hygienic dark retreat

profound rest for the self‑healing psyche

a book by andrew durham

formerly darkroomretreat.com

5   protocol

How to be and what to do once in darkness is simple. It’s a lot like having a guest. Provide what is necessary for function and comfort, then stay out of the way.

Dark retreating is like the rest of hygiene. Practice consistently follows theory. In hygiene, our purpose is to serve life. Life’s needs are our priorities.

We need profound rest to recover from exhaustion or injury. This makes our task in darkness simple and clear: maintain the conditions of rest. This frees the autonomic self to return the whole being to health and function as quickly as possible. The autonomic self does most of the work and all the complicated parts. It indicates to the volitional self the simple ways to help

Dark retreating is nothing less than recovery of the lost self. In darkness, you will begin to reunite with yourself. It’s as if a peg-legged sailor were to awaken one day to find his leg had started to grow back. The more you come back to yourself, the more you become your own guide. This chapter helps you do your first retreats. It is a map. You and your supporters can refer to it if any of you get lost.

Hygienic dark retreating is new, and I am still learning. The final authority in hygiene is life itself. Consider these notes from the field and an invitation to explore an idea whose time has come.

mechanics

logistics

I describe the overall process of retreating in format, especially the 5-day and 9-day retreat sections. Here are the details.

  • food
    • the day your retreat begins, eat the same way you will in darkness: just fruit and greens or as simply as you can
    • finish eating for the day by 18:00
  • retreating
    • in your bedroom:
      • neutralize it: cover or store everything unnecessary to the retreat
      • clean it thoroughly
      • pad sharp corners and protrusions
    • at a center
      • arrive at 18:00
      • your supporter will:
        • show you to your room, pointing out where food will be delivered and any special features
        • find out particular things you need
        • talk to you a little bit about the retreat, reiterating the basic ideas of rest and self-healing
      • as you unpack and settle in, memorize the room. Close your eyes and practice moving around and finding things
  • set two alarms on a cellphone
    • between 10:00 and 12:00 the first day you will uncover the windows. On transition days, you can open the room before noon, as early as 06:00, as long as you feel fully rested.
    • between 06:00 and 12:00 the morning your retreat will end, depending on your schedule.
    • turn cellphone off or put it in flight mode to stop calls and minimize electromagnetic radiation
  • lights out
    • how to do everything in a totally dark room: slowly!
    • Important: avoid hitting your head when standing up or sitting down. Make a circle with your arms in front of yourself at chest height, hands together, when moving up or down. Practice this a few times in light with eyes closed, near something you will touch with your hands.
    • put food scraps in bucket provided inside the room
    • things slowly go out of place in darkness. If you would like the bed remade, lost shoes found, etc, ask your supporter.
    • If you notice a light leak, immediately look away. Find something to cover it with. See gear for materials to do this with. Tell your supporter so he can plug the leak.
    • Use scratch paper and pen to write notes to your supporter. Put them in the agreed-upon spot for messages.
    • Avoid all media during your retreat: text, music, photos, video.
    • Avoid all company as well: family, friends, etc, unless
      • you are a parent and your child needs to be with you
      • perhaps if your retreat is longer than 9 days (I don’t know yet)
  • transition day(s)
    • take walks, lie in the sun on the grass, go barefoot
    • take naps, inside with windows covered if you like
    • maintain solitude
    • write about your retreat
    • darken the room again between 18:00 and 20:00
    • maintain darkness until morning
  • last morning
    • finish writing about your retreat
    • pack and exit room by 13:00

water and exercise

I make sure I do two things in darkness:

  • drink water: the body uses water for virtually all its processes. Detection of dehydration is strangely harder in darkness. Each day, drink about 1 liter for every 20 kg you weigh, 2.5 liters minimum. Get enough bottles to hold that much. Keep them by your bed. Fill and drink them down every day. Simple.

    With all its extra energy, the body is reopening old wounds. It needs water to repair, clean, and re-energize these tissues. It is shaking toxins loose. It needs water to wash them out. It soaks the nerves in water to keep them cool. Hydrating in darkness makes the experience smoother emotionally.

  • exercise: exercise helps one get to sleep, avoid bed soreness, feel less restless and irritable, retard muscle atrophy, and, interestingly, maintain the psychophysical “space” in which healing occurs. Even three minutes a day makes the difference between a pleasant retreat and constant discomfort.

    The first couple days, exercising can be really hard. One is so tired. If so, and none of the above problems arises, just sleep. Energy to exercise should return on day 3.

