Once upon a time there was a man who figured out why we all are so unhappy.
He helped a lot of people in his life, and before he died, he told his friends not to make statues of him, because he wasn't special and that every living being could do what he did.
Well, you know us, we made statues anyways.
One of these statues was a nearly ten foot tall golden Buddha built in the mountains of Thailand. It sat in the center of a great temple where generations of monks prayed and meditated.
The wave of war eventually came to the walls of the temple. The monks did not flee and they did not fear. They did however cover the Buddha in mud. They knew the warriors came for gold, not earth.
Tragically, all the monks were killed, but the Buddha went unnoticed.
Centuries passed, and eventually monks returned to the temple. And as the legend goes, one day a young monk was meditating at the base of the mud Buddha. His meditation was challenged by the strong scent of the previous night's rain.
When he opened his eyes, he noticed a shimmer of light breaking through a crack in the mud.
Later that day, all the monks at the temple gently wiped away the mud to reveal a grand, blazing, golden Buddha.
This story is told as a parable for beginners on the Buddhist path. The student is told that she is the muddy Buddha. That in her, beneath her distracted mind, her personal history, her pain and pleasure, sits a shimmering, golden Buddha Nature.
The Darkness Retreat is a way to notice.
What Brought Me To The Darkness?
I’ve been a student of psychology for nearly 15 years. The most mysterious and mystical aspect of our psyche is what Carl Jung called ‘The Unconscious.’
He once attempted to define it:
“If it were possible to personify the unconscious, we might think of it as a collective human being combining the characteristics of both sexes, transcending youth and age, birth and death, and, from having at its command a human experience of one or two million years, practically immortal.
If such a being existed, it would be exalted above all temporal change; the present would mean neither more nor less to it than any year in the hundredth millennium before Christ; it would be a dreamer of age-old dreams and, owing to its limitless experience, an incomparable prognosticator.
It would have lived countless times over again; the life of the individual, the family, the tribe, and the nation, and it would possess a living sense of the rhythm of growth, flowering, and decay…
Unfortunately — or rather let us say, fortunately — this being dreams…”
What Jung is trying to say is that there is a God in us, more dynamic and multi-faceted than any book or sermon could ever describe. This God lives in us, is us, and speaks to us every night through our dreams.
And you get to have a relationship with it.
I am in love with this ‘two million year old being.’
My life, in one sense, is my love story with this being.
I’m reminded of Laura Huxley’s book This Timeless Moment (this book is one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever read). To this day, I still cry whenever I feel into her masterpiece. The genius of her work is that she wrote from the perspective of someone in love with the protagonist, her husband, Aldous Huxley.
Most of our stories the narrator is ‘objective,’ whatever that word pretends to mean.
Not Laura. She was passionately in love with the subject of her story. Through her words, you, the reader, fall in love with Aldous.
This is how I aspire to write about the Unconscious. The Unconscious is the thing we dread when we think about spending many days in the dark. What I hope to show you is that your Unconscious, this inner god under the mud of your identity, is beautiful, here to help you, and once trusted and accepted, will become the great love of your life.
The Darkness Retreat is a date with the Unconscious.
What is a Darkness Retreat?
A darkness retreat is when someone spends an extended amount of time in a room engineered to be completely devoid of light (it is surprisingly hard to create a structure that keeps out all light; caves, basements, and/or excellent engineering is required).
Most modern darkness retreats are between three and seven days.
Tibetan darkness initiations are typically seven weeks.
Some Chinese Buddhists will do 100 days in darkness.
There are even examples of cultures using extended time in the darkness that spans years (the Kogi people report that their high priests will spend their first 9 years in darkness before entering into the world of light).
These retreats are normally done under the supervision of a teacher who checks in each day and brings food.
The next question most people ask at this point is ‘Why the fuck would anyone want to do this?’
In lineages like the Tibetans, Chinese, and Kogi, who have used darkness for thousands of years as an initiatory ritual, they believed this kind of practice, under the supervision of a teacher, was capable of unlocking new skills, perceptions, and types of consciousness that those cultures admired and wanted their elders to have access to.
Another profound reason they did this was because of a peculiar physiological response that occurs in the body after three to four days of complete isolation from light; the brain begins to secrete amounts of DMT similar to when we vividly dream.
After about three to four days, the darkness begins to illuminate with an inner light. Visions begin.
For westerners, who have been tragically severed from the language of the Unconscious (dreams, symbols, and somatic feelings), this will seem like a kind of meaningless hallucination chasing.
For these other lineages, they understood these visions as a kind of portal to the interior world; a world where their ancestors lived, where their gods, demons, and heroes of lore and legend resided. They understood the darkness was a bridge to the ‘two million year old’ inside us, who guides all of us.
The Darkness Retreat is an ancient psychotechnology to help bring the ego and the unconscious into deeper intimate contact.
And for people who live in our modern western culture, I think this is one of the greatest psychotechnologies we can weave into our lives, to help begin balancing the scales of a culture that denies its interior world.
The gift of the dark is that it forces the Western mind to stop doing.
And when we stop doing, and begin to deepen into a state of relaxation we may have not known our entire adult life, one of the profound secrets of life reveals itself:
When we really, finally, stop trying; another force comes to meet us. This force knows exactly what we need and gives it to us. And what we need will probably break our hearts, and when it does, after the grief and anger and weeping, we will find ourselves refreshed, reborn, renewed.
