Author Pico Iyer is obsessed with the big questions of life. He’s written books about the Dalai Lama; about how to approach the end of life with grace; and about how to embrace silence and solitude.
Solitude, of course, has become a new way of life. The pandemic is forcing us to stay in. It’s uncomfortable, and sometimes unnerving being alone or with only a few people for this amount of time. But, according to Pico Iyer, it can also be a time of tremendous growth. He chatted with KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When we discuss isolation and silence, where does your mind go?
Pico Iyer: The first place it goes is to the last maybe 10 years where almost every time I see a friend, she or he will say, “I just don't have enough time. I wish I could see my friends more. I wish I had more time for my family. I wish I had a chance to take a walk or to read or to listen to music.” But the world is accelerating so much. I'm trying to keep up with this post-human speed. And it's not what really sustains us and makes us happy.
I found that the more I'm absorbed in something — [a] conversation, a piece of writing, listening to music — the happier I am. And the more my day is cut up into little text and soundbites and fragments, the more all over the place and rattled and unsettled I am. And if this moment gives us a chance for greater absorption, I think the fortunate who come out of this still healthy — and maybe still with a job and able to survive six months from now — will realize that it's brought them back to who they wanted to be.
You use the word absorption or we could use the word mindfulness. Whether it’s scientific studies or the teaching of contemplative traditions, it seems like this is the seat of human happiness.
Exactly, Jonathan. And I would say I would broaden it even beyond the great contemplative traditions to every wise person who's ever lived. If you read Shakespeare, you'll find him saying there's nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so. In other words, it's not what happens to us that's important, but what we do with it, how we respond to it. We can turn to Milton’s Paradise Lost, “The mind can make a heaven of hell or hell of heaven.” Again, it's not our circumstances that make heaven or hell, but who we are and what we bring to them. That's what the Stoics thought, as you suggest. That's what the Buddhists think.
I've been spending a lot of time this last couple of months with one of the great experts on the mind and solitude: Marcel Proust. And as I sit on my terrace reading about him in love, what he's always saying is that all of that is illusion and projection. So it's our mind that really is the tool that we can use either to turn this moment into something beautiful or just to get caught in our own tangles. Most of us, myself included, spend a lot of our time racing around to make a living, and we never have a chance to make a life. And I feel this moment is the time to make a life. That is something that's deep and internal and hard to measure. But it's what we leave behind us and it's what we bring to everything around us.
For those of us who want to use this time for contemplation or meditation, what advice would you have? What other writers come to mind?
It is painful and it isn't convenient. And it's like going to the dentist or taking my car in for an oil check. That's never fun. It always plays havoc with my day. And any writer especially knows when you're sitting alone, there's nowhere to hide. And some of the time, it's exhilaration and pure sunshine and some other time it's absolute loneliness and terror and kind of panic. But the difficult things in life are not going to go away just because you're not looking at them. My sense is that there are dark corners in the world; there are dark spaces in myself; there are problems in my life. And I would far rather address them in the comfort of sitting quietly at my desk or in my house than when I'm driving around Times Square, or when I'm in a plane flying across the world, which is the least useful circumstance for trying to address something important. Life is giving some of us a chance now to go into the difficult places.
I do go back to reading Henry David Thoreau again and again. He was a connoisseur of silence and how living in a small space, a little bit outside of your community, that's where you find wonder, epiphany, light. That's where you realize how many riches you have inside yourself. Just by attuning yourself to the rhythms of nature. I listened to Leonard Cohen a lot for the same reason because he was an ordained Zen monk for five and a half years. There he was in the 1960s, able to do anything, and he gave it all up to learn about how to live and how to die. I think his five years as a monk gave him a kind of passion, depth and intimacy that later he would bring to concert audiences on a six year tour in his 70s. People realized this is a wise person who's really worked hard to figure out how to say goodbye to everything, including himself.
You've referenced that you're in your 60s now. I wonder if you could tell me how your relationship to silence is changing versus when you were 30-years-old.
I'd say I'm ever more grateful for silence. I think when I was 30, I was, as most people are at 30 and as most people should be at 30, which is eager to taste the world, to learn about the world, to travel as far and as wide as I could meet as many people as possible. And I think that is essential. I never would have given that up for the world. But the more time goes on, the more one comes to appreciate old friends more than new friends, because old ones are really bringing a deep history with them to every conversation. And I reread books now instead of looking for new books and I revisit the places that I love. I would say the silence has always been a friend of mine. It's very nourishing. Just like the truest friends are.