Once every season I try to go on retreat at a Benedictine monastery – the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California – for at least three days. I’m not Catholic, but it’s only by stepping out of the rush and the world of distraction that I can steady myself and remember what I most deeply care about. So for 28 years now I’ve been heading to this uncommonly radiant and open-hearted place, and those brief visits are what give purpose and grace to the other days of the season.
Although Pico Iyer has a home in Japan, the author actually lives in perpetual motion. In the four weeks he was writing his beautiful essay, “Rituals of the Fast‑moving World” for Air Canada enRoute, Iyer had travelled to France, Scotland, Japan, Singapore and Telluride, Colorado. This created a unique circumstance for his assignment. He describes it as, “the challenge of right now: how to sift through so many places, all speeding past in a blur, to find what really matters.” It’s a fair question, considering the writer’s dizzying itinerant lifestyle. It also explains why he makes a point of revisiting the following five places of deep meaning at regular intervals, to mark time and place along his journeys.
I’ve returned to Lhasa, Tibet, three times in three decades. In particular, I visit the Jokhang Temple, where I watch, amidst flickering candles, the dust-smeared, tear-streaked faces of pilgrims, many of whom have travelled 2,000 kilometres or more to pay homage to this sacred temple – some of them prostrating themselves every step of the way. Although I don’t practice Buddhism either, it’s impossible not to be uplifted and moved by the devotion and constancy of these faithful souls.
Every summer nowadays, I return with my wife to my birthplace of Oxford, in England, and make the 15-minute circuit around Addison’s Walk, in Magdalen College. Growing up, I always wanted, achingly, to flee my hometown for somewhere more filled with light, and blessed with bigger horizons. But after I hit 50, I started to appreciate Oxford’s beauty and to see it through the eyes of my wife, who’s Japanese. Now I like to take the same walk I used to take during my turbulent teenage years of uncertainty, aware that the subsequent years have been kind beyond all expectation.
I always spend as many late afternoons as I can walking along the eastern hills of Kyoto in November, as the sun sets and I can hear the evening bells ringing in Nanzenji and Chion-in and the other temples posted under the turning trees. In late November, the skies tend to be brilliant blue, even as the trees flame orange and gold and scarlet. Each visit to the eastern hills, which have seemed mysteriously familiar ever since I first saw them in 1984, feels like a journey to a secret shrine.
My five hours every day of writing at my desk, wherever I happen to be, trying to make sense of all I’ve seen and felt, have been my most steady and grounding ritual, ever since I became a full-time freelance writer in 1986. Even the night when my family home burned down in a wildfire, and I lost every last thing I owned, my first impulse, after being caught amid 20-metre flames for three hours, was to drive to a friend’s house and write out an account of what I’d just experienced, to send to my editors at Time magazine.