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Pico Iyer on Our Models of Paradise – The Marginalian

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

“The mind is its own place, and in it self can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,” Milton wrote in his immortal Paradise Lost. 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 stunning and troubled world. We give it completely different names — eden, paradise, nirvana, poetry — but it surely 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 some of Earth’s best shrines to that longing in The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise (public library).

Art 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 words” 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 essentially 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 may not merely worsen our variations. And the pure place to embark upon such an inquiry — ought to we discard the notion of heaven totally? — gave the impression to be the tradition that had given us each our phrase for paradise and a few of our most soulful photographs of it.

In Jerusalem, he walks by means of the Damascus Gate to search out himself in “something 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 eternally imprinted him with the voice of interior stillness and the notice 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 facet of our ideas. Who we turn out to be — stop to turn out to be — after we put all concepts and theories behind us. I went typically 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 — had been the reality.

He arrives on the oceanic idyll of Sri Lanka within the lull of ceasefire after twenty years of violent preventing between the separatists and the federal government, not lengthy after a lethal tsunami devastated the island. Over and over, 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 an area temple:

The Buddhas… stared at me impassively. Onto the quiet faces within the solar I may undertaking something I wanted. Our one job is to make associates with actuality, I may think about them whispering — which is to say, with impermanence and struggling and demise; the unrest you are feeling will all the time have extra to do with you than with what’s round you. In one celebrated story, the Buddha had stumble upon a gaggle of picnickers who had been enraged as a result of they’d simply been robbed. “Which,” he’d famously requested, “is more important? To find the robbers or to find yourself?”

Walking by means of a cemetery in conflicted Kashmir, he thinks in regards to the bygone individuals buried beneath the stone inscriptions, and in regards to 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 all kinds of division as an alternative.


Few of them had most likely seen what was coming: our lives can solely be half identified 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 assume of it. We step out of the play with no probability to assume again on it — and whilst we’re attempting to make sense of life, issues are shifting, falling away from us on each facet. The older I received, the extra I started to really feel that nearly every thing that had occurred to me, good or unhealthy, appeared to have come out of nowhere. As Leonard Cohen, trustworthy for all times to the Old Testament, put it in a single of his remaining songs, we’re “none of us deserving the cruelty or the grace.”

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

He visits one other cemetery atop the sacred mountain three hours from his house in Japan, accompanied by the poems of Emily Dickinson — that supreme patron saint of demise, who believed that “wonder is not precisely knowing and not precisely knowing not.” In consonance with poet Mark Doty’s Whitman-fomented insistence that “even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death,” 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 cause for grief so much as a summons to attention.” He displays:

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

Complement The Half Known 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 the way to reside and the way to die.


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