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Ten Days in the Dark

Updated: Mar 10

Dark Retreats: If you like self-isolating, you’ll love this.

On the morning of 28th April 2020, while most people were googling ‘when will lockdown end?’ or ‘when will pubs reopen?’, I found myself sitting in my kitchen googling ‘how long can a person survive in a sealed room without suffocating to death?’.

I wasn’t googling out of curiosity or lockdown boredom; I was trying to ensure I didn’t accidentally kill myself as I hatched a plan to take self-isolation to the extreme by blacking out my bedroom and bathroom windows to live in pitch black solitary confinement for a while.

It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve gone into ‘dark retreat’. Avid readers of my blog may recall I spent just over a week in pitch black isolation in this strange Guatemalan kinder egg back in January 2018:

(Read about my first dark retreat here)

I had such an amazing and weird experience that I’d been eager to do it again ever since and lockdown seemed like the perfect opportunity. However, recreating a pitch black prison cell in my own home required a few logistical considerations. The first piece of admin was arranging catering, so I turned to my sister, Michelle, and asked “if I do a dark retreat in my bedroom, can I pay you to feed me?”.

She immediately burst into tears, which hadn’t been my intention, but I understood. Lockdown was a weird old time and we’d clubbed together to make the most of it, playing in the sun every day with her little dog, Lottie. But, like a true lockdown hero, she bravely agreed and it wasn’t long before tears turned into raucous laughter as we began work on a blackout plan with lightproof feeding and airing systems.

Day 0:

The plan was to completely black out the windows of my bedroom and en suite bathroom using bin bags and gaffer tape, which turned out to be quite a lot harder than it sounds. When I’d designed my loft bedroom, I’d told the architect I wanted ‘as much light as possible’, resulting in three large Velux windows, a sash window, a floor to ceiling glass balcony door and a giant unreachable skylight just outside the bedroom door. All fun and games until some dickhead decides to do a dark retreat in there.

It’s probably also worth mentioning that I was on crutches from a recent operation on my foot, so the logistical nightmare of covering these large, unreachable light sources was all done hopping around on one leg while Michelle ran to the shops for supplies. Anyone else spend their lockdown like this? Nope, didn’t think so.

We quickly discovered that bin bags aren't actually light proof and that trying to source last minute gaffer tape during a global pandemic lockdown is not quite as easy as one might imagine. We needed roughly ten times the amount of bags Michelle collected on her first shopping trip and after NINE HOURS of cutting and sticking, hopping back and forth from the light switch (only to discover that daylight was still somehow coming in everywhere) we had both pretty much lost the plot. We were kept going only by laughing at the thought of any neighbours watching our evening, as we pushed through for one final emergency bin bag layer, finishing just as the sun went down with no way to test if our handy work was actually lightproof or not.

I had no idea how safe the combination of crutches and pitch black darkness would be, and my Google search history was already looking somewhat psychopathic, so I decided I’d crawl between the bed and bathroom along a little path of yoga mats and blankets. I calculated the rough volume of the room and worked out I could survive roughly four days on the starting oxygen, so Michelle would open a Velux window during feeding time while I shut myself in my bathroom to avoid any rogue light photons entering the old rods and cones. We aimed to carry out the whole retreat in silence, communicating only by knocking to tell each other when I was safely hidden and when the bedroom had been returned to a state of ‘peepers proof’ for me to come back in.

That's a fake smile, obviously, and yes I did wear those joggers for the whole of lockdown one

I messaged close friends, family and clients to let them know I was going off radar. Most of them barely raised an eyebrow, writing it off as this year’s ‘Laney’s gone mad again’ activity, but one friend did share that he felt the point at which someone could be classed as clinically insane might be the point at which they’ve got bin bags for windows. Another asked me to remind them why a person would voluntarily do such a thing, which I will attempt to explain:

For me, a dark retreat is not an endurance test or a search for answers. As outlined in my last blog, I maintain that the only answers I need for now are:

KNOW YOURSELF (Solid advice, Socrates)


CHOOSE LOVE (yes, there is something amusing about spending ten years searching for answers only to discover you could’ve just watched Trainspotting, but here we are)

FYI - I believe choosing love could also be called ‘choosing life’, ‘choosing God’ or ‘choosing truth’.