    That is when I start wanting to exercise. It becomes a game: how many push-ups can I do? How high can I elevate my feet? I feel motivation to move like I did in childhood. It was a pleasant surprise the first time it happened.

    Soft, lightweight exercise equipment is good in darkness. Solid weights are unsafe. Variable resistance bands are superior exercise, and you can’t drop or stub your toe on them.

food

Eat meals rather than snacks. When you are hungry, focus on eating until you feel full and satisfied. The human alimentary tract processes food in batches, not continuously. A constant stream of food (often eaten in boredom) disrupts and distresses digestion. Thus it disrupts sleep, attention, and healing.

You will probably need 25-50% less food, by calories, than usual. I recommend keeping it to fresh, raw, ripe fruit and leafy greens to maximize nutrition, elimination, and psychic agility. Keep food in a cooler with a block of ice. Eat as much as you like. It is likely that your appetite will be diminished due to extra melatonin in the blood (a reason we do not get hungry when we sleep). This was especially noticeable in my first retreat.

As much as 10% of your food, by mass, can be tender leafy greens like leaf lettuce (not iceberg) and baby spinach. Celery, too. This is the equivalent of 1 large head or bunch of greens per day total.

A minimum of 90% of your food, by mass, should be seeded fruit, sweet and non-sweet (like tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers). So salads can be sweet (greens mixed with sweet fruit) and savory (greens mixed with non-sweet fruit).

Our need for fat is tiny and easily met with the above food types. Fat is very complex and difficult to digest. Too much interferes with resting and healing. So eliminate oils and minimize fatty foods. Forego nuts and seeds altogether. One small to medium avocado during a 5-day retreat in a savory salad is very pleasant.

Most of what you consume in fruit and leafy greens is water. So you must eat 3-5 times more volume for the same sense of fullness and satisfaction. Eating this much, like 5 apples instead of one or half a watermelon instead of a slice, can take getting used to. Practice it before the retreat.

For more about food, see:

fasting

I believe in fasting. It is a significant part of hygiene. But it seems best to wait on it until significant psychic capacity is regained in darkness.

They seem to have opposite metabolic requirements. The organism focuses its healing efforts wherever food is absent. It gains energy—or at least internal comfort and support—from wherever food is present. The organism heals the body when physical food is absent. It heals the soul when the psychic food of sensation, especially vision, is absent.

I have tried both at the same time and it is very good but intense. I look forward to more, but for now, I am taking one at a time. I recommend the same to you till you receive a strong clear signal from your organism to combine them. I recommend Shelton’s books, Fasting Can Save Your Life (short, popular) and The Science and Fine Art of Fasting (long, thorough), and Albert Mosseri’s Fasting: Nature’s Best Remedy*.

conservation

Here are ways to conserve energy in darkness for healing:

  • talking
    • talk only when necessary
    • if you usually talk to yourself, catch yourself and stop
    • for a more concentrated experience, do a silent retreat. Your supporter speaks minimally. See story about my first silent client in next section.
  • learn to write in darkness. Then you can communicate with a supporter without speaking and take notes on your experience. Use a small notebook or pad of paper. Use your non-writing hand to cover the last line and guide your pen.

    Before retreating, practice this. Number the pages. Tie or tape a pen to the pad with a length of string. Get a cardboard box for the darkroom. After writing on a page, tear it out and put it in the box. Tear out a page whenever you are in doubt about having used it. Put them back in order on your transition day.

  • enjoy the transition days

    At first, my clients and I felt like leaving the facility quickly upon exiting the darkroom and throwing ourselves back into ordinary life. This was due to an unaccustomed increase in energy level and well-being. We had a sharpened sense of anticipation about our lives. We felt pulled together. We felt we were more in our bodies. We felt ready to conquer the world.

    But rather avoid immediately re-entering regular life. You will probably end up blowing off this extra energy. It is better to reabsorb it, recirculate it, stabilize it.

    This is how transition days came about. The retreat continues after darkness with windows uncovered and doors opened during the day one day for every 3 darkened days. This gives time to re-orient to light and gravity. Take a walk, lie in the grass, look at nature, and reflect on what has happened. See transition and my blog post, post-retreat protocol for more about this.

support

My ideas of support have evolved since my first retreat. Once a day, Harold brought me food and talked to me a few minutes. I, then my clients generally liked having such active support for our first retreats. We found it reassuring to say a few words to someone each day.

For my first clients, I brought food more often and talked more than a couple minutes. It became too much. I thought of myself as a facilitator. But I was not sure about this. Sometimes I could see it was too much.