The secret to healing is finally feeling whatever it is you have spent your life trying to not feel.
Once that is done, we can start the next stage of the spiritual journey, which is to engage with life, to bend the bow of our being towards improving this broken beautiful world for the following generations.
Ken Wilber spoke true when he said
“As the (modern) wisdom holders, we need to help people find what's important—to
Grow Up by moving through the early stages of emotional maturing,
Clean Up by doing shadow-up,
Wake Up by doing spiritual practice, and
Show Up by serving humanity in the world.”
My Darkness Retreat
They say the ceremony begins the moment you commit. So we could say my darkness retreat started three years ago when my friend Aubrey asked me to come on his podcast and interview him about the recent darkness retreat he did in Germany, which happened just before Covid-19 hit the world.
After that two hour podcast I knew I’d be going on my own journey into the dark some day.
Covid came and went in its enigmatic way, and I finally found a retreat center state-side that was open for business. February 18th, 2023 was the date available. I would be flying to the mountains of Oregon to spend almost 96 hours in a little room, completely void of light.
It looked like this:
I officially booked this trip late December, 2022. I did a great job dissociating from it until about a week before I was to leave. It wasn’t until I started explaining to people what I was doing that it began to set in for me.
So much of our worlds and selves are a collaborative construction with other people. Every time I’d describe the darkness retreat, I’d slowly watch the shift in energy on people’s faces. They’d melt from curiosity to a kind of fascinated disgust; I suppose this is the tension we feel when horror fascinates us.
Most people I described this practice to flat out say they couldn’t do it, that they would go mad before the first day ended, etc.
The truth was, I was excited. I knew that this would be an opportunity to both rest, and to hang out with my Unconscious. I knew my dreams would be potent, and that some new layer of my evolution was waiting for me.
Because of a certain medley of genetic luck and acquired skill, my mind and I get along well, and we excel as a team when we enter non-ordinary states of consciousness.
But after the third friend responded to my description of the darkness with subtle horror, I thought it time to begin preparing.
Preparing For The Darkness
Whenever I am about to go do something like ayahuasca, a darkness retreat, or a solo-sabbatical, I change a few habits that signal to my entire inner system that we’re about to move into sacred space.
#1 - Disconnect From All Social Media
It is so hard to appreciate just how massively and insidiously our social media platforms distract us, warp our perception, and cheapen our dopamine reward systems. What most people do not understand is that social media is a competitive game, and each of us are competing, not against each other, but rather, against an AI. The networks of code that make up each platform’s attention optimization algorithms are computer programs designed by geniuses to maximize the amount of your life force, your attention, you give to these platforms.
In 1996, the greatest chess player in the world, Gary Kasparov, lost to IBM’s Deep Blue computer. For the first time in history, a computer beat a chess Grandmaster at chess.
Kasparov knew he was playing a game.
He knew the rules of the game and was a grandmaster at it.
He knew he was actively competing against Deep Blue.
And the computer program he lost to was orders of magnitude weaker than the algorithms that govern modern social media.
Most of us don’t know we’re playing a game when we log in.
We don’t know the rules of the game and we are not grandmasters.
We don’t know we’re actively competing, and we don’t know who our Deep Blue is.
Social media is a new generation of gods we’re just beginning to notice.
I use social media, but I know what it feels like when it starts to use me.
So whenever I begin to settle into a transformative experience, I get off of everything: Instagram, Twitter, Whatsapp, Reddit, Telegram, etc.
It is glorious, and if you haven’t tried it, I’d highly recommend it.
#2 - Close All Social ‘Open Loops’
This is where I go through my email and text messages and make it clear to everyone I’m close to that I am not available and won’t be available until (insert a date a good 4-5 days after I get home), so I can settle before returning to the world of dinners and workouts and podcasts.
This is an important one for me. I don’t know what has happened in the last few years, but I now have more people who I love and who love me, who I want to connect with and who want to connect with me, then I have hours in a week.
My ‘dirty room’ in my psyche are my texts and emails. Whenever I open them, a pile of guilt and shame comes to meet me. I know at some point in the future I’ll figure out how to navigate this, but I haven’t figured it out yet. So what I do is send a mass email, or post an Instagram story, to let everyone know I won’t be using my phone for a few weeks.
I then make a list of all the people I need to reach out to when I am ‘back,’ and then I don’t think about it again until after my experience (it may surprise people, but the scientific research on open loops is clear: all you need to do to reduce the cognitive stress of open loops is to write it down somewhere your brain trusts that it knows it can go back to when it needs to).
For those interested in experiencing what a mind completely clear of open loops feels like, check out David Allen’s book Getting Things Done.
#3 - Pack
I imagine packing as a kind of ritual where I get to give a gift to my future self. My physical aesthetic is minimalism, so I don’t pack much, but I try to pack things I know will give me a lot of joy.
For this adventure, the key item to pack was a voice recorder. I bought a portable Rhode hand-held voice recorder and used some black tape to cover the screen and the recording light. I practiced using the machine a few times, and made sure I had extra batteries.
Practicing and preparing this was the moment I felt myself really enter into this experience.
