The Silent Unplugging (Pt. 1)

It was sometime in late October when the urge for a retreat started to arise. Perhaps it was the overwhelming year that has passed and a certain anxiousness of what may lay ahead, perhaps it was the cumulative tiredness of running my own company for 4 years, it could also have been the realisation that it has been a full decade since I’ve graduated from university, or maybe, it was about turning 35-year old which inexplicably felt significant. Heading for a silent retreat had been on my mind for a while but has always been a ‘someday’ kind of activity, but at that moment, it felt like a thing that I must do.

I had in mind a retreat in silence and solitude, one where I could be still and unpack the many thoughts and emotions that was swimming in my head. My daily practices has started to feel inadequate to process it all and I figured that a period of ‘off’ time would be the answer. I envisioned days of doing little except sitting, thinking, reading, writing, praying, and exploring nature as I reclaim back time and attention for myself. I craved for healthy, wholesome food that will heal my body that has been ill-treated with badly-timed meals and share of questionable diet choices. I projected a time and space where I could detox my mind and body, recharge and reboot.

I was clear that this was never to be a retreat where the answers to life’s problems would miraculously appear if I sat still for a certain number of hours. Instead, what I wanted to do was to take back the attention that I’ve been giving away to others so freely, and channel it back to myself. I set out an intention to be fully present to the moment that I was living in and embrace what it had to offer. At best, I hoped to uncover the true thoughts and emotions within me, and with that, the possibility that while the truth might set one free, it may not necessarily bring about happiness.

When I shared with others that I was planning to go on a ‘silent retreat’ where there would be no talking and no internet connection, the reaction I got was generally: “Why?!”, “I would never be able to survive that!”, and “I wish I could do that too.” While it seemed inexplicable that anyone in 2017 would (or should) put themselves through such an experience, there was also an undertone that this is exactly what more people in the world need to do. At moments, the fact that I was going to do literally nothing and potentially be bored came across as a small luxury that not many can afford. I wish more people would realise that that is far from truth.

The Programme

  • (22/12) Day 1: Cut off emails and wrap up all work-related communications
  • (23/12) Day 2: Delete social media apps off phone and stay off it
  • (24/12) Day 3: Cut off consumption of news, information, and “entertainment” (Saved articles, RSS feeds, Kindle, Netflix)
  • (25/12) Day 4: Cut off non-essential instant messaging (WhatsApp, SMS, Messenger)
  • (26/12 to 30/12) Day 5–9: Fly out to Bali and go completely off the grid
  • (31/12) Day 10: Ease back to instant messaging, email, news, social media, and the wonders of the Internet.

Preparing to unplug

It was never going to be a violent unplugging, this was a time that I am supposed to be gentle to myself after all. Also, this was the most significant block of rest days that I was going to get and I wanted to make sure that I still managed to have a bit of ‘guilty pleasure’ worked into the gradual disconnection.

It began with cutting off emails on the first day and that was the easy part for me. I’ve always been pretty disciplined in the frequency that I check my emails on regular workdays, and I am also accustomed to not checking my emails on weekends or when on short trips, so this was an easy win. There was no anxiety on the possibility of missing out on receiving or replying an important email and knowing that many others may be on vacation as well, made it even easier.

Day Two was about social media. My work requires me to be aware of the ‘buzz’ from the communities that I work with and as a business owner, ‘presence’ on these social networks is a necessity. On a personal level, this is also one of the ways that I keep up with friends and interesting strangers who share my interests. Despite its significance to the functioning of normal life, I’ve always had a tricky relationship with social media platforms partly because I recognise how much of a time-sink they can be, at the same time partly because I find myself deriving less value from it, but mostly because I always feel that I have nothing worthy to add to an already noisy Internet. More on this relationship in a possibly future post but in general, I didn’t have too much attachment to these apps on my phone. As I tapped the X symbol on the wobbly icons of Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter, it felt like a moment where I was set free from the burden of socialising responsibilities. For an introvert like me, this was close to bliss.

With emails and social media gone, where did all the time go? I wish I could tell you that I spent it reflecting, being healthy, and realigning to my center, but the truth is, I spun into a nasty spiral of binge-reading and watching.

There were too many interesting unread articles that has been saved in my Pocket app, too many half-read books in my Kindle app, too many RSS feeds to update myself on, and too many shows that I wanted to catch up on. I convinced myself that these were healthy content that would enrich my mind and some of it, entertainment that I am entitled to after a long year. I devoured shows, articles, and paragraphs, ruthlessly skimming through the boring parts to get to the gist of it so that I can cover more ground. Realising that I will have to cut it all off the next day made me go even harder at it like a man determined to make his last hours count.

What started off pleasurable saw the sense of satisfaction diminish and soon nothing I read or watched made sense and I could barely remember what I had just consumed. This was the moment I paused and noticed the mess that I’ve made of my media diet. In the name of information, knowledge, and englightening myself, I had been consuming relentlessly — more than I can meaningfully enjoy and process to make it useful for myself and the world. I have been ‘over-eating’ information and not able to digest it into wisdom. It struck me that even after only selecting ‘the interesting bits’, there was still too much for me to handle! I figured I must learn how to be even more ruthless in my filtering or just embrace the fact that I’m going to miss out on even more things that I thought. I reluctantly exited all the information, news, and entertainment sites and apps at the end of Christmas Eve.

Waking up on Day 4 and realising that I will not be able to read the news on my Feedly app, or even read a book on my Kindle was tough at first. I never considered myself a news junkie but I doubted myself that morning. This was also to be the day where I stop non-essential instant messaging and that process began with muting a selection of the dangerous and energy-consuming monster known as WhatsApp group chats. I wonder if there has ever been any communication feature that has brought so much anxiety and confusion than these group chats. In fact, I long for a day where WhatsApp introduces a nuclear option: “Exit all Group Chats” for year-end housekeeping days.

Messages that appeared on that day went through a triage process: “Is the sender of the message on my speed-dial?”, “Will replying to this message save someone’s life?”. Not surprisingly, no messages got a “Yes” to both questions and thus began my disconnect from the fake urgency of instant messaging.

The day that began with a hint of anxiety got a lot better by noon and looking back, this was the first day of my ‘retreat’ where I first felt the spaciousness that a single day afforded. There was nothing much to do and yet there were so many things that I did. There were monsoon rains to cuddle to, there were naps to be taken at any time of the day, there were dishes to be washed in poetry motion. Incoherent thoughts surfaced in my head and I tried my best to sit with them but they were insistent on bouncing everywhere haphazardly. In that moment of being present to the mess that was in my head, I became even more convinced that the do-nothing days that await me in Bali were a necessity. I mindfully packed my bags for the trip to an off-the-grid silent retreat.