40 days Dark Retreat
Disclaimer: this post is about a practice called Kaya Kalpa, or Dark Retreat. I am using words such as “energy”, “chakras” and “visions”, if you do not believe in all this feel free to replace them by “physical sensations”, “states of mind” and “DMT induced hallucinations”. =)
“I wish I could show you,
When you are lonely or in the darkness,
The Astonishing Light
Of your own Being!”
I’m just out of 40 days of meditation retreat in solitude and in complete darkness. I’m usually not a big fan of sharing spiritual experiences online but the fact that so many people have been asking me how it was, and that I struggled to find information online about long dark retreats, made me decide to write what is shareable about it.
What is a Dark Retreat ?
“Darkroom retreats have been used by a variety of spiritual traditions throughout the centuries as a higher-level practice. The aspirant enters a room specially prepared to admit absolutely no light and spends a number of days under this sensory deprivation in order to bring about a profound shift of consciousness.
Research has shown that in prolonged darkness a biochemical reaction in the brain is causing extraordinary molecules like DMT to be synthesized which trigger altered states of perception allowing for accelerated evolution towards the Revelation of the Self and a Consciousness of Oneness.”
The Taoist Perspective
According to Mantak Chia (in the book Darkness Technology, available in the Ressources section):
“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 (Days 1 to 3).
Pinoline, affecting the neuro-transmitters of the brain, permits visions and dream-states to emerge in our conscious awareness (Days 3 to 5).
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 (Days 6 to 12).”
The Alchemical Perspective
“The journey into Darkness is not just a first stage, but it is the essence of the spiritual alchemical work, because without it, the individual will remain only at the superficial level of mere rational thinking and social existence, dominated by dogmas. There is an important alchemical adagio:
Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Occultum Lapidem (“Visit the interior of the earth; rectify what you find there, and you will discover the hidden stone.”) To describe the “descent into Darkness,” summed up in the word VITRIOL, alchemy has preserved some very ancient symbols.
The individual (actually only his/her personality) descending into its original nature will suffer a great loss. He must abandon all his old moral, social and spiritual values. Thus, he will open himself to a different order, more in tune with the Harmony of the Whole.
This is what is happening in a Dark Retreat. ” (Hridaya Yoga)
The thought of doing a 40 days Dark Retreat came quite unexpectedly to me during meditation, but I had been feeling the need of doing a long retreat for quite some time.
Having never done either a solitary, or a very long, or a dark retreat, and having not been practising very well in the past year due to a very full work schedule, I knew it was going to be a challenge, and boy, it was!
To give a bit of background I started on the path 3 years ago, doing a lot of reading and some meditation the first year, a lot of yoga, meditation and retreats the second, and not too much last year except 2 retreats. That’s not so much practice time and I probably would have benefited more if my personal practice had been stronger, but I thought I could always do another dark retreat later on, and I saw this retreat as a rite of passage into adult spiritual “seekerhood”. If I could last 6 weeks in solitude in the dark, practising constantly, I was not a spiritual tourist any more. By doing a long Dark Retreat, I was hoping to finally face myself fully. Stopping to escape through distractions, I would learn to sit, watch and accept my mind and emotions for prolonged period of time, and hopefully get some insights in the process.
The Dark Room
I decided to do my Dark Retreat at the Hermitage Guatemala, as it is the most “put together” dark room I found in Central America and it was looking more suitable for a long retreat.
The room was very nice, made of natural stone which gave it a cave feeling, but still quite comfortable, with a good bed, a meditation bench, a shelf, compost toilets, cold shower and a double doors trap to pass the food without letting any light in. I was fed (in silence) twice a day a lot of veggies and a bit of rice, and that was my only contact with the outside world for 40 days.
A 360° tour of the dark room
There was a very good ventilation system, which is great in itself as you get plenty of fresh air and don’t feel the mouldy atmosphere, and is also super important with compost toilet which can become quite smelly in such a confined atmosphere.
The cold shower on the other hand was very challenging as the room, being made of stone, was very cold. I would say that it didn’t get above 15 degrees during my whole stay and I moved around with my fleece jacket and hoodie on 24/7. On the plus side it was a bit like being in an Himalayan cave, it kept me very sharp during meditation and made me feel like a true mountain yogini!
