A Fire Destroyed Pico Iyer's Home And Writings -- But Not His Life (VIDEO)

03/10/2015 12:09 pm ET | Updated Mar 11, 2015

In 1990, one of the worst man-made fires in California history swept through the hills of Santa Barbara, decimating entire neighborhoods and reducing nearly everything in its path into piles of ash. Hundreds of families were devastated by the destruction of the Painted Cave fire, including a travel writer named Pico Iyer. He narrowly escaped with his life, only to find himself stuck on a mountain road for two hours with his family, watching helplessly as the fire tore through the town.

"I lost every last thing I had in the world," Iyer tells Oprah in the above video. "I saw the fire slowly pick apart my house, systematically reduce everything to ash... The only thing I had in the world was a toothbrush, which I'd just bought from an all-night supermarket."

The experience forever changed him, and marked a turning point in Iyer's life.

"I always had that sense that home was not where I lived, but what lived inside of me. When our house burned down in the forest fire, that became literal," he says.

The morning after the fire, Iyer had a profound realization. "When it came to replacing the things that we had lost, of course, I realized there wasn't that much I really needed... It was a lesson in what we really need to survive and what we don't," he explains. "All the most important things -- memories, photographs -- they were gone. Couldn't hold on to those. All the things that I needed for day-to-day life weren't much more enormous than a toothbrush and a few clothes and certain necessities.

"Luxury is a matter not of all the things you have, but all the things you can afford to do without," he continues.

With this newfound perspective, Iyer says he didn't feel so devastated by his losses -- and each time he would find himself thinking wistfully of the "what ifs" that could have helped him save certain treasures, he would quickly remind himself of the far less fortunate outcome he could have faced.

"Occasionally, I would think, 'If only I had five minutes more, I could have gathered everything precious,'" Iyer says. "But then I thought, 'If only I had five minutes less, I wouldn't be alive.'"

Even the loss of years' worth of writings left the author with a strange sense of freedom. "In some ways, I thought I'm liberated from a lot of things -- even from my dream of being a writer," he says. "Those were pre-computer days. My next, probably, seven years were all in my handwritten notes. And I lost my passport. In some ways, I lost my future."

Iyer soon began looking at the experience as a powerful opportunity.

"It seemed to me a way -- a challenge, one of those challenges life gives us -- of [thinking] about what is really important," Iyer says.

Since then, Iyer has journeyed all over the world, from India to Ethiopia to Cuba and Kathmandu, and has come to believe that there has never been a greater need to slow down, tune out and give ourselves permission to be still. This is the focus of his latest book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere.

More from the interview: Iyer describes the destination that everyone should visit if they want to feel new, alive and full of fresh hope.

"Super Soul Sunday" airs Sundays at 11 a.m. ET on OWN. You can also stream the program live at that time on Oprah.com/supersoulsunday or Facebook.com/supersoulsunday.

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