So, with my withdrawal from social media, the closing of my social open loops, and the packing of my voice recorder, it was time.
The first day was a whirlwind of activity.
I flew into Oregon by 11am and was greeted by the founder of the retreat, a kind, contemplative man named Scott. After about a 40 minute drive deep into the mountains, we eventually arrived at their retreat center.
And it was breathtaking.
He and a few dozen other families had populated the side of a gorgeous mountain with farms, cabins, roads, greenhouses, and places for children to play. They even had a full, lively flowing river cutting through the property where they hand built one of the most beautiful saunas I had ever seen next to it.
As they prepared for my full immersion, I got to do a 2 hour practice run in my light-deprived room. Before closing the door and turning off the lights, I took a moment to appreciate the layout.
I had a little area to kneel and eat, a 6x6 rug to stretch and exercise, a nice-sized bed, a meditation cushion, a tub, and a little bathroom.
After circling the parameter a few times like a house cat in a new home, I turned off the lights and entered the void.
No light is a different dimension than ‘dark.’
No light is too dark what scuba diving is to light rain. No light has a kind of amusingly terrifying feeling to it. On one level, having my eyes open but unable to discern my hands 1 inch from my eyes was scary. But on the other hand, to know that I was in a beautifully built structure engineered to provide this experience, and that there were kind and competent people living on the land around me, here to help me if I needed it, wrapped the fear in excitement.
A slice of my thoughts looked like:
What the fuck am I doing?
God, this is so cool.
Why the fuck am I here?
This is fucking incredible.
Eventually my mind calmed and I began to notice my body. There was so much tension in my jaws, and I slowly realized that I hadn’t set an intention for the darkness yet.
Something intuitively arose, and I said out loud in the void:
“My intention is to remember the resonance of my true voice. I know my stutter is a message notifying me that something is out of balance. I am here to remember.”
I’ve had a stutter since the first dawn of my consciousness. Some periods of my life the stutter is so quiet most people don’t even realize I have one. At other times in my life the stutter becomes obvious enough to be the topic of group conversations.
At the time of writing this, I am in a period where it is prominent. As a writer and speaker, it is one of my more frustrating obstacles.
And so, my intention was to deepen my relationship with this aspect of my being.
After the two hour test run, I asked to use the wifi at the main house to send a ‘see you on the other side’ message to my fiancée. After receiving some sweet blessings from her, I returned to my room.
The last thing on the docket before the darkness was a ‘session with Adrienne.’
I didn’t know what that meant, and frankly, I wouldn’t have understood if someone had tried.
Pre-Darkness Craniosacral Therapy Session
A woman entered my little abode around 4pm with a massage table, some blankets, and a warm smile. She had blonde dreads down past her shoulders, and as she set up her station, she told me about her travels to India, her three-year long meditation retreat, and the synchronicities that brought her to this Oregon mountain, helping people connect to themselves before going into darkness.
Our world is teeming with bodhisattvas without Instagrams.
“For the first part of the session, we’re just going to talk. I’m going to listen, and while I won’t ever force you to share, I’m going to feel for the pieces you don’t want to talk about and I’m about to cozy up around them like a cat rubbing your leg, because the more you trust me, the more we will both find in our intimacy together.”
For the next 30 minutes I felt her gently hypnotically induct me, and I began sharing with her some of what I was feeling.
One of the first things that stumbled out of my mouth was
“I feel like a fraud.”
Wow. The moment I uttered that, I began to laugh and cry. A weight I hadn’t noticed floated away from the top of my shoulders. I felt more free and more relaxed than I had in weeks.
What I realized is that I struggle being seen as a teacher. And yet, one of the activities I love most in life is the act of teaching. The fraudulent feeling has recently arisen because of the scope of what I’ve started speaking about.
I talk about existential threats, creating new myths, building future cities, and about a new mental health paradigm. These are the kind of ideas that light me on fire, but to the degree my audience responds to these ideas with admiration, and not collaborative participation, I feel like a fraud.
I feel like a boy who has woken up on a bus without a driver, and I’m trying to wake the other kids on the bus so we can figure out what to do, but whenever I try to wake people up, they listen for a moment and because I’m able to explain that we’re in trouble coherently, they assume someone must be taking care of it and they slip back into sleep.
I am not the bus driver. The problems I see require communities, not Kings.
So, gem #1 collected.
A part of me feels like a fraud.
Eventually we moved to the second part of the session, and this is where I laid down on the massage table as she gently held my feet while she continued to ask me questions.
A part of her magic is that she seems capable of noticing the subtlest changes in breath and posture, and will call out a “right there, what happened?” the moment she notices a change, and with that fish hook of a question, she is able to pull up amazing material.
Once on the bed, the first fish she reeled from my unconscious was the 18 year old teenager whose dreams of playing professional basketball had ended with rotator cuff surgery. She helped me connect to the profound grief I had at that time because I felt like a kid on a bus with no drivers. I felt alone during the hardest period of my life.
There was nothing to do and nothing to fix. I simply felt fully the grief that that young man felt.
Tears poured out of my eyes.
It felt sweet and it felt good to admit that that grief was still in me.
Next, I connected to my 5 year old self. He too felt the absence of a parental competence he could surrender into. At 5, I felt, at least emotionally, that I was largely responsible for my parents' mental states.
