Suzuki Roshi, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, once fielded a question from a student following one of his dharma talks. The student asked, ‘Can you just make this a little more simple for us, and boil Buddhism down to a single phrase.?’ Without missing a beat, Suzuki answered, “Everything changes.”
One could say that this ancient truth has gone on steroids in our time.
I am increasingly aware, as a Baby Boomer, that I belong to the last generation of humans who grew up with an experience of being “off the grid.” Many of us who have crossed the divide into the digital age are sensing by now the mixed blessing of what it means to be connected 24/7.
I am grateful for the gift of still knowing how to live and work off the grid, at least some of the time. Much has been written by now about the risks and dangers of being addicted to our wireless technologies. (See for example Last Child In the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv). I had the kind of childhood Louv describes in his book. I was given what would now be seen as extraordinary freedom to roam a wide range of Northwest forest and seashore as a kid, unsupervised, and with no electronic monitors keeping track of my every move.
I am so grateful for that experience, and for the positive ways I was shaped and formed by this freedom to explore and discover on my own. I’ve also known, as a younger climber and Alaskan commercial fisherman in the era before the internet, a different kind of solitude than is possible today. In my experience there is a different intensity to one’s encounter with beauty as well as risk, when it is wrapped in the vulnerability that comes from being truly off the grid. Knowing that we couldn’t just call in a helicopter if we got injured in the mountains, changed the experience of being in the mountains. It transformed the experience of solitude into something more visceral and real. Do we not domesticate beauty when we remove ourselves too far from the truth of our actual vulnerability? If we are not careful, the technologies that connect us can trap us inside a false sense of security that separates us from our own wildness.
That is one of the reasons I so relish my summer months and Inside Passages retreats based out of Keene Channel Lodge in Southeast Alaska. That is also why I ask my clients on these retreats to take a vacation from technology during their week in the wild, to open themselves to a “digital detox”, as part of what it means to recover our wholeness. To bring our bodies and minds into the same place at the same time, in a spirit of deep listening, is a radical act of generosity and healing.
There is a psychic burden that lifts for me, a swelling of the heart, every time I arrive back in Keene Channel each summer. I feel it immediately, though it always takes a few days for ‘the soul to catch back up with the body’, days of settling into the rhythm of the tides, of moving outside of clock time, and tuning myself more to the cycle of daylight and darkness, flood tide and ebb tide, changing patterns of weather, and days spent deeply immersed in place. There is a slow trajectory to waking up from the trance of busyness that I carry with me from my winters in the city. But the gifts of true solitude are always there waiting for me, generous and unfailing, ready to welcome me back as an old friend.
For many of us in today’s fast-moving, fast-changing world, the benefits of slowing down, of truly going off the grid, have become an extinct experience. This seems especially true for the emerging generation, born into the internet age, whose whole life has been defined by hyper-connectivity. But I don’t believe that the power and potential of solitude, or of the inner freedom that can grow from solitude, will ever go extinct. It is hardwired into our genes by thousands of generations of living more directly in place, and off the grid.
Practicing mindfulness in an environment that cultivates this kind of inner and outer solitude is important, not only for our own well being, but for the well being of the wider world with which we interact. When we come home to ourselves in a deeper way, we open to the world around us differently too. We open to the places we call home, to our loved ones, our work and our community, in a more whole-hearted way. In so doing, we become more whole ourselves. How else can we ever bring healing to the world, if we have forgotten how to be at home in our own skin?
That has been my mission for twenty-five years as a guide with Inside Passages, linking the power of wilderness with the power of mindfulness, to re-stitch our lives into a new and more vibrant wholeness.