Deep calm, cellular regeneration and access to high levels of perception: such would be the effects of a retreat into darkness. Practiced since time immemorial, still present in many traditions, meditation retreats in total darkness ranging from three days to several months would have brought new youth to some and enlightenment to others. We had to test this ancient medicine for body and mind… Our journalist-experimenter dared to take up the challenge!
That’s it, I’m there! In absolute darkness for half an hour. My dream for weeks. Leave this overflow of images, contradictory information and fears behind for a while. Coming back inside, in the calm of a night that would last a little longer than a night, just to rest from the stresses of the world… Be silent. Turn off the light around to find her inside. And regenerate myself…
Retreats in the dark are common to many cultures, from Ayurveda, traditional Indian medicine, to Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism and the initiation rites of many indigenous peoples. Withdrawing for a few days, a few weeks or even a few months and even several years in the dark seems to be a multi-millennial practice, perhaps an innate human knowledge. The night brings advice, they say. And if it lasted three days, a week or more, would we all become great sages?
The pineal gland in the center of our brain wakes up
Neurosciences say that on this occasion, something special does indeed happen in us. In the dark, the pineal gland in the center of our brain wakes up, secreting increased doses of melatonin, the neurotransmitter of sleep, with soothing, antioxidant, detoxifying and immune-boosting properties. A little later, beyond six days, it is the turn of the DMT to increase. Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is this psychotropic substance, produced naturally in small quantities by the brain, and also contained in large quantities in ayahuasca, the master plant of the shamans of the Amazon. For some experts like the famous Dr. Joe Dispenza, American specialist in altered states of consciousness and stimulation of the pineal gland in particular, DMT is the molecule of inner vision, that of openness to the invisible, to the world. spirits capable of teaching us secret truths. We would come back from these trips with inspiration, a higher consciousness, a peaceful heart and perhaps a few less emotional limitations.
But how do we allow ourselves this possibility? ? For weeks I thought of a cave. There are some in the area where I live. Information taken from a specialist, Hervé Sempéré, speleologist who for several years accompanied nine-day group retreats in the “belly of the earth”, I know that I need to find a cave that is accessible equipped with a rucksack, absolutely dark, dry and with a flat space wide and high enough to sleep in and do some exercise. I visit several. All have their charm, but none meets these criteria. And then, Hervé told me, you have to bring water, some food and sealable plastic bags with sawdust in them to do my business and not leave them there. Without forgetting to ask a kind soul to pick me up at the end of my stay, because I will lose track of time. Quite a logistics…
Two specially equipped studios
If we add to these technical details a rather cool temperature – with around °C underground, that’s a lot of constraints in addition to that of doing without my vision! After a few attempts at meditation in various excavations, I gave up this option and searched the Internet for places specially dedicated to this kind of experience. There are indeed, in Central America, in Thailand or elsewhere… But very few in Europe.
In France, I found only one open to the public . It is located in Saint-Just-d’Avray, a village located at 600 meters above sea level, one hour northwest of Lyon. It is a stone house just a stone’s throw from the church square. It has two studios, specially fitted out for darkroom retreats: a large bed, a table, a relax armchair, a yoga mat, a meditation cushion, toilets, a kitchen area and above all caulked windows and a hatch. wall closed on both sides, to pass a meal tray without the slightest trickle of light passing through.
The larger terraced house is the home of the owners . They are affiliated with an initiatory path, Hridaya Yoga, which has two retreat centers dedicated to physical and spiritual practices, one in Mexico, the other among the hills of southern Beaujolais, a few kilometers from the village where I will live my experience. To have the right to stay there, I had to fill out a questionnaire in order to check if my mental state is balanced and if I practice an internal art or a technique of meditation. To live these moments of darkness serenely, it is advisable to remain fully conscious, connected to the body, for example by practicing yoga postures and meditating. It is also advisable not to be in sleep debt on arrival. With an increased secretion of melatonin, it would be a shame to spend such precious time sleeping…
Experience the feeling of being
I have arrived at 18h. Bérengère, a young yoga teacher with a hushed voice, invites me to whisper during the visit to the premises so as not to disturb the other retreatant on the floor above. She closes the shutters, applies black foam insulation to each window and then wraps a thick black sheet around the frame with Velcro tape. Finally, she closes the curtains. When she has retired, I myself will lay a large black sheet around the front door of my room… The darkness will be total as soon as the light is extinguished.
A little feverish, I ask him for some advice on how to get the most out of the experience. “At the Hridaya centre, she tells me, we suggest taking advantage of the time available to meditate, centered on the heart and the breath. And to ask the question of the Indian master Sri Ramana Maharshi: “Who am I? “. The intention is to experience the feeling of being.” Simply be, upstream of any mentalization…
Silence is also advised. As much to promote inner centering as not to disturb the tranquility of my upstairs neighbour.
