Summer camp encourages 'digital detox' for adults
Levi Felix was a tech addict living the "plugged in" lifestyle.
A successful 20-something, working 60-plus hours a week as the vice president of a start-up company in Los Angeles, he was always connected via electronic devices — a computer and Blackberry, a duo of laptops.
"I was just pushing it, pushing it," says Felix.
Those devices distracted him from seeing what should have been clear: His lifestyle was killing him. Even with an esophageal tear and internal bleeding, he barely noticed. He thought he had the flu.
"I didn't even realize. I was literally dying," says Felix, who along with his girlfriend, Brooke Dean, founded the Bay Area company Digital Detox and runs Camp Grounded, a three-day, device-free summer camp for grown-ups.
After that near-death experience, Felix quit his job and took a two-year sabbatical. He and Dean traveled the world, volunteering at nonprofits and working on small rural farms. Eventually they ended up on a small Cambodian island, where they lived almost completely unplugged and off the grid for close to six months.
When they returned in 2011, an odd thing had happened. Those digital devices — once exclusive to tech freaks and workaholics — were suddenly everywhere.
"Everyone caught up to the pace I had been living," Felix says.
From their time on the island, Felix and Dean had seen the physical changes that take place when one is free of digital distractions. Within months the pair began hosting small retreats that emphasized yoga, meditation, a healthy diet and one-on-one interactions as a reprieve from digital life.
The retreats proved popular and the pair started Camp Grounded last year as a way to engage people on a larger scale. The camp runs three sessions in June. The first session sold out.
Situated on 80 acres north of San Francisco, the camp plays on childhood nostalgia, with archery lessons and late-night campfires, games of capture the flag and sing-alongs. There's hiking and star-gazing and workshops on meditative breathing and creative writing.
There are no digital distractions.
Phones, computers, tablets and watches get confiscated on arrival. The use of real names or ages is prohibited. Each camper chooses a nickname at the start of the session. Work talk is not allowed.
That last piece was the hardest for Monty Kosma, a one-time digital addict whose condition was profiled in the Washington Post back in 2001. When he attended the camp last summer, he had just started the Smart Tech Foundation, an organization that encourages free-market solutions to reduce gun violence.
"I was doing this new, exciting thing, and not being allowed to talk about it was hard," Kosma says. "I had to really dig to come up with something meaningful."
Without all the baggage of his normal life, he was left unguarded and vulnerable, but ultimately free to fully engage with what he was doing at any given time.
"There is something very powerful about just being present," Kosma says.
The camp encourages disconnecting as a means to reconnect, not just with other people, but with life itself, Felix says. It is not about cold-turkey unplugging. Felix still has an iPhone 5 and a Facebook account he uses for work. It is about being mindful of the presence those devices play in your life and learning to find balance.
"Technology is a beautiful thing," Felix says. "But how do we use it? We have to be very careful about how we grow and develop it."