Go with the slow

Words: Pico Iyer    Photographs: Aude Van Ryn


As our daily lives accelerate, it’s time to get up to speed with the distraction-free pleasures of slowness and the luxury of a leisurely pace

Some months ago, I went with my wife to spend four days at Tassajara, the first Zen training monastery established outside of Japan. The little cluster of simple cabins is tucked deep inside the Ventana Wilderness in Northern California, and we began our trip by driving for an hour inland from the pretty tourist town of Carmel. Then we pulled into a rough parking lot along the narrow road, got into another car and were jolted for 14 miles along a barely paved path in a black SUV driven by a tall, dark-gowned Zen abbess.

It was a dramatic journey, crossing high peaks and bumping down into secret valleys. Not a trace of human habitation could be seen. Everywhere we could see charred trunks from recent forest fires that had encircled the remote property again and again. And when we drove up to the great ceremonial gate, it was to be greeted by the mineral hot springs, the sumptuous vegetarian fare and the quiet meditation hall for which Tassajara has been famous since its founding 50 years ago.

Yet the greatest luxuries of all, I realised as the days went on, lay in everything that wasn’t there: no buzzing mobile phone, no beeping horns, no CNN. For almost a hundred hours we could lose ourselves in conversation and forget the time. We could take walks along a magical pathway of dim lanterns under multitudinous stars and not have to worry about being anywhere at 3pm. Neither my wife nor I are students of Zen — we were simply there as tourists — yet very soon we felt opened up and cleared out as we hadn’t felt in years.

The more the world accelerates, the greater a luxury it is to go slow. And the more distraction becomes our second nature — our boss just texted us, that old friend from childhood is sending us a Facebook posting and we know, too painfully, how our mother-in-law can get to us wherever we happen to be, around the clock — the more attention, and the real intimacy it awakens, comes to seem a prize. I still remember how, when I began travelling full-time, 30 years ago, my friends’ eyes lit up when I mentioned going to Cuba or Tibet. That still happens sometimes. But now that you can walk down the pulsing streets of Havana on YouTube and hear a red-robed lama speak in a library down the road, even as the phone is ringing and “BREAKING NEWS” is flashing across its screen, my pals look most envious when I speak of going nowhere.

Above: Aude Van Ryn (Aude Van Ryn)

I’m not surprised that many people now pay hundreds of dollars a night to go to “black hole” resorts, one of whose features is to divest you of laptop, mobile phone and tablet as soon as you arrive. More and more travellers I know long to see places on foot, at a human pace, or on a bicycle. Even the most luxurious of hotels often offer “No WiFi” nights or zones, or — ultimate indulgence! — no television in their rooms.

I’ll never forget a trip I took to Alaska in which, after a seven-hour ride on a dusty bus, I was deposited at a deserted cabin lacking electricity and running water. If I needed to relieve myself, I was told, I would have to walk through the dark to an outhouse. “Look out for bears!” cried the front-desk clerk, not so reassuringly, as she left me alone in the wilderness. I couldn’t begin to see why people came here and spent $600 a night on remoteness until I woke up and stepped into six million square acres of ringing silence, the 20,320-foot peak of Denali, the highest mountain in North America, shining in the Alpenglow before me. Within hours I felt restored and clarified — feeling myself — as seldom before.

It’s so easy to forget that a “holiday” is, at heart, a “holy day”, a chance to leave behind your usual life and recover something deeper. And it’s no surprise that every religious tradition stresses some version of a Sabbath, whether it’s the meditation encouraged by the Buddha or the journey into the wilderness undertaken by Jesus. You have to do nothing sometimes if you’re going to do anything at all. As the financier JP Morgan used to say, giving himself two months’ holiday every year, he could never achieve in 12 months what he did in 10.

Although catching your breath and taking a break have always been a treat, it has never been such a necessity as now. Every hour, the human race collects 15 times more data than exists in the entire US Library of Congress. The average American spends eight-and-a-half hours each day in front of a screen. The World Health Organisation has been quoted as saying that “the health epidemic of the 21st century” is not SARS or Ebola, but stress. Our weapons of mass distraction are not going to go away or get slower and we wouldn’t want them to. But the simple fact remains that where, when I was a kid, getting information seemed a large part of the point of taking a trip, now getting away from information can be the greater lure.

When I made my first journey to Namibia, four years ago, I was startled and moved to see desert rhinos in the distance, to visit German cottages near the Skeleton Coast and to be met by boisterous clapping songs every time I returned to my little resort. But as I flew out of the country, I realised that I’d experienced something even more transformative. For nine days and nights, I’d never set foot inside an elevator or upon a moving staircase. I’d never been in a traffic jam — or, in fact, seen any traffic at all. And in all that time, I’d made exactly one phone call — after I arrived in the capital, to my wife in Japan to remind her when I’d be home.

Instead, I’d lost myself in six-hour talks by firelight and walked out at dawn with a guide who pointed out a spotted eagle owl and the distant roar of a lion, as far as five miles away. It felt as if a lens cap had come off my consciousness and suddenly I was wide-awake, recalling what I really cared about. As a boy, my dream was to see 10 sights a day, at very high speed. But as sights and sounds — as headlines and deadlines — keep streaming in on us, now my dream is to do just one thing and to do it with all my being. It’s only when sitting still, I’ve come, remarkably, to find, that I can truly be moved.

Pico Iyer is a longtime essayist for Time magazine, a frequent contributor to The New York Times and the acclaimed author of novels and travel books. His most recent work is The Art of Stillness.

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