I entered the dark room at sunset on Tuesday 24th of November, and blew off the last candle at 6pm.
The first day was quite challenging, I finally realised the full extent of the experience: I was going to be in the dark, with nothing to distract me, alone, for 40 days. My mind freaked out a bit, but I checked myself and started designing my program of practice: meditation from wake up time till breakfast at 9, then long meditation, hatha yoga, and another meditation until lunch at 3. A little rest after lunch then meditation until sunset (I could hear the crickets starting to sing), hatha yoga and exercises, shower, meditation and bed where I would continue to meditate until I would fall asleep. I have been following my schedule pretty well, and overall I think I did about 7 to 10 hours of formal sitting practice per day, the rest being spent watching my mind or meditating while lying down.
I practiced mostly heart-centered meditation, a sort of self-enquiry with some attention on the spiritual heart, and some Tantric Vipassana (from the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra) sessions when my mind was too restless. I also used Tonglen (from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition) to love and accept my fears or negative thoughts when they were starting to disturb me. When my mind was going too insane, I chanted aloud the only bhajan I remembered, practiced Japa Yoga or recited Christian prayers.
From day 1 till 3 I slept quite a lot and had many lucid dreams. I then started to adjust to the darkness and slept much less. The visions started slowly on day 5 with a lot of geometrical/mandala shapes, then the vision of a beautiful bright white moon in a castle in the sky appeared, and very vivid visions never stopped again until the end of my retreat, only growing stronger and brighter as time passed. The visions were quite diverse, from cartoon-like technicolor movies to 360 immersion into beautiful purple or turquoise landscapes with characters moving around, interacting with me, from flying boats filled with kittens wearing hats to huge stone like faces staring at me.
Visions are just visions though, and as fascinating or beautiful as they may be I mostly tried to ignore them, to not interact with anything and just focus on the object of my meditation. It was quite challenging at times as the room looked sometimes very crowded and I had to pass through characters, animals or walls to go from one side to the other. It also happened that the illusions of the bed or furniture of the room were so real that I forgot that I couldn’t truly see, and then bump badly into a wall or some shelf.
I got scared a few times by very dark floating shadows, or characters coming from horror movies, not so much from their presence (although my first reaction was fear, I decided very firmly from the beginning of the retreat that I would NOT be scared by my own mind), but from sudden movements. It’s already a bit unsettling to be doing your yoga practice while trying to ignore the tortured woman from the ‘Martyr‘ movie crawling around you, but I really jumped in shock when she suddenly extended her arm to touch me.
I realised how important it is to guard the sense doors and to be very aware of what you are letting in. As the Tibetan Buddhists say, whatever is still in your mind at the moment of your death will face you during the Bardo, so a dark retreat is also the opportunity to face these images and fears in a more conscious state than after death, and integrate or release them.
So the first week was been mainly about mental purifications, accepting and letting go of attachment and fears towards pleasant or disturbing images.
I’m getting used to navigate in darkness, and it is much easier for me to do my practice, use the compost toilet, or take cold showers (which are still very challenging though as the dark room is so cold in itself). I started to exercise more regularly as well to stay fit and to compensate for the long hours of sitting meditation, and working out before showering makes the showers a bit less threatening.
As I am meditating for extended periods of time I am getting more and more insights into my mind and myself, and some beautiful experiences, like experiencing the true meaning of the mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, ‘Praise to the jewel in the lotus’ (the lotus being the heart). I literally see myself being somehow inside my own heart, which became huge and is shining with an incredibly blinding bright white light, exactly like a diamond. I very often during this week see light shining extremely brightly from my body, huge beams of light shooting out of my heart or my head, bright red light coming from the navel, glistening gold or purple light filling the whole room etc. It’s incredibly beautiful and fascinating to witness this saying of Rumi becoming true in front of my eyes:
I sometimes close my eyes and put my hands in front of them to convince myself that I am looking inside myself and not outside. It’s very fascinating to see my mind recreating the outlines of my hand, but still keeping them transparent, and to be able to look at the visions through them. From this week on, my whole body looks transparent and glistening with light. It can be a bit tiring at night as the bright lights sometimes prevents me from sleeping, as if I have cars coming towards me with headlights on full beam.
