As soon as you enter the darkness, a gentle and effortless biochemical process is set in motion within your brain, allowing your whole central nervous system to relax and unwind. The darkness, where we typically project our anxiety and fear of the unknown, is discovered to be a profoundly welcoming, nourishing and supportive holding environment.
For those who remain in retreat for a week, the deep relaxation and restorative release of the first couple of days, soon gives way to the emergence of a bright, luminous awareness. This becomes an unexcelled platform both for meditation practice as well as sharp and effective experiential inquiry into ourselves.
Learning to let go
There is nothing special we need to do for the retreat to begin to impact and transform our consciousness over the days we spend in darkness. The darkness itself, simply by being with it and by resting in it, will work its liberating magic upon our psyche. Bit by bit we learn not to try to fix, control, manipulate or steer our inner process. Instead we learn to let go and enjoy simply being. We learn to adopt the quintessentially meditative posture of simply observing the unfolding of our experience: memories, images, feelings, thoughts, sensations.
As a result of this, a profound relaxation occurs not only in the body but in the mind and central nervous system itself. We begin to unwind the tight and clenched postures and tension patterns of both body and mind. We feel held and supported by the enveloping womb-like space of darkness we find ourselves in. We notice also that with this letting go there is a delicious freedom and lightness. The freedom and lightness of no constraints upon our consciousness.
The discovery of Being
As we are able to remain more and more continuously in this attitude of open and relaxed presence in the darkness, we can more easily study and gain insight into the patterns of our thought process, emotional responses and overall personality functioning. We are afforded a grater inner spaciousness and vantage point from which to survey the activity and contents of our mind. We will throughout the retreat work with exercises to help support us in this inquiry.
Distinguishing clearly between the ephemeral and immaterial nature of our thoughts, emotions and sensations on the one hand, and the open ground of presence on the other, shows us that what we are in the most basic sense is that presence, rather than the inner psychological activity. This is the encounter with Being as presence.
Biochemical brain changes
The production of the regulatory neuro-hormone melatonin steadily increases over the course of the first 2-3 days we spend in darkness. The subjective effects of this increase include relaxation, restfulness and a greater need for sleep. Melatonin, in addition to being a powerful antioxidant, regulates our sleep-cycle, with increases in melatonin concentration preparing our whole body for sleep.
The molecule is produced in the pineal gland which is located in the center of the brain. Melatonin production is inhibited by light reaching our eyes, which is why darkness increases it. Within the pineal gland melatonin is synthesized through acetylation and methylation of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which itself is derived from the amino acid tryptophan.
It has long been theorized that the powerful psychoactive entheogens dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and 5-methoxy-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT), as well as the monoamine oxidase inhibitor, pinoline (6-methoxy-1,2,3,4-tetrahydro-β-carboline) are also synthesized from tryptophan in the pineal gland (Barker et al, 2012 & 2013, and Shomrat & Nesher, 2019). This has now been empirically demonstrated in the case of DMT (Dean et al, 2019).
Based on this, we may form a further biochemical hypothesis for explaining the greatly increased clarity of awareness, mental acuity and visionary insights that become available to us as we remain in darkness over a longer period of time, beyond the melatonin-stage of the first 2-3 days: These psychoactive molecules, in particular DMT and pinoline, belong to a pathway of synthesis related to the synthesis of melatonin in the pineal gland, and their endogenous synthesis increases as the concentration of melatonin increases. This is a so far largely unexplored area by empirical science, that is only now beginning to be receive attention (Barker, 2018).
How we support you
The darkness retreat will challenge you. You will get the precious opportunity to face your emotions, thoughts and fantasies directly, and with limited distractions for the duration of the retreat. This honest encounter with yourself can at times be demanding. But this is also where the real treasure lies: Becoming present to and understanding the various layers of your mind and emotions – what they feel like, where they come from – is the first step to seeing through them to the clear and pristine essence of your being.
To help support this process we have designed a format that we believe provides optimal conditions for you to gain the most from the retreat. Traditionally, darkness retreats were undertaken by advanced practitioners in solitude. By instead working together in a small group of dedicated individuals we gain the benefits offered by group synergy, an aspect that solitary practice lacks.
In these retreats, we will at regular intervals throughout the day gather for meditation, yoga, music, breathwork and discussion. You will receive thorough instruction and guidance in meditation and yoga, so no prior experience is presupposed. Furthermore, there will be lectures on central aspects of psychology relevant to the darkness retreat, as well as inquiry exercises in small groups. In between, you will have ample time for rest, individual practice and journaling.
As facilitators, we will be available to support you 24/7 throughout the retreat.
A typical day in the dark
- Wake-up and individual morning routine
- Morning group meditation, yoga and breathwork
- Breakfast / tea
- Lectures and inquiry exercises
- Spacious afternoon break for rest, individual practice and journaling
- Evening meal / tea
- Evening group meditation, discussion, music & chanting
- Going to sleep
Barker S. A. (2018). N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), an Endogenous Hallucinogen: Past, Present, and Future Research to Determine Its Role and Function. Frontiers in neuroscience, 12, 536. https://doi.org/10.1002/dta.422
Barker, S. A., McIlhenny, E. H., & Strassman, R. (2012). A critical review of reports of endogenous psychedelic N, N‐dimethyltryptamines in humans: 1955–2010. Drug testing and analysis, 4(7-8), 617–635. https://doi.org/10.1002/dta.422
Barker, S. A., Borjigin, J., Lomnicka, I., & Strassman, R. (2013). LC/MS/MS analysis of the endogenous dimethyltryptamine hallucinogens, their precursors, and major metabolites in rat pineal gland microdialysate. Biomedical Chromatography, 27(12), 1690–1700. https://doi.org/10.1002/bmc.2981
Dean, J., Liu, T., Huff, S., Sheler, B., Barker, S., Strassman, R., Wang, M., & Borjigin, J. (2019) Biosynthesis and Extracellular Concentrations of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in Mammalian Brain. Scientific Reports, 9, Article number: 9333. Published online 27 June 2019. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-45812-w
Shomrat, T., & Nesher, N. (2019). Updated View on the Relation of the Pineal Gland to Autism Spectrum Disorders. Frontiers in endocrinology, 10:37. https://doi.org/10.3389/fendo.2019.00037