Dark Room Meditation Retreats: There Is Nothing to Fear
“Is Kali, my Mother, really black?
The Naked One, of blackest hue,
Lights the Lotus of the Heart…”
At our centers in France and Mexico, we offer personal Dark Room Meditation Retreats. Although this practice can inspire profound shifts of consciousness, the prospect of spending days alone in complete darkness is daunting for some new to the experience. Below, we offer more background to explain the beautiful process that unfolds in the Dark Room.
From the Hridaya Yoga perspective, darkness and the abyss are nothing to fear, because who we really are is the very essence of both Darkness and Light. There are not animalistic tendencies at the bottom of our being. Even if it may seem like this for some people, nirvana is there, and the Supreme Self, Consciousness, is its background. Sometimes, the darkness of anguish or desperation or fear of death can instantaneously reveal Pure Awareness, nonconceptual bliss. This is because of a quantum leap between what seems to be the bottom and the top.
Darkness also indicates the ultimate act of unification, mystical marriage. The abyss is as much topless as bottomless.
In the Bhagavad Gita, it is the immortal, Krishna, who is “dark,” while Arjuna, the mortal, is “white.” They are symbols of the Supreme Self and the individual ego.
In India, retreats in darkness are usually called Kaya Kalpa. The term kaya means “body,” and kalpa means “ageless,” or “immortal.” Kaya Kalpa means “ageless body” (or “body fashioning”).
Kaya Kalpa is an Ayurvedic treatment for rejuvenating the body, calling for seclusion in darkness, meditation, and the application of various herbal concoctions. It can even be seen as a form of yoga. Ayurvedic medicine was developed in South India at about the same time as Hatha Yoga.
Kaya Kalpa has three main objectives:
- Slowing the aging process
- Maintaining excellent physical health and youthful vitality
- Delaying physical death until one achieves jiva mukta, “spiritual liberation” (from the effects of karma)
In Hridaya Yoga (as in Jnana Yoga, in general), the primary purpose is not the physical body’s rejuvenation, but the direct understanding that we are not just the physical body. So, we do not refer to Kaya Kalpa, but Dark Retreats, as adepts of Tibetan Dzogchen call the practice.
The Taoist Approach
Of course, even though this is not our purpose, the rejuvenation of the physical body during such a retreat occurs naturally. Because of this, we’ll mention some of the physical and psychic effects of remaining in darkness, as they relate to brain chemistry.
According to Mantak Chia (in Darkness Technology):
“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)
Melatonin, the ‘sleep molecule,’ is produced in the pineal gland, in response to the darkness of night, and to the circadian rhythms of light and dark that are programmed into the hypothalamus, an endocrine gland located deep within the brain. Melatonin affects major organ systems, quieting the sympathetic nervous system and allowing daily rejuvenation of mind and body.
In the Dark Room, melatonin gradually accumulates in the brain.”
Soma—The Regenerative Energy of Darkness
The yogis associated the fluid of eternal life, soma, with the moon’s energy, an essential vital energy that charges the human being during the night and which is “burned” by the inner sun. (This burning provides the energy manifested during wakefulness, in our daily actions.) In this case, day symbolizes all dualisms and the personal domain of action, of dispersant energy, while night is the symbol of eternity, contemplation, regeneration, and centeredness.
The Dark Night of the Spirit and the Mystical Tradition
In mystical theology, Darkness or Night is the symbol of the apophatic Spiritual tradition. It is the “neti, neti” of the Upanishads. It is the disappearance of all knowledge, which may be defined, analyzed, or expressed. Further, Darkness means the state of being deprived of all proof and psychological support. Night suggests “emptiness” or “nakedness” that purifies the mind, eliminating the “dryness” or “aridity” of rational thinking, bringing sacred longings, sensual emotions, and even the highest aspirations.
Deprived of light, the individual is dispossessed of all. This is the doctrine of privato boni. Memories cannot help us grasp the current situation. The individual is said to be in the cloud of unknowing. St Dionysius referred to it as divine darkness, the nigredo of the alchemists.
The Alchemical Perspective
The Dark Room Meditation Retreats have significant correspondences in alchemical work:
Alchemical “work” began with Nigredo or blackness. This first phase in alchemy means putrefaction or decomposition. As a first step to the philosopher’s stone, all alchemical ingredients had to be cleansed and cooked extensively to form a uniform black matter. This is a death and a return to formless chaos, leading to the white phase and finally to Rubedo, the red phase of spiritual freedom. Albedo is referred to as ablution, or the washing away of impurities by aqua vitae (the Water of Life).
The journey into Darkness is not just a first stage but is the essence of spiritual alchemical work. Without it, the individual will remain only at the superficial level of mere rational thinking and social existence, dominated by dogmas. There is an essential 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.
Individuals (actually only their personalities) descending into their original nature will suffer a significant loss. They must abandon all existing moral, social, and spiritual values. In this way, they open to a different order, more in tune with the Harmony of the Whole.
This is what happens in Dark Room Meditation Retreats.
Dark Room Meditation Retreats—The Hridaya Perspective
No “Lapse in Memory”
Being fully aware in a Dark Room is like becoming conscious in the “night” or “forgetfulness” of deep sleep. In the book I Am That, Nisargadatta Maharaj explains that even in deep sleep the Knower (the Supreme Witness) is present:
“Q: In sleep there is neither the known, nor the knower. What keeps the body sensitive and receptive?
M: Surely you cannot say the knower was absent. The experience of things and thoughts was not there, that is all. But the absence of experience too is experience. It is like entering a dark room and saying: ‘I see nothing.’ A man blind from birth knows not what darkness means. Similarly, only the knower knows that he does not know. Sleep is merely a lapse in memory. Life goes on.”