However, it’s also not enough to simply know that the answer to everything is to love yourself. The real value comes from understanding why it’s the right answer and how to actually put that into practice. Love is so much more than a feeling; it’s an umbrella term for a whole array of different immaterial nutrients, just like ‘food’ is an umbrella term for physical nutrients.

The closest definition I can come up with is:

Love is a conscious act of giving someone or something the physical, emotional or psychological nutrients necessary for optimum growth and flourishing.

I could write a whole book about it (actually, I am) but in a nutshell loving someone (including yourself) requires a willingness to truly get to know and understand them. So, if you’re not prepared to spend time with yourself, pay attention and deeply listen, then you don’t stand very much chance of forming truly intimate relationships with yourself or others.

To me, there is no greater act of self-love than shutting out all other distractions to give myself that undivided attention to better understand myself and my needs. All human behaviour is motivated by either love (desire) or fear and you only have the option of ‘choosing love’ and the direction you want in life, if you have sufficient awareness of the parts of you that are conditioned to choose fear and run away from the things you don’t want instead - the very process that leads you away from your true life purpose towards a life that feels safe, but far from fulfilling.

The good news is that fear is nothing more than an absence of love, just like darkness is nothing more than an absence of light. Fear simply cannot survive in the presence of loving, conscious awareness. And that, my friend…. is YOU.

As far as I can tell, there’s only really one way to overcome your fears and that’s to stare every single one of them in the face with non-judgemental acceptance, until you can see for yourself that they aren't real. So here we are.

My self-imposed prison cell looking very bare without houseplants for a while

Final preparations included a notebook and pen for blind diary entries and self-portraits (continuing the tradition from my last retreat) and some spare clothes, mostly for show, because let’s be honest, we all know those joggers were on for the long haul. I said goodbye to Michelle and Lottie, closed the door and turned off all the lights except a little moon lamp. I sat on my bed in the soft light, took in a few last seconds of vision, then clicked the light off.

Hello darkness my old friend…. Let’s get this show on the road.

Day 1:

I woke up in pitch black darkness... for a few hours, until tiny bits of glow started to appear around the window edges. Damn. It wasn't enough light to be able to see, but it was enough to be able to orientate myself in the room, which I didn't want at all, so the first activity of the day became fixing technical issues.

If I thought light proofing the windows had been tricky the previous day, I now had to repeat the activity in pitch black darkness - cutting and taping bin bags over barely visible dots of light using hands I couldn't even see, all while balancing on one leg. Within minutes I also accidentally added 'rogue pair of open scissors somewhere on the floor' to the list of dangers of blindly hopping around in the dark, but I managed to find beauty in the experience as a metaphor for life; that no matter how hard I tried to block out the light, it would always find new ways to come in.

Another nice discovery was that unravelling a roll of bin bags in the dark creates an amazing light show of static electricity - who knew?! It's so pretty. I really recommend giving it a try if you've got a spare nine hours to light proof your bedroom.

Michelle and Lottie brought me breakfast and attempted not to break the silence, but it was a matter of seconds before one of us sniggered and we burst out laughing at the most ridiculous game we'd ever played together. It was a lovely moment that felt worthy of my first self-portrait, so after she'd gone, I engaged my best blind drawing skills to forever record the occasion:

After breakfast, the effects of extra melatonin from prolonged exposure to darkness kicked in and I spent the whole day sleeping like a narcoleptic baby, only just dragging myself out of bed long enough to eat and draw another self-portrait of how happy and sleepy I'd been:

I knew the sleep was good. My body was gathering energy, ready to bring up and process the next layers of trauma from my unconscious…

Day 2:

I woke up from a vivid dream about lions. It felt symbolic of the strength and courage I was mustering to take yet another good, hard, compassionate look at all the delightful ways I'm still a complete idiot even after years of self-development. The darkness and silence had already significantly sharpened my awareness, so it didn't take long to enter a deep state of clear focus as I began to scan my body and mind.

