In two words – a lot! This article shares what a dark retreat is – its ancient roots, why people engage in such a practice, what happens in a dark retreat, what to expect, whether it is for you, my 10 nights in a dark retreat, potential risks, & some places that offer facilities for dark retreats.
So, What Really Happens In A Dark Retreat?
Many things shift & change, both, at the physiological level & at the mental level. Complete darkness brings forth pieces from the subconscious & unconscious mind hitherto unknown to the conscious mind. The sensory processing of the body & the mind entirely shifts. Your circadian rhythm no more follows the sun’s rising & setting, a number of cortical centers in the brain begin to shut down, emotional states & senses are enhanced, dreams tend to be more lucid, things from the deep subconscious & unconscious mind begin to present themselves, one experiences seeing lights/ forms/ shapes/ complete imageries as if hallucinating, and much more (the article covers it all!). A dark retreat is a unique experience that brings forth insights & realizations hidden deep within oneself. It deepens the practitioner’s practice, provided the practitioner has a consistent base of practice, to begin with.
What Is A Dark Retreat?
Let me start with an alchemy-like quote from a document called Darkness Technology(1), for, in many ways, being in complete darkness is nothing short of alchemy!
The Darkness meditation releases us from the bonds of the Earth. No longer controlled by the rotating power of the Earth, the Sun and the Moon, the organs vibrate in unison with the spiritual stars, the Gates of Heaven.– Darkness Technology, Darkness Techniques for Enlightenment, Mantak Chia
So what is a Dark Retreat? It is a retreat, usually in isolation, and complete darkness, for whatever period of time you commit to. The reason I say “usually” is because some spaces offer couples/ groups of people to do it together.
Whether or not in isolation, the core feature of a dark retreat is complete darkness where not a single ray of light enters at any point during the retreat. This means, for logistical & practical reasons of creating & maintaining such a physical structure, it isn’t available everywhere as it needs special considerations.
A question that might come up for you is what one does in the dark. First & foremost, most people do a dark retreat to deepen their practice. It is highly recommended that you already have some form of established practice (meditation/ yoga/ tai chi/ qi gong) before stepping into the dark.
Your already established practice helps you be centered & grounded as your being figures out a new way of being in absolute darkness. It is also recommended you maintain some sort of routine for the same reason.
Having said that, I had come across a personal account of someone who had recently begun meditating and did a 30-day long dark retreat. It is not impossible to get into the dark without an established practice, however, your practice supports you & allows you to go deeper into the work of the Self.
Stages In A Dark Retreat
I found Mantak Chia’s PDF, called Darkness Technology, to do a really good job of bringing science and psychospiritual understanding together in the way he talks about the stages of a dark retreat. He says:
The darkness actualizes successively higher states of divine consciousness, correlating with the synthesis and accumulation of psychedelic chemicals in the brain.
Melatonin, a regulatory hormone, quiets the body and mind in preparation for the finer and subtler
realities of higher consciousness. Pinoline, affecting the neuro-transmitters of the brain, permits visions and dream-states to emerge in our conscious awareness.
Eventually, the brain synthesizes the “spirit molecules” 5-methoxy-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT) and dimethyltryptamine (DMT), facilitating the transcendental experiences of universal love and compassion.
Historical/ Traditional Lineages
Many ancient spiritual traditions have engaged in dark retreat practices, like the traditional Kaya Kalpa practices (in specific, Kuti Pravesika Kalpa(2) practice) in Ayurveda, the catacombs in Rome, dark retreat caves in Taoism, the ancient Egyptians in the pyramids, dark retreat practices in Tibetan and other forms of Buddhism, & mystics around the world since time immemorial!
The practice of dark retreats can be found in multiple traditions across the globe from ancient times to today. Darkness, while colloquially, is seen as a dual concept of black or white, good or evil, pure or impure; in deeper spiritual practices it can be looked at as the creator of light, the space of surrender, the beginning of life itself.
This begs the next question, why have all these ancient spiritual traditions, across the globe, been keen on dark retreat practices? Why do seekers, to date, feel called to & seek out spaces for dark retreats?
