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Full Moments with Free Hands: Finding the Value in #UnpluggedTravel

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Sara Russell

“…what if we truly savored the discomfort, and allowed ourselves to love the everyday, inconsequential moments in our own lives…”

I recently had the pleasure of eavesdropping on a conversation between two of my students huddled together in a sweet, sweaty puddle in the back of a bouncing taxi in Delhi. I overheard both of them express honest relief in how nice it was to take a break from their phones; how free they felt from not having to worry about maintaining their Instagram feed; and about how they could see, feel, hear, and smell things in a way that was new to them.

I was struck by their uncomplicated reflections. The demands of today’s adolescent world transecting the era of social media seems so messy, so thorny, so impossibly hard to navigate. I’m left to assume how challenging it must be to keep up with unrelenting social ultimatums at school and online, and I’m also left wondering how readily it can be cast off by removing a device. Is it really the simple arithmetic my students just proposed? Removing the phone removes the drama?

Researchers and experts tell us plenty on the negatives associated with being glued to our devices: more screen time means more disturbed sleep; too much time on our phones yields reduced memory and recall; even having a cell phone around makes us less present (guilty). Some tech critics even go as far as to say that our technology and reliance thereof has made entire generations dumber.

In addition to the experts, we’re ironically bombarded daily with articles written by well-intentioned non-experts (hi!) cautioning us against the negatives of screen time. Perhaps more absurd are the apps we rely on to send us a reminder to stop relying on apps that send us reminders (#meta).

Our screens are onions, it seems: complicated, improbable intersecting layers of social hierarchy, neuroscience, game theory, engagement, and the arbitrary assignment and arrangement of hearts and upward-pointing thumbs. When we engage with others through a screen, we aren’t necessarily being antisocial, though. Nor is it correct to readily discount the depth of screen-to-screen connections, as evidenced by the millions who find the sacrament of holy matrimony on an online dating platform. Indeed, a screen in and of itself is harmless. But, when we replace a palpable experience, a laugh, a knowing glance, or even a glimpse out our windows for a glance at our phone, we cheat ourselves from the power and magic of being where we are now. It leads one to wonder if devices are the problem, or perhaps a symptom of something grander that’s merely triggered by screens. As a humble non-expert, I wonder if it’s a fear of unscheduling- consciously keeping precious, vacuous, spacious time that remains terrifyingly unoccupied in the midst of a busy week- that consumes us.

On a Dragons course, we leave phones behind. We encourage students and instructors to simultaneously disconnect from lives back home while deeply engaging with the present moment in a new place. We join in on local gamelan practice with village seniors in Kedungmiri, watching hands move deftly over instruments we’ve never seen before. We are witness to the ensemble of car horns, singing bells, and cows in the streets of Bhaktapur, ears mesmerized by implausible harmony. We live and work with families in the Andean highlands, pleasantly surprised we are capable of working so hard even the tendons of our fingers are weary. We stare in awe as the sun breaks over a remote area of the Great Wall, delighting in the deliciousness of the moment. Snapping and quickly posting photos of any of these things would surely yield some likes, but we’d also be abruptly jerked from the “right here” of the human realm to the “over there” of the digital realm, where those little hearts and upward-facing thumbs validate (or not) what we saw, what we did, how we felt, and what it meant. Instead, we deliberately keep open space in our itineraries and invite magic into unscheduled hours.

While on course, instructors commonly use the phrase “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” In the moment, this might mean braving a multi-hour bumpy bus ride over a high pass on the generously unpaved highways around Leh. Or trying cuy (guinea pig) for the first time. It might mean prodding your obstinate camel forward in the midday heat of the dunes of Wadi Rum. Or practicing giving one of your peers-turned-friends feedback. Or it might mean leaving home behind, sitting with your experiences, and processing their meaning and value and worth before sharing them. It might mean not knowing what your friends are doing or what feels like blindly trusting that your experience, your time, and your days away are valid in and of themselves. It might mean sitting on a bus with empty, idle hands with only the grandmother to your left and the swaddled infant to your right. It might even mean missing your phone or your social media accounts.

Admittedly, a Dragons course can make it easy to leave things behind. We don’t allow phones on our courses, and without the choice to even have a device, it’s decidedly simple to see what’s in front of us. Dragons programming inherently augments human interactions and diminishes digital connection. It’s when our courses end, when we are reunited with the things we left behind during our course, that we forget the sentiment of comfort amongst discomfort. We become quickly unaccustomed to embracing those rich hollow moments, favoring ease, automation, and habits we were sure we’d shirk when we returned home (using our phones before bed, idly scrolling our thumbs through miles of square photo worlds, diddling into the depths of YouTube, and so on). We fall back into a routine of filling the emptiness with something, anything. We fill our schedules, fill our brains, fill our thumbs until we’re a bit numb.

But, what if we truly savored the discomfort, and allowed ourselves to love the everyday, inconsequential moments in our own lives, as we do while on a Dragons course? What if we intentionally left vacant moments in our days? What if we paused to hear our own street’s symphonies, mirroring those that seem so tantalizing to our ears in Nepal? What if we took a break from our homework and wandered down a street we’d never been as we have done with our homestay siblings before dinner? What if we stepped outside our bedrooms to marvel at the night sky as we did on trek in the Andes?

I propose we get uncomfortable. Let’s challenge ourselves to unschedule, to rest our thumbs, to lean into idle, and leave sacred vacancy to be filled with uncharted magic. Let’s dig into what seems familiar and unearth the unfamiliar. Let’s see our neighborhoods with undistracted eyes, romanticize the details of our everyday, and marvel in the smells and textures that adorn our routine. And once we’ve had those moments and savored comfortable discomfort, let’s keep connecting. Let’s keep talking and sharing and inspiring the remarkable in the unremarkable.

Essay by Sara Russell, Dragons Partnership Programs Curriculum Coordinator


We want to hear more about your sacred offline moments and be inspired by our community that seeks the uncomfortable. Tell us, show us, connect us to your moments of disconnecting by hashtagging your stories and images with #dragonsunplugged (we’ll be watching and ready to re-share!)

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