A few weeks ago, I went into darkness for 5 days. Five whole days and nights in a small hotel-like room with a comfortable bed, well ventilated, but without a speck of sunlight. It was a phenomenal experience and I thought I’d unpack a little of it for you.
It’s called a ‘hygienic darkroom retreat,’ the idea of hygiene being that if living organisms have healthy environments, we can thrive. The darkroom is an environment to let our spirit take center stage, away from the stimulation of the outer world.
I’d read about darkroom retreating 3 years ago, but didn’t know where to go to do it. Turns out, there’s one about 10 minutes from my house! My time had come.
Practically, it looked like this: before entering the dark, I made 5 days worth of meals for the super-kind and wise helpers at the lodge to reheat and bring to me. I packed snacks for the rest of the time, brought a journal, and whatever else I’d need for camping indoors, in the dark.
My fiancee, Tom, went into darkness ahead of me. He was on his Day 5 when I started. We overlapped in the room for one night as he shared what he’d discovered about himself, alone in the dark, and I shared what I’d found about myself at home.
The next two days were mostly about getting sleep. Lots of it, whenever my body wanted to rest, without any pressure to stay awake (nor pressure to sleep). When I was awake, I stayed tuned into the feeling of my body from within – belly, heart, breathing, toes, hands, energy centers (the parts of my body that feel like they have the most Life, spirit you could say).
It was a dreamlike state, with brief interruptions for the hot tea water in the morning and hot food at midday, enough for lunch and dinner. The people bringing those items were also checking in on me to make sure the experience it self was nourishing. They were there to hold space for sharing, if I needed it, but generally I preferred to savor the wordlessness of being alone in the dark. The meals gave me a sense of chronology, but otherwise, time passed with an unsteady beat, and not always forward, it seemed.
When my monkey mind inevitably tried to come up with ways to keep busy, I gently reassured it. “This IS what I’m doing right now, there’s not need to do anything more.”
I leaned heavily on my established meditation practice and this experience took that to a whole new level, I can’t recommend Roland Bal’s Trauma Care Meditations enough. I didn’t have the audio files with me in the dark, because I didn’t want any outside stimuli. But after meditating with them, morning and night, for a few years, they’ve become part of me.
Day 3 finished with a huge burst of inspiration for work. I have pages and pages in my journal with ideas for my school and how to best achieve my purpose of making the world better through the ways we teach dogs.
Days 4 and 5, I unpacked so much trauma. In a half-dream state, I had stunning recall of names, people, and sensations from the past. My imagination was unleashed, as when I was a child (p.s. that’s me in the photos here). I can describe it as lucid dreaming, or even astral travel.
I held the sensations of being embodied and safe while also recreating scenes from childhood, looking at it from different angles, building empathy. Truly feeling it all play out.
I kept attention on my body, back and forth between my belly/chest and my hands/feet. The belly/chest part allows me to feel into the emotion and honor it. The hands/feet attention reminds me that I’m here, safe, in this moment. My paws ground me. My guts are where the emotion is locked, and feeling into it without needing to change anything gradually releases them.
For some of my current-life scenarios that I had been wrestling with, I directed a sort of lucid dream variation of it, as an epic hero’s journey, while still being embodied, feeling into my shame, anger, joy, all of it. Or I should say ‘heroes journey,’ because we all won at the end, and I still feel a lasting empathy for all involved. I rewrote my story about them.
With that, I can now bring an open-heartedness that makes life easier for everyone to get their needs met. I gently, but doggedly leaned my way uphill to this place of acceptance, of honoring my own needs and wishes and recognizing the importance of community and taking care of these specific people with whom I had had trouble. I can wholeheartedly look for ways to satisfy the needs of my family without sacrificing myself.
Without light for 5 days, I think my brain was able to reroute some of the visual cortex to my imagination. That’s the technical explanation. Or perhaps my skepticism just waned enough for me to see more of the spirit world. Whatever happened, I had a fascinating conversation with my late husband (Brice) and another person who died, a friend of my partner’s.
I felt what it was like for Brice to die, what happened next as his spark became aware of a new level of reality. I can’t describe it well enough with words, but I felt what it was like to be him, in this sort of droplet of water rejoining the ocean. I felt a giant sense of peace and immense connection.
