global imagination

lesley marian neilson interviews traveler & writer pico iyer

Pico Iyer is a curious man. This curiosity propels him to travel the world in search of experience, connection, new perspectives and, ultimately, himself. Then he writes about it. With titles such as Cuba and the Night, Falling off the Map, Video Night in Kathmandu and most recently The Global Soul, his books affirm the degree to which his imagination is sparked by encountering cultures around the world. From the very beginning Pico’s life was lived on a global scale: born to Indian parents in England, he was raised in the United States and now lives in both Japan and California. This seems to create in him an openness to the whole world, and an insatiable desire to know it.


Pico also evokes my curiosity in him. He lives an enviable life in which he divides his time between globetrotting and living a quieter existence writing and being with his family. He carries his home on his back, locating that intimate place in his “values and friendships and loyalties.” He has made a project out of the circumstances of his life: trying to understand how dissolving borders, whether cultural, physical, ideological or spiritual, “affect our conscience and our sense of responsibility.” Repeatedly he enters into the melee of the world, willing to meet the Other, welcoming the deconstruction of his own preconceptions, gratefully losing his sense of self.

And he repeatedly takes us on that journey with him. He has published six books, worked for two decades as an essayist for Time and written pieces for such magazines as Harper’s, Shambhala Sun and Tricycle. His writing is conversational and contemplative. Reading his books, I can equally imagine he is talking to me as much as he is talking to himself.

But mostly, Pico captured my interest because he is a friendly and generous person. When I talked to him on the phone in May, he was in Vancouver, en route to the Victoria Literary Arts Festival. He was charming and amusing, and we talked easily until long after I had exhausted my formal questions. The genuine interest he brought to our conversation is the most convincing testament to the “virtues of travel” he talks about in our interview. His manner also betrayed how well he has absorbed the qualities he praises as Japan’s greatest gift: consideration, attention, mindfulness and a great ability to listen to other people ...

Lesley Marian Neilson   Since we’re going to talk about East and West, I want to start with what distinguishes the two. As in, where is the line between East and West, where does one start and the other end?

Pico Iyer   One of the exciting things, just in the last fifteen years, is that the definitions of East and West have almost been exploded. Yesterday I went to the beautiful Japanese gardens here in Vancouver, and in some ways, because they are pure and more uncrowded than any garden in Kyoto, I felt that I was absorbing and inhaling Japan more truly here than I could in Japan. In the same way, much of the best baseball I have watched is not on this continent but in Japan. So my sense is that the terms “East” and “West” have less and less meaning because they have interpenetrated one another so fully. What’s interesting is the way in which they are interacting inside all of us.

To take an example, I’m one hundred percent Indian by birth, but I was born in England and moved to California when I was seven. And although I’m a hundred percent Indian, I don’t speak a single Indian language and I’ve never lived in India. Like more and more of us, I’m the beneficiary of exploded boundaries between East and West, because, although my parents are Hindu and in fact Theosophists, I went through all my schooling at Christian schools, and I’ve spent most of my adult life in a Buddhist culture. As the years go on, one of the things I find myself doing is trying to see which parts of me are perhaps the result of my Indian heritage and of spending a lot of time in Asia, and which parts are the result of having grown up and been educated entirely in the West.

LMN    A lot of your writing addresses Buddhism, whether it’s interviewing Leonard Cohen or the Dalai Lama, or writing for Buddhist magazines like Shambhala Sun and Tricycle. What attracts you to Buddhism and Eastern philosophy?

PI       I’ve spent so much of the last twenty years in Asia, and I’ve lived on and off in Japan for the last fifteen years. Living in Japan, one absorbs Buddhism with almost every waking breath. Japan is an interesting example because while most Japanese probably don’t have much textual knowledge of Buddhism and may not even formally think of themselves as Buddhists, it seems to me that Buddhist principles such as egolessness, putting the needs of others before oneself and thinking in terms of a larger whole have suffused almost everything in Japan. These principles are responsible for much of the qualities we find so attractive about Japan, such as consideration, attention, mindfulness, a great gift for listening to other people.