Impression of being in a cocoon
Put yourself in a dark room – source: spm
After carefully arranging my belongings and memorizing their location, I turn off the light and the telephone to test myself. Going around my new space, I grope to find the various objects that I will need. Everything is working. I’m in the dark, a little gray even. No desire to relight. Darkness is familiar to me. I feel like I’m in a cocoon. Deep sleep wins me quickly…
First morning in the dark. The night was very restful. Six o’clock strikes at the church. I have fewer thoughts than usual. Zero stress. Suddenly I realize that I forgot to send an important text message. Should I interrupt my retirement just started? It is advisable not to do this. The question bothers me. It’s crazy how small things take on importance in the dark! After half an hour of hesitation, I decide, switch on my mobile, barely look at it, write my message as quickly as possible and switch off, this time until the end of my stay. Then I sit down to meditate. New parasitic ideas. A situation that annoyed me recently comes to mind. There are so few stimulations, so few to distract from my thoughts that I cannot ignore them. And it’s not comfortable. I let anger take over me. Finally it passes…
I feel intensely alive. This morning, I practiced very simple Qi gong movements while breathing in heart coherence for an infinite time – half an hour, an hour, maybe more – without the slightest weariness. It’s so good to feel the body in motion! Nothing is missing. Then I practiced dynamic yoga postures with an unprecedented level of concentration. The cold shower in the dark that followed gave me intense joy. It is an ineffable pleasure to simply feel her body. Hyper-stressed by my external senses, I did not know how good it is to be alive.
Black seems full of lights
A darkroom – source: spm
My eyes seek to look. When I open them, I seem to see. Black seems full of lights. But what do I see?
The little hatch has opened. My first meal is served. I chew slowly, religiously as I never do during the day. In the afternoon, my inner state changes and I experience a few moments of boredom. Then the anger returns. Always the same scene. This time, I’m not letting emotion rule me. As proposed by several methods of emotional regulation, I connect to the sensations of my body. I let him take my hand. Tensions rise, unfold and then suddenly subside… Anger gives way to sadness. New unpleasant sensations that I let unfold. Then it’s the turn of pity, not really happy… Until total appeasement in a feeling of tender benevolence. Love what! The rest of the day – or night – is spent in fervor. At times, I have sensations of energy, in the throat, at the top of the skull or elsewhere. And then when I look in a certain way at the darkness, I see like particles of light which move in all the directions. I’m in the middle of a night of shooting stars! This show delights me. I contemplate it for a long time.1
An astonishing mental silence
Second day: morose awakening in a painful body. First thought: two more days! My mind knits, finds an explanation: yesterday’s meal! Too much of this, not enough of that. Except blaming the circumstances doesn’t solve my problem. After a while, as I’m more aware of my own thoughts than usual, I realize that I’m feeding my discomfort instead of calming it. So again, I decide to simply let my body express itself, to be with it. Thanks to the darkness, my inner connection is total, unconditional. Nothing distracts me from my sensations.
So this body says everything it has to say in the form of tensions: its fears, its boredom, its revolt. It’s unpleasant, of course, but nothing in me tries to thwart these uncomfortable manifestations. A first series of tensions unfolds, amplifies and then subsides, followed by another and then another. And then suddenly, everything relaxes. I am in a happy, peaceful body, all pain gone. The rest of the day will pass in unmitigated joy, an enjoyment of the simple fact of being alive. I let my body do it, it solved the problem. It’s decided. From now on, I will let him lead the dance. I stop thinking about everything.
This is how the last 48 hours of my retreat take place in an astonishing mental silence and a permanent connection to the body. The few ideas that come to me are creative and joyful. For hours, I practice Qi gong, heart coherence, e yoga or seated meditation, connected to the breath and bodily sensations, just in the consciousness and the happiness of feeling myself… Sometimes the body enters into a spontaneous, loose, pleasant movement, as if it had found even the way to do good.
Morning of the fourth day: it’s the end of my retreat. I slowly open the shutters of a window. Despite the gray day, the light seems strikingly intense. Slightly dizzy – I was warned – I sit down for a long time before going out into the garden to take advantage of the dawning day. The colors of the plants seem incredibly intense to me, barely sustainable. I have to sit down again. The veins of the wood of the garden table offer my view a luxury of details, an entire universe. Impossible to look towards the rising sun. The light is too strong. In the majestic mountains around, the dark green of the fir trees enchants me and relieves my eyes. This world is of unfathomable beauty.
In the antechamber of unconditional love
I took the road. In full light, I adapt. In the undergrowth, I feel safe. I see a thousand details that had escaped me on the way there. The roadside is populated with myriads of little lives. No matter how much I drive, I see everywhere at once, in panoramic mode. My vision, in the dark, has gone out of focus. Embracing the totality, I forget to appreciate the details of the road, the distances, the speeds, which will earn me some adrenaline rushes in tight turns. Several times I have to call myself to order, to a central, effective vision. However, I would not like to lose the deep relaxation linked to open attention. I want to be able to find it whenever the necessities of the moment won’t bring me back to central vision.
