Updated: Jun 6, 2020
Dark Retreats: All inclusive holidays for self-development junkies (like me)
Sometimes we have to step into the darkness to find the light and that's nothing to be afraid of...
A very wise man called Charles Swindoll once suggested that life is only 10% what happens and 90% how we choose to respond to what happens. At the end of December 2017, a very wise young lady from London sat on the edge of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, contemplating this thought.
The 10% that happened was: I’d visited some friends for Christmas and our rental house had been broken into on Christmas Day. One of my bags had been stolen containing all my valuables, including my laptop and my passport.
I figured my options for the 90% of responding to the situation were:
1. Sit there and cry
2. Accept my losses and make a new plan
I went for option 2, of course, but then I cried as well, which sort of defeated the purpose of having made a decision. Still, I quickly made a plan to spend another week or so in Guatemala then get an emergency passport and fly home.
I was determined to make the most of the end of my trip, so while my friends went for a hike, I stayed behind and googled the local area, hoping to find a place to do some more yoga training, silent meditation or a community project. But, I found something even better I’d never heard of before. It was called a ‘dark retreat’ and basically consisted of living on your own in this small hut in silence and pitch black darkness:
(isn’t it cute? Like a mental little egg… )
Now, I appreciate this wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of ‘making the most of your final week in Guatemala’ and it’s difficult to explain briefly how I’ve ended up in a place in life where this seems like a good idea. All I can say is the further I go through life, the more I realise that Socrates' advice of ‘Know Thyself’ is possibly the best advice ever given and Buddha’s advice to ‘love yourself’ is also a really solid suggestion. To me the two are intrinsically linked because your true self will only begin to open up to you if you make time and space to listen to it with love.
I wanted to make that space, but I also knew it would be difficult to go and sit in a pitch black hut on my own. We take this as a given, but if you think about it, it’s ridiculous. How can sitting around on your own with nothing to do be difficult? The answer is: because you’re not on your own… you’ve got your craaaaazy conditioned mind in there with you, but that my friend, is reason enough to shut yourself away and deal with that beast.
The info on the ashram’s website included studies showing prolonged exposure to darkness causes large parts of the brain to basically shut down, enabling other areas of the brain we seldom use to fire up. Even better than this, they’ve found prolonged darkness can stimulate the release of DMT into the body, taking the experiencer on a psychedelic journey of visions and epiphanies. Darkness is also known to increase melatonin production, inducing deep, restorative healing on the body… I mean, what’s not to love? It sounded right up my street.
I emailed the ashram and a woman called Arpita wrote straight back saying the hut is usually booked months in advance, but they’d just had a cancellation for next week. It was clearly meant to be. She recommended sitting a full week, since I’d sat four Vipassana courses so am used to long periods of silence. I figured she was the expert and booked myself in.
My friends returned and I told them I had made a plan, but it was ‘a bit of a Laney plan’.
Their reactions were:
Sam: Ok… that is even more of a Laney plan than I was expecting
Lindsey: Oh gosh. I think I’d lose my mind
Andy: Isn’t that an actual torture method for people who are already having a shit time in prison?
Rich: Why? Just why?
I explained that I wanted to lose my mind so I could explore the things beyond it, although I imagined the darkness would probably mean facing even worse, even more repressed skeletons in my closets than the ones I’ve already encountered on Vipassana courses.
Arpita informed me that people tend to have childhood/mother type pain come up, because the experience is a bit like being in a womb (the last time most of us were exposed to prolonged darkness). This seemed particularly risky territory for me when potentially combined with DMT hallucinations, as unfortunately the biggest trauma of my life was losing my mother to suicide aged 14 and I knew the memory of the horror I witnessed that day was still deeply etched in the back of my mind.
It seemed possible I might have flashbacks in the form of hallucinations, but in the end I decided to accept whatever happened and felt ready to connect with my mum in whatever form that took. I wanted to explore the deepest darkest depths of myself and if there were giant demons in my unconscious waiting to dance their merry way to my awareness, then I would make that space no matter how painful it might be. I have done enough meditation now to understand that there is really only way out of your repressed pain, and that’s to face it.
It's true that seclusion in darkness is a torture method in prisons, but torture really is just a state of mind. The truth is, there is no actual danger in sitting in the dark for a week*. Any torture experienced would only be a construction of my mind, so if my attitude remained one of welcoming acceptance, I hoped it would be enough to relieve the torture.
