Paulo Coelho
The Alchemy of Pilgrimage

The Brazilian lyricist Paulo Coelho is best known for his book, The Alchemist — which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over 400 weeks. His fable-like stories turn life, love, writing, and reading into pilgrimage. In a rare conversation, we meet the man behind the writings and explore what he’s touched in modern people.

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is the author of many books including The PilgrimageVeronika Decides to Die, and The Alchemist. His forthcoming book out in the fall is The Spy.

Transcript

August 4, 2016

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: The Brazilian lyricist Paulo Coelho is best known for his book The Alchemist, which has been on The New York Times bestseller list for over 400 weeks. He is one of the most widely read authors in the world, with over 200 million copies of his books sold. He also has more than 39 million followers across Twitter and Facebook and rarely gives traditional media interviews. Today, we meet the man behind the writings. We explore what he’s touched in modern people with his fable-like stories that turn life, love, writing, and reading into pilgrimage.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MR. PAULO COELHO: Every morning, I find myself a different person. I’m always a mystery to myself. If I knew in the first hours of the morning what I’m going to do, what is going to happen, what attitude or decision should I take — I think my life would be deadly boring because, well, what makes life interesting is the unknown. It is the risks that we take every single moment of a single day.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: Paulo Coelho’s personal trajectory is the basis for the unlikely journeys that anchor his fiction. His early dream to be a writer was discouraged by the strict Jesuits who schooled him and by his parents, who institutionalized their introverted son. He followed their dream for a time and went to law school, then became a songwriter and hippie in the era of hippies. Walking the ancient road to Santiago de Compostela in 1986 brought Paulo Coelho to a literary and spiritual turning point. I spoke with him in 2014.

MS. TIPPETT: Where I’d like to start is — you’ve written quite a lot about the religious background of your childhood as having many aspects of being punishing and joyless. But I wonder, if you think about the spiritual background of your childhood, perhaps a spiritual sensibility that was forming in you even then, even if you didn’t know it. How would you think about that?

MR. COELHO: Well, I didn’t know very well because I was forced to believe in God. I was forced to pray. I was in a Jesuit school.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: And so it was very difficult for me to accept God and spirituality because, when you try to force someone to do this, it’s not the best way to open the doors of this unknown world to someone. But at the end of the day, the Jesuits — they taught me something very important. That it is discipline.

And then, by discipline, of course, I went through a period that I denied everything that I learned because for the reasons that I told you. But then when I returned, and I was already 40 years old — because, after my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, then it was fantastic because it was a choice, not something that was imposed to me.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right. And that’s so much more a story of our time, I think — people choosing their spiritual and religious lives rather than merely inheriting them in their families, which happened for so many centuries, really.

MR. COELHO: Absolutely. Because for a period, for example, when I was a drop-out, and I left everything behind — I left my family. I left my school. I left the dreams of my parents behind because they wanted me to be an engineer. And then, of course, I went — I was fascinated by a different spirituality like the hippies were. So I became a little bit of everything. So I was a Buddhist, then I was a Hare Krishna, then I was a…

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

MR. COELHO: I was a little bit of everything ‘til the day that I realized that what is in my blood is Christianity. So then, of course, I returned to Christianity after the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm. So Christianity was your mother tongue, your homeland. Isn’t that interesting that you reached home, in a way? You came back home because of this pilgrimage. And I want to talk to you about you discovering the experience of pilgrimage, the meaning of pilgrimage as a modern person. And then you’ve introduced it to so many other modern people. You walked the road of Santiago de Compostela, 500 miles. Had you even known about that pilgrimage? I mean, it’s a very old — kind of the classic iconic pilgrimage. But was that something you also just discovered existed in the world?

MR. COELHO: Yeah. I did not know about this pilgrimage until the day that I was, so to say, invited to do this pilgrimage by a person that I call my master. But in fact, he’s more like a friend to me. So I discovered this in ’86. In 1986, I went to Spain. But I was not very convinced. I said, “This is totally stupid to do a pilgrimage nowadays. You don’t need to go back in time to reach your soul.” But sometimes, some rites of passage are very, very much important. I did not know that by then. So I did the pilgrimage. At the very beginning, I was longing for the thing to end.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Right. [laughs]

MR. COELHO: For the first three days, I said, “My God, I still have 455 miles ahead of me.” And I said, “This is not going to end. This is totally stupid. What am I doing here? We live in a modern world.” ‘Til the fourth day. And the fourth day, I started getting used to the idea of walking, and talking to people, and being aware of my surroundings, and learning about my body — but also, start learning about my soul. So, when I arrived at Santiago de Compostela, it was like a sad moment because it was the end of something that was a turning point in my life, and I did not know what to do from that moment on.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. A sad moment? You mean that’s the experience — that’s how you felt at that moment. Is that what you mean?

