The Echo Seduction

Early this fall I unplugged for three weeks. Turned off my phone, took a Facebook sabbatical, squashed my compulsion to check email, and bade my friends farewell while I hiked, danced, climbed, ambled, dined, spectated, and contemplated on my own terms across three states and one province.

In the corporate America where I typically spend 40-plus hours of my waking life each week, arranging such a long respite is considered a feat. A sampling of responses among the people I told of my plans: “Who approved that?!” “Wow, I wish I was your age again!” “That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Good for you!”

Personally, I’m under no delusion that a few weeks of North American travel is akin to retreating to the far-flung exoticism of Lombok or the purifying intensity of an ashram stay in a remote corner of India. Hardly.

As something I craved in order to collect, reconfigure and orient myself in the midst of what has been a tumultuous year, the three-week break succeeded enormously. Paradigm-shifting? No. Simply constructive? Yes. That’s all.

But the real story goes back to those reactions.

That taking a few weeks off to reconfigure elicited such wonder is itself a wondrous thing. Is society really so enslaved to the idea of career, routine, family, friends, and money that any attempt to distance oneself from that — even for a paltry three weeks — is now met with sheer awe by other people?

In their reactions I sensed an attitude of: “Well, good for you. I wish I could do that but I need to stay put and focus on my job-family-mortgage-school-dog-favorite TV series.”

These days, to unplug, whether for just a few weeks or indefinitely, is to put the American Dream on hold. It is a sign of listlessness or self-doubt. It is a luxury reserved for a few, mostly the young, seeking a forum for legitimizing their aimlessness. It is either for the yuppie, the trustafarian, or the trendy idealist.

How unfortunate that a humble desire to shift one’s stance or adopt a new perspective through rejecting, or just briefly pausing, society’s live-to-work mentality is seen as unattainable or viewed skeptically by others. It should be integral to the American Dream (the idea that each of us can harness our unique, unlimited potential to achieve success), not antithetical to it.

The practice of discernment, of retreat, of carving out the space to build and practice an intentional life has turned into a foreign concept.

I’m belaboring this idea because it’s the aspect of unplugging that I’m most concerned with. At once I am both a working professional, deeply engaged in the day-to-day affairs of my career, friends, family, hobbies, and the like; and I am also a culturally critical person fighting an uphill battle to create an intentional, creative, spectacular life amidst a consumption-driven society.

I suspect you, dear reader, share this mindset and this challenge. So what to do?

As much as I’d love to uproot and move indefinitely to a Danish commune, set up a produce stand in Northern California, or bounce from village to village in Guatemala, that kind of unplugging is not realistic for me or most people. Capitalism’s hold on us is too great. At some point a bill will arrive and the experience will fall apart.

Marx’s idea of historical materialism correctly accounts for the economy’s function as the basis for all aspects of society. Sad but true. We cannot escape that. Short of discovering a suitcase of money or scoring an outsize parental subsidy, our reality is at its essence based on the fulfillment our basic economic needs (such as food and shelter). This materialism is the root of our social existence, which in turn determines our consciousness, says Marx.

Debbie Downer would point out, and I would agree, that sooner or later, the commune will fall prey to unpaid taxes, the produce stand will be made irrelevant by the arrival of a nearby grocery store, and the savings used to fund that Guatemala village hopping will run dry.

Then what? Game over; back to the rat race — probably in a weaker position than before you left. Of course, most people never leave to do something like this in the first place out of, largely, financial fear. At the end of the day, people in most places of the world are hemmed in and governed by the market’s invisible, dispassionate, powerful hand. My pessimism on this subject prevents me from taking that quixotic leap to Guatemala.

But I actually don’t think such drastic leaps are necessary in the first place.

We all possess, right now within ourselves, the constitution and tools required to achieve contentment. Leaping from one location or vocation to another doesn’t change that fact — and may actually obscure it, prolonging that end which we seek.

Simple, unplugged, intentional living is attainable through small gestures that are compatible with the contemporary urban lifestyle. And it should not be seen as an out-of-grasp luxury reserved for the new age granola crowd with too much time on its hands.