The only question was whether I’d be strong enough to maintain a welcoming attitude if something truly horrendous came up. I didn’t know the answer to this, but decided I’d keep the following things in mind:
1) If you can see it, it’s not real
The room was totally pitch black, so any scary visions would have to be hallucinations, therefore nothing to be scared of.
2) Solamente en tu mente
This is my favourite phrase in Spanish. I like how it sounds, but I also love the meaning which is ‘Only in your mind’. If I found myself reacting to scary thoughts or imaginings, I would remind myself I can choose not to listen to them.
3) This will pass
I would not fight any emotional or physical pain that came up. I would attempt to sit with any pain in a state of acceptance and surrender, knowing it will eventually pass.
Other than that, my only real fear was that I’d tread on a scorpion (a legitimate fear, as I nearly trod on one on our doorstep on Christmas eve, and that was with functioning peepers) or that I’d feel a massive spider crawl across me in bed and not know where it had gone. But, mostly I was just excited to see what happened.
I arrived at the ashram at sunset and instantly felt at home, which may or may not be because someone put this sign there:
I caught sight of the egg as I walked up the path and my heart skipped a beat - it was SO beautiful. The whole place was so full of love and Arpita turned out to be the gentle, caring, organised type. She showed me around the egg by candle light and I was pleased to see the hut was scorpion free (blocking out light meant blocking out most animals too).
There was a small bathroom with a toilet, shower and sink, and Arpita explained that there was a toilet hose instead of toilet paper, which I shouldn’t have glossed over because frankly even after years of travelling, I still don’t really get how this works.
The room also contained a rug, meditation cushion, yoga mat, water supply and a loft bed…. at the top of an 8 rung ladder. It didn’t seem an obvious design choice for a room built for people to be newly blind in, but I remembered reading that the retreat included an on demand counselling service to I reassured myself I could get help if I fell and broke my neck.
I asked Arpita how the service worked and she showed me some small pieces of paper and a pen, and told me I could write a blind note and leave it in the food hatch for her to collect at feeding time. It wasn’t quite what ‘on demand’ means to a Londoner, but I figured a loud scream would probably do just as well in a ladder broken neck emergency.
I opted for just two meals per day to minimise sensory input, which would be served through a light proof hatch in the wall. I also opted to do the retreat in silence, so communication between me and Arpita would be limited to practical matters only (like asking for an extra blanket or explaining that I’d just broken my neck by falling down an 8 rung ladder) via the previously outlined ‘on-demand-blind-note-writing-food-hatch-service’.
When all my questions were answered, Arpita wished me luck and left me with the candle. I closed the door, clicked the inside lock shut and spent a few minutes excitedly walking round the room mentally measuring distances and recording locations of my belongings so I could find them in the dark. Then I stood by the candle and took in my last few seconds of light. I was excited and terrified by the knowledge there would be no turning back once it went out. I smiled, took one final deep breath and …. puff.
It was a strange feeling, mostly because it didn’t feel that strange. I thought perhaps I could still see glowing shapes of all the things around me, but a quick stroll around the room crashing into things confirmed that belief to be false. There was not a single photon of light in the room and I was suddenly really excited. I had absolutely no idea what was about to happen. A true adventure. And that, to me, is the greatest feeling of them all.
I woke up early. Probably. It’s hard to tell when everything is pitch black, but I was definitely fully awake and bursting with energy. I could see shapes appearing and disappearing in the darkness, like when you stare at a light and then close your eyes. My mind was super aware and each thought popped in and out of my clear head as if written in sharp bold text.
The room was cold and a thought popped up that maybe the ventilation system would somehow kill me. Wow. I acknowledged the thought and filed it neatly away in the ‘solamente en tu mente’ folder, then got down to business.
My first mission of the day was to descend the ladder without breaking my neck…. Successful. Mission two was to go for a wee in the dark without missing the toilet…. Successful. Probably.
Mission three was to hose myself down and dry without toilet paper…. erm… malfunction. I didn’t know what to do about my newly drenched nether regions, so I opted for dancing around the room shaking my tail feather until dry, which worked surprisingly well.
I decided to spend half my time in the egg letting my body do whatever it felt like doing and the other half doing meditation, yoga and stretching. My body wanted to meditate and my head was so clear that I quickly glided into a state of bliss and clarity for a couple of hours until I heard a noise in the wall and realised it was the hatch being opened for breakfast. I can’t tell you how exciting it was - it felt like Arpita and I were playing the best game ever where she was my mum and I was her little pet vole who lived in the dark. My brain was more than happy with this arrangement, as if it just decided ‘Ok, I’m a vole who lives in the dark now and that’s fine’.