My body is shaking more and more from inside in meditation, and I really feel an inner tremor growing as I go inside. Sometimes it feels like my whole body is vibrating, and a few times it got to the point of giving me the impression that the whole room was shaking with me. I do not see the darkness anymore as everything is so colorful and bright most of the time. The only moment when I can see the darkness are when I wake up in the morning and when I go into some deep meditation and my mind is very still, there only black and tiny glistening diamonds remain.
It’s interesting to witness the different colours and textures of the images projected according to my state of mind. For example, after eating I always get visions of caves made of clay or stone, filling the whole space around me, full of people looking like medieval peasants or wooden figurines, inducing a feeling of heaviness and constraint. When I am restless and my mind keeps thinking about what I could do outside, I get fast moving landscapes with very bright lights. When I’m extremely happy, amazing blue skies, turquoise, pink and purple glistening lights with very thin particles, quite still, sometimes filled with a tree canopy. In peaceful and blissful states the quality of the light become even more subtle and beautiful, the space becoming huge, sometimes looking like the inside of a gigantic and beautiful cathedral. If I’m upset though, everything shrinks, the wall becomes closer and closer and more dense, I get lines of characters surrounding me, shouting at each others and at me, upsetting scenes or landscapes spinning faster and faster, exhausting me. All these different images allows me to watch closely my states of mind and realise how truly important it is to be careful of the kind of thoughts and feelings I am allowing to settle inside myself.
I start again to lucid dream quite a lot. Usually I am dreaming of being in the dark room but filled with light and I am desperately trying to cover the gaps letting the light in, or upset at someone for opening the windows before the end of the retreat, and then realising it is not possible and that I am dreaming. It was like witnessing the war between my conscious and subconscious mind, one being happy to be there and wanting to continue while the other was trying to get out.
I get from time to time strange smells, some like incense and others that I cannot define. This is when I started to hear voices as well, which really scared me. Visions are acceptable, I can tell myself, “this is just the Darmakaya of my own mind”, and ignore them. Visions still looks externals, but voices are more challenging, as I really hear them happening inside my head, and it made the visions look more real, more like being in contact with another world, the astral world. Luckily they didn’t happen too much though, but when I heard some ethereal chanting, lasting for several hours, or a crazy loud laugh inside my head, or a voice telling me “Let it go…”, I had goosebumps all over me.
I’m also starting to see beautiful clouds exploding into multicolor fireworks happening randomly during meditations, with green, purple, fuchsia, blue and violet light. Hatha Yoga is also becoming very entertaining, as I see each asana or kriya producing different colours and quality of light. For example pranayama produces a very light and pristine atmosphere, while nauli kriya creates a lot of green light during void retention and red during the actual practice. Then if I hold my breath long enough amazingly realistic visions appears, which I used as my personal 3D TV when I was becoming bored or restless. With bhujangasana or the bound lotus on the other hand the light becomes bright clear blue or pink/violet, with a lot of diamonds particles in it.
A lot of mental purifications and letting go happened also this week, reminding me of this quote:
Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.
Day 21, 21 being a sacred cycle, I performed a ritual, and strangely it started to rain, for the first and only time during my retreat. I felt the rain purifying me from the past and allowing me to be reborn into the new. The next day, I get my first true experience of bliss in the heart.
I got a lot of up and downs this week, and worked a lot with Anicca, impermanence, getting more and more insights about how truly everything, no matter how hard or beautiful, passes away, so that there is no point in getting upset about anything. I believe now that once the lesson of impermanence is truly understood, one can just sit with any situation, thought or feeling, and let it pass peacefully.
A lot of very interesting meditations, fascinating worlds of purple colours with castles in the sky, flying boats, full of characters and animals, filled with life, amazing halo of white light around my head feeling very hot, like being kissed by the sun, when meditating on Sahasrara chakra, etc. I am more and more feeling like being in a dream, witnessing worlds arising and falling in my mind eye.
