Once, as a child, I remember waking up in a power outage. My room, bereft of the street light filtering in through the tiny basement window, was the darkest I had ever seen. I don’t know how long I fumbled around in the darkness after realizing the light wasn’t working, but the panic overtook so completely, so quickly, that I couldn’t find the door. Instead, collapsed into a heap on the floor, I wailed until my parents awoke and came with flashlights to rescue me.
The experience of prolonged darkness and returning to the light lies at the heart of many ancient and modern mystery schools. This is where spiritual warriors go to challenge their fear of death. And what, if anything, is a fear of death if not our very basest fear… the fear of the dark? What monsters are lurking, what creepies crawling in those shadows?
WHAT IS A DARK RETREAT?
“All spiritual traditions have used Darkness Technology in the pursuit of enlightenment,” taoist meditation writer Mantak Chia says, using the term which gives the book its title. He cites the tunnels and catacombs in Europe, pyramids of Egypt, temples in Mesoamerica, as well as natural formations like caves in Africa and the Middle East.
“These spaces have provided safe haven, a way for humans to reconnect with the earth and challenge their limits since the dawn of civilization.”
In India, the practice is called Kaya Kalpa, Sanskrit for “immortal body” which refers to the purported benefits for long life.
Some retreats are solo, keeping you in a single dark room alone or with a partner, sliding your food through a two-way closing drawer to keep all light out. These are designed to absolutely minimize exposure to sensory input. Other coordinators, like Shashi Solluna who teaches tantric yoga retreats around the world, arrange darkness retreats where participants spend downtime in dark rooms, then join together, blindfolded, for guided meditations and teachings.
Retreats can be as short as a couple of days, or as long as three weeks or more. Experts recommend that beginners start slow, no longer than a week even for those who have plenty of other extended meditation experience.
WHY DARK RETREAT?
“It is a very strong approach and not for everybody. People normally feel a calling for it or simply would like to face their own fears,” says Severin Geser, a practitioner and teacher of this practice.
Severin and his partner Emma offer dark meditation at The Hermitage Retreat in Guatemala, a “Practitioner’s Retreat Center set on the shores of Lake Atitlan in the highlands of Guatemala.” Severin admits that his first dark meditation was the most intense of his many retreats, owing to the fact that he didn’t know what to expect. The challenge, he says, made him fall in love with the practice. The couple recently completed their first dark retreat as a couple, sharing space in the retreat’s underground darkroom for three days.
“From the monks and lamas in Tibet, to the Kogi Mamos in Colombia; the ancient Egyptians and the mystics of 15th Century France, Dark Retreats have provided revelation and illumination to countless practitioners who have sought the inner light,” the Hermitage website explains, but Severin says that the 30+ people who have undertaken a dark retreat at their center have all come away with their own unique interpretations of the experience.
HOW TO DO IT RIGHT
What you get out of your meditation will depend on how well you prepare for it. Aside from a regular meditation practice, like daily sitting or guided exercises to improve your focus, and regular silent retreats (at least as lengthy as you plan to sit in darkness) to get accustomed to a bit of sensory deprivation.
The psychological preparation, though, is just the beginning. There is plenty of physical work that you should do ahead of time to maximize the benefits of darkness.
Although you may be tempted to try and spend more time in the darkness to prepare, the opposite is the truth. The longer you plan to spend in the darkness, the more time you should spend in the sun before – safely, of course! Even someone who burns easily should get a few minutes of direct sunlight several times a day. Give your body a hefty dose of Vitamin D, because particularly if you are spending your entire retreat in dark seclusion, you won’t be making it yourself.
There are other vitamins you need to stock up on too, especially B6. In the presence of tryptophan, the chemical reactions that make dark retreat so beneficial can happen. Get your B6 from sunflower seeds, pistachios, tuna, meat, prunes, bananas, avocados and spinach. Tryptophan, along with other helpful complex amino acid, can be found abundantly in pumpkin seeds, soy, cheese, meat, fish, poultry, legumes and eggs.