As I began imagining my present self playing with that 5 year old, I began to touch an unbelievably intense rage. I imagined how easy it would have been for the 32 year old man I am now to have a 5 year old boy and to take him outside to play. I saw how I’d respond to him if he were scared, or if he felt shame, and as I saw the goodness of my 32 year old self playing with my 5 year old self the fire of the rage flickered and Adrienne noticed.
“There, what was that?”
“I feel a rage inside me. I see myself screaming as loud as I can…and I’m screaming at god. I’m mad at…I’m like…do you see how easy this would have been to give me? It would have been so easy.”
She began to tenderly suggest I actually scream, and I quickly began to explain to her the spiritual reasons why I don’t actually blame god or my parents, that I understand why things played out the way they did, how I wouldn’t be who I am today if it hadn’t, blah blah blah.
She kept her word and she tenderly circled around the place in me I didn’t want to go.
“Sometimes, when we touch a place in us where there is an incomplete process, we may feel the urge to do something that would complete the process. Often when people feel this, and I’m not saying this is true for you now, but often people will overlay that genuine feeling with spiritual stories that their current evolved self does not feel those feelings.”
And I just started laughing. She was exactly right. And so, I agreed. I’d do it.
I closed my eyes and relaxed back into the memory. I found the place in me that felt the rage. As I connected to it, I felt the muscles in my core start to tighten, and a radiating pulse began emitting from my core that slowly tensed all the muscles of my body until the wave finally met my neck, face and head, and once every muscle in my body was taut, I left out a guttural scream.
I could tell I startled her, but by the time I ran out of air, I was left with a calm, euphoric buzzing peace in my body. I was subtly vibrating throughout my body and I felt incredibly, deeply, relaxed.
I had no idea that level of emotion was living inside me.
As we closed the session, I could see my 18 year self in a sling, and the 5 year old boy gathered around a fire with me and my friends. We were all talking and laughing with each other, telling stories and hanging out.
They were home.
And we were about to put out the fire and be with the darkness.
The session was complete. We shared a little conversation as she packed up her portable temple. Scott came by to start a fire and drop off dinner. It was a final buzz of commotion before the four day silence.
Once they left, I sat down to eat my dinner.
When the food was done, and after a little prayer, I turned off the light and officially started my four days in darkness.
That first evening, I figured out to use my foam roller as a walking stick (this was a very helpful discovery). I drew a bath, relaxed in the tub, brushed my teeth, then laid down to my first long night of complete black.
I was asleep before I knew it.
I dreamt a lot the first night. I must have awoken from a dream and fallen back asleep six or seven times. One of the first things I noticed was how vividly I could recall my dreams because I could see in the dream.
When we first wake up, if we have the presence to notice, there will be some thought, image, sentence, or scene on the horizon of the conscious mind. This twilight zone is where the unconscious creeps over the edge of the veil into consciousness.
Dreams are the entities of the twilight horizon of consciousness, and waking up in darkness made it easy to catch them, because the canvas of Being was blank when I awoke.
While none of my dreams that first night felt particularly important, the overall vibe was playful.
Eventually, I decided to get up for the day. I made my bed and did a little ‘good morning’ meditation where I took a slow conscious moment to say good morning to each part of my body. Then I started foam rolling, slowly moved into a light workout, and then sat to eat a little breakfast.
The dinner from last night was purposefully large so I could use it as food throughout the day. This allowed the owner, Scott, to come drop off food only once a day. I enjoyed some chia pudding and apples, and then sat down for my first ‘real’ meditation.
Since the beginning of 2023, I’ve been getting interested in Buddhism, specifically Dzogchen. The essence of this lineage resonates more with me than anything else I have found in my life.
My summary of what resonances with me most is:
- The core of the game of life is learning how to use the Mind.
- The habitual mind (thinking without noticing we’re thinking) is the root of suffering.
- There are psychotechnologies that can notice and relax the habitual mind.
- The higher horizons of these psychotechnologies are real, teachable, and liveable.
- Knowledge is accumulative, wisdom is subtractive, meaning, we learn by acquiring more concepts, for example, we learn words, then sentences, then paragraphs. Wisdom occurs through subtraction: I am not my thoughts, I am not my feelings, I am not my identity, etc.
- Buddhism is an unbroken 2,600 year old ‘school’ of teaching these psychotechnologies.
- Buddhism is currently the most translatable wisdom tradition into the modern scientific worldview, meaning, we can measure the claims, and the results have been significant.
- Dzogchen specifically has no theology or dogma, it is something that can be directly experienced.
- The result, for me, is a practice that feeds in me a kind of being they call a Bodhisattva, which is the most inspiring hero archetype I’ve found in all the world mythologies.
- I really like Buddhist art.
The essence of Dzogchen is to use insight to cut through the illusion of duality and to enter into a kind of non-dual awareness that is called emptiness or nothingness. When I meditate, I use a 108 notched mala bead necklace where, each time I move to a new bead, I re-enter the non-dual awareness, eventually notice that I’ve wandered out of it and back into thinking without knowing I’m thinking (which happens in just a few seconds), and then return again to the non-dual awareness. Each time I catch myself and come back, I move to the next bead.