Then a client came who wanted to retreat in silence. He communicated with notes and clapping in response to my questions. One clap meant no; two, yes; three, repeat the question. (Any distinct sound works: whistle, tap, finger snap, etc.)

His retreat was up to him and he knew it. He just wanted practical support and the passive psychic support of my being around.

I liked this a lot. It eased my worries and helped me trust in life more. Rather than a facilitator, I started thinking of myself as a supporter.

I later tried retreating without any support. In some ways, I preferred the solitude and lack of interruption. But it was only a 5-day retreat, and I was in a small, remote village of friends. For 9-day retreats, I have found that having someone nearby, on call, is critical.

A retreater is in a kind of womb. Supporters are like parents. They remain available while going about their regular lives. They help absorb a retreater’s occasional excesses of energy, as well. Jean Liedloff explains more details of this perspective in The Continuum Concept.

Supporters create constant psychic shielding for the retreater. Weird and hostile forces exist in the world. We need to rest from them, too.

A retreater can get a supporter’s attention from inside the darkroom with notes, an operable flag, knocking, a bell at the end of a cord, a door bell, or an intercom. A fully charged cellphone or walkie-talkie works in case of emergency.

Here are the attributes of good support.

  • a supporter:
    • has read and understood this book, including the basic ideas of hygiene
    • has retreated or will soon. No neutral or implicitly negative supporters!
    • is reliable and has common sense
    • brings food and checks for notes or says hello according to an agreed schedule (noon or soon before works well). Saying hello can happen once a day, once in the middle of the retreat, or not at all.
    • stays nearby and keeps the retreater in the back of his mind while going about daily life
    • has back-up support, at least one other person, at least by phone (see consult
  • design
    • a supporter can deliver food and talk to the retreater in a normal voice without opening the darkroom’s door
    • a supporter can enter the darkroom or deliver food without letting in light. To have the retreater cover his eyes while the door is open is unacceptable. Like having to open the door to get fresh air, it is lazy, unserious design.
    • a retreater can call the supporter without leaving the room or being exposed to light
    • see design and make for ways to do these

attitude

Besides a darkroom, food, and support, a hygienic retreat requires a fourth critical ingredient: knowledge of the hygienic attitude.

You don’t have to believe it. Just learn it here and take it in with you to consider, test, and use when opportunities arise. It helps you recognize them in the moment and respond well. It is not something to impose on yourself or make yourself do.

Darkness is a chance to let go and let life catch you. In some ways, you already do this. To learn hygiene’s passive attitude toward healing is to gain more confidence in life’s saving graces.

purpose

The purpose of a hygienic dark retreat is to rest deeply. This enables the organism, especially the psyche, to heal itself of major psychophysical trauma. Which all of us sustained in civilization, and which causes all suffering, including physical disease.

Your principal task is to sleep. Benefits of the deep sleep possible in darkness compound each day. Deep sleep enables the organism to accumulate tremendous vital energy. This energy is necessary to heal psychophysical injuries that lie deep in the being, way beyond even the pretenses of the will: practice, treatment, and use of substances.

Consider any spiritual, personal developmental, or therapeutic purpose to which you might put this retreat as part of what you are retreating from. Really: feel free to let it all go in darkness. Whatever is valid will happen by itself, much better than you imagined it would.

If somehow you can’t let it go, it’s ok. Some of us must first recover the capacity to let go. Or the confidence in the autonomic self to handle what you let go of.

Likewise with what we often regard as our moral responsibilities. The autonomic functions of the organism will deal with most of them, too. Dark retreating is not primarily an active process (like spiritual practice). It is primarily a passive process as regards the will. It requires minimal effort on your part. It is like waiting in a hospital bed to heal.

Thus there is no need crack the whip on yourself. I mean engaging in long, vigorous introspection, thinking hard, figuring out your life, etc. Leave these complicated matters to the unconscious and subconscious.

It is normal to consider your feelings, impulses, thoughts, and needs. So it is fine in darkness, too. Everything in your being plays a part in life. Anything could be an important cue. Every movement of the organism ultimately has health as its aim. Listen, wait, receive.

It is quite possible to have a specific internal goal for a retreat and make progress with it. I did this several times. But I did it out of lack of confidence in my autonomic self. My aims were security objects.

Such over-purposefulness interferes with the organism’s priorities. Which cannot be improved upon. Life always knows what is most important, millisecond by millisecond. I recommend retreating with this as a hypothesis.

