I watch CEOs, acrobats, and tech moguls all do the same thing– cover their faces in shaving cream while people cheer and throw cheese puffs at them. Half of the people in the audience are wearing tutus. Everyone is wearing face paint. And no one is Instagramming the experience.
This is Camp Grounded in a nutshell. I first go to camp in June, at their session in Cold Spring, New York. At this point, all I know is that it provides a detox from adult life– no talk about work or age, no electronics, and nicknames are used instead of real names. What I didn’t realize was that Camp Grounded would change my life.
A month later, I’m driving 12 hours across the country to volunteer at my second camp in North Carolina.
People ask me why I want to go to camp. At first, they think that it’s a sex thing– you know, “adult” summer camp. Others assume that I’m volunteering with kids. When they realize that Camp Grounded is a bunch of grown-ups who are without their phones, without their computers, and they’re sober, they can’t believe it. I’ve had more than one person say to me, “How did you make it out alive?” These are the people who need camp the most.
As the week progresses in North Carolina, I hear campers say things like, “That’s the first time I’ve danced without drinking in years!” and “I just told someone that they’re cute. And I’m sober. I feel like I’m twelve!” As I listen, I realize how alcohol is essentially a tool to get adults out of their comfort zone. Dancing? Drink. Going on a date? Drink. Doing a thing that makes you nervous? Definitely drink. But at camp, since you’re sober, you’re left feeling scared and awkward. In camp lingo, we call this being vulnerageous– vulnerable and courageous.
Camp has all of its rules, from no tech to no work talk, because it puts everyone on an equal playing field. I have no idea who anyone is outside of camp– and that’s great. Since I can’t label them as a CEO or a waiter, I have to get to know them in the moment. Before camp (BC), if I met someone at a party, my first question would be: “What do you do?” Now, I ask: “What makes you excited?” The answer to this question is always more interesting.
As I help with check-in at North Carolina, I notice one man who seems a little uncomfortable. So, I approach him and start a conversation. I quickly learn that he didn’t expect Camp Grounded to have such a spiritual element. I understand. Within the first ten minutes, the camp director has already told everyone to do eye-gazing– you know, when you stare into a stranger’s eyes for a full minute. It’s intimidating. And you probably didn’t do that at camp as a kid. (If you did, I want to know where you went.)
“I’m here to burn shit,” the camper tells me. “That’s it.” He’s signing up for archery and fire building, nothing more. Nevertheless, I try to convince him to embrace the spirit of camp, and do something that pushes him out of his comfort zone. Maybe tea tasting? Meditation? Cuddle therapy? He refuses. I’m afraid that, for the first time, the magic of camp won’t be able to reach a camper.
But then, in the middle of night, as I’m having a deep talk with a friend around the campfire, I see exactly what I’m hoping for. The macho camper is looking at the flames, tears in his eyes, while someone else hugs him. I don’t know what happened, but the transformation is amazing. All macho man needed was a place where saying “I’m just here to burn shit” is the outlier’s stance, not the norm.
I was so happy to see that camper start to bond with others– because Camp Grounded is filled with amazing people. Fog, the tea master, philosopher, and volleyball legend who taught me about alternate dimensions and Monkey Picked tea. Prow Prow, a magical woman who can play the harmonium just as well as she can beatbox. Dolphin, a CEO, a former boxer, and improviser. Chow Time, the camp’s cook who doesn’t have to participate in anything, but still hangs out by the water, goes to the camp dance, and makes sure we always have snacks.
The first time I did silent dinner, I was intimidated. I don’t think I’d ever sat with my thoughts for an entire hour.
A lot of campers joke that we’re part of a cult. And I mostly disagree… until silent dinner. When you look at this picture below, you probably think, “Yeah. They drank the Kool-Aid.”
The first time I did silent dinner, I was intimidated. I don’t think I’d ever sat with my thoughts for an entire hour. You’re not distracted by anything. All you can do is think about what’s holding you back in life—that or take a nap. Either way, it’s a healing experience. At the end of the hour, I write down something that’s holding me back.
Next, the camp moves to the counsel ring, where a fire burns. Some counselors sing and play the drums. After we sit and absorb the music for a while, people start to stand up and throw their fears into the fire. Still, everyone is silent. Former strangers embrace each other as they cry. No one has to explain themselves. Everyone simply offers each other love and support. I remember how everyone is holding onto something that doesn’t serve them, whether that’s an addiction, a job that they hate, or self-destructive feelings. No matter what, each camper has a shoulder to lean on.
And finally, everyone eats dinner in silence. Here’s something I learned: if you really want to notice the flavors of your food, sit in total quiet. I do not, though, recommend this method with frozen dinners.
Later that night, everyone sits under the stars and makes s’mores. My heart almost hurts it’s filled with so much love. So I do something which, in any other circumstance, would have looked crazy. I frame the scene in front of me with my hands, look for a moment, and make a camera noise. Yep. I just took a fake picture. And it wasn’t even ironic. In fact, others followed suit. And, hey– I still remember the details from that moment far better than a lot of others that I have actual photographic evidence of. Thanks, mind camera.
After camp, I don’t turn my phone on for another 24 hours. I’m almost afraid of it– like once I hit the power button, all the magic I’m feeling will stop.
Throughout the four days of camp, I have more deep conversations than I have had in two months. I’m amazed by how quickly I can connect when I’m not constantly checking my phone. After camp, I don’t turn my phone on for another 24 hours. I’m almost afraid of it– like once I hit the power button, all the magic I’m feeling will stop.
But it doesn’t. Sure, going back to New York City after living in the woods is hard. And returning to the lonesome life of freelance writing is even harder. But so many elements of Camp Grounded have stuck with me. First of all, I have a group of friends who’ve experienced the magic. They understand how fun life can be– and a lot of them keep those values in their “W”—their work. Because of camp, I have friends who run a 6 AM sober dance party. And run scavenger hunts for adults. And make Lego sculptures. They inspire me to remember that just because I’m growing up, doesn’t mean that I have to stop playing– and I can incorporate that into my work, as well.
During the silent meditation, I decide that I’m going to burn the pre-camp version of myself, and take the time to figure out what I want from the future. After all, I recently started freelancing full-time, and I’m not sure what I want my life to look like. So, I sit by myself in the tea hut, and make a nest of cushions. I imagine being kinder to others, doing things that bring me joy, and living for a few moments every day without technology by my side.
It’s a few weeks after camp, and I’m definitely not there yet. This morning, I woke up with my laptop next to me and used my phone in the bathroom. But I also sent a few letters– actual letters!– to friends in the mail. I’m working on it.
It turns out, sometimes a few sips of Kool-Aid is all you need.