I first connected with Pico Iyer in 1992, through the pages of “The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto,” a book of his that was making a splash that year. A copy arrived in the newsroom and somehow landed on my desk, which struck me as an inviting omen to read what was inside.
I knew Iyer as a talented writer for TIME magazine, and I was a young journalist then, too, not long out of college and looking for role models. Iyer, just entering his 30s and precociously wise, seemed like a good person to follow.
“The Lady and the Monk,” which recounts Iyer’s year in Japan, appeared to promise what all travel books do: the lure of adventure in an exotic locale. But what I first noticed about the book wasn’t its sense of movement, but its insistence on the virtues of staying in place. Iyer spends much of the story in a Kyoto monastery, thinking about the old spiritual traditions behind modern, bustling Asia.
Iyer had worldly success, but he wanted to know if there was something more to life than just getting ahead. His year in Japan led to marriage, and a continuing interest in balancing ambition with reflection.
One of the small pleasures of following an author over a long time is the experience of growing older together. In the dust jacket of my copy of “The Lady and the Monk,” a young, thin Iyer, his hair dark and full, looks at the camera with the bright expectancy of a man still a little in a hurry.
In Iyer’s new book, “The Art of Stillness,” he’s graying and balding in his author’s photo, but looks more comfortable with the idea of being at rest.
That’s really what his slender new book is about. It explores the power of slowing down and appreciating what you have right in front of you, instead of expecting some elusive sense of completeness somewhere else. He calls that inward journey “the adventure of going nowhere.”
“The Art of Stillness” grew from a TED talk — those popular online lectures, only a few minutes long, in which speakers discuss life-changing ideas. Like the TED lectures themselves, Iyer’s book is short enough to enjoy in one sitting. It’s only 74 pages, and that includes some beautiful landscape pictures by photographer Eydis Einarsdottir.
Journalists usually chew on a topic for a day or two, spit out their conclusions, then move on to something else. Iyer’s abiding interest in the tension between distraction and discernment has been a gift to our culture. “The Art of Stillness” is essentially a bookend to the “Lady and the Monk,” that hardback I picked up so long ago.
Consider “The Art of Stillness” as a stocking stuffer — for a friend, for a relative, as a present to yourself. As I write this, I’m preparing for a week’s vacation. Taking a cue from Iyer, I plan to go nowhere.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.