MR. COELHO: Yeah. I thought, “Oh, my God, the day that I’m going to arrive in Santiago de Compostela, that means also that I fulfilled a task, and I can go back home.” And right before Santiago, before you can see the city, there is a hill, and they call it Mons Gaudi in Latin. That means “the Mount of Joy.” Meaning the pilgrims — they used to go there and, for the first time, see the towers of the cathedral and be full of joy.

And when I arrived at Mons Gaudi, in “the Mount of Joy,” I felt a sadness because, somehow, something so different that I had experienced in my life was going to end. But what I did not know by then, it was that the real pilgrimage was about to start. Because I did a physical pilgrimage. When I arrived at Santiago de Compostela, I understood, finally, that I had to make a choice in my life. And the choice would be: I have to fulfill my dream or I have to forget my dream forever.

My dream was to be a writer. I was 40 years old, probably too old to change my path. But I said, “No. I’m going to change. I’m going to leave everything behind. I’m going to burn my bridges. I’m going to follow my heart from now on, even if I have a price to pay.” Of course, I was supported by my family, my wife.

She said, “Yes, let’s do it. Even if everybody tells us that nobody can make a living out of writing. But let’s take this risk. Because otherwise, you can have everything, but you’ll be unhappy.” And so I started by writing my first book that is The Pilgrimage. I may add something — when I did this pilgrimage in 1986, there were practically no pilgrims. The road was totally unknown.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I learned that in your writing, that this wasn’t — now, it’s something that many people do. But it wasn’t at that time.

MR. COELHO: No, no. It was totally unknown. I never heard about this road.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: But — and I’m glad that somehow, my first book, The Pilgrimage, that I thought nobody’s going to read — because who cares about this strange road to Santiago?

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

MR. COELHO: But, in fact, people read, and people undertook this pilgrimage. So I was an instrument for this road as this road was an instrument for me for changing my life for better.

[music: “De Ushuaia A Ka Quiaca” by Gustavo Santaolalla]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a rare conversation with one of the most widely read authors in the world, The Alchemist’s Paulo Coelho.

[music: “De Ushuaia A Ka Quiaca” by Gustavo Santaolalla]

MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me that really just a core theme that runs through all your writing is life itself as a pilgrimage, writing as a pilgrimage for you. But also, there’s this effect of your work that is about reading as a pilgrimage, or a way in — as a step on a path to pilgrimage for modern people. So interesting.

MR. COELHO: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: Absolutely. And I also do believe that we have this possibility of doing a pilgrimage every single day. Because a pilgrimage implies in meeting different people, in talking to strangers, in paying attention to the omens, and basically being open to life. And we leave our home to go to work, to go to school, and we have every single day this possibility, this chance of discovering something new. So the pilgrimage is not for the privileged one who can go to Spain, and to France, and walk this 500 miles, but to people who are open to life. A pilgrimage, at the end of the day, is basically get rid of things that you are used to and try something new.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s lovely. And I have to say that there’s a restlessness about that, right? That there’s a restlessness to you, a life-giving restlessness. You talk in one place about the difference between being a builder or a planter, and that a gardener is never released from the demands of the garden. And you wrote, “And it’s by its constant demands it makes of the gardener’s life a great adventure.” But do you know what I mean? What you’re not describing is a life of settling or of peacefulness in a way — maybe peacefulness in moments?

MR. COELHO: Not at all. No, no.

MS. TIPPETT: No?

MR. COELHO: No, no. I think that this would be in contradiction with nature because nature is never in peace.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. COELHO: You’ll see the winter fighting against…

MS. TIPPETT: It never stops.

MR. COELHO: Yeah — against the summer. You’ll see the sun exploding above my head now. So, confrontation is part of life. Sometimes I’m a little bit uncomfortable with this idea that — “Let’s give peace a chance.” Of course, when we talk about…

MS. TIPPETT: Right. [laughs] From your hippie days.