After about ten minutes, the first layers of unresolved conflicts from my life came into my awareness for processing. I scanned each conflict like a laser beam searching for deeper truth. As I held back judgement and held space, the flaws in my current interpretations of the events began to expose themselves and lost their power under the light of my awareness, making space for new possibilities and perspectives to arise.

I could see somewhere I'd been a bit stubborn, for example, and when I looked deeper at my clinging I found that fear and misplaced shame had been blocking my realisation of an alternative perspective. As I let go of the shame and fear of being wrong, the joy of being more honest and aligned with my true self filled the space and I understood myself and the dynamics of that particular relationship a little more clearly.

This process repeated as more conflicts surfaced and resolved themselves. I could feel myself growing, like a snake shedding it's skin as I found more and more parts of me that had been holding back deeper truth and understanding, and gently let go of them one by one.

Unfortunately, as layers of conflict fell away internally to allow truth in, layers of bin bags also fell away externally to allow dots of light in. I enjoyed the beauty and symbolism of this, but the less enlightened part of me was annoyed because the effects of the dark are cumulative and I didn't want to undo days of work. It felt like a ticking time bomb until the whole thing fell down, so I ended up hiding in the bathroom with my eyes closed until feeding time.

It was like a comedy sketch as Michelle came in, re-stuck a few bits of gaffer tape and declared it light proof. The problem was, my eyes weren't normal eyes anymore. After 48 hours in the dark, they had evolved into supersonic light snipers, so as soon as I opened the door I found myself recoiling like Dracula at sunrise, moaning and shielding myself from evil light photons while Michelle (presumably) rolled her eyes at me for being a drama queen.

Lottie agreed it was positively blinding in there

Even after ten minutes of allowing her eyes to adjust, Michelle's amateur eyeballs just couldn't see any light coming in and I had no way of showing her without getting light in my super evolved vampire eyeballs. We were in the world’s weirdest stalemate until Michelle begrudgingly agreed to make new layers of bin bags for each window frame. I felt horrible for being a burden on her, which provided a few new layers of conflict to process until she returned with intricate quilts of bin bags and blacked out that room like a total badass. She took full credit for the handy work at the time, but CCTV footage has since revealed it was actually Lottie I should've thanked.

I could finally relax into the darkness and had a lovely afternoon where I lost all sense of time and space until rapturous applause suddenly broke out and I was instantly very aware it was exactly 8pm on Thursday in London during a coronavirus pandemic. For a few minutes I was part of a weird old coronavirusy reality again, clapping my hands and saying a great big thank you to the NHS.

Day 3:

Day three and my room remained luxuriously free from terrorist light particles. The small layers of conflict stopped arising and my awareness, free from the distraction of thought, settled down into the body.

I entered a deeply spacious state of meditation and observed as golden tingles began to flow around my body like electricity. This is one of the nicest meditation sensory experiences and also one of the trickiest parts of meditation, as it takes real vigilance to remain objective and not start to seek this type of experience in future meditation sittings (which would have the effect of undoing your hard work by conditioning new cravings and addictions in the mind).

As I watched the energy flow around my body, wind and rain began to pound at my windows, adding a lovely new layer to my retreat that I hadn't experienced in my Guatemala retreat. The aliveness in my body felt connected to weather outside, as if expanding my field of consciousness far beyond the confines of my body. Every now and then I would hear a little black dog come up the loft stairs and sit outside my door while I meditated. It broke my heart that she didn’t know why I couldn’t open the door for a cuddle, but it was nice to know she was there.

