Off the grid in the strict definition means to live without connection to an electrical power grid. When I hear it, however, I tend to think about a cabin covered in moss on the edge of a lake with a rusty row boat and two weathered Adirondack chairs. There is a large part of me that would love that version of off the grid. The tiny house, the lack of connection, the sustainability, the space.
I have to laugh though, because the modern definition of off the grid seems more often than not to simply mean not answering your phone or connecting to the internet. Two technologies that did not even exit until well after I was born, and yet now we are so connected to them and the technological world around us that to give up going on facebook or returning phone calls is considered similar to living so far away from society that there is no municipal electricity available.
Right now for me, living off the grid in the first two ways is not a reasonable reality. I live in one of the largest cities in the United States. It was not an accidental move, but it was certainly a surprising one. What can I say? We surprise ourselves. My nature-loving, off the grid-desiring, space-embracing hubby and I live in 776 square feet with two shared walls and have about 500 neighbors and 17 million people within driving distance. Life is funny. But sometimes I think you go to the most unexpected places to learn the things that you could never learn when you are where you think you want to be.
But even in the midst of this close-contact, crazy-urban life, an off the grid mentality is still very near and dear to our hearts. And for good reason, I believe. Sure, there is a “green” element to being off the grid, but for me it is so much broader. It is about connection and quiet and space, things that I think are essential to becoming who we really are.
I love technology. I love what it allows for and how much we can learn and how you can know if your husband’s flight has taken off yet or how you can discover the details of oil pulling. I love that we can talk with each other whenever we like and how we can order things online and never have to leave our house to buy toilet paper. But in the midst of a world where connection is such an organizing idea, other things emerge.
Like a dependency on connection, a fear of being alone, anxiety if we are not in touch with people, constant interaction, fear that if we do not respond we will be forgotten…all things that may be good and helpful and very human when they are in their proper perspective. But when we feed the connection monster, I think that we risk losing more than we could ever imagine. I think we risk losing a connection to ourselves.
There is a historical tradition of the wilderness. Journeys into the desert, pilgrimages across barren lands, weeks spent in silent monasteries in the mountains, time alone at Walden’s pond, afternoons sitting under a tree in a field staring at the clouds. Throughout time, people have had a sense of silence and space. There has been a value placed on getting away, and often times that getting away included away to nothing. It would be easy to assume that these people chose desert vacations and lengthy pilgrimages because Vegas had not yet been built, but I think if we consider it, there is more.
There are a few key elements in common with the idea of both the wilderness tradition and going off the grid.
- Being away from our normal everyday.
- Silence or quiet or contemplation
- Rest and a setting down of the demands of our daily lives
- Limited interaction or aloneness
- Wilderness itself, a hearkening back to nature
In our modern world, we have largely abandoned this way of living and thinking. Our vacations are filled with zip lines and restaurants, our free moments crammed with texting and email. We are busy, sometimes because we need to be, but sometimes because we choose to be. We rarely walk into the woods just because, with no agenda or no need to achieve. Even our relaxing is a bit of a rouse, a way to get some much-needed prescribed downtime so that we can be more effective at our work or optimize our lives. We are doing and connecting and accomplishing and achieving. But are we ever really being?
I think there is a reason for the tradition of the wilderness.
I think there is a reason for living with a mindset of going off the grid.
I think it is because there is good there.
In the space that settles in around us after we remove the technology and the busy and the everybody else, our thoughts have time to wander, time to be, time to grow and develop and turn into ideas and dreams. Ideas need space to start and grow. Dreams need room to take root and flourish. How do we expect to be more than we are, if we do not step away and take the time to dream?
In the silence we leave room to find ourselves. We hear our own thoughts, our own heartbeats. In the moments when we set down the distractions and the keyboards and the voices that we chose to have coming at us from the moment we rise until our head hits the pillow, we can hear our own desires, our own story.
In the resting, we recharge, not just to do more, but to be more. To discover what it is that we really want, who it is that we really are, what it is that really matters. We cannot rest simply so that we can keep racing. There is value in the resting itself, in breathing in slowly, in remembering that life is short and fragile and wonderful. In taking moments to see what is around us and orient ourselves to this beautiful adventure of living.
In the aloneness we can simply be. I realize that this may be the most challenging component. We scare ourselves. We are complex. We are complicated. We have hurts and fears and dreams and desires. And when we are alone, we can hear ourselves working these things out. I think that is why we often reach for the phone or log onto facebook or compulsively check email or watch fake lives on sitcoms. To not be alone. To not be afraid that what we hear in our own hearts will disappoint us or scare us or drive us to consider a life other than the one we are living.
But we must not forget that we are also powerful. And amazing. And full of wonder and fight and dreams and ideas that just need a little room to grow.
There is no fear in being alone. That is a lie.
Often there is power in being alone for chosen moments. Power to dive deeper and dream more. Power to become who we are made to be.
And then there is the wilderness—nature, the trees, the sky, the birds, the spiders, the dirt. There is the reminder that life has a rhythm and an essence, a realness and a truth. That in our cleaned up and structured lives where we control as much as we can, there is a wildness to life at its very core, even our own lives. That we cannot control everything. That green grass is healing and the song of the birds is soothing, a melody that speaks to us in our most quiet place, reminding us that we are still a part of this creation, even if we hardly even walk into it and admire its beauty. For beauty is a reminder of the real, and what else do we really want other than that which is truly real?
As I look up and glance across the room at the six fish swimming back and forth in my aquarium, I come back to my urban life, a life that does not naturally have much of the rest and quiet and space and wild that I think is so important to being a person. And yet, I am not so naïve or cynical as to think that this modern world is hopeless. For the truths that I find in the wilderness tradition of our ancestors are still truths. I may not have weeks to wander as a pilgrim or months to live in the woods, but I can intentionally pursue rest and quiet and space and nature here in my modern life. It may look very different than it did for them, but it if gets to the truth that is hidden in the form, I believe that I will be richer for the pursuit.
And that is why I try to live my life with an awareness of being off the grid. First in the daily things, with a desire to put technology in its place so that my life can thrive as a life and not a reaction to the world around me. I seek quiet moments without my phone, times when I do not compare my going-ons to my friends on facebook, stretches when my computer lies dormant, and there is space for attention to my soul and cultivating space for it to grow. Sometimes those pursuits are in weekends and longer stretches of vacation when I occasionally seek out quiet places or tromp around in nature with an intentional and active letting go of the rest of my life.
My pursuits are not because I am antisocial or hold my modern life in distain. They are not because I do not value relationships or am selfish. They are not because I am delusional and think that life can only be lived in the quiet. They are because I truly believe that in the rest, I become the person I want to be. In the quiet, I cultivate a life that I desire to have. In the space, I sit with my dreams and watch them grow without the fear of being crowded out by the unnecessary. In the wilderness, I am reminded of what life is truly about.
Our modern lives are hard. We have demands that we often cannot set aside. We have deadlines and relationships and a constantness that invades every bit of our moments. We have a sense of the immediacy that gobbles up our human need to sit and rest and be. We have a connectedness that invades the privacy of our souls.
But we are not powerless to cultivate our lives. We can choose to hold on to the age old traditions of seeking space and listening to our hearts. We can set down our phones, close our computers, walk into the woods, and listen to the birds. We do not have to move to monasteries to be people who are connected to ourselves first and the world around us second. And maybe in the pursuit of a mindset of being off the grid, we will all be more prepared to live full and rich lives when we meet on the grid.