Pico Iyer, THE HALF KNOWN LIFE: In Search of Paradise

Pico Iyer, THE HALF KNOWN LIFE: In Search of Paradise

Zibby speaks to bestselling author Pico Iyer about The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, a mesmerizing account of over fifty years of world travels and the hopeful search for a paradise on earth. Pico discusses the pandemic, and how the constant reminder of death illuminated what was actually important in our lives, and then describes his close relationship with the Dalai Lama, whom he admires for his profound respect for others. He also talks about his love of travel, writing, bookstores (which he beautifully calls hospitals for the soul), and reading a great book on his sun-facing terrace in Japan. Finally, he shares what his next book is about – monks and the beauty of their stillness.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Pico. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest book, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise.

Pico Iyer: Thank you, Zibby. I’m really so honored and happy to get to see you.

Zibby: You too. Tell me a little bit more about this book. There’s a quote that is in the beginning that I just wanted to read. Then I want you to take it from there. You wrote, “After years of travel, I’d begun to wonder what kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of increasing, unceasing conflict and whether the very search for it might not simply aggravate our differences.” How did you resolve this? Tell me about the book.

Pico: You can probably almost tell from that beginning of the sentence, this book came out of the pandemic. What you may not have known, even though you’ve read the book, is that just twenty hours after lockdown was announced in California, my poor mother, who was eighty-eight, was rushed into the hospital in an ambulance because she was losing blood very, very quickly. Of course, I couldn’t visit her in the hospital. As soon as she came out, I flew on three different flights from my little apartment in Japan. I was with my mother for the next six and a half months at a time when everybody in the world was stuck. Death was very close to us. Grief was very close to us. I was thinking, just as I write there, life is always going to be tough, whoever we are, wherever we are. How can I find what calm and contentment I need right here in the middle of this difficulty and in spite of it? Also, because I was spending six and a half months in one place, which I usually don’t get the chance to do, I was thinking back on forty-eight years of constant travel thinking, what exactly does paradise mean? Sometimes, to speak to the second half of that sentence, thinking about paradise or dreaming about paradise or imagining it in the past or in the future or on the other side of the globe actually gets in the way of appreciating where we are right now. Probably, everybody listening to our conversation will understand it when I say even though the pandemic was making so many things impossible, it was making other things possible. It reminded me of what I really cared about. It made me look around at my family home and see how much beauty there was there. Every day when I woke up, I was grateful. My mother was still alive. I was there. My wife was healthy. So often, I take so much for granted. The pandemic actually reminded me of how much to be thankful for.

Zibby: As it did for many people. It’s so important to hold onto that. Everyone’s like, remember in the pandemic when everything was so important and in such clear focus and we knew what was important? Now it’s like, I’ve got five meetings. It gets lost so easily.

Pico: Exactly. Sadly, it’s usually only challenge that suddenly makes us remember what is important to us. I was actually traveling often back to Japan during the pandemic. Of course, travel was never calmer than at that time. Now, as you know, travel’s never been so crazy because all of us are making up for lost time and trying to cram two years of pandemic dreams into two weeks. You’re right. We so quickly forget.

Zibby: Also, as you wrote in the book, we can stop thinking about death until we have to think about it nonstop. It’s so easy to just shove that aside. Then when you are dealing, like you were with your mom — my mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law passed away of COVID, actually. My mother-in-law was sick for six weeks. We were in charge of her care. Everybody was like, how’s your COVID going? It’s like, well, not so good. When you have to deal with it, it’s there. You think about it nonstop. Then other times, you can just be blissfully unaware. I think there are some people who never have really had to deal with the loss of someone super important to them. It’s just a different way of approaching the world. You reference that really well.

Pico: I’m so, so sorry to hear about your loss. As I said, I was lucky. I didn’t lose anyone through COVID. That’s terrible. You remind me, I think E.M. Forster, the great English novelist, said something like, death destroys us, but the idea of death saves us. In other words, I think living so close to death made many of us think, how do we really want to live? Probably, you experienced that even in the middle of that terrible tragedy of losing two people. I have an advantage over you because I’m much older. I’m in the autumn of my life, so I think more about death. I do spend a lot of time with monks. I think one reason I do is that they teach me how to live. They teach me how to love. The other is, they’re always preparing. They know that nothing lasts forever. They’re devoting at least a little bit of their day to thinking about that. Sometimes I think most of us will spend a lot of time preparing for a job interview, even a driving test or a date, but we don’t prepare for the one thing that’s sure to happen. I don’t think one needs to when one’s young, but certainly as the years go on.

