Resting in the Womb: 5 Days in a Darkroom Retreat

Last week I spent 115 hours in a pitch black room. Literally, a room that allows no light in whatsoever. Am I insane? Well, perhaps, but here is what the experts have to say:

“Hygienic darkroom retreating requires minimal effort and no faith. Darkness is not a void, but a sanctuary. It is not the absence of light, but the presence of the self. It is yours.”– Andrew Durham

“This Pure Darkness will absorb many of our obscure trends, of our psychological “darkness,” and of our fears arising from the lack of awareness. As black holes absorb enormous quantities of matter, in a similar way, in the psychological domain, the darkness of transcendence can absorb our limited personal emotions and psychic residues.”– Hridaya Yoga

“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)…Melatonin affects major organ systems, quieting the sympathetic nervous system and allowing daily rejuvenation of mind and body. “– Mantak Chia, 71 year old Taoist Master

Some common questions I’ve received from people about the darkroom:

1. Do you have a flashlight?

Well, no. That would, um…defeat the purpose.

2. Do you get fed and if so, how?

Yes, there is a “food box.” The person bringing the food opens his latch, places the food in the box, closes his latch and then knocks twice. Once I hear the knocks, I know I can open my side to receive the food. In this way no light comes in.

3. Do you bring your phone in there?

No, again.. Missing the point. The point is to be unplugged from the outside world, to receive zero input and to rest fully with no artificial or even natural light.

4. Is there a toilet?

Yes, it’s actually quite a normal room. There’s a basic bathroom and shower, a bed, a yoga mat and some meditation cushions.

5. How do you find the toilet and bed?

You simply feel around for stuff. And it’s easier than you might imagine. However, contrary to what people may think, you do not adjust to the darkness and therefore cannot begin to  see the outlines of objects. In a proper darkroom, you can’t see anything, including your hands right up to your face, even after five days.

My initial interest in going into the darkroom was to get some killer sleep. What is bliss for a not-so-shiny-in-the-morning person? No one to wake me up for five full days. I did get my precious un-interrupted sleep, and so much more in the darkroom.

The first two days were all about rest. I slept and slept and slept some more. Even though I didn’t have any sense of time, I probably slept twelve hours and then went back to bed for a nap after breakfast. I questioned myself, “Could I seriously be tired again?” But the darkness was like being in a womb and it just lulled me into a deep peaceful rest. I had no choice but to surrender.

After the first two days I started to sleep a more reasonable amount each night and began to get into a routine. There were two meals provided per day: one at 10:30 a.m and another at 5:30 p.m. It was usually enough food because the darkness certainly suppresses your appetite. But I’m a thin person. After getting out of the darkroom, I weighed a mere 111 pounds. My mom would not approve. (Don’t worry Mom I’ve gained back the 7 pounds!)

The meals helped me mark the time somewhat and I set up my days around them. What does one do in a darkroom? Well there’s only a few options: rest, yoga, meditation, and a bit of journaling. (I was pretty impressed that I could actually read my notes.)

In the morning I’d usually do some breathing exercises followed by kundalini yoga, and then meditation. After breakfast I would rest or journal, do more meditation and more yoga. Once the food was served at dinner I knew I was only a few hours away from bedtime. That was usually my most creative time where I would write down my business ideas. I even wrote new songs, or more appropriately, they wrote themselves.

During one evening meditation, I felt the stillness of my heart. I felt the vastness, openness, and vulnerability and I wept with gratitude about the preciousness and the mystery of life. The following song came to me:

“Ocean of my heart

Sea of eternal peace

Let me be a part

of your beautiful mystery.

Ocean of my heart

Wash away my fears

Soothe me in your water

and dry up all my tears.

Ocean of my heart

how could I not see?

All along your love

has been living inside of me.

Ocean of my heart

Sing your sweet song to me.

Your divine vibration

is my eternal melody.”

There were many moments like that- moments full of insight, gratitude, stillness and infinite peace sprinkled throughout my retreat. Those were the moments where I felt completely held by the divine. When I’m referring to the divine, I am not speaking of anything external, but rather the divine presence that lives within me and within us all. Those moments were strengthening, grounding, and naturally healing to my psyche. The darkroom retreat was meeting my intentions of resting, restoring and nurturing myself.

But in between those moments was boredom, often lots of it, and I found myself working a lot with my mind. Every time, without exception, either my mind was thinking of something in the past or something in the future and that is when the agitation would arise. If I was present, I was peace. I was stillness. I was natural contentment.

