I've just emerged from 94 hours unplugged at a hilltop monastery off the coast of Big Sur, California. Last year, I did the same thing but for different reasons. My friends thought I was nuts. I told them I needed to unplug, sleep, write and think. I didn't go for vespers, prayer, or any service. I'm not even Catholic; however, I had a confession: I am addicted to my cell phone.
I was snorting email and texts like a coke addict.
I felt my heart pound, and not in a good way, when I lost the last bar of reception a few miles north on Highway 1. How would I know my daughter's conjunctivitis was going away? Would she be okay while I was gone for five days? What if a friend needed to talk? What if I did? I was on my way to a silent retreat. No Wi-Fi. No cell phone. Here we go, I thought. When I drove up the steep driveway to the reception, I felt less like a retreatant and more like a reluctant "guest" at the Betty Ford Clinic. I have never abused substances, but technology seemed game.
Who would ever know? I appeared in balance. I didn't sleep with my phone, at least.
First, there is irony in all of this. For years, I prided myself on being a late adapter to technology. I was the last person of all my friends to get a cell phone and the last to convert to a smart phone. I am a skeptical consumer. I grew up in Amish Country. I boasted a love of minimalism and simplicity associated with aesthetics. Less is more guided my buying habits and helped keep my home, closet and office in check. But my head had become cluttered and chaotic. I had become an information hoarder. It felt gross and completely out of whack -- and character.
A constant need to see incoming emails and texts drove me to check my phone at least every 10 minutes of my day. I even found myself checking emails before a hike, when the whole point of the hike was to unplug for an hour at least. What could I possibly do with that information? Did any of it matter? It's not like I had a sick relative or friend in hospice. I mean seriously.
Here's the kicker. It's not even like I was compelled to respond. Responding wasn't motivating me to keep getting a hit of "connection." I knew everything could wait. Why couldn't I?
It got worse. It's one thing to keep a technology addiction hidden at work. No one has to know, unless you've adopted some very helpful apps to keep you off the Internet when you actually need to get work done. The dark side of my addiction seeped into off work hours.
How addicted was I? You be the judge. My own assessment might be mild compared to most. Or more severe. Wherever the pendulum swings, we all find ourselves on it, somewhere.
Here's a snapshot. When I was waiting to pick up my daughter at preschool, I snuck in a peek. While my daughter swung from the monkey bars at the playground, I eventually got careless and pulled out my phone, in plain sight of other parents and kids and texted away, LMAO at inside jokes no one around me could understand. While I cooked dinner, I responded to more texts.
Silly things. Fun stuff, right? Harmless. In the midst of conversations, I still responded to these things, and when I had a chance, because why not, I returned emails. Done. Off the list. That felt good. But did it really? What benchmark was I measuring myself against if all my life had become were mostly online moments interspersed by, oh yes, real life?
I had become that parent and person I had detested. I was choosing the phone over my child during the most precious moments of her life. A few times at dinner, I even hid my cell phone on my thigh, under the table to see what rolled in -- turns out nothing that needed my immediate attention other than the people in my immediate presence.
I was in bad shape. I just didn't know how bad until I had 94 hours to unplug for real. Who sweet talks a monk into a password anyway? If this sounds blasphemous, it is. My imagination was painting lots of scenarios, that, should I find the disconnection unbearable, I could find my way out of. I could get in my car and drive five minutes down the road to a store that carried wireless. I could pay for access. But I refused to get in my car and so I let it sit for five days.
The monastery is not a place for everyone. I lived in a trailer with a single bed, desk and rocking chair. The one luxury, other than a hot shower, was a small kitchen with a propane burner; however, when I first attempted to light it, I almost singed my eyebrows. That would have saved me some expenses in waxing, but still. There were dented screens and drafts, ants and moths and mice. Maybe a bit too extreme for some. There were a lot of other places I could have gone with my five precious days. I didn't want yoga classes, the noise (albeit well-intentioned) of gurus, workshop leaders and life coaches. I just needed everyone and everything to shut up, please.
I wanted raw. I wanted real. I wanted to re-awaken to the details of my life that mattered. After the first few hours of withdrawal, something happened. My mind quieted. I could hear my voice for the first time all year, really. I could hear the sound of the blood in my ears, it was that still and quiet, other than the occasional visitation from housekeeping to reset the mouse traps.
I managed to read 2.5 books: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, Jan-Philipp's Sendker's gorgeous and brilliant novel, set of course, in a monastery, The Power of Less by Leo Babauta, which gave me a compass for managing future email and texts, and Precision Marketing, by Sandra Zoratti & Lee Gallagher, which I realized was super helpful, but too much information for a hoarding mind. I wrote instead. I walked slowly. I ate slowly. I got clear about 2014 and what I wanted to create in 2015. I worked on a few new chapters of a novel. I sat still and admired the view of the sea, watched every single sunset and sunrise, and happened to see the full moon.
94 hours without Internet or cell phone gave me access to myself for the first time in months. Even with the ants and moths and mice, I'll return again next year, if not before. I realized that my addiction to being "connected" had actually disconnected me from myself and my daughter.
So what are we feeding with our technology addictions? The gaping hole we experienced in the moments we feel most alone -- at a restaurant when a friend is in the bathroom, at home, in our relationships, on the playground. The list goes on and on. I left the monastery restored. I drove slower up the coast. I fully appreciated the views of the mighty blue Pacific, and because I wasn't concerned about all new incoming messages, I saw the blow spouts of three migrating whales.
Technology can only enrich our lives to the degree that we can stay present with ourselves and each other. I have to remind myself that I can still love my phone, but it will never love me back. The only "access" I need is to myself and the people that matter most. Everything else can wait.