On October 9th, 2016, which incidentally was my birthday, I completed my 10-day solitary dark retreat experience. I know what you are thinking: –
What? Did he say 10 days in complete darkness alone? Why? Is he crazy? Is this normal?
I must admit at times during my retreat I also asked the same questions. So let me begin with my why?
Why did I do it?
A couple of years ago I had been exposed to a 2-day dark retreat as part of a Yoga and Meditation Teacher Training Course that I completed. The retreat left me intrigued as to what would happen if I stayed in there for much longer. During that time, we were taught that dark retreats had been used in history and still used today in various traditions.
For thousands of years, meditators have practiced in caves alone in complete silence and darkness. In Tibetan Buddhism dark retreats are practiced by advanced meditators to deepen their meditative experience and ultimately accelerate their path towards freedom. Another reason for dark retreats in Tibetan Buddhism is as a practice to contemplate death, especially the moment of death, which according to Buddhism is an opportunity itself for freedom.
In the Ancient Indian tradition of Ayurvedic Medicine, the practice of dark retreats is known as ‘Kaya Kalpa,’ which translates as ‘ageless body.’ It seems that the practice of Kaya Kalpa had 3 main objectives: Firstly, it was used as a way to rejuvenate body, mind, and spirit, especially during times of sickness and disease. Secondly, to slow down the ageing process and finally, as a way to delay the physical death, until one is able to reach enlightenment. Tapasviji Maharaj, a renowned Hindu saint, who supposedly lived for 180 years, underwent this treatment several times and attributed his long life to it.
OK, so I know you are still wondering, why did I choose to do it?
Ever since I started practicing yoga and meditation about 9 years ago I have steadily become more aware that I am much more than my mind and my physical body. This is something I’ve learnt through theory but more importantly through direct practice and feeling into meditation and self-enquiry. In fact, through practice I have come to realise that my mind is simply a collection of thoughts I have received in my life, a book of concepts and beliefs that I didn’t always choose.
Ok, I am not enlightened, whatever that means, and I am not proclaiming to be a saint. However, over the last decade, the direct knowledge that I am much more than the stream of thoughts in my head, has given me a deep impetuous drive to deepen my capacity to witness thoughts, instead of always identifying with them and ultimately further enquire into my true essence, my true identity.
Ok my why is coming, hang on!
So, the first reason I chose to do a 10-day dark retreat was to take a complete rest, physically and mentally from the external world of stimulation.
We live in a crazy world of maximum stimulation. TV’s, computers, laptops, mobile phones, the internet, social media, tabloid newspapers, gossip magazines, stimulating music, books, e-books, kindles, coffee, energy drinks, sugar, wheat, meat, white salt, excessive talking, sexual gratification; caught up in the toys of contemporary society and stuck in an attitude of addictive behaviour that asks for more, more, more. We are conditioned by society that we cannot be happy until we have more and more stimulation. According to our society maximum stimulation means maximum happiness.
In my opinion, the only way to set yourself free from this type of exposure is to go into some kind of a retreat. A retreat were the body and mind are turned inwards away from externalisation and into the world of introspection. I have done many different retreats before. This time I wanted to do a retreat where there were absolutely no distractions, not even a yoga class or a Teacher. The only distraction within the darkroom would be my own mind. The dark room is the complete opposite of the stimulatory world that we see today. But, even though its a place of deep relaxation, the mind comes with us!
So, my second reason for doing the dark retreat was to simply see how it would be to be completely alone with myself.
Could I be content completely alone in the dark? Would I go mad alone for 10 days with my crazy mind? My premise was that if I could be comfortable with my own self alone in the dark, comfortable in my own skin, then in essence I was free as a man. I would not be demanding of others, grasping for attention, for recognition, as I could simply be comfortable with who I was and how I felt.
“The moment will arrive when you are comfortable with who you are, and what you are: bald or old, fat or poor, successful or struggling, when you don’t feel the need to apologize for anything or to deny anything. To be comfortable in your own skin is the beginning of strength.” Charles. B. Handy (Irish Author and Philosopher)
So what did I do in the dark room?
Of course there is no entertainment in a dark room. The only entertainment I had, well to me it was, were my 2 meals a day, that were delivered through a 2-way dark box, so I could collect my food without any light coming into the room. Never before have I been so excited waiting for a meal, even though eating in the dark was not easy and at times there was more food on my beard than in my mouth!
Generally speaking, from the moment I woke to a few hours before my second meal, there was a beautiful stillness in the room and often great peace. When the mind was quiet, it felt and sounded like I was surrounded and held in a blanket of deep vibrational stillness. Although I was in complete darkness there was aliveness, the buzzing sound of the universe, the juice of emptiness, the joy of stillness. The deep ocean of silence within the dark room, although it sounds divine, was actually difficult to adjust to and welcome, due to the fact that in my external world of stimulation and in society we are not taught to welcome stillness and silence in our lives. Instead we are constantly looking for the next bout of stimulation.
