The Power Of Perspective With Pico Iyer

5 Feb , 2024 podcasts

The Power Of Perspective With Pico Iyer

CMO Pico Iyer | Power Of Perspective


Our guest in this episode once famously said, “We live our lives in the Outer world, and we understand them through the Inner.” It is this inner knowing that shows us the power of perspective, of viewing the world from our own vantages and making do of what we can to change lives—our own and others. Katherine Twells is with no other than renowned essayist and novelist, Pico Iyer. With everything that has happened and is happening in the world, Pico grounds us in stillness by reflecting on the wisdom that these moments provide. He takes us on a retreat of really observing what we can learn in this life journey we are on despite the chaos. From his travels around the world, Pico shares the many lessons he encountered from various experiences and people he met. Throughout this conversation, he reminds us of the beauty that is ever present in our world; we just have to open our eyes and shift our perspective to see them. Stay still and listen to the wisdom that flows in today’s episode.

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The Power Of Perspective With Pico Iyer

A Special Session From The Compassion Lab Speaker Series

This episode is somewhat of a special session and we are taking our October Speaker Series and moving it over to this platform to share the content here. I felt like what Pico had to share with us was very much worth sharing with you. Pico has become a friend of the lab and of the company, as he’s spoken at several events of ours over the years. I find that every single time Pico speaks, there’s something else I learned about how to be present, how to be mindful, and how to appreciate the life that is unfolding in front of me. I hope you’ll find the same now as you read the conversation because there is so much thoughtfulness in his words. Without any further delay, please enjoy the conversation with the amazing Pico Iyer.

For everyone, Pico is joining us from Japan. We are so grateful that he was willing to talk to the Coca-Cola Company. Thank you so much, Pico. You were born in Oxford, England and you won a King’s Scholarship to Eton and then a demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was awarded a Congratulatory Double First with the highest marks of any English Literature student in the university.

In 1980, he became a Teaching Fellow at Harvard, where he received a second Master’s degree, and in subsequent years, he received an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters. Since 1982, he has been a full-time writer publishing 15 books translated into 23 languages on subjects ranging from the Dalai Lama to globalism. This book includes such long-running sellers as Video Night in Katmandu, The Lady and the Monk, The Global Soul, The Open Road, and one of my personal favorites, The Art of Stillness.

He’s also written an introduction to more than 70 other books as well as a screenplay from Miramax. At the same time, he has been writing up to 100 articles a year for Time Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and more than 250 others. His four TED Talks have received more than 10 million views so far. Pico often says that we live our lives in the outer world, yet we understand them through the inner. His ability to observe the world with great wisdom and share it through his brilliant writing with all of us. Welcome Pico Iyer.

Thank you so much, Kathy. I’m honored and delighted to be here and to be at Coke again. Thank you for such beautiful words. I wish even half of them were true, but I will aspire to make them true. Thank you so much.

Strength Of Stillness

I should add humility to the list, which you certainly are because you live so much of your work. We first met many years ago when you joined us at the CMO Summit. I forget what year it was. I think it was ’17 or ’18. We had a summit in Silicon Valley. We were talking about technology, AI, and all of these crazy fast-paced changes and then you got on the stage and talked about the strength of stillness. I think you could have heard a pin drop at the change in energy from this go and go to dropping into a point of reflection. It was amazing.

Thank you. As I listen to that, I realize that’s probably the trajectory of my life because it didn’t come up in your introduction, but I used to live that very fast-paced life with a 25th-floor office in Midtown Manhattan, and it couldn’t have been more exhilarating. I was having the time of my life, but I thought, “This can’t be the whole of the story.” I thought the perfect complement to being a writer for Time Magazine in Midtown Manhattan was living in a monastery in Kyoto. I went straight from my apartment on Park Avenue South and 20th to a little room on the back streets of Kyoto along the Eastern Hills. I thought, “Whatever happens and doesn’t happen here, it’ll be an adventure. It’ll be the right way of rounding off what I’ve learned in New York City.”

Wisdom From The Pandemic

From Manhattan to the monastery, that is a very different downshift from presentations at the summit. That’s a whole downshift of your life. We’re going to talk about that. Pico and I are going to have a conversation about the value of stillness, reflection, retreat, and observing what we learn in this life journey that we’re on. Pico, I want to start out with this first question for you that talks about the times we’re living in.

The pandemic was a pivotal moment for all of us. Talk about a full stop on what was happening in our lives. Even though we’re in the endemic phase now and there are still plenty of conversations about it, the world is moving again although I would never use the phrase back to normal. I don’t think there is a normal. I think we’re learning how to adapt to this world. Can you share with us what have you learned from that moment in time and how can we take greater wisdom into the moment before us?

As you’re saying, nobody needs to be reminded of all the sorrow and anxiety caused by the pandemic pretty much every living human, but a part of me felt it was opening doors and windows that otherwise might have been closed forever in my life. I remember suddenly for eighteen months, I was living at a human pace and at a human scale. I was suddenly making contact again with old friends. I was spending 200 straight days at my mother’s dinner table, which hadn’t happened since I was nine years old.

Since my mother died, not related to COVID, in July 2021, I was so grateful that I could spend almost all her final fifteen months on Earth with her as never would have happened otherwise. The main thing I felt, and I’m sure everybody else had some version of this, is that living so close to death made me think about how I wanted to live and how I wanted to change my life. As you were suggesting, in 2019, part of me thought I was speeding at 90 miles on our around blind curves not knowing where I was going or whether I was even going in the right direction.

CMO Pico Iyer | Power Of Perspective

Power Of Perspective: Living so close to death really made me think about how I wanted to live and how I wanted to change my life.


Coming to that full stop jolted me out of these very unthinking habits and made me think about what kind of better habits I might want to enjoy going forward. One tiny example is that in the last seven months of 2019, I spent almost entirely in mid-air. Probably like many people who work for Coke, I was constantly going between Europe, Asia, and North America. Suddenly, I couldn’t go anywhere. I was staying in my mother’s house with my wife and the health club was shattered, but we still needed some exercise.

Every morning, we started taking a walk along the road behind my mother’s house and it was very early. The sun was just coming up over the hills. This was in Santa Barbara, California. Parts of the hills were flooded with light and other parts were in thick fog. We’d walk up the hills. We’d turn around and we’d see the Pacific Ocean in the distance with the island so sharp we could almost count the ridges in it. I thought, “This is as beautiful as anything. I would fly across the world to see Cape Town or Rio de Janeiro.”

It was in my backyard and my parents had lived in that property for 50 years at that time. I never walked to the end of the road just twenty minutes away until the pandemic necessitated it. Probably a lot of people reading this had something of that same experience. They are discovering their neighborhoods and what is important to them. Also, remembering what their priorities are and thinking we don’t have to travel around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. They are right here.

One of the main things I was thinking during the pandemic is it reminded me that I have much less control over external environments than I had imagined, but I also have much more control over the inner landscape than I’d suspected. Every day when I woke up, I thought, “I have a choice. I can either be frustrated with all the things I can’t do and all the places I can’t go or I can be great for all the things I do have.”

My mother was still healthy. My wife and I were fine. We were living in this lovely part of California that 98% of the people on the planet would die to live for. I have a job that allows me to continue doing it even during lockdown. There was so much to be happy about or at least to be grateful for. This was a useful lesson post-pandemic. Every morning if I woke up and turned on the news, I would feel powerless in about five minutes. The hospitals in Iran were overcrowded. There were bodies building up in Bolivia.

I feel there was nothing I in my little life could begin to do to help those situations. I then take my walk and I would be flooded with light and possibility. I am reminded of all the beauties of the world. I thought, “Every morning, I have a choice about what I will attend to. Will I look at what’s going to cut me up and make me feel demoralized and hopeless or am I going to look at what opens me up and reminds me of all the possibilities I still have with relative good health?”

Like most people, when I was a kid, in high school, we had to read Hamlet. There was that great line in Hamlet. “There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” When I was sixteen, I couldn’t get that, but the more the Earth has gone on, I’ve realized that our lives are determined not by what happens to us but by what we do with what happens to us.

Our lives are really determined not by what happens to us, but by what we do with what happens to us. Click To Tweet

Pretty much everyone on the planet was going through the same thing during the pandemic, but some people thought, “Maybe this will allow me to live a little differently,” and some people were chafing against the reality that’s hard to argue against. It was a wake-up call for me and a reminder to think clearly about how I want to live the rest of my life.

Pico, as you’re talking, I think about the choice we have in every moment between fear and love. We can turn on the news and we can think of all the horrible things that could happen or we can look around at what we’re surrounded with like the beauty of nature, the beauty of our friends, and our family and the people that we work with as well. This is so valuable. I’m curious how you think about it.

As we gather here in 2023, I remember thinking surely coming out of that that we would take on a slower pace or we would take that wisdom with us, but why do I feel like we’ve snapped back like a rubber band and we’re going faster than ever? We missed each other. Now, we want to go to every conference and we want to be together. There’s a beauty in that, but we’re a little dizzy again. What would you say about how we take the wisdom of these moments with us?

I remember at the beginning of March 2022. This was just after I’d spent six days in the quarantine hotel in Osaka. The pandemic was still all around us, but in six days, I was in Osaka, Tokyo, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Qatar, and Zanzibar. I sailed across the Indian Ocean to see the Seychelles, and the next week, I was in Dubai, Bangkok, and Osaka again.

As you suggested, at a time when travel is more crazy and crowded than ever before, I’ve been traveling constantly for years and it’s never been as difficult as it is now just getting from LA to San Francisco and Atlanta to New York can take days these days. I thought, “Have I learned anything at all?” I think subliminally, I am a little different person than I was in 2019. I bet many of us are under the surface.

I noticed I say no to much more than I used to do. I take much less for granted. I’ll make my plans for what I’m going to do in 2024, but I have a keen sense that something may come along to sweep them away as with the pandemic, forest fire, flood, or who knows what it will be. I also take less for granted in the sense that now is a bright early autumn day and I get to talk to you. Let me rejoice in this. Let me not escape through this as another hour in another day, but be so glad that I get to do these things that I can’t always do and maybe won’t always be able to do.

If I had ten years left of a relatively healthy life, what would I want to be doing? What do I care about? What is most important? At the very practical level, I’m realizing as I see you, we couldn’t have had this event a few years ago. If you invited me to the Compassion Lab in 2019, I perhaps had to fly all the way to the US and that might have taken four days of my time. It would have been much more expensive for Coca-Cola.