I suppose living in Japan has made me newly respectful of Buddhism, and has sometimes made me a little uncertain about what Buddhism will become as it comes to the West, just because our cultural assumptions and values are so different.

LMN    What first brought you to Japan?

PI       I first went to Japan in high hopes of spending a year in a Zen temple in Kyoto, because sitting in California reading Zen poets and looking at Hiroshige paintings, I’d been bewitched by Zen and I thought it meant rock gardens and composing haiku. But as soon as I arrived in this temple in Kyoto, I found that Zen really means scrub-bing the floors and cooking meals and meditating all night. It’s a very grueling discipline. So I left the temple very quickly.

But then I told myself, and I think it’s true, that I was really learning as much about Buddhism just by going to McDonald’s and seeing how the mothers were teaching their children from the youngest age to think of others before themselves, noticing the care that the Japanese famously bring to the smallest act.

LMN     That reminds me of the trend in American Buddhism to focus on the day-to-day ways we can practise—at the kitchen sink, as they say. Buddhism becomes more practical, less esoteric.

PI       My sense of Asia is of a culture, insofar as one can generalize, that’s extremely practical. In Japan at least, they seem to communicate more in images than ideas, and it’s not a place that entertains a lot of abstractions. It’s very much about doing things. And I think it’s hard to say whether Zen was created for Japan or Japan was created for Zen. It’s like the chicken and the egg. But one way or another, Zen as it plays out there seems to be a very matter-of-fact thing. And when I come back to California, because I go back and forth quite often, I find that Zen from a distance can be something very different.

LMN    So much of your writing draws upon the global traveling that you do. It makes me think of all the people who don’t travel, and how our perception of spending a whole life in one town has changed because of the relative ease of travel these days.

PI    Yes, and I’m a great believer in staying in one place. Although I spend much of my time traveling, I spend the rest of the time either in a Benedictine hermitage in northern California or in rural Japan, where I spend months on end without a bicycle or car or without really leaving my neighbourhood.

In recent years many people are traveling around the world, but the world is also traveling around us more and more. Even somebody who never leaves her home is suddenly having to deal with other cultures, having to come to terms with them, and also getting to learn from them. So I can imagine somebody who has never left Vancouver traveling just as she walks down the street—she’s smelling curry, she’s seeing Tibetan teachers around the corner, she’s seeing Chinese characters on the front of every other store, and one way or another, just in her own neighbourhood, even if she’s never left it, she’s being visited by all the cultures of the world.

LMN     With the boundaries between cultures breaking down in that way, it becomes much more difficult to answer the question, “Who am I?”

PI       Exactly. The things that we used to take for granted we now have to construct from scratch, which is a great opportunity, although like any opportunity it brings a challenge. When my grandparents were born in India, all four of them had a very precise sense of how they would answer such questions as, “What was their tradition? What was their community? What was their religion? Who were their friends? Who were their enemies?” And now, in just two generations it’s all in flux.

For those of us who are lucky enough to have access to other cultures, whether by traveling or by birth, I think that means that more and more of us have the opportunity to choose our identity and actually to craft it, rather than just to inherit it at birth. It’s no longer a given, but is something that we can devise to some degree. I think that’s a very exciting possibility. But certainly it does mean that the old certainties are pretty much demolished.

LMN    And I wonder in that regard, with globalization spreading its certain flavour of empire, how can we help shape and be in our world as people with very different ideas of what we might want, whether we’re from Vancouver or India or Europe?

PI    Our first obligation is to define and interpret “global” in as deep a way as we can. And one reason I called my last book The Global Soul was my sense that “global” had become this very fashionable tag that we attached to everything we wanted to seem desirable. Nearly always it seems that “global” is constructed in terms of global markets or global communications—in other words, in terms of business and technology—which I regard as really among the most shallow aspects of life.