During the days of the dark room I would meditate in sitting, kneeling and lying. I would also perform some Hatha Yoga and breathing exercises and at other times I would contemplate my life. Each day I found it easy to drop into a deep state of meditation. I can only describe this depth as ‘effortless awareness.’ There was a shift in identification from the body to a space where the body was witnessed.
Many beautiful thoughts also passed through my mind. Thoughts about how I could act more consciously in the world, how I could serve people better, how I could become more mature as a man, how I could deepen my own practice of awareness, and thoughts of gratitude for everything that had passed in my life and everything I presently had in my life, especially my friends and family. Much of the time I would practice simply witnessing the mind, watching its movement, without reacting or judging. At other times I let the mind run free and often became caught in the drama.
And then dinner approached!
I became extremely hungry as dinner approached. It wasn’t that my body needed food. It was that the mind had been so exposed, that it was in desperation for something pleasurable to distract it from going deep into its own subconscious depths. This is what happens in life on a minute to minute basis with most of us. We are in constant search for ways in which we can distract the mind from stillness and emptiness. Our lives are full of distraction and empty of any real stillness and quietness. We have not been taught in our schools and society’s about the tremendous healing power of silence and we have not been taught to embrace our dark side, our vulnerable side.
As I believed that I was more and more hungry, the mind became more and more agitated and impatient, until finally there was a knock on the door and dinner had arrived. Even though I was supposed to be in silence, I must admit that during the process of eating my dinner, the mind was so happy that it could not help but sound out cries of gratitude and bliss. If anyone heard me from outside I ‘d swear they would think I was having an orgasm, ah!
The post dinner mind-dance!
Almost every evening after dinner the mind came alive. It wanted to be heard. It regressed into the past with regret, projected into the future with doubt and tried its best to convince itself that it was time to leave the dark retreat. I had many hard times trying to witness the mind. Sometimes it seemed impossible. The hardest day for me was perhaps day 7, although I couldn’t be sure, when the mind had almost convinced itself that it was time to leave. “Seven days was respectable and next time I could do 10 days.” I even had my hand on the door at one point and was about to leave.
At that point I felt a force pull me over to my meditation cushion. I sat down on the cushion and I prayed for help like never before in my life. In fact, I would say that until this moment, I have never properly prayed in all my life, even though I thought I had. I prayed with such a desperation, such a cry for help, not to leave but to stay committed to the 10 days, that soon the call for help was granted. Within 10 minutes I dropped into an even deeper state of meditation that lasted for a long time. It was a state that was drenched with gratitude. I knew I had turned the corner and that now it would be impossible for the mind to convince me to leave anymore. This was an important shift for me in my quest to be a more committed man in the world.
Coming out of the dark was strange to say the least. For a start I was convinced that I had 2 more full days left and I didn’t believe the guy when he knocked for me to finish. This left me quite disillusioned and spacey. It took me a while to walk home and I found that my legs were quite weak and walking was a struggle.
For the first week since coming out I didn’t feel so grounded and I wasn’t sleeping well until. One-week post retreat, my mind and body was still re-calibrating to the normal world, the world of light and dark. It was only after about 10 days that I starting to realize some of the benefits.
On a physical level, I felt rejuvenated. My energy levels are high again, my body feels light, supple, and soft.
On a mental level, I have a renewed enthusiasm for the world and for my life. More than anything, I am grateful for the life I have had and the life I am able to design to suit my own needs and to serve others. I am blessed. I am so thankful to every person who has crossed my path in this life, including the people who sometimes seemed to make my life difficult. These people have been my true gifts in life. I am grateful for my family and look forward to reconnecting with them this year at Christmas.
With clarity I can see that every part of my life so far has been a piece of the jigsaw that has brought me to this moment and the way I am choosing to serve others. The Men’s Coaching work that I am doing is simply a continuation of what I have been doing since the age of 8. The age of 8 was the time when I started playing rugby, connecting with boys, leading and inspiring others to be the best they can be. I was often captain of the teams that I played in. This continued with a successful career as a High Performance Coach in Professional Rugby for over 20 years.
Now with renewed motivation and passion like never before, I am committed to deepening my own realization of who I am, and at the same time providing a space, through retreats and coaching services, for other men to realize their own truth, improve their own life performance, and be the best men possible in this lifetime for the benefit of others.
Oh, and no longer am I afraid of the dark. It is simply the other half of the light. We have to accept both the dark and light for our wholeness to be revealed.