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Mindful : April 2013
Iwakeupinmybedathomeand 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,Ithink,andapartofmeis 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 g reen. 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. Attention levels fall by 500% under jet lag, experts tell us. Yet when I land in an unfamilia r place, I’m suddenly wide awa ke, quickened by the foreign, a lert to everything around me, unable to take anything for g ranted. 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 defi- nitions. 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 reg ular life, and look around, astonished. Objects come to you with a heightened clarity, and in the rela- tive 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 g reat spaces of emptiness in the lunar light, the wind whistling in my ears. 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 g rowing heav y, he gets into a car and drives to some small-town motel for a few days, to recover his love of bars → Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of The Man Within My Head, a look at kindness, mystery, and conscience in the midst of the world’s confusions. April 2013 mindful 61