The Power of (Not) Unplugging

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.

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

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

(Illustration by Candace Rose Rardon)
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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  1. Jools Stone
    August 3, 2014, 11:28 am

    Wow, well when you can draw and write so well, who needs Instagram anyway?! The article wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but I really enjoyed reading it!

  2. Candace
    July 31, 2014, 4:10 pm

    David – thank you for your kind words! And it does indeed take an amazing amount of willpower to stay balanced between our digital and physical worlds – some days I strike this balance a little better than others :)

    Ellen – thank you so much for sharing your own wonderful insights. I especially love what you wrote at the end – I’m always interested in exploring both the inner and outer journeys as we travel, and you put it so perfectly! It’s those in-between moments that tend to hold the most meaning for us, isn’t it?

  3. Ellen Girardeau Kempler
    Laguna Beach, California
    July 28, 2014, 2:03 pm

    Thanks for your illuminating and beautifully illustrated post, Candace. I loved your silent, sitting, listening moment with the owl. That’s what we get from exploring the “in between” places that aren’t destinations on anyone’s bucket list. In a way, the place you visited is the only unexplored destination still left to us in travel and life: that place in your head where you discover complete peace and contentment in the moment.

  4. David
    Dutch Harbor, Alaska
    July 24, 2014, 10:25 pm

    An amazing read! I’m quite envious of your opportunity to stay in such a place and self-reflect. Nowadays, it takes extraordinary willpower for most to not let their digital lives control their normal lives.

    Hopefully one day I can take a break from work and realize what is really important.

  5. Candace
    July 22, 2014, 3:07 am

    Claudia – thank you! I’m so glad the story resonated with you :)

    Irene – thanks so much! I’m especially thrilled to hear you enjoyed the illustrations…I loved working on these sketches throughout my time in the yurt.

    Roberta – thanks for sharing your own experience here! I so know the feeling of being joined at the hip with our devices. I’ve been trying to carve out daily pockets of time when I’m offline, and love the feeling of focus it gives me!

    Pam – it’s not an easy balancing act! I’m realizing that choosing to be present and mindful is often a daily decision.

    Tess – thanks for taking the time to read it! And I love what you shared about the sketches…perfectly enough, over the last few months I’ve been thinking about sketching as a means to mindfulness – and how it really helps me be present in life – so I’m glad that spoke to you here as well :)

  6. tess
    July 21, 2014, 10:10 am

    thank you for this post Candace – the illustrations really honed in on your points about learning to connect back, and to be more mindful – even observing ourselves when we are ‘plugged in’ thank you :)

  7. Pam Gray
    July 20, 2014, 9:31 am

    A great reminder of what we all know is important, but rarely choose to balance. Thank you!!

  8. Roberta Charles
    The Adirondacks
    July 19, 2014, 11:51 am

    Wonderful, thoughtful post, brings the truth home. In addition to a desktop computer I now have an Asus laptop/tablet & find that I was feeling joined at the hip with it. I now just use it in place of the telephone when I want to contact someone. My desktop is on the lower level & I’m on it just once a day, catching up with the news, doing research, checking my finances, etc. It’s so easy to become obsessed with technology & your post was most insightful.

  9. Irene S Levine
    United States
    July 18, 2014, 6:41 pm

    Lovely post and breathtaking illustrations~

  10. Claudia Campbell
    Vashon Island
    July 18, 2014, 3:57 pm

    This is a particularly delightful remindful insightful post :)