MR. COELHO: Yeah. When we talk about war, this is clear, huh?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah.

MR. COELHO: War is a negative thing.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: But we’re not — you talk about yourself. You have to accept your contradictions, and you have to learn how to live with your contradictions. Otherwise, you become a block of stone that never changes. That’s why being a gardener, in the metaphoric sense, is much more important than being a builder building things that they are not going to change. They can change, but the only change is decay. It’s not something that you can improve.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. So, something that has intrigued me in my life of conversation — and I think it seems like a paradox — that when someone is able to be most particular, articulate about their life, that in those moments, what they say can be most universally heard and felt. And it seems to me that this paradox is very central to your life of writing and even your success as a writer — the reach of your writing. You’ve said that the driving question behind all of your writing is, “Who am I? Who is Paulo Coelho?”

MR. COELHO: Yes, which is a very tricky question. Right?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: Well, I’m going to divide this question in two.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. [laughs]

MR. COELHO: The first one is I saw you talking about tolerance and compassion.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: Which is very important.

MS. TIPPETT: At my TED talk.

MR. COELHO: And I saw you saying that sometimes compassion is understood like being awake and being unable to react. So, every morning, I find myself a different person. I’m always a mystery to myself. If I knew in the first hours of the morning what I’m going to do, what is going to happen, what attitude or decision should I take — I think my life would be deadly boring because, well, what makes life interesting is the unknown. It is the risks that we take every single moment of our day, of a single day. So I think that this contradiction should be accepted.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. COELHO: Having said that, I mean that learning how to live with our contradictions does not keep us away from the ethic, and respecting our neighbor, and learning about tolerance, and learning about compassion. These are two very important words today that were totally forgotten. If you have tolerance and compassion, you can go to the battle, in the metaphoric sense, of course, fighting for your dreams without harming anyone.

MS. TIPPETT: So you experience and, in some way, embody this reality that, as we wrestle with our contradictions and the hard things that life brings to each of us, those are the breeding grounds of compassion towards others. That that wrestling, in fact, becomes a breeding ground for compassion. Is that…?

MR. COELHO: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: At least for me. At least for me, yes. The answer is yes.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I want to ask you about the word “magic.” [laughs] And obviously, your book that has been read by so many millions of people, The Alchemist, The Alchemist — alchemy. And you’ve written that your original pilgrimage was set in motion when you were participating in a small Catholic order that included some work with benign magic. You’ve talked about magic moments in life. Talk to me about what that word, that experience, means for you. How can we understand that? It’s not a very modern word, is it?

MR. COELHO: No, no. It is not, and sometimes very easily misunderstood. But if I can define magic, I would say that it is a bridge that allows us to cross from just visible world to this invisible world. So I’m talking to you, and you can hear my voice. But behind my voice, there are emotions. You can’t see my emotions. You can’t grasp or have some sensations. But emotions are something that we can’t see, we can’t touch, we can’t organize. But at the same time, emotions change the world, and the most important one being love. So, as The Beatles said, “All you need is love.” I think that this summarizes very well what this world needs now.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: If you can make love be, not understood, but felt by people, accepted by people, probably — I’m saying probably — we will forget to ask the questions like the one that you mentioned, “Who am I?” And instead of asking questions and try to get answers, you understand that you are a manifestation of love. And a manifestation of love cannot be understood. It can be felt.

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

MR. COELHO: And if you’re sure about this or don’t feel insecure of being a manifestation of love, you’re going to understand that other people are going to respect. They are not going to cheat you, they’re not going to try to take advantage of it because they also need love. I’m not trying to be a nary fairy guru because I’m not. I am someone in the process of learning also.

But one thing that I understood is that, from the moment that I was not scared of manifesting my love, my life changed and changed for better. I had my difficult moments, yes. I was hurt, yes. I was sad, yes. But still, this love that is what Jesus says about the love that goes beyond the fact that I like or I dislike something. This love, that it is more powerful than anything else that the Greek used — different words because eros is for just love between a man and a woman — but the Greek used for just love that goes beyond like or dislike — they have agape.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: So I’m talking about agape, the love that consumes, the love that is us and our manifestation.

MS. TIPPETT: And agape is also more practical care, right? It’s not just emotion; it’s action.