In addition to the dietary preparation, you should put some thought into your packing. A comfortable, fitted eye mask is important if you’re going to be moving around rather than inside a sealed dark room.
Dennis Huntington, someone who has studied with Mantak Chia for more than three decades, has collected several testimonies about the benefits of this practice at Universal Healing Tao, along with practical advice about eating, peeing (sitting down, he says), and even shaving in complete darkness.
One of the most important pieces of meditation advice offered is to practice it both with your eyes open and with your eyes closed. The darkness is much the same either way, but the physical cues can help to remind your body of the task you’re undertaking and facilitate the important chemical reaction that makes dark retreat so unique.
THE BIG PICTURE
The primary chemicals involved in dark retreats are melatonin, pinoline, and ostensibly DMT. Melatonin, a metabolite of your body’s native love-drug serotonin, is responsible for calming the body at night and regulating your sleep cycles. If you suffer from insomnia, a dark retreat might be just what your body needs to reset that clock.
Melatonin is synthesized by the pineal gland in response to the dimming light in the evening – in fact, the blue light from computer screens can trick your brain into thinking it’s still daytime. When melatonin is doing it’s job right, you get sleepy and eventually dream. Studies have shown that extended periods of darkness also produce pinoline. A monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), pinoline prevents a specific family of enzymes from metabolizing certain chemicals. Realistically, this means that more serotonin remains available to turn into melatonin.
The MAOI is also an important aspect of shamanic DMT experiences. When taken as ayahuasca, the DMT in the Chacruna or Chagropanga leaves is only absorbed by the body in the presence of Banisteriopsis caapi vine, another MAOI which prevents oxidative enzymes in the digestive tract from rendering the DMT inactive. While the production of the DMT in the human brain, specifically by the pineal gland, is only a theory (based on solid science involving literal lab rats), it is a theory with some legs and a solid following.
To tell a long story short, you might hallucinate some. The experience is often described as one where the waking and dreaming states become indistinguishable, or at least more similar. Shashi describes the process initiated by sensory deprivation in terms of the psychological impact. “First of all is often facing fears. We avoid pure darkness so much that we have projected a lot of fear onto the darkness.”
“Once you come face to face with endless darkness, these fears have nowhere to hide,” she explains. “However, anyone who breathes deeply through this part of the experience (rather than panicking and running for the light switch) will soon find that these fears dissolve as they are met face on. Behind these fears is a darkness that is actually comforting, like being back in the mother’s womb.”
“Behind these fears is a darkness that is actually comforting, like being back in the mother’s womb.”
To Shashi, this process is one that allows the participant to release the ever-present, always-on fight-or-flight hormones that lead to perpetual stress. “Over time in darkness and silence, the habitual ego defenses also start to melt away. There is nothing to defend and no one to defend from, and as the body relaxes, the effort that holds defenses in place starts to soften.”
Even if destroying your ego-defenses isn’t high on your to-do list (or especially if it isn’t), de-stressing your life probably is. If facing your deepest, darkest fear doesn’t sound like the most effective anti-stress cure, the chemical influence is a tough one to resist. Realistically, at the very least you should experience relaxation, an increase in energy, a sense of peacefulness and clarity that comes from a mind free of distraction. The powerful sleep hormones you will be exposed to might even prompt active, lucid dreams and an expansion of your awareness.
“When you come outside, you feel like somebody was pressing the pause button in your life. Somehow so much happened in almost no time,” Severin says of his time in the dark. He feels like these retreats have given him a new perspective on his life.
If that’s what you’re seeking, a dark retreat might be just the thing for you. But don’t dive into the dark deep-end looking to transform your life. Dark meditation is only a tool, often one used to mark the end of an arduous journey or a great effort made towards a consciousness expanding project. Use this tool wisely and make the most of it.