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Back to Stories

Friends of Six Senses with Pico Iyer

Highly acclaimed travel writer and TED talker Pico Iyer joined Wellness Pioneer Anna Bjurstam to share the joys of travel and stillness and the intertwined spheres of the inner and the outer world.

Becoming a travel writer

Born and schooled in England to parents from India who then moved to California, by the time Pico Iyer was nine, traveling between continents was a natural part of life.

“By the time I arrived at university, I knew that nothing I would learn in the classroom could quite compare with the excitement of meeting the world first hand.”

He counts Cuba as his favorite place. For him it is the most emotionally complicated and rich place, the most exuberant and sad, the most beautiful and dilapidated, the most passionate and the most disenchanted.

“It ended up inside me like a song I couldn’t get out of my head. Every time I came back from Cuba, I felt I knew less than before. Almost compulsively in the late 1980s and early 1990s when no one from the West was going to Cuba, I would return again and again.”

Pico has spent 46 years talking and traveling with the Dalai Lama. Whenever the Dalai Lama comes to California, he usually spends time at big fundraisers in Beverly Hills surrounded by billionaires and movie stars. People often ask him how he manages to live in India where there is so much material poverty and suffering.

“He will look around this ballroom in Beverly Hills where many people are on their sixth or seventh marriages or paying a lot of money to a therapist every day and say, ‘well, there is poverty and poverty’. Many of us in the affluent world go to India or Tibet or Cuba or Ethiopia is that they are rich in the ways we are poor. There is a sense of community, sometimes a sense of faith, and a closeness to tradition that can sustain places more fundamentally than the checkbook.”

Travel is only as rich as the attention you bring to the place around you

Every November for the last 10 years, the Dalai Lama goes to Japan, where Pico now lives. Pico sits in on his private audiences and sees first hand how this great global traveler remains wide awake.

“One of the most exciting things about traveling with the Dalai Lama is that he has two questions. One, is what can I learn from this place? And two, what can I give to this place? That’s a very good model for what I would aspire to when I am traveling.”

For Pico, travel is only as rich as the attention you bring to the place around you, turning all your senses to “on”. We’re all guilty of sleepwalking through life, knowing how the routine of the day is going to go. But with travel, you know you will be surprised every moment. And there’s no need to fear what’s around the next corner or getting lost.

“When we are lost we find what we never thought to look for. I travel not to leave my home but to leave my habits behind so that I’m not sleepwalking. This virus period has jolted me out of my usual routine and into this sense of ‘wide awakeness’. My wife and I have lived in the same little apartment in Japan for 27 years but for the first time ever we have started to take walks. And there, three blocks away from our flat, is an extraordinary bamboo forest with flowering cherry trees and nightingales teaching their young to sing.”

We’re living in this strange age where reality is often virtual, intelligence is artificial and news is fake so embracing the world unmediated by screens is more valuable than ever. Pico shares that the more we can experience the world first hand, the more we understand the complexity. Travel is indispensible, and in the global neighborhood it is a necessity, as we need to tell each other who we are and we can’t do that at a distance or via Skype.

The value of stillness

Pico believes that the virus, while we’re aware of the difficulties it is bringing us in the short term, can help us move back to being the people we’ve wanted to be all along. It is a wake up call. We may say that we don’t have time to take a walk or keep up with friends or listen to music but many people have suddenly found that time and rediscovered how sustaining this is during this time.

“Stillness is where we gather our inner savings. This moment where we have been under lockdown is actually when we’re not making a living so much, in my case, but where we’re making a life. During this period of enforced retreat, many of us have been recalling what we really love, and it doesn’t have to do with our job or checkbook or resume, it is something intangible. Many of us have been in a pattern for a few years and haven’t had the chance to think about whether it is healthy or questioned where we are happiest and most productive.”

Although Pico doesn’t have a meditation practice, he does take time to step back from the world. Since 1992, he has spent three days each season at a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur, California. He emerges happy, creative and refreshed.

“We have all of these recharging devices all around us in the airports but what we most need to recharge is ourselves. One beauty of this monastery for me is that for 72 hours there is no telephone, no television and no internet. And that alone turns my head from a congested subway corridor to a huge open meadow in which I can really see the proportions of the world and allow many things more to come in to me than when I am racing from one appointment to the next.” 

With the three percent rule in mind, he now gives himself 20 minutes a day without distractions or devices to sit quietly or go for a walk. It clarifies and illuminates the other 97 percent of his waking day.

Ping pong is a life lesson

In Japan, ping pong is both a sport and an art. It has taught Pico that the objective is not about winning or even the destination but appreciating the journey you are on. You play with your opponent not against them.

The opposite of winning is not losing but failing to see the bigger picture.

“We always plays doubles and choose partners by lots every six minutes. So you may lose then win. Nobody is keeping score of who is winning all the games so after 90 minutes of furious play, no one knows who ultimately comes out ahead. The game is about everybody around us ending up as happy as possible, rather than half of the people delighted they have won and half aggravated because they have lost.”

Japan is a very competitive society without having competition. Everyone is trying their hardest with the view to making everyone around them happy. Japan functions like a symphony orchestra and the result is a harmonious whole. Together you have created something extraordinary.

Pico has written a whole book about ping pong, but the heart of it is that if you always want to come out ahead, you will lose. There will never be any ending or true fulfillment.

As a writer, he believes, that if you write a sentence that surprises you, you have won. It doesn’t even matter if that sentence goes out into the world or not. Somehow you have done something you didn’t do yesterday, and your day is complete.

Bipgraphy

Pico Iyer was born in Oxford, England in 1957. Since 1982 he has been a full-time writer, publishing 15 books, translated into 23 languages, on subjects ranging from the Dalai Lama to globalism, from the Cuban Revolution to Islamic mysticism. Both his 2008 meditation on the XIVth Dalai Lama, The Open Road, and his TED Book, The Art of Stillness, were best sellers across the US. Outside magazine called him "arguably the greatest living travel-writer," and the New Yorker said, "As a guide to far-flung places, he can hardly be surpassed."

An essayist for TIME since 1986, Iyer is a constant contributor the New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Harper's, Granta and more than 200 other newspapers and magazines worldwide, and he has published introductions to 70 other works.

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