In a Dark Room Meditation Retreat, as in a deep sleep, the whole objective world disappears. But it remains the Witness “surrounded” by nothingness. We are aware of this nothingness. Eventually, in this Nothingness, the Witness is revealed as its very nature. Then, it is still Nothing, but the Nothingness is not meaningless anymore, or just a lapse in memory, but is full Awareness, the Witness.
Osho also offers insights about Darkness and the need to surrender to it. He speaks about the “negative darkness,” a concept that describes the “dark part of our being” (the fears associated with our subconscious world). In contrast, the “real darkness” is transcendental, bringing nirodha parinama, a profound transformation of our subconscious domain.
Speaking about the superiority of darkness compared to light, he emphasizes the worldly light’s relative symbolism. (Like Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light can be a symbol of transcendence. In the Supreme, there is no difference between Darkness and Light. It is both Darkness and Light.)
“Why has God been symbolized everywhere as light? Not because God is light, but because man is afraid of darkness. This is human fear—we like light and we are afraid of darkness, so we cannot conceive God as darkness, as blackness. This is human conception. We conceive God as light because we are afraid of darkness.”
“If you can love darkness you will become unafraid of death. If you can enter into darkness – and you can enter only when there is no fear – you will achieve total relaxation. If you can become one with darkness, you are dissolved, it is a surrender. Now there is no fear, because if you have become one with darkness, you have become one with death. You cannot die now. You have become deathless.”
“First, a deep friendship with darkness is needed.”
“So do one thing as a preliminary step: sit in darkness, put off the lights, feel darkness. Have a loving attitude towards it; allow the darkness to touch you. Look at it. Open your eyes in a dark room or in a dark night; have a communion, be together, imbibe a relationship.”
“First uncover your unconscious fears and try to live and love darkness. It is very blissful. Once you know, and once you are in contact with it, you are in contact with a very deep cosmic phenomenon.”
“Boundaries exist because of the light. When the light is not there, boundaries are dissolved. In blackness nothing is defined, everything merges into every other thing. Forms disappear.”
“Contemplating, meditating, merging… Darkness takes away all distinctions. In the light you are beautiful or ugly, rich or poor. The light gives you a personality, a distinctness — educated, uneducated, saint or sinner. The light reveals you as a distinct person. Darkness envelops you, accepts you – not as a distinct person; it simply accepts you without any definitions. You are enveloped and you become one.”
“When darkness enters you, you enter into it. It is always reciprocal, mutual.” –Osho, The Book of Secrets
During Dark Room Meditation Retreats, we should do some meditations with open eyes and others with closed eyes. We should continuously maintain the Witnessing Attitude, asking the question “Who am I?.” Here, it is even more important not to dramatize or let ourselves be taken over by imagery. In this way, we develop the capacity of witnessing any thought, sensation, or emotion that may arise. Our attention is on the darkness as the expression of the Absolute.
Traditionally, Dark Retreats were done by advanced practitioners in the Dzogchen lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, and the period varied from a few hours to decades. Some Tibetan monks recommend a 49-day Dark Retreat. This period was recommended only to advanced practitioners because such a retreat requires stability in the natural state.
Some historians suggest that Ancient Egyptians and Mayans practiced Dark Retreat as well, traditionally lasting ten days. Holy men would enter into the center of their respective pyramids, wholly removed from light and sound. The catacombs and the underground network of tunnels of the first Christians in Rome and many other places, such as the Pyramids of Egyptians and the Essenes’ caves near the Dead Sea in Israel, might have been used as places for Dark Retreats as well. In the Taoist tradition, the cave, the Immortal Mountain, the Wu San, represents the Perfect Inner Alchemy Chamber. The Tao says: “When you go into the dark and this becomes total, the darkness soon turns into light.”
For beginners, we don’t recommend Dark Room Meditation Retreats longer than seven days.
The Psychological Black Hole
In this way, our subconscious is unloaded. It is similar to how active and passive impressions (psychological residues, samskaras) are released in dreams during the night.
Apparently paradoxically, this Pure Darkness will absorb many of our obscure traits, psychological “darkness,” and fears arising from the lack of awareness.
As black holes absorb enormous quantities of matter, the darkness of transcendence can absorb our limited personal emotions and psychic residues.
Dark Room Meditation Retreat Recommendations
It is good to get enough sleep in the days leading up to a Dark Retreat. Generally, people start such a retreat by sleeping a lot. There is nothing wrong with this—it’s a natural process that comes with relaxation and entering in tune with Nature’s universal rhythms. But it would be good also to have long sessions of meditation.
The schedule might be similar to that of a Hridaya Silent Meditation Retreat, but this is just for orientation and is not at all compulsory. It is important to be free from the idea of having a strict schedule (which is related to the left, rational, cerebral hemisphere). A Dark Retreat should develop an intuitive attitude, related to the right cerebral hemisphere.
Awareness will increase, and there is no need to be afraid of boredom. Here, we’ll realize that boredom is a very relative concept because it is related to the desire and hunger for stimulation. Deep relaxation and awareness gradually eliminate this constant need for stimulation. In the Dark Room’s calmness, “the need” for reading, watching TV, working at a computer, or chatting with friends is gradually effaced and the subconscious tendencies begin to dissolve in the light of Consciousness.
Hatha Yoga is recommended, but it is better to be done in the contemplative Hridaya Yoga style, avoiding any forceful attitude.
By keeping the Witnessing Attitude, the patterns of the mind can be more easily objectified. Thus, the mind can be easily transcended. The awareness of the Spiritual Heart becomes more acute and reveals new dimensions of depth.
During the retreat, different images and visions might appear. Even if they seem fascinating or sacred, we keep the awareness of Awareness, asking “Who am I?” and “Who is the witness of all these visions?.”
Read an inspiring and informative article about an experience of 40 days in total darkness here.