Photo Credit: Ryan Lash/TED

Staying grounded inMidair

June 15, 2015

It's the balance between Pico Iyer's interior landscapes -- sometimes distant, sometimes intimate -- and the places he explores that sets him apart from other travel writers. An essayist for Time since 1982 and a former Harvard writing professor, Iyer has published several books, and his articles and essays have appeared in media outlets from Vanity Fair to National Geographic.

Refusing to be easily categorized, he has also written the liner notes for four Leonard Cohen albums.

Last year, he gave a TED talk on "The Art of Stillness," in which he discussed his belief that in order to reap the full benefits of travel and movement, one needs to make time for its complementary opposite: stillness. After the presentation, TED asked him to write a book on the topic for its fledgling publishing division, and "The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere" (TED Books/Simon & Schuster, 2014) was the second book it released.

This volume in turn inspired Delta Airlines, a longtime TED partner, to create a physical experience that would capture how an abstract concept, "Stillness in Motion," ties in with the company's suite of in-air products, which they believe enhances productivity, even at 35,000 feet.

The result was shown in an exhibit space at the last TED Conference in Vancouver in March. The corporate-sponsored art installation involved a light-and-sound chamber, biometric sensors and a small white, lighted orb that beats to the rhythm of your heart.

Here, Pico Iyer writes exclusively for Travel Weekly about his experience trying out the chamber and the personal philosophy that enables him to remain grounded in midair


I stepped into the private space, the size of a small library, inside the hypercongested Vancouver Convention Centre and placed the little "orb" I'd been given, a white weighted ping-pong ball of sorts, onto a pedestal. Then I sat down in the intricate chamber of mirrors, one hand on each of the spacious chair's arms, as music began rising softly around me, while white and purple lights started flashing and subsiding on every side of me.

Outside, I could see the still blue waters of Coal Harbour, green hills climbing up to the sky behind them; inside, I could feel the soothing effects of light and sound. By the time I got up, only 90 seconds later, I'd enjoyed a trip of a lifetime, as if I'd traveled across the universe without getting up from my chair. Yet that little white orb, measuring my heartbeat, showed I was quantifiably calmer than I'd been just two minutes before.

The peace I felt in that room was doubly strange because I was in the middle of the annual TED conference, an exhilarating whirlwind of lectures, conversations and presentations from the likes of Bill Gates and Al Gore and the co-founder of Twitter; it felt like being inside a jam-packed airport filled with the world's most high-flying souls.

But the experiential marketing agency MKG had constructed this extraordinary installation for Delta Airlines to remind us how, in a world of movement, nothing can be more urgent, more luxurious, than sitting still. Even more surprising, this state-of-the-art museum piece, offering a minute-and-a-half of stillness in a world of motion (and commotion), had been inspired by a small book I'd just published on how travel can give us sights, but it's only being still that turns those into insights.

TED, Delta inspired by Iyer's 'Stillness'
Ryan Lash/TED
TED, Delta inspired by Iyer's 'Stillness'

If an airline had to reduce its essence to one word, "movement" might be a frontrunner. How then did Delta Airlines decide to use "stillness" as the central theme of what it called a "brand activation" at TED, attended by 1,500 of the world's most influential people? Read More

All of us know the sensation: You take a mind-blowing trip to New Orleans or Paris for 10 days and savor every last second of it. But if the trip is a really good one, you will spend the next 10 months, or years, going over your photos, reading your journal again and again, re-creating stray moments in the French Quarter or in Notre Dame, trying to incorporate aspects of what you've seen and felt in your life. The journey serves up the food that you can digest only when you're back home, sitting still.

This is nothing new. What is new is that more and more of us are living at the speed of light rather than the speed of life. With 40 international travelers for every one in 1960 and the human race accumulating 12 times more information every hour as exists in the entire Library of Congress, more and more of us have begun to hunger for a way to step out of the bombardment of experience and turn it into meaning -- or peace of mind at least.

Guests spend hundreds of dollars a night on "black hole" resorts, one of whose amenities is the chance to hand over your iPhone or iPad on arrival and enjoy a "digital detox" for a few days. Elegant hotels offer "no WiFi" on Thursdays or walking courses to free you from your devices and your congested habits. Monasteries and retreat houses serving up emptiness and simplicity get booked up six months in advance. And many of my friends have almost registered sadness as airlines advertise WiFi at 39,000 feet; the plane had become the one place where we could escape breaking news, status updates, tweets, texts and phone calls.

About 700 attendees at TED’s conference, held March 16 to 20, experienced the Delta “Stillness in Motion Experience,” which was inspired by a quote from a recent book by Pico Iyer: “In an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.”
About 700 attendees at TED’s conference, held March 16 to 20, experienced the Delta “Stillness in Motion Experience,” which was inspired by a quote from a recent book by Pico Iyer: “In an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.” Photo Credit: Ryan Lash/TED

I've been traveling uninterruptedly for almost half a century now, and I've noticed how travel has moved from an emphasis on weight to an emphasis on lightness. When I was going to school by plane from the age of 9, the big luxury often seemed to have a lot of space; now the great luxury is having a lot of time. When in my 18th year I was spending every season on a different continent, I dreamed of staying in hotels that looked like palaces; now I, and many others, hunger for a spa.

And when I began writing, going to Cuba or Tibet was a huge adventure; now we can see aspects of those cultures even on our smartphones, not to mention in our hometowns. It's going nowhere that has come to seem like the biggest treat. Nothing looks more sumptuous than some empty space in one's calendar, or one's head.

Hence, the new lure of going somewhere where you can afford to do nothing. Of taking a hike into a wilderness where there's no cell phone reception. Of recovering what we need most and sometimes get least these days: a sense of intimacy, of attention and of absorption. With the World Health Organization naming stress as "the health epidemic of the 21st century," one in every three American corporations has found itself introducing stress-reduction programs for its workers.

As I emerged from the remarkable "Stillness in Motion" installation at TED, I thought back to a conversation I'd had with a French Buddhist monk who is constantly on his way to the next World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, or TED talk. A 210-minute functional MRI, after all, had found Matthieu Ricard to have scores for peace of mind and joy that had never before been seen in neurological literature; the media had promptly dubbed him "the happiest man alive."

"How do you deal with all the travel?" I asked the red-robed wanderer.

He looked at me, astonished. "When I'm on a plane," he said, "there's nowhere else I can be. Everything is brought to me in my seat. I can enjoy a view no human had seen in my grandparents' time -- of boundless blue skies, or the mountains below. It's like a perfect mini-retreat in the heavens!"

A small, lighted orb was used to measure the heartbeat of Pico Iyer as he took in Delta’s “Stillness in Motion Experience” at TED.
A small, lighted orb was used to measure the heartbeat of Pico Iyer as he took in Delta’s “Stillness in Motion Experience” at TED. Photo Credit: Ryan Lash/TED

The next time I was flying, I tried to see the experience in the same liberating light. Suddenly, I saw what astonishments were available through my window at every moment. Acres of blue and fields of white; the simple beauty of angling down over the grids of light across Los Angeles as the sun sinks into the sea.

Now, I just need to remind myself that I can find the same sense of peace and transport even when I'm on the ground. And that movement is by no means incompatible with clarity and calm. Travel is how I make a living, I sometimes tell friends; stillness is how I make a life.