I quit my job to launch a startup just one week after arriving back from a silent retreat in the Himalayas. It was 2019, and I was burnt out. I didn’t flame out; there was no dramatic breakdown. It was more a wearing out. I had lost my love of life.
Time for a change
At the time I was running marketing for an early stage tech startup. We’d recently opened offices in the US and Australia so my time was spent dashing round the globe. On paper life was great- I had an exciting job and a busy social life. Except it wasn’t. I couldn’t help but feel a gnawing dissatisfaction.
Seeing this a friend suggested I tried the 10 day intro to Buddhism course at Tushita Meditation Centre in the Himalayas, an experience he’d done early that year. My mood momentarily lifted as I laughed this off. Ridiculous idea! Yet as time wore on, I found myself giving the idea more and more consideration. It took just one more hectic trip to the US before I took the leap and booked myself in.
I had no idea what to expect but I also didn’t really care. A change was needed and, whatever it involved, 10 days at a Buddhist temple would certainly be a change. Finally the time came for my adventure; I bundled myself onto a plane at Heathrow and set off.
20 hours and two flights later I arrived at my hostel in Dharamsala, Northern India, flustered and more worn out than pre-trip. I had one night until the retreat started and took a stroll around town to clear my head. What on earth am I doing I thought as I wandered through the chaotic streets. This is surreal. Back at the hostel I had a first stab at the journal I intended to keep of my trip. 6 lines, mostly grumbling- that will do.
Before I knew it it was time for silence. I trekked the last two kilometres to the mountain top where Tushita is tucked away in the forest. Spectacular.
I sat amongst 80 nervous looking backpackers listening to the introduction conducted by an amusing German Buddhist monk. This followed with handing over our valuables and phones, and with them any connection to the outside world. It was time.
Our days on the retreat started with a morning gong at 6am. They were made up of three hours a day Buddhist teaching, three hours a day meditation, and a smattering of chores and meals. The silence was easy- fun even.
What was not easy was the sitting. Now I spent my fair share of time slouched over a laptop in my office job but that was no preparation for hours sitting crossed legged, bolt upright like a flag pole. 30 minutes into our first session my back was in agony. Mercifully, as the days drifted by, I adjusted and muscles not used for years started to strengthen.
I was struck by the range of emotions experienced. Throughout the process I went through days of near-despair and days of pure euphoria. During the first few days I was preoccupied with my stomach, which struggled with the large quantities of bread and peanut butter on offer; the teaching was interesting but not groundbreaking. Then, at about the halfway stage, something struck a nerve. When discussing the idea of attachment I felt myself unravel before my eyes. It dawned on me how every issue, every dissatisfaction, was self-inflicted. My personal journaling went from 6 lines on day one to pages and pages at a time.
The last two days were focused purely on meditation and by the time we reached the conclusion I was absolutely bursting with joy. I didn’t feel radically different, just completely content; however, everything had changed.
Life on the other side
I arrived back to find the startup I worked for in chaos. We’d missed a key round of funding and had to close our US and Australian offices. Normally this would have rattled me but I felt like there was nothing in the world that could break my newfound contentment.
After a week of watching my boss go back and forth with investors I caught up with a good friend, my now co-founder Ben, for a drink. I told him about the retreat and how wonderful it had been to simply disconnect to which he lamented his own inability to switch off and sheepishly confessed to clocking up seven hours on the iPhones “screentime” feature.
Now, Ben is not someone you’ll find at a Buddhist temple anytime soon, but the more we chatted the more we wondered why it was necessary to fly halfway around the world to disconnect. What if we could give people a space to disconnect a stone’s throw from London?
In times past this pub talk would have led to nothing, but invigorated by my recent experience I pursued this idea, pinging ideas back and forth with Ben. One Friday night of brainstorming and we settled upon digital detoxing and cabins. Convinced that this was the answer, I took the plunge and quit my job the following Monday to figure out with Ben how to turn this into a reality. In July 2020, we launched Unplugged.
If you’d asked me then if the retreat had changed me, I’d tell you it hadn’t. But looking back, it changed everything.
My key realisation was that we are our own worst enemies. The biggest factor in not living life on our own terms is our preoccupation with what others will think of us. I remember my number one argument against going on the retreat was my concern with what others would think. I can’t really go on a Buddhist retreat can I? I thought. Looking back, this is laughable. Nobody cares! Everyone is far too caught up with their own worries to worry about us. Instead the only judgement comes from ourselves. So much can be achieved by simply getting out of our own way and quietening our inner critic.
It’s this idea that we are now working to capture with Unplugged. I truly believe that everyone has the potential to live a remarkable life, and at Unplugged we want to give people the space to properly disconnect from the chaos of modern day life and reconnect with themselves.
There is inspiration in all of us. Sometimes we simply need to slow down to find it.
This piece was originally published on canopyandstars.co.uk.