This conversation itself is a tiny example of the way in which necessity was the mother of invention. We’ve seen possibilities we haven’t thought of before. I never would get to talk to everyone here now without the pandemic. I think in any situation, the changes are at a much more subliminal level than the continuity. As you said, we’re moving around more crazily than ever but I think something in us has shifted for the better.

The Power Of Retreat

I think that all things that happen whether they’re on a global level or personal level. You can’t help but shift in some way and it’s not always visible on the outside, but it’s definitely visible on the inside as we start to grow and evolve as humans. Let’s talk about the power of retreat. The pandemic was a forced retreat and I think where we’re trying to recalibrate now is how do we find that same level of peace, observation, and grounding within the chaos of our lives.

Also, chaos isn’t always bad. Chaos can create invention. Chaos is how many things are born and it can be fun and exhilarating but only if we keep it from going over to a point of depletion. You and I share a love for a certain retreat center in Big Sur where you spent a lot of time in retreat. Some people do take the time to go away on retreat, but for other people, it’s not what they want to do or they feel like they don’t have the time and maybe they just need to take an afternoon retreat. Can you talk a little bit about the power of stopping and the power of stillness within the movement?

In your introduction, you said beautifully how the outer world is only defined by the inner world in some ways. I remember coming across this quote from the German philosopher of 600 years ago Meister Eckhart. He said as long as the inner work is strong, the outer will never be puny. In other words, as long as things are okay within, your relationships and your work, the rest of your life can take care of itself.

As you know, I’ve been lucky enough to spend 49 years talking and traveling with the Dalai Lama. I think the main thing I’ve learned from him is that when there’s a problem with your car, you don’t just repaint the body. You open the hood and you get to work with the engine. I think that’s what a retreat is for me. It’s the one time when I don’t do anything and therefore, when I can think about everything and decide where I need to be going in my life.

CMO Pico Iyer | Power Of Perspective

Power Of Perspective: When there’s a problem with your car, you don’t just repaint the body. You open the hood and you get to work with the engine.


In other words, it’s where I can take in the larger picture because I feel that we’re often so close to our lives and so close to our world. We can’t make sense of it. It’s only by stepping back or stepping away as you said for an afternoon or ideally for a weekend that suddenly we can go back into our lives with a much sharper sense of direction. It goes back a little bit to what you were asking about the pandemic because I realized one way that I’ve changed in a very tiny way is that I take walks twice a day.

That’s much better for my health than not doing so but it’s also so much better for my work. One reason that I left New York City to move to an empty room in the backstreets of Kyoto was that when I was working in Midtown Manhattan, I was often putting in sixteen-hour days. Two nights a week, we’d be there until after midnight. In those sixteen-hour days, I was probably getting about five hours of work done. The rest would be long lunches, chitchat, and waiting for the boss to get back to me.

As soon as I went to an empty room in Japan, I realized I could get eight hours of work done every day and still have eight hours free to wander around this magical wondrous place. It was a small reminder that sometimes by stepping away from your desk, you get much more done. As I say, even the two walks I take every day which are only for twenty minutes, when I go back to my desk I have a much stronger sense of what I should do and where I should go.

I think we sometimes underestimate how fast the world is accelerating around us. Everybody reading this is going to take in more information just now than Shakespeare did in his entire lifetime. Does that make us wiser than Shakespeare? I think we can almost be the opposite. I remember when I first began writing, it seemed like the great luxury we all craved was information. My job was to bring information to my readers.

Now, I think what we crave is freedom from information. We have too much data coming in on us. What we need is to be able to step back to put it all in perspective and sift the trivial from the essential. As you say, I’ve been on retreat in this Benedictine Hermitage more than 100 times over the last 32 years. Sometimes for three days and sometimes for three weeks. I’m not a Christian so I don’t do anything specifically religious there but just take walks, read, and let my imagination go for a walk.

It means that I come back fresh, joyful, and much more full of kindness towards my friends and colleagues than I would have otherwise because the rest of the time, I’m exhausted or distracted. I’ll snap at them if they want to talk to me. As soon as I take a deep breath and step away, I can come back and remember what I love in them and what I love about my job. As you say, not everybody has even the luxury of taking three days off. You have little kids. You have all kinds of obligations but I made for myself the 3% rule.

I said, “Ideally, I will spend 3% of my days on retreat which is three days every season, but if you can’t manage that, I tell myself to spend 3% of my day just sitting quietly in a room without my devices.” It’s 3% of my waking days is only twenty minutes. When I wake up, I go and gather my thoughts and I did that now even though I was waking up quite early because I was seeing you at 4:45 AM. I deliberately set aside twenty minutes and I thought, “In order to talk to Kathy, let me sit here and take a deep breath. Study my heart and mind. Think about what I want to engage with.” None of that time is going to be wasted.

If I were running around and trying to collect my emails, all of that time probably would be wasted. The Tibetans have this great phrase. It’s much better to dig one well that’s 60 feet deep than ten wells that are six feet deep each. I find that with my social interactions, too. I’d much rather have a three-hour conversation with you than 60 three-minute conversations.

I think that principle in this age of short attention spans, it’s only when we extend our attention span that we can open up to something much more spacious inside us and around us. If you don’t have the time to go on retreat and if you don’t have the inclination to sit for twenty minutes without your devices, then go for a run, swim, cook, or paint. Take a hike and leave your cell phone at home.

