Extreme Unplugging: Why I Go Dark

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. —Blaise Pascal

I started to write this post during meditation. I know, I know…that’s not what you’re supposed to do when sitting. But as anyone who has meditated has discovered—thinking happens.

I was a few days into a monthlong retreat at the Zen Monastery Peace Center, and I was happy. Not the kind of happy you feel when you’ve won the lottery, but happy like when you’re a kid on summer vacation.

This, I realize, is not the reaction most people would have when staring down 30 days of silence with no phone, computer, family, friends, or even eye contact. But I love being on retreat, and people often ask me what it’s like, so it occurred to me to try to articulate why I like to go dark and unplug in such spectacular fashion.

The Initial Ahhhhh

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you. —Anne Lamott

On the most basic level, I simply like to be offline. While I value technology—for the connection, education, entertainment, and even practice support it provides—I’m not a digital native. I grew up mostly unplugged, and no matter how integrated devices are into my life, I feel just as comfortable without them. Perhaps even more so. Ditching them and all the trappings of a scheduled, busy, deadline-oriented life is a relief and allows me to sync back up with natural rhythms that get overshadowed by modern living.

Remembering What’s Real

Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known. —A.A. Milne

When the distractions of life are temporarily removed, living gets pretty simple: eat, sleep, walk, meditate, and do your chores. Repeat. With limited distractions (my own mind notwithstanding), I’m more likely to experience the amazingness of what’s right in front of me. The dew on a spider web, the sound of the wind in the trees, the smell of dinner coming from the kitchen, and the feel of my own feet on the Earth.

In these moments all ideas of how everything and everyone is supposed to be drop away and I am confronted with the staggering beauty of what is. I feel truly alive. Or, more accurately, “I” disappear, and all that’s left is Life. There is no “me” and all “my” problems. It’s just Life living, or the recognition that, as Alan Watts says, I am just “an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself.”

In daily life it can be a challenge to stay in this aware, open, expansive, inclusive place. Distractions and obligations pile up, and it takes conscious effort to drop all conversations (internal and external) and be present. 

Much like I couldn’t run a marathon or climb Mt. Everest without the proper training, retreats are training sessions to help me remember how to come back to this, here, now when I realize I’ve mentally gone somewhere else.  

Matters of the Mind

If you know you are not the mind, then what difference does it make if it’s busy or quiet? You are not the mind. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to being in the present is the mind. On retreat, since life is simplified and all I need to do is follow the schedule, it quickly becomes obvious how much the mind has a mind of its own.

After a while of listening to its (shockingly insane) chatter, I begin to suspect that the voice in my head has nothing helpful to say. It imagines horrifying encounters with the resident tarantulas, invents recipes, rehearses what to say about the retreat when it’s over, rehashes a breakup from two decades ago, wonders if retirement will ever be an option, and puzzles over the physics of parallel universes and that niggling pain in my back. Clearly it offers nothing helpful to the task at hand, which is to be present with whatever I’m doing in the moment.

Mark Twain said that “life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.” By slowing down, unplugging, and giving myself over to silence, I have been able to see that my thoughts aren’t me. The more I witness them for what they are, the less power they have over me (most of them, anyway). Untangling myself from my thoughts is perhaps the most precious gift I’ve received from awareness practice.

Rediscovering Unconditional Love

I am not here to become an acceptable person. I am here to accept the person I am. —Cheri Huber

It took me a few retreats with Zen teacher Cheri Huber and the Living Compassion sangha (the Buddhist term for community) to understand why unplugging with this particular group is so powerful.

One of the core teachings of the practice is “there is nothing wrong with you.” That sounds great, in theory, but deep down I’d always worked so hard—academically, spiritually, physically, relationally, etc.—because I was motivated by the (hidden) belief that I needed to fix some inherent flaw—in me or in circumstances—to be truly successful and happy.

By the time I was a teenager, I had lost any frame of reference for seeing the world from the perspective of “there is nothing wrong.” I didn’t hate the world with passion and vitriol, I was just slightly disappointed with everything and everyone. Things were always just a few rungs down the ladder from perfect, including myself, but if I kept trying hard enough, someday it would all be perfect.

But I couldn’t ever get it right. Partly because “right” was a moving target, and also because I was always looking through the lens of what’s wrong. That’s like thinking being impatient will somehow, someday, render you patient.

Thankfully, a “there is nothing wrong” orientation to life is embedded into this practice. While on retreat, I get to experience what it feels like to see the world this way. I get to watch my typical reactions (like the panic and self-recrimination the time I messed up a plumbing job during working meditation) and I get to see how interactions go down when those around me don’t think there’s anything wrong (like no one batting an eye at my plumbing snafu).

With practical, real-time experience of how it feels to live like there’s nothing wrong with anything, I get just enough perspective to question the voices that are constantly assessing everything as not quite good enough.

If the people in this practice (who seem very happy and well-adjusted) don’t think there’s anything wrong with me (or anything, really), maybe there isn’t. If I didn’t get accused of being an impatient, impulsive, know-it-all after messing up the plumbing job, maybe I’m not.

This little shift in perspective lets me bring into question all the other negative things I think about myself, others, and life. What if it’s all just “thoughts blowing through my head,” completely fabricated, unfounded, and without perspective?

What if there is actually nothing wrong?

If that’s the case, then I’m left with unconditional love and acceptance. When I give myself over to this, the experience is one of joy, authenticity, connection, attunement, and integration.

This freedom is why I find it so easy—and so appealing—to unplug.

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