It’s National Unplugging Day—Here’s What Happened When I Unplugged for 5 Days

Some people go to a silent retreat to find inner peace, others do it to escape life’s chaos—I went because a friend told me I couldn’t do it. I’m generally a stubborn person who would probably eat a Cheeto off your shoe if you thought I couldn’t do it.

I told the company I run I’d be unreachable for five days, and I packed my bags last summer for a silent retreat at Spirit Rock, California. When I got there, the other attendees and I were told we’d alternate between really slow trail walking and meditation all day. We were each assigned cleaning duty. We weren’t allowed to talk, read, write, make eye contact, or access electronics. After saying goodbye to my phone, and telling it I love it, I handed it to one of the volunteers there.

I went insane

I thought I’d be cool. But the silence crept around me and by the second day, I woke up with an ache. I needed to talk to someone. One guy ate his salad one leaf at a time. I needed to understand why. A lady showered three times a day. I assumed it was out of boredom but was there more to it? Was something dirty? Was she kind of manic? When did she get to be manic?

Each day felt like a month, which is maybe why, by day three, I became so interested in the turkeys that lived on the hills outside the meditation hall. There were five of them. One kept doing a mating dance, so I named her Amber Rose. I couldn’t stop thinking about these turkeys—why do they have that thing under their necks? 

For a few hours on the third day, I decided to make every thought in my head rhyme. I was so eager to spend time with people, you’d think I was a puppy, but maybe I was being a baby about this process because I’m actually just a yuppie

I can have no anxiety?

Somewhere in between the turkey and rhymes, I softened my resistance to the retreat. It felt calming not to fill silences like I sometimes did. When people walked by me, I didn’t have to think about whether they remembered me, who should say hi first, what I should say, or when I should leave the conversation. I’d never considered these thoughts burdensome before, but without them, I felt relief.

I also appreciated not worrying about what I or anyone else did. Normally, I feel the steady peck of anxiety urging me to optimize at work, at home, and even with friends. I’ve often thought doing more with more people is better. But in a retreat removed from my work, my home, and my friends, I couldn’t do better. In fact, I couldn’t do anything. Being removed lifted the responsibility to respond correctly or at all. Without the distraction of coulds and shoulds, things around me were boring at first and then much more interesting.

To my surprise, I didn’t miss my phone. I realized phones yell and flash. They demand attention at unannounced, frequent intervals. They deliver harmful news and urgent problems. They're like poorly trained toddlers.  

During my five days there, my company kept running. The news cycle remained horrifying and my family remained healthy. Everything was as it had been before.

At some point, I realized I liked being silent and so I figured my only recourse was to become a mountain woman. But I also knew from researching social connection that focusing too much on yourself leads to unhappiness. Plus, as a hermit, I wouldn’t see my family.

The aftermath: I actually turned into a mountain woman

Just kidding. But it took me a few days to readjust to the speaking and phone-using world. People looked like they were on fast forward, planning the next outing, even at the next outing.

Unplugging showed me what I’d look like without electronics or anxiety. I looked good. When I got back, I no longer felt a pressing need to say the right thing or quash moments of silence.

But over the next week, I recognized the old feeling of my chest tightening around people. Two weeks later, all the little things that came to be interesting were boring again—with so many things to do, who cared about turkeys? And before I knew it, I was at a restaurant, planning the next dinner.

Still, I wanted to figure out how to keep my relationships, technology, and the calmness. I wondered if they could all coexist, or if I was doomed to constantly play roulette with them, taking one out at random. While I wondered, I promised myself that until I found the answer, I’d unplug every so often and think about turkeys.

Today, as National Unplugging Day starts at sundown, I hope you do the same.