It's only when we really extend our attention span that we can open up to something much more spacious inside us and around us. Click To Tweet

I think probably everybody who’s reading this does something like that already but I think as much as we do, we need to do more because the world is accelerating. Even a few years ago, you probably know there was this new science called interruption science. They found that it takes the average person 25 minutes to recover her attention fully after a phone call. Yet the average person in a gathering such as this receives a phone call every eleven minutes. We’re never caught up.

Also, the more we try to keep up with the moment, the further we fall behind. It takes courage because we win this vicious cycle whereby we’re in such a hurry. We can’t see what a hurry we’re in. For me, it’s a great resolve and determination to say, “I’m going to step out of my life for three days.” My first thought was I’m going to fall behind in my deadlines. My bosses and friends aren’t going to be able to get in touch with me. I’m going to go backwards in my life.

After every 72 hours away, I found nobody had missed me. There had been no real dramas. If they had been, they could have found me even in the monastery. It was the best investment I could make. All of us experience this because sometimes I’ll meet somebody and she’s just been driving along the freeway multitasking and racing from one appointment to the next. When she comes into the room, she’s very jangled and she’s not good for anything.

Maybe that same day, I’ll meet somebody else who’s been sitting quietly in her office for the last twenty minutes and when she comes into the room, she brings such clarity and calm that it imparts itself even to me and I feel we can get a lot done even in five minutes. I noticed through my interactions the difference between racing around and trying to take time to gather yourself.

What you’re saying, Pico, is so vital. There are a couple of things within it that I also want to shine a light on. One of them is the consciousness of it. Everyone knows the feeling when you go on vacation and you don’t realize until day two and you’re like, “I don’t think I realized how stressed I was.” Even if it is the three breaths and we talk about a lot of these practices in the Lab, you will start to feel a difference in even how you’re nervous system is dealing with the world.

There was a story I shared on one of the Labs, but we were together a couple of months ago for a leadership meeting and we all went on a hike. We wanted to do a silent hike to get close to nature and get re-grounded from all the chaos that we were experiencing. I noticed on the hike that there are rocks, twigs, trees, and branches so you have to watch where you’re going.

If you’re hiking down a mountain, you need to look down and make sure you see where you’re stepping. However, if you don’t stop that entire hike, you won’t get to see this incredible view of the vista that is before you. We talked about that in our debrief about how that applies to our lives and the ability to not miss the view for trying to not slip on a rock. Also, to be present for both states. They’re both good.

That’s such a perfect example of a very practical universal thing that anyone can do that wakes you up. I noticed in myself that I’ll often say, “I don’t have time to take a break.” When I wake up to myself, I notice I have time to go to the health club every day because it’s important for my physical health. If I’m spending an hour walking to the health club and doing 30 minutes there every day, I surely have that much time to work on my inner health, my emotional or psychological health which is much more important to my welfare. It’s much more important to the welfare of everybody around me, with whom I’m going to be interacting.

The busier you are, the more you need to take a break. Click To Tweet

I often think that the busier you are, the more you need to take a break. There’s this great story about how Mahatma Gandhi used to meditate for an hour every day. One day, he woke up and he had a busy schedule in front of him. He said, “I’m not going to be able to meditate for an hour now.” All of his friends and followers were shocked. He said, “No. I have to meditate for two hours now because I have so many in front of me.” Even J.P. Morgan many years ago gave himself two full months off every year. He said wonderfully that he could never achieve in twelve months what he achieved in ten months. I can absolutely understand that. As you said, it’s hard to realize how out of sync we can be at times.

Suffering Is Not The Same As Unhappiness

It takes conscious intention for us to make those changes and to see how we can live differently and believe that we can live differently. Let me move to the Dalai Lama, Pico who I think you have on speed dial. It’s something like hanging out with the Dalai Lama in your life. One of the things that you shared with me is that something you learned from him is that suffering isn’t the same as unhappiness. Can you talk more about this? Is there anything else that you can share from your time with him and the wisdom that he has shared with you?

Three things come to mind and I think suffering not being the same as unhappiness is almost what all of us experienced during the pandemic. He is a Buddhist and he believes that suffering is the first fact of life because all of us are likely to get sick at some point. If we’re lucky, all of us will know old age, and certainly all of us will know death.

However, unhappiness is the position we choose or cannot choose to bring to that, and here’s a perfect example. Sometimes I think he has suffered more than anybody I know. He lost nine of his siblings when he was very young. He lost his home country many years ago. He’s referred to as an evil spirit by the government of one of the largest nations on Earth yet, all his famous quotes, his constant smile, his infectious laugh, and his robust sense of confidence.

However, there are two things that also quickly come to mind. First is that it speaks to what we were saying before and in fact Mahatma Gandhi. When he comes to Japan, I and my wife traveled right next to him for every minute of his working day. We would go into his hotel room at 8:30 every morning and we’d come out with him. We’d go down in the elevator that the hotel lobby and the word would have got around.

The Dalai Lama is in town so maybe hundreds of people would have gathered bringing questions and asking for his blessing. A four-year-old little boy will come up to him and he will attend to that little boy as if he’s listening to the Buddha himself. When he gives a lecture the following day to 20,000 people, he will draw on what he’s learned from that four-year-old boy. Throughout the next eight hours of his very busy public day, he never takes a break.

