Pico’s foreword
Words by Pico Iyer



I was sleeping, very deeply, in the two-room flat I share in Nowhere, Japan with my wife last year when suddenly the phone began to ring. No good news comes at 4.37am.

As it went on ringing, something in me froze. I fumbled my way across the darkened room and picked up the receiver, to hear a strange voice at the other end.

“Pico Iyer?” it said. “Yes,” I assured him.

“I’d like to speak to Pico Iyer, please.” “That’s me.”

“You don’t know me,” said the voice, “but I’m a nurse here at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, and your mother just had a stroke. She’s scheduled for a six-hour surgery day after tomorrow, and it would be good if you could get back here.”

Naturally, I scrambled to get on the next flight back — United Airlines couldn’t have been more gracious in finding a seat for me when I mentioned the urgency — and, as it happened, I spent the next 35 days by my mother’s bedside in the Intensive Care Unit, as shepulled away from me, towards seeming extinction, and then came back again.

Her only living close relative, I spent much of the next 35 days thinking and thinking about what could sustain me in this long limbo. What could support her?

Certainly the many trips I’ve taken, the websites I’ve drifted around, the parties or adventures I’ve enjoyed were not going to be of much use now: life throws us a challenge, and we find ourselves turning to an inner savings account that sometimes (we realise too late) we’ve never thought about keeping full.

My drama with my mother, who seems better now, for now, was not exceptional: indeed, to me it seemed like the kind of house-call that reality regularly pays on every one of us, however abundant (or depleted) our external bank-account. A car suddenly accelerates towards us on the wrong side of the road; a doctor clears his throat as he comes back into the room: the one thing that unites us, I sometimes feel, is that we all have to rise to occasions for which little has prepared us. And when we do, we scramble for sustenance and guidance.

Wisdom is as everywhere as it’s always been, but in our ever more fractured, fast-forward world, it’s hiding out in a million places. More and more of us love to go on retreat, but fewer and fewer people actually become monks. We all crave the sense of clarity and direction that religions have traditionally provided, but so many of us now are wary of aligning ourselves with specific faiths — or, trying to broker a peace between Hindu parents and Christian friends and our Buddhist wife (in my, quite typical, case), realise that we’re not really comfortable excluding half our lives.

The Dalai Lama’s last major book was actually entitled Beyond Religion, and advanced the same message I’ve heard from him almost every day over the 42 years I’ve been talking and travelling with him: religion is a wonderful luxury, but what all of us are crying out for now is basic “secular ethics,” a guide towards kindness and responsibility. Religion, he sometimes suggests, is the tea that gives savour and variety to life; but simple, non-religious attention and compassion are the water without which we cannot survive.

I’ve never been one of those people eager to place myself in a box or category — and growing up as the child of Indian parents, in England, whose official residence was in California, and whose inner compass was directed towards Japan, I seldom felt I was in a position to do so. Questions have always opened doors and windows for me that answers would slam shut,and anything that suggests a “final solution” doesn’tquite make sense to someone who’s not sure that cycles ever end or that there are solutions to everything.

It’s this very spirit — of living in the space between certainties, while hungering for wise prompts and a light to steer by — that seems to me to make me in fact a member of the largest community around: the people of the 21st century.

I say all this just to welcome you to a magazine, SATORI, that I hope may offer us some companionship and even comfort along the road, and stimulate (or infuriate) us as the best friends do. There are —I know — wonderful magazines for Buddhists and Christians and non-believers, for followers of Marx or Jung or Chopra or Dawkins; but what I love to read are publications that are as uncertain, as inconsistent, as questing as I am, and that I can tell are alive because I never know what’s coming next.

None of us knows where this journey — or where future issues of SATORI — will take us. But to me, as a lifelong traveller, that’s the excitement and the beauty of it.

You’re in the Intensive Care Unit, and it’s many hours before daybreak. Where do you turn?


This essay was the foreword to Issue One of SATORI, which was guest edited by Pico Iyer. Pico, best known for his travel writing, publishes regularly in Time, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and many other publications. picoiyerjourneys.com

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

Created by Duncan Woods & Seb Camilleri