Seven Questions for Pico Iyer: The Pause Before the Jump


This summer, we are greatly excited to have an amazing travel writer and philosopher at the Chicago conference. While Pico Iyer may not seem a typical choice for the dance field, over the next seven days, we will unveil a little about his thought process, and why he is exceptionally relevant to us as we move toward the next decade. Members of the Dance/USA Board formulated seven questions for Iyer to ruminate on. His responses over the next week are truly thought-provoking and inspiring. We hope you will join us in Chicago to continue this conversation.

In addition, we have asked several members of Dance/USA and the Board to provide their personal take on our four program envelopes at the conference: Management, Artistry, Technology and Audience Engagement. In coming weeks these articles will help get you ready for our conference.

Q: As an artist, sacrifices are necessary and excellence is required at all times. When it comes to longevity in the field, how is it possible to reconcile balance with excellence in one’s art?

A: Whenever I meet aspiring writers, I tell them that if they’re hoping to write in order to get rich, to become famous, or to gain more power, they should abandon their ambitions right now; they are not likely to become a Baryshnikov or Jagger or Rushdie. But if they want to lead rich lives, to make sense of their days, to gain powers inside themselves they didn’t know they had, I can’t think of a better occupation. To write—to dance, to make music—is to become incomparably affluent inside and to have a sense of possibility, of freedom, of real power that nothing else can rival.

When I was in my 20s, I was living on Park Avenue, writing cover-stories on world affairs for Time magazine, taking my holidays in Cuba and Burma and Morocco, and not having to worry about dependents or responsibilities. I couldn’t have been closer to my boyhood idea of glamour. But I also noticed that I was living according to someone else’s idea of happiness, and not my own. I was unable to hear myself think. And I was imprisoned, in some ways, in second-hand sense of fulfillment.

So I left my job to go and live for a year in a temple in Kyoto, to restore some balance. My high-minded year lasted all of a week—but here I am, 23 years on, and I still live near Kyoto, and, in fact, in a setting more monastic than the monastery I joined (though less solitary). And I never once miss the life of seeming glamour I once had. My days, without distractions, seem to last an eternity. I have time to take long walks around the neighborhood, play ping-pong daily, read on my terrace while eating sweet tangerines, write long letters to friends. I have to be disciplined in my work, have to return to the U.S. every year to remind my bosses that I exist, have to keep writing even on my birthday or New Year’s Day. But in return I have all the spaciousness and time to dwell in possibility I could want.

It reminds me of when I first went to visit a monastery. I knew that the monk’s code called for “poverty, obedience, and chastity.” So I never guessed that what I would find there would be the ultimate in luxuriousness, freedom, and sensuality, at least within. Maybe that’s the ultimate dancer’s lesson: to blend movement with stillness, the pause before the jump with the soaring leap.

Born in Oxford, England, to parents from India, Pico Iyer was educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard, while officially growing up in Southern California. He is the author of seven works of non-fiction, including Video Night in Kathmandu (cited on many lists of the best travel books ever), The Lady and the Monk (finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in the category of Current Interest) and The Global Soul (subject of websites and theatrical productions around the world). He has also written the novels Cuba and the Night and Abandon. For a quarter of a century, he has been an essayist for Time magazine, while also writing constantly on literature for The New York Review of Books, on globalism for Harper’s, and on many other topics for venues from The New York Times to National Geographic. His most recent book, The Open Road, describing more than 30 years of talking and traveling with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, came out in a dozen countries, and was a best-seller across the U.S. He has been based for the past 20 years near Nara, in rural Japan, though he is still often to be found making stops everywhere from North Korea to Ethiopia, and from Bolivia to Easter Island.
Photo: Pico Iyer at the Dalai Lama's temple in Dharamsala

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