero: Leonard Cohen.

Before that encounter, Iyer had idolized the singer and poet for his “his romantic lifestyle and his constant travels and his beautiful girlfriends.” But atop that mountain, Iyer was crushed. The 61-year-old Cohen told Iyer that the “real, deep excitement he had found in life, the profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment that the world had to offer,” came from looking after his friends.

After Iyer left the mountain, he realized, “Well, here is somebody who has enjoyed everything that the world has to offer, everything that sex and drugs and rock and roll can provide. And he had truly found his great adventure and fulfillment sitting still.”

Years later, Iyer visited Cohen again, this time at his house down the mountain. They sat together outside in Cohen’s garden, saying nothing. After a while, Iyer thought he should go, but Cohen asked him to stay. In that moment, Iyer realized that “words were the least of ways in which we could be friends.”

With people and with places, Iyer tries to see past language. In his travels that have spanned well over 80 countries, Iyer almost never speaks the native language. He can go a whole trip alone, rarely talking to anyone. When he arrives in a new place, he prefers to walk around by himself as much as he can for the first 48 hours. Iyer focuses on the scene around him: “I’ve just met this fascinating stranger, and I want to hear everything about her, and I have these precious hours to get to see her present herself to me in her sights, sounds, smells, all of that,” he said.

He focuses his work on the “human, individual and cultural” aspects of the countries he visits. “I try to go to places we hear a lot about but don’t know enough about, such as North Korea, Iran, Cuba,” Iyer said. “The writer has to stake out that ground that no camera or tape recorder can rival, and there still are those places.”

After a trip to Iran five years ago, which he called “the richest, most glamorous and surprising place” he had seen, Iyer felt ready to settle down. “I almost felt that’s brought my traveling life to an end,” he said. “All I want to do is travel at my desk and have enough time to write all the stuff that’s building up inside of me.”

For the first time in his life, Iyer now knows homesickness. At home in Nara, Japan, Iyer and his wife Hiroko Takeuchi have no car or bicycle, and Iyer spends his life in a five-square-block radius. “I never get bored, there’s never a shortage of things to see,” Iyer said. “I don’t speak much Japanese. I never would want to be Japanese. I’m not part of their community there. But in the deepest ways it feels like home.”

Each day at home, Iyer writes for five hours, reads, drinks tea and goes for walks. “And I play furious games of ping pong with my extremely elderly neighbors,” he added. “The silliness is more or less around the clock I would say.”

While the world around him is entertained by their devices, Iyer remains committed to a cell phone-free life. That annoys his editors, but his wife doesn’t mind. “That is his style,” Takeuchi said.

Iyer met his wife in the Zen Buddhist Tofukuji Temple in Kyoto, Japan — and they could hardly speak to one another. “I am so poor at English,” said Takeuchi, who has called Iyer her husband for the past 32 years. “I cannot read English. What he’s writing, I (have) no idea.”

But the language barrier seems to be no hindrance for Iyer and Takeuchi. “I genuinely feel I have more serious communication problems in California with the illusion of a common language,” Iyer said. “You know any relationship is basically founded on intangibles and the things you don’t need to speak about.”

Iyer closed his seminar Friday with an early story of the Dalai Lama, whose global journeys Iyer documented in his book “The Open Road.” Iyer’s father, a prominent philosopher at the University of Oxford, sailed to India to request a meeting with the Dalai Lama after his exile from Tibet in 1959.

At that meeting, Iyer’s father told the Dalai Lama about his three-year-old son, who was fascinated by a radio story on the Tibetan exile. Hearing this, the Dalai Lama found a photograph of himself when he was four years old — already king of Tibet — and sent it back to the young Iyer. The photograph ended up in a frame on Iyer’s desk in England and then in California after the family moved.

When the fire burnt away their home, and along with it the photo, Iyer realized, “Well, that’s what the Dalai Lama’s teaching is all about: impermanence.” Iyer said, “You can’t hold the photos or keepsakes or any of that, but if you can hold to what the photo signifies, which is again internal, about ways you can act in the world, that part is there with you for as long as you’re alive.”


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