Why Engage In A Dark Retreat
(This picture was taken on the morning after my 10 nights)
Personally, for me, the first time I heard about dark retreats I felt a certain calm in my gut – while I felt the time wasn’t yet ripe (this was at the end 2019-early 2020), I also knew I would soon be ready for it.
For some context – I’ve been deeply engaged in my inner work, through various ancient & western practices, for more than 10 years now.
Towards the end of 2021, I felt I was ready for it, & finally, after sorting out all logistics, I did my 10 nights in the dark in July-August 2022 at The Hermitage, Guatemala.
My intention was simple – to deepen my practice, and my sense of expansiveness. From all of my inner work over the last decade, I’ve come to realize that at the end of the day, it is the sense of expansiveness of the being that creates all the transformation.
In order to understand why people do a dark retreat meditation, it is first important to understand the goal/ purpose of meditation itself. While pop culture looks at meditation as a tool to increase productivity or reduce stress, traditionally, meditation practices have been used as a tool to answer deeper questions.
Who am I? What is life? How does life work? What is the purpose of life? Why do things happen the way they happen? What is my purpose in life? How can I change unwanted things in life? How can I be happy forever? Is there a way out of all this suffering? Etc.
The last question above was also Siddhartha Gautama’s question (according to texts), who later became Shakyamuni Buddha, that began his deep search for an answer. He finally found a way to enlightenment – simply put, enlightenment is nothing but a state where there is maximum happiness & zero suffering.
So if meditation aims to help us understand what life is truly about, & how to best live it, meditation in the dark takes it to another level, that we may not have access to in our daily lives.
It also creates a space for us where we don’t have many “ways out” of seeing our own truth as there’s literally nowhere to go/ hide/ avoid/ distract ourselves! It’s you, and the naked dark.
Meditators and seekers, across times and traditions, have engaged in dark retreat practices to strengthen their daily practice, and to take it to a deeper level.
According to the website, Darkness Retreats(3):
Retreating into darkness was also practiced in the Dzogchen lineage of Tibetan Buddhism which recommended a period of 49 days.
There are historians who suggest that ancient Egyptians and Mayans practiced a form of the Dark Retreat as well, traditionally lasting ten days. Holy men would enter into the center of their respective pyramids, completely removed from light and sound.
What To Expect
In my opinion, one should enter any space (every single space, even if you’ve been there before, is new because everything is constantly changing – you can’t enter the same river twice!) with minimum expectations.
The reason I say “minimum”, and not zero, is because it’s very hard to have zero expectations due to our unconscious biases that we have no awareness of.
When you enter with minimum expectations, in my experience, you experience, learn, and gain a lot more.
With that caveat, here are 10 things that usually happen due to the (external) setting – complete darkness & hormonal changes:
Most people sleep a lot in the first couple of days. It’s very normal to do so as your body is finding its own rhythm of melatonin release without the sunrise & sunset. Also, many people, in general, are just sleep-deprived in the hustle of the day-to-day. This sleep is beneficial for the body to rejuvenate.
You might notice a shift in your hunger patterns – you might find yourself hungrier than usual (especially the first few days), or you might find there to be a loss of appetite. Most people I’ve heard from experienced the prior.
3. Body Temperature
You’ll tend to feel more cold than usual – this could be a result of two factors: a. no sun, and b. the physical structure you’re in (for ex., I was in a cave setting – so it was all stones around, & stones tend to get cold!)
You might experience boredom – as there’s literally nothing else to do! Routines help. But beyond a point, unless your practice is strong enough that you spend 8 – 12 hours practicing, boredom is bound to find you at some point. It’s best to not try to avoid boredom but to understand it.
Along with the above, you may experience being very aware of the vastness of time, and at the same time feel lost at being able to figure out time (what day of the retreat it is, etc.). It’s common to experience disorientation with respect to time, especially in figuring out when your retreat ends.
6. Replaying Life
Your whole life, or some major chunks of it, will replay in your mind as your mind tries to understand cause-and-effect relationships and patterns. Remember, whatever comes up, is coming up to get resolved.
7. Emotional Healing Crisis
Keeping in view the point above, there’s a possibility you might experience an emotional healing crisis – as if, a breakdown – eventually, as you stay with it, and allow it to unfold, it’ll be processed and released.
