I set up my first home office in the early 1990s in the basement suite I had rented in Fairfield, a lovely historic neighbourhood close to the ocean and a short walk from downtown Victoria. I bought a teak and chrome credenza and desk from a down-sizing friend, and LW built a wall of bookshelves around the window. For the first time in my life, I had a dedicated workspace all my own. I was thrilled. And yet something was missing. I remember sitting in front of my PC feeling sheer frustration that it couldn’t interact with me.
I didn’t know I was craving the internet—it hadn’t been invented yet. (Actually, it had been invented, since 1989, but it hadn’t entered the mainstream yet.)
Within a couple of years, I was sending and receiving emails. Communication was now instant. It was magic! Mail was brand new. I remember a friend patiently repeating her email address to me on the phone several times before I understood what firstname underscore surname meant. What is underscore? Where’s the at key? What’s an ampersand? Colons acquired new meaning. The difference between a forward and a backward slash was suddenly crucial.
I joined listservs of like-minded people: Staffordshire family history researchers, lesbian moms. It was exhilarating to connect to my tribes.
And then came the wonders of the World Wide Web!
I had no idea how profoundly it would change my life. Now, 20 years after my frustrated moment, I am utterly dependent on the internet. Having moved a thousand miles away from my bustling Fairfield neighbourhood to a farm in the northern bush, the internet is my lifeline, my connection to employment, my means of survival, my water cooler, my get-togethers with family and friends. It’s my library, university, entertainment, town square, cooking school, daily news, Friday night drive-in movie, revival tent. It’s a gateway to a million shiny ideas.
And for someone like me, easy access to a million shiny ideas is a dangerous thing.
Scanners love to read and write, to fix and invent things, to design projects and businesses, to cook and sing, and to create the perfect dinner party. (You’ll notice I didn’t use the word “or,” because Scanners don’t love to do one thing or the other; they love them all.) … Scanners are endlessly inquisitive. [They] often describe themselves as being hopelessly interested in everything…. A Scanner doesn’t want to specialize in any of the things she loves, because that means giving up all the rest…. To Scanners the world is like a big candy store full of fascinating opportunities, and all they want is to reach out and stuff their pockets.
Note that Sher isn’t calling us self-indulgent gluttons, although I often (unkindly) accuse myself of being just that because pursuing a million shiny ideas (a.k.a. scanning) goes against the grain of what we are taught that responsible, productive adults are supposed to do. In Refuse to Choose, Sher writes:
Our society frowns on this apparent self-indulgence. Of course, it’s not self- indulgence at all; it’s the way Scanners are designed, and there’s nothing they can or should do about it. A Scanner is curious because he is genetically programmed to explore everything that interests him. If you’re a Scanner, that’s your nature.
I accept that I’m a scanner. I appreciate that part of my nature most of the time. But it gets in the way of accomplishing short-term goals.
I recently decided that I’m tired of diddling around. I have two nonfiction books partly written and a novel conjuring itself in the caverns of my mind. If I’m ever going to produce an actual book, I need to stop chasing shiny ideas and focus.
In support of this project, I’ve resumed a daily practice that I first took up about a year before I acknowledged my craving for the internet: meditation. I am learning all over again how to still my mind, how to not be distracted by my thoughts. Sakyong Mipham, in describing how to meditate, explains:
This takes awareness. It does not really matter what kind of thoughts you are having. When you become aware that you are thinking, simply acknowledge that you are thinking and bring your attention back to your breath. You can say to yourself, “Not now, thoughts,” or remind yourself, “Oh, I was thinking.” Don’t feel bad; just return to the breath as quickly and simply as you can.
The Sakyong calls this practice “taming the horse” and he likens it to training an animal: “Every time the horse wants to leave the trail because it sees some nice morsel of grass … we bring the horse back to the trail.”
It fascinates me to see my meditation practice extend into other areas of my life. I see clear parallels. The internet’s million shiny ideas are no different from the million thoughts that race around my mind when I sit to meditate. Instead of chasing every shiny thought that catches my attention, I need to gently steer myself back to the trail. To succeed, I will have to find ways to keep most of the shiny ideas from entering my consciousness in the first place. Toward that end, I deactivated my Facebook account yesterday.
It was a difficult decision. I enjoy connecting with my family and friends in a virtual ongoing meet and greet. I like glimpsing my faraway relatives and learning what’s new in their lives. If I could just quickly check my newsfeed once or twice a day, there would be no problem. But I have interesting friends who post an endless parade of shiny ideas. Here’s a small sample:
The Man Who Smuggles Trader Joe’s into Canada (especially fascinating to me because I know his sister)
Who can resist? I try, but my curiosity usually wins. I steer clear of Pinterest and StumbleUpon for this reason.
So … I deactivated my account.
And then I breathed into the quiet. I wrote three pages nonstop. I walked the dog. I wrote some more. I baked a pie. I wrote some more. I put some music on and danced. I stared out the kitchen window and recalled, for just a moment, what life was like before the internet.
By 4 p.m. my monkey mind had talked me into signing up for Twitter.
Whoa, Nellie! Back to the trail.
Photos from morguefile