The Inner Climate

Painting: Joy Garnett
Painting: Joy Garnett

The maples are still blazing outside my two-room flat in suburban Japan, and the skies, in mid-December, are still blue, blue, blue, warmer and clearer than those of California. The temperature is higher than it usually is, and yet winter is often inexplicably warm and invigorating here in the outskirts of the eighth-century capital of Nara, where the center of town is given over to twelve hundred roaming deer and a temple. Besides, the lesson of the autumn, every year in Japan, is that everything is moving, aging, falling away, and nothing is really changing, deep down. Every year brings the same autumn in the midst of shifting (and enduring) circumstances.

Wherever I go on my travels, people are telling me about freaks in the weather. In California, where my mother lives, they’re all wondering where the rain has gone. A forest fire came within two miles of her house last August — smoke rose above the hills for two months and my car got so coated in ash that its roof corroded — and threatened to raze to the ground the house that she had built after a previous forest fire wiped out our home and six hundred others. In the Himalayas, where I’ve spent some of the year, people don’t know what to do with the crops and cycles that have sustained them for centuries, now that the temperatures are so unnaturally high. In Jerusalem, where I go tomorrow, there has been concern for millennia about how to get the inner thermostat right, and try to keep fervor, passion, and conviction alive without excessive heat, the kind that destroys as much as a forest fire might.

Our outer environment can only begin to be healed by our inner, and I’m not sure we can ever truly tend to our polluted waters, our shrinking forests, the madness we’ve loosed on the air until we begin to try to clean up the inner waters, and attend to the embattled wild spaces within us. Action without reflection is what got us into this mess in the first place, and the only answer is not action, but, first, clearer reflection. A peace treaty signed by men who are still territorial, jealous, or unquiet — Jerusalem tells me this — is not going to create any real peace at all. A commitment to the environment based only on what is outside of us forgets that the source of our problems — and solutions — is invisible, and that “nature” is a word we apply to what’s within as well as without.

How to find the right heat that can bring focus and determination and light to the issue, without raging out of control? How to keep some cool, too, some sense of proportion, that reminds us that our seasons are all mixed up, and it is a sense of cycles as much as of progress that we need? Things don’t necessarily go forward; they come around.

I make my own small efforts to play my part, living in a small room in the middle of nowhere, with no bicycle or car or printer or iPod or cell phone. I try to keep myself clear by not bringing newspapers or magazines or TV programs or World Wide Web into this space. I turn off lights and make the tiny gestures that, if more of us do them more often, can make a tiny difference. But mostly I try to think how cleaning up my own debris and setting the thermostat within can finally be the best contribution that any nonspecialist can make. Take care of the roots, and the flowers will take care of themselves.

Pico Iyer’s latest book, The Open Road, on globalism and the XIVth Dalai Lama, came out from Alfred A. Knopf in April 2008.


  1. I love the last phrase: “Take care of the roots and the flowers will take care of themselves.”
    And the trees will keep giving us their priceless shade if we give them a chance to continue to grow beautifully…
    Thank you.

  2. I feel the same way too. I feel that what we are experiencing in our outworld is a reflection of the unrest and “heated” inner world.

    We are just seeing ourselves reflected. I believe as we begin to make piece with ourselves we will create,support, a more harmonious and balanced way of being with this planet.

  3. Inner work is not incompatable with outer work. If we wait until we are enlightened or completely at peace (which is another myth that denies our human nature), before we act in the outer world, things will continue on the same trajectory and the balance will continue to tilt toward more suffering of sentient beings.

    Isolating oneself from the world of ipods and media can be helpful for a time, but acting with the compassion and wisdom we are cultivating in the outer world can be concurrent with our inner efforts.


  4. Japan, the Himalayas, Jerusalem–just some of the places to which the author has or will recently travel. I assume that he does this by flying, whixh is extremely damaging to the climate system.

    The height at which planes fly combined with the mixture of gases and particles they emit mean that conventional air travel detrimentally impacts global warming approximately 2.7 times more per passenger mile than that of typical motorized ground transportation sources—according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    How about staying home, keeping local, or taking sustainable, slow forms of transportation if you need to go far away? That would be a great way for Pico Iyer to get serious about doing something. But that would also mean challenging his privilege, that which allows him to be a global jetsetter.

  5. Thank you, Pico Iyer, for some clearly-stated common sense.

  6. As Mr. Iyer states, it may or may not be possible for the collective to mitigate human-caused climate change, but we as individuals can certainly control, aside from our own impact, what is within.
    This, however, may be the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced — for millennia, regional climates and cultures have been largely static, whereas now the two are changing so fast the headlines can barely keep stride.
    The future of happiness will require no less than equanimity on a rollercoaster. Best to enjoy the ride — no matter how terrifying — because it’s too late to get off.

  7. The inner landscape is dark, we need light there. Taking extreme steps like curbing one’s air travel will only breed antogonism and won’t take us far in our fight against climate change. On the contrary the gap between us will only widen and our inner world will become much hotter. So the challenge: can we be friends and have a dialogue in spite of our divergent views, lifestyles?

  8. Pico Iyer is one of the world’s most famous travel writers. He flies all the time and so imposes a carbon footprint as big as a house–a BIG house, more than a two-room flat. He’s an extreme yet typical instance of us bookish, artsy greens who exonerate ourselves for recreational excesses while dramatizing the recesses of our laudable inner lives. But what the heck: once fuel prices trash air travel for all but the privileged likes of Iyer, the point will be moot. Make my tickets paperless, please….

  9. Our thinking has everything to do with what we experience. We certainly must remain hopeful, otherwise what are we working for? We mustn’t forget to embrace our outer world with love, no matter how dire it looks. The power of love can transform all our environments, whether mental or material.
    Thank you for a great article.

  10. Wilhelm Reich, the psychoanalyst, said all this a while back. It’s the inner volcano in every single human being on the planet that’s responsible for the plight we’re in. Did people pay attention to him? He ended up jailed and died in prison, refusing to defend himself to individuals and a system so filled with toxic energy.
    People have 3 choices. 1) Wake up and deal with the inner toxicity, or 2) kill yourself when the inner mess gets too much, or 3) kill another as a means of trying to deal with the inner mess. It’s only no. 1 that the real answer for long term health of people and the planet.

  11. I especially love the two questions posed near the end of this piece “How to find the right heat that can bring focus and determination and light to the issue, without raging out of control? How to keep some cool, too, some sense of proportion, that reminds us that our seasons are all mixed up, and it is a sense of cycles as much as of progress that we need? ”

    The outer challenges, and the inner ones, were created over a long time period with roots much deeper then the modern industrial age that made the issues more visible. Now, the time feels short to set right these great threats. But perhaps, as Iyer indicates, we need to slow down to speed up – looking at the roots of these challenges, trying to understand the meaning behind them so that when we take action it is clear and that clarity helps a new way to spread like wildflowers, bringing a peace and a beauty that can lead to real transformation inside and out.

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