Zibby: Yes, very true. I really appreciated your passages about the Dalai Lama. Actually, I’m opening this bookstore in a couple weeks. We were alphabetizing all the books in the store. One is by the Dalai Lama. We were like, is this under L or under D? I don’t know. Where do we put Dalai Lama? It was so funny.

Pico: I love that. I have the same problem with my address book.

Zibby: Talk a little bit more about that part of the book.

Pico: The Dalai Lama is really at the center of this book, partly because I’ve been lucky enough to spend forty-eight years regularly talking and traveling with him. Recently, ten times, I traveled across Japan with him, right by his side for every minute of his day. Had lunch with him every day. Sat in on all his private audiences. I really feel part of what he has to offer all of us is that he’s a master realist. He’s been in charge of his people for eighty-three years now, since he was a small child. He’s not interested in far-away notions. I remember once, actually, I was sitting in on a private audience with him. A Korean gentleman was visiting. The Korean gentleman got so excited. He said, “Your Holiness, you can go to the pure land.” It’s a heaven. The Dalai Lama looked at him very kindly and said, “I don’t want to go to the pure land. My job is right here to serve other people.” I really think of him as a doctor of the mind. A doctor’s job is to be in the emergency room and offer what he can, even though he can never save everybody’s life or offer the perfect diagnosis, but to try to help people. The other reason why I have the Dalai Lama at the center of this book is I think we all feel that the world, even though it’s more connected than ever, is more divided than ever. I’m so touched that this man, who’s probably the most respected Buddhist leader on the planet, delivers long lectures to Christians on the Gospels. Tears come to his eyes when he talks about Jesus and the parable of the mustard seeds. He seeks out counsel from rabbis. He calls himself a defender of Islam. It just reminds me that the more deeply rooted you are in your belief, the more open you can be to others. I think that’s what all of us need right now because it’s so easy to entrench ourselves in this us-versus-them kind of thinking.

Zibby: It’s so true. It’s the most divisive. That’s why I feel like sometimes books can be that through line, books like yours, books in general. If we can all literally get on the same page, maybe it will help.

Pico: Yes. Actually, sometimes difficulty can too. I often think if you or I were walking down the street and we saw somebody fall down, we’d reach out to help her. We wouldn’t be thinking, is she Black or white, democrat or republican, Muslim, Christian? There’s something human there. That’s what I get from travel. When I’m sitting at home, I’ll think about Iran and North Korea and other places I describe in the book, and I’d just think about how different they are. As soon as I get off the plane in one of those countries and I talk to somebody, I’m reminded of something we share. They’re worried about their kids. They’re fretting about the economy. They sound just like my neighbors in California.

Zibby: Emotions, we’re all people. That sounds so stupid, but you forget it when identity means so many different things that you lose the core. It’s so easy to lose the core similarities. That’s all.

Pico: I love it. I think it’s our ideas or our theories that separate. As you say, it’s our emotions and actions that bring us together, our human reality.

Zibby: You had a passage about a friend. I just thought this was funny. You said, “My college classmate Nicholas, the most fascinating friend I made in my student years, not least because he was the hardest to anticipate, would have felt entirely at home in Kashmir.” I just thought it was so funny how you wrote “the hardest to anticipate.” What do you do with unpredictable friends? What has happened with that friendship? Why so unpredictable?

Pico: Thank you, Zibby. You’re the first person who’s noticed that sentence and that passage. We were at college together in England. The great thing about Nicholas was none of us could tell if he was young or old. None of us could really even tell where he came from. He was a very, very mysterious, enigmatic person. I think all of us have those people in our lives. We didn’t even know if he was broken or triumphant. He was very, very brilliant, but he always seemed sorrowful. Then he disappeared from my life for maybe twenty-five years. I was traveling in Australia once. Somebody said, “Oh, you must have been at school with Nicholas.” Lo and behold, this brilliant maestro of Latin and Greek, when he was a teenager, had gone and married an indigenous aboriginal woman and was living in the heart of aboriginal Australia, which couldn’t be more different from very cultured Europe where he had grown up. I was intrigued. I began seeking him out. It was just a really good reminder that in that pulsing interior in Australia where there’s almost nothing there, it’s just desert, there’s something as holy as in Jerusalem, where he had also been spending time.

