RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Pico Iyer has spent the past several decades on the move, incessantly hopping from one far-flung destination – Ethiopia, Morocco, Indonesia – to another. But the globetrotting travel writer is now convinced the most exciting place to go is nowhere at all.
In his new book “The Art of Stillness,” the British-born, California-raised son of Indian parents preaches sitting quietly in one place as an antidote to our constantly-connected, multi-tasking, airport-hopping lifestyles.
Iyer, 57, a Time Magazine journalist, shot to international fame with his 2000 book “The Global Soul,” which chronicled the emergence of a new breed he dubbed “transnationals” – people who all but live in airports, have addresses on different continents and carry several passports and multiple currencies in their pockets at all times. After years of living the sort of rootless existence he so deftly described in the book, Iyer began to feel the need to slow down like a nagging itch.
“It was gradual. I noticed I had 1.5 million miles on United Airlines alone, so I thought, ‘I’ve got plenty of movement in my life,”’ he said in an interview in Rio de Janeiro, where he spoke at a TED conference last month. “I need stillness.”
Iyer’s move some 15 years ago to a remote village in Japan, where he lives with his wife and children but without a cellphone, car, bike, or television in a language he understands, and with only sporadic email access, helped him step away from the fray.
“The longer I’m in rural Japan, the more I end up in the 13th century,” he said. “The rest of the world is surging forward, and I’m there and I’ve never heard of Facebook or smartphones or Skype or any of that.”
While this chosen isolation might seem counterintuitive for someone who still makes his living as a travel writer – Iyer acknowledged that being hard to reach has infuriated many an editor over the years – he insisted it enriches both his life and his work by giving him the time and the space necessary to process, digest and reflect on experience.
“We’re very different people when we’re running from one plane to the next appointment to the next email and we can only keep gathering fragments but never get any deeper than that,” he said. “I can feel inside myself that spending time very quietly is like the construction of a house that then you can go and inhabit, rather than always running on quicksand, which I feel that more and more of us are doing now.”
A heartfelt manifesto to the benefits of ditching the cellphone and snipping up the frequent flier card, “The Art of Stillness” is anything but a self-help book or how-to guide for achieving inner peace.
“I’ve never meditated in my life, I don’t practice yoga nor any religion,” Iyer said. “I’m a tourist on the realm of stillness. I can tell people a little of this foreign country but I don’t live there, don’t speak the language.”
In the book, he profiles uncontested masters of stillness, from Matthieu Ricard, a Frenchman with a Ph.D. in molecular biology who ditched a promising scientific career to become a Tibetan monk, to revered singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who traded the pleasures of the senses for several years of living the near-silent life of meditation as a Zen monk.
“Leonard Cohen had been my hero since I was a teenager,” said Iyer. “Probably because he seemed glamorous and he was always travelling around and had beautiful girlfriends and wrote so wonderfully. And then to encounter a man who’s had all that and says nothing compares to the adventure of stillness, says it’s the most voluptuous entertainment.
“That made a big impression” – one that would lead Iyer to a retreat at a Benedictine hermitage to which he’s returned year after year.
“When I began travelling, when I would tell people about going to Tibet or going to Cuba or India, their eyes would really light up,” Iyer said. “Now, I notice that their eyes really light up when I talk about going nowhere, or going offline.”
“The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere” hits bookstores in the United States Tuesday.