Pico Iyer on Our Fashions of Paradise – The Marginalian

In Search of the Sacred: Pico Iyer on Our Models of Paradise

“The thoughts is its personal place, and in it self could make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,” Milton wrote in his immortal Paradise Misplaced. With these human minds, arising from these materials our bodies, we preserve looking for heaven — to make heaven — in our myths and our mundanities, proper right here within the place the place we’re: on this lovely and troubled world. We give it completely different names — eden, paradise, nirvana, poetry — however it springs from the selfsame longing: to dwell in magnificence and freedom from struggling.

With soulful curiosity channeled in his ever-lyrical prose, Pico Iyer chronicles a lifetime of pilgrimages to a few of Earth’s biggest shrines to that longing in The Half Identified Life: In Search of Paradise (public library).

Artwork by Gilbert James from a 1900 English version of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyām.

He begins in Iran, replete with monuments to Omar Khayyām, who constructed “a paradise of phrases” together with his poems whereas revolutionizing astronomy — a spot of unusual magnificence and unusual terror, with roots as deep because the historical past of the written phrase, and residing branches as tangled as probably the most contradictory impulses of human nature:

After years of journey, I’d begun to surprise what sort of paradise can ever be present in a world of unceasing battle — and whether or not the very seek for it won’t merely worsen our variations. And the pure place to embark upon such an inquiry — ought to we discard the notion of heaven solely? — gave the impression to be the tradition that had given us each our phrase for paradise and a few of our most soulful photos of it.

In Jerusalem, he walks by means of the Damascus Gate to search out himself in “one thing as irreducible as life.” He visits the Himalayas and North Korea. As he travels, he’s reminded of the seventeen years he spent at a Benedictine monastery within the mountains of California — an expertise that endlessly imprinted him with the voice of inside stillness and the attention that presence is the elemental portal to the sacred:

Days, generally weeks, within the silence had given me a style of what lies on the far aspect of our ideas. Who we turn into — stop to turn into — after we put all concepts and theories behind us. I went usually by means of pages of Thomas Merton there, however they appeared to belong to the cacophony under the stillness; the golden pampas grass in entrance of me, the dry hills past, the fleecy clouds stealing up the hillside — not what I considered them — have been the reality.

He arrives on the oceanic idyll of Sri Lanka within the lull of ceasefire after twenty years of violent combating between the separatists and the federal government, not lengthy after a lethal tsunami devastated the island. Again and again, he finds himself considering the interaction of magnificence and brutality, in nature and human nature, studying the answer to the riddle within the nonetheless stone countenances of the statues in a neighborhood temple:

The Buddhas… stared at me impassively. Onto the quiet faces within the solar I might challenge something I wanted. Our one process is to make buddies with actuality, I might think about them whispering — which is to say, with impermanence and struggling and loss of life; the unrest you are feeling will all the time have extra to do with you than with what’s round you. In a single celebrated story, the Buddha had encounter a bunch of picnickers who have been enraged as a result of they’d simply been robbed. “Which,” he’d famously requested, “is extra essential? To search out the robbers or to search out your self?”

Strolling by means of a cemetery in conflicted Kashmir, he thinks concerning the bygone individuals buried beneath the stone inscriptions, and concerning the mercy of being blind to our personal fates:

I’d lengthy been drawn to graveyards within the locations the place cultures cross if solely as a result of headstones put each sort of division as a replacement.


Few of them had most likely seen what was coming: our lives can solely be half recognized insofar as their remaining act, which appears to place all that has come earlier than in place, is all the time hidden, and we seldom want to consider it. We step out of the play with no likelihood to assume again on it — and at the same time as we’re making an attempt to make sense of life, issues are shifting, falling away from us on each aspect. The older I bought, the extra I started to really feel that nearly every part that had occurred to me, good or unhealthy, appeared to have come out of nowhere. As Leonard Cohen, trustworthy for all times to the Outdated Testomony, put it in one in all his remaining songs, we’re “none of us deserving the cruelty or the grace.”

Liminal Days by Maria Popova. (Accessible as a print.)

He visits one other cemetery atop the sacred mountain three hours from his residence in Japan, accompanied by the poems of Emily Dickinson — that supreme patron saint of loss of life, who believed that “surprise shouldn’t be exactly figuring out and never exactly figuring out not.” In consonance with poet Mark Doty’s Whitman-fomented insistence that “even within the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there have to be room for loss of life,” Iyer arrives on the deepest craving of our paradisal pursuits whereas strolling the ghostly cemetery, conscious that within the Japanese imaginative and prescient of an afterlife, the transience of issues — the transience of us — is “not a trigger for grief a lot as a summons to consideration.” He displays:

The thought that we should die, I may need heard the 2 hundred thousand graves saying, is the rationale we should reside nicely.

Complement The Half Identified Life with Tolstoy’s imaginative and prescient of the afterlife and Iyer on discovering magnificence in impermanence and luminosity in loss, then savor this poetic meditation on find out how to reside and find out how to die.

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