MR. COELHO: Absolutely. You’re spot on. Yeah. That’s the right thing to say. Agape is action.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: It’s not about thinking. It’s not about — there are moments of ecstasies, yeah?

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. COELHO: That you sit down, and you feel everything. And I cry in these moments. I have this urge of crying, but not crying for joy, not crying for sadness, no reason for crying — crying of being amazed for being alive. And let’s us allow these things to happen to us, accepting and respecting the mystery. We don’t need explanations for everything. We need to fill our lives with love. And as love does not have explanations — OK, let’s simply enjoy.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] You saw that talk I gave about how we’ve watered down the word “compassion,” and I think a lot about how, even more so, thousand, million times more, we’ve watered down the word ”love,” certainly in the English language. And so, yes, you say The Beatles said, “All you need is love.”

And when you say it, I think anyone listening, almost anyone listening just knows intuitively that it’s true. But it’s also — it is one of these contradictions of being human because that simple statement is true, and yet, in many ways, for most of us, learning to love is the longest pilgrimage of all in life. And it’s even something that many people don’t achieve or can’t achieve.

MR. COELHO: Absolutely. And, I don’t know — why do you use this word “cheese?” “You’re too cheesy?” [laughs] Do I have anything about cheese?

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]

MR. COELHO: When you say, “Oh, he’s being too cheesy,” when you manifest something that is the most important thing that we have, we become very cynical. Probably, this is defensive.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: A not natural defensive attitude because you want to love, you want to share your love, you want to show your love, but you don’t want to be cheesy.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

MR. COELHO: So you destroy everything.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I love the way you talk about virtues. And you talked about agape, but there’s also philia, there’s the Greek calling out the love of friendship. And I think you’ve — that’s also something that’s important to you, this other nuance of love.

MR. COELHO: Yes, of course. Eros is very important to me.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, yes.

MR. COELHO: I’ve been married for 34 years with the same woman, but is she the same woman? I don’t think so.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

MR. COELHO: I think that she changed a lot during this 34 years. And when people ask me, “How did you manage to get married with the same woman for so long?” I answer that they are wrong. She is not the girl that I met back in 1979.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: She changed a lot. So did I. You can imagine in 1982, I was dreaming about being a writer — in 1979, sorry. And I was a person who was totally frustrated. And she had her dreams. And throughout all these years, our marriage went through many moments of destruction, so to say. But not destruction in a bad way.

For example, just like you build a house, and then you say, “This house does not fit me anymore. So, let’s reorganize, but let’s continue to live here. We don’t need to move because I love you, and you love me. So let’s reconstruct this house.” So, we’ve been through many ordeals, many, many, many ordeals, but to survive it — why? Because of this, what that you call it, cheesy word — love. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]

MR. COELHO: I’m going to tease you on this cheesy thing because I…

MS. TIPPETT: I know, I won’t be able to stop thinking about this.

MR. COELHO: [laughs] I’m talking to you from Switzerland, and here, cheese is something that’s considered one of the most important things.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Yeah, yeah.

MR. COELHO: It’s a main exportation product. So I’m going to defend the cheese itself, not as a derogatory word, but something that it is positive.

[music: “Thames Town” by Hauschka]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Paulo Coelho through our website, onbeing.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Thames Town” by Hauschka]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, in a rare conversation with Paulo Coelho. He’s best known for his novel The Alchemist — a cultural force, which has been translated into 80 languages and is one of the most widely-read books of all time. It is a fable-like story of a shepherd-boy named Santiago, on an odyssey to name and pursue his dream. Collectively, Paulo Coelho’s books have sold over 200 million copies. We’re meeting the man and the life behind the books.

MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you about another just really central theme of your writing. Certainly that’s there in The Alchemist that has inspired so many people, the notion of the personal legend. And when I was getting ready to interview you, I saw Will Smith, who’s this huge American movie star and cultural figure, talking about how he had been completely galvanized by reading The Alchemist. And this is what he said he took away, and it’s an absolute paraphrase of the things you say. He said that he learned from you that there’s a redemptive power to make a choice, and rather than feeling like you are an effect of the things that have happened to you. And he said, “I believe I can create whatever I want to create.”

MR. COELHO: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I saw his interview. But you know what? Let me tell you something. When The Alchemist was published in America — “Of course, a foreign author. Who is this guy with such a difficult name to pronounce, Coelho?”

