Once every three or four months, for much of my adult life now, I’ve gotten in my car in my mother’s house in the dry hills of California, above the sea, and driven up the road, past the local yoga foundation, past the community of local ‘60s refugees, past the mock-Danish tourist town and the vineyards, past where Ronald Reagan used to keep his Western White House and where Michael Jackson sat imprisoned in his Neverland, past a lighthouse, past meadows of dormant cows, to another little room a thousand feet above the ocean, in the dry hills, where deer come out to graze at dusk and mountain lions come out, too, to stalk our urban fantasies.
There is a sign on the main highway down below—hanging from a large cross—and there is a saint’s name on the door of the little room I enter, underneath the number. But the names are all forgotten here, especially my own, and when I step into the little “cell” that awaits me—narrow bed huddled up against one wall, closet and bathroom, wide blond-wood desk overlooking a garden that overlooks the sea—I really don’t know or care what “Catholic” means, or hermitage, or monastery, or Big Sur.
There are crosses in this place, and hooded men singing the psalms at dawn (at noon, at dusk, at sunset), and there’s a cross on the wall above the bed. But I go not because of all the trappings of the chapel I had to attend twice a day every school day of my adolescence, but in spite of it. I go to disappear into the silence.
My friends assume, I’m sure, that I go to the monastery to catch my breath, to be away from the phone, to drink in one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world. What I can’t tell them—what they don’t want to hear—is that I go to the monastery to become another self, the self that we all are if only we choose to unpack our overstuffed lives and leave our selves at home.
In my cell I read novels in the ringing silence, and they are novels, often, of infidelity. In the best of them, the ones by Sue Miller, say, there is a palpable, quickening sense of the excitement of betraying others and your daily self in the world you know. I read these with recognition. This shadow story is as close to us as our dreams. All the great myths are about it, the stories of Shakespeare and Aeschylus and Homer are about it, as are our romance novels and our letters to Aunt Agony, but here in the monastery I’m committing to a deeper infidelity, against the life I know and the values by which we are supposed to live. I am being disloyal in the deepest way to the assumptions of the daily round, and daring to lay claim to a mystery at the heart of me.
I step into my cell, and I step into the realest life I know. My secret life, as Leonard Cohen calls it, also happens to be my deepest and my best life. There is no will involved, no choice; this other world, and self, are waiting for me like the clothes I never thought to ask for.
I’m not a Benedictine monk, and I attend none of the services held day in, day out, four times a day, while I’m in my little room. If I make the mistake of attending one because of my longing to be good, my wish to pay, in some way, the kind monks for making the silence available to me, I soon run out again. The presence of the 15 kindly souls in hoods, singing, takes me back, somehow, to the world, the self I’ve come here to escape; the words in the psalms are all of war, and I notice which face looks kind and which one bitter.
No, the flight is to something much larger than a single text or doctrine. It’s to—this the word I otherwise shy from—eternity. I step into a place that never changes, and with it that part of me, that ground in me, that belongs to what is changeless. There is a self at the core of us—what some call “Christ,” others call the “Buddha nature,” and poets refer to as the immortal soul—that is simply part of the nonshifting nature of the universe. Not in any exalted way: just like the soil or sky or air. It does not fit into our everyday notions any more than sky fits into a bed. But I steal into this better world as into a secret love, and there, as in the best of loves, I feel I am known in a way I know is true.
Thomas Merton put this best, not because he was a Christian, or even because he was a monk, but because he fell in love with silence. And he made the pursuit of that real life his lifelong mission. He knew, he saw, that it was akin to the earthly love we feel, and that the heightening, the risking up to a higher place, the making sense of things—above all, the dissolution of the tiny self we know—when we fall in love is our closest approximation to this state, as certain drugs can give us an indication of what lies beyond. But it is only an approximation, a momentary glimpse, like snapshots of a sunset where we long to live forever.
I wouldn’t call this a pilgrimage, because, as Merton says, again, I’m not off to find myself, only to lose myself. I’m not off in search of anything; in fact, only—the words sound fanciful—the sense of being found. You could say it’s not a pilgrimage because there’s no movement involved after I step out of my car, 3 hours and 15 minutes north of my mother’s house, and I don’t pay any of the religious dues when I arrive. But all the movements and journeys I have taken around the world are underwritten, at heart, by this: this is who I am when nobody is looking. This is who I’m not, because the petty, struggling, ambitious “I” is gone. I am as still, as timeless as the plate of sea below me.
I keep quiet about this journey, usually because it sounds as strange to other people, or to myself, as a piece of silence brought to a shopping mall. If they have an equivalent—and they surely do, in meditation, in skydiving, in running, in sex—they will know what I’m talking of, and substitute their own terms; everyone knows at moments she has a deeper, purer self within, something that belongs to what stands out of time and space, and when she falls in love, she rises to that eternal candle in another, and to the self that is newly seen in her. But it belongs to a different order from the words we throw around at home. When we fall in love, when we enter a room with our beloved, we know that we can’t really speak of it to anyone else. The point, the very beauty of it, is that it admits us into the realm of what cannot be said.
So when I come down to the monastery, I tell my friends that monks watch the film A Fish Called Wanda in the cloister. That most of the visitors are female, and very down to earth. The monks sell fruitcake and greeting cards and cassettes in the hermitage bookstore; they have Alcoholics Anonymous meetings once a week, and a sweet woman now lives on the property, helping care for the rooms. The monastery has a website and a fax number. There’s a workout room in the “enclosure” for the monks; visiting it once, I came upon books by the Hollywood producer Robert Evans and by Woody Allen.
Everyone feels better when I assure them it’s a mortal place, with regular human beings, balding, divorced, confused, with a mailing address I can send packages to. The infidelity sounds less glaring if I phrase it thus. But I can say all this only because I know I’m not talking about what I love and find; because this is the place where all seeking ends.
—Pico Iyer, “Room with a view,” published in Yoga + Joyful Living, November-December 2008
Copyright 2006 Pico Iyer.
Essayist Pico Iyer writes for The New York Review of Books, Time, The New Yorker, and Harper’s, and is the author of numerous books. His most recent, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2008.