It seems to me we’ve thought a lot about how we could get information or goods across the planet at the speed of light, but very little about how we could get people or thoughts or acts of compassion across the world. East and West are both inwards and outwards and I’m interested in taking globalism inwards, so that we ask what implications it has psychologically or emotionally, rather than just financially.

I want to set the challenge to myself, and to anyone else who is interested, to see how we can interpret “global” in a more soulful way and to think about globalism first at the level of the imagination and the heart—what all this means to us individually, to the subconscious, how it affects our dreams and our relationships. But also to ask, how globalism affects our conscience and our sense of responsibility.

And of course there are many great voices speaking for this all the time. But a few years ago I felt that their voices were getting drowned out by the Bill Gateses as well as the excitement over our latest technological inventions. We hadn’t thought through the extent of how the problems of all people are our problems. The possibility that globalism affords us is to feel what a person in Tibet is suffering or what somebody’s going through in the Middle East, and this is our business now because we’re very, very close to them in some ways.

LMN    So do you find in your travels when you’re looking at real people in day-to-day events, that acts of compassion or suffering or happiness or survival are as universal as we sometimes think they are?

PI    I think that they are definitely very universal; anyone who’s traveled has probably had that initially bewildering and finally rather reassuring experience of ending up in Mongolia or Uganda or somewhere, unable to speak a word of the local language, meeting someone who doesn’t speak a word of English, and somehow from smiles and gestures, getting the meaning across, and sometimes actually feeling a real connection. So I think those things are as universal as they’ve always been, but sometimes they’re obscured or complicated by all the things that divide us on the surface.

I am a great believer in the virtue of travel, for those of us who have the time and the resources, because I think travel is the only way that we can give a voice and a face to the “other” and actually see beyond the abstractions and ideologies, to the human reality that rarely shows up in the headlines.

LMN    What, as travelers, are our responsibilities? And how can we take them seriously and not be destructive or parasitic?

PI       I think that the most important thing about traveling is to leave one’s assumptions at home, and to empty one’s self out as much as possible, and I suppose to me the point of travel, which is actually the point of writing also, is to try to see the world through the eyes of people very different from one’s self. I find that sitting in California, as I often do, I know all too well what I think and feel, and what my prejudices and beliefs are. The virtue of travel is having all of those turned on their heads, and being taught how often we are just mistaken.

I find it ironic that in the information age, where we have more data in our lives than ever before, we may actually know less about other parts of the world than ever before, and we may accept those illusions as reality. That’s why I think if one has the chance to go and see other cultures, throwing away one’s second-hand images and just confronting people, often in great need, releases all sorts of moral and emotional questions. I travel mostly to be shaken up, and to face the world’s urgencies and intensities that I never have to face when I’m sitting comfortably.

LMN     I get the sense that travel is your spiritual practice. It’s what forces you to change and understand your place in the world.

PI       That’s a wonderful way to put it, I’ve never even thought of it, but you’re right. If I were to listen to myself, maybe I would say that [spiritual practice] was part of it. In my life I’ve tried to create a balance in which I spend maybe half the time traveling, trying to expose myself to new places, trying to remind myself of the difficulties that exist in the world, and of how short-sighted my own perceptions are. Then I spend the other half of the time taking it all in, trying to make sense of it, staying very much in one place and trying, perhaps through writing, to create a clearing and to come to an understanding of this barrage of experiences and emotions and challenges that I’ve undergone.

So, I try to find a balance. It’s almost like breathing in and breathing out: going out into the world and taking in as much as what’s different as possible, and then coming back to one’s self in order to try to make peace with it.

In terms of Buddhism, for which travel is very useful, being stripped down to simplicities and essentials seems to be a lesson in illusion and the self, by which I mean that when I’m sitting in California, say, I have a resumé, I have a job, I have a bank card, and I’m tempted to feel that I can define myself in all these very superficial ways. But as soon as I’m on the streets of Burma, or Bolivia, as I was recently, none of that matters. When somebody comes up to me in the streets, all he’s seeing is somebody who may be kind, or may not be kind, who may be open-minded or may not be, and he’s responding to me on a very essential, and I think on a much truer, level.

