For more than 31 years, Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer, better known as Pico Iyer, has been regularly visiting New Camaldoli, a Benedictine hermitage along California’s Big Sur coastline, staying there sometimes for two days, often for up to three weeks. ‘I’ve stayed there I think 98 times,’ says the much-travelled essayist and author, in an exclusive interview with Friday, on the sidelines of the Sharjah International Book Fair late last year.
Ninety-eight times? But why? I ask, surprised that anyone would keep returning to spend inordinate spans of time in a place where newspapers, phones and internet are no-nos, and socialising while not banned is largely absent.
‘Why did I go there? First, because I felt that monks more than anybody else, are professionals in learning how to live, learning how to love and learning how to die – things all of us need to learn,’ he says.
While he has written quite a bit about his experiences during his sojourns to this monastery (and in others in Japan, Australia and England), the 65-year-old writer admits that one thing that has perhaps had the greatest impact on him is that ‘silence is my teacher.
‘I feel so much calmer when there’s silence; not just an absence of noise, but almost a physical, discreet, positive, distinct presence. The more I can unclutter my mind, the more it can be filled with beautiful things around me.’
The days he spent in silence and introspection, he says, ‘reminded me of the luxury of slowing down. And the fact that the fewer things there are in my head, the more I’m likely to be happy.’
Pico (his parents are said to have named him after the famed Italian Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola of Italy) is the author of more than 15 books, almost all of them related to travel. (And one, interestingly, about stillness; we’ll come to that soon.)
A self-declared ‘global village on legs’, Pico was born in England to Indian parents, then immigrated with his family to California when very young, later studied at Eton and Oxford before marrying Hiroko Takeuchi, a Japanese.
When not crisscrossing the globe from Tibet to North Korea, Ethiopia to Kathmandu, and Zanzibar to California (where his mother has a house), he spends his time in Japan where he lives with Hiroko ‘in a tiny two-room apartment’ in Nara. (His The Lady and the Monk, was a memoir and a reflection of the bond he shares with Hiroko.)
A long-time essayist for Time magazine, Pico has received rave reviews for his books. While the Los Angeles Times said his works had an “exquisite personal blend of philosophy and engagement, inner quiet and worldly life” and labelled him “the rightful heir to Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, and company”, Outside magazine described him as “arguably our greatest living travel writer’’.
Although an avid traveller, he admits to discovering several splendid sights quite literally in his backyard after he was forced to hang up his travel boots, albeit temporarily, during the pandemic lockdown.
‘Yes, [the pandemic meant] much less travel and much more writing,’ he says, although he occasionally shuttled between California and Japan.
He travelled to a few more places. The author was in Antarctica just as the pandemic was breaking out; then in Zanzibar when the Omicron virus began going viral. ‘But [in the midst of it all] the great blessing I found was the wonders in my backyard which, like many of us, I had taken for granted.’
Despite spending a lot of time in his parents’ home in California, he realised he had never walked down the road that ran in front of the house. ‘So I started taking walks because I needed to get exercise. And I realised where my mother lives up in the hills, with the ocean on one side and mountains on the other, is as beautiful as almost any place on the planet, but I’d never thought of looking at it until recently.’
He continued his practice of going for walks when he returned to his apartment in Japan – his home (though he is unlikely to use that term) for the last 29 years. ‘Again, my wife and I never thought of walking five minutes down the main road,’ he says, a walk that would take them to bamboo forests and flowering cherry trees, murmuring rivulets, quaint little bridges and more.
‘So it was a reminder that you don’t have to travel far to find wonder and beauty. It reminded me of what I gain when I’m sitting still and why it’s wonderful to be able to travel again now.’
THE BENEFITS OF STILLNESS
For an author who pretty much makes a living from travel writing, Pico, ironically, enjoys – even celebrates – stillness.
‘If you look at it superficially, the liberation of going to a monastery or going on any retreat is that you’re free of telephone, the internet, the TV. But I love going there not because of all the things that aren’t there (like those three), but really what is there. The fact that I wake up to the beauty around me – an ocean view, hills behind me, the sun falling in the garden, a rabbit scurrying across the garden… I watch them all transfixed,’ he says, taking a moment to look out the window behind him thoughtfully.
When it comes to views, he says his mother’s house is quite similar to the monastery. ‘But while there, I never thought of looking at the stars or watching a rabbit or just sitting still’.
In fact so taken up is Pico about the beauty of quietude that in his The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, he describes stillness as “a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it’’.
Clearly, the benefits of remaining still long enough to learn more about oneself are immense – something philosophers for millennia have been telling anyone who paused long enough to listen to them.
Socrates, for instance, said that philosophy begins with wonder and wonder is rooted in stillness.
Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life, said the Vietnamese monk Thich Naht Hahn.
