The One-Day Pilgrimage

I sometimes toss this term around, and it very often raises hackles. A pilgrimage is a commitment, people insist. The goal is distant and your progress dogged and incremental. What possible Mecca can you reach a single day?

Actually, you’d be surprised. So long as you think of the journey as a figurative one and not a real one.* Tomorrow you will be somewhere different because you will be someone different. You’ll be in a different state without ever crossing a state line. That’s how it works.

The One Big Day project is really just about picking something you’ve been itching to do and doing it: no distractions or interruptions. So in a way the time frame doesn’t matter.

But there is something magic about a day. One turn of the earth. It’s both a natural cycle and a sweet spot for productivity — long enough that you can slip into a trance of momentum, but not so long that you won’t burn out or grow bored.

A full day is actually a ton of time when it’s not chopped up. If you truly clock out of your regular routine, 24 hours away will feel like three. In this sense, a Big Day provides the psychological break that weekends are supposed to but, because they’re scheduled to the hilt, hardly ever do.

If it’s a skill you’re trying to learn, the advantage of chunking your time like this — rather than devoting, say, a half hour every Tuesday night for six months — is that what you just learned is fresh in your mind. You don’t have to waste time going back and reviewing.

The Los Angeles-based artist Liz Glynn once embarked on a project to build Rome in a day: a scale model, that is. She got her materials together, punched the start clock, and beavered away. Her ideas about how to proceed were top-of-mind. Bit by bit the big picture gelled. She began to really grok this ancient city. All the elements of Empire were there in the layout of the streets, the construction techniques. Glynn learned more about Rome in that 24-hour period, she would later reflect, than she could have in a yearlong course.

At the risk of getting a bit woo woo, I would say that one day is a spiritual unit of time. The body seems wired for a 24-hour test.

Not long ago Kevin Locke, the Lakota Sioux musician and storyteller from Standing Rock, was explaining why almost every culture has some kind of fasting. The idea is you gin up a hunger that you then sublimate through prayer. Locke himself routinely goes out into the wilderness for three or four days without food.

“But here’s one thing most people don’t know,” he said. “After 24 hours of fasting, you don’t feel hunger any more. It’s gone. Hunger is just your digestive system sending a signal to your brain that something needs to be happening here. But if you go beyond 24 hours you short-circuit that.” At the end of the day the test is over. Your spirit is either broken or annealed. The gods have seen enough from you to tally a score.

 But if it all gets easier after one day, why stop at one? Why not keep going?

That’s the question John Francis asked himself.

Francis was a young student from the Bay Area who realized he’d been yakking too much, and therefore listening too little. He decided to go a day without speaking. Just one day. It felt good. So good, in fact, that he wanted a little hair of the dog.

So he went a second day. Then a week.

Then a month.

Then a year.

Then two.

Ultimately, Francis went 17 years without saying a word. (One exception: he called his mom at the ten-year-mark.) He kept himself occupied by walking across America, and earning a Ph.D. in land management from the University of Wisconsin. (I know. Very patient professors.)

Francis’s Big Day was the gateway drug into something far bigger. It was a one-day pilgrimage that became a lifelong solo trek.

But it doesn’t have to. As a one-and-done experience a Big Day can be plenty rich.

And just practically, one day is probably the maximum amount of time that busy modern people can ditch their other duties. Twenty-four hours is the culturally agreed-upon limit to get back to people by email. You’re allowed a day to return serve. More than that and you start losing business. Plus, colleagues and spouses start having to cover for you — so your great leap forward comes at the expense of others.

One day is doable. It’s simple. You book off, and create a bubble around yourself.

And then you set sail on the oceans of time that just opened up.

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