Retreating into Darkness
Jyotir is a long time friend and no-nonsense hippie on what we call “the path” around these parts. He’s also old hat at sensory deprivation meditation and agreed to tell us his thoughts on dark retreats.
I took my first dark retreat in Guatemala, in a vacant building on a dirt road between two towns on Lake Atitlan. The top half of the building was unoccupied (except perhaps by the ghosts of my imagination) and the bottom half was four adobe walls with a hobbit-sized door and no windows. The only other openings were ventilation shafts fitted with electric fans and a rectangular slot with double doors through which food would be passed once a day. There were no lights. The toilet was a 5-gallon bucket and a bag of saw-dust. Inside was a bed, a hammock and a yoga mat. With the door closed, there was not a single photon of light. Blackness.
I was given a tour of the space, shown how to use the compost toilet, and left alone. Utterly alone, I realized as the sound of my teacher’s motorbike faded into the distance. No phone, no food, no clock, no music, no responsibilities and no schedule.
I spent the first six days alternating between the hammock, the yoga mat and the bed, and asking myself “Who am I?”
On the sixth day, I began to cry.
“Yes,” I thought. “Yes! A breakthrough! I’m finally getting somewhere!” I curled up on the cement floor and sobbed.
Two years earlier, traveling through India on my first spiritual quest, I had similar expectations that “finding myself” would be an experience akin to peaking during an LSD trip. The heavens would open up and my mystical powers would be awakened.
In reality, finding myself was a grounded experience, more of a tranquil remembering than mystical unmasking.
And so it was in that blacked out cellar in the highlands of Guatemala. Heaped on the floor, like a seven-year old, I felt ridiculous. I stood up, wiped away the single tear that had fallen and repeated my mantra mentally, “I am.” What a ludicrous thing to affirm! Of course I am. What the actual fuck am I doing dirty, bearded and barefoot, paying $30/day to be kept in a dark basement like a felon in solitary confinement, wearing mala beads and chanting mantras in a dead language?
This frustration was followed by simple presence. I knew, without words, exactly what I was. It didn’t require definition, nor could it be defined. I was. I am.
We evolved as social animals, and we dedicate a lot of energy to worrying about how our words, actions and appearance will be interpreted by our peers. One of the most profound affects of a dark retreat is the elimination of this distraction. Without anyone to judge you, movements, sounds and even thoughts which would otherwise have been automatically repressed manifest spontaneously. You shake, you groan, you laugh and cry. The expression of who you are flows uninhibited. If you can allow stillness, there is no need to search for yourself because there is nothing to separate you from yourself.
Ultimately, the journey into the dark is a symbolic one. It is a journey into the darkness of our own psyche, into the parts of ourselves that we ignore even as we quest for wholeness.
My first experience in the dark was a 7 day process. And the final lesson it revealed was my own potential. We are magical beings. Not because we’re spirits, star-children or anything fantastical, but because we’re humans. We bleed away our consciousness and creative potential into frivolous pastimes: video games, arguments, worries etc.
Before the dark, a day seemed like a fleeting thing. After I spent seven of them in a dark room without anything with which to distract myself, the vast potential of each moment was revealed as self evident. Breathing. Eating. Observing. Each aspect of our existence is an exquisite experience. And yet, there was a deeper yearning.
We are creative beings, possessed of an immense amount of Love with which we may, and do, manifest our realities. It’s a cliche that my time in dark solitude made a lived experience. Every building and possession within civilization is a monument to our creative potential. What imaginary limitations are preventing you from creating heaven? The answer may be in the darkness.