The Difference Between Making a Living and Making a Life, with Pico Iyer

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

I first heard of Pico Iyer through Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being, where he discussed the art of stillness. In the interview, Krista asked him how his life has been as an intellectual. Having been educated at Eton, Harvard and Oxford, Pico responded:

I think that everything important in my life has not come through my mind, but through my spirit or my being or my heart. Everything I trust, whether it’s the people I love or the values I cherish or the places that have moved me, have come at some much deeper level than the mind. And I sometimes think the mind makes lots of complications over what is a much more beautiful and transparent encounter with the world.

In many ways, this interview and Pico’s words were deeply imprinted in my consciousness because he opened up language and a way of thinking that speaks to the spirit. As someone who has been traveling at a young age, the travel writer and essayist’s work charts the kinds of roads worth traveling to.

I’ve always held a kind of reverence for traveling, as I’ve written in a book review of Adam Gopnik’s and Alain de Botton’s. I even gushed about the intersections of travel and literature in a previous post, as a fictional character who owned a book barge traveled through the French countryside.

As I listened to the interview, Pico revealed a truth that many wanderers and travelers share: that one travels not to move around, but in order to be moved.

This was clearest to me as I drove through the deserts of Arizona, gazed at the expanse of the Grand Canyon. It was the intimation of my inner life that I sought in these landscapes, away from the grind, the daily sleepwalking of life (as Pico referred to it).

In his book The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, he writes about the necessity of sitting quietly, doing nothing, going nowhere. While he doesn’t subscribe to any religious affiliation, his work and his words echo the depth of spirituality. Much more, he proposes a turn away from the constant notifications and updates we’ve come to see as integral parts of our lives.

One could start just by taking a few minutes out of every day to sit quietly and do nothing, letting what moves one rise to the surface. One could take a few days out of every season to go on retreat or enjoy a long walk in the wilderness, recalling what lies deeper than the moment or the self. One could even, as [Leonard] Cohen was doing, try to find a life in which stage sets and performances disappear and one is reminded, at a level deeper than all words, how making a living and making a life sometimes point in opposite directions.

This is Pico’s gift, an articulation so simple and clear that one listening to or reading him can feel heaviness lifted. He writes about a few people whom I’ve never heard of, reveling in their fullness: Leonard Cohen, Matthieu Ricard among others who have chosen paths of stillness.

In his interview with Krista and in the book, Pico spoke of a Benedictine hermitage on the coast of California which he has frequented over the years. When I came to see him at the Oakland Book Festival, I asked him to sign my copy and in it, he wrote the website of the hermitage. He spoke of it with wonder and respect.

And as soon as I went to vigils in the chapel, the spell was broken; the silence was much more tonic than any words could be. But what I discovered, almost instantly, was that as soon as I was in one place, undistracted, the world lit up and I was as happy as when I forgot about myself. Heaven is a place where you think of nowhere else.

On the “Lines of Work” panel in Oakland, Pico spoke of how he was a 29-year old writer once with an office at Midtown Manhattan in New York City. But he left all of it for a simpler, quieter life in Kyoto, Japan where he’s been living for the past 25+ years.

When I left New York City for the backstreets of Japan, I figured I’d be growing poorer in terms of money, amusements, social life and obvious prospects, but I’d be richer in what I prize most: days and hours.

What he speaks of and what I’ve been writing about in this blog are recurring themes. Perhaps it is my own search for a richer inner life that leads me to seek out these writers and thinkers. I am constantly humbled by what I learn from them, as I try to build a life of my own with an eye and a pulse for what is essential in this world.

As I get older, I also wrote about how I’ve learned to embrace my own introversion, a far cry from who I was in my early 20’s. With age comes a level of intention and introspection. I’m finding out that each day becomes sweeter not with more but with less and less, as opposed to the capitalistic hubris our society dictates.

It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that anyway keep me company twenty-four hours a day. And it’s only by going nowhere — by sitting still or letting my mind relax — that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out.

These are comforting words for any writer, she who needs the blank space and an empty wall to fill with her words. Pico knew this well. He writes that his home in Kyoto provides the space he needs to be focused on his work, after he’s gathered all that he needs from being out in the world.

He writes that writers are obliged by their profession to spend time going nowhere.

Our job, you cold say, is to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. Sitting still is our workplace, sometimes our battlefield.

And for a man who has never owned a mobile phone before, his words are becoming more and more relevant: in an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. 


All photos from this post are taken by Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, photographer and writer Pico wrote about in the book featured on this post.
His work can be found here.

4 thoughts on “The Difference Between Making a Living and Making a Life, with Pico Iyer

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