Pico Iyer on “the Art of Stillness”: How to Enrich Your Busy, Distracted Life by Unplugging and Staying Put

Hav­ing known Pico Iyer for quite some time, on paper and in per­son, as a per­pet­u­al exam­ple and occa­sion­al men­tor in the writ­ing of place, it delights me to watch him attract more lis­ten­ers than ever with the talks he’s giv­en in recent years, the most pop­u­lar of which advo­cate some­thing called “still­ness.” But at first I won­dered: did this shift in sub­ject mean that Iyer—a Cal­i­for­nia-grown Brit from an Indi­an fam­i­ly who most­ly lives in Japan (“a glob­al vil­lage on two legs,” as he once called him­self), known for books like Video Night in Kath­man­duFalling off the Map, and The Glob­al Soulhad put his sig­na­ture hard-trav­el­ing ways behind him?

Hard­ly. But he did start telling the world more about his long-stand­ing habit of rou­tine­ly seek­ing out the most qui­et, least “con­nect­ed” places he can—the sea­side no-speech-allowed Catholic her­mitage, the rur­al vil­lage out­side Kyoto—in order to reflect upon the time he has spent cir­cling the globe, trans­pos­ing him­self from cul­ture to alien cul­ture. “24 years ago, I took the most mind-bend­ing trip across North Korea,” he tells us, “but the trip last­ed a few days. What I’ve done with it sit­ting still—going back to it in my head, try­ing to under­stand it, find­ing a place for it in my thinking—that’s last­ed 24 years already, and will prob­a­bly last a life­time.”

If we want to fol­low Pico’s exam­ple, we must strike a bal­ance: we must process the time we spend doing some­thing intensely—traveling, writ­ing, pro­gram­ming, lift­ing weights, what have you—with time spent not doing that some­thing, a pur­suit in its own way as intense. He con­nects all this with the 21st-cen­tu­ry tech­nol­o­gy cul­ture in which we find our­selves, cit­ing the exam­ple of folks like Wired co-founder Kevin Kel­ly and even cer­tain enlight­en­ment-mind­ed Googlers who reg­u­lar­ly and rig­or­ous­ly detach them­selves from cer­tain kinds of mod­ern devices, going “com­plete­ly offline in order to gath­er the sense of direc­tion and pro­por­tion they’ll need when they go online again.”

Achiev­ing such a prop­er intel­lec­tu­al, psy­cho­log­i­cal, social, and tech­no­log­i­cal com­part­men­tal­iza­tion in life may seem like a rare trick to pull off. But if you ever doubt its pos­si­bil­i­ty, just revis­it the last talk from Pico we fea­tured, in which he describes his encounter with Leonard Cohen, the only man alive who has suc­cess­ful­ly com­bined the lifestyles of rock star and Zen monk.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Best Writ­ing Advice Pico Iyer Ever Received

Pico Iyer on “The Joy of Less”

How Leonard Cohen’s Stint As a Bud­dhist Monk Can Help You Live an Enlight­ened Life

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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