“I wish I could show you,
When you are lonely or in the darkness,
The astonishing light
Of your own being.”
If you are a regular reader, you know that I have shared a number of retreat experiences here, about my journey of how I got into meditation or my Zen tea retreat in the Pyrenees. Albeit similar, this story has a bit of a different twist.
In October of last year, a long-time idea for a special kind of retreat suddenly materialized: A journey into darkness. Five days in total darkness spent in a sleeping/living room about 2 by 2 metres, no light, no electronics, and a simple toilet in the dark hallway.
For centuries, dark room retreats have been known to induce profound shifts in consciousness. It can be called dark room retreat, meditation or therapy. The practice has shown to stimulate the production of dimethyltryptamine (DMT) also known as the “spirit molecule” in the brain, potentially causing transcendental states of altered consciousness.
I first heard about dark room retreats approximately six years ago when I was on my way to my first meditation retreat. The idea of being in the darkness for an extended period of time, alone, without any idea of time and no communication with anyone sounded crazy. I couldn’t imagine myself doing it. As the years passed, the idea presented itself more frequently, with the readiness to experience it growing alongside. I never pushed or forced it. So, when the opportunity presented itself back in October, I said yes without hesitation. I signed up for five days and headed to the place after work with a beautiful sunset on the horizon, slowly turning into darkness. Two hours of driving. From the hectic city traffic to the countryside, where I had never been before. In a way, the whole drive prepared me for the encounter with darkness.
I purposely did not write about it shortly after. Returning to it after some time has passed is a good reflection on what stuck, what is still valuable and the power of transforming specific states into daily traits.
The place that offers this dark room retreat in Estonia has two rooms. One bigger and more comfortable inside a man-made hill and a second, smaller one in an old cellar in the woods, with thick concrete walls, hidden under a forest like a small hill with old trees on top of it. That’s the one I was heading to.
Erik, my headlight-wearing guide, helped me with my belongings as we made our way through the forest. Once inside the old cellar, we chatted for about 30 minutes. He showed me how I could boil water for tea, how the toilet worked, talked about general fears and different practices to do in the darkness. At the end, he wished me well and left a small candle burning on the table, either to blow out or to let burn down by itself. I chose to go to bed letting it burn, to wake up in total darkness.
I slept very well the first night. My mind was calm and I felt very rested in the morning. The darkness was hard to adjust to at first. I constantly felt for the walls, afraid of hitting my body against them, but as the room was small, I found my food bags, toothbrush and also the toilet in the hallway easily.
“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.” -Og Mandino
So what do you do when you can’t even write or read?
The plan was not to do any specific mind exercises in the first two days. Instead, I took it easy and created a routine of meditation, yin yoga, tea, food, and a little Wim Hof breathing in the evening. Then to bed. For those first two days, it felt like I slept a lot. Even without a clock, I was certain that I slept 12+ hours, was up a little and slept again. Later I learned that my sense of time was quite different from actual time. In the dark, we tend to feel time passing either faster or slower. For me, time seemed to pass more quickly, making me feel that the time underground should be over sooner.
On the third day, I took a trip down memory lane! Year by year, I went back from my current age to my birth, and then back to the year 2017 again.
For each year, I spontaneously recalled two to four memories.
2003 brought out a particularly strong set of memories. I remembered a night during spring break in Florida, working at a beach bar, when a tropical storm suddenly hit. The entire crowd was escorted inside, putting an end to the party. A friend and co-worker and I dove into the tiny liquor cabin from the storm. After all these years, I remembered it all so clearly! He opened two bottles of Corona, handed one over to me and said: “Cheers to life and ladies”. There was so much life in that moment and I felt it again years later underground in that total darkness.