A stop in a motorway rest area gives me the opportunity to have a special experience. I enter the station to pay for my gas. As in the garden, as on the forest roads, thousands of colors solicit my attention. Except that instead of flowers, boxes of chewing gum, drinks, sandwiches and cans of windshield washer fluid are calling me, while the music seems to me to be of incredible power. The impact is borderline unbearable. What to watch, where to watch? I realize that my attention focused in central vision for the needs of driving no longer knows where to land.
So I opt, in conscience, for open attention and embrace the entire field of perception. At the very moment, everything calms down, everything is welcomed, everything is the world. It is no longer a question of diversity but of unity. And the shadow of judgment that I cast on the lady in front of me at the checkout in view of her purchases – only ultra-processed and ultra-sweet products – leaves me at the same time. It is what it is. Here I am in the antechamber of unconditional love. Spirituality is also physiology. This is why spiritual practitioners are spared from many stress-related illnesses.
“Your eyes are different !
But here is my turn! To be efficient, I focus my gaze on the cashier who greets me and tells me the price, then on the device where I have to insert my credit card. I promise, I’ll resume my defocused attention as soon as I don’t have to be effective. I understand better what is sometimes advised in the world of martial arts: cultivating attentional flexibility, this ability to move in a few milliseconds from open attention, allowing to perceive all the signals from the environment to central vision, a guarantee of speed and surgical precision before returning immediately to this open attention which allows release and relaxation after the vigorous action… until the following action, as lively and precise as vast was the brief moment of relaxation.
I’m going home. The garden is bright. Something has changed. My vision is clearer. My entourage looks at me with a touch of curiosity. “Your eyes are different!” “You look relaxed.” ” ” It’s funny. You look younger. What would have happened if the retreat had lasted forty days? Several weeks after this experience, something remained of it: renewed energy, more relaxation and the firm resolution not to leave myself, to no longer flee the experience of reality through compulsive thought and to hold on to the essential. My bodily and emotional awareness also seems sharper. And I acquired a new habit, that of returning as often as possible to peripheral vision, this open attention which calms mental agitation, keeps judgments away and relaxes the body.
The physiological effects of darkness
In response to the absence of light, the pineal gland secretes melatonin. In addition to regulating circadian rhythms – wakefulness, sleep – this neurohormone has multiple functions.
It acts as an antioxidant, directly destroying or inhibiting the action of certain free radicals in the healthy cells and stimulating the secretion of antioxidant enzymes. Properties that make it contribute to certain detoxification processes. Conversely, by a mechanism still poorly understood, it promotes apoptosis – ie suicide – of tumor cells. Experiments carried out by Russian scientists on mice show that it also has radioprotective properties.
Others carried out on rats show an anxiolytic action linked to a regulation of cortisol, the stress hormone. This is how during the first days in the dark, people relax and usually get a lot of sleep. For Anoula Sifonios, who leads retreats in the dark in India and Thailand, the benefits of darkness do not stop there: “Under the effect of antioxidants, all cells are deeply regenerated. It even seems that the telomeres, these markers of biological age which shrink each year, on the contrary grow. It shows that time has reversed, literally rejuvenating the practitioner.” According to Mantak Chia, an internationally renowned teacher of Taoist practices, from the third day onwards, the secretion of pinoline (a molecule which would be produced in the pineal gland) affects the neurotransmitters of the brain, allowing visions to manifest in consciousness. .
Then from the sixth day, the secretion of 5-methoxy dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT) and dimethyltryptamine (DMT) would facilitate transcendental experiences of universal love and of sympathy. Without going that far, we measure all the benefits of sleeping in total darkness, as certain studies recommend.
A universally shared practice
Were prehistoric caves places of access to the invisible? For the anthropologist Jean Clottes, a great French specialist in Paleolithic art, it seems obvious that prehistoric men came to experience modified states of consciousness in the darkness of the caves. A tradition still alive in some first peoples. Thus the Amerindians Kogis, heirs of one of the greatest pre-Columbian civilizations, initiate certain children destined to become mamo – spiritual guides – in dark rooms which are their places of learning. For specialist Anoula Sifonios, in the Himalayas, it is common for yogis to stay in caves. In India, Ayurveda has codified a number of body rejuvenation practices (kayakalpa), one of which is precisely to remain in darkness. “Indian medicine has long known that incurable diseases miraculously heal in the dark,” explains the specialist. Taoism also advocates staying in dark places in order to connect to the original source, wu chi. As for Tibetan Buddhism, it also offers advanced practitioners the possibility of retreating into the dark.
But in this tradition, one must first be able to overcome the visions that will not fail to present themselves to go beyond the world of illusion…
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