A week or two of travel. A do-it-yourself philosophy. Bicycling. Taking a new class. Letter writing. Shopping local. Aimless walking. A weekend-long email break.

These are all easy, achievable ways to detach from business as usual, refresh oneself, or subvert dominant paradigms. Doing these things should not elicit awe among your personal network of people; rather, they should be seen as commonsense and ordinary as brushing your teeth. Surely a stagnant life is as bad as a cavity, right? Well, you certainly wouldn’t think so based on how little attention people devote to self-assessment and carving out the space required for it.

If we are to do the essential work of discovering our own true selves and creating a meaningful existence, then we must unplug. Vanish. Retreat. Upend our conventions.

This should happen in two ways.

First, literally unplug. Technology’s firm grip on us has unleashed enormous gains in productivity and knowledge over the past 20 years, but its ugly side–a crushing overload of information–has become increasingly apparent.

Attending to the constant stream of texts, phone calls, emails, news articles, videos, music, tweets, and status updates that is pushed in front of us each day is a nearly impossible task. Suddenly, we spend each day in a reactive mode, sorting through what’s been presented to us, rather than in the creative, proactive mode necessary to empower serious discovery and invention.

Second, once those incessant content streams are gone, we can come to understand and deal with our materialism. By identifying and deconstructing our attachments — to money, career, cars, food, status, power and even friends and family — we start to unleash our authentic creative being. This process is absolutely essential for cultivating contentment, self-sufficiency, and confidence.

In breaking through materialism we are up against a powerful force. “The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated,” said William James. Materialism tends to be our go-to attempt at nurturing that craving, and it usually succeeds wildly. We grow accustomed to our income, house, ego, social life, etc. and find it hard (or, after a while, unnecessary) to let go or seriously question them, for fear of what lies beyond that transcendence.

But question them we must, for, as the urban shaman Gabrielle Roth notes, “… the security of dependence is actually the insecurity of not controlling your own life, or being your own person.” It is my belief that through small, occasional acts of unplugging we can begin to see the truth in this idea and finally summon the courage to confront our own materialism to control our own life.

I had three weeks to do this, others can spend three years, and others might have 30 minutes. The duration isn’t especially important; the will to unplug is. At the very least, simply pausing once each day to question a routine behavior or think intentionally begins to build a self-awareness that chips away at materialism, increasing one’s autonomy and creative power.

This discussion cannot end without acknowledging the American transcendentalism espoused most famously by Emerson and Thoreau.

Speaking at Harvard in 1837, Emerson prodded the students to make a clean break with European tradition and custom in order to forge ahead in defining America’s distinct, unique character. Instead of taking the well-worn path, he urged the students to take on the cross of self-discovery and independence in spite of the “nettles and tangling vines” that get in the way of self-directed people.

What is the benefit of doing this, despite the strain of invoking societal skepticism? Because that person, he said, “… is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature. He is one, who raises himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart. He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history.”

Later, he continues, “In yourself is the law of all nature… in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all.” Explore–begin to call out into yourself, and let the echo seduce you further in.

The most famous instance of the unplugged, off-the-grid life is Thoreau’s Walden Pond experience. His observations reveal that our contemporary concerns existed in his time as well:

“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. He has no time to be anything but a machine.”

More than one hundred and fifty years later, resisting the machine continues to form the basis of our post-modern existential conflict. We can learn much from Thoreau’s experience and apply it today.

However, although Thoreau’s experience was certainly transformative and yielded the incredible insights that form a classic book, we have to remember that his retreat was not really that drastic an undertaking. He lived in his cabin for just two years, the whole time located only two miles from the nearest town. He had regular visitors.

Let go of your image of having to quit your job, sell all your belongings and move to a shack in Africa in order to realize a spiritual reawakening or break from normalcy. If someone has the time and money to do this, excellent. I envy that person and suspect that great truths will be realized in such an endeavor. But for those of us for whom something so grand and severe is not a viable option, we can have similarly transformative experiences on a smaller scale.

Seek out, take advantage of, and protect whatever little moments and experiences you can to build space in your life for reflection and thoughtful action. They are essential, not optional or unattainable, for our self development.

Doing this is possible; it is manageable. And it is within reach for us all right now.