Two weeks later that same year, surfing at Pensacola beach, trying to catch the post-storm waves, I lost my board when the leash came loose from my ankle. The memory was so vividly there again. I saw the board hit the sand very soon after losing it. But my attempts to swim back and get it failed, because the current was much stronger, pulling me out to the ocean. Despite applying all the techniques in my repertoire, quickly all my power went into getting back to the surface as bigger waves continued to pull me under water, while also carrying me further out. No one on the beach saw me. I screamed but nobody heard me. There was strong surrender, some pity for myself. I thought about my mother, family, ready to give up and then… Rich, the same friend who handed me that beer a few weeks earlier and said “cheers to life and ladies”, out of nowhere grabbed my arm and I grabbed his board. Well, I hugged it as hard as I could. We took it all lightly later and were back at work in the evening, though I knew then as I know now that I was very close to drowning. Some fear with deep respect for water has been part of me since.
Travelling back and forth in time, I was surprised to find how many amazing and also not so pleasant memories my mind had filtered. I felt such gratitude for different people. Some with recurring roles over the years. Also reflections on how I saw and experienced life when I was a kid and how my son sees life and reflects it. That made my throat dry and eyes wet. Yet, with new understanding and acceptance found in the darkness, the past memories and all the stories didn’t drown me emotionally. Even without a single spark of light it felt like there was light.
Also there were years that I could not remember much, realizing these were years with no adventures, no life with growth. No emotions on either side of the scale. Years as a programmed robot.
The practice of going back in time and returning probably took about two hours. The going back part was more sad, more moments that felt frightening, not understanding. Coming back, year by year, there was more life, growing gradually over the years.
“Joy lives concealed in grief.”
In the darkness, I also played with different stories, looked at my goals and challenges, replayed them, retold them. I realized that I think way too much about work, at times take life way too seriously, that I need to make certain changes in my habits, calibrate focus to what truly matters. It is an ongoing work in progress.
Sitting there, I also acknowledged I had my own fears, rooted in the childhood. Not fears specifically about the darkness. I have feared darkness for a large part of life, but it has never truly been about the darkness. It has always been about the unknown, fearing the uncertainty. Having no or limited control. All tied to a self-esteem. Part of me was scared that some themes of my life would surface there, concepts that I still struggle with at times even when surrounded by people and the light. Now all by myself, in absolute darkness, I could sense it, yet it never hit me like a train in a dark tunnel. There was a new sense of understanding, a calm mind witnessing the past stories and the present moment.
Over the days my senses grew much more sensitive, I was more alert, focused, more present, noticing different sensations in and around me. Walking in the darkness also got easier and making tea worked out nicely. Well, except on the last day when I managed to pour almost boiling water on my hand. I did not get mad, it just made me laugh. One morning I managed to put hand lotion on my toothbrush. The taste was horrible and again a good reason to laugh.
Adjusting to the darkness and all that simplicity revealed a range of bodily experiences. I sensed my body without seeing or touching parts of it. All that can be referred to as physical sensations or if you are more spiritual, then feel free to call it energy. There were visions or states of mind, including sparks of light in the totally dark room. The dreams were also very vivid and lucid, especially during first nights.
Also, there was some anxiety at times. How much longer does this take? It should be five days by now! Did they forget me? I got caught up with “what if…“ scenarios playing in my mind with themes from past events to horror movies, but it was easy to shift the focus.
Coming back to daylight was easy with the new night approaching, though I slept rather poorly the first night above the ground. I needed sunglasses for the next few days. And a new craving left the dark room with me. I need darkness in my life. Just to look into it, not having a difference whether my eyes are open or not. There was also a new sense of how illusionary control is.
When I left the countryside, I had an almost full weekend ahead. Driving off, I did not feel like turning on the telephone, or listening to music. Finally, I did and called a very important person, who I visited for a day to express my gratitude and just be with.
The first thing that I read back home was Seneca’s Letter 18 on festivals and fasting out of his “Moral letters to Lucilius”. This stoic wisdom was very relevant with the whole experience and is something I have read in the last five years at least twice a year. I see it as a practical guide to better navigate high expectations and fear.
”Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs manoeuvres, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil.”
Entrance to my temporary home in the forest:
Spotting the entrance is not that easy when walking by:
Would I do it again?
