Part 6 of the TED Radio Hour episode Quiet
About Pico Iyer's TED Talk
Pico Iyer says sitting still and reflecting is hard work. But we bring so much more to our experiences, and relationships when we make time to think.
About Pico Iyer
Travel writer Pico Iyer began his career documenting a neglected aspect of travel — the sometimes surreal disconnect between local tradition and imported global pop culture. Since then, he has written multiple books exploring the cultural consequences of isolation.
Iyer's latest focus, and book, is on yet another overlooked aspect of travel: how can it help us regain our sense of stillness and focus in a world where our devices and digital networks make us more and more distracted.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
When it comes to quiet or introspection or stillness, Pico Iyer seems like he's a little too busy for all of that.
PICO IYER: (Laughter) I was born on a plane almost. It feels like that.
RAZ: Pico's a writer and a journalist, and he does this for a living. He travels all over the world, and he writes about his travels. And in some ways, Pico's been in motion his entire life.
IYER: I was born in Oxford, England, to parents from India. And then when I was 7, we moved to California. So suddenly I was a part of three different places. And then I began going back to school in England while my parents were living in California when I was 9. So, yes, I think I very quickly got into the sense that motion was my second nature.
RAZ: And when Pico grew up, that's exactly the kind of life he created for himself.
IYER: I remembered when I was in my 20s in the middle of this very fast-paced life in New York City - got to take wonderful vacations in Barli and Burma and El Salvador and writing on world affairs and really interesting friends, and I felt I was right in the middle of the moment. And yet, I realized that I had so created my life that I didn't have enough minutes in the day to work out if this was really making me happy, and so I thought, I need to stop right now and go to a very clear environment and then take stock of things.
RAZ: So Pico decided to go somewhere else - somewhere completely new where occasionally, he could just sit still. He tells the rest of the story from the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
IYER: And so I abandoned my dream life for a single room on the back streets of Kyoto, Japan, which was the place that had long exerted a strong, really mysterious gravitational pull on me. Even as a child, I would just look at a painting of Kyoto and feel I recognized it. I knew it before I ever laid eyes on it. But it's also, as you all know, a beautiful city encircled by hills filled with more than 2,000 temples and shrines where people have been sitting still for 800 years or more. And quite soon after I moved there, I ended up where I still am with my wife, formerly, our kids in a two-room apartment in the middle of nowhere where we have no bicycle, no car, no TV. I can understand. So clearly, this is not ideal for job advancement or for cultural excitement or for social diversion. But I realized that it gives me what I prize most, which is days and hours. Every morning when I wake up, really the day stretches in front of me like an open meadow.
And so I made that move 27 years ago, and I can honestly say it's one of the choices in my life I have never regretted.
RAZ: But, I mean, even hearing you say that, I think a lot of people would say, this is a privilege, right? Like - I mean, do you think that's true?
IYER: It is, but not as much as we sometimes think it is. And it's interesting because, for example, a couple of years ago, I went to see my doctor, and he looked at my chart. And he said, you're pretty healthy, but you must take exercise 30 minutes a day. And as soon as he said that, I signed up at a health club, and I go every day of my life.
But when somebody says, you should take 30 minutes being quiet everyday - going to the mental health club ensuring that your imagination and mind and spirit are as healthy as your body. I'd say, oh, no, I don't have time to sit in a corner for 30 minutes or take a walk or unplug. And yet, that's much more fundamental, I would say, to my well-being and my overall health than walking the treadmill. So I think we're getting caught up in an accelerating world that's moving faster and faster almost at the speed of a machine more than a human, and we're getting out of breath. There's no way we can keep up with that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
IYER: And of course, sitting still is how many of us get what we most crave and need in our accelerated lives - a break. But it was also the only way that I could find to sift through the slideshow of my experience and make sense of the future and the past. And so, to my great surprise, I found that going nowhere was at least as exciting as going to Tibet or to Cuba. And by going nowhere, I mean nothing more intimidating than taking a few minutes out of every day or a few days out of every season in order to sit still long enough to find out what moves you most to recall where your truest happiness lies and to remember that sometimes making a living and making a life point in opposite directions. And of course this is what wise beings through the centuries from every tradition have been telling us. It's an old idea. More than 2,000 years ago, the Stoics were reminding us, it's not our experience that makes our lives; it's what we do with it. And this has certainly been my experience as a traveler. Twenty-four years ago, I took the most mind-bending trip across North Korea. 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. The trip, in other words, gave me some amazing sights, but it's only sitting still that allows me to turn those into lasting insights.
