The last day of January. I’m leaving for the monastery in 4 days, and everything feels vivid and transient and a little sad. In the morning when I open my eyes and see my husband sleeping next to me, I find myself holding very still so I can watch him breathe. Then, when I get up, I notice that it is 8:00 and I’m well rested, and I’m aware that soon I will be achingly sleep-deprived and getting up four hours earlier at the sound of a bell. I make a pot of sencha and come upstairs to write, and I appreciate the stillness of the house in the morning, this solitude, and the green bitterness of the tea. I am grateful for this unstructured time alone to track my thoughts; at the monastery I will have very little privacy, and my days will be lived by the schedule, which sounds rigid, but I look forward to the containment. As I sit down at my desk, I feel a fierce appreciation for my computer, and this keyboard, and the way my fingertips translate thoughts into words and put them up onto the screen, letter by letter. This keyboard is especially precious to me right now. Of course I can do more or less the same thing with my fingers and a pen, but this interface is familiar to me and has many advantages. I'm leaving my computer behind, along with my cell phone, and it is both scary and exciting to think about being without these devices for two months. I’m especially interested to see if the absence of a digital interface will change my thoughts and the action of my mind. Will my thinking feel different? Will my mind feel less agile? More fixed? Less fragmented? More cumbersome? Calmer? More agitated? Will my thoughts feel more tangible? Will they feel fast because handwriting is slow? Or slow because the computer invites leaps and quick re-adjustments? Will I go through withdrawal, or the bends? And how will this make time feel? Will the days be long or short? And what about my social networks? Will I be lonely without email and my twittering friends?

I had a disconcerting experience the other day while reading a book. I wanted to recall something the author had written several chapters earlier, and I experienced a shuddering jolt of cognitive dissonance when my mind reached for the global search function and almost simultaneously realized that no, this was a book, with pages. It struck me as wrong, somehow, that the only way to find the reference I needed was to flip through pages.

And there was another incident, during a conversation, when I needed a fact about something--the scientific name for a banana slug’s blow hole (the pneumostome), or the previous role of a supporting actor in a TV show I was watching (Justin Kirk in Weeds and Angels in America)--and for a brief and jarring moment, my mind actually mistook itself for Google. The question arose, initiating the search, and then…nothing. My mind just hung there, like a frozen drive, or a system crash, spinning like the pizza of death.

No wonder I feel stupid all the time. (I remembered pseumostome, but I had to Google Weeds to find Justin Kirk.)

I’ve been worried about my memory ever since my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but it’s quite possible that the lapses I experience are not lapses at all, but rather phantom gaps created by the very technology that was invented to fill them. There’s an article in my De.li.cious feed from the Journal of Higher Education, called The End of Solitude, which talks about this phenomenon, how technology creates the problems that it’s designed to solve. Thus, television creates boredom by alleviating it, eroding the skills we need to entertain ourselves. The Internet creates loneliness by enabling constant connectivity with our social networks, thereby defamiliarizing solitude and turning it into something to fear and avoid, rather than to savor.

I think something analogous is going on with my experience of the way my mind conceives of memory and information. My cyborg mind has melded with these digital interfaces and become so conditioned by access to these certain types of information, that it now compares itself to Google and Wikipedia, and finds itself continually wanting.

So, it will be interesting to see if my experience of my mind changes, and if the conditioning can be reversed. This monastic retreat is an experiment, one I’ve always wanted to perform on myself, and right now I’m caught between leaving and going. It is an unsettling time, and I’m enjoying it.

... and what isn't

Well, I'm finally going to do it. I'm taking two months off from secular life and moving into a zen monastery. I know I've threatened to do this many times. It used to be kind of a joke, my fallback plan, or Plan B, for when things got really tough, but somehow over the years it's edged its way up into the Plan A position...and this is not just about the recession, either. I'm truly excited to have the chance to do this. One thing, though. I'm not allowed to bring my computer with me (gulp), which means that I won't have much chance to access my email for the months of February and March. If you're trying to get in touch with me, I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you. If it's any consolation, the inconvenience I will be causing myself must surely be far greater, so please enjoy that thought as you wait patiently for me to rejoin the world in April.

summer camp

Back from Zen camp. What an amazing thing it is, to sit perfectly still and in silence for sixteen hours a day. Total reboot of the system. Of course, you’re not just sitting. There’s some walking involved, and chanting, and eating, and meetings with the teacher, and even some physical work as well. In fact, it all seems quite busy, so much so that you start to wonder how you are ever going to manage to return to your civilian existence and fit in all the stuff that life demands.

The retreat takes place at a Church of Christ Bible camp on Samish Island, Washington, and the first thing you notice as you come up the drive are forty litle identical brown cabins, laid out in a perfectly symmetrical grid pattern on the flat green lawn. Each cabin is intended to hold four children and is equipped accordingly, with two sets of bunk beds (mattresses encased in plastic, just in case), a folding chair, a astebasket, and a broom. Since there are fewer than forty of us, each meditator has his or her own cabin. Our zendo, or meditation hall, is a basketball court, and my cushion was on the foul line just up from center court.

The camp overlooks a spectacular tidal basin and an improbably high, humped island to the west, beyond which the sun sets. There's a great blue heron rookery in the forest, just inland from the mud flats, and when the tide recedes, the birds are drawn from the treetops onto the shallows, where they stand on the gleaming mud, at dawn, or dusk, or under the moon, perfectly still, waiting for morsels of marine life to scurry by to catch and regurgitate to into the wide and waiting mouths of their fledglings.

In the forest, you know you are nearing the rookery by the ruckus the young birds make, a Jurassic cacophony, as dissonant as the fledglings are ungainly. They stick their necks out of the tattered nests and turn their beaks resolutely toward the sea. When one of the parent birds makes its pterodactyl-like approach, they screech with wild and uncontainable excitement. The fledglings are huge, and down below, on the forest floor, the underbrush is splattered white with excrement, and specks of feather and cottonwood down drift through the air.

In his daily dharma talk, our teacher, Norman Fischer, quotes a lovely Rilke poem, with a line that goes something like, “Even a bird must fall before she learns to fly.” This must be a startling thought, if you are a fledging heron.

Meanwhile, as I was sitting on my cushion, the world continued without me. Here’s a very encouraging update from the meat world, about McDonalds’ new anti-antibiotic policy, sent to me by Larry Haveson. Thanks, Larry. Let’s hope this is real.

And if you're interested in the Starbucks vs. Haidabucks story, there's more information and some cool pictures of the interior of the cafe here.

Thanks to everyone who sends email. It really helps.