Quite often, his hosts will say very kindly, “You’re Holiness, do you want a little time for yourself?” “No. We must be together.” I’m 22 years younger than the Dalai Lama. I’m completely exhausted just watching him go through his day. At one point I realized that every morning while I’m enjoying my beauty sleep and then going and partaking of a huge breakfast in the hotel restaurant, he is waking up even on the road at 3:30. He is spending his first four hours meditating so that he will have strength, clarity, and attention to take through the day.

He’s a Dalai Lama. He’s a spiritual leader of the Tibetans. He’s been among them for many years. He has to meditate for four hours a day as part of his job description. However, I think if the busiest man I know can devote four hours a day to it, I could probably devote twenty minutes to it as a self-employed writer. I have no excuse for not having twenty minutes. I’ll never forget. I once asked him. In the mid-90s after he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize when two big Hollywood movies were being made about him seven years in Tibetan, I had a long series of discussions with him every afternoon in his home in Northern India. I asked him, “What is your greatest achievement??” It’s because the world was fading.

He looked out the window and he remembered once he had been visiting Johannesburg and he wanted to see a typical family in the township in a rather undeveloped area outside the center of town. They went to Soweto and they found a typical family. He met a group of people and he said that there was one man there who absolutely had no confidence who told the Dalai Lama, “We’re in the system of apartheid. I’ve never been allowed to vote. I can’t get an education. There were no opportunities for me in the workplace.”

There is no chance at all for a better life. The Dalai Lama talked to him for an hour. According to the Dalai Lama, at the end of that hour, the man felt much more confident. The Dalai Lama looked across at me and he said, “That’s my great achievement. I felt I’d done something constructive. I’ve given one man greater hope than he had before.”

I was humbled by that and silenced. The Dalai Lama with regard to his great achievement of a one-hour conversation imparting confidence to somebody else but it was a wonderful reminder. We only begin to change the world if we have any useful effect in our interactions with the individuals around us. He wasn’t thinking about bringing peace to the world overnight or anything impractical like that. When I get to talk to Kathy, how can I make the best use of this time and offer something to Kathy that she might not get elsewhere? Also, how can she offer something to me?

I think a really useful lesson about scaling one’s expectations to what is realistic. If I were to describe the Dalai Lama in one word, it would be a realist because he’s been head of his people for many years. He can’t deal in wishy-washy solutions or romantic ideas of what’s possible. He’s a super realist and that’s why what he does is so affecting often. I mentioned my mother and I didn’t say that the very day after the lockdown was announced in California in April 2020, she was raced into hospital in an ambulance because she was losing blood and she wasn’t eating.

I couldn’t visit her in the hospital because of COVID regulations but as soon as she came out, I took these three flights through ghost town airports from Japan to be with her in Santa Barbara. I was her only living relative. As she was sitting with her, she was wavering between life and death. I was thinking what can help my mother and what can help me in this situation? I thought at some level my bank account would help get her good caregivers, but it’s not going to help her deep down. My resume is of no use at all.

All the books I’ve written are probably not much practical help in that situation. The only thing I felt I could share with my mother and share with myself was that in resources, whatever I had gathered within which had very little to do with my business card and a lot to do with such time as I’d spent probably on retreats and being quiet. Also, I think about what matters to me.

I say that because all of us have to deal with these crises. Suddenly, a doctor comes into your room and he’s shaking his head. He is looking dark or suddenly, a car drives towards yours on the wrong side of the road or a pandemic closes down the entire world for a year and a half. What do we have to bring to those challenges that life is always going to bring that Dalai Lama would call suffering? I think the only thing we have are those invisible resources, which is why the best investment I can think to make is whatever will help me gather clarity and strength for those difficult moments. The easy moments that take care of themselves.

CMO Pico Iyer | Power Of Perspective

Power Of Perspective: The best investment to make is whatever will help me gather clarity and strength for those difficult moments and the easy moments that take care of themselves.


The Power Of Being Where You Are

I think you’ve talked about that before Pico as your inner savings account. Everything we’re talking about whether it is being the observer of your life, taking a retreat whether it’s 3 minutes, 3 hours, 3 days, or 3 weeks. In order to live with a level of awareness and consciousness that is not about the next text, email, video, and all the demands of our lives. I think this is drawing us back into the moment.

I wanted to read something that is certainly connected to what you went through with your mother. I know when I interviewed you years ago, you’ve been through a house burning down and losing so many things. In one of your books, The Half Known Life, you wrote the following. “Paradise in short is regained by finding the wonder within the moment. The fact of things passing is not a cause for grief so much as a summons to attention. All the lights or beauty we have to find right here and now. The fact that nothing lasts is the reason why everything matters.”

Here we are and what I love about this is there will be people who will read this but right now, we are all gathered in the community. Pico and I might see bubbles on the screens with names, but I know behind those bubbles is a human. I don’t know what your inner talk is as you read this, but I hope it’s one where we all know that we’re all trying to figure this out together, but we are in a very sacred moment because we’re right here together on this day in 2023 trying to figure out what we’ve learned. Also, trying to figure out how to live the best life. We always talk about being in the moment and at some level we go, “We know,” but to truly be there is occupying a different space. Can you talk more about the true power of being where you are regardless of what’s going on?

