What I Learned by Completely Unplugging
The pact was simple. No cell phones, no laptops, no tech whatsoever. I had booked a campsite with three friends in upstate New York for a well-deserved three-day weekend, and we were determined to survive using only our wits... and a hefty cooler full of cheap beers and lunch meats.
I was completely unplugged for the first time in months, and it felt really, really good.
When I first arrived to the camp -- an exuberant forest bordered by a rock-filled meandering river -- the Instagrammable mise en scene was stunning. My initial instinct was to grab for my phone and start snapping away like Terry Richardson at a Señor Frog's wet T-shirt contest. The colors, after all, were brilliant, and would look good even in Kelvin. The mixed hues of green juxtaposed perfectly with the shimmering blues of the sky and river that I had so solemnly sworn not to photograph. Suffice to say, there would be no “likes,” and no incredibly witty-yet-totally sincere hashtag on this vacation -- and with no pics, did it even happen?
We had come here to shed the digital shackles of work emails and break free from our Snapchat and Facebook notifications. A 2014 study concluded that smartphone owners spend, on average, around three hours a day interacting with their devices. Which meant I was going to have a lot of free time back.
I could finally see the forest for the trees -- probably because I was standing in a forest full of trees.
Just what the hell was I going to do with myself?
The only thing I could do. Roll with it. I needed to gather firewood, set up my tent, figure out dinner, try my hand at fishing. (Side note: I was not good at fishing.) The point is, I was being incredibly productive. Coincidentally, according to research from 2012, being cut off from emails not only reduces cortisol levels, but also has been shown to dramatically increase one’s productivity. I imagine being unable to log into the distractions of social networks would have similar effects.
As I started to settle into life without constant connectivity, what I was slowly beginning to learn was this thing my friends who do yoga always talk about: mindfulness.
Basically, mindfulness is the process by which you acknowledge a thought or emotion -- and without judgment -- focus on and accept what you’re thinking. Did I want those Instagram likes, and for all my Facebook friends to get a glimpse of my fantastic vacation? You better believe it. But more importantly, did I need to? Absolutely not. If anything, our social channels have morphed into a place for self-promotion and utterly disposable content, a fleeting image that would validate me with “likes” but would ultimately vanish into the ether after (at most) 12 hours.
I was content being myself in this environment, free from technology.
And believe me, I’ve shamelessly self-promoted a small city’s worth of utterly disposable content. But as I became more mindful of where I was and my digital limitations, acceptance seeped in, planted its roots, and slowly grew into gratitude. I exist outside of my social feeds and emails. My bylines reflect my name, but they aren’t me. I’m a sentient, occasionally surly but patient man who still doesn’t know how to properly do his taxes and will constantly spoil movies by accident. And I was content knowing that. Content being myself in this new environment free from my technology.
So I listened intently to every noise I could focus on... the river cascading over the boulders that sat staggering and half-exposed by the tide, the birds cawing, my friend Steve talking incessantly about butt stuff. I could finally see the forest for the trees -- probably because I was standing in a forest full of trees -- and I wasn’t distracted by Facebook, or shuffling through Spotify. My conversations flowed more effortlessly as I was more in tune to the topics we discussed.
I’m fully aware that I sound like an insufferable 17-year-old waxing poetic on the benefits of smoking weed and talking about the string theory at a Phish show, but I assure you, if you got all your friends to agree to put their phones away for a few hours and just talk, you’d see exactly what I’m talking about.
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