While I was so deeply connected to my body, I decided to add another new experience to my retreat by taking my ever first pitch black bath. After days of sensory deprivation, the sensory overload of warm water felt incredible on my skin and I lost more sense of the edges of my body as the water merged me deeper into the darkness.

After my bath, I lay on the floor and my head became stuffy and achey. I watched my mind try to reject the sensation and consciously made a different choice to welcome it instead. I recognised a pattern that's played out on many of my silent retreats and wondered if the clear period of meditation I’d just experienced had made space for some for slightly bigger skeletons in the closet of unresolved conflict to come to the surface...

Day 4:

I woke up and felt a little scared without obvious reason. I crawled to the bathroom and suddenly felt extremely jumpy and anxious as if something bad was about to happen.

My mind told me to crawl back to the comfort and safety of my bed as quickly as I could, but I remained conscious enough to break identification with my thoughts and the urge to flee. I sat on the floor, hugged my knees and questioned the fear.

Me: What are you scared of?

Self: There's something bad in here. I don’t feel safe and want to go back to the bed.

A younger version of me would've just acted out these thoughts in an attempt to relieve myself from the discomfort, but I understand what it means to take care of myself better these days. This fear was misplaced and I know an opportunity for healing when I see one.

Me: You're safe, I've got you.

Self: I don't feel safe

Me: I know. That's ok, but you are safe. I'm here. Take your time and show me what's wrong.

I waited patiently, keeping all my awareness with the bodily sensations - a heightened sense of alertness, jumpy tension, increased heart rate, slight nausea. My mind felt like tense white glass about to shatter and eventually it began to produce thoughts and images in line with the sensations. I sat and watched each thought and feeling objectively and my mind took me back to the 10th February 1998 - a day my mum didn’t show up to collect me and my little sister from school, so we eventually decided to walk home instead.

Trigger warning: this starred section may be upsetting for close family, friends or more sensitive readers:


On the walk home I'd had the same uneasy feeling that something wasn't right, but our journey took us all the way back to our house where I was surprised to find my mum's car sat in the driveway. Everything looked normal except a note on the front door, in my mum's handwriting, telling us to go across the road and call my dad.

Deep down, I knew something was deeply wrong, but I've never been one to blindly follow instructions without reason. To my detriment, I ignored the note and took a front door key from my pocket. I put the key in the lock and within seconds, my uneasy feeling escalated to the highest possible state of alert as I discovered the door had inexplicably been barricaded with furniture from the inside.

Every single alarm bell in my body screamed that something awful was in the house. I don't know why I didn't run away, but I believe I was so overwhelmed in that moment that I pushed all my fear deep into my unconscious. Instead, a surge of courage took over and a deep instinct to protect my little sister. I calmly pushed my way through on adrenaline-fuelled autopilot and began to scan the house like a detective, searching for truth, so I could reassure her everything was ok.

A tremendous amount of effort had been taken to protect us from finding the truth, but I’m an intuitive and determined little bugger, so unfortunately it was only a matter of time before I knew with absolute certainty that the truth was in the garage. From there it wasn’t long before I worked out a way to overcome every locked, blocked and covered entrance by taking us out to the front of the house where I found a little crack between the garage door and the wall, and looked through.

In that split second, everything I thought I knew about anything was completely shattered.


I couldn't make any sense of what I could see. My heart stopped, my legs melted and my brain exploded to white, flooded with an overload of confusion, grief, horror, panic and fear that would take the rest of my life to process. In that moment, a frightened little voice behind me said 'what is it? ’, and I realised there was no space for me to fall to pieces.

I needed to be strong and hold myself together long enough to calmly explain to my little sister that her beautiful mother had inexplicably taken her own life. All while simultaneously trying to work out if it was too late to save her and how on earth I would do that through a locked door in the matter of seconds I might have left.