My pivotal retreat happened when I felt sure it would not work and I gave up on any specific aim I might have had besides just to rest. I only continued out of sheer logic. My own arguments still seemed airtight and unavoidable. I could not see anything else to do, so I stuck with the plan. Then I witnessed a marvel of self-healing.

This process is as foolproof as possible. Given the conditions of rest—most of which are built into the room itself—you will heal.

The organism is the principal actor. Your job is to support its self-healing process through stillness and conserving energy. This includes conserving energy expended by attention. (More about attention later.)

expectations

At a minimum,

  • You will get a distinct break from your regular life. It’s best to consider anything more a bonus.
  • You will experience something unusual.

    Many have had amazing experiences in darkness, but it is not guaranteed. Nor is it necessary. What is necessary is to rest. What really matters is how well you function in daily life afterward.

Your results are up to your whole self. 99.99% of you is autonomic. It operates below the level of conscious awareness, beyond control of the will.

I do guarantee that your organism will do exactly what is most necessary. It will not require more of you than you can give. Perfect, complete knowledge of everything about you and absolute power to act on this knowledge are the autonomic self’s great gifts for you.

As when wandering the streets of a foreign city, keep your wits about you. Neither your supporter nor your autonomic self will relieve you of the normal task of watching over your own life. You remain responsible for yourself.

If nothing happens, conditions were not met sufficiently. Analyze the points of failure and try again. Several of my early retreats failed because of light leaks, poor air quality, noise, a bad bed, time shortage, and other stressors. While darkness is natural, one still has to learn to arrange and use it.

attention

What do you do in a retreat?

Consciously, you rest.

But how, exactly? Half the time, you’re lying around awake, apparently with nothing to do. You could get restless.

You rest consciously by focusing attention in restful places. I know of 4:

  1. externally on environment. A well-built and operated darkroom minimizes this.
  2. conscious phenomena, for a few minutes at a time
    • mentally on thoughts, above and behind the head
    • emotionally on feelings, usually in the chest
    • physically on voluntary movement, throughout the body
  3. visually on darkness, in front of the eyes (closed or open), for 5-10 minutes at a time
  4. palpably and audibly on semi-voluntary bodily rhythms, for hours at a time, on:
    • breathing, in the belly
    • the pulse, anywhere, sometimes in the heart
    • swallowing
    • blinking

These are all suitable places for attention. It just depends on what resting requires in any given moment. For example, if you need to think about something, avoiding it will be agitating, not restful. Remember the purpose of rest, and you will learn when, where, and how to move your attention.

We have no choice about having attention. We only have a choice about where to place it. The capacity to place attention varies moment to moment. We will recover this capacity, too. Meanwhile, attention sometimes wanders like an untethered goat. Sometimes it dashes off madly. Sometimes it gently returns for direction.

Don’t fight the goat of attention. Be at peace with it. It is an injured animal that must remain free to heal. When it wanders, track and observe it. When it dashes off uncontrollably, hang on for dear life. If it rampages, cover your head and endure it. Or seize it if you are sure you must.

Attention is different from the mind. Attention can be on the mind itself: its actions, thoughts, and memories. It can also be on feeling, sensation, and movement. Sensation can be of the environment or internal phenomena.

Placing attention on oneself is usually called meditation. (Gurdjieff, in his usual precision, called it self-remembrance). Thus dark retreating sounds like meditation to many people. But meditation is a discipline. Time is set aside just for it. It is the main process. The moment meditative effort stops, so does the main process.

A hygienic retreat is not for meditation but rest. Healing is the main process. What one does with attention helps. But healing goes on anyway. It is an autonomic process. It runs in the background of willed activity. Further, a retreat provides so many conditions of rest and so little to do, one tends to rest more.

Thinking is sometimes critically important. When you have presence of mind and a pressing issue arises, think it through logically. Steadily make rational connections until it is resolved. This doesn’t happen much or take long. We all know how thinking too much can drive one crazy. But everything has its place. Fortunately, thinking is not the only option in darkness.

You can also look directly at darkness itself, making it an object of attention. We are usually taught to think of darkness as nothing or as a background for something lit. Focusing on darkness for awhile as an external fact, eyes open or closed, helps calm the mind. It can be unexpectedly absorbing.

Try it right now for a minute or two. Put your palms over your eyes. Slightly overlap them above the nose to seal out light. Look at the backs of your eyelids like you are looking a couple meters away. Do this for a few minutes. Shapes and colors and spots might move around for awhile, then slowly clear away. Focus on the slowest dark patches, sometimes in front of, sometimes behind the imagery. You are withdrawing all your senses back inside your head.