From this moment on I felt more and more deep gratitude for the opportunity of trying to live a life of practice and service, for the gift of Dharma and Sangha, for the chance of having the time, money and energy to sit and learn to stay, day after day. I also realised that each action appears effortlessly when it is supposed to happen, that somehow no effort is required and there is absolutely no need to worry or push as everything is exactly as it should be. The path is just learning to renounce the game of the mind and stay in the ever-present background of Being.
I truly felt how a wide open heart means a quiet content mind, and how important on the path is the cultivation of the Heart, through gratitude and compassion. I’ve been surprised how it enabled me to sit with profound restlessness, with the urge to act, and watch it dissolve into peace and focus.
A lot of great meditations and insights this week. I alternate between deep feelings of gratitude and fullness, and moments of sadness due to spending Christmas far from my loved ones. I am celebrating Christmas Eve by eating a few nuts and raisins while listening to the fireworks on lake Atitlan, learning about gratitude, contentment and patience. Things are pretty much the same, lots of visions, sometimes tiring and distracting in meditation as they move so much. During this week, a huge lion face appears almost constantly right in front of me whenever I close my eyes, about one cm away, a bit like a mask where I can look through the lion eyes into other universes. It’s quite unsettling to see this feline face almost attached to mine whenever I close my eyes, but I get used to it and after a few days it eventually disappears.
I am getting a bit tired of the visions, and my mind start to feel excited about getting back to life and having a more balanced practice. I’m not really thinking about coming out though, and keep working on building discipline and determination to witness whatever is happening.
The fan broke down around midnight on day 33 (I sleep very little these days, usually a few hours in the early morning). The smell of the compost toilet was really bad and I realise how lucky I have been to have the fan working all the time until then. My mind started to go crazy with the thought that it might be broken and stay like this until the end of my retreat. When it was finally turned on again the next day after breakfast, I felt such an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude that I saw how happiness is really as simple as a breath of fresh air.
“Everything in the Universe is within you. Ask all from yourself.”
Week 6 finds me very restless, my mind starts to plan again and picture how things will be after the retreat. It’s like all the thoughts about the world that I refused to contemplate during the retreat (as there was no point, really) are rushing back and filling me with a sense of huge excitement at the idea of being back in the world. I have never been so into the world before, and thought myself quite detached, but my mind is showing me how many strong attachments I still have. Meditation is a bit tricky with so much energy moving in me so I work on surrender and acceptance of whatever is.
I still get a lot of deep and silent meditations, and get some of the most important letting go and understanding of the retreat in the last few days, when I think that all my concentration is lost and that it is almost pointless to sit. That makes me realise how each meditation sessions, no matter how “bad” or useless it might seem to the mind, is actually moving things in the depth and preparing you for the next unexpected “good” one. I am learning more and more not to look for experiences or particular states, to just sit, accept and love myself and my struggles, to just be present and let time do the work.
The fan stops from time to time for a minute or two and brings me back to the present moment, to the huge feeling of gratitude for every second of fresh air.
I also feel more and more how truly everything in the world is the projection of my own mind, how life is a just a dream which can be enjoyed as such.
On New Year Eve I feel very holy and blessed to be on the 38th day of the retreat and of having the opportunity to step into the new Year in such a way. I intensified my practice and after the New Year fireworks, I get a very strong intuition that I am not the doer, that everything is happening in consciousness as in a full immersion 360° movie, that everything moves in the mind but that the one who is experiencing in me is forever silent and immobile. With pristine purple and blue light glistening with diamonds surrounding me, I see that my mind is as boundless as the sky and is the matter permeating everything. Gratitude.
I came out of the Dark Retreat Monday 4th of January before sunrise. I made a short last meditation and thanked the Universe for this beautiful experience, and stepped into the world. The air was fresh and crispy, the birds singing, I could hear the small waves of lake Atitlan rushing to the banks, everything looked so wonderful and sharp. I sat down quickly as my balance was very shaky and my eyes kept jumping from focusing to defocusing, part of the astral visions still superimposed onto the world. I waited for maybe another half an hour, taking in deeply everything that was happening, feeling at once very quiet and aloof while extremely happy and grateful for the gift of this wonderful world.
When my vision improved a little bit I stood up to try to get down to the dock to witness the sunrise. At this moment a man, which I noticed earlier meditating on a wall close to the door of my retreat and to whom I addressed a small shaky “Hello” (I wondered in the beginning if he was still part of my visions), approached me. I was a bit in shock to have to interact with a stranger so soon after coming out and tried to make out his face with my blurred vision. After a little while I started to see his features, and the more I looked the more familiar he became, until I realise it was my partner, whom I thought was long gone back to Europe, but who was standing there to welcome me back to the world! He had decided not to take his flight home in order to be there for me when I would come out, not really knowing what would become of me after 40 days alone in the dark.
It was such an amazing way to close this retreat that it felt like a big pat on the back from the Universe.
To conclude, here are the 2 single most common questions people ask me:
- What was the hardest part in the retreat?
Restlessness has been the most challenging part for me. I was used to ten days silent group retreats and 40 days of darkness and solitude is really something else. I passed through so many different phases, from never wanting to leave the retreat to being desperate when thinking how many days were still left. I felt so much energy and need of acting in the world sometimes that it was hard to just witness and detach from it. But it taught me a lot about my restless monkey mind and how to handle it.
- And the most beautiful or insightful?
I don’t really answer this one as it is very personal, but on a more general note I would say:
Sitting and surrendering, letting go of the fear of emptiness, of the fear of seeing myself as I truly am, opening and accepting, again and again.
The strong feelings of joy, happiness, gratitude, like I never experienced before.
A deep awareness about my automatic responses and patterns, allowing me to slowly untangle them, and eventually becoming more free of them.
A sense of space and detachment from my usual responses, and much more love and compassion for my fellow struggling human beings.
Going over my whole life and forgiving situations and people, leaving me with a immense feeling of gratitude for each experience which brought me to the next, which made me who I am today. Each single experience being a great gift.
I am not an expert, but if you are considering doing a long Dark Retreat here are a few things I learned while doing mine:
- Bring a lot of snacks, it helps to quiet the mind when nothing else works, plus almonds other nuts in general help the production of DMT in the brain. I found out that honey was changing the visions to more elevating one, so it can be a plus whenever you feel a bit blue.
- If you plan to stay long, supplement yourself in vitamin C, D, B12 and spirulina/blue algae (have a look at the Darkness Nutrition page 43 of the Mantak Chia pdf in the ressource section). Be very aware when arranging your medication and remember how each box or pill feel to not get things mixed up in the darkness.
- Get a travel toothbrush that you can fold, you will be grateful once it has fallen once or twice on the floor.
- Get double of everything important and keep them in separate places (pen, earplugs…), as it is very easy to lose something and never find it back in the dark.
- Bring a diary to write down your thoughts. It’s a bit tricky to write in the dark but if you keep your finger on the page at the place you started and allow enough space between the lines, it’s completely doable, and as so many things happen in the dark it’s a really nice memory helper for after the retreat.
- Don’t let your mind go crazy with fears of the future or regrets from the past. See the stories as unreal and impermanent, and use the repetition of a mantra (Japa) if you cannot stop your mind from wandering. I even used japa aloud from time to time when my mind was becoming too insane.
- Take it a day at a time, refuse to let you mind wanders on how many days are left, or what you are going to do next.
- Surrender and enjoy the process 🙂
- Hridaya Yoga on Dark Retreats
- Reggie Ray on Dark retreats
- A two weeks Dark Retreat report in Mexico
- Embracing Darkness & a list of ressources about darkness retreats from Phangan Earthworks, which also offers dark rooms in Thailand
- The tradition and the science behind Dark Retreats
- The practice of Dzogchen in the Zhang-Zhung tradition of tibet, a manual for 49 days dark retreats
- Mantak Chia’s Darkness Technology, a must read about Darkness Retreats
- A Dark Retreat held in Montana by a tibetan master teaching Yangti Nagpo, the precious and rare transmission of the Black Quintessence