I like the way you alight on that sentence, “impossible to anticipate.” I think that’s what I feel when I’m in Jerusalem or in the middle of Australia. There’s something going on here so much bigger than my understanding. I call this book The Half Known Life because I feel that if any of us thinks about the biggest moments in our life, when we fell in love or when we lost somebody we care about, when we’re moved to tears by some beautiful scene, when a virus suddenly arrives on our doorstep, none of that can we explain. I feel our lives are determined by what we do with what we can’t understand. We concentrate on the stuff we do know, but I think that’s very small in the larger scheme of things. Nicholas is somebody I will never know. The world he inhabits, I can’t begin to penetrate. That’s what makes it fascinating, I suppose.

Zibby: Wow, that was beautiful. I love that, all the things we cannot know. That’s really amazing. You have done so much writing, this book, so many other books, TED Talks. You’re out there talking and teaching and helping. What is it inside you that has led you to this type of life? Why keep sharing? Why keep trying? Why keep going with this?

Pico: Thank you. I remember as a little boy, I thought, my goodness, I belong to the first generation in history who can go to Tibet or Antarctica. My grandparents couldn’t have imagined that. My parents grew up in the age of ship travel. Suddenly, the whole world is open to me. Also, I grew up in England and California, so one of the relatively rare people who has the means to be able to investigate the world. I thought it would be a crime not to try to get to know the world firsthand, get to know our global neighbors. That’s one reason why I’ve always traveled a lot. I like writing. Even regardless of publishing, that’s the way I understand what I’m going through. When I write, it’s like stepping out of the world and away from the shopping mall and the freeway into a quiet cabin in the woods and just trying to make sense of everything that’s been happening to me the last few days so I can come back out with a better sense of clarity and perspective.

For example, when I wrote a book on the Dalai Lama, again, I just thought, I’m lucky enough to spend so much time with this man that many of my friends would like to be spending time with. Least I can do is share everything I’ve learned from him. I’m really grateful to people like you who are championing books and reminding us that books give us something that nothing else can. Even in this great age of Zoom and YouTube where we have so much available to us in the palm of our hand, books take us to a sense of attention and intimacy and nuance we otherwise wouldn’t have. I know you’re a publisher and a writer and a reader. I’m really glad you’re opening a bookstore too because I think that’s a kind of sanctuary. It’s almost like a hospital for the soul. Without books, I think something in me would really die. It’s an emergency room. It’s an important thing without which I don’t think we can live as fully as we would otherwise.

Zibby: I love that. I just wrote it down, a hospital for the soul.

Pico: I noticed. Thank you.

Zibby: It’s just a beautiful way to say that. I totally agree. Thank you. That was nice of you to research me. I appreciate it. I appreciate that. It’s noted. When you have spare time, what do you read? What’s your favorite? What are some of the things you like to read or even movies you like to watch? How do you fill your quota of interest?

Pico: I do love movies. Left to my own devices, I will always see maybe six movies a week in a cinema totally surrendered to the big screen, but I do love to read. Mostly, I read fiction, I would say, because I feel that’s what gets deepest inside me. Elizabeth Strout, George Saunders, Zadie Smith. There’s never a shortage of remarkable writers. In fact, you know this too, I feel we’re living in a golden age of writing. There are more great writers, including very young writers, than ever before. It’s harder to find readers because of all these other competitive media, but there’s no shortage of brilliant writers. I live in a two-room apartment with my wife in the middle of nowhere, Japan. Every day, I spend one hour reading a book, serious nonfiction or fiction. I go out and sit on my terrace in the sun, tiny terrace, with some sweet tangerines and a cup of tea. It’s amazing. When I come back in the room after one hour of reading, I can feel myself deeper in a better part of myself. I’m not the guy who stepped out at one PM. I’m coming back much more alert and a much subtler kind of person just because I’ve been reading something and keeping company. For all, again, the horrors of the pandemic, it did allow me — my friends then were Melville and Milton and Proust. Many of these writers, I hadn’t really read since I was in college. This was a time when I craved a long attention span, the liberation that reading a book gives us. That’s why this book is full of Emily Dickinson. Virginia Woolf is hovering behind there somewhere.

Zibby: You and the tangerines, I’ll think of that as I sit there popping chocolate-covered almonds.

Pico: I like those too.

Zibby: You have a much healthier habit. I’ll aspire to that. What is your next project? What are you doing next?

