Seven years old, summer vacation.
One blazing hot afternoon our family took a guided tour of Luray Caverns, an underground wonderland in Virginia. The park ranger led us deep into the cool earth, where stalactites and stalagmites glistened iridescent gold and green, eerily illumined by hidden spotlights.
At the deepest point on the cavern trail, he asked us to stand together. As we waited expectantly, he flipped the switch. All light disappeared. Absolute, pitch darkness enveloped us like a great velvet blanket.
Both fear and excitement coursed through my veins. There were no distinctions, no colors, only a blackness which hid from my eyes not only the cavern and the rest of the group, but even my own body.
It was an experience of total blindness, and at the same time, a cessation of time and awakening of inner peace, as powerful in its purity as its vibrational opposite of unfiltered light, equal in impact to a shimmering dawn on Christmas morning snow.
Life went on. I forgot about the magic of darkness. I stayed faithful to the cultural commandment that night was fearful. I kept a nightlight in a corner of my room, out of habit and also from an underlying fear of the dark, a suspicion of what secrets lay hidden away from daylight, and a respect for what terrors inhabited my dreams.
As I grew into adulthood, I didn’t give much thought to the dark. Even on moonless nights, some ambient light always seeped into my bedroom. My major life focus was on enlightenment, bringing light into the darkness of ignorance, and subconsciously, as if in parallel agreement, I kept the actual dark at arm’s length. It never occurred to me that there could be a treasure waiting for me, lying patiently beyond the comforting familiarity, beyond the world of light.
At a time when contemporary society recognizes the unavoidability of the shadow in our psychological identity, when writings of the Dark Goddess and the Dark Night of the Soul proliferate, and when the psyche of our culture finds itself malnourished for lack of pure experience, it becomes ever more crucial to find ways and methods for meeting our depth.
Transpersonal psychology embraces a wide variety of methods, some new, some ancient, for exploring our hidden dimensions, for helping us contact the part of us which is not limited to ego identity. Holotropic breathwork (breathing deeply with strong music), the use of psychotropic plants, mandala drawing, trance dance, drumming, meditation, self-inquiry... all may serve to help us come into contact with deeper layers of our being.
What might the dark itself contribute to this panorama of healing and therapeutic tools?
There is an ancient yet little-known practice of dark retreat for contemplation and spiritual growth, practiced by many indigenous cultures including the Hopi and Tibetan. The 49-day practice in absolute darkness provides Tibetan practitioners with a deep study of inner mind, including an advanced taste for one’s after-life journey through different states of consciousness, known as the Bardos.
For anyone who seeks inner peace and wishes to taste an experience of life undistracted by sight, bare of TV watching, book reading, etc., this method is simple and direct- extended habitation without any light source. So dark you cannot see your hand before your face. Pure and absolute, it requires no belief, no prior training, no special formula. It works because of its purity.
As an advanced shamanic, initiatory rite, those with severe phobias or inability to be with themselves are ill advised to undertake an extended dark retreat. It is a radical approach to self-awareness, and cannot be entered into lightly. Furthermore, all but the most advanced yogi should have a clear and compassionate guide along for the journey.
Through a variety of circumstances, thirty years after my cavern journey I was encouraged by my future wife to spend several days in absolute darkness and silence. This was done as a practice of self-reflection and inner discovery, a way of coaxing the mind into stillness. It was like walking without a map into an unknown country, leaning into the interior navigator, learning to trust my inner vision.
What I found beneath the fear of unseen threat, beyond terror, deeper than boredom - a treasure was waiting.
This is a vision quest into the dark. Others have gone before, yet each one journeys alone to the center of their silent core, past the thunder of doubts and questions, fear and shadows- into the brilliance of true knowing the ancient Vedic scriptural assertion Tat Twam Asi, You Are That, the essential awareness and Primal Being.
After my first experience together with Doris, we invited others to join us as researchers of being, mystics on a pilgrimage of dimensions.
In these experiences we are equal in our inability to see, thus joined in learning a new way to perceive. No longer white or black, tall or short, fat or thin- our voice and the sound of movement alone betrays our appearance, and if we are silent, even this remains unknown.
And so we enter a new world as beginners, gathered like a 19th century expedition into the far reaches of the world, arctic explorers banded together to witness an unknown territory, needing each other for support on the journey, to help each of us go as deeply as possible into the mystery which the long night offers.
Only hours away from absolute darkness, people are both excited and somber.
A self-imposed prison, a cloistered monastery, a feast for our eyes and brain and body from light and all its activities. The process releases melatonin, then serotonin, natural chemical reactions to the absence of all light. These changes in turn trigger memories while offering a contemplative mirror for being with ourselves.
Silence will begin following dinner. Writing or drawing beyond this point will be without visual orientation, so there is no telling what will come out from our pens.
Deep in the night we blow out our last candle, entering the velvety smooth blackness one encounters only in deep caverns.
Over the course of several days, what first appears as darkness on all sides begins to slowly lighten- even though no hint of light is available to the senses. The change in perception is completely internal, born only from the inner light of consciousness. Each person has their own experience. My mind manifests the vision of an ancient rocky cave, even though logic reminds we are in a contemporary retreat house with smooth wooden walls. I notice the space between my thoughts stretches.
The group spends most hours in solitude and silence, but on occasion we gather in a group room for intuitive practice. In one activity, a participant comes into the center of the circle, yet no one knows who it is. We are invited to speak a word, a poem, a song, which somehow inspires us in that moment. Invariably after each person’s turn, they reveal that what was spoken had the deep significance of a favorite poem or song.
Days go by without reference to time, a kind of limitless vacation from the ordinary, until the allotted retreat time is up.
When this time finally arrives, there are always some who don’t want to leave the safe cradle of the dark. It has transformed into a precious nest, a harbor for the soul to rest. Facial muscles have learned to deeply relax from having to appear with an identity to other people’s eyes.
Our actual return happens in the darkest hour of night. This is to protect our eyes from any damage caused by too-rapid exposure to the sun, similar to an undersea diver carefully and slowly rising to the surface.
We make a pin-hole in the black-plastic covered window, and one by one take turns gazing into the world outside. Though still night, the landscape may seem illuminated as if by a thousand suns. Having fasted from our normal vision, we can see the Earth as it was at the dawn of creation.
Our ‘first morning’ in the light, we venture outside after breakfast. Each person moves quite slowly, with the awareness of walking meditation, appreciating the splendor of this ‘ordinary day’. Participants sit or stand before flowers, trees and distant mountains for the longest time, absorbed in trance-like adoration of the beauty they behold.
To volunteer for such a mission can only arise from an inner call for a depth experience previously unknown. For those explorers who venture on this journey, the results are self-evident. In essence, to overcome an ancient and instinctive fear of the dark in a caring and loving atmosphere has the potential of profoundly transforming one’s attitude towards self and others.
Holger Kalweit, Seelenflüge. Außerkörperliche Reisen in der Dunkeltherapie: Außerkörperliche Reisen in der Dunkeltherapie (German Edition).