Voluntary solitary: total darkness meditation retreat (Part 2)
What was it like in there?
Since I emerged from my total darkness meditation retreat last week, friends have been asking me what it was like in there. I consider myself to be pretty good with words, usually. Yet I have been struggling to string words together to share about my experience.
The thing is, when we tell stories, we usually relay an account of time-bound events. We talk about the things that happen in some kind of linear sequence. But the experience of life or the experience I had of myself inside the darkness dome was different, which makes it challenging to describe.
The normal way that we see reality is altered. Time has a strangely timeless quality to it. Nothing really happens, yet so much passes.
Speaking about it has felt clumsy and confusing. So I am going to try writing about it instead and see how that goes.
Every day was more or less the same in terms of physical activity. Life felt simple. There were no distractions, no decisions to make.
I slept. I woke up naturally. I sat for a while. I waited for breakfast. I ate breakfast. I sat for a while longer. I would sit until I felt a movement. After breakfast, I would literally sit and wait until my body moved me… to go to the toilet. The minutes and hours and days passed somehow. I sat on a cushion. I stretched out on a yoga mat. I stood up. I swept the floor. I took everything out of my bag and then carefully, piece by piece, I put everything back in. I did some self-massage. I practiced some self-pleasure. I would sit some more. I watched my thoughts spill out in torrents, tumbling over each other. Sometimes I fought them. Sometimes I let them run wild.
I did everything very verrrrry slooooooooowly.
Everything that I did became a ritual. Putting away my bed was a ritual. Rolling out the yoga mat was a ritual. Lining up the Tupperware boxes that contained my food was a ritual. Cleaning the toilet was a ritual.
Every single action and every single task took on a precious, sacred quality. There was no time pressure to do anything, so I did absolutely everything with the utmost attention and care.
Meals were the only marker of time passing. I received food twice a day. On some days, the span of time between breakfast and dinner felt like it was twenty minutes. On some days, it felt like twenty hours.
The mundane details of the activities of daily living on the inside are not that interesting, but they are easy to share.
The other dimensions of my experience… a tumult of thought storms, irrational fears, anxiety dreams, emotional waves, energetic impulses, etheric connections, spectacular visual projections and peculiar body sensations… are much much harder to convey.
I want to focus on sharing one specific moment, which stands out to me.
It was the morning of the third day.
I received my food through an opening in the side of the dome, as usual. I lined up the boxes of food in front of my meditation cushion, as usual.
Small box. Medium box. Large container of fresh coconut juice.
I opened the small box and ate my boiled egg first. I savored the comforting quality of its warmth, freshly liberated from its hot water bath.
I picked up the next box, which would usually contain coconut flesh.
Before going in, I had agreed with Santosh (the creator and caretaker of the darkness retreat earth domes) that if there wasn’t much flesh in the coconuts, he could replace it with some sliced mango instead.
This is where the perception of time gets a bit confusing.
At some point, I had the fleeting thought, “I hope I get mango today.” It wasn’t a serious or heavily considered thought. I wasn’t fervently wishing or praying for mango. Just idly, in passing, I thought it would be nice.
When I picked up the second box, I noticed it was a slightly different shape and size than usual. Did I think about my desire for mango only then? Or was the idea registered before that moment? I can’t be sure. It is hard to describe because I didn’t experience my thoughts and awareness in a linear way. So there is time confusion in the recall and recounting of it.
Opening the box and balancing it in my right hand, I went to gingerly explore its contents with my left hand. (Touch is how we see in the dark.)
When my fingertip first made contact with this soft, squarish piece of… OMIGOD IT’S MANGO!!! there was a jolt of electricity that shot up my arm. It was a shock of joy. My hand recoiled almost as if from touching a spark.
The thought that “I hope I get mango” and the realization that “I have mango!” merged into one… and it felt magical.
It was as if the thought was formed in my mind AND the object of that thought was manifested in my physical reality at exactly the same time. In my perception, it was a wish expressed and wish fulfilled, simultaneously.
As I put the mango into my mouth, my entire body went into shivers. I was overwhelmed with an intense wave of emotion and I started weeping. Tears rolled down my face into my box of sliced mango.
Life is so good to me. I am grateful for my life. Life is good. I am in awe of how good life is. I am good. I am life. I am grateful to me. I am so loved. I am so supported. Life loves me. Life supports me. I appreciate life so much. Life is so good. All is good. I am so small. I am nothing. Life is such a gift. It is a joy to be alive. I love life. I am grateful to be alive. Life is so good.
There are really no words adequate to describe what I felt in that moment. All of the words we have to approximate this — love, bliss, gratitude— they all seem impotent compared to the immensity of the experience.
I think that in this moment, I was touched by the direct experience of knowing the all-encompassing benevolence of life.
What I was suddenly struck by then was the sheer vastness of the supportive fabric that is always holding all of life’s experiences. It was an experience beyond the deliciousness of magically manifested mango. It was beyond gratitude for having a wish granted. It was a knowing that felt both impossibly deep and incomprehensibly large. It was a totally permeating sense that all of life is loving me and supporting me, all of the time.
This benevolent holding of “me” (as part of life, and as the entirety of life itself) includes everything. And I really mean everything. Paradoxically, I had the sense that even when I don’t get what I want, I am loved and supported by life. Even when pain and heartache and disappointment are here, life is still holding me, loving me, and supporting me. And I know that I am that holding. I am that benevolence.
This moment left such a strong impression on me. I guess it lasted maybe 30 seconds in linear time. Maybe it was with me for one minute at most. Yet it was so profound that here I am, days later, still trying to reconnect with this experience and capture its essence.
It’s impossible to capture it. It’s gone. For a moment, I was able to see through a window into a non-ordinary perception of reality. A way of seeing that doesn’t “make sense” in this reality, where I am writing this from. A short while later, that window closed. But the impression I received from this momentary seeing, is a treasure that I will carry with me forever.
I’m not sure why I am sharing this, other than a desire to document it for myself. This experience is not at all indicative of what it might be like for you if you were to do a total darkness meditation retreat. It’s not even indicative of what it might be like for me, next time.
And there was such a wide array of images, impressions, experiences that flew by in five days. This moment that I am sharing here comprises about 1/10,000th of the moments that I spent inside that dome. It represents a tiny fraction of the breaths that I breathed alone in the dark.
What can I say about the experience more generally?
I believe that humans are self-healing organisms.
Our body-mind systems are unbelievably intelligent. We already have and we already are, everything that we need to heal. Within each of us we have access to everything that we need to become more wholly human.
When we take space away from constant hyper-stimulation and away from the normal demands of linear time, we naturally heal ourselves.
Many things were revealed, released and re-calibrated in my system during the days that I spent alone in darkness. Some of these things occurred as events or experiences that I can name and recall. Others, not so much.
But whether I can name it or not, I know that I got exactly what I needed.
Related essay: Voluntary solitary (Part 1) — Why would you do that?