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.