Some things I learned in the darkroom:  (Hint: these are things you can apply not just to darkroom retreats but to all of life.)

1. Don’t ever eat too many nuts. I brought in a bag of nuts as a snack and made the mistake of eating too many at once on the second day. No bueno.

2. This moment. This moment. No matter what, the only thing it’s about isthis moment. We’ve all heard this before, but seriously…it’s truth! When my mind was wondering, I would just put my hand over my heart and say, “This moment.” I would relax immediately and this became my mantra.

3. Make a mindfulness meditation out of simple every day things like eating and brushing your teeth. In the darkroom I was given simple vegan food. The breakfast was always the same which was fruit, mostly papaya and banana chia seed porridge to go on top. Really ripe papaya and chia porridge is pretty much like baby food. It doesn’t require so much chewing. But I didn’t care. I chewed and chewed and got the most out of that food. I made it a long and drawn out meditation. It was one of the highlights of my day. Life gets very simple in the darkroom!

4. Prayer. When in doubt, pray. Put your hands together and invite anyone and everything that comes to your mind and ask for a blessing for them. This is a very powerful way to step out of your ego.

5. Take a nap. Works every time.

Most of the days in the darkroom were pretty enjoyable and I didn’t have any major freak outs. That is until day five, which was my last day.That morning when I woke up I was so hungry. I felt unusually ravenous. I  even wrote a note in the food box “more food please!”  I then sat down for my morning breath work, yoga and meditation. Hours passed and I thought, “surely the food is coming soon.” I was dreaming of not one, but two plates of papaya porridge!” When you’re in a dark room for five days, those two glorious knocks to tell you that the food has arrived is equivalent to the heavens opening and the angels descending!

And on day five, that didn’t happen. They forgot about me! After many hours, I placed my ear next to the door to see if I could hear signs of life. I heard people congregating and I knew it had to be 10:30. After a while of pacing back and forth, I came to terms with the fact that the kitchen staff must have forgotten about me. Either I was going to wait for dinner or I was going to exit the darkroom sooner than I anticipated so that I could eat.

This seemingly small and innocent act sent me spiraling into a core fear of mine: fear of abandonment. Just as a simple meal was the highlight of the day for me in the darkroom, someone forgetting about me was the end of the world. I quite literally felt like an infant, left in a crib all alone, crying for mama.

This was my final gift from the darkness: a chance to come face to face with a fear. I wept like a baby and allowed the emotions to run through me. I didn’t try to reason my way out of the fear, or suppress it. I met it face to face and I sat with it. I gave it my full attention and presence and I accepted its place in my psyche. “They forgot to feed me breakfast, and that’s okay. I’ll survive,” I thought. About an hour later, I decided I was going to exit the darkroom. I wanted to eat and I felt at peace with my decision to leave a couple of hours early. That was around 1:30 in the afternoon, and I originally planned to leave around 7:00 p.m.

I cracked open the door expecting it to be bright. But it was simply beyond that. I immediately closed the door again. My eyes went “whaaah whaaah” if you can imagine what that noise means, as they dizzily adjusted to the light. I opened the door just a tad to let the light slowly into the room.

It was strange. Suddenly the room seemed so normal. The womb had turned into a bed, and the temple into a yoga mat. The sanctuary was a meditation cushion. And suddenly my retreat seemed just like a dream. “Did that really even happen?” I wondered. That’s when I knew I had been doing some deep journeying into my soul

Upon exiting the darkroom I ran into the office of the yoga school and told them how they had forgotten about me, that it hurt me and that it felt like abandonment. I was received well with apologies and hugs, and eventually a plate of fruit. I knew it was an accident, but being able to tell them and speak out about how it affected me felt empowering. It felt real. And I felt alive.

Even though on night four I was dreaming of exiting the darkroom and of all of the things I was going to DO once I was out, as soon as I exited, I was longing for my cave again. That same evening on the fifth day I ran back to the reception to ask if I could move back into the darkroom! It was already reserved so I integrated back into the light slowly but surely.

The darkroom retreat is a little like giving birth. At some point you may say, “I’m never doing this again!” But shortly after, you’re planning your second baby. I will definitely be going in to the darkroom again.

Am I insane? Perhaps. But I’d like to think that darkroom retreats will actually help me maintain my sanity in this plugged-in-always-on world we live in.

Nancy Lucina

Nancy Lucina

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