A collage of the outline of a man meditating, the night sky is covering his body, the background is tripy black, fading to white and purple swirls.
Collage: Cath virginia

I Survived 5 Days Without Light at a Darkness Retreat

Could the latest wellness trend bring me health and happiness?

Being afraid of the dark is an innate human fear. It’s said to have developed as a defence mechanism against predators through evolution, and yet – despite us being mostly safe from cheetahs and wolves these days – the dark still gives us the creeps if we’re in it for too long.

So much so, in fact, Channel 4 recently based an entire reality show around throwing celebs into the pitch black. Scared of the Dark sees C-listers from former footballer Paul Gascoigne to ex-boxer Chris Eubank spend over a week together in darkness and it’s a whole lot of scream-infused chaos – which makes sense, right? What sane person would want the pretty useful sense of sight being taken away?


Well, people seeking solitude, peace and enlightenment, actually. They have long gone into darkness for prolonged periods, away from the ever-changing chaos of the outside world. Muhammad received the first revelation of the Quran in a Saudi Arabian cave which he visited periodically in the seventh century to enter deep states of thought. And the Buddha spent time in meditation deep in caves during his life 2,500 years ago and generations of monks and lamas followed in his footsteps, continuing to seek inner light in darkness. Even today, children identified as healers in the indigenous Kogi community in Colombia spend the first nine years of their lives inside a cave to connect with the cosmic consciousness known as Aluna.

Society today is becoming ever more cosmic, too. Interest in New Age methods of self-discovery like yoga, meditation and certain shamanic techniques is increasing in step with the psychedelic revolution, and darkness just might be the next craze. 

Earlier this year, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers went in search of clarity and guidance with a four day darkness retreat — where you’re alone in a pitch black room without access to any light —  following in the footsteps of Wellness bro influencer Aubrey Marcus. Much like Rodgers and Marcus, I’m on a zigzagging journey toward better health and greater happiness myself. I’ve worked with psychedelics, I practise yoga, breathwork and meditation (at least, I try to) and the idea of a solitary dark room experience has always intrigued me. 


I’m aware this may sound hellish to the vast majority of people (like the first COVID-19 lockdown times 1,000?) but I see being without the distractions of daily life as potentially helpful, maybe even essential, to the improvement of my meditation practice. While I’ve learned to quiet my mind to some extent, I’m still easily distracted, and a dark room leaves no other option than to focus. Plus, Taoist master Mantak Chia, the pioneer who re-popularised dark retreats through his revival of ancient Chinese practices, says that extended darkness gets folks to an incredible natural high. I wouldn’t say no to that.

Chia has facilitated dark retreats for more than 40 years. “The idea of the dark room practice came from observing animals’ behaviour,” he tells VICE, though the exact origins are somewhat disputed. “When animals get injured, they hide in a cave to heal themselves and rebuild their bodies.” He has observed many people experiencing impressive transformations “after spending some time in the dark alone with their inner selves”.

Scott Berman, co-founder of Sky Cave Retreats – where Rodgers did his darkness retreat – talks of similar metamorphosis. “When someone goes into the darkness, all these things that were important to them, like money, fame, power, status and being worthy, become insignificant and meaningless,” he tells CNN. “In the dark, all you have is the present moment.”


Chia seems to agree, adding that prolonged darkness brings about “a unique spiritual journey to access higher levels of consciousness and reunite with your true self”. 

It does sound pretty incredible — a tonic for a modern world of quick hits, money worries and hasty hook-ups — though I obviously have some trepidation with facing such a dearth of stimulus. To start my own dark journey, I headed to the Bliss Haven Retreat Centre near my then-home on the southern Oaxacan coast of Mexico for a six-day darkness experience.

I’m given a spartan, yet spacious, hotel room with windows covered to keep out the light. It’s furnished only by a single bed and a stool, which sits next to a serving hatch where my twice-daily meals will be served in Tupperware. There’s a toilet and shower in the back. It could be a solitary confinement cell in a prison if it wasn’t for the air con, and the fact they allowed me to bring in a yoga mat, a thin mattress to lounge out on, a meditation cushion and a large amethyst.

As I prepare my room, a few hours before my journey officially begins, it’s 34 degrees outside and I’m mostly concerned about ruining my tan. But once I turn off the lights and close the door for a taste of what’s to come, a daunting wave of fear causes me to shudder. 

I go to watch the sunset at a nearby beach with co-owner Veronica Klassen and I manage to collect myself. She informs me this is the eve of both the spring solstice and a new moon, so it feels like an auspicious time to step into something new. I feel ready – particularly after telling an on-off love interest to fuck off following our latest tiff that day. Weirdly, I’m emboldened to cut ties with her following my trial five minutes in the dark. ‘I’m alone and that’s cool,’ I think to myself. I don’t need the aggro and the confusion which comes hand-in-hand with certain relationships – bring on the solo healing.


Back at the Bliss Haven, I surrender all my electronic items to Klassen and she lays out the final guidelines to me, over candlelight: Chiefly, I can just open the door and leave if it becomes too intense. Oh, and I absolutely cannot have a wank because it messes with the body’s process in the darkness. I’m already half passed out as she speaks, but when the candle’s flame eventually goes out, I muster the strength to come to my feet, say goodbye and close the door behind her. I’m finally alone in the pitch black.

I surrender serenely to the darkness – it’s like all the tiredness accumulated throughout my 29 years is finally breathing a sigh of relief. It brings me comfort to know I’m following in the footsteps of many sages before me, and I’m compelled to ponder a quote from the main Taoist text, that Chia often cites: “When you go into the dark and this becomes total, the darkness soon turns into light.” 

I arise creakily from my slumber (there’s no alarm clocks or wake up calls per say, but the delivery of breakfast wakes me up) still immersed in darkness, with limbs heavy like lead. Melatonin, the calming hormone produced in reaction to the lack of light, has flooded my body and I’ve slept like a log. What most occupies me, though, is not FOMO on events in the outside world, but how the metal springs in the mattress have pressed into my weary joints overnight. I request another bed via a note in the serving hatch and the switching on of an emergency light outside and the staff swiftly deliver a futon. I’m instructed to go into the adjoining bathroom and put my head face down into a cushion with my blindfold on, lest any light sneaks into my eyes.


Once they’re gone, I slump down onto my new memory foam mattress. It feels like I’ve taken a handful of benzos. Thanks to the melatonin, I flit between a gentle meditative state and pure exhaustion. I’d like to do some proper stretches to ease the aches, but I’m already in low power mode. It’s almost like returning to the womb, but on sedatives – cuddly, cloudy, and wonky. I certainly don’t feel like I’m accessing a cosmic consciousness just yet, but I sleep through most of the day quite contentedly and never forget where I am.

That evening, I wake from my all-day slumber to the sound of the hatch opening (it’s only really the meal deliveries that allow me to maintain a vague sense of time) and my state of mind vacillates between serenity and distraction. I’m aware that I’m starved of dopamine, the reward chemical triggered by likes, matches and miscellaneous notifications on smartphones — amongst other things. Yet the subconscious is in charge for the most part, since I’m deeply in the parasympathetic state (basically, the opposite of the fight or flight response) and my physical body has succumbed to a state of calm. My mind is active, though. It seems I must revisit pretty much everything that’s ever happened to me – primarily old flames and relationships. 


The Rise of the Retreat

Over the course of the next 24 hours, my brain goes through detailed, recollections of every single partner, on autopilot. It’s almost like a mind purge of the emotional baggage left from the encounters, even though they’ve mostly been positive, pleasant experiences. It’s a challenging process and I realise that despite the good parts, I haven’t ultimately felt nourished aside from the one time I was seriously in love. I resolve to not have sex again until I’m truly catching feelings, and instead focus my energy on writing, singing and playing guitar.

Away from everyday simulation and distraction (and activating beverages), my dreams generally become calmer and more lighthearted than the morbid chases to the death that form a significant percentage of those in regular life. The scariest is always the most memorable, though. During a nap following Day Three’s cheese omelette brunch – eaten with my hands since using cutlery is pretty difficult without sight – I am terrorised by three chickens and an enormous rooster. They pierce my nipples with safety pins and etch a set of gallows on my chest with a tattoo gun, before brazenly occupying my bathroom. 

I ponder what this means — were the eggs in my omelette not organic? — and write it all down. Thanks to almost a decade of jotting notes down really quickly for work, I’m quite good at ascribing events without needing to see the page. Then, my thermos falls all over my notepad and I rush to dry out the pages in a frenzy, in total darkness.


But all is not lost. That evening, I first feel something “unlocking” between my eyebrows — in the region of the mythical third eye spoken of in eastern traditions. The next morning, following a night of disrupted sleep, I descend ever deeper into a well of clarity, as what’s said to be a natural form of DMT slowly circulates through my body. I was half expecting this, but I still whoop as it sets in – finally it’s time to get high on my own supply. 

Still lying down, I float through the night gently on my own cosmic saucer. I melt into a soothing dreamland where my entire extended family — including those who have passed, most notably my father who passed away in December — get together for a game of cards. This never happened in real life. Then I wake up with a sore hip, and see my room filled with faintly crackling holograms – the first visions. Now it’s getting seriously trippy. I can’t even imagine the kind of hallucinations you’d get from nine years, like the Kogi children, or 49 days in darkness, as a friend of mine recently did at this very retreat.

Day Four marks itself mostly by stomach issues and a recollection of every single violent confrontation and serious injury in my life. Without fish and meat in my diet, and with a sudden influx of vegetables – following the vegetarian principles of the Bliss Haven – my belly is rumbling and I’m letting loose awful smelling farts every ten minutes. Luckily the room is electronically ventilated. As my bowels emit a pungent legume aroma, I relive a variety of mostly undeserved punches to the face that I suffered at the hands of school bullies, bouncers and folks I provoked on the football field.


My chest tightens amid a silence punctuated only by my flatulence. The surroundings swirl and my body groans, now begging for respite: It’s getting a bit too much, really. In the early hours, I press the I’m A Journalist Get Me Out Of Here button via the emergency light and leave a note asking if we can finish the retreat that morning and head out to watch the sunrise. I feels like suddenly just opening the door and leaving solo would be a cop out, so I engage in a series of strenuous conscious breathing exercises to help me get to sleep.

I reflect on how the hell I ended up here as I’m woken up by Klassen at 7AM, shortly after sunrise. By this point, Day Five morning, the “DMT” really seems to have kicked in and it all feels rather incredible, so we agree I’ll emerge the following dawn instead. While the previous “DMT” rushes plateaued after no more than half an hour, this one has some staying power. It kinda feels like I’m candy flipping on a low dose of MDMA and LSD, rather than DMT which tends to deliver an intense, short-lived high. This may be the sustained natural high I’ve long yearned for. It leads to my aches reaching their lowest point yet and I’m even able to muster the energy – and joint flexibility – for a decent Qi Gong routine, a type of Chinese standing yoga slash martial arts practice.

The blissful euphoria of quiet in my mind unfolds placidly. Slowed down to unprecedented degrees, it rests without straining to find something to think about. With the volume turned right down, you can really listen to the silence within. Enlightenment surely beckons, but what will I call my new religion?

But The Fear really hits me in the early hours of Day Six. Desperate for a wee, I can’t find the toilet and find myself scrambling pathetically around the room bereft of any sense of direction. Even after I relieve myself upon finding the bog, there’s a residual fear. So I have no objections when I’m invited to step into the light at 5.30AM.

The journey through the story of my life was a deeply psychedelic experience – an intense, illuminating and calming journey. It also feels somewhat easier to digest these intense events when I’m not wiping vomit from my cheek, as with rollercoaster ride hallucinogens like ayahuasca. 

Swimming in the heated pool opposite my former cell, I look forward to sleeping in my own bed, eating what I want, and checking my Instagram. I feel really sincere about waiting for the love of my life and eschewing the more frivolous connections. During the following days of deep calm and heightened sensitivity, I seek to make better sense of the experience. I note that Chia has also theorised that darkness may effectively convert sexual energy, which he refers to as jing, into life force energy, chi

The next week, once I’ve come back to earth, I do seem to have a lot more energy than before. And I still haven’t had a wank. But fast forward two months, and I’ve made a mockery of my vow of celibacy. A handful of fun hookups haven’t made me any happier. I’ve missed flights, had rows in the street, given into drinking alcohol, and basically wasted a tonne of time. Maybe I should go and live in darkness forever – things are certainly much simpler there.