What It's Like to Do a Digital Detox Retreat

Young female hiker in forest.
Leaving behind your cellphone can be freeing. (Image: Zoran Zeremski/iStock/GettyImages)

More and more, we have our heads buried in our cell phones and digital devices.

In a 2012 poll by Time magazine, one in four people claimed to check his or her phone every 30 minutes, and one in five checked it every 10 minutes. A third noted that being without a cell phone for even a short period made them anxious.

How many times have you left your phone at home and felt panic wash over you when you realized what you had done?

No one knows this feeling more than a former digital addict: me. It all started in New York City while working at HBO. I had a fantastic job working at my dream company, and my mentor had inspired me to start a media and technology blog.

Between tech blogging and working the corporate life, my days began at 5 a.m. and ended whenever exhaustion took hold, cell phone in hand the entire time. I even slept with my cellphone, spooning it like it was my better half (much to the frustration of my partner). I would head to the bathroom at dinner, not with any need for the facilities, but purely to check and participate in social media.

But when panic attacks became prevalent in between my Facebook check-ins, I realized I needed to disengage.

I was mindful of each revelation as they came but particularly struck by the space that the cell phone-free life provides.

Meditation by the lake
Meditation is a whole new experience without cell phones nearby. (Image: microgen/iStock/Getty Images)

Seeking the Solace of a Digital Detox

As the adage goes, "recognizing you have a problem is the first step." I didn't need anyone else to tell me I had a problem. I saw a direct reflection in my relationships, which diminished greatly, and in my own mental state, which became fractured at best.

It is with this realization that I embarked on a new quest, an expedition two hours north of Napa, Calif., to the Shambhala Ranch for a digital detox retreat.

I had met the co-founder of the retreat, Levi Felix, over the Internet a year before. I had sought him out in an attempt to organize a panel on the digital detox movement at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, TX.

While the panel didn't come to fruition, I set the intention of meeting him and heading to one of his retreats — an intention that I failed to actualize for a year, being too busy with work. But given a break in work, a particularly dark mood and horrible digestive issues caused by stress, I could think of no better time to try this detox.

I set out for the retreat from Los Angeles at 6 a.m. — KIND bars and sugar-free Red Bulls stowed in my car's cup holder. Eight hours of driving later, I arrived at the ranch, strung out on caffeine and anxiety-ridden at the prospect of being late.

I was soon introduced to 11 other individuals, signing a release with crayon and dropping my cell phone in a brown paper bag with my name on it. While I had expected the anxiety of leaving my cellphone behind to be great, the only emotion I experienced was relief.

By the end of that first night, I was doing a guided meditation in the midst of a forest, sharing my deepest, darkest secrets with a group of strangers. For someone with a fear of vulnerability, this was intense. Is this what happens when we don't have cell phones?

Over the next three days, we hiked in the Redwoods, shared meals, laughed, practiced yoga, supported each other, participated in a few hours of silence, drank fresh juice and meditated.

I was mindful of each revelation as they came but particularly struck by the space that the cell phone-free life provides. Felix had formerly introduced me to a book by William Powers called "Hamlet's Blackberry."

Powers writes about how our incessant reliance on social media and digital devices has depleted us of the quality of space, moments where nothing else exists but daydreaming. It's in those moments of space that the most incredible things can happen.

After the advent of smartphones, we began filling those moments of space with what I like to call, "cell phone checkery." Looking down at our cell phones began innocently enough, with a mission to check for important texts or voicemails. However, our constant monitoring has devolved into a solution for fear of awkwardness or being alone.

In the elevator with a stranger and don't know where to look? Check your phone. In line at the coffee shop with time to kill? Check your phone. Your significant other leaves you at the restaurant table for a quick trip to the bathroom? Check your phone.

What did we do before all this cell phone checkery? We engaged with the world around us, interacting with new people and discovering what lies to our left and right. We have effectively destroyed the spark plug of happenstance.

Cheerful young friends having fun in a cafe
Come out from behind your phone and meet the people around you. (Image: Jacob Ammentorp Lund/iStock/Getty Images)

Lessons Learned from Ditching Devices

It turns out, the awkward moments or pauses aren't as bad as we think, and in fact, open us to a whole world of opportunity. But we can't see this when our faces are buried behind bright screens.

The digital detox retreat helped me uncover these moments. And in three days, the merry band of 11 strangers, who would have never found themselves in a social setting together, found themselves inextricably linked.

I would never say that social media and digital device usage is destructive in and of itself — my entire career has been built upon them. But balance and boundary setting are critical. In posting status updates and connecting with 1,000 people you barely know on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter you may be ignoring the loved one who sits right before you. That's nothing short of a tragedy.

The road back from a digital addiction has been a three-year journey for me, but one that has reconnected me to my family, my friends and the world and set in motion a personal renaissance.

I may not see your Facebook message or event invite, but that's because I'm out there living. I'm out there loving and being awkward in brief moments of silence. I'm out there "daring greatly," as author and TED speaker Brene Brown advises.

What Do YOU Think?

Are people suffering from their addictions to technology? Do you feel like you or someone else in your life would benefit from a digital detox? Or have you ever done one? What was it like? Would you do it again? Or recommend it to a friend? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think!

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