Yes. We always talk about paying attention, but it’s attention that’s paying us. I noticed in myself, that sometimes I’ll race into a very distracted all over the place consciousness, and then I’m feeling I’m feeling so lost and confused. As I said, initially it’s in my hands how I choose to spend my life. Am I going to spend it in a way that’s going to make me feel calmer and happier? Am I going to race in the direction that’s sure to make me feel scattered and frazzled in certain ways?

We always talk about paying attention but it's really attention that's paying us. Click To Tweet

I was so happy with what you would describe with your hike because I think one of the happier developments in the last 10 to 15 years is that all of this has become so much a part of the corporate mindset and workplace. People know that you best advance by taking a retreat as it were and to take a hike or to spend quiet moments together is maybe the most useful thing you can do for the company psychologically and even economically.

I remember I was once at Google and a friend of mine there said he takes appointments with himself. I think that’s a way of speaking to being in the moment. Every week when he opens his calendar, he’ll say, “From 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM on Tuesday, I’m going to meet myself which means maybe he’ll take a walk or maybe he’ll crash out.” Maybe he’ll just sit quietly in an office and gather his thoughts, but whatever he’s doing in that hour, that’s the only way that he has to bring something useful to his next many appointments with other people or in large meetings. It’s only by gathering ourselves that we have fruits to share with everybody around us.

As you say, I think part of being in the moment is waking up to our habits. Thinking about what are we doing and what we want to be doing? Also, how do we get from here to there? Also, being compassionate with ourselves and sensitive to our own biorhythms and our own way of being. I’m always tired at 3:00 in the afternoon. I give myself a break. I’ll watch a video, go back to the NFL, or whatever it might be. I don’t need to work then because I’m not going to do my best work.

Just because I’ve been working from home for many years now, it’s given me a good chance to work with myself the way I would work with a boss or colleague and see which parts of the day I think I can make good use of which I should entirely take a break in. Even that recognition is a form of awareness or I’d say being in the moment. As I say when I moved from New York City to Japan, it was like moving from an office where I had a thousand things on my desk to one where I had five things on my desk.

As soon as I had five things on my desk, I could give myself entirely to them and I could make a pattern of them. I could quickly say, “This is the urgent one and this is a less urgent one.” As long as I had 1,000 things, there’s no way I could do that. I think a lot of my life has been about trying to unclutter my mind, my calendar, and my desk so is to do justice to what is important.

I’m not sure if that’s a form of being in the moment, but it’s certainly a form of trying to be aware of my own habits, good and bad, and how to work best with them. We spend so much time thinking about our partners in life when registering their habits and our bosses and colleagues, but often, the one we have to work with is ourselves.

I could not agree more. I think it’s so much about ourselves and how we’re managing all of these prioritizations. I also have gotten into conversations with people who perhaps have made an appointment with themselves, but they so easily break it. “This was just my time. Someone else needs to have this.” If you choose to give that away because you feel that what you need to do is important, absolutely do it, but don’t think that that time is any less important than anything else because it will affect how you show up for the next thing.

Driving Greater Compassion

I want to ask you the next question, Pico but as we’re coming up to about 45 minutes in, this is a beautiful opportunity that our community has to be with you. I want to let the group know that after I ask this next question, we will certainly open it up to questions that you might have which you can put in the chat or come off mute because this is such a beautiful opportunity for us to be with Pico.

I have one more question before I do that, Pico. We are the Compassion Lab. That name has been chosen as the umbrella of what we do because compassion is so much not just about yourself, but about how we see others. Also, we can find greater connection and unity. In a world where there’s much separation and polarization, how can we drive greater compassion? What does it mean to you?

What’s interesting is it takes me right back to the pandemic. In those early days when we were so panicked and didn’t know what was coming our way, I remember the Pryor of the Benedictine Hermitage where I went and stayed and sent a message around to all his friends. He said, “Just remember, the best cure for anxiety is taking care of others.” It’s such a simple thing and it’s so easy to forget because I think most of us, myself included are caught up with like, “What’s going to happen to me? What’s going to happen to my mother,” or whatever.

As soon as your attention is directed outwards, A) You’re a lot calmer, and B) You’re doing what you should be doing best in life. You’re out of your head and into the world. In fact, as you mentioned, my house burnt down once in the hills of California and we lost everything in the world. I was stuck in the middle of the fire for three hours. Later, I realized that the only thing I could save was my mother’s aging cat, Minnie.

I picked up Minnie and I jumped into a car to try to escape and then I was stuck on this mountain road surrounded by flames. In retrospect, the great blessing of that moment apart from the fact I was saved by a good Samaritan was that I was holding my mother’s cat and I was concentrating on making sure the cat survived because my life wouldn’t be worth it if my poor mother’s cat didn’t make it. I wasn’t sitting there panicking about myself or doing all the thoughts that one otherwise might if you’re surrounded by 70-foot flames. I was urging this cat to keep going and that helped me in that very difficult moment.

As soon as you project your mind and your heart outwards, I think you’re relieving yourself of all the stress. I think one of the things that I most notice when I’m driving up to the retreat place, as most of the time, I’m fretting about my deadlines and I’m conducting some arguments in my head with somebody from the previous week.