I rarely have the discipline to make it through the entire necklace. It takes between 45-60 minutes. When I feel worn out, I switch to a mantra practice, much like Transcendental Meditation. That for me is easy and relaxing.
When I finally finished and got up to go to the bathroom, I noticed something interesting. I could feel a subtle aching sadness at the edge of my awareness. I ignored it and kept doing my ‘spiritual activities.’
I foam rolled again, did another light work out, and snacked a little more. While ‘in’ these practices, I felt great (particularly eating, in the darkness the taste and smell of the food was blissful). However, after my second meditation, I realized I was participating in a kind of spiritual trap.
A Modern Spiritual Trap
I began to put some puzzle pieces together and I noticed a pattern.
We grow up feeling something is wrong with life. We eventually find a spiritual path that begins to help us feel more at home in the world and our bodies. It can be meditation, psychedelics, exercise, tantra, indigenous wisdom, occult magick, breathwork, certain diets, or one of the many religions with a complete cosmology and set of rituals.
As we begin to live these practices we begin to feel ourselves healing. We begin to process repressed emotions, begin to access non-ordinary states of consciousness, and we feel good doing it.
But the moment any of these practices start to become something we reach for in order to not feel a certain way, our spiritual practices become coping strategies.
This is a subtle line that only we can discern, but as soon as we use our spiritual practices as ego check-listing, we can fall into this modern spiritual trap.
I realized by mid-morning that I was using my spiritual practices to avoid feeling whatever this sadness was. So I decided to stop and to just lay down without a plan.
Within minutes, tears began streaming down my face.
The sadness was that I missed my partner. I intuitively felt the urge to begin speaking out loud, and I began to voice how much I missed her. I spoke as if I was talking directly to her. As I spoke my love for her, I cried so much my tears began to fill up my ears.
I began to realize that the most important thing in my life right now is to nurture the space between us called our relationship so that we can grow the seeds that are children. And I noticed a trap I was slipping into.
Because the most important core of my life currently is our relationship, I saw how my subtle addiction to work was pulling me away from meeting her intimately. I have stories that I need to grow my business, solidify my vocation’s crafts, and create more material security for our relationship but sometimes at the expense of living and appreciating our relationship now.
I began to see scenes of moments where I chose to work instead of going for a walk, or how I wasn’t totally present when she shared a dream she had, or how I’d rather work than go on a spontaneous adventure over the weekend.
I got to taste the potential timeline where this unconscious pattern, my work addiction, ate the living joy of our relationship. Like Scrooge’s Ghost of Christmas Future, I got to feel that tragedy, the poor man who worked so hard for his family only to find his wife had left him and his children resented him.
And I could feel my psyche digesting this timeline with awareness; my grief was the psychological enzyme breaking down this potential future, and my tears the byproducts of this alchemy.
The darkness is a great teacher. By simply relaxing, my Unconscious was able to bring me this realization. By relaxing, and putting down my spiritual practices, I grieved. And with perfect timing, there was a moment where the grieving felt complete, and I was left in a little puddle in the dark, curled on my bed, completely at peace.
I eventually fell into a deep nap.
– – –
I knew the first midday nap was going to be when the darkness retreat would really start.
You know what it’s like to take a deep, multi-hour nap during the day, the kind of nap that when you wake up you don’t know what day it is; well, imagine that kind of nap in complete darkness.
I woke up in the void, completely unaware of what time it was. I checked the food slot to confirm dinner had not arrived, deducing it must be mid-afternoon, and I slowly ate the rest of the food that came the previous day.
It was fucking fantastic. The soup specifically was a lifetime event. I sat on the floor, hunched over my little canister of stew exclaiming to the gods the rapture of my feast. I realized once I finished how much fun I was having and how the sadness that had permeated my darkness was no longer present. What giggled in its place was a child-like playfulness.
For the next few hours I simply laid in bed and let my mind rest, allowing it to simply notice whatever random images, thoughts, songs, fantasies, or jokes arose, like little letters in a bottle sent from my unconscious.
Eventually I heard the latch of the outermost door open. It was evening. It was dinner time. I felt a surge of euphoria rise in me as I heard the previous day’s containers being removed from the food box as the new food replaced their spot.
Scott shared a little gem with me before he left. He said one of his favorite Buddhist quotes was:
“Enlightenment is neither gradual or immediate; it is timeless.”
I let that quote roll through me as I drew my bath. I let it massage me as I soaked in the hot water. I laughed at it while I brushed my teeth, and I cuddled it as I laid down for sleep at the end of my first full day in the darkness.
I had a dream that I was in an expensive hotel suite. It felt like I was with a group of friends I work with in real life. They were all about to lay down for a sound healing. Everyone was in sleeping bags, waiting to receive medicine music from a beautiful singer.
She was in the room now. She looked like a Colombian singer I know in the waking world. Beautiful, powerful, and deeply connected to her indigenous lineage and the rituals of her native Colombian land.
She began to tell me excitedly how her recent album made it onto the front page of the New York Times. She said it in a kind of sheepish voice so I told her to say it again. She could feel what I was doing, that I was inviting her to step more into ‘owning’ her accomplishment.
I asked her to say it three times in total. And by the end of the last ‘onto the front page of the New York Times,’ she was beaming. It felt like she had been activated, and I suddenly realized everyone in the room could hear us, were waiting for us to stop, and although I noticed this, I didn’t feel embarrassed. I felt proud of being witnessed in what just happened.