I made a cocoon of blankets and a little bell rang to tell me she’d closed the hatch her end. I excitedly felt around to locate the hatch and pulled out a tupperware full of warm breakfast, a spoon and a cup of hot herbal tea.
The food was DELICIOUS (a feast of fresh fruits and some sort of warm porridge) and eating in pitch black was easier than I expected (although granted, I wouldn’t know if I’d actually covered the entire floor in oats). It was SO fun and I felt so full and grateful when I finished that I went straight to the on demand counselling service and wrote a note to Arpita saying ‘SO yummy, thank you!’ (at least I think that’s what it said). Then I decided to draw a blind self-portrait so I would remember that the breakfast on day one was completely delicious and that I had been happy.
(See… look how happy I am. My smile is literally bigger than my face)
I spent the rest of the day just staring into the darkness and doing yoga, which is an odd experience in the dark because it’s so much harder to balance but also because it feels so much more intimate. I experienced with ease that there were 3 parts to me - my mind, my body and my awareness - and I could choose to direct my awareness to either my mind (thoughts) or my body (which stopped the thinking). This is something I know to be true all the time, but still so often struggle to experience in hustle of day to day life.
Dinner was even more ridiculously delicious than breakfast and I went to bed after a bit more meditation feeling nourished, peaceful and so unbelievably lucky to have the opportunity to spend such quality time with myself. I already really loved my egg and felt as if I could spend the rest of my life in there and be perfectly happy.
I woke up suddenly in what felt like the middle of the night and thought I could hear male voices outside the hut. I imagined this was probably just some paranoia setting in and tried to calm myself by saying ‘solamente en tu mente’ under my breath. Then I heard another noise and immediately sat up and looked around the room (which was completely pointless because it was pitch black so I couldn’t see anything anyway). I shouted ‘who’s there?!’ into the darkness. Silence. I guessed it must’ve been an animal and lay back down.
Then I heard a lot more noise and realised ‘Shit, this is absolutely not solamente in my shitting mente - there is actually someone trying to break in!’. A sudden crack of torchlight across the floor confirmed my fears… someone had opened the outer door. I shot out of bed with my heart pounding, ran to the door and grabbed the lock shut. I pressed my chest up against the door and shouted ‘HEY!!’ as loud as I could. I was surprised by the ferociousness of my own voice.
The noise outside stopped and the light disappeared, but my heart continued to beat through my chest and my mind streamed with confusion and panic. Why was someone trying to get in? Did he know there was a small female inside on her own? If not before, he definitely did now. What if he’d gone to get something to come back and smash the door down… I screamed at the top of my voice, again “ARPITA!!… HELP!!!!”
That’s when I realised no one could hear me scream. The walls were so thick that the hut was practically sound proof. I was completely terrified, completely alone and no one was going to help me. I didn’t know what to do, so I sat clutching the lock and prepared for a fight.
After about five minutes, no one had returned. I let go of the lock and sat on the rug feeling very unsafe and very alone. It would be hours until Arpita came with breakfast and I had no other means of contacting anyone. My mind started to bring up all the other times I’d felt scared, alone and out of my depth in life and reminded me of a recurring nightmare I have every few months, where I’m back at my childhood home and the front door lock is broken. In the dream I’m always desperately clinging to the lock to stop bad people coming in. I’m aware I can’t hold the lock much longer and there is never anyone around to help.
The similarity of this recurring nightmare to my current situation seemed too much to be coincidence, as if I’d manifested the whole thing. Memories from my life that are the likely cause of those nightmares drifted into my consciousness and I started to cry.
I allowed the tears to come and sobbed and sobbed in the darkness. I wished Arpita would come and hug me (or at least bring me some toilet paper so I didn’t have to keep wiping my nose on my arm) but there was nothing I could do except write a note asking if we could talk and if she could bring me some tissues. Then I sat and drew some self-portraits so that I would remember that on day 2, I was scared and I cried.
I meditated for a while and was surprised to hear Arpita arriving with breakfast just a couple of hours later, meaning the man had been there at about 6am, not the middle of the night, so it had been daylight that entered, not torchlight. This meant he’d closed the outer door when he left, which seemed very polite for an attempted break in.
Arpita went to investigate and returned later to tell me the caretaker had come to check the door handle not realising someone was in the room on retreat. She had no idea why he hadn’t explained that, but I’d probably scared him away by screaming, which with the beauty of hindsight, was pretty funny.