CMO Pico Iyer | Power Of Perspective

Power Of Perspective: As soon as you project your mind and your heart outwards, you’re relieving yourself of all the stress.


I have 1,000 things to worry about. As soon as I step into the silence, somehow all that falls away. I looked at the ocean in front of me and this 1,200 feet of golden pampas grass and the light in the sky that as you said, we often don’t look at the rest of time. In other words, I’m out of myself. As soon as I’m out of myself, all the pressure is gone. The Dalai Lama often talks of compassion as a wise enlightened selfishness because the beauty of compassion is it helps you as well as everybody around you.

The challenge of being too caught up in your own concerns is you are wounding yourself as well as not being of much use to anybody else. I’m not an expert on any of this, but I’ve been glad to learn from monks and every tradition and nuns too who were so good at reminding us of the very simple things that we often forget.

Q&A With The Audience

Sometimes it’s far simpler than we make it, Pico. We just need to choose a better way and a different way. Also, there are many pathways to that. I thank you for sharing everything. Thank you for sharing the power of this practice of stillness, observation, and learning. I want to turn it over to the group and I see Sam’s hand. Real quick before we go to Sam. I see Kathleen’s comment that you once talked about not having a cell phone or a mobile and you still don’t have a cell phone. I’d love for you to share that and then I’ll turn it over to Sam.

This isn’t anything I would recommend to anybody else, and I know that nobody working at Coca-Cola or in a busy job could get by without a cell phone. I’m lucky that I don’t have small kids and I don’t have elderly parents. Most of all, I have a very tolerant wife. I feel sorry for my wife because if I’m traveling, she can’t easily get in touch with me. Once I said to her, “If you want, I’ll get a cell phone.” She said, “Wonderfully,” with Japanese compassion. “If you had a cell phone, you wouldn’t be the guy I married.”

That’s just a quirk because I feel I have enough data and distraction in my life already. What I need is time to put it in perspective as I was saying. For example here in Japan, I don’t have a car. When I’m in California, I have to have a car. I realize not having a car is such a luxury. There are 1,000 things every day I don’t have to think and worry about. I can sleep on the train when I’m going somewhere. I don’t have to think about insurance, road rage, or feeling the car with gas. I did find moving from New York to Japan that living without things could liberate me.

For those of us who need to have a cell phone for whatever reasons, remember you can take a day. I think Tiffany Shlain in one of our early talks last year talked about the technology Shabbat where you take a break for one day or a week, maybe a Sunday and turn it off and the power of that. If you can’t live in full Pico fashion without the phone, you can experiment with a day of turning it off. Sam, I’m turning it over to you.

Thanks, Kathy. Thank you, Pico. This is truly a gift for all of us who got to participate in this. My question to you is you’ve written and spoken at such length about travel. I wonder if you could share with the group the value of travel even if we don’t have the opportunity to travel perhaps as extensively around the globe as you have. If you could you could talk a little bit about the value of travel in one’s life, I’d love to hear it.

Thank you. I think right now the particular value peculiar to our generation is we do live in a global neighborhood. I feel that in any neighborhood whether it’s right where you live or now across the planet, the first thing to do is to get to know the neighbors. To find out who they are and to tell them who you are and just to find the common connection. Also, to be reminded of things that you will never share.

I think the scariest person in any neighborhood is the one who draws the blinds, locks the door, and hides behind the sofa. I’m lucky enough as you say to get to go to places like Iran, Cuba, and North Korea that usually we only hear about but even just go across the neighborhood. If you’re living in Los Angeles or Atlanta, go to a part that you haven’t seen before. You can maybe suddenly enjoy the spices of Vietnam and get to know something about Ethiopia that you didn’t know before or about your fellow Americans who are living in very different circumstances from the ones that you are.

I think isolation is ever more dangerous in a world that is so interconnected. There are lots of other virtues we all know when we go on holiday about expanding our sense of possibility and increasing our faith in humanity and all that. I think apart from anything, it’s a practical matter and it’s funny because although I’ve been in the media for years, I don’t want to get the world through screens or two dimensions. I find that if I hear Cuba or encounter them in the headlines, I’m only getting a very simplified vision. As soon as I go to Havana or Tehran, suddenly, I’m faced with many more things than I can begin to understand and that’s always a good thing.

CMO Pico Iyer | Power Of Perspective

Power Of Perspective: Isolation is ever more dangerous in a world that is so interconnected.


You mentioned that we maybe couldn’t have done this meeting as easily without this kind of technology, but it’s a double-edged sword in that it does allow us to get very comfortable with access through screens as you mentioned and maybe not getting the full the full experience when you’re doing it this way, right?

Exactly. All the images in the world never can adapt to real life. I remember once I was at the TED Conference in Vancouver. I stepped into this state of the art of virtual reality booth. It’s amazing. As soon as I did, I could hear the squawking of birds and the Amazon rainforest and I could see the pulsing greens all around me.

I could almost feel the precipitation in the air, but just as you say, when I stepped out, I thought, “Everything important about the experience is what I’m not getting. It’s the silence between the birds. It’s a sense of surprise suddenly to come upon this in real life. It’s the sweat on my brow that would show I’d earned it rather than stepping into a booth.” Yes, I agree. There’s no substitute and the screen is a very dangerous substitute, but it strips us of texture into two-dimensional images rather than real human beings.