LMN       It’s very immediate.

PI       Yes, very immediate, and very clarifying. I think when you travel, your life becomes almost an allegory or parable, whereas when you’re at home you’re surrounded by stuff and so locked into your habits that life gets cluttered. When I travel, I’m gratified to be stripped of all the distractions by which we sometimes try to understand ourselves, and I’m grateful to be reminded that the self hardly exists.

LMN    I also wanted to ask you about the novel that you’re writing. Would you be able to talk about it a bit?

PI       The novel that I have coming out in a few months is called Abandon and the simple way of describing it would be to say that it’s a mystical romance about Sufism set in California. The main character is completing a doctorate on Rumi and other Sufi poets. He’s an Englishman in California, trying to see how his ideas of transport and abandon and self-forgetfulness—the great mystical ideas of the Sufis—might have application in the contemporary world.

Most of the action takes place in Southern California. This student of Sufism is trying to find a missing Sufi text that may have escaped after the revolution in Iran, twenty years ago. And the other half follows his journeys to various important and charged places in the Islamic world, from Damascus to Venice, to Granada, to Iran.

I suppose it’s really a dialogue between the Islamic and the Western ways of seeing the world, and when I say that, I’m saying it’s about the dialogue between secular and sacred. It’s a dialogue between the past and the future, and also between very slow, traditional cultures, which for simplicity’s sake I associate with the Islamic world, and the fast post-modernist world which I take to be California. So, I’m using Islamic culture as a way of describing cultures that are very rooted, that are driven by faith, that have a very strong sense of wanting to keep alive a flame that has been alight for thousands or more years. And I used California as an example of a place that’s making itself up every day, that’s very attracted to the new, is relatively free from roots and tries to revel in its freedom from roots.

LMN    You yourself constantly move be-tween these two polarities. Where do you call home?

PI       I think my home is in the values and friendships and loyalties that I carry around with me. In my last book, The Global Soul, I began with an account of how a fire destroyed my house in Southern California. I was just sitting at home one day and I walked upstairs to find that my house was surrounded by seventy-foot flames. I was stuck in the middle of the fire for three hours, and actually saw it slowly dismantle my house and everything that I had owned.

I began my book that way because it spoke metaphorically to me, to the condition in which more and more people find themselves in, which is to say their foundations are burned to the ground and they have to construct a new sense of home and self on the ash heap of the old. Also because of this very strong sense that for more and more of us, home isn’t connected to a particular house, it has no connection to a piece of soil, or a piece of property. Home has become invisible, portable, and I think we carry our homes around with us everywhere we go, the way snails do.

I’ve always felt that my home is partly the English language, because it’s the one companion that has been next to me every breath I’ve taken from the age of two. But deeper than that, home is the commitment and loyalty I feel to certain people and places, and, for example, the Benedictine hermitage in California to which I’ve been going regularly for eleven or twelve years now. And although I don’t spend a huge amount of time there, I feel it’s an important part of my home. And home is sometimes the books or the ideas that I carry around with me that steady me, and direct me.

In Japan they have the gift for being at once very hopeful and very realistic—I’ve come to see that whatever happens can be an advantage. And so, in the case of my house burning down, I always think that there was a certain poetic justice because it burned down just after I’d gone to Kyoto telling myself that I should live without possessions and without a home in the Zen temple. I completely failed at that enterprise, came back to safe California, and suddenly got exactly what I told myself I wanted. So, apart from being confirmed in my sense that home is something inward for an increased number of us, the day after the fire I also had to smile to myself and think, “Well, now I do have the chance at last to live life a different way.”

Pico Iyer divides his time between globetrotting and living a quieter existence writing and being with his family.

He has published six books, worked for two decades as an essayist for Time and written pieces for such magazines as Harper's, Shambhala Sun and Tricycle.

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