I felt safe again, but the feelings of aloneness lingered. The whole event made it so clear how much my unconscious fears project meaning onto things that happen and determine my interpretation and reaction to the situation. I knew I needed to deal with the root of my feelings, so I watched them for a while, mentally accepting them and welcoming them to stay as long as they wanted.
The panic merged into deep emptiness and sadness, but as I went deeper, I found it to be spacious and free. Deep, but not dark. I became more and more in tune with my body as I meditated, until I could feel tingling like electricity flowing through my limbs and up and down my spine. I could feel my heart beating softly and every natural rise and fall of my chest was a reminder of a force that was not being controlled by me, but was looking after me. There was no need to be scared. I wasn’t alone at all, but connected to every single thing around me in the giant matrix of life. I watched the energy flow around my body and began to sing this beautiful mantra.
The acoustics were amazing and each sound wave rippled through every cell in my body and echoed around the room. It felt so beautiful and profound. I didn’t know the meaning of the lyrics I was singing, but somehow didn’t need to. I knew I was in no way separate from the person who’d written them and I could let go of trying to understand and just trust that there was meaning in all my struggles and all the struggles of the world, even if it made no sense to me right now. I cleared some space and waited to see what came up next.
I woke up on day 3 feeling anxious for no apparent reason. I decided to explore the feeling, but struggled to meditate because I felt so restless. My mind tried to distract me from meditation by suggesting EVERYTHING else and I was frustratingly unable to silence it. I tried to observe my frustration without judgement and did some yoga to shift my attention back to my body.
I sat back down, but my mind continued with every trick in the book to stop me. I persevered and wondered if something big was coming up that I was scared to face. I managed to overcome its whinges to do something else, ANYTHING else except sit there… until eventually it pulled out the big guns and we had a conversation along the lines of this:
Me: Shhh…. I’m trying to meditate
Mind: Yes, yes, I know, I was just wondering if you remember your ex boyfriend? You know, the one you were totally in love with and thought you were going to marry…?
Me: Why are you bringing that up? It was over a year ago and I’ve moved on.
Mind: Yes… funny how it’s only been a year, yet he’s just had a baby with someone else, isn’t it?
Me: Um, I wouldn’t say it’s laugh out loud funny…
Mind: Would you like me to create some sample images of how happy he probably is right now, cuddling his baby girl?
Me: No, thanks. That would be very unhelpful.
Mind: Ok, well I’ll just create some anyway in case you change your mind and I’ll leave them right here next to your eyeballs. Ok?
Me: Fine by me. It’s pitch black in here.
Mind: Oh don’t worry, they’re glow in the dark.
Me: So they are. Shit. I really didn’t need to see that. Solamente en mi mente, solamente en mi mente. It’s probably not even true. He’s probably really unhappy… wait, I don’t want him to be unhappy either. Ok, this is all fine. I don’t know or need to know anything about his life anymore. My decision to leave was the correct one and all this is in the past.
Mind: Shall I remind you of everything that happened to make sure you made the right decision?
Me: No… please don’t. I already dealt with it all ages ago. Didn’t I?
Mind: No, no, I don’t think so. I’ll just leave ALL the memories here for you to go over and over and then I’ll be off. Ok?
Me: Why?! Why would you do that?!
Mind: Oh, and one more thing before I go. You really want a baby don’t you?
Me: Well… yes, one day, at the right time with the right person.
Mind: Thought so. Remind me again how long we have until your ovaries shrivel up into teeny tiny little raisins…
Me: I’m 34, not 104.
Mind: Same thing, isn’t it? Ok, bye!
I tried to keep a steady mind and observe the thoughts objectively, but it was futile. I was already churned up in a mess on the floor with so many opposing thoughts flying around in my head that I had to get up and draw a self portrait just to try and take my focus off them.
(poor little thing)
My head was hot and heavy and my heart ached with emotions of lost love, but I managed to stay conscious enough to accept and observe the feelings, slowly regaining awareness that my pain was not from what happened, but from false beliefs in my mind about the meaning of those events. This process was healing those deep wounds as I allowed myself to feel all the pain, grieve another piece of the loss and gently let go of the story around it.
Clearly at a loss without my attention, my mind switched to different tactics and said a few things that were so funny that the two of us just sat there laughing for a bit. Then it distracted me with a conversation like this:
Mind: Hello Laney
Me: Shh… I’m trying to meditate
Mind: Oh screw meditation, it’s boooooooring. Let’s do handstands in the dark!
Which, frankly, was a bloody brilliant idea. In fact, we can clearly see from this accurate self-portrait that it was so much fun my face fell off my head. I sat back down and