The Silent Unplugging

View of the mountains and fields from Bali Silent Retreat

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 enlightening 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.

“Think of the body as a cup, and the water in it as your mind. If you keep moving, the water cannot be still and you cannot see your reflection in the water; you cannot see what the water truly is. If you want to understand your body and your mind, then you have to be still.”

Those were the words from our guide as we rested underneath the shade of an overhead rice storage facility in the compound of a house built on a land that has been passed down over three generations. He had just summed up the reason why I was in Bali.

After a short flight from Changi Airport to Denpasar Airport, and after braving the crowd of beach-holiday goers and taxi touts at the arrival hall, my wife and I found ourselves on a long drive to a less glamorous part of Bali known as Tambanan. This was where our silent, no-internet retreat will happen at a place very simply and aptly called, Bali Silent Retreat. I had discovered and selected it as it fit our requirements for a retreat that had to be surrounded by nature; have a flexible, non-religious programme; serves healthy food; and within our modest budget.

The journey to the retreat from the airport was a 2-hour drive that in itself felt like a preview of the patience required to undertake the retreat. We meandered along two-lane roads where road signs and markings seem to be more of a suggested guideline instead of traffic law. We drove through towns and villages that seemed conjoined to one another, and we were continuously flanked by enterprises of all kinds, ranging from those that sell timber doors to cooked food. Dogs and children roamed freely just as scooters flowed through whatever gaps that the lorries and SUVs allowed for it. Makeshift stalls emerged from homes, unkempt streets were the norm, all in stark contrast to the temples that were always neat, clean, and with an offering at its entrance.

This seemed to go on endlessly until finally, we encounted a small wooden sign pointing to the right with the words “Bali Silent Retreat”. 5 minutes and one similar sign later, we were driving up a very steep hill which opened up to a calmer, greener, more expansive view of rice terraces. After a short bumpy ride on another narrow road, we arrived.

The reception area was nothing more than a desk in an open-air pavilion with a small back-office attached to it. Here, we sorted out administrative details and were given an “Ashram Pack” containing basic necessities like towels, notes, and utensils for our stay. We were then given a short orientation delivered in hushed voices around the compound as the staff explained how the retreat functioned. The entire on boarding process was over in 15 minutes – not austere nor ceremonial, but just respectful and simple.

With rice terraces on one side and the forest on the other, our wooden two-storey home for the next four nights was a stripped down shelter, completely powered by solar. There were no electrical charging points to tempt us to use our devices and there was just a single bulb in each part of the building with three solar-powered portable reading lamps that had to be charged every morning. A piece of wood to latch the door was the main security feature, and to ensure that we were secure against rats, snakes, and other insects, we were given two large, air-tight plastic boxes to keep our belongings. The ground floor housed a small sitting area, a toilet, and a semi-outdoor shower with water heater. A single queen-size bed with mosquito netting filled most of the sparse room at the upper storey, and there was a small terrace that offered a majestic view of Mount Batukaru, Bali’s second highest mountain. It was all one needed to live – nothing more, nothing less.

“Going nowhere, as Leonard Cohen would later emphasize for me, isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply. ” 

– Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere

Wake up, meditate, eat, read, be in nature, toilet break, shower, sleep. The days and nights were made of permutations of those few activities and nature was the clock that I lived with. There was nowhere to go and nothing to be done, and every movement from washing our own utensils after meals (Yes, we had to clean our own dishes) to walking to the other side of the room became a slice of meditative practice. The entire compound was largely silent except for the sounds of nature, distant humming of machines in the paddy fields, and sounds coming from a nearby village. There was no need or desire to socialise with the other guests of the retreat as we passed each other with a smile to acknowledge the other’s presence or occasionally, the averted gaze to the floor.

As the vibrations of the gong ring through the compound at 5:45am everyday, I would stir from sleep. Mornings are spent sitting at the balcony with the warmth of a cup of ginger tea in my hands for comfort while accompanying the mountain to welcome the rising sun. I would sit for hours, watching the sky transition from the purple of dusk to the blue of mid-day while the birds usher in the day with their songs. Watching the grass grow in the afternoon became a spectacle of miracles, and as the evening mist dawns to make the volcano and the rest of the world disappear into the darkness, I would acknowledge the nocturnal animals who would begin to make their presence felt with their sounds, rhythms, and melodies.

“What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.” 

Gilles Deleuze

The days of gradually disconnecting from the rest of the world made transitioning to this new lifestyle slightly easier and being an introvert by nature may have contributed to the ease as well. The environment was serene and each moment felt so precious that I did not want to spoil it by taking out my phone to capture a photo or to share it on social media. (Although I did take a photo on the last day of the retreat. It’s the cover photo of this post!). There was a brief moment where I wondered if I should turn on my phone to check for any emergencies but I resisted, trusting that the Universe would take care of things in my momentary absence.

While being still, I went on a journey within. Before leaving, I had jotted down in my notebook prompts and questions for me to mull over but just a few hours into my stay, I realised how inadequate these signposts were to navigate the cacophony in me. I needed to wander down the uncharted paths of my mind and heart with bravery. I recalled Yoda’s words to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars Episode V about what he would encounter in the cave: “Only what you take with you.”

As I explored within, I encountered frustration, anger, sadness, fear, hopes, and dreams. I scribbled out my thoughts in my notebook, working through the stories that were being told in my head and the feelings that I had left unvisited in my heart. I allowed time for emotions to bubble up to the surface and sink to the bottom. I penned my observations, and reminded myself to note without judgement. In the stillness, silence, and solitude, I was able to truly feel. By the end of the first full day at the retreat, I was overwhelmed by a profound sense of heaviness in my heart.

In the following days, I reminded myself to treat my soul and mind with love and compassion and simply be present to the heaviness without attempting to offer solutions. I seeked guidance in prayers and wisdom from those before me. In the gentle care of the universe and the delicious plant-based dishes of chef Simon Jongenotter, I gently confronted hard truths and uncomfortable ideas. It was a difficult and demanding process that almost necessitated the quietness of the retreat. I appreciated the luxury of being able to channel my entire attention and energy to care for myself. I found joy in the little details and moments of the simple days and touched what it must have meant to live slowly.

Gradually, the clouds of confusion and worry parted. I managed to achieve some clarity on what was going through in my head and heart and began to be able to sieve through what were false stories that I was telling myself, and the real issues that I was truly grappling with. I was able to articulate and write more coherent thoughts in my notebook and while there were little fully formed answers, I felt a lightness that I have not felt in a long time. On the morning of the fourth day at the retreat, I smiled with my heart.… The real challenge of this silent, no-internet retreat is always to happen when I am back in regular city life. It is always easier to be mindful in a controlled environment like a retreat, but when faced with real demands on my attention and energy, all that could so easily be forgotten. It is early days, and I am still basking in the afterglow of the retreat experience and I pray that this will not evaporate into memory. So till time passes on this year for me to reflect back on it all, I remind myself with the words of Carl Honoré from his book In Praise of Slowness, “The slow philosophy can be summed up in a single word: balance. Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when slowness is called for. Seek to live at what musicians call the tempo giusto — the right speed.”