8. (Hidden) Parts Of You
Depending on how deeply you’ve seen and accepted yourself (all – the good, the bad, and the ugly), you’ll find some (if not many) truths (parts of you that you don’t like much, or have been unaware of) thrown in your face. Again, depending on your practice, you’ll be able to work with it, or not.
If you’re in the dark for more than 3-5 days, you’ll likely see visions in the form of lights (possibly of different colors), vague to clear images, and at times whole sequences (as if a movie) playing out. You might feel you’re seeing the wall, or the floor, or your hand – only to realize it’s in your mind!
10. Dream V/S Reality
If you’re in for a little longer, you might find your dreams and your waking life beginning to merge at times. This experience can feel quite surreal, and could also create fear in some. Again, depends on what internal settings you’re bringing into the dark!
Is A Dark Retreat For You?
I felt called to it. I’ve worked on honing my intuition to be (usually) correct in understanding whether it’s fear, desire, or intuition. That’s how I knew it was for me.
I look at the word “intuition” as a mix of your experience (knowledge/ skills/ mindset), and something beyond. Every single person has access to intuition, many have lost their way to this capacity.
For me, this is a very personal question – only you can answer it for you. I can share some practical “tips”.
How To Prepare For A Dark Retreat
- Plan your retreat – how will you spend your days, what will your routine look like? What practices do you want to deepen? What is your intention for the retreat? Basically, have a toolkit ready!
- Start preparing couple of weeks in advance – you can start doing longer practices, and become intentional about your diet, hydration, and sleep.
- Ensure you have strong grounding practices – practices that help you center and feel “okay” no matter what else is happening, no matter the emotional tsunami.
- Carry any (regularly taken) medication clearly marked such that you will be able to figure out in the dark what to take, and when!
- They say it helps to carry snacks (nuts & seeds) – I didn’t feel the need for it. But that could be because I usually eat one main meal a day. Check in with yourself, carry it if you want. However, be careful, it can be easy (depending on the structure of your retreat room) for insects to find their way to food!
- Carry a journal and a pen – you’ll figure out how to write – believe me, it’s helpful to have it there even if you choose not to use it.
- If keen, you can read other people’s personal accounts of their retreat experience, like mine below, or the many others available online – for some people, like my spouse, reading others’ experiences normalizes it, and makes it seem less “scary”.
Reading Material To Consider
This is in no way an exhaustive list. I’ve selected 4 of my favorites, which are also highly rated, for you to check out (Amazon should carry all these books) & see if you want to make them a part of your preparation toolkit for the dark!
The Creative Act: A Way of Being – While it’s written by a music producer, and is about creativity and art, and what it takes to create, to me it brought in some profound insights given all of life is nothing but creation!
Becoming Supernatural: How Common People Are Doing the Uncommon – If you’re on the spiritual path, on the path of the seeker, this book is a must-have whether or not you go into the dark! It talks about what I call “the beyond” – that which is beyond what mundane senses see, hear, smell, touch, & taste.
The Alchemist – You’ve most likely read it. If not, then well, take this as a sign, and explore the alchemy of your own soul with this timeless read!
Chakra Healing: A Beginner’s Guide to Self-Healing Techniques that Balance the Chakras – I can’t stress enough the importance of Chakra Work. Whether you’re a beginner or an intermediate learner of the chakra system, this book will help you build &/ strengthen your foundation for chakra work.
August 2nd, 2022, Day 11, as I came out from the dark after 10 nights, the following is what hit me the hardest – almost cathartic in some ways: Looking at the beauty outside, right outside the door – the door that I had locked from inside – I couldn’t stop crying thinking how it was all always there! “All it needed was for me to open it.”
Similarly in life, with respect to all mental apparitions we create in the mind, & lock ourselves up in them – strongly held beliefs, exacting lifestyles, values for which we call off relationships – all for what? Locking ourselves away from all the majestic beauty that the world, that this life, has to offer us?!
How ignorant! Or, maybe, how innocent…
During the dark retreat, there were a number of experiences, reinforcements, & realizations I had. Some may not be accessible for a reader who is new to meditation practices.
