The Zen of Timelessness – The Experience

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“Zero Technology: the final frontier. This is the voyage of Alison Golden.

Her four-day mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no woman has gone before…”

It’s true. I did. It was weird. It was bizarre.

I lived in a parallel universe from those around me for over four days.

No clocks, no cars, no computers, no caffeine.

Instead, candles and cats and…calefaction. (That’s a posh word for ‘heat’ I looked up in a thesaurus. An online thesaurus.)

I’m writing this three days after my technology-free existence came to an end and I doubt I’ve absorbed many of the lessons yet.

They will reveal themselves to me over time but while I wait…

Here’s my tale.

After I announced my plans to go on a timelessness retreat with a twist or five, I got one of two reactions.

Either, ‘Wow, that’s really cool, I can’t wait to hear about it.’

Or silence, as the recipient of my plans looked at me sideways.

(And probably wondered where my spaceship was.)

Most of these people were way more tactful than my husband, however.

On hearing the news he would not be able to contact me while he was away in Yosemite for four days with our two boys, he mused on how we ever made it up the aisle and commented,

‘That is just too weird. You’re a strange woman.’

(He later revised that to ‘remarkable’ and I understand his kneecaps recovered sufficiently in time to hike Hetch Hetchy.)

The weekend before I made a note of the time of sunrise and sunset.

7am and 6pm.

Thirteen hours.

THIRTEEN HOURS!!!

Jeez. I started to get really worried.

But it was too late now.

I’d told people.

I’d bought candles.

And most irrevocably of all –

I’d announced it on my blog.

On Monday morning, as the boys headed out, my final electronic task was to close the garage door.

I picked up a basket and went around the house collecting clocks.

The small one on the mantelpiece, the large one we had homeschooled by, even the ornate one that stopped working years ago but was too expensive (and I’m too cheap) to throw away.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

I cut up thick cardboard and taped it to the microwave and any other built-in clocks I could think of.

And I unplugged the atomic clocks that were always right and which I set my now packed-up watch by.

I closed the basket, put it in the cupboard under the stairs to join the laptop I’d turned off earlier.

And turned to my final task…

With an intake of breath and not a small amount of trepidation, I unplugged my iPhone.

The last time I saw was 8:13am.

It was a scary thing, turning off that last clock.

For four days, I’d have to rely on clues in the world around me to inform me the time.

I live in a very quiet street. The amount of vehicle and foot traffic hardly varies between night and day because there is virtually none.

That wasn’t going to help me.

I knew approximately where the sun rose and set so that might help a little.

But I faced the fact that apart from the obvious I was going to be largely ignorant of the time.

Oh well.

I thrive on accomplishment. Doing things, especially things that have been on my to-do list for a long time, crossing them off my list.

Makes. Me. Happy.

So I’d prepared a long list of jobs around the house that had been bugging me for ages as my activities for the week.

Now, I know this isn’t what many mothers of twins would choose to do if they had a few days off.

I know this because my husband once got very, very irritated with me when he single-handedly took our then two-year-olds to the park for a couple of hours one Mothers Day so I could have a break.

And I spent it paying bills.

He couldn’t understand and was quite put out that I hadn’t read or napped or done something more popularly considered pleasantly relaxing.

But that’s how I roll.

I like getting things done. As I said, it makes me happy.

(Can anyone understand this or were those sideways-looking people correct and I need to start my own planet somewhere in the universe?)

So I went through the house, room-by-room, clearing out the detritus left by three people all possessing the Y chromosome going on a trip.

(I’m guessing but it seemed to take an awfully long time.)

I changed sheets, cleared out closets, threw out trash, and found a few dirty socks I guess hadn’t been washed in several sun rotations of the earth.

As I moved around the house, I noticed my eyes would flick towards the places formerly occupied by clocks and my brain would jolt a little when it processed they were no longer there.

This happened repeatedly.

I had never noticed how often I monitored time.

I also wanted to gauge where my van’s precious cargo was.

Were they on their way?

Had they had the lunch they’d chosen specially for their trip and for which I’d got up early to warm and pack?

Had they arrived at their campsite, had their orientation meeting, gone on their first hike?

But I couldn’t. Not really.

I could only guess. Broadly.

I’m not an anxious mother particularly.

(I suppose I would say that but I remember the first day of preschool and the clingy children. And then I remember mine who saw all the fun stuff to do and raced off, never a backward glance for me. I like to think this is because encouraged their independence. It could also mean my kids can’t wait to get shot of me.)

But not knowing where they were on their journey was distracting and made me feel insecure.

In fact, the whole day was a lesson in trusting that things would work out.

I didn’t really know what I had let myself in for.

I’d been confident that I could judge the passing of time intuitively but I was beginning to lose that confidence.

Would I have to abort my mission if I faced an insurmountable challenge?

Would I be crossing off the hours feet of sun progression through my front room?

What would I do for thirteen hours of darkness? Alone.

