Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Quenching the Router: Controlling the Winds of Distraction

Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story about going for a walk once when he lived in a mountain hermitage, and leaving his windows open to the morning air. While he was out the wind picked up violently and by the time he arrived home his writing papers were wildly flung about the room and his belongings were all in chaos. He closed the windows against the still blowing wind, gathered his papers, and put his home back in order before doing anything else.


He tells this story to illustrate the necessity, when confronted with internal chaos, of closing off the source of disturbance if we are to re-establish order and calm within ourselves.


This applies to writing, too. It is very hard to settle down and write when windows are unfastened and winds are whipping around our mental domiciles, particularly when we suffer from fatigue and can be easily thrown off course by such things.


One of the unceasing winds with which most of us are confronted is the internet. Some of us cool-nerved souls are able to ignore its presence and do the work before us without stealing a peek at Facebook or Twitter, or checking out how the gang at the SF Canada listserve is doing, or responding to just one more email. Some of us are not sucked into the airstream of YouTube to be spat out hours later, dazed and uncertain where we have been.


I was once strong, like these peerless fellows. I was shocked by reports of nightlong YouTube binges, I scorned the inbox, thumped with discipline on the keyboard in the direction my plans, and not my impulses, led.


No more.


Of course, it helped that the old laptop I was using for writing fiction wasn’t connected to the internet, and that the old desktop had (and still has) such a formidable hum that I can’t stand to use it for very long.


Since reluctantly wiring up my laptop to the internet when abdominal surgery made it impossible to sit on a chair, I have occupied the increasingly wind-struck world of—maybe I’ll just check that fact before writing another word. Oh, look. What a fascinating article. And all these links. I should forward this to my friend—oh! I really ought to answer that email. It’s been sitting there for ages. Haha. A funny video from so and so. (Looks up hours later. What was it I turned the computer on for, again???) This isn’t, of course, simple foolishness. I’m chronically tired and even without the help of the internet it’s hard for me to remember what I’m doing at any given moment. With a dozen windows open—literally and metaphorically—I’m pretty much doomed.


My weakness is so pronounced that I start avoiding the power button in self-defense. A dark screen is a happy screen. Unbridled computer immersions—whether word processing or internet surfing—are exhausting enterprises to the person suffering from fatigue, and can be neatly sidestepped by pretending the computer isn’t there. Indeed, days off are a good good thing. But they might not be so necessary if I didn’t get discombobulated by the many distractions of the internet while trying to get a simple thing done.


So this week I unlinked my connection to the internet. I closed the windows, gathered up my papers, put away what wasn’t needed and took a grateful, relieved breath. Now when I write I can’t flick, without pausing to consider the consequences, to check out an assumption or grab some extra intell or find a picture to help clarify something I’m working on. That’s a nuisance. I like being able to do that.


But it means I get to stay on track. I don’t lose the trail entirely and use up whatever energy I have just finding my way back to my chosen task. I make a note or just ignore the impulse and carry on, till at length I decide to stop and do something else. A process that is clearer, cleaner, less exciting, nice…


With the result that I’m a whole lot less frazzled when I turn the computer off. Which I do earlier. Cause I’m not surfing the endless billowing updrafts of the net.


I’m not cured of my distractibility (or my fatigue). I approach the router nervously, fearing being sucked back in to entertaining, pleasing, boring or distressing but myriad and infinite distractions. I haven’t caught my breath for long enough to want to be blown away again. I’m on retreat. May I remain here (I pray). I sympathize with those who have signed off of Facebook. I suspect those who aren’t just worried about privacy are trying to close a few windows, themselves. Whatever works, compadres. Whatever works.


Turning off the router is one means of taking back control over what comes blasting in on us. The internet is still there when we have the courage and energy to enter it, but the necessity of asking yourself whether this impulse really justifies walking across the room to re-open the windows to that impetuous wind, whether we really want to risk wandering off without finishing this bit of work we’ve set out to do today, or whether it might just be something that can wait… What a wonderful difference this moment of hesitation makes.


This blog entry was written using a word processing program (not Blogger) with the internet router turned off. On a peaceful afternoon in Vancouver, BC.

Photo of Wind Storm: Pal Hermansen—Stone/Getty Images