Thursday, April 1, 2010

Pico Iyer and the Coming of the Fourth World

One of my favorite writers, the brilliant essayist and travel writer, Pico Iyer, was in Portland last night. He spoke to an appreciative crowd at the University of Portland, covering topics ranging from his travels across the world, his insights from 30 years of covering the Dalai Lama, and his time in contemplative silence - what he calls his “drug of choice” – stillness.

My first introduction to Pico Iyer was when I read his remarkable essay Ethiopia: Prayers in the Wilderness which is published in Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions. His writing immediately transported me into the spirituality and the heartbreak of that iconic landscape and people:

“We drove out of Addis…and within minutes, we found ourselves in an utterly different world: a Stone Age world, almost, of antique figures and shawled old crones and donkeys who seemed to have walked in from the Book of Kings. . . .I had only to look at the ancient Phoenician script on my visa, with its air of old parchment and sacred Coptic texts, to realize that I was traveling into antiquity. . . . Lalibela, like all the truly sacred places in the world, is distinguished, in fact, by all the things you cannot see: most of all, the silence, the sense of spun calm as luminous and clear as glass polished by forty generations and more of worship. You sit in the cool darkness of a church, light streaming through the cross-shaped windows, the sound of murmured prayers all around you, and you leave the world you know. And enter one you had forgotten you inhabited.”

Iyer, when not traveling, divides his time between living in Japan and resides part of the year in a monastery in California. Last night he began his talk by speaking about his interest in movement and stillness. He said “only when you step out of your life, can you figure out what to do with your life.” He noted that 20 years ago we were desperate for more knowledge. Now, it is as if there is too much and something in the human spirit craves stillness. We need time to “unplug ourselves.” We need to find who we are “beneath the clutter – to find the voice in the stillness.” He said that he feels that the time he spends in silence is somehow his “real life.” He acknowledged that it is possible to be clear on top of the mountain, however, how do we bring that clarity of stillness back into the world and down into the streets? He said that there is one person he has met who he sees has that ability to bring the stillness into the world of movement: the Dalai Lama.

Iyer has spent time with the Dalai Lama over the past 30 years and in 2008, published his book The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Iyer said last night that the first thing that struck him about the Dalai Lama is that “he is not a dreamer – he is a hyper-realist – a rare political being always looking at the present moment.”

Iyer told a humorous anecdote of the time when the Dalai Lama said to him that he “had an addiction.” Iyer said he was taken aback – “the Dalai Lama had an addiction?” The Dalai Lama said yes, it was true – he was addicted to the BBC World Service! Each day he does 4 hours of meditation but makes time to listen in to the BBC news so that he can keep track of events happening in the world.

Iyer said that the Dalai Lama travels almost as an “anti-missionary.” Wherever he travels, the Dalai Lama tells people to “remain in their own tradition.” Iyer said that one of the things that has most impressed him about the Dalai Lama is that when he fled Tibet in 1959, arriving in India suffering from dysentery, the first thing he said was “now we are free.” Iyer noted that the Dalai Lama did not focus on the loss – he focused on the opportunity that he saw for the Tibetan people. Iyer said that in exile, the Dalai Lama has been able to bring Tibetans into the modern world in a way that would have been impossible had he stayed in Tibet. He has even made up a constitution that would allow them to impeach the Dalai Lama!

Iyer said it was a powerful lesson – to not mourn what you have lost, but to focus on the opportunity that change brings. Iyer read to us a poignant essay he wrote on the personal loss of his family home in Santa Barbara to wildfire. Iyer lost manuscripts of books that he had yet to publish and many personal family items. Asked by an audience member, what opportunity he had gained in that experience, Iyer pointed out that the fire had forced him to become a better writer – to delve into the world of being a novelist – something he had been too timid to do prior to losing the manuscripts. The fire had destroyed a manuscript and all of his notes for a book that he had written on Cuba. He said that he had been the type of writer that relied too much on his notes. Without the manuscript, he realized that he had to approach the writing from a different perspective and hence came his novel: Cuba and the Night.

A writer for Time Magazine for 27 years, Iyer was born in England of Indian parents who moved to California when he was a young boy. His parents left him in boarding school in England to complete his studies and so began his life of constant travel. Iyer says that he considers himself a “citizen of the future.” Not because of any more knowledge that he has, but because of the strong sense he has of his own multicultural being. He says that young people today are much more multicultural than his own generation. He noted that this is the age of the refugee and that home is portable. In this he says that he sees a “fourth world coming to life.” That home is a metaphysical place, that “home is no longer a piece of soil, but rather, a piece of your own soul.”

Iyer spoke of the importance of being “citizen ambassadors” to places that we travel to. He said that writers can perform “citizen diplomacy” and can “dream themselves into the other.” He also noted that as the world becomes more internationalized, so too is the rise of nationalism real, making the need for being an ambassador even more compelling so that we can “humanize abstractions.”

In an essay titled Why We Travel, on the website, Iyer says:

“Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology. And in the process, we also get saved from abstraction ourselves, and come to see how much we can bring to the places we visit, and how much we can become a kind of carrier pigeon -- an anti-Federal Express, if you like -- in transporting back and forth what every culture needs. I find that I always take Michael Jordan posters to Kyoto, and bring woven ikebana baskets back to California; I invariably travel to Cuba with a suitcase piled high with bottles of Tylenol and bars of soap, and come back with one piled high with salsa tapes, and hopes, and letters to long-lost brothers.

"But more significantly, we carry values and beliefs and news to the places we go, and in many parts of the world, we become walking video screens and living newspapers, the only channels that can take people out of the censored limits of their homelands. In closed or impoverished places, like Pagan or Lhasa or Havana, we are the eyes and ears of the people we meet, their only contact with the world outside and, very often, the closest, quite literally, they will ever come to Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton. Not the least of the challenges of travel, therefore, is learning how to import -- and export -- dreams with tenderness.”

See Pico Iyer's article "Radar of Compassion" on the Dalai Lama in the May 2010 edition of Shambhala Sun magazine.


  1. Pico Ayer's presentation at Calabash Literary Festival 2009 blew me away. He is a brilliant speaker apart from outstanding essayist and travel writer.

    Thanks much for this added info on him.



  2. Hi Yvonne, thanks for checking out the post. I had seen that he was on the line up for last year's Calabash and glad to hear that you were able to see him speak. I agree that he is an excellent speaker...

  3. Funny what gets us reading an author, isn't it? With such a lyrical name, I just had to check out Pico Iyer....and am rewarded by the breath of fresh insights that he brings to my reading.
    As a peripatetic language teacher, I often
    struggle with the blending of cultural values in the countries where I work. Working and living in Oman is a blessing that has served to dispel the blinkered attitudes towards Islamic values. Still, there are days when the differences can be jarring.

    Reading Iyer helps to flip that jarring note into an opportunity to expand into the 'Other'.
    Am currently savouring 'The Open Road'. In the opening quote taken from Walt Whitman he says that democracy is when two souls meet on the open road. I like that. There's hope when the political and the spiritual hold hands.
    Thanks Pico Iyer. And thanks to your parents for whatever moved them to bless you with your name!!

  4. To Anonymous:
    Thanks for sharing your thoughtful insights on reading Pico Iyer!