Yes! Not necessarily a longer retreat in the near future, but a two- to three-day stay would fit well soon again. A few days in total darkness, no digital devices or light give such a boost in energy and focus that no holiday can match in my opinion.
What that time in the darkness gave me?
A new sense of relationship with the dark. Not just accepting it, but the need of it as an integral part of my life. Quality time with myself without distractions, improving the most important relationship I have in the world – the relationship with myself. Cultivating a calm mind with long moments of silence and no thoughts.
My senses changed and I realize in part I have lost that depth again. For a while after my time in the dark room, there was much more focus in my sight, which was strange for others as it might have seemed like I was staring at them. My hearing was sharper and a simple touch felt like a stronger contact. My senses and focus were altered positively.
Coming out, I was more open to new things. There was a new fire inside me to create and experience. More understanding, not just accepting.
Also, I took away a stronger understanding that such retreats can be transformative, but to truly transform one’s life, there needs to be a daily change in habits. To me it means simple things that I haven’t been as disciplined with lately as I want to. Daily meditations, starting with morning tea, less time behind a screen, healthy food, physical activity, nature time, people I care about around me, time alone, evening reflections and gratitude lists, and all that followed by a good night of sleep. More about that soon.
Senses under pollution!
The time underground made me realize how much light there is around us. Very much of it unwanted. An excessive and inappropriate artificial light around us. In cities, in homes. There are people who nowadays never get to experience real darkness. I am grateful that in Estonia it does not take a very long drive outside the city to look at the night sky and either see the stars or pure darkness (if it is a cloudy day). I also need it more throughout the week. With spring approaching and days getting longer, the plan is to make the bedroom even darker. My meditation practices were all about having some candles burning. Now I prefer darkness, as much of it as possible.
The same applies for information and sound. More and more information in different forms tries to invade our attention. It takes discipline to say no, to filter what really matters. Sound is not just music, though some music surely can be labeled as noise, sound is also transportation vehicles, morning trash car, air conditioner, construction… All that takes its toll on our senses and focus.
Should you do it?
Like any retreat, this is not a magical fix-it-all, make-everything-whole-again and transform-me solution. I suggest looking at it as a tool to look within, to quiet the mind to look at yourself and how you experience the world. No shortcuts here. For some people two hours in these conditions can be hard. Don’t judge yourself based on what others do. Some people have gone on to 40-day retreats in the dark room. If in doubt about your mental and physical health, then don’t put yourself in that situation, please consult a physician first.
I am not an expert and am not planning to play one on the Internet. A few of my friends have been on a similar retreat and I have read about it in different places. Here are some tips that might help you.
– If you are to bring your own food, then bring more. Bring stuff that lasts, snacks like fruit and nut bars work well. Fresh fruits for the first days, oatmeal if you can boil water or you can always do the overnight version with cold water. Canned food that can be opened easily and has no sharp edges. Snacks also help quiet the mind when nothing else works. Nuts are good for your brain, especially almonds.
– For longer retreats it is good to bring vitamins C, D and B12. Make sure you know which ones are which when in the darkness. Use small boxes in different sizes for instance.
– Make sure you only have a toothpaste and no other similar packages. Like in my case, I once put hand lotion on the toothbrush. That taste lasted for a while.
– Keep your things in separate bags. Different clothes, food, etc. You may want to keep these things in different parts of the room. Also, bring a separate bag for your laundry, so you don’t mix clothes.
– Bring a pen and notebook. It is not easy in the dark, but you can still write down some keywords as you go through the days.
– Whatever you start playing in your mind, remember these are just stories. If you are having a hard time taking your focus off a particular story, then eat something, repeat a mantra, boil some tea, do yoga, move, dance (don’t hit yourself against the wall though).
– Breathe. Breathing and breathing can be very different.
– Have little or if possible no expectations, surrender and you will be surprised what happens.
In the end, these are just my words, I cannot express the full experience here nor can I tell you what you are likely to go through. Safe journeys!
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Victor Frankl