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Darkness Retreats: A Sensory Deprivation Voyage into Self-Discovery

For some participants, dark retreats are nothing short of life-changing

Damon Orion

“I’m in an ayahuasca vision that just won’t shut off,” Aubrey Marcus remarks. “Lights flashing in the corners of my eyes, constant visuals … imagine an ayahuasca ceremony with no music, no sight, no sound and no people—and it doesn’t end! It just keeps going!”

This is arguably the most memorable scene from Marcus’ documentary Awake in the Darkness, which captures the author/podcaster/entrepreneur’s experiences before, during and after a five-day dark retreat. 

What Happens at a Darkness Retreat?

Participants in retreats of this kind generally stay in rooms equipped with beds, toilets and showers. These spaces are designed to deprive the occupant of all light and sensory input. Food and drink are usually left in a blacked-out hallway, and external stimuli such as electronic devices and books are nowhere to be found. Newcomers to dark retreats typically stay for three to five days. The extended sensory deprivation often brings a psychological catharsis, spiritual breakthrough and/or visions similar to those seen in ayahuasca experiences.  

This is the modern version of a practice that goes back thousands of years. It was known to Buddhist, Taoist and Christian adherents of old, as well as to citizens of ancient Egypt, 15th-century France and to the Kogi mamos (high priests) of northern Colombia.

In the present day, the main advantage of going on a dark retreat in a professional setting, as opposed to taking the DIY approach, is that the former provides absolute darkness and silence. When someone tries to create those circumstances in an environment that isn’t designed for this, there will usually be a little light and sound coming through an opening such as a small gap between the door and the doorway. With the help of an eye mask, the pro setup eliminates those kinds of intrusions. 

Pleased to Meet Me

So, why willfully subject yourself to conditions that have been used for brainwashing and coercive torture? For one thing, the complete absence of external stimuli can reveal what Scott Berman, the cofounder of southern Oregon’s Sky Cave Retreats, describes as “that which remains.”

“When everything comes and goes—all phenomena, all experience, all sensations—what is it that remains?” he asks rhetorically. 

Berman’s comments match the experience of Mariah Jacques, a yoga instructor based in Eugene, Oregon. In January 2023, she took a six-day dark retreat at Sky Cave that she describes as “the biggest thing I've ever done” and “the catalyst for the beginning of an awakening experience that has changed absolutely everything” for her. 

“I met myself for the first time,” she says. “I discovered all of these things that I identify with that make up Mariah that are just these concepts and ideas, that are these structures of self on top of the base awareness that I am.”

She adds that because of her experience at the retreat, her operating system has migrated to the foreground, allowing her to observe its inner workings. 

“Now that I realize that I'm not my operating system, and I realize that a lot of my operating system is informed by childhood trauma and challenging experiences, now that I understand that a lot of my personality is coping mechanisms, I don’t want to be subconsciously driven by these coping mechanisms that actually keep me separate from people, not helping connect more deeply with myself and others.” 

Lights in the Darkness  

As noted earlier, dark retreat participants sometimes experience trippy visuals, especially when doing breathwork in the dark. As yet, it’s a mystery whether this stems from the brain releasing more melatonin and/or DMT in the absence of light, a psychological need to experience some kind of stimuli or something else entirely. 

Whatever might be setting off this internal light show, Berman says many retreat attendees experience it as an unwelcome distraction. 

“They’re enjoying being in this space where they're not overwhelmed by stimulation because they begin to really touch something that's deeper and more meaningful than the coming and goings of phenomena,” he explains. “You get so very clear that what's most important is just deeply, tenderly resting, softening into your being.”

At the beginning of her stay at Sky Cave, Jacques found that doing a little Wim Hof breathing activated some visuals for her. She describes these as “colored light blobs that would move around.” 

She adds that she didn’t get any visuals that she found meaningful. “I think that the more profound effect came when I let go of all breathwork, when I just let my body breathe and I just kind of was rather than controlling any part of the situation.”

On day four, without any activation from breathwork, she began to feel as though the dark and the light were superimposed. 

“There were periods where it would be almost a strobe light effect, where it would be going between dark and light really fast,” she recalls. “When the strobing would stop, it seemed like both the light and the dark were still present at the same time.” 

This gave way to a non-dual perspective that has endured long past Jacques’ dark retreat.

“Your body doesn't have an opposite sensation of happiness [vs.] sadness,” she offers. “We just experience all these different things, and because of the awareness that I am a conglomeration of things and parts of different aspects of self that will naturally and inherently contradict themselves, I was in the darkness liberated from the need to reconcile contradicting parts of myself. I can want to be in partnership, and I can also want to be single; I can want to eat pizza and not want to eat pizza because I don’t like the way that it makes my body feel.”

Jacques notes that she has been doing deep work with psychedelics for about nine years, and the darkness retreat affected her more profoundly than any psychedelic experience—or, in fact, anything—ever has before. 

“I haven't really done psychedelics since I did the darkness retreat, but I feel like I’m having this long, drawn-out psychedelic experience,” she says. 

Damon Orion is a writer, musician, artist, and teacher based in Santa Cruz, CA. He has written for Revolver, Guitar World, Spirituality & Health, Classic Rock, High Times and other publications. Read more of his work at damonorion.com.

 

Read More: How a Retreat Changed My Mind and My Habits

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