It didn’t take long for author and world traveler Pico Iyer to describe where he feels most at home. After all, he spends half the year in rural Japan, the other half traveling and chronicling his adventures with a temporary base in Santa Barbara.
“Home is where I am right now, here,” he said. “Home is constantly evolving, a mosaic, a stained-glass window. A lot of people feel neither here nor there, but I’ve always thought that home existed inside of me.”
Such philosophical insights were at the heart of Iyer’s presentation, “Weapons of Mass Distraction: Keeping our Sanity and Balance in a High-Speed, Displacing World,” on Thursday, May 15.
He was the featured speaker in the final edition of UC San Diego Extension’s 2013-14 Helen Edison Lecture Series. Held at Price Center East Ballroom, the wide-ranging session was moderated by Peter Gourevitch, distinguished professor emeritus of political science at UC San Diego.
For starters, Iyer related to the current San Diego County wildfires by reading a short passage from one of his books, “The Open Road: The Global Journal of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.”
In graphic detail, the passage told how Iyer’s longtime family home in the Santa Barbara foothills was destroyed by fire in 1990, when he was 30. An emerging author, he lost much of his writings and belongings.
Late that night, he bought a toothbrush, then “my only earthly possession.”
His life turned "upside down" and inward, he said, to the teachings of the Dalai Lama and other spiritual leaders and authors. It led him to purchase a small home in the rural mountains of Japan, with only the very basic conveniences of modernity, where he still spends half of every year, writing in quiet contemplation.
"I'm fairly sure, at one point or another, maybe more than once, you will suddenly lose a loved one, or a doctor will come into your room with a dark expression," he said. "In a matter of seconds, your whole life could be overturned. And what you regarded as your roots will be swept out from under you.
"And suddenly, you have to re-think home."
More recently, Iyer willingly resists smart phones and electronic tablets, though not having them makes his career more taxing. He cited the recent rise of "Internet Sabbaths" taken by high-ranking Google executives.
“None of the problem lies with the machines,” he said, “it only lies within me. The machines, we all know, make our lives better. It’s just that, when we get a new toy, we get fixated on the new and forget the old. And we lose all sense of proportion.”
Iyer also spoke of recent findings in what’s called “interruption science,” in which “it takes an average human being 25 minutes to recover his or her attention after a phone call. And interruptions now come every 11 minutes. In other words, we’re never caught up.”
Asked by Gourevitch how he defined happiness, Iyer said simply: “I’m happiest when I’m completely absorbed, reading a good book. … Literature is my scripture.”