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Darkness Retreats: Exploring the Depths of Self-Discovery

In his documentary *Awake in the Darkness*, Aubrey Marcus offers a striking portrayal of his experience during a five-day dark retreat. "I'm in an ayahuasca vision that just won't shut off," he remarks. "Lights flashing in the corners of my eyes, constant visuals... imagine an ayahuasca ceremony with no music, no sight, no sound, and no people—and it doesn't end! It just keeps going!"

A completely dark room with minimal furnishings used for sensory deprivation
A person preparing themselves for a dark room meditation

What Happens at a Darkness Retreat?

Participants in darkness retreats stay in specially designed rooms that completely deprive them of light and sensory input. These rooms typically include a bed, toilet, and shower, and food and drink are delivered through a blacked-out hallway to prevent any light from penetrating. In this environment, there are no electronic devices, books, or other external stimuli. Newcomers often stay for three to five days, during which they may experience psychological catharsis, spiritual breakthroughs, or visions similar to those induced by ayahuasca.

Dark retreats are a modern iteration of an ancient practice. Historical records indicate their use by Buddhists, Taoists, Christians, ancient Egyptians, 15th-century French mystics, and the Kogi mamos (high priests) of northern Colombia.

The Professional Advantage

A professionally managed dark retreat ensures absolute darkness and silence, which is difficult to achieve in a home setting. Small gaps in doors or windows can let in light and sound, disrupting the sensory deprivation. In contrast, professional setups often use eye masks and other measures to eliminate these intrusions completely.

The Purpose of Darkness Retreats

Despite their use in coercive settings, darkness retreats are sought for their potential to reveal deeper layers of the self. Scott Berman, cofounder of Sky Cave Retreats in southern Oregon, poses the question, “When everything comes and goes—all phenomena, all experience, all sensations—what is it that remains?”

Participants often describe their dark retreat experiences as life-changing. Many discover that the concepts and ideas they identify with are merely structures of self layered over a base awareness. This realization allows individuals to observe the inner workings of their "operating systems," recognizing that much of their personalities are shaped by coping mechanisms from childhood trauma. This understanding helps them move beyond subconscious drives, enabling deeper connections with themselves and others.

Visual Phenomena in Darkness

Dark retreat participants often report vivid visual experiences, especially when practicing breathwork. The cause of these "trippy visuals" remains a mystery. Some theories suggest an increase in melatonin and/or DMT production, while others consider it a psychological need for stimulation.

However, many attendees find these visuals distracting. Berman notes, “They’re enjoying being in this space where they're not overwhelmed by stimulation because they begin to really touch something that's deeper and more meaningful.”

Some initially experience colored light blobs during breathwork but find more profound effects when they stop controlling their breath. As the retreat progresses, participants may experience alternating light and dark, which can lead to a non-dual perspective that persists long after the retreat.

Profound Impact

Many find darkness retreats more transformative than any psychedelic experience. Some feel as if they are having a long, drawn-out psychedelic experience even without the use of substances.

Darkness retreats offer a unique opportunity to explore the depths of one's mind, revealing hidden aspects of self and fostering profound personal growth. For those seeking to deepen their self-awareness and connect with their true selves, a darkness retreat might be the transformative experience needed.


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