As the singer began to prepare the sound healing, I looked down and realized I was wearing ceremonial clothing, and I instantly understood I had just finished my own sound healing earlier and that I was going to go outside and explore while they journeyed.
I felt the strong desire to go find a nice steak dinner.
Then I woke up.
I didn’t realize it then, but in hindsight, this is clearly a dream revealing my psyche beginning to work through my intention:
“My intention is to remember the resonance of my true voice.”
The Alchemy of Orchestrating and Listening
As I was eating breakfast, I had a whole cascading reverie that I’ll try to track here.
I began to notice how easy the darkness was for me so far. The darkness felt like home. I didn’t feel antagonistic with my mind. I began to appreciate that, as a way of being, I seem to have an intuitive grace when relating to my interior world.
Years of practice listening to the unconscious; through dreams, slips of the tongue, associative memories, facial expressions, and body language seems to have attuned me to the nature of the unconscious, and while that nature is dynamic and spontaneous, it also leaves clues that reveal an underlying order.
But most fundamentally, the Unconscious has taught me faith. I have an absolute faith in the goodness, beauty, and truth of the unconscious when it is listened to.
So, the darkness was effortless for me in a way that surprised me, but what I realized is that the cost of my interior grace is that I tend to not strategize, specifically, I have shied away, for most of life, from trying to transform my life into what I want it to be.
With the birth of children coming over the horizon of my life, I can feel that I am called to hone my ability to strategize.
Many spiritual people will flinch reading this, thinking that to strategize is inherently anti-spiritual, that the proper way of being is to listen and flow with what the universe presents.
As with all good things, the alchemy is the synthesis.
There's a great story a good friend of mine sometimes shares with groups when he presents workshops.
There once was a council of elder women who gathered whenever something significant in the tribe needed to be worked out. To signal the beginning of the council, they would light a sacred pipe. One of the younger elders attempted to light the pipe but each time she did so the wind would blow it out. After three attempts, she concluded to the council that this was a sign from spirit that the council was not meant to convene this day.
The eldest woman asked for the pipe, covered the flame with her other hand, and lit it. When she passed it back she said, “Sometimes it’s just the wind.”
I think a metaphor that will help the spiritually inclined is to think of strategy as orchestrating.
To orchestrate is to arrange the elements of a situation to produce a desired outcome.
When we throw a party for a friend, we engage in orchestrating. When we want to birth a book, or a workshop, or a ceremonial container, we are orchestrating.
The beauty of civilization, when it is beautiful, is the embodied act of orchestrating.
All our architecture and infrastructure; our roads, plumbing, electricity, communication technologies, flight, surgeries, and even parenting are acts of orchestration.
Implied in the act of orchestrating is listening.
A good host has a plan for the evening, a great host will change that plan after attempting it and then listening to whether or not the plan was right.
The younger elder was a good listener, but the elder elder was a great listener.
Sometimes it is just the wind.
For me, the block to orchestrate more deeply the fabric of my life to conform to my dreams had to do with not trusting my heart.
I was afraid that any orchestration would be manipulation.
With recent experiences over the last few years, I trust myself now.
I can now feel that a critical part of my next evolution is to step more into my orchestrator.
What is the difference between orchestration and manipulation?
When does ‘listening’ become a cover for fear, resistance, and cowardice?
When does strategy become control, deceit, and denial of informed consent?
To what degree does a father strategize?
Where along the spectrum of orchestration to manipulation does a good heart corrode?
Questions always bear more fruit than answers.
Confronting The Woman Eater
After a few hours of meandering between snacks, working out, and meditating, I eventually found myself back in bed after lunch.
In the same way it only took a couple of minutes the previous day for me to experience an insight, the same happened this day. I quickly found my daydreams bringing me face-to-face with a dark force.
A few years ago, I had a very challenging ayahuasca ceremony where I made contact with a force I called ‘The Woman Eater.’ The encounter started with a dream I had the morning before our next day of drinking the brew.
I was in what felt like a Roman colosseum. The audience was full, and we were looking at a young attractive woman standing on top of a bus, with a black monster circling her from the ground.
The beast had the body of a lion, the heads of a hydra, and the biology of Venom from the Spiderman movies; the entire creature looked and felt like the symbiote that creates Venom and Carnage.
The beast found its way onto the bus and began to tear the woman apart.
The actual dream was more violent, but I don’t need to replay that part of the song.
The important part is that, that creature came to visit me that evening, and it resulted in one of the hardest ayahuasca experiences I have had to date.
Well, the creature returned in the darkness.
From my inner eye’s perspective, I was watching my mind float from scene to scene of different desires, past experiences, and potential futures when I suddenly found myself directly in front of this monster. It was a few feet from me looking me directly in my eyes.
There wasn’t fear, but there was a clear message.
The message was that this thing was a part of me, and that I would be facing it at some point in the darkness (when I encountered this force the first time on ayahuasca, I tried to explain it away as me tapping into a collective archetype, which is a great Jungian way to avoid integrating something uncomfortable).
Somehow I knew there was nothing I needed to do at the moment. I could trust that when it was ready to be worked with, something would happen. So I simply noted that that arose, and that I was open and available for whatever wanted to make contact.