And would I go stark staring mad?

(I guess those sideways-looking people know the answer to that one already.)

After a while though, I noticed how I got lost in my projects.

I forgot about wondering what the time was, how long I’d been at it, what I was going to do next and just focused, and enjoyed, the task at hand.

I guess that’s what’s called ‘flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Monitoring time, it seemed to me, disrupts flow, “the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.”

But not knowing the time also causes some blundering and faffing about.

Three times I went out to get the trash in. Three times!

It is usually done by 3pm but clearly I wasn’t getting this time-judging thing quite right.

When I did bring the cans in, instead of simply opening the garage and wheeling them into place, their voyage entailed opening a gate, negotiating all the rubble alongside our house, round a corner (that was a lot of blundering, I can tell you) through a door and round some steps.

I got injured a few times during the week and the bruises I got on this journey were just the first.

My second wave of anxiety came as the sun started to get lower.

How was this darkness thing going to work exactly?

As the sun went down, lights came on in my neighbors houses, cars containing people who’d worked in an office by day returned home to their nest in the garage.

I felt left out, part of a different experience and utterly disconnected from theirs.

I also felt time pressed – there is very little that can be done by candlelight if you think about it – so if I’d wanted to heat anything, finish off projects, feed the cats, they’d better get done by sundown.

Feeling rushed was very familiar to me but was strange after a day of a mostly island-time existence.

Nevertheless, things got done.

And with candles lit, water boiled and tea made, I retreated upstairs to spend the evening.

I’m still not sure why living upstairs felt the right thing to do after dark.

It wasn’t a thought-out logical decision but an instinctive one.

Perhaps I felt safer up there.

I didn’t have to move around much. Sticking to just a couple of rooms felt the right thing to do.

For the first time, but certainly not the last during the week, my thoughts turned to the lives of people who had lived without artificial light.

How had they spent their time?

What had they done?

What had their lives and relationships been like?

The first night I only used one candle thinking I needed to be economical with them in order to last the week.

I discovered that reading and writing was really all I could do at night.

And one candle barely gives off enough light to do even that.

(The best candle I had was a small one in a glass from the dollar store – awesome; expensive black candles – complete bloody waste of time – never trust a man with black candles, girls.)

I was very tired that day or perhaps it was the tiny amount of light I had but I soon went to bed.

It was very, very quiet.

I read for a little.

And then went to straight to sleep aided by the melatonin induced by the darkness surrounding me, no doubt.

I guess it was about 7pm.

I suspect the boys were just about done with their orientation meeting…

Read about my preparation and the rest of my week as I make do without a car, computer, caffeine or clocks…

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Darlene January 17, 2012 at 10:03 am

Looking forward to reading the rest of your experience.

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Alison Golden January 17, 2012 at 10:07 am

Hey Darlene,

I’ll put it up in a couple of days. : -)
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Susan January 17, 2012 at 5:26 pm

What an interesting experiment! I’ve found the flow state sometimes when I’m really absorbed in reading. Less now that when I was younger, but I could happily get lost for hours in reading.

Not sure I could go completely tech-free for four days — I’m too addicted. Looking forward to part two!

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Alison Golden January 17, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Hi Susan!
There were certainly times when I wondered what all the point was but this week as I return to the regular universe, I can see it. More in part two…:-)
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Cathy Presland
Twitter:
January 18, 2012 at 12:52 am

Hi Alison,

I quite often go ‘internet free’ for a couple of days so I think I would miss the caffeine more than the computers. I was recently away for a couple of days with no technology and it’s amazing how much earlier bed time comes around 😉

Looking forward to the rest of the story!
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Alison Golden January 18, 2012 at 6:59 pm

I’m keeping the lights low in the evenings now. Makes such a difference!
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Mary E. Ulrich
Twitter:
January 18, 2012 at 4:47 am

Alison, you always amaze me. When our electricity went out for 4 days in a storm, we learned some of the same lessons, but it wasn’t a volunteer act to try new things. I think I would have cheated and clicked the garage door for the garbage cans.

You just always push your boundaries. Congrats on this inspiring story, can’t wait to hear more.
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Alison Golden January 18, 2012 at 6:58 pm

Mary: I think being forced by outside circumstances is *very* different to being in this situation by choice. I can see me grumbling and mumbling the whole way through it if I’d had a power out. Not least because I would be cold. I was very, very grateful for heat, I would have been miserable without it. And because it was soooo quiet, I heard the furnace power up each and every time. 🙂
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WendyLavigne January 24, 2012 at 6:38 am

You do not need a big space for a zen garden. You can consider a miniature zen garden or just scale it according. Sand is a big part of a zen garden. So you do not need to worry about digging deep. In fact, you may want to consider covering your zen garden with sand or small white pebbles.
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Mary Hinkle February 14, 2012 at 7:11 am

While a big garden would be more desireabl all you need to do is to be creative with the soace you have available.
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