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

MR. COELHO: [laughs] “L-H-O. He’s so complicated.” So, I thought, “My God, I should have a different name, a pen name, because I’m planning to be translated in many places.” But then, nothing happened with the book.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: So it took three years to sell the first, well, 10,000 copies. And then one day, I was in Portugal, and I saw Bill Clinton with the book. And I said, “My God, the President of the United States of America has my book in his hand.” And then, I said, “Now the book is going to happen.” No. Nothing happened. And then I saw Madonna in Vanity Fair saying, “Oh, you should read The Alchemist.” And I said, “Ah! Now it’s my moment in America.” Zero, nothing.

And then, of course, the support of many people. But I could not understand why so many people were talking about The Alchemist, and nothing was happening, until the day, out of the blue, I saw the book for the first week in The New York Times bestselling list. But it took 15 years to arrive there.

MS. TIPPETT: Really?

MR. COELHO: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: I did not realize that.

MR. COELHO: OK. In ‘91 — 2001 — yeah, yeah. It took 15 years.

MS. TIPPETT: Wow.

MR. COELHO: And then I had the chance to meet Bill Clinton while he was still the American president. So, we were in Davos — that is the World Economic Forum, and I got this express invitation to meet the president of the United States. And then in Davos, you have this badge that tells you who you are. So, on my badge it was written “Writer.” So, I went to this small room with 30 people. So they come to me, and they said, “Oh, this must be a very important person because he’s here.”

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

MR. COELHO: So they looked at my badge, and they immediately walked away. So I was there in the corner with nobody paying attention to me. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] You weren’t a CEO.

MR. COELHO: [laughs] Yeah, I was not a CEO. I was not a congressman. I was not anybody important. And then Bill Clinton arrives. And the first thing he asks is, “Who is Paulo Coelho?” And I said, “It’s me, sir.” [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]

MR. COELHO: I was in the corner, alone, looking out the window outside, freezing snow, and saying, “What am I doing here?” He’s like, “Oh, I loved your book The Alchemist.” And I said, “But Mr. President, why did you read it?” And he said, “My daughter forced me to read it — not only to read it, but to take a photo of the book, to promote the book.” Wow.

MS. TIPPETT: Interesting.

MR. COELHO: It was very interesting because — this is the true power of word of mouth.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: It can reach your concierge, but it can reach the President of the United States.

MS. TIPPETT: I guess that the puzzle that arises that I want to ask you about is somebody like Bill Clinton, or Will Smith, or Madonna — they absolutely, in a very large way, embody this idea that we all create our own lives. And also this idea that’s in your — so much, again, in one of these central ideas that the universe is conspiring in our favor even though we may not understand how. But in many lives, in many situations, it’s very hard to make that argument. Right? And so how do you reconcile that? How do you think about that?

MR. COELHO: OK. Let me use myself as an example, all right?

MS. TIPPETT: OK, yeah.

MR. COELHO: So, I am a Brazilian. I write in Portuguese. And when I was young, and I said to my parents, “I want to be a writer,” my parents said, “No, no way.” And they put me three times in a mental institution because they are trying to control me. They said that I was crazy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: Then you fast forward to the moment right after the pilgrimage that I wrote The Pilgrimage, and then I wrote The Alchemist. The Alchemist was published, and it did not sell at all in Brazil. So, at the end of the first year, well, it sold 900 copies if I’m not wrong. The first week was very exciting because I said, “Oh, someone either noticed in part of Brazil and bought The Alchemist, and then six months later…

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right. Yeah. It’s your new baby.

MR. COELHO: [laughs] Yeah. Six months later, there was a second Alchemist sold in the northeastern part of Brazil, and it was bought by the same person who bought the first one.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Yeah.

MR. COELHO: Anyway, but my publisher gave the book back to me and said, “I don’t want to publish this book anymore.” But Krista, I was so convinced because, at this moment, I had no choice. Either I move forward, or I die. I die. I die, not physically probably, but spiritually, I would die. So this sentence that you have in The Alchemist that, when you want something, the whole universe conspires to help you. I said, “I have to honor my words. I have to be an example. I have to give an example. Did I write this? I did. So, what I’m going to do is I’m going to knock doors trying to find a second publisher. I can’t just sit down and say, ‘OK, I lost the battle. It is impossible to be a writer.’” So I start knocking doors. And so the circumstances, as you put in your questions, were not favorable.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: I was there being tested by life itself. So I knocked the door, the door opened, and the book had a second chance. Take in mind, take into consideration that it was not a manuscript that could be successful. It was a book that was already published and was not successful at all.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: But I was so convinced. And I had to prove to myself that I was not writing something that I don’t believe. That knocking doors made all the difference.

