Going Analog: Zen and the Art of Getting Lost Without a Phone

This past week I had myself a little adventure. A lot of moving pieces in my life were coming together that required me to cross the border back into the States so I could get a number of Very Important Things done at customs and immigration on my way back into Canada… but I had to stay out of the country for at least 72 hours before returning.

My mom had recently moved near Seattle for work – and to be closer to me and my husband – so I decided to spend the 72 hours at her new place, help her unpack and organize some things, and spend some time with her. So armed with an address, I drew a basic map of how to get to her new place and set off on the 3 hour drive alone.

Little did I know, though, that the Canadian phone plan that I have wouldn’t let me do anything once I got to the south side of the border – I couldn’t even send out a text with all the associated roaming fees. Nothing. And of course I found this out the hard way… when I started second-guessing myself in a completely unfamiliar neighborhood and reached for my phone to ask for a clue.

I think most people in my situation nowadays would panic. I was driving around a suburb in a county I was completely unfamiliar with, trying to find a place I’d never been to before, and I was without any way to contact the only person that could help me. Had she given me the right address? Was I even on the right street? I weighed my options – there was a police and fire station a ways back up the road who might’ve let me use the phone, or I could avoid backtracking and pull into the first business I saw and ask for directions. I did the latter, and wound up learning something else that I hadn’t even considered before.

I pulled into the leasing office for a large apartment complex, and proceeded to tell them that I was trying to find another complex just like theirs that was somewhere along their same road. The two secretaries I spoke to were young, about my age or a couple years younger, and were willing to help me. The problem was, I quickly realized, is that they really didn’t know how to. 

They didn’t know how to gauge a location’s approximate distance by comparing address numbers, and they definitely didn’t seem to pay much attention to what else was on the street near where they worked (otherwise they would have known that the complex I was trying to find was only just another half mile down the road). They just pulled up some directions on their computer and printed me out step-by-step directions (which were MUCH more needlessly complex than necessary to get me a few blocks away), and the fact that they didn’t take a second glance at the ridiculous instructions that Google spat out before handing them off to me was another curious thing – though I don’t doubt for a second that part was just your average rudeness.

I eventually found where I was trying to get 10 minutes later, but the two millennials’ complete incompetence at trying to help someone locate a destination a few blocks down the street from where they worked stuck with me. But in hindsight, I guess it’s kind of obvious: if someone has let their navigational and spacial skills atrophy that much, of course they’re not going to be able to help anyone else in any meaningful way. And in North America, the vast majority of people are gladly letting their navigation skills wither away to nothing. A damn shame.

At any rate, I proceeded to spend the next 72 hours in a strange town without a phone. This is what I managed to get up to:

  • Get myself from Mukilteo to the Everett train station/park-n-ride
  • Meet up with friends somewhere in the parking lot there to carpool into Seattle for the afternoon
  • Find my way to the train station in Seattle that evening, and locate the correct commuter train that would take me back to Everett
  • Get myself back to Mukilteo
  • Find the mall in the next town over, as well as a nearby Target
  • Find a place to get an oil change (couldn’t call about availability, no phone!)
  • Drive back to the border after the 72 hour waiting period was up, locate reasonably priced gas and coffee along the way
  • Navigate the ridiculous labyrinth of customs and immigration offices and processing centers at the border to do all the things I needed to do once I finally got there

The part of me that’s a modern millennial looks back on all that and says “Wow, you’re a crazy son of a gun”, while the rest of me, the highly intelligent and fully capable human animal whose genetic material has spent billions of years on this planet, wants to say “Do that more often“. Your cognition needs to eat its greens too.

I’ve picked up a regular zen meditation practice at a local zendo in the past month, and there is definitely something different about people who enjoy sitting in a room together, in complete silence, doing nothing for an hour without going nuts. In a way, that’s a lot what getting lost feels like, and how you react tells a lot about you. People who commit themselves to longer meditation sits – as opposed to the ‘5 minutes a day’ crowd, or the ‘doing something that’s not meditation is actually meditation’ people – seem to have a way about them that is more readily prepared to try taking each moment as it is, instead of wishing that it were something else, or being overcome with depression and anxiety that it’s not the moment you actually wanted, or not the moment you were promised, or not the moment that you worked so hard to make happen.

That’s not to say that people who meditate on the regular are emotionless automatons. We aren’t. We just try, using one particular technique, to better sit with our thoughts and feelings as they bubble up and recognize them for what they are, so then we might choose to feel them more fully, or choose to push them aside and make room for something else. That’s really what mindfulness is, it’s that simple. But doing it is very hard.

I always wonder what people mean when they say they hate getting lost. Is it that they hate the time they feel is being wasted? Is it some kind of base, animal fear of never being found again that they hate? Is it just a simple matter of losing face, of being wrong? It all seems to boil down to a loss of control. Knowing where you’re going and how to get there is power. Suddenly being faced with not knowing is facing your own powerlessness.

When I get lost I evaluate my options. I humble myself and ask for help, because I do not have the tools to be self-sufficient enough to avoid asking anything of anyone else I encounter. I choose to do things that way. I choose to rely on others. This bothers a lot of people – a lot of people – but I see it as an a way to stay connected to people, and to remind others that there is a whole damn world out there outside of the comforting glow of a screen. That there’s a different way to do things.

To those of you who read this and got uncomfortable, thinking about what you would have done if you were in my shoes, how badly you’d have wanted to reach for your smartphone or how stupid you think I am for not having one: what the heck are you afraid of? The worst that could have happened to me happened – I stopped and asked for directions. When my friends drove around looking for me in the parking lot of the park-n-ride, I sat tight while they circled around for 10 minutes until they found me. And if for some reason I missed them entirely, I would have driven back to my mom’s place and still had the rest of the day to do whatever I wanted, and not even done so empty-handed. I’d learned how to get to the train station. That’s something.

It makes me sad that so many people are choosing to sacrifice their natural aptitude so they can gain some false digital security. They are literally selling chunks of their brains to Google so they can be spared the inconvenience of learning things and interacting with other humans and – gasp – even being wrong sometimes.

Since when did we become so allergic to making even the smallest of mistakes?

Let me know when you find out – I’ll be over here staring out the window.

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