It was a lot to process. So much that I’m still processing it 25 years later and writing this is part of that, so thank you for being here. Great loss is one of life’s harshest lessons that we all have to go through at some point. But, I believe it’s true that our greatest challenges are also our greatest opportunities.

I'm not sharing this story because I want or need sympathy. I really don’t. I miss my incredible mum dearly, but these days I am at peace with the fact this happened and I think that’s a miracle. I’m sharing this because I believe there is real value in honestly sharing our stories and struggles, and how we overcome them. I remember thinking that day that my whole life was over, that there was no possible way anything could ever be ok again. And I was wrong.

It’s not been easy, of course. Traumatic events like this seed all kinds of fear based questions into a confused child’s mind, like:

Was it my fault?

Did I do something wrong?

Am I not enough?

Am I not worth staying for?

Am I not loved?

Am I not wanted?

Am I not important?

Am I unsafe?

Am I running out of time?

Is something bad about to happen? (ALWAYS. Hello PTSD my old friend!)

And perhaps the most unthinkable question of them all…

Is that what’s going to happen to me one day?

When we experience trauma, we tend to shove these kind of questions deep into our unconscious because we’re so afraid of the answers. But it’s a choice to leave them there and when we do, they will affect our whole lives. We can run away from our fears with pleasure seeking activities like drinking, watching TV, social media, being busy, over-achieving etc. Whatever your tipple of choice is to distract yourself from feeling your pain and facing your fears.

OR we can make a different choice and turn towards pain instead. Pain is your friend. Believe me. It’s there to help you realise that something needs your conscious attention and the best thing you can do, is give it exactly what it wants. The trick is, your attention needs to be non-judgmental and equanimous. You are observing and accepting your feelings, not believing them or any stories attached to them.

I can’t do anything about the fact my mum left that day. But I can recognise that the main reason she did so was because of her own unprocessed difficult questions surrounding the sudden death of her own mother, and her traumatic experience of arriving home as a teenager to find it was already too late.

It’s not a coincidence.

Unfortunately, my mother never answered her questions to know it wasn't her fault, so her pain got passed down a generation for me to break the cycle. I understand that I might ‘feel’ as if I’m not safe, loved, wanted or important, but I can also consciously choose not to believe these feelings and realise they are attached to false beliefs from my trauma. The real pain of that day didn’t come from my mother’s abandonment, but from my own.

I ran away from myself for years, seeking all kinds of short term pleasures and distractions as a substitute for true intimacy with myself. But I eventually realised the error of my ways. I can’t control my mother’s choice to leave us, but I can chose to stop abandoning myself through fear about the answers to these questions. So, I sat on the bathroom floor and showed my little self, that she is loved, wanted, cared for, important and enough. SO much so that I was prepared to give up absolutely everything else, just to be with her and prove it.

Day 5:

Michelle brought me some special plasters to help heal the scar on my foot (knock yourself out on that symbolism). So, I hid under the bed covers with my leg poking out while she came in and Lottie leapt on the bed, jumped around on my head and licked my hand and it was nice.

When she'd gone, I cautiously took my very first step in 2 months:

Perhaps it was the thrill of standing on my left foot, or an energetic reward from the trauma I'd released the previous day, but my heart was so full of love that I honestly felt I could've stayed locked in my room for the rest of eternity and been completely happy.

I spent the whole day radiating love and joy around my bedroom and felt so unbelievably happy to be alive.

Day 6:

On day six I woke up and couldn't find any of my clothes except for one sock. I had no idea how this had happened (I didn't remember getting drunk and accidentally having sex with anyone...) but I decided to just embrace it as my outfit for the morning and I'm glad I did because it really added a certain je ne sais quoi to the ambience and mood. I recommend giving it a try:

See what I mean? Try to not be happy while dressed like that... it's impossible.

