Why Traveling to a New City Is Like a Retreat

Travel can be thrilling, challenging, disorienting, but for Pico Iyer there is peace in unfamiliar places.

Zarya Maxim/Adobe Stock

I wake up in my bed at home and know the time without looking at my watch. Thick fog blankets the city below. I walk in my sleep up the stairs to the kitchen and almost reflexively get out some tea bags and heat some water. I shower and shave and go to my desk. I know how this day will go, I think, and a part of me is right. I’m on top of my life—in the middle of it—and I can guide and control how it goes.

That part is almost entirely wrong.

Three days later, I get off a plane in Shanghai. Lights are streaming all around me from the city’s 7,000 skyscrapers, each of them bathed in a different neon glow, purple or electric blue or green. A Maglev train, flying a few inches above the ground, whisks me into the heart of the labyrinth at 250 miles per hour. I walk through narrow alleyways, Chinese characters exploding around me, and all the teeming energies of 23 million people trying to make their future before tomorrow. I can’t read anything around me—can’t tell north from south or right from wrong. I only know that, 16 hours out of sync, I’ve stepped into a realm in my subconscious where certainties are gone and I have to give myself over to a larger logic.

Landing at Your Destination

Attention levels fall by 500% under jet lag, experts tell us. Yet when I land in an unfamiliar place, I’m suddenly wide awake, quickened by the foreign, alert to everything around me, unable to take anything for granted. I’ve also stepped out of my daily haze, the somnambulism that is my life, and now the world can work on me as it sends me careening, pinball-like, from one shadowy corner to another. My possessions take up no more than a carry-on and small suitcase. I’m sleeping in a tiny, bare room that I can barely recognize. Nobody knows me or can begin to place me. Even better, I know nothing and exist outside all definitions. Everything is up for grabs.

Now I’m closer to the truth than I ever am when I think I know it all. 

Any trip that has meaning enjoys some of the qualities of a retreat: you step back a little from the world you know, walk out of what you too easily call your regular life, and look around, astonished. Objects come to you with a heightened clarity, and in the relative starkness of your circumstances, you can better make out the patterns of your mind and life, since everything is highlighted against a single, bold-color backdrop. Many a meditation session involves a kind of shock therapy; I get nearly the same riding the bus for 10 hours in India. Many a silent retreat is about clearing your head so as to see the passing clouds within the mind; I get that when I’m sitting on a mountain in treeless Iceland, looking out across great spaces of emptiness in the lunar light, the wind whistling in my ears.

Any trip that has meaning enjoys some of the qualities of a retreat: you step back a little from the world you know, walk out of what you too easily call your regular life, and look around, astonished.

Jim Harrison, the great maverick poet and chronicler of the wild, has written that whenever he feels himself slipping into the deadness of routine, his eyelids growing heavy, he gets into a car and drives to some small-town motel for a few days, to recover his love of bars and the human form, and the immensities of the American landscape. Ishmael begins his story in Moby Dick by confiding, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

Travel and Mindfulness

I find that I use travel as a similar kind of training in mindfulness. As soon as I’m on the road, my eyes are open—and with them, my heart—life has real stakes and somehow I am far enough from the illusion of a life of my own to try to find a kinder way of moving through the world.

With the blinkers gone and the markers uncertain, I get confronted every hour with a riddle of right action or a stab to the heart. A child comes up to me in a Haitian street, hand extended, his eyes a plaintive search: what is the right thing to do? I can’t hide behind the flimsy structures of my life. I stumble into a movie house in Beirut, and somehow watching The Human Stain affects me with an intensity that it would never find in the more populated, distracted busy streets of home. My résumé, my contacts, are not going to get me anywhere in the wastelands around LAX; I have to find what’s human in the midst of what seems utterly impersonal.

Only by stepping backstage can I begin to have a sense of what is real and what is not.

More than 70 times over the past 21 years, I’ve gone on actual retreats, moving away from home to inhabit real stillness. No other adventure I’ve experienced can compare with silence for reminding me of what’s impossible to argue away, and bringing to light the larger picture in the canvas in which we’re so often lost. The essential things in my life rise to the top, as everything buoyant does when held underwater. After a few days of stillness, I know incontestably what I care about and what I should do with my life, in part because there’s no “I” in the sentence. Only by stepping backstage can I begin to have a sense of what is real and what is not.

But travel, even to a less composed and collected place, can have the same effect, if it’s approached in a clarifying light. We travel, as writers from Proust to Henry Miller have noticed, not in search of new sights but new eyes. And with new eyes even the oldest things come to life.

Shifting Your Perspective

Travel is about being moved, and if we are moved far enough from the easy ways in which we define ourselves, we can live more comfortably with uncertainty and surrender. I stepped into the Potala Palace in Lhasa in 1985 and, very quickly, I felt myself to be not just on the “Rooftop of the World,” but on the rooftop of my being. Perhaps it was the high, thin air, the shocking clarity of the cobalt skies, the combined effects of culture shock and jet lag. But suddenly I was seeing things as from a high mountaintop, with fewer agendas and obscurations than usual, as if being reminded of the lens I carry round with me all the time but so often ignore.

Travel is an exercise in perception, a way of shifting your perspectives. The hope is always that you will have less and less to distract you, even if life presents more and more that confounds you. It’s not a matter of finding answers, in short, but of clarifying the questions—and then finding the courage to live with them. The traveler quickly learns that uncertainty is his home and impermanence his most loyal companion. The layover that is so excruciating for one wayfarer can bring to another sanctuary, a way of gathering thoughts (the better to let them go). And nowhere is uninteresting to an eye that’s wide awake. It was an overnight stay at Narita airport, of all places, and a three-hour trip into the small town near Tokyo’s airport, and its pilgrims’ temple, that prompted me to decide to move to Japan 25 years ago.

Our journeys, the traveler learns, are defined not by their destinations but by their starting points, the ways we choose to approach the destination; nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. Once when I was flying from Frankfurt to Los Angeles, I found myself next to a young woman from Berlin. We talked a little, but otherwise, for the 11 hours of the flight, she didn’t sleep, didn’t read, didn’t turn on her video screen. She simply sat in her chair, looking ahead. Just before we touched down, I asked her where she was going and she told me she was a social worker, on her way to a month-long holiday in Hawaii. The long plane trip was the way she prepared for