A funny aside; by the time the woman eater insight experience ended, I thought I was, at most, an hour away from dinner.
I could feel I had been up for at least 10 hours, so if I woke up at 7, it was almost time to eat.
After what felt like an hour, I started to believe Scott would arrive with the food at any moment.
I waited in that state for another 4 hours. I’ve never experienced that kind of time disorientation.
At first I thought maybe he was just late. Then I started to wonder whether or not this was some kind of test, maybe they don’t bring people food on this day. As the hours rolled on I began to actually worry that maybe Scott had gotten sick or hurt.
Finally, around what felt like 11pm at night, I heard the outside door of the darkroom open, and I felt tremendous relief. There was going to be food this day, Scott was okay, and I could at last talk to someone.
I quickly asked Scott if he purposefully came later this day then the previous and he paused, a bit confused, and said no; he came at almost the exact same time today as he did the day before.
I just stood in the darkness dumbfounded.
The only thing that made sense was that I must have awoken at 3am thinking it was like 8am. A lot of sleeping happens after the first 24 hour period, so my circadian rhythm must have been jumbled.
Before he left, he dropped another bomb of an insight on me. He quoted Chogyam Trumpa:
“As long as you regard yourself or any part of your experience as the "dream come true," then you are involved in self-deception.”
That quote made my eyes water and I started laughing.
I let that quote roll through me as I drew my bath. I let it massage me as I soaked in the hot water. I laughed at it while I brushed my teeth, and I cuddled it as I laid down for sleep at the end of my second full day in the darkness.
I had a weird collection of dreams that night that I’m choosing to believe are worth recording here.
The first is a kind of Christ dream where there was a sacred piece of land where the Norse god Baulder had been crucified. Because of the nuances of his mythology, there was a band of vengeful nordic spirits killing people who passed through the land. Well, one day a hero came along and cooked a stew on the land. The stew drew in the spirit of the vengeful, and the hero ate the stew imbued with hate and alchemized it.
I woke up and was like, ‘yeah, I’ll record that one.’
The next dream I had was very vivid. I remember a lot from it, but for the sake of brevity I’ll give the abbreviated version.
It felt like I was watching a movie, and the introduction was offering establishing shots of a ski city, some place like Aspen or Vail. The first set of characters are best described as warring gangs of Norwegian Death Metal fans that had decided to run a ski town.
In hindsight, there is a clear carry-over from the Baulder dream to this dream.
I saw all kinds of scenes of these gangs competing, threatening, and attacking each other. It somehow was intimidating to watch, although it sounds hilarious to write.
The dream settled on what felt like a lower-middle class family that had to take care of a rich family's home. The vibe was that the day’s tasks were nearly impossible to complete, but if they didn’t complete them, the family would die.
I entered the dream at this point and tried to help the family. We went on a few adventures, and we got to a point where we felt we had failed. The mother I’d been helping began to cry imagining her family being killed later that day. After a while of sitting with her pain I told her:
“Let's just try anyway. Let’s do the best job we can with the time we have left.”
She agreed and we ended up doing a good enough job, just barely, to not be killed that day.
The dream ended with me hearing a disembodied voice say something like:
“No matter how bad, the world starts to improve as soon as we decide to enter it.”
*A tip for dream trackers, if you hear a disembodied voice, write it down.
I woke in awe, with the feeling that my psyche, my Unconscious, had spoken directly to me and gave me a message.
Rarely do dreams make me laugh, but this dream did.
I felt I was at a kind of Fit For Service event. I was on stage and someone asked me a question.
They asked: “Erick, please tell us about how dangerous you are.”
Amused by the question, and feeling playful, I rattled the following off:
“Physically, I’m as dangerous as a goat.
Emotionally, I’m as dangerous as a dream.
Culturally, I’m as dangerous as a vision.
Spiritually, I’m as dangerous as a joke.”
I woke up thinking “lol, that's good.”
It’s hard to express how the darkness feels like its own dimension. I had forgotten that lights start sparking alive around the 72 hour mark. So when I started seeing a soft pulsing light at the top corner of my field of darkness, I was astonished.
It happened as I was eating my first snack of the day after getting up from my dreams.
I just started uttering wow over and over again.
I had been in complete, absolute darkness the last three days. To see any kind of light was awesome, but to know that this light was emanating from me was a type of experience I never had before.
Even more than that, the light brightened and dimmed to a rhythm. It had a kind of ‘heartbeat’ to it. Its rhythm was not in sync with my heart’s. Sometimes it had a BPM of something like 40, and at times it was 140.
After sitting and basking in it for a while, what I realized was that this light’s rhythm was the rhythm of my pineal gland. It was like I was able to see the life force in my pineal gland ebb and grow. It was truly phenomenal.
I was overcome with a feeling that I was in the presence of something like a massive whale. That whatever I was in relationship to the Unconscious that produced this light was like what a person is to those huge oceanic giants.
I felt a radical and profound intimacy with the Whale of my Unconscious as I basked in the light.
Because of the simplicity, because of the sobriety, this is one of my most sacred spiritual experiences.
Alchemizing The Woman Eater
Here we enter the crescendo of my healing in the darkness. Buckle up, we’re going to go on a ride.
At some indeterminable time, I felt the woman eater come back as a long sequence of epiphanies and insights.
