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Essayist and novelist Pico Iyer
Essayist and novelist Pico Iyer

‘This moment moves us to think about life and death’

  • Post the coronavirus pandemic, novelist Pico Iyer says empty streets might be less of a problem than empty minds. What matters is how alive you are
  • Those who take runs or practise yoga—or cook or sail or sew—are all practising stillness, and finding its fruits. Stillness is less about stopping movement than about stepping away from the world

BENGALURU : Essayist and novelist Pico Iyer says impermanence is a reality within which we have to find calm. Even in a world haunted by coronavirus. Iyer has lost 21 public engagements in the past few weeks; seen most of his “retirement" savings and funds depleted following his mother being rushed into the hospital. “But when I think of what my friends have been saying for the past decade or so—‘I don’t have time to do the things I love or even to remember what they are! I wish I weren’t on this accelerating roller-coaster that I never asked to get on and now don’t know how to get off!’—I think there’s a little good that can come out of a chance to reflect on where we’re going and how we might live with more thought and consideration," he said while describing what the world is going through now. Edited excerpts from an email conversation:

Around Nara (Japan), where you live, the cherry blossom blooms must have burst into colour. But the mood might not reflect the flush of pink?

In truth, the Japanese are unusually good at maintaining a cheerful face, if only because they’re very committed to giving heart to everyone around them, and they know that in times like this, we’re all to some degree in the same boat. No one is exempt from suffering or loss. So they carry themselves with great calm, and also with the wisdom that comes from having lived with impermanence for so long.

So to a striking degree, I’d say that my friends and neighbours have been as blue-skied as the spring afternoons around us these past few weeks, while going silently about their work, their walks, their duties as ever, even as the cherry blossoms flower against brilliant springtime skies.

Things have tightened up quite a lot here in the past few days, as a dramatic spike in coronavirus cases has been felt in all the cities, including the ones around Nara. And of course, the Japanese, whom I find to be naturally compassionate and selfless, are deeply worried about those in less fortunate circumstances, homeless or ill or without resources. But they know that all they can do is offer help without assuming they can control all the forces that are so much larger than we are.

While referring to travel, you have spoken about sights and insights. Now, as we see empty streets in nearly every corner of the world, what strikes you about places?

I have often said that it’s stillness that converts experience into meaning and turns mere sights into insights; travel is just one of the ways we gather experiences, as we gather vegetables and spices at a shop, to turn into a meal (our understanding of life) once we get back home and can sit still to process everything.

Put differently, I find it hard to be moved—or, therefore, transformed—when I’m racing around; one has to be still to begin to sift through things (as Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-winning economist, explains in his brilliant book, Thinking Fast And Slow). I have come to know this, in my tiny way, by sometimes travelling out into the world, to witness Yemen or North Korea or somewhere else in the news, and then realizing that it’s only the long time I spend back at my desk, going over my memories and trying to make sense of them, that gives the journey any value. Travel, in other words, is just the means to having more to dwell upon at home, when you’re sitting still.

Most of us know that the only riches that really help us are within. My 88-year-old mother was in hospital two weeks ago, and I was stranded, thanks to the virus, on the far side of the Pacific Ocean. I could feel again at that moment that all the trips I’d taken, all the books I’d read (or written), all the funds I’d collected: none of that would support her, or sustain me, beyond a certain point.

The only thing that would be of any help to either of us would be whatever clarity and kindness and sympathy I could offer, and that would come not from travelling, but from having sat still.

When I wrote a little essay for TED called The Art Of Stillness: Adventures In Going Nowhere, I was trying to suggest that empty streets might be less our problem these days than empty minds. It matters not how far you go, as Henry David Thoreau famously pointed out, the farthest commonly the worst; what matters is how alive you are. If you’re anxious or distracted or numb, Easter Island is going to transport you no farther than that chai shop down the street will.

In ‘the art of stillness’, you say, “sitting still is our workplace, sometimes our battlefield." is conquering solitude mainly about managing diversions and distractions?