RAZ: How do you do it? I mean, is there a room? Is there a chair? Is there a place or a way that you find that?
IYER: Well, I'm lucky because, of course as a writer, I'm obliged to sit for maybe three weeks in one place at my little desk. And I think in some ways, that's where so much of my life takes place because we all know that experiences are, as it were, the raw material of our life, but it's what we do with them that is our life itself. That's the heart of our experience, not the things that happened to us, but how we have responded to them. And so I always think the fundamental moments in life come when suddenly you lose love or suddenly somebody close to you gets a terrible diagnosis or when you get a terrible diagnosis. And I feel that when I visit my doctor and he comes into the room with a very dark expression on his face, the thing that's going to help me there is the moments when I've been still and when I've collected myself, not the moments when I've been running around to Easter Island or Bhutan or even, you know, walking through Time Square. It's in stillness that we prepare ourselves for dealing with the realities of life, which are often very difficult ones.
RAZ: I mean, the thing about stillness is that your head can be a very loud place, especially, if things in your life are difficult or if there's anxiety or other things happening. Like, how do you clear that out to make that space to get to stillness?
IYER: I think you clear the anxiety by sitting still and addressing it and seeing it come and go in some ways. But you're absolutely right. When I go and sit still at my desk as a writer for five hours every day, often those hours are agonizing. They're torture, and I think a monk would tell you that a large part of the time he spends alone in his cell is spent with doubt and darkness. But running around is never going to address those feelings very well. It's only going to evade them. And I think actually one of the things that you find if you sit still is those feelings of anxiety and all the sufferings and pains that every one of us know fall into a kind proportion.
RAZ: In your talk, you mentioned that only by slowing down, can we see that sometimes making a living and making a life point in different directions.
IYER: Yes, I think that's really why I left New York City in a nutshell because I felt making a living was not the same thing as making a life. And I was making a nice-enough living then and very comfortable, but that wasn't a life. And we all know on our deathbed when somebody says to you, what made your life fulfilling? Our job will be part of it, but it certainly won't be all of it. And answering emails and scrolling through YouTube will be a small part of it, but there are other things that are probably going to be much more at the heart of what we're glad to have done. And they will probably have to do with our relationships, moments of quiet, our explorations, but certainly, much more to do with the invisible part of our life, I would say, than the visible. And I think that's where it's easy to ignore that invisible bank account in the same way it's easy to ignore the mental health club. And yet, the invisible bank account is what's making you rich, and the mental health club is what's making you healthy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
IYER: And I think many of us have the sensation - I certainly do - that we're standing about two inches away from a huge screen. And it's noisy, and it's crowded. And it's changing with every second. And that screen is our lives. And it's only by stepping back and then further back and holding still that we can begin to see what the canvas means and to catch the larger picture. So in an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. And in an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still. Thank you.
RAZ: Writer and traveler Pico Iyer. He's the author of a newly released TED book. It's called "The Art Of Stillness: Adventures In Going Nowhere." You can find out more about it at ted.com.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A QUIET PLACE")
GARNET MIMMS: (Singing) There's a man next door with a radio and he plays it all through the night. There's a couple in the apartment above my head that don't do nothing, but fuss and fight. I can't get no sleep in this noisy street. I've got to move. I've got to move. I've got to find me a quiet place.
RAZ: Thanks for listening to our show this week on quiet. I'm Guy Raz. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.