1. The Law Of Cause And Effect
These lines from Shakyamuni Buddha played on repeat in my mind, in a good way – Om Ye Dharma Hetu Prabhava, Hetum Tesham Tathagatho Hyavadat, Tesham Chayo Nirodha, Evam Vadi Maha Shramana Ye Svaha.
It means: All these phenomena arise due to causes, these causes are taught by the Tathahatha (Buddha), and the cessation of these causes too, is taught by the great Seer (Buddha).
2. Worldly Life – Monastic Life
It doesn’t matter whether you live the samsaric (worldly) life or the monastic life. Both are the same, with different (and also similar) sets of samsaric norms. What really matters is that you choose one, and then immerse yourself in it as a platform for (spiritually) developing yourself.
Unless you choose, you can’t immerse. Unless you immerse, you can’t fully explore its potential for developing yourself.
You may choose according to your orientation – wherever you feel yourself leaning towards.
I realized, in many ways, I’ve used the right to express my individuality and choices as an excuse to not fully engage in worldly ways.
3. Wisdom And Unconditionality
Wisdom is nothing but the ability to see things clearly from multiple perspectives. The more perspectives you can see an event from, the vaster the wisdom you cultivate.
The purpose of cultivating unconditional love and compassion is to be able to become one with that which cannot be explained in words. People have called it the Divine Mother, Divine Ground, One Consciousness. Whatever you call it, it has one core characteristic – complete acceptance without judgment.
When you fully accept something, you cannot stop the flow of unconditional love and compassion toward it. Since this is the core characteristic of that (I like the label Divine Ground), to become one with the Divine Ground we must possess the same characteristic. Thus, the cultivation of unconditional love and compassion.
P.S. I find my unconditional love and compassion flow easily toward animals. Thus, the picture with dogs – these dogs live at The Hermitage, Guatemala, where I did my retreat.
4. Cushion Is Only To Support
For me, “on-cushion” practice means all those times when you intentionally sit down to practice a specific meditation practice. On cushion is extremely important to learn and hone skills. However, on-cushion’s purpose is to support your “real”/ “waking” life.
If your on-cushion work is not translating into changes in your worldly life, then maybe you need to take a good look at what you’re really practicing, or maybe how you’re practicing it.
For me, one clear message was that I now want to focus on being more present in my off-cushion practice, than having “disciplined” on cushion practices. I’d still continue on-cushion, but my focus would become off-cushion.
This was very literal for me – I grew up with a strong, visceral fear of ghosts. I had begun working on it in 2014. And in the dark retreat, I was ready to do some real off-cushion work!
There were moments I would feel someone sitting on my bed – note, I wouldn’t see it, it was just the thought that would come. Sometimes I would wonder what if someone is right there, right in front of my face!?
Such thoughts would bring in the fear, and then I’d stay with the fear – without reacting to it. I’d sense into it, be with it, and then continue doing the action (of sitting on the bed, or getting up) even though the thought continued to be there.
6. Lights, Camera, Action
By day 3 or 4 I’d begun seeing lights – they’d appear randomly, red, blue, white. At times when sleeping I would have to cover my face because without covering it I would feel like there’s a bright light outside my closed eyelids!
By day 5, I began seeing vague landscapes – as if there were hills, or hilly roads, in the room. I would at times see the floor and it seemed to be raised in height. I would see my hand, but when I moved it, the image of the hand remained still (because – well, for obvious reasons – it was all a mental creation!)
By day 7, I started seeing scenes playing out – I could see people through a window in their house!
It was all quite fascinating! Since I knew these were all mental fabrications I didn’t pay them too much attention, but was definitely intrigued by them!
All of this made me think how even when we are seeing what we believe we are seeing with our own eyes, how much of it is really what we are seeing of the reality v/s our individual mental fabrications of it?
7. Concepts, Beliefs, Narratives
What is a marriage? What is the difference between a very close friend, and a lover? Why did ___ (someone who did something that led to a traumatic memory for me) do it? All of this, to what end?
How I’ve been living my life so far. How selfish & inward-facing I’ve been. How controlled I am by my aversions. All of this, to what end?