I think I’d say that it’s less about “conquering" stillness—I believe the sentence you quote is about the writer’s life —than about making one’s peace with it. I suppose my intention in life is to make my peace with reality—to become friends with impermanence and difficulty and loss—because, as I write in my book Autumn Light, any battle with reality is a battle each one of us is destined to lose. And I deliberately used the word “battlefield" to acknowledge that stillness is not just a journey into sweetness and light (and no one would want enforced stillness of the kind that the invalids or the incarcerated or, in fact, millions of people laid low by the current crisis experience).

But yes, I’ve noticed people talk a lot these days about “cutting through the noise." Which suggests that there’s so much clamour around, we can’t hear ourselves think (or not think)… We can’t hear anything wiser than ourselves, we can’t hear what the world is saying to us and we can’t hear one another.

As you know, I have been going on retreat in a Benedictine hermitage every three months for 29 years now, just to clear my head and, as you say, to put myself out of the reach of distractions and deafening static. One of the great luxuries the place offers—though in “black hole resorts" people will pay huge amounts for the same privilege—is freedom from cell-phone contact, internet and television.

So every day lasts a thousand hours; I never feel rushed; and I think I can hear something much wiser than myself, which will always get drowned out when I’m in a traffic-jam or racing to answer emails. The silence washes me clean and sends me home with a much sharper sense of what I love, and therefore how I should live.

Of course it’s a rare blessing to be able to escape like this. I think all of us know the liberation that comes from taking a long walk, with nothing to do or nowhere specific to go; or to enjoy a long conversation with someone, with your cell-phones turned off. For me happiness comes with absorption—I’m happiest when I forget the time and forget myself in some intimate moment or while reading or listening to music or talking with a special friend—and I’m least happy when I’m “all over the place."

So stillness is a need, not a luxury pursuit?

It is a luxury, of course, to get to enjoy it quite a bit, but I feel it’s a necessity to try to get it a little. And, of course, so many of our neighbours across the planet are caught up in warfare, or living on the streets, or so oppressed with immediate concerns—of trying to find food to last till tomorrow—that stillness can seem the last thing they need to think about.

But even they will only be as clear as the choices they make, and even those in desperate conditions—often especially they—seem to find time to pray or to try to find what will give them strength and resolve as they try to make it to the next day.

I’m guessing that many readers of this newspaper go to a health-club or practice some kind of sport or exercise to ensure their muscles are strong and their body as vigorous as it can be. And of course those who take runs or practice yoga—or cook or sail or sew—are all practising stillness, and finding its fruits, in their own ways.

“Stillness," as defined in my book, is less about stopping movement than about stepping away from the world, the better to make sense of it and to gather one’s resources. But the more difficult your life, the more important it is to bring inner resources to it, and if sitting still is a way to activate those resources, its practice—however you define it—can never hurt us.

You met Leonard Cohen when he was spending time in a bare meditation hall. Can simplification of life and silence happen in the hustle of modern-day living?

I first met Leonard in 1995, when he was spending five and a half years living as an ordained Zen monk. One of the most celebrated singers and poets of our time, in his 60s, was devoting his time to scrubbing floors, shovelling snow and driving his aged abbot to the doctor!

And of course one of the fruits of that intense period of stillness (even though it involved work and menial labour and sometimes being in the meditation hall for more or less seven days and nights without a break) was that, when he started giving concerts again, at the age of 73, he was able to bring silence (and depth and intimacy) right into the hustle-bustle of the world, which is one reason why his six-year concert tour transformed so many lives and he became one of the most cherished recording artists on the planet.

But when I read your question, what I really think of is the 45 years I’ve been lucky enough to spend talking and travelling with the 14th Dalai Lama. For ten straight Novembers, I went all across Japan with him, by his side for every minute of his working day, having lunch with him daily, attending all his public lectures, of course, but also, thanks to his generosity, getting to sit in on his private audiences.

The Dalai Lama is one of the busiest people on the planet, his days spent in press conferences, on airplanes, giving talks before huge audiences, right in the thick of the swarming world. But part of what he gives us is exactly what your question highlights: an open-eyed kindness, a clear-sighted realism and a full-bodied attention that can come only from the silence of his spiritual practice.

Some would say that most of us can’t be like the Dalai Lama. But I would say that even if we spend 20 minutes collecting ourselves every morning, we’ll have that much more to bring to our usually quite congested and fractious lives. And His Holiness would say that the main teaching of the Buddha was that he was a human being in the very real world. So if we are impressed by what the Dalai Lama does, we’re essentially seeing a reflection of what most of us can begin to do, if only we turn our minds to it.

‘Autumn light’ reflects on the impermanence of life and inevitability of loss. how would you relate it to the grim reminder of these universal truths that we now face?

That’s a lovely question. As soon as I turned 50, I began working on a novel about a man who is given a very dark diagnosis, and not many months to live. I’m sure those notes and that manuscript will never go farther than my desk, but I thought it was an important thing for me to think about as I grow older.

This moment has dramatized the fact that we’re doing that right now, but I suspect we’re always living with uncertainty; a year ago, a year from now, I could never tell you with authority what will happen six hours from now, or six minutes.

So I wanted to use that book as a way to think about how to prepare for death and how to see impermanence not, in fact, as something grim, but rather as a reality within which I had to find my joy.

When I was young, I thought death was so terrifying—the end of all my beautiful plans and hopes! As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that what I most fear is the death of everyone around me: my mother, my wife, my kids. And that the real victims of my death will be anyone who misses me.

So I wanted to look head-on at that. I was telling a friend just yesterday that I’m very glad I know a Mac expert in a local shop who can help advise me on my computer and its quirks. And I’m very glad to have a consultant to help me file my taxes. When it comes to living, what I’m most grateful for are those wise beings who have devoted themselves to becoming experts in life, which is to say death: nuns and monks (like Leonard Cohen and the Dalai Lama and even, in her way, Emily Dickinson).

I’ve always felt that death will be most unsettling to those whom it catches unprepared; if this moment has moved us to think explicitly about life and death, and not just about Brad Pitt’s love life or the latest tweet from some Kardashian (or some president), then something good may have come out of it, for those lucky enough to emerge with lives somewhat intact.

When you wrote an essay about the comma about three decades ago, you said you were really talking about how the smallest things matter. Metaphorically speaking, is this pause a marker in our lives?

“Pause" is a perfect way to put it, and everyone who loves music knows that without a rest in a score, any concerto or symphony would be unlistenable. A pause is what allows us to digest experience, a pause is what gives us a chance to process what we’ve experienced, a pause is what allows us to collect ourselves, to remember our priorities and to return to the matter at hand with a much deeper sense of direction. I wrote that piece for Time magazine 32 years ago, during my first year in Japan, as a call to attention for myself, and a reminder of how a comma, which, as you say, is almost imperceptible, can mark all the difference between a joyful statement and a heartbroken one.

So yes indeed, I’ve never lost my faith, which Japan confirms every hour, that it’s the small things that ultimately determine our lives. Like anyone in his 60s, I’ve had my share of dramas and in Autumn Light, I describe the forest fire that wiped me clean of every last thing I own in the world, more or less ending my dreams of being a writer, the year my daughter spent in the hospital at 13 suffering from cancer, the death of parents and parents-in-law, all set against the backdrop of the near-fatal car crash I survived at 13,000ft in Bolivia.

Every one of those made a mark on my life; but it’s really the day-to-day, the 99% of our lives that is spent between the big skyscrapers of major events that decides whether we have any kindness or light to bring to the people around us.

This current moment may mark a pause, but for the fortunate few, who can emerge healthy and with a job and with enough financial resources, it’s a pause that allows people to take stock of what matters, to reorient themselves in a more considered direction and to wake up to the blessing—family, friends, time alone, good health—that so many of us take for granted as we race from one thing to the next, claiming that we don’t have time for anything deep or sustaining.

Jayanth Kodkani is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru

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