He said he was in the in-between place, here as long as our group of souls was still embodied, and whatever we did and learned helped him evolve, too. Feeling into my body as we talked, I was able to release some more of my clinging to him and give him more freedom of movement.
Fantastical? Maybe. I’m going to go ahead and go with it being real, because this lived experience gives a joy and meaning to my life that I savor. The take-home point was: “simplify the story and connect as sparks” and “you are not alone.”
Here’s what that means to me. When I interact with someone, “simplify the story” urges me to connect to my own life force, to come from an undefended place, secure in the knowledge that my spark exists and requires the nourishment of connection. That the other has a similar spark and may be defended, but underneath, also needs connection.
The ‘story’ is the baggage I carry from this embodied life. Gender, age, traumas, experience. Each time I feel into a trauma and give it compassion, releasing it bit by bit, I simplify my story. I am that much more real, responding to the spark of the person or other being sharing time with me, rather than filtering through my story.
There’s nothing wrong with having a story. It’s fun, I think it’s probably the point of experiencing time, and stories teach a lesson.
But the story is not the lesson.
The story is not what I’m here to learn. Just as a dog training set-up isn’t the real scenario, but rather just an opportunity to learn trust and release conditioning, that might be the purpose of life as a human.
Specific dog training skills or my knowledge of mathematics are not what I’ll carry with me into whatever comes after this life, I think. What I’ll carry is the sense of connection to other beings, regardless of their species, and an ability to return to that connection.
Over and over, I return to the simplified story as the Truth and everything else as being up for interpretation, seen through different lenses. Both are important, but I don’t have to take it so seriously.
The story is not the lesson. Remembering that is the skill I’m learning.
As my life goes on, I get better at enjoying my personal story and learning the lessons. Enjoying and fully participating in the tale of this life, this time without getting completely caught up in it.
I’m getting better at not playing the game of trauma, passed from person to person in large and small ways, from defended language to violent acts. I’m getting better at not reinforcing the cycle by being triggered, at standing up for others and myself without any desire to hurt the other. I’m getting better at seeing the spark in others, and letting my spark connect to that.
At one point, I envisioned my partner standing in front of me, and he was connected by silken threads to other people and times, a visual metaphor for my conditioned learning. Past lovers, parts of myself, my father, little aspects in which Tom reminded me of something from my recent or truly distant past.
I went to work simplifying the story, gently feeling my body and slowly removing those threads until Tom stood before me, as himself. There’s lots of time to do something like this, in the dark! Post-darkness, I think deliberately removing those links at least made the conditioning more obvious, and relating to him is so much easier.
What used to trigger me at full strength can now be more easily seen as a storyline of what I’ll call my “Bad Stuff Maker-Upper” (or BSMU, “Bizmoo” for short).
At one point, my Bizmoo was coming up with some really wild tales. “You’re trapped here in the dark, they aren’t going to let you out!” or “Tom has found another lover and won’t be coming to pick you up.”
I let the words go and focused on the sensations in my body. Back and forth, belly/chest to hands/feet. Gut to paws, back and forth as needed.
Feeling into panic, shame, sadness, anger, longing, boredom, and anything else that came up was like a master class in self-awareness. I had nothing else to distract me. I could see the stories of my Bizmoo for what they were – stories. And that skill has been retained, to a large extent, out here in the everyday world of light and human interaction.
In the darkness, my little songlet went through my head:
What am I here to learn?
What I am I here to learn?
What am I here for, what am I here to learn?
I’m connected through time to my past self, to my ancestors, to this earth, to my future self, and the family yet to come. Everything I learn here, they learn, too. We are in this together, co-evolving. I wrote a song to help myself really remember that and I’ll share it eventually.
My Bizmoo says that this notion of ancestor-connection and learning for a future beyond this incarnation just something my brain made up, but I figure if it inspires me to be present and open to learning, I might as well take it as my working hypothesis, until proven otherwise. I choose to take it on faith that we are not alone, that we all are being guided to become the best versions of ourselves.
May we take care of ourselves and each other. May we build up in ways that nourish this beautiful planet and the beings we share it with.
I’m still learning and probably always will. I learn because it’s who I am (and frankly, who I think we all are). I am a builder of connections, a teacher, and as my mother’s mother told me in the dark:
There is never a need to dim our light.
It guards itself when it shines bright.
Happy Earth Day. Enjoy your stay.