What kind of a person am I? What kind of a life do I want to live that will further me being this person? Is this the way I want to be? To what end? All of this, to what end?
All these and many more concepts, beliefs, and narratives – my ideas of “me” and “my life” that I’ve been living, opened themselves up to me.
8. Unresolved Past
Many pieces from the past – some unresolved, and some seemingly irrelevant – came back. I let them all play out, some were playing out again after a long time. I allowed for emotions to come in, move through, process, and release.
I realized that now things that come up no more unground me the way they used to a few years back. Now they come, and I am able to be with them, allowing for the work to happen. At times, I do avoid dealing with them, but in the dark, there is no avoidance!
9. Planning Future
In the last day or two, I thought about the kind of shifts I want to introduce in my life moving forward. Some thoughts were: how do I live my life as a “retreat” – such that the off-cushion practice and on-cushion practice become the same?
Immersion in communities – a conscious effort to invest in communities of families, both mine and my spouse’s, and our friends – how do I build space to weave it all in, moving from an individualistic me to a healthy merging we?
A few other things that are more personal (and involve others’ stories) to share here.
10. Mind Games
The mind is so fast to get afraid and assume the worst! As in my long-water fasts, so here, I re-realized again and again, how everything is a game of the mind. And how this mind of mine has certain instinctive tendencies.
These tendencies are closely related to protecting the ego – and the mind is so clever! It finds the best of ways to convince me that I’m right to think/ feel/ be a certain way.
Apart from my experience above, another experience I found wonderful to read was Reggie Ray’s(4), a teacher and scholar in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition with four decades of experience and practice in meditation. Tami Simon, from Insights at the Edge, interviewed him. You can read the interview here.
I believe the risks here are minimal, given you go in voluntarily, and (in most cases) will lock up your room from within which means you’ll have the choice to get out when you want.
Having said that, I think someone who’s currently deeply struggling emotionally/ mentally and doesn’t have strong grounding practices to be their own support system, is not yet ready for such an experience.
The best case scenario is you’ll come out within a few hours of entering the dark – we, my spouse & I, witnessed this during our stay. We had completed our individual retreats and were staying at the retreat center for a couple of days to integrate the process.
We met this person for lunch who was to enter their dark retreat cave afterward (around 5 PM). They were supposed to go in for 5 days. The next morning we saw them again! They said they felt very anxious & restless, and just couldn’t stay, so they came out within a few hours of going in.
The worst-case scenario – you might have an emotional breakdown, and it might get messy if you’re unable to hold, center, and ground yourself.
Places That Offer Facilities For Dark Retreats
Personally, I can only vouch for the one where I did mine – The Hermitage, Guatemala – they have a beautiful property, employ locals, and serve some of the best meals I’ve had!
While there seem to be many dark retreat centers coming up, I found these five to have basic legitimacy (re: website link + content, and testimonials).
The Hermitage, Guatemala
Darkness Retreats, Italy
Sky Cave Retreats, Oregon, USA
Dark Retreat Center, Thailand
*Please note this is not influenced by anyone, & I’m not promoting any of them – this is for your perusal, and I highly recommend you do your own research before settling down on a retreat center.
Have you done a dark retreat? What was your experience like?
Are you planning to do a dark retreat? How can I be of help?
As always, I would love to hear from you, reach out to me in the comments below with any thoughts &/ questions.
(1) Darkness Technology – Darkness Techniques For Enlightenment, Mantak Chia; PDF | https://docslib.org/doc/7766533/darkness-technology
(2) Linker I, 2009; Student Research Paper, California College of Ayurveda; Kaya Kalpa and the Alchemical Tradition in Ayurveda and Siddha Medicine; PDF | https://www.ayurvedacollege.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/kaya_kalpa.pdf
(3) Darkness Retreats – The Tradition | https://darkretreats.com/dark-retreat-tradition/
(4) Reginald A. Ray: Dark Retreat; Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon, Sounds True | https://resources.soundstrue.com/transcript/reginald-a-ray-dark-retreat/
P.S. You might enjoy reading My Experiences With Extended Water Fasting.