You can also do this in the middle of a regular day to rapidly collect yourself, to feel centered and in your body again. It is restful for the eyes. It is an old practice from hygiene called palming.

I used to look at darkness for hours at a time for days. This was way too much. You can read the trouble I got into for this in my 7-day retreat. Increasingly clear images of a subjective nature play on the “screen” of darkness. In other words, the images are coming from the mind. At first, I found this fascinating. Then it became torturous and nightmarish. There is no point to this.

Yet it is not meaningless. I think it reflects what is repressed or denied in oneself. There is no need to seek this out. The unconscious will show us what we need to know of it. So just look at darkness for 5-10 minutes.

Then move attention into your gut to feel the movement of breathing. This is always safe, a shelter from the storm sometimes raging in the mind. I can calmly hang out there for hours while lying down, palpating the motion of breathing. Just the in-and-out of my belly where natural breathing occurs (not in the chest).

Move attention to the pulse, wherever you sense it first. Feel for it elsewhere, sometimes in the heart.

Swallowing and blinking give more variety to the “show”.

Breathing is normally through the nose. The tongue rests, sucked against the roof of the mouth. Of course, one breathes through the mouth if congested. With just fresh fruits and leafy greens during the retreat, the body will soon clear itself out.

beyond

Beyond these ordinary objects of attention, I have often seen unusual images. Vaulted ceilings often appear. Sometimes they are low, dark, and grey or brown; sometimes high, airy, lit, and colored. Once I saw a vivid still life mural.

Such images often come in dreams and stay upon waking up. Clients have reported them, too. They are different than the imagery when looking at darkness. They come spontaneously. They have an objective quality, as if one is looking at something outside oneself. They are hyper-real: they are extremely vivid and feel more real than things in daily life. They are bracing and compelling.

On the one hand, I don’t think we should get fascinated with them. One the other, I don’t accept the common dismissal of them as hallucinations.

Darkness impresses me as a waking portal to the dreamworld. Which is also called dreamtime or timespace. This is the other basic dimension of reality.

We should have access to it. Indigenous people do. Civilized people do not because of psychic malfunction from major trauma. Maybe we can finally pull ourselves together using darkness.

experience

Resting in darkness affects fundamental things in life, like time, sex, and power. Here is what I have observed about them during my retreats.

time

Many of us in darkness have experienced a strange compulsion to know what time it is. It feels like an addictive craving, even mild panic, though obviously absurd. Darkness gives the best possible opportunity to withdraw from it by avoiding finding out.

I often feel late, short on time, rushed. Yet, at the end of a retreat, in which days passed without accomplishing regular tasks, I always feel luxuriously ahead of schedule. So I view the feeling of being short on time as a symptom of exhaustion. It is temporal dysphoria, a disorientation or dislocation in time. It is exactly like an anemic whose blood iron levels normalize during a fast. Why? It is malabsorption, not deficiency.

The civilized sense of time is very close to the heart of our psychosis. The indigenous report a very different experience of time. They feel in time, on time, in synchrony with the flow of events. Where we mostly measure time cardinally, with specific dates and hours, they measure it ordinally: before, after, earlier, later.

In darkness, you may feel a shift from the strange relationship with time we consider so normal.

sex

One way or another, sexuality makes its presence known in darkness. If it has been repressed, it stirs, like an animal escaping captivity. If it has run wild, it calms down.

Sexuality lies close to the base of organic existence and its power. We all come from sex, we renew ourselves in it throughout life, and we make more life with it. We exude it in everything we do through the gender polarities of masculinity and femininity. It expresses one’s self-esteem and confidence. Sexuality amplifies life’s colossal power.

Thus civilization’s centralizers of power, the state and religion, whether sacred or secular, rabidly suppress sexuality. Violence and the need for more artificial controls result.

Over several retreats, and one in particular, I felt my sexuality begin to return to me. Shut out for a long time, a part of it found a way back in. An unfamiliar feeling of self-satisfaction accompanied it, taking a place next to my accustomed longing. I have related more of the initial, liberating effects of retreating on my sexuality in my reports online.

Before his retreat, one of my early clients tried to lure his giggling girlfriend into darkness for “conjugal visits”. This was funny. But I recommend hanging in there alone. In darkness, the reality and fullness of sexuality is just for the retreater. The point is to recover sexual power. Sexually powerful people have what they need. They don’t seek it from others. They express it with others at the right opportunity.

Meanwhile, I recommend refraining from masturbation. Instead, exercise and sleep. If orgasm is necessary, the being will arrange it in a dream. If ejaculation is necessary, the dream will include nocturnal emission. This way, the tremendous energy of sexuality serves healing and strengthening of the being, including causes of incontinence.

Traumatized sexuality causes shame, fear, and guilt; rebelliousness, including rejection of parents; and purposelessness. The healing of sexuality leads to continence, recovery of innocence, self-esteem, and conviviality, and feelings of security and confidence.

Darkness supports healing from the nightmare of sexual repression and violence that has beset our lifeway for thousands of years. Soon, I hope, an end will come to this madness once and for all.

power

As an organism, one has a basic power: to live. It enables one to survive, to take shelter, find water and food, handle emergencies, defend oneself, maintain one’s place in the world, and provide for others. Power is an ability and the energy to exercise it. It combines the concepts of capacity and vitality.

Power manifests in every movement, thought, and feeling. Fitness, magnetism, relaxedness, and humor all signify the power to live. Money represents it externally. A powerful person controls his own life in ordinary ways and adapts easily to circumstance. Peace, freedom, prosperity, and joy characterize powerful people and societies alike.

Everyone alive has power to some degree. Those without it are dead. While it has immediate social effects, it is primarily personal. It is not power over others. Real power grows, not out of the barrel of a gun, but from within.

Like any capacity, personal power suffers significant damage from trauma. The routine brutality of civilization pushes people to the brink of powerlessness. Power becomes the motive of nearly all activity. Power turns to aggression. A drama unfolds. Some people become control freaks, power-lusters, and abusers. Others become perennial victims or rescuers. Roles suddenly reverse. Fear, violence, and evil touch everyone. War, repression, poverty, slavery, epidemics, and corruption all signify a collective lack of power.

Resting profoundly in darkness, one’s power is restored. These symptoms of mass psychopathology disappear. One begins to feel and act virtuously without trying or even thinking of it. Life works again on a personal scale.

On a social scale, such power is irresistible by conventional force. Martin Luther King, Jr and Mohandas Gandhi showed this. From their words and my glimpses in darkness, their demonstrations pale before the potential of a fully restored man. Our distressed world, kings and peasants alike, awaits such people. Once the dam breaks, 10,000 years of suffering will wash away overnight. This is what I saw when I first dreamt of hygienic dark retreating. This is my prayer.

difficulty

An uncomfortable period usually occurs somewhere in the middle of the retreat, lasting minutes to hours. It’s like a bout of pain while convalescing in a hospital. But now it is the soul that heals. What to do?

discomfort

You might feel tense, like crawling in your skin. You might curl up and cry. It’s perfectly natural. You have provided the organism a chance to work something out, and it is doing so. Let it happen.

If discomfort feels like too much to be endured, here are things you can do about it:

  • examine your basic conditions like a hygienist:
    • survival
      • is the room secure?
      • is the darkroom safe?
      • do you feel safe with your supporter?
      • do you need a few words with your supporter?
    • mechanical
      • is it totally dark?
      • is it quiet enough? Are any noises bothering you?
      • do you have enough fresh air and warmth?
      • is the food good?
      • is your bed comfortable?
      • is anything else not working?
    • behavioral
      • are you:
        • drinking enough water? (2.5L water minimum, 4 maximum)
        • exercising? (2 hours maximum)
        • each of these can instantly ease discomfort
      • do you need to pee, poop, or bathe?
    • procedural
      • is something actually wrong, or is something just unfamiliar about your experience? If the latter, might the organism be working on something difficult but not harmful, and you can stay with the process until it finishes in some hours?
    • is there something about the process you are struggling with, dislike, or don’t understand? Your supporter can probably help you figure it out.
  • use sensation as a brake on the process
    • talk or sing to yourself
    • talk to your supporter
    • red light: A red LED light is pure red light. It gives no signal to the circadian system to bring rest to an end and prepare you for action. If other techniques don’t help you ease your discomfort, turn on the red light for a minute. Don’t do this regularly. If you have a supporter, have him bring the light and take it away.
    • if you still can’t stand it, use natural light as a last resort. Slightly uncover the window or crack open the door for 3-30 minutes. Start with eyes closed and turned away from the light. Open your eyes, but do not look into the light directly. If this is insufficient, let in more light. Next, step outside. When you feel calm again, re-enter darkness.
  • see more techniques in the phobia section below

Waiting it out often works. Enduring. Hanging on. In some case, retreating can feel unbearably difficult. It is perfectly alright to not resume the retreat at this time. Darkness is natural, but reacquaintance with it and oneself in it can take time and must not be rushed.

