My Darkroom Retreat Experience
As many of you know, I recently returned from a trip to Thailand where I participated in a darkroom retreat. Since many of you were intrigued by my experience, I decided to write a blog post about it to share with you and satisfy everyone’s curiosity.
A darkroom retreat is the modern day version of a yogi meditating in a cave in total darkness for an extended period – but without the unpleasant reality of an actual cave with things like snakes and scorpions! We spent nine days and nights in total darkness. Oh, and we were also juice-fasting during this time. I know what you’re thinking: That sounds crazy and terrifying. Well, at least that’s what I figured when I first heard about it two years ago. But it also sounded different and intriguing. The more I learned about it, the more it occupied my thoughts. It got to the point where the idea was practically haunting me. So I decided just to go for it and do it!
Why a Darkroom Retreat?
Depriving ourselves of the physical stimulation of the external world allows us to connect more deeply and strongly with our internal senses. We humans have the ability to sense and know things beyond just the five physical senses. This is the realm of intuition and gut feelings. Information comes to us that we can’t explain through normal physical means. Time without external distractions also allows us to process emotions and integrate life experiences.
Physiologically, darkness stimulates the production of melatonin, the hormone well-known for regulating sleep. The melatonin produced each night gives way to serotonin and dopamine during the day – the hormones that give us energy and make us happy. When the body is deprived of light for an extended period, it starts to build up a surplus of melatonin. Modern research is showing that melatonin does far more than regulate the sleep cycle; it is an important element for healing the body on many levels. Melatonin has been linked to the prevention of many diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.
We live in a world where we are chronically melatonin-deprived due to sleep deprivation and the constant bombardment by light. The melatonin surplus created through extended darkness allows the body to rest and heal on an incredibly deep level. It also sets the stage in the brain for increased production of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, better known by the acronym DMT.
DMT is a naturally occurring hormone in humans. After a period of extended darkness, the pineal gland uses the excess melatonin and converts it to DMT, which is thought to be responsible for the psychedelic, mystical experiences people report after extended periods in the dark. DMT – or a very similar compound – is also the active ingredient in many psychotropic plants like ayahuasca, peyote, and psilocybin or “magic” mushrooms. These plants are widely used in Native American shamanic and spiritual practices and have been known to cause visions, hallucinations, and euphoria.
We were quite a diverse group with around 40 participants from about 18 different countries. We all converged on the Tao Garden Resort and Spa for the retreat, hosted by famed, and quite controversial, pranic nourishment pioneer Jasmuheen.
Tao Gardens is a beautiful resort and healing center located in the north of Thailand, just outside of Chiang Mai. It is the home and headquarters of renowned Taoist master Mantak Chia. Mantak Chia also hosts darkroom retreats, but I chose to attend Jasmuheen’s retreat as I resonate more with her.
The building was a two-story brick condominium-like structure with a large square central floor plan, where we would convene as a group, and 24 hotel-like rooms situated around the edges of it. There were 12 rooms on each floor, each with a private bathroom and air conditioning. I was in an upstairs room as far away from the communal area as you could possibly get. This meant I had the longest distance to walk in the darkness to get from my room to the group meditations. The corners of the walkways were wrapped in thick padding to prevent injury if you bumped into them. Balloons hung at head level at every corner, so you would know when to make a turn.
I arrived the day before the retreat was scheduled to get situated and acclimated to the 15 hour time difference. On the first evening, Jasmuheen welcomed us and gave some practical pointers for navigating the darkness. Everyone took their time moving into their rooms and preparing for nine days of darkness ahead. We each went to bed at our leisure, knowing that when we woke up the next morning, it would be dark.
I took to the darkness quite easily, actually. I thought I would be scared at first, but any fear quickly faded after I had my first successful foray out of my room to the common area to get some fresh juice on that first morning of darkness.
Freshly squeezed juice and bottled water were brought in three times per day. I had juice for the first three days, but then found it tasted overly sweet, so opted for just water for the next three. Towards the end I felt the desire for juice again, so I had some during the final two to three days.
Each day our group convened in the common space where everyone had a mat to lay on for guided meditations. We had two to three guided sessions each day, and an afternoon music session in which we all gathered to listen to sacred music. Each afternoon Jasmuheen would regale us with a diverse selection of healing, heart-nourishing music from around the world.
In between each gathering, people got juice, took showers and naps, or meditated. Personally, I found that during alone times I alternated among yoga, qi gong, and meditation. I practiced yoga and qi gong in my room for hours on end. It’s amazing how long and how engrossed in it you can get when there are no external distractions and no schedules to follow or meals to get to. I connected with my physical body on a level that I have never experienced before. And it felt amazing!
The rest of the time I meditated on my bed in a dream-like state. I would sort of go in and out of consciousness, without truly falling asleep for an extended period. My “monkey mind” sometimes got going and made me think there was something I needed to do or fix, but I just watched these thoughts pass through me without much attachment. On the occasions when monkey mind wouldn’t relent, I brought my attention back to my body in the here and now, or switched back to the yoga and physical movement practice.
At night, I slept much less than I normally would. While I didn’t have a watch to know the exact time, I probably slept around five hours every night. I woke up naturally, generally feeling good, and luxuriated in bed for an hour or so before getting up. I then practiced more yoga and qi gong before going down to the first group session of the day.
What the Darkroom Retreat Did for Me
We exited the darkroom in the late afternoon of the ninth day. Coming out into the light was one of the most amazing parts of the retreat. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it; everything was SO beautiful, colors were vivid, and smells and sounds were intense. I felt so happy and euphoric – like I was on LSD! I was having laughing fits on and off for hours – you know, the deep, belly-aching, uncontrollable laughter fits you sometimes get?
It felt so expansive and luxurious not to have any distractions from my internal world. It was a break from the physical world that I’ve never experienced before. Things we do every day are so habitual we don’t even realize we do them. During the retreat, we had no cell phones to check, emails to respond to, no reading or distracting ourselves with media, no eating (and as such no need to use the bathroom), no shaving or grooming, or looking in the mirror and wondering what we look like to the outside world. I also enjoyed not having to handle money or pay for anything for 11 days. There was absolutely nothing to do – and that’s the point.
We got to reconnect with something the modern human race has completely lost touch with: just BEING. Not DOING anything….just being. We get uninterrupted time to cultivate our relationship with ourselves. This is such a foreign concept to us modern western humans, but I believe it is essential for true mental, physical, and spiritual health. With willingness and a little practice – and some purging and healing of the “stuff” we have accumulated over the years – this is actually incredibly joyful! We get to reconnect with a part of ourselves we all have deep down but have lost touch with: that inner child that finds beauty and amazement and joy in everything!
What I Took from the Experience
The darkroom retreat forces you to slow down in a way that most of us have never done before. If we try to navigate in the darkness, hurrying to get somewhere without being fully present with each movement, that’s when we run into a wall or another person.
My greatest realization from the experience was that there is just no reason to worry….about anything…ever. We modern humans spend so much time worrying about things. I don’t consider myself a “worrier”, but I still do my fair share. This retreat connected me to a deep knowing and understanding of just how pointless it is to worry. Worrying about things only consumes our energy and actually lessens our capacity for dealing with whatever situation we are concerned about in the first place! Seems ridiculous, right? So why do we all do it, then?!
The Darkroom allowed me to take a giant step back from worrying. Now, granted, after reintegrating back into the “real” world of rent and bills and business and traffic, that feeling has been tempered a little bit. But, I still carry it with me, and always will.