More recently, Deepak Chopra advised: ‘In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.’
Practising stillness is something yoga practitioners have been doing for aeons to, among other things, ground themselves in the present. They perhaps realised that in many ways, bliss can be found in going nowhere but within ourselves.
Pico knows it only too well. Hurrying around trying to find happiness outside ourselves is akin to a person who, having lost a key in his living room, goes out into the street to look for it because there’s more light there, Pico once wrote in a blogpost.
‘If your car is broken, you don’t try to find ways to repaint its chassis; most of our problems – and therefore our solutions, our peace of mind – lie within,’ he says.
You enjoy travelling – and writing about it – so what led you to write a book about stillness? I ask.
Pico smiles as he mulls over the question for a moment.
‘One reason for that – and you will appreciate it as a writer – is that you’re spending most of your life sitting still,’ he says. ‘For every two weeks I spend in Antarctica, I spend probably two months in my little flat in Japan writing. So, at some level, writing is the least mobile and glamorous of professions; the process is mostly about sitting still.’
He admits that while it’s exciting to get the stimulation of movement, ‘we’re really only moved or transformed when we’re sitting still [reflecting] on a memory or engaging in some intimate conversation’.
While on the subject of stillness, I remind him of a line I enjoyed reading in his book The Autumn Light: ‘‘Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying.’’
Pico smiles in acknowledgement, then in a rejoinder of sorts says: ‘There’s a line towards the end [of the book] in which I say the fact that nothing lasts is the reason that everything matters.
‘I wrote that just before the pandemic but I think the pandemic really brought that home to us– that we can’t count on anything. You and I can’t predict with confidence what’s going to happen tonight or even tomorrow. And precisely because of that uncertainty, we have to make the most of where we are right now.’
Pico believes it is important to give fully to everything that’s happening, especially to the people and things one loves, ‘because I don’t know how much I will last, how long those I love will last, and how long those places will last. And so suddenly we realise, sometimes too late, that we wish we had paid more attention to [something that we lost forever].’
To drive home his point, he recalls an incident that occurred while he was writing his first book, Video Nights in Kathmandu. ‘I was travelling across Tibet at the time when I heard somebody say, ‘it’s much better to dig one well that’s 60 foot deep, than 10 wells that are six-feet deep each. And I think that’s sort of the secret of attention. Put simply, I’d much rather have a rich, three-hour conversation with a friend than 30-minute conversations with six people.’
IT’S ABOUT CHOICES
In a sense, it is all about the choices we make– whether to have a lot of very fleeting experiences every day, or a few that really enrich and, perhaps, transform us.
While on the topic of choices, I ask him about an essay he wrote on his travels in Cuba that details a Cuban who is desperate to go to the US to realise his dream of making it big. Wasn’t that man’s desire also about choices? I ask.
‘Yes,’ agrees Pico, recalling the incident that led to the essay.
It was the late 80s and Pico was staying in a room across the street from the University of Havana in Cuba. During his tours of the city he often met with the youth to get to know their views and opinions, and the country better.
One day, Pico met a young man who told him about his brother who had moved to the US several years ago.
‘My brother is in California. He lives in a mansion, with a swimming pool and tennis courts,’ he told me, says Pico. ‘Please, please can you take a letter to my brother on my behalf because I’m really hoping he can do something, anything, to take me from Cuba and get me to the land of the free.’
The man’s plea was not uncommon, recalls Pico, who would often get requests from Cubans to carry letters to the US and post it to their relatives who were settled there. ‘I used to send lots of these letters,’ recalls the author. ‘Some of the letters would come back to me with a stamp saying ‘Addressee not known’.
‘But for the very first time, I received a reply; from the brother of the Cuban who had told me he was desperate to visit the US.’
‘Dear Pico,’ the letter started. ‘I am so happy to hear from you. I think about my brother. I think about Havana all the time. I don’t know if he knows my circumstances here, or if you do, but I’m in San Quentin prison and I’m on death row. And I’m really, really hoping my brother in Cuba can do something, anything, to rescue me and get me back to Cuba. I miss him.’
Pico is silent for a moment, allowing me to grasp the import of the anecdote.
‘The two brothers,’ says the writer, ‘are separated by only 90 miles. Yet neither knew the first thing about the other’s circumstances and, more pointedly, each was looking to the other to be rescued.
‘The Cuban I had met who assumed his brother was living the high American life as he sees it from Havana, was actually in jail. And the person in jail was assuming that Havana was just the place he wanted to be in. ‘We say that we’re living in a small world, but in some ways, the distance is as great as I’ve ever been, sometimes greater.’
Pico says that a reason he wrote about the incident was because ‘it upended my assumptions about living in a small world. And it reminded me just how much we have to learn’.
Pico Iyer's most recent book is The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise