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The Power of (Not) Unplugging

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Is "unplugging" alone enough to allow us to be more present, wherever we are? (Illustration by Candace Rose Rardon)

It’s the picture of rustic paradise: morning sunlight streaming into the window in my roof, filtered through the feathery crowns of Douglas fir and cedar trees, the warbling of robins my only soundtrack. Here on Salt Spring Island in western Canada, at home inside a 20-foot-wide canvas yurt—modeled after the round, portable dwellings of nomads in Mongolia and Central Asia—I feel closer to nature than ever.

And yet the first thing I do upon waking is reach above me, retrieve my iPod Touch from the headboard, and refresh my Gmail inbox.

Immediately I am transported to another world—not one of fir trees and dappled sunlight, but one of a much different nature. In a matter of seconds, I find myself present everywhere but here.

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The author’s temporary home on Salt Spring Island (Photograph by Candace Rose Rardon)

Before I’ve even set my feet down on the yurt’s cold wooden floor, there’s a to-do list forming in my head—editors to respond to, freelance pitches to send, travel opportunities to plan. I make my bed with a strange sense of urgency, this list willing me toward my desk. There are things to be done and a voice in my head saying, “Do them now, now, now.”

The demands of the digital world often feel never-ending. There always seems to be another email, blog comment, status update, or tweet to reply to. As tech writer Paul Miller observed after leaving the Internet for a year, our online routines resemble a hamster wheel, one in which we go round and round again, with no clear end ever in sight.

By the time I moved into the yurt on Salt Spring, an island off the coast of mainland British Columbia, I was ready to pull the virtual plug—for three months, at least. After a year of traveling almost nonstop through Asia and Europe, I needed to slow down. I needed to hear myself think again. I needed solitude and retreat.

My new home seemed all too happy to help me on my quest—and far more literally than I had anticipated. It was snowing the day I arrived, something I’d been told was quite rare on Salt Spring, and yet the snow continued to fall steadily throughout the night. At 8:30 the next morning, the electricity flickered off. And from the moment my laptop ran out of juice four hours later, I was effectively off the grid.

This should have thrilled me. No power meant no Internet, which meant no inbox or Facebook or Twitter—huzzah! Wasn’t this the very goal that had brought me to the yurt?

Instead, my sudden offline exile wasn’t so much enjoyable as it was disorienting. I’d never noticed how much I rely on a sense of time to structure my days, nor admitted just how often I check my email and social media. I felt unmoored in a weightless sea of snow and ice and air.

Twenty-eight hours and 18 inches of snow later, the power twitched back to life, and with it, my ability to connect to the outside world online. But I hesitated before opening my laptop. If I didn’t want to spend my three months on Salt Spring completely cut off, then what balance was I seeking between the physical and digital worlds? And what would that look like?

I realized that what I had reclaimed that weekend, and what I was determined not to lose in the coming months, was greater awareness.

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Tools for a new morning ritual (Illustration by Candace Rose Rardon)

I felt it while splitting kindling each morning. I had never successfully started a fire on my own before moving to Salt Spring (clearly I was no Girl Scout), but if I wanted to keep my teeth from chattering, I had little choice but to learn—and fast. There was a woodshed just outside the yurt, and it was here that I swung an ax, chopped logs apart, and breathed in deeply, the air redolent with cedar. This task became as essential to starting the day as checking my email.

I felt it on my walk to the coast each evening. There was a point about three miles away from my yurt called Burgoyne Bay, where a short trail through the forest suddenly opens up to reveal an expanse of starfish-covered boulders along the Salish Sea.

Once, on my way back, I noticed a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned and found myself locking gazes with a great horned owl that was sitting on a tree branch not 20 feet away. We stared at each other for a full second, his luminous, yellow-ringed eyes meeting my own, before he took flight.

I felt it when, on a brisk Thursday night, I glimpsed my first sunset on Salt Spring. The western sun, sinking just beyond the bay, had cast an electric pink glow across the sky. I raced back to the yurt to get my camera. I took a few pictures, which I intended to share online later, but then I did something rather unusual for me: I put my camera down.

I sat on the porch for a full five minutes doing nothing but watch the cotton-candy clouds fade to blue. I wanted to dwell in this world—in this pink sky-glowing, woodsmoke-swirling, owl-soaring world—for a while longer. For now, Instagram could wait.

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Greater awareness of the world around us has its rewards. (Illustration by Candace Rose Rardon)

While my stay on Salt Spring was inspired by a desire to take a giant leap of disconnection, I came to realize that we don’t need to go totally off the grid to achieve greater awareness in our daily lives. In fact, I might argue that resorting to a straight-out rejection of the Internet only addresses a symptom of a much bigger problem.

Living mindfully isn’t as black and white as throwing out our smartphones or turning off Wi-Fi; it’s about staying connected with a world that is always right there, just beyond our desk and doorstep—a world that isn’t going anywhere when the power is cut.

More importantly, it’s about staying connected with ourselves. Henry David Thoreau—who might well be considered the grandfather of today’s unplugging movement—wrote that some of his “pleasantest hours” by Walden Pond were “when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves.”

The danger of being plugged in only occurs when our devices distract us from moments of pause and reflection, when our own twilight thoughts aren’t given the time and space they need to unfold.

Unplugging alone isn’t some cure-all, automatically enabling us to be alive to the world around us. The path to being present in our lives is more nuanced than that. And it starts with redefining what needs to be done now. It starts with unplugging our minds, even while we’re plugged in.

It starts with us.

Candace Rose Rardon is a writer and sketch artist with a passion for storytelling. In addition to keeping her blog, The Great Affair, up to date, Rardon recently released her first book of travel sketches, Beneath the Lantern’s Glow. Follow her on Twitter @candacerardon and on Instagram @candaceroserardon.

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