Perhaps inspired by my solo foot covering, I spent the morning contemplating loneliness and how it really is just a state of mind. We shove so many parts of ourselves into our unconscious, fearing that they're not acceptable, and as a result we feel incomplete. Then we search externally for things and people to complete us, when actually, if we just turn our attention internally instead, we can face all our false beliefs about not being enough and discover we are enough and we're already complete.

It never ceases to amaze me how totally fulfilled it's possible to feel when you're completely alone with nothing to do - it's honestly the most profound, life-changing realisation I've ever had. You can take away everything you think defines you, and still, there you are.

As I contemplated the fact that one lonesome sock was plenty enough for me to be happy that day, I realised with joy that my childhood nickname (still used by my sisters) is 'Sok' or 'Sokky'. The symbolism of this almost exploded my head. By mysteriously deleting all my other clothes for one morning, life taught me first hand that 'one Sok' is enough. That I am enough! And after six days of absolutely nothing else, I felt the love in my heart and I really knew it was true. Unfortunately, I also knew I was likely to forget this lesson many more times in the future before it becomes completely secure and solid wisdom, but for now, I was happy for the reminder.

I decided to dedicate the rest of the day to getting to know the real me a little bit better, so I went and lay down in a little alcove in my room called 'the DMT corner' and asked the question 'who am I?'

My mind was beautifully empty and free as I asked the question over and over. I watched the clear space as my mind tried to form an identity, but failed to cling to anything, since there was very little left for it to cling to.

The egoic identity of the human me and all things associated with her became a distant possibility that I could either choose or not choose to identify with. My true identity was just the part making that choice. The part that can never be destroyed, no matter what I take away or 'lose' in 'my life’.

I was not my thoughts, my feelings or my body, all of which were constantly changing. I was the constant beneath them all - the experiencer through which they all passed. The longer I lay there, the more distant the concept of 'Laney' and 'my life' became until they were absolutely nothing to do with me at all. It all fell away until there was really only one thing left... love.

This love was my true essence and the true essence of everything real that exists. It's not the first time I'd witnessed this. It's come up many times before on long meditation retreats and the occasional ayahuasca ceremony. I could see that truth was the same thing as love. And in the physical world that we live in, we can understand love and truth by observing the properties of light; its physical counterpart. There is only love and truth, and the only thing stopping us from experiencing that reality is the fact that we haven't yet realised the truth. The only thing blocking us from realising this, is fear.

Day 7:

The last few days of my retreat were really nothing but joy. In this sense I observed my journey had followed a similar pattern to my first dark retreat, albeit much less of an emotional rollercoaster.

Just like my first retreat, I felt that same love-driven urge for celebration, so I did a few headstands.

It must’ve shaken a few good ideas down into my head, because as I contemplated my newfound love for myself, a thought came in…. maybe I should ask myself to marry me!

Me: Is that weird?

Myself: Of course it is, but we're also currently upside down with a broken foot having voluntarily spent a week locked in our own bedroom in pitch black darkness, so perhaps we're beyond worrying about what's normal…?

It was on.

Day 8:

My only task for day 8, other than meditating, was to organise a wedding.

Luckily my bride to be was quite low maintenance and her only demand was that she wanted it to be on a full moon. As luck would have it, there was already one brewing that would be perfectly ripe the very next day and we didn’t need functioning peepers to know it was there.

Next task was the guest list. I posed the idea of inviting our good pals Michelle and Lottie and listened for an answer. No. It was to be just us - the most intimate moment possible, without any sensory input or distractions. I was happy with that answer.

We decided Michelle would do the catering and we'd accept whatever she brought us, so that was easy. The only other decision was the wedding outfit, which was also quite easy - we would stay in our joggers, obviously, and would add our favourite feather headdress to mark the significance of the occasion.

Who said organising weddings had to be difficult...?

Day 9:

I spent the day in peaceful meditation, preparing for the main event until I heard a few faint claps and knew it was time. I donned the headdres