Perhaps reflection on your experience will show why you could not proceed. Perhaps something unexpected will change and you can try again later. Perhaps something else is more important for your life now.

Sometimes something is not quite right with the retreat or the darkroom, and I cannot figure it out till after I quit. This is frustrating, but there will be more retreats.

phobias

Those with phobias related to darkness (eg, superstition, claustrophobia, fear of the dark) can still retreat using these techniques:

  • micro-retreat: retreat for five seconds. Then take a break in red light till you feel ready for the next micro-retreat. Gradually increase the length of the micro-retreats and decrease the breaks. Do this for at least 15 minutes. The next night, go at least 30 minutes, etc. Within a week or two, you should feel comfortable enough to retreat.
  • reason: go over the facts of your situation in your mind. What evidence do you have for what you fear? You can learn to recognize and dismiss arbitrary (baseless) ideas.1
  • companion: retreat with another person inside or near the darkroom till you feel ok alone

I had a client from a superstitious culture. Her elders actually taught her to fear the dark. But the idea of resting in darkness appealed to her common sense. She stayed in darkness for a whole night in my darkroom for the first time in her life. Afterward, she said that when her fear of monsters or ghosts came, she simply reasoned her way through it.

She remembered closing and locking the door, then checking under the bed and table and finding nothing before blowing out the candle. The door had not opened since then, so nothing could have gotten in. She deduced there could be no threat. She calmed down and went back to sleep. That night, her fantastic fear yielded to her reasoning four times.

When she awoke in the morning, she felt ecstatic from staying all night in absolute darkness and overcoming her fear of it. Her rationality strengthened, and she used it to strengthen her relationship to reality and her feeling of safety. Allied with her autonomic self, the tide gently turned on her phobia.

In any case, try. If these methods fail, perhaps you will come up with your own in the moment of crisis. An idea will occur to you. You will feel something or have an impulse. Act on it. Dark retreating isn’t all just lying around. These brief calls for heroism are part of the minimal effort the retreat requires of everyone at some point.

psychotic

As I have said, I view our entire society and everyone in it as psychotic. This includes me, you, our “leaders”, the garbage man, the kind lady across the street. Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. Everyone.

We survive long enough in our dysfunction and pain to reproduce. We exist on a continuum of psychosis ranging from the temporarily shocked, to the functional, to the disabled, to the severely psychotic.

Merely this change in perspective from our current presumptions of sanity can aid the situation greatly. Lots of little ridiculous things we currently do can be exposed and stopped. Clinically psychotic people will appreciate the honesty.

I have known but not worked with severe psychotics. Conventional psychologists would identify them simply as psychotic. But I think that we can become able to handle at least some of their cases by ourselves. I mean, without the use of professionals or experts, just with the care of friends and family.

Of course, if an expert can behave normally, that’s great. He would simply provide wisdom and care unobtrusively like anyone else, without an air of superiority. Some experts do know useful things. There’s no reason for their knowledge to go to waste if it does more good than harm.

Severely psychotic people will be helped at first by the presence and love of others who have recovered some of their own sanity in darkness. Severely psychotic people are especially sensitive to our society’s callousness and stupidity, especially from those who are supposed to care about them. If just that reverses, some cases of severe psychosis would disappear in weeks.

So let us first give ourselves attention. It’s like using an oxygen mask on an airplane: first, breath with it yourself, then give it to those in your care.

Darkness could be used in extreme cases with excellent effects. It would require gradual application and extra support. It must be done with great care and attention to conditions. The one who is helped must understand and consent.

The organisms use of darkness is deep and intense. Great harm occurs in those it is forced upon. I condemn cruel and despotic use of darkness in prisons and elsewhere.

Cooperating with him at every step, eliminate all light that enters his room from outside. Use blinds and door seals and improve ventilation. Cover indicator lights inside. Remove night lights. Replace them with a red light if he still wants some light. The more access he has to reason and the more he trusts his caregivers, the easier it will be to normalize his sleeping environment.

Replace his fluorescent and direct light with indirect, incandescent light (tungsten or halogen, not LED).

Remove scheduling pressure. I mean all those therapeutic activities that are supposed to help people. They are distressing over time. They are pastimes when on medication. Allow him to sleep more. Provide more fresh, raw fruits and leafy green vegetables, fresh air, sunlight, pure non-fluoridated water, contact with plants and earth, grounding sheets, etc. Phase out medication.

