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How to Move From ‘Terminal Time’ to ‘Cathedral Time’

by PICO IYER

Yesterday, too typically, I was in the airport in Santa Barbara by 4:15 a.m., and then at SFO for six hours and then, eleven many hours later, touching down in Zurich’s airport. Everywhere people were racing past in a state of stress, the names of cities were flashing on screens, the hours themselves seemed cut up into seconds as I checked the time again and again and wondered why the line I was in—at security and immigration and for boarding—never seemed to move. Now, a hundred yards from the grand and silent 12th-century church of Grossmunster, in the cobbled center of Zurich, I step into the ancient space and lose myself in something larger.

The ceiling is so high, I forget myself in its vastness. Late-summer sunlight is streaming through the windows, sharpening indigos and scarlets. Candles all around draw my attention to a point. And though a few other souls are shuffling around, everyone is hushed, rapt in the special kind of attention we bring to those rare moments when we are lost within what we contemplate.

I sometimes think that I was trying to get this kind of cathedral time–regardless of what one thinks or doesn’t think of churches–when I left my exhilarating life in airport-time Manhattan, at the age of twenty-nine, for a single empty room on the backstreets of Kyoto. Writing on world affairs for Time magazine from a 25th floor Midtown office–with kind and fascinating colleagues and very few responsibilities–I reeled from excitement to excitement like a pinball on a flashing machine. But the stimulation was so constant, I had no chance to see what any of it meant (or how deeply it reached). Only when I left my apartment on Park and 20th for a tatami room along Kyoto’s Eastern Hills, with almost nothing visible within it—no telephone, no toilet of my own, no discernible bed—did I realize that joy was what was left when every passing pleasure had been exhausted.

I think it’s a choice all of us make when we’re in our sanest moments. But sanity is so hard to find these days. I have ever more data at my fingertips and no time or space to make sense of it. Almost everyone reading this essay will take in more information today alone than Shakespeare did in his lifetime, but I’m not sure that means she’s any wiser than our deepest playwright (and it might even mean the opposite). Our children, if they’re lucky, and enjoy long and healthy lives, will spend eleven years of those lives on the phone.

And yet, I often feel the one point of light in this situation is that; however busy we may think we are (or need to be), we always have more choice than we imagine. We can stop, right now, if only for twenty minutes, to do nothing. We can put away our weapons of mass distraction and clear our heads. As soon as we place ourselves outside the range of interruption, we have the space to remember what most deeply sustains us and what we care for most.

The minute I placed my suitcase down in my tiny room in Kyoto, I knew that every day there would last a hundred hours; four blocks from Times Square, the days had flashed past without leaving anything behind. And, a few seasons later—my family home in Santa Barbara had just burned to the ground in a wildfire, leaving me with nothing tangible in the world. I drove up the coast to spend three days (though not a Christian) in a Benedictine hermitage and recalled who I could be when nothing else got in the way.

Almost instantly, with no laptop chime or TV blast to distract me, I could recall what I loved. A lens-cap came off, as it never could when I was running from one appointment to the next. A blue jay alighted on my fence and I watched it so intently that I found everything I needed in that everyday bird. The bells that began chiming behind me seemed to be chiming inside me. And if I could spend just three days every season in this clarifying silence, I realized, the other 87 days would be radically transformed.

All I had to do, it seemed, was wake up to what something inside me craved and ensure that it was not forgotten. And all I needed was the courage to step out of the fray now and then the better to bring something fresh and bright and creative back to it.

My friends sometimes think I’m strange to live in Japan without a car. But living without a car means that I have dozens of things not to think or worry about. For months on end, I live only so far as my size-8 feet will carry me. I’ve been working as a journalist for 37 years, but I’ve never used a cell-phone (thanks in part to a generous wife who understands I can be more myself without one). This isn’t something I’d recommend for everyone, but it does remind me that I get much more out of one three-hour conversation than from sixty chats for three minutes each.

Almost every November since 2006, I’ve traveled across Japan with the XIVth Dalai Lama. Each morning, when I take the elevator down with His Holiness to his hotel lobby at 8:30—in Yokohama, in Okinawa, in Sendai—he brings all of his being to every pre-school child he meets. At 84, he never rests once through the course of an eight-hour day.

How does he manage? By awakening every morning at 3:30, while I’m doing nothing at all, and preparing himself with four hours of meditation. I could never begin to bring such standards of discipline and devotion to my life. But if I spend even fifteen minutes being quiet, I know the fruits will be felt by everyone around me. We have to live in airports, some of us, to make a living, but we need to go somewhere larger, inwardly and externally, if ever we are going to make a life.

With that, I turn off my screen and walk back towards that church.

PICO IYER

Pico Iyer is the author of the best-selling TED Book, “The Art of Stillness,” and, just out, “Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan,” about his attempt to live quietly and simply.

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