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Unplugging from the mind trap of online noise made me realise tuning out is the only way to truly tune in

Man walking his dog in misty forest
‘I am more present as I move, conscious of my breath and of my steps and of the sounds – birds, other dogs, traffic, boats and aircraft, and people.’ Photograph: Justin Paget/Getty Images

Rediscovering and embracing the quiet takes effort.

Getting offline, even for a day, requires planning, discipline and, not least, the understanding of others. Everyone wants immediate response – on email, on social media or on whichever message app you use.

In these days of instant – food delivery, streaming, knowledge, capacity to impart messages to the world – a simple “out of office” on the email just won’t suffice. Respondents might well return mail: “Well, OK, it is urgent … but I guess when you’re back will just have to do!”

I’ve always been a heavy consumer of news (goes with my traditional territory). But my consumption hit fever pitch during the Trump years (hopefully past?; another reason to be anxious!) every morning of which I’d wake early, ask, “What’s he done overnight?”, frantically check social media and listen to early morning news while feverishly reading updates throughout the day.

The calm on that particular news front after Trump’s (eventual, chaotic) removal, the sudden withdrawal of all that combustible octane from the news cycle, was a tranquil balm to the global ether, no less than the defeat of Scott Morrison’s divisive, anger-fuelled government has removed the amped-to-11 volume and bellicosity from our national conversation. Yes, politics goes on. But as a mate declared at a recent weekend in the mountains (offline – oh the quiet), the political noise has been dialled way down with the “end of nasty-ism”.

(On that, I noticed while skiing for the first time in three years, how many others did so while listening to whatever through earphones. There is so much to miss: the ssssshhhh and crackle of ski edges running, the hum of the lift, the excited chatter and hoots, and the moan of the wind through stalactites of ice that droop like chandelier jewels from the arms of the ghost gums.)

Every day I walk. Often many kilometres. Dogs, creatures of habit – and a big part of the current of my emotional heartbeat – demand it. For years I’ve mostly been plugged into the circuit of the Interworld via headphones while we’ve walked. The inputs were often talk radio together with constant interruptions from the ping of chat group banter, the chime of emails landing and the ubiquitous messages: Tried to call – get back to me asap.

The cordless earphones I purchased last year so I could listen even more attentively to the ins and outs of what was largely presented as the national horse race while I walked, proved to be an all-consuming, angst-making mind trap.

I’ve had to escape them.

We walk without them now, unplugged if you like, my two (canine) girls and me.

A few things have happened. I am more present as I move, conscious of my breath and of my steps and of the sounds – birds, other dogs, traffic, boats and aircraft (it’s the inner city, but they are the sounds of my life) and people. It’s not quite the quiet – more an aural reconnection with an authentic urban soundtrack, which is part of the same thing, if that makes sense? I’m more mindful than ever of the smells of my neighbourhood: the lemony scent of a special eucalypt round the corner; spice and grilling meat at dinner time, and fumes, of course, from the hellish arterial road on our doorstep.

I’ve always thought that dogs have a special sense when it comes to their people. They detect their anger or anguish, happiness, fears and anxieties. They know when to selflessly offer comfort or to withdraw.

One of my dogs, perhaps the brightest (and most headstrong) of the pair, has long pulled on the lead. For years I’ve been muttering “back” or “stop” whenever she did, while wired into my phone while walking, my full concentration elsewhere. She’d desist for a moment and then pull again. I’d all but given up.

Since newly embracing the quiet while walking, and with the introduction of a simple sound shared with me by another familiar dog walker (“Mate, I’ve noticed her pulling and always wanted to tell you – but, you know, you’ve always got your earplugs [sic!] in.) she walks nose to my ankle on a slack lead. Every so often she’ll glance up, and gently exhale. It’s a sweet sound. Not of dumb complicity, but understanding. “Good girl,” I’ll whisper as I tap her snout and wander on together – newly connected, it seems, and understood.

At home, I stay across the news, though less obsessively, checking in twice a day on radio, TV and online. Who can’t, with the world on a precipice given the war in Ukraine, the rise and rise of mad demagoguery in Russia and its threatened return in the US? But during the day the calming background soundtrack of the house is now classical music. The dogs love it.

I long ago started to minimise – or abandoned – certain social media platforms.

I think I’ll walk away from them entirely before too long as part of my ongoing pursuit a more pristine quiet.

Tuning out, I’m learning all too late, is really the only way to truly tune in.

  • Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist