Some people spend their time living, some people spend their time creating the world they actually want to live in. My dear friend Levi Felix, who passed away this week at the age of 32, after a year-long struggle with brain cancer, forever changed the lives of thousands of people by creating a playful, transformational, and revolutionary community dedicated to finding balance in the digital age.
Levi was the co-founder and director of Camp Grounded, a tech-free summer camp for adults. Since 2013, Camp Grounded has happened fifteen times, serving more than 3,000 people in the beautiful woods of northern California, North Carolina, New York, and Texas. At Camp Grounded, we don’t use digital technology, we tell time in inches instead of minutes, we don’t talk about age, we don’t talk about work, we don’t use drugs or alcohol, and we call people by nicknames instead of their real names.
Camp Grounded’s mission to bring adults into nature to “disconnect to reconnect” was inspired by Levi’s own addiction to technology, which nearly drove him to burnout. While working as the chief activism officer for Causecast, a cause-based marketing company in Los Angeles in 2008, Levi suffered an esophageal tear from exhaustion and had to interrupt a work trip to South by Southwest to go the hospital.
The experience was a wake up call for Levi to take a break from the stresses of the digital world. He ended up spending a year in Cambodia with his partner Brooke Dean, living and working at a guest house on a remote island without a cell phone or internet. He knew the presence he felt on the island, and the lessons that came with truly appreciating each moment in life, not just documenting them on Facebook, was something he needed to bring back to his friends.
Levi and Brooke began by offering week-long Digital Detox retreats where people would hand-over their cellphones and spend time reflecting, meditating, and connecting with others in nature. The term “Digital Detox” is now widely used by many wellness companies — even corporate hotel brands like Marriot use it in their marketing — but Levi was one of the first thought leaders to trademark and popularize its use.
In 2013, while sharing a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, California, Levi, Brooke, and Zev (Levi’s younger brother who was crashing on the couch) brought together a group of camp counselors, makers, artists, musicians, professional players (yes, people who play for a living), carpenters, yogis, and healers, and Camp Grounded was born, ushering in a popular new trend of adult summer camps to counter-balance the ever-increasing amount of time adults spend staring at screens.
To say that the individuals Levi gathered to become Camp Grounded’s staff were talented is an understatement; this was an all-star cast of the most wild, weird, and wise souls you had ever met.
Camp Grounded became a safe space for hundreds of grown adults to redefine themselves beyond their work, beyond their age, beyond their fears, beyond what they thought was possible. It helped people disconnect from their devices, and become more present and mindful in nature. It inspired many people to quit their jobs, move to new cities, end unhealthy habits, launch creative projects, make (two) new friends, join new communities, end unhealthy relationships, and even get married and have children.
Camp showed people who felt alone, or who felt that they didn’t have a reason to keep on living, that they were not alone, and that they were going to be okay. It gave people permission to feel all the things: childlike excitement, radical self-expression, authenticity, vulnerability, bravery, courage, creative confidence, sadness, pain, regret, fear, acceptance, deep connection, meaning, hope, possibility, inclusive and supportive community, and true joy.
Levi often philosophized about taking back ownership of our language from the tech industry. He wasn’t a Luddite — he loved checking his iPhone, but he believed technology was a powerful force that had to be met with ethics and responsibility. He encouraged us to “Like” people in person. He proved to us why Human Powered Search is more fun than Google. He believed the “sharing economy” was sharing a pet rock or a hand-written note, not charging someone $345 to stay at your apartment.
He criticized apps that used a never-ending onslaught of push notifications to keep us glued to our phones, rather than using technology to help us spend more time offline with the people we love most. He would often caution us, explaining that 60% of people admit being addicted to their devices, heavy internet users are 2.5 times more likely to be depressed, 1 in 10 people check their phone during sex, and one-third of people would rather clean their toilets than their inboxes.
He reminded us to hurry up and slow down. He showed us how to unplug and find moments of zen in a world that can’t stop tweeting. He taught us how to dream. He proved to us that if you can create a summer camp for adults — which offered eclectic playshops like superfood truffle-making, cuddle therapy, pickling, stilt-walking, laughter yoga, solar carving, Pajama Brunch choir, creative writing on typewriters, stand-up comedy, and archery — and you can make it happen fifteen times in four different states — then anything truly is possible.
If Life were a company, Levi would have been its Chief Experience Officer. He was meticulous when it came to experience design and ritual (a personality trait that sometimes bordered on obsession), and he never missed an opportunity to architect (or micro-manage) a transformational experience. There was nothing casual about spending time with Levi, and working with him wasn’t always easy, but it was always worth it.
At Camp in the redwoods, Levi would spend hours (literally, hours) walking around with the production team at night, making sure each tree was perfectly lit and would make someone feel the magical power of being in nature. When campers received their welcome packet and their village assignments for Camp, they were also greeted with an envelope full of glitter that spilled everywhere, making a huge mess, a reminder that this was, after all, summer camp.
When you were with Levi, you didn’t just eat dinner, you first burned your deepest fear — the one thing that was standing in the way of you living a more authentic life — and then you sat on a picnic blanket by candlelight, with 350 other people in silence, among the redwoods, under the stars, dressed in all-white, while someone played the sitar.
When you were with Levi, you didn’t just hand-over your cellphone for a weekend of fun in the woods, you first entered a cultish tech-check tent run by the International Institute of Digital Detoxification (IIODD), recited a six-line pledge that you wouldn’t be tricked by phantom cellphone vibrations in your pocket, then watched a five-minute video with talking sock puppets who asked, “Is shexting really worth it?,” before finally turning over your tech to members of the IIODD wearing hazmat suits.
When you were with Levi, you didn’t just listen to live music, you listened to some of the finest musicians alive: Graham Patzner and Whiskerman, Con Brio, The Wild Reeds, Marty O’Reilly & The Old Soul Orchestra, Papa Bear, Travis “Prospex” Puntarelli, Madeline Tasquin, Royal Jelly Jive, John Craigie, The Rainbow Girls, John Brothers Piano Company, Cello Joe, Third Seven, Bear Kittay, Josh “Juice” Gelfand, Jon “Seltzy” Seltzer, Brett “Mouthful” Hunter, Taylor “Barnaby” Mee-Lee — the set-list in the tea yurt at Camp Grounded was often on par with a stage at Outside Lands.
When you were with Levi, the mundane tasks that make up most of our daily lives — eating, having a conversation, taking a walk — turned into deep moments of intention, reflection, and gratitude. And wonderful opportunities to fuck with people. The ultimate trickster, nothing gave Levi more pleasure than messing with people’s reality, or making people question the world around them.
When you were with Levi at Burning Man, he’d make you schlep 30-pound suitcases of sushi and sake out to the middle of the desert. The whole time you’d be thinking, “Why the hell are we lugging raw fish out to the middle of the desert?!” Because Levi thought it’d be cool to have a three-hour dinner ceremony at 2 o’clock in the morning.
One time we were out on the playa on an art car adventure and Levi started introducing our “Zen as Fuck” crew to another Burner. The introduction took twenty minutes. “My name is Professor Fidget Wigglesworth,” he began. “I have several advanced degrees in digital detoxification, philosophy, and Earth studies. This is my partner-in-love, Bruce. This is my brother and senior associate, Mobius. This is Moose, Smiley, Smokey, and KJ… we’re out here looking for the answer to the universe — and my drum set, which I can’t seem to find.”
The other Burner looked at Fidget like he was completely nuts and said, “Well, my name’s Rob and I’m drunk.”
We stayed up all night running around the playa, real quick, like kids in a candy store, and watched the sun rise over Black Rock Desert with our friends. Just after the sunrise, we saw a schoolbus drive by, and wouldn’t you know it, Levi’s drum kit was on it. I think we also found the answer to the universe, which was, quite simply: just spend more time with your friends.
Later that morning, we hadn’t slept a wink and Levi was scheduled to give a talk at IDEATE, a Burner camp nearby that had also invited Congressman Dennis Kucinich to speak. Levi took a shot of tequila, made himself a Bloody Mary, and wearing a white dress and a pink wig, went over and spoke for forty-five minutes on the importance of unplugging from technology, as our friend Ben Madden played a Casio synth in the background. I couldn’t tell you exactly what Levi said that morning since I was delirious, but I do remember that everyone who was there said it was one of the most inspiring talks they had ever heard.
Levi didn’t just curate special moments — he facilitated growth, wisdom, and mischievous magic. I will always remember walking around with Levi, the night before our very first Camp Grounded in the redwoods of Mendocino, California, seeing his eyes deep in focus, making sure every single handmade sign was in its right place — his expression was one of awe: he had built the world he actually wanted to live in.
I will always remember how peaceful it felt when Levi told us, “Wherever you are is exactly where you are supposed to be.”
I will always remember Levi’s ridiculous costumes, his red onesie, his Technicolor tights, and his pristine Camp Director uniform; flannel shirt, nametag, cowboy hat, mustache, and megaphone. I will always remember the ecstatic look on Levi’s face when he was getting melon-headed at the end of Color Wars. I will always remember when Levi would hold up his one-inch picture frame with his hands to Intragram, instead of Instagram, a beautiful moment. I will always remember singing The Band’s “The Weight” with Levi at the closing campfire — every time we sang that first verse, “I pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin’ about half past dead,” Levi’s eyes would light up like the sky.
I will always remember when Levi and I flew together from San Francisco to London and watched back-to-back-to-back episodes of Silicon Valley on the plane, waking up other passengers from laughing so hard. I will always remember Levi’s talks at conferences, how he would make everyone take out their phone, take a goofy selfie, post the selfie on social media, and then promise to keep their phone hidden away on airplane mode for the next hour. I will always remember dancing my face off with Levi and his beautiful bride Brooke at their wedding, which was only two months ago.
I will always remember just how much Levi loved to be alive.
I will always remember the final weeks of Levi’s life, when I visited him and his family. Levi was very weak and had lost mobility on the right side of his body, two people were needed to help him stand up or go to the bathroom. Despite his frailty, Levi would make jokes as he limped his way to the toilet. When his brother Seth farted, he would say, his voice barely audible, “That sounds good.” When I asked him if he could hear me, he’d respond, “What did you say, Smiley?” When Brooke asked him what he was thinking about, he answered, “The Earth.” After we ate latkes for Chanukah, he rolled his eyes at me and mouthed the words, “What the fuck?” just so I would sneak him an extra piece of Oreo cheesecake. One day, we went out for tacos and Levi poured some of his Pacifico into the salsa, just to see if anyone would eat it.
He was fucking with us until the very end.
When Levi was diagnosed with a brain tumor last February, he was busy as ever; speaking at conferences, growing Camp Grounded to reach more people across the country, and beginning to write his first book, tentatively titled The Humanifesto: A Field Guide for Planet Earth. He was having calls with his literary agent in New York City, trying to sell his book to publishers, just days before he was sent to UCSF hospital for brain surgery. We had even talked about renting a cabin in the woods for a week so he could have focused time for writing.
Though Levi never got to finish his book, he left behind a body of work that speaks for itself. His life reminds us to live as fully as he did: to do all the things, see all the places, dream all the dreams, and feel all the feels. His life reminds us to celebrate what matters most: the present moment. The weird, ridiculous, inexplicable, infinite, offline, offscreen, unplugged, real, natural, beautiful, present moment, happening right now.
Levi may no longer be with us, but he is a beacon of light that will always guide us. That perennial jokester, goofball, brother, teacher, host, mentor, philosopher, drummer, facilitator, meticulous micro-manager, camp director, captain of the ship, curator of magical life experiences beneath the tallest trees in the land; making us laugh, making our time here on Planet Earth infinitely more fun. The lessons he taught us, the friendships we’ve made because of him, the community he birthed; his legacy is all of us.
Over Chanukah and Christmas, I kept video chatting with groups of friends that were spending their holidays together. So many of these friends had met because of Camp Grounded and Levi’s work. Levi was not in those video chats — he was not in Oakland, San Francisco, LA, or New York— but he was there because there would be no there without him. Every time I hear someone say one of our Camp mantras, “You’re awesome!” and “If you can hear me, clap twice!” and “Shut up and be grateful” and “Fuck you, inner-critic!” and “Be vulnerageous,” I think of Levi, because without him, those sayings wouldn’t be part of our collective consciousness.
Levi’s legacy, fittingly, was his brain’s visionary power to question our way of life and how much time we spend staring at a screen. His legacy is that voice inside my own brain that from time to time will say, “Real quick Smiley, get off your phone and go play with your friends.” Levi’s legacy is the antidote to the red notification dopamine dot on Facebook. His legacy is the revolutionary act of finding human connection in the digital age.
They say you can measure a person’s life by the number of lives they touch. I think we can measure Levi’s life by the number of beautiful souls he brought together. I think we can measure Levi’s life by how many beautiful experiences he helped us share, not online or on an app, but with each other, in-person, face-to-face, in nature, in real life.
Levi: thank you for shining your light so brightly on Planet Earth. Thank you for making our lives more joyful and free. Thank you for bringing us together and inspiring us to bring even more people together. Thank you for giving us friends, community, and family. Thank you for making us US. We are forever grateful. Namaste motherfucker. We miss you, we love you, we will always love you, we got this.
And a hush went over the crowd.
Levi Felix is survived by his partner Brooke Dean, his brothers Seth and Zev, and his parents Edward and Bluma Felix. And thousands of beautiful souls he brought together.
Please make a donation in Levi’s name to Camp Grounded or the American Brain Tumor Association. Celebrate Levi’s life by coming to Camp Grounded this summer, see you in the woods! Learn how to build technology in alignment with our humanity, check out timewellspent.io.
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