Thank you.

It seems like we’re all learning as we continue to talk about the journey over the past few years. We’re learning how to balance the virtual with the connection. There are gifts of the virtual, as you outlined. We’re experiencing one now but it can be too easy to default to living a life behind a screen inside when nature, experience, and human connection calls to us all.

I’ll say something in response to what you said and give people a chance to see if they have any further questions or comments, which is when you’re talking about the internet Sabbath. When I first heard about that notion, it reminded me that technology has given us everything except a sense of how to make wise use of technology, and for that, we have to go offline.

I was struck too that so many people in Silicon Valley maintain the practice of digital detox or maintain this internet Sabbath because they know it’s only by going offline that they’ll have something fresh and imaginative to offer when they go online again. Even before the pandemic, I think the average American is spending 8.5 hours in front of a screen. I think that means that reality has a greater capacity than ever to shock us. We don’t want to lose contact with the real world.

I think we’re only beginning to understand how all of this affects our minds, bodies, and souls. We’re on this journey together to figure this out. Sandy has a question. What is your advice on how to turn off the voices and the noises to achieve stillness because they’re coming from everywhere? It’s the world, the news, and the culture. We’ve talked about retreat but how to do that.

I have a couple of small suggestions. I remember it used to be every evening here in our little apartment. I’d be waiting for my wife to come back from work and I would be killing time. I turn on the TV. I scroll through the net. I do something to fill those moments and then I thought, “Why don’t I just turn off the lights and listen to music?” The quiet music like Handel, Leonard Cohen, Seeger or something. It’s not so quiet music.

However, by disabling some of my senses, I found I was so much fresher when she finally did return from work. I slept so much better. I woke up so much less jangled. Another example was how, for example, I had to fly sometimes from New York City to California. I always schedule my flights for about 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening at the end of the day. For the length of that six-hour flight, I try hard not to do anything. I don’t turn on the video. I certainly don’t work. I don’t read a book.

Sometimes I sleep. Sometimes I’m just doing nothing. Ideas will come to me and I’ll scribble them down but again, I do think we have the capacity, in that plane for example, to pretend there isn’t Wi-Fi. Also, to realize I can always see that movie back home with my family and turn it off in our apartments when we’re waiting for ten minutes for something to happen. Instead of fretting about the ten minutes that could be wasted, to see it perhaps as an opportunity.

I do think as you were suggesting Kathy, the last twenty minutes of the day and the first twenty minutes are disproportionately important for a piece of our mind and how fruitful our days will be. As you said, I think more and more research is showing us that if we fill our heads with images, before we sleep, we have a very jangled sleep. I’m careful about trying not to go online for quite a while before I sleep.

Also, how are you going to set the tone for the day to follow? I remember once I was talking to the Dalai Lama’s brother, I was saying, “I have a busy life. I don’t have time to do many things.” He said, “You’re taking a shower every morning for ten minutes. What are you doing every day in the shower? What could you be doing?” In other words, he was saying, “Maybe you can think about the useful or fun or constructive things you’re doing in the day to come while you’re in the shower and even turn that ten minutes section into something different than it would be otherwise.”

I think there were these unnoticed moments throughout the day. When I’m on hold with AT&T for 83 minutes where they’re answering some billing question, am I going to spend most of that time cursing as I usually do or am I going to put it to use in some nicer way? When I’m in line at the bank, how am I going to use those five minutes?

I think the moral of the story of what you’re sharing now Pico is we can do big things. We could go on a ten-day silent retreat and rethink our entire existence and try to shut off our brain or we can realize that if we have a day full of team calls back to back to back, to take that moment and become present and still. If you’re waiting in line, don’t reach for your phone. Notice.

I think these little baby steps can lead us to something quite beautiful to a larger more expansive reality that we’re living. I want to say with heartfelt gratitude, all of my thanks for this time. For what you did years ago in the Summit, for the way you give your gifts to the world so generously and with such devotion and wisdom. Thank you for enriching all of us here. We are so grateful to you.

Thank you for bringing me into your community again, Kathy, and thank you for having this Compassion Lab. It’s a perfect example of including within the Coca-Cola community and Coca-Cola Day a way to think about these larger things. I loved what you said about baby steps because that’s all somebody like myself is capable of but baby steps add up. As you were talking, I realized at one point the more of my life I spend airport time which is your destinations, clicking over, and being very conscious of the clock and racing to get to the plane as it’s boarding, the more I need to spend in cathedral time.

The beauty of stepping into a cathedral it’s as you said so much faster than you lose all sense of yourself. The light is coming through the windows. There’s hugeness all around. I want to make sure the more time I spend in the jangled way, I have to compensate by spending it in a spacious way. Thank you, again, for inviting me, and thank you to everybody who’s joined us. It’s a privilege to be with the Coke. I think I told you Kathy that one of the first things I did when I went to Atlanta was visit the World of Coke. It still shines in my memory. I’m honored to be a part of this conversation.

From Manhattan to the monastery, from airports to Cathedrals, you’ve taken us on a journey that is beautiful. Thank you, Pico. Thank you to everyone who joined us for taking the time. We are grateful. Have a great rest of the day everyone. Pico, enjoy your day. Go have a beautiful day. Thank you so much.


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