[music: “Regret” by Fiona Apple]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a rare conversation with one of the most widely read authors in the world, The Alchemist’s Paulo Coelho.

[music: “Regret” by Fiona Apple]

MS. TIPPETT: So, I’d love to read some beautiful lines that were in your acceptance speech when you entered the Brazilian Academy of Letters. You wrote, “The glory of the world is transitory, and we should not measure our lives by it, but by the choice we make to follow our personal legend, to believe in our utopias, and to fight for our dreams.” And then you wrote, “We are all protagonists of our own lives, and it is often the anonymous heroes who make the deepest mark.” That’s very beautiful.

MR. COELHO: Thank you. Thank you. And it is true — because now I realize that I did not answer your question about the personal legend. A personal legend that is in the book, The Alchemist, is your dream, something that you want to do that gives you joy, that you love — back to love again — but also pleasure and joy. So you want to be a gardener, for example. And then you go to your parents, and your parents say, “Oh, gardener? First, go to the university. Get a diploma. Then you can take care of your garden in your spare times.” Or you want to be a writer. Or, you want to be an explorer. Or you want to be a — whatever.

MS. TIPPETT: What if you just want to be a parent, right? I mean, there are so many dreams that are not being a movie star but that are so essential and life-giving. I think you’re saying that, right?

MR. COELHO: Yes, absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

MR. COELHO: So you want to do something that it is against the plans that other people have for you.

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

MR. COELHO: So, there, you face this very hard choice. Either you start living the dreams of someone else — meaning your parents, your wife, your husband — or paying the price of your dream. So this is the most hard choice that you have in life. At the very beginning of your life, when you are a teenager, you know what you want. Then you forget for a while. It happened to me. And then you have another chance, a second chance. Life is very generous. It always gives you a second chance.

And then it’s up to you to take, to grab this opportunity or to forget it forever. I mean, you can’t forget it forever, Krista, because there is always this inner child within yourself saying, “Hey, I’m here. I had the dream to be something else, and now you’re making money, you have a house here, you have a penthouse there, you have whatever. But, you are not doing what you were intended to do. You’re not fulfilling your personal legend.” That’s why you see so many people rich, famous, and then they go through this very self-destructive path because they are doing something that — what? They’re making a lot of money, but they are not happy.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: And they are not fulfilling their dreams.

MS. TIPPETT: And what about people whose struggle is not that they’re rich and famous, but that they are impoverished, and beaten down, and anonymous?

MR. COELHO: Well, first of all, I give you myself as an example. Because today, everybody says, “Oh, you’re Paulo Coelho, so it’s easy to say things that the whole universe conspires.” But no, no. It is always difficult. The second thing is that money or poverty, as you call it is not that important. I could never dream of making money out of writing. What is important is to have joy. I come from a country that’s not very rich.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: It’s not very poor, either. But I see in the eyes of the people something that I seldom see in the so-called developed countries. I see joy. Joy of life. The French, they have this beautiful expression — joie de vivre, joy of being alive. So let’s not use poverty or richness as a pattern to judge.

MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you about elegance, something you talk about as a virtue. We talked about the virtue of love, and friendship, and boldness, but I’m very drawn to your use of the word “elegance.” Talk to me about the place of elegance in life’s pilgrimage.

MR. COELHO: Elegance is simplicity. I believe that we need to be elegant because people confound elegance with fashion.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: And that has nothing to do. I learned about elegance not because I was reading about fashion, blah, blah, blah. Because one day I was in Japan, and I saw a just totally empty house. And then they have a small detail like a flower arrangement or a painting.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: And the rest is empty. And I said, “Oh, my God. What is this?” This guy — it was my publisher — and he said — I will never forget — he said, “This is elegance.” I said, “Elegance?” He said, “Yes, because here, there’s only one detail that you can pay attention. And because of this, elegance is to get rid of all the superfluous things and focus in the most beautiful one.” In this case, it was this flower arrangement. So for me, when I looked at the mountains to the Alps here in Switzerland, and I see this white snow, and I said, “Oh, my God.” God could have created snow as a rainbow, full of colors. But then this would be a disaster.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]

MR. COELHO: You know? Because the beauty of the snow is because it has only one color. The beauty of the desert — I love deserts, by the way.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: I spent forty days in the Mojave Desert back in 1989, and it was so magical, so magical, so magical. So every time that I travel, I visit the desert. But then back to elegance — elegance is that. It’s to go to the core of beauty, and the core of beauty is simplicity.