Lots of little changes like this can quickly de-escalate severe psychosis to mere disabled psychosis or even functional psychosis. From there, he could manage the rest of the way to sanity with ordinary levels of support.

aftermath

post-retreat

The effects of a retreat continue afterward. Sometimes their intensity is even greater. The time afterward can feel like a storm. So I call it the aftermath. It is another phase of exploration, metamorphosis, and insight. It can last from a few days to a few weeks. The transition days of a retreat reduce its length and intensity to tolerable levels.

CAUTION: Do not attempt a retreat without transition days, no matter how desperate and short on time you may be. See warning for more.

For about a week after your retreat, plan only usual things: job, school, family. Keep to the routine, the familiar. Do nothing unusual or exhausting. Stay in when you might go out. The party will still be there in a week. Be subdued. Keep to yourself. Whose life is it anyway?

This way, you can quickly return to functional stability. It minimizes your exposure to disturbance and maximizes your chance of absorbing the value of the retreat.

How the aftermath goes depends on one’s personality. I’m not the stablest oil rig in the Gulf, so it fairly tosses me around. It usually begins with a calm, solid feeling of deep restedness from the retreat. Then a tension builds to a crisis over a few days. I can feel as bad as the worst moments of my retreat. Then an insight or discovery comes that shows the way to the next period of my life.

This insight is often accompanied by the return of will and focus. Suddenly, I know exactly what to do, how to do it, and have the energy and strength to make it happen. It’s fun after months of listlessness.

I know less about this part of my clients’ retreats than the dark part. From what I saw and heard, their aftermaths varied greatly in character. Sometimes they matched the drama of mine, sometimes they were smooth sailing. Remember where you just were. Keep your eyes peeled.

recapacitation

Regarding some aspects of our own lives, we all know better. I mean things we think we should do for ourselves which, strangely, we do not. Moralism says it is because we will not. Hygiene says it is because we cannot. Stop a moment and consider the relief this idea brings.

Dark retreating provides the conditions in which the organism restores one’s capacity for both self-care and its benefits. This is recapacitation. The intensity of a retreat mostly fades, but restored capacity remains. A broken leg, once healed, doesn’t spontaneously become broken again.

The full application of the idea behind hygienic dark retreating consists of:

doing retreats of increasing length,
alternated with periods of improved lifeway,
until health is fully restored.

The ladder outlines the course of retreats involved. You already know some improvements you would like to make. After retreats, you will find yourself more able to make some of them. Those you do not know, you will, in darkness, become capable of discovering, learning, and applying. Resources and opportunities that were right under your nose, on the tip of your tongue, out of the corner of your eye, suddenly become visible, compelling, accessible.

Having restored a lost part of yourself, how you are changes. How you seem to yourself and the quality of your presence to others changes. You notice and attract different things. Once you see you can go through the front door of a bakery and get whatever you like, you stop begging crumbs out the back.

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I have tried to impress upon you the idea that your will is not the main actor in darkness. Another part of you is. We are taught to belittle, deny, and disown the autonomic self. But it goes on keeping us alive, moment by moment.

In darkness, we cease to identify solely with the conscious. We see it is just a part of a larger self. We begin to see its proper role as servant of the unconscious. This is a correction of the conventional relationship. We have mistakenly tried to harness life’s unfailing virtues to the desperate agenda of a crippled will, which we have viewed as our sole identity.

In ordinary life, you must arrange certain conditions to live. You must keep your wits about you. You are accountable for your own experience. These basic facts not only persist in the darkroom, they become especially clear. In darkness, it is your job to maintain certain conditions of the retreat.

Your non-expert, non-mind-reading, non-therapist supporter will be on the outside helping you do that. He will be maintaining the darkroom, bringing food, perhaps finding your lost shoes. Like any decent person would, he will talk to you for a few minutes if you need. It’s your retreat. If something is not working, say so.

On your last transition day, write a description of what happened while it is fresh in your memory. Finalize it later with insights from your aftermath. Share it online if you like and send me a link. I have found these reports useful in improving darkrooms, understanding the process, and explaining it to people. More writers and readers of reports will help spread hygienic dark retreating, advancing its theory and practice.

  1. I was raised with many superstitions. In Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff explains how to identify and treat arbitrary ideas. There is no evidence for them whatsoever. One must willfully dismiss them and put one’s attention back on the facts of reality, dealing only with ideas tied to it. I found his analysis of truth status extremely helpful in dealing with the conscious part of superstition. 

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