Pico: Actually, that’s a more perfect question than you might have guessed because I’m just completing the companion book to this one about thirty-one years I’ve spent with a group of Benedictine monks in Big Sur, California. In this book, I, as you know, travel all around the world from Kashmir to Sri Lanka to Varanasi to Belfast thinking about what paradise really means and how we can find it right here right now. In that book, it almost will be the opposite because I’m staying in one place. The monks in their little walled cloister are living in what they imagine to be a paradise. It’s a paradise of meditation and kindness and community and not needing to travel around the world. I’m just putting the finishing touches on it. I should stress one thing I love about that is — I’m not a Christian myself. Yet I have so much to learn from these deeply good, serious, and friendly Catholic monks. It’s my small way of — I’m not a Buddhist either. I’m so grateful that in this global world, any one of us can learn from Tibetan teachers like the Dalai Lama, from Catholic monks up the road, from rabbis. Again, this is a possibility that my grandparents growing up in India couldn’t have entertained. I think we often take for granted some of these opportunities that are arising in us now. When I go to a classroom these days, it’s so much more interesting because they’re more diverse than the classrooms I grew up in. I feel that the younger generation is actually because they’re learning from their friends and sweethearts about other traditions and other ways of being.

It’s a book about sitting still with the monks. I did write a book for TED once called The Art of Stillness, like a teaser for this book because it came out of my thirty-one years of stillness. The amazing thing about every time I stay with those monks, I think what I really learn — of course, it’s a beautiful stretch of California coastline. The biggest teacher for me is the silence. The silence is not just an absence of noise. It’s almost a presence. I get out of my car, and I can feel something vibrating. I think that’s true of every convent and nunnery and monastery I’ve been to. Of course, part of the beauty of being there is there’s no cell phone reception. There’s no internet. There are no TVs. It’s very undistracted. Every day lasts about a thousand hours. Even beyond that, the monks are working very hard behind the wall in their cloister to sustain the guests and to pray and meditate. Somehow, we as visitors get the benefit of their hard work. I always come back refreshed. I’ve been lucky to travel a lot and take memorable trips, but nowhere so refreshes me and nowhere sends me back home a different person so reliably as going to that monastery. It reminds of how I take my car in for an oil check every six months. Otherwise, the car won’t run. This is my personal oil check or recharging station.

Zibby: Everybody does it differently.

Pico: I feel everybody needs it now in this accelerated and distracted world. You’re absolutely right. Many of my friends practice yoga or meditate or go for a walk and go for a run, swim. Whatever it is, though, I think without that, we’d just get lost in the swirl, like you were saying, six things at once and many appointments. Suddenly, whoa, our life is almost over. We haven’t grabbed the heart of it.

Zibby: I totally agree. How far are you from Tokyo? I’m coming to Japan in June with my family.

Pico: Wonderful. It’s a lovely season. It’s a very soft, warm rain. I’m in Nara, Japan, so very near Kyoto, the ancient capital. Such is the speed of the bullet train, it’s only three hours away from Tokyo. I really hope you’ll be going to Kyoto and Nara. If you are, we’d love to see you. I’m expecting to be there the first two or three weeks of June. Please go to Kyoto, certainly, and when you’re there, one day in Nara. You probably know this, but not everybody knows. Nara was the capital of Japan in the eighth century. When you go there — it’s a town. It’s a city of 400,000 people and the size of Cleveland or Pittsburgh. Right at the center of town is the biggest park in the whole of Japan. That park is ruled by 1,200 wild deer who have been there for more than a thousand years. You go to the beautiful three-story concrete and glass city hall. There are deer sitting on the front steps. You check into the fanciest hotel. Instead of doormen, there are deer greeting you. They rule the place. They’re believed to be God’s messengers, so woe betide anybody who gives the deer a hard time. They just walk everywhere around the center of the town. The center of the town, it’s almost what people imagine when they dream of Kyoto. Kyoto’s quite a big, bustling city, 1.3 million. Nara, the center of town, is the biggest Buddha in the world in this eighth-century temple. Shrines, reflecting ponds, groves of wild plum trees, it’s very lovely. I hope you’ll put that into your itinerary.

Zibby: I am now adding it. My son has been planning the whole trip. He’s eight. We’re doing a lot of Pokémon things. Yes, Nara and Kyoto sounds wonderful.

Pico: It’s made for children. people are so kind. Although English is often quite limited there, they light up when they see kids. I’ve had a lot of friends who visit with children even younger than eight. They have such a good time. I wonder if you’re going to the Museum Ghibli of all the Miyazaki movies in Tokyo. I just went there. It’s great. I don’t know if your eight-year-old has watched Totoro, but he might enjoy it. Then you get to see the whole museum.

Zibby: Perfect. Excellent tip. Maybe I’ll see you in June. Thank you so much for this lovely talk and for The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise. Thank you.

Pico: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you for supporting all of us readers and writers.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Pico: You too. Buh-bye.

Pico Iyer, THE HALF KNOWN LIFE: In Search of Paradise

THE HALF KNOWN LIFE: In Search of Paradise by Pico Iyer

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