MS. TIPPETT: Lovely. I want to ask you just two more questions. You’ve said that one way you have of meditating is archery. [laughs] Bows and arrows.

MR. COELHO: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Tell me about that.

MR. COELHO: I’m not, Krista, just a person who sits in a lotus position. I did that a lot. And say “ohm?” I can’t do this.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]

MR. COELHO: I’m much more like a warrior than like a wise man. So I thought, “My God, it’s so difficult for me to meditate sitting and trying not to think. It is against nature for me, my nature, because I’m more like a warrior of the light.” So, one day, I learned about archery. Not the normal archery, but a kind of meditation called “kyudo,” also Japanese art.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: You only have eight steps, eight movements. In yoga, I don’t know how many movements you have, but in kyudo you have eight movements that I’m not going to describe because it’s simple. But anyways, you have to watch it. So, at the end, you open your arm, and you have this tension — 43 pounds. It’s like you have a luggage of 43 pounds, horizontal.

And then you release the string, and the arrow goes, and immediately you are in a state of total relax. So this contrast between total tension and total relaxing — you can see the universe through your bow. So, from the moment that I learned archery, I decided this is my way to meditate. And I really encourage people at the least to try because it is beautiful, it is elegant, and it helps you to meditate.

MS. TIPPETT: It also — the way you describe that also reminds me of something you said that I loved when you — when we first began to speak — about the process of pilgrimage, that it was in discovering your body that you discovered your soul.

MR. COELHO: The same thing happens with archery. You’re right, Krista.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MR. COELHO: So the same thing. Because you see the tension in your body, and then you see this tension disappearing. And you’re in this state of grace and communion. You’re totally right. Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm. So this question that we talked about as the driving question behind your writing, ”Who am I?” The human question — it’s your version of the question of, “What does it mean to be human?” I’m curious about if you had to think about how your understanding, your sense of that, what it means to be human, has evolved across all these experiences of your lifetime and your lifetime of writing.

MR. COELHO: OK, Krista. So, you said you had two more questions. This is the final question? I have to give an intelligent answer.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]

MR. COELHO: So, to be totally honest, I don’t know who I am. And I don’t think people ever will know who they are. We have to be humble enough to learn to live with this mysterious question, “Who am I?” So, I am a mystery to myself. I am someone who is in this pilgrimage from the moment that I was born to the day that will come that I’m going to die. And this is something that I can’t avoid. Whether I like it or not, I’m going to die. So what I have to do is to honor this pilgrimage through life.

And so I am this pilgrim — if I can somehow answer your question — who’s constantly amazed by this journey, who is learning a new thing every single day, but who’s not accumulating knowledge because then it becomes a very heavy burden in your back. I am this person who is proud to be a pilgrim, and who’s trying to honor his journey.

[music: “Luna Park” by Signal Hill]

MS. TIPPETT: Paulo Coelho is the author of many books including The Pilgrimage, Veronika Decides to Die, and The Alchemist. His new book is Adultery.

[music: “Luna Park” by Signal Hill]

MS. TIPPETT: In case you missed it, we launched a shorter form podcast this year — Becoming Wise — vignettes in the mystery and art of living. These are sharable, 7-12 minute dips into wise and luminous lives and nourishing ideas urgent for our time – people like Brene Brown, Elie Wiesel, Seth Godin, and Maria Popova. And you can download all 20 episodes from the inaugural season right now, wherever podcasts are found.

[music: “Satori” by Rodrigo Y Gabriela]

STAFF: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Annie Parsons, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Kloecker, Selena Carlson, Dupe Oyebolu, and Ariana Nedelman.

[music: “Satori” by Rodrigo Y Gabriela]

MS. TIPPETT: On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners are:

The Ford Foundation, working with visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide at fordfoundation.org.

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build a spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.

The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.

And the Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

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Paulo Coelho photographed by Philip Van Volsem.

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