When I was around 10 or 11, I saw a female comedian make a joke on TV that all the good guys are either gay or uncircumcised. The combination of the crowd’s laughter and the smirk on the comedian’s face was the just right combination to sear shame into me about not being circumcised.
From age 15-20, I had many opportunities to be sexually intimate with women, and I would always say no out of shame (sometimes out of integrity, if they were drunk or in relationships with one of my friends). My avoidance got so intense that I had multiple women accuse me of being gay because I wouldn’t have sex with them or their friend.
I had sex for the first time when I was 20, and I just put those five years out of my mind.
What I realized in the dark was that every one of those encounters I had with women from age 15 to 20 were the substrate of the Woman Eater energy in me.
Every time a woman expressed sexual interest in me, my first feeling was shame, but the more subtle feeling was anger. I was mad at the women who triggered shame in me. I realized in the darkness that all these encounters made up the psychological constellation in me that served as the ‘body’ of the woman eater in me; the part of me that hates women because it’s afraid of women.
Because of what I know about trauma, and with Adrienne’s session fresh on my mind, I knew the next move was to ‘complete the process.’
So I used my supercharged imagination to see my current self going back to the 15 year old me and giving him all my memories, knowledge, and confidence. Then, for the next few hours, I imagined my teenage self re-experiencing each of the 30-some experiences with his new knowledge and confidence.
To be blunt but graphic, I visualized the completion of each encounter while slowly self-pleasuring without reaching orgasm.
I then imagined the most painful experience of this set of experiences. There was one relationship in particular where she and I were clearly in that kind of love repressed high schoolers are able to be in, and one day she angrily asked if I was gay because I had never made a move on her.
I watched myself say the words I had never been able to say, and I imagined us completing the unfinished process we had never been able to do.
Then, I placed each experience in a pearl inside of a spiraling web, and in the middle of that web I placed the image of my fiancée in her full radiant sexual self. I saw her energy begin to pulse from the core of the web and begin to turn the black web and gray pearls into bright red and shimmering pink. I felt her energy spreading and digesting all those memories. I felt the safety, sensuality, rapture, and unbounded compassion she has for me, and I watched it alchemize those years of pain.
And I imagined myself making love to her as I saw the web of these memories consumed by her passion and eros.
I then proceeded to have one of the most intense orgasms of my life, and knew in a way I didn’t understand how, that I had completed, and therefore cleaned, something that had been open and festering in me for a long time.
All of this was spontaneous. I had never done anything like this before, and I was surprised by it.
And those are all great clues that you are likely in the realm of the Unconscious, that two million year old creature that dreams.
These are the kinds of things lurking in our psyche that we call monsters, demons, and dark forces.
They are parts of us that are hurt, that have been denied, and who ‘haunt us’ because they need us to liberate them.
I’m grateful to the dark for providing me the space to let this complete itself.
The Regenerative City Project
After that experience, I took a nice deep restful nap. When I woke up, I felt a profound peace.
I was told by a mentor of mine who had done multiple dark retreats, to wait until the last day, after resting as deeply as I could, to ask whatever life questions I’d like answers to.
This was now the time to begin dreaming into my future.
As I laid in my bed, I asked the big questions.
What do I want to do with my life?
What do I want to create?
What do I want to offer the world?
Instantly what arose was a crystallization of a constellation of ideas I had been playing with for the last few years.
Two years ago, I encountered Existential Risk Theory; that humanity faces a set of problems that if we do not come together to face, the chances of us going extinct are high.
Nuclear armageddon, ecological collapse, biological warfare, and the weaponization of Artificial Intelligence are the four horsemen of this apocalypse.
Existential Risk Theory destroyed my selfish personal dream of making enough money to buy a piece of land to retreat from the world so I could have the life I wanted with my family.
I see this dream as the goal of many spiritual people. Because they have lost hope in humanity, they believe the way to ‘win’ the game of life is retreat from the beast.
This doesn’t work for me. What I aspire to do is to do what I can to help heal the beast because the beast is strong enough to erase the future for my children’s children’s children.
A few months after encountering these existential ideas, I had a powerful breathwork experience where I spontaneously received the idea that the Magnum Opus of my life was to create ‘a regenerative city.’
I had no idea what that meant, but I wrote it in my notebook and let it sit like a seed in my psyche.
A few months after that I helped create ARKADIA, a transformational music festival with a core theme of envisioning and living in the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.
We brought luminaries together to begin starting the conversations of what this future would look like. People like Zach Bush and Paul Chek talked about medicine in this potential future, Matias De Stefanos and Robert Edward Grant talked about spirituality in this future, and Charles Eisenstein talked about the economics of this future.
A few months after ARKADIA, I read a book called Building The Cathedral. The profound insight of this book is that Cathedrals were multi-generational projects. The average Cathedral took 300 years to build. To build a cathedral confesses that a culture cares about the future, it confesses a collective story of hope, that there will be a culture 300 years in the future that will benefit from the labor of this generation.
All of this culminated in the realization that I want to offer my life to building a kind of Cathedral.
The name ‘The Regenerative City Project’ came to mind and I said it out loud in the darkness.
The moment I said it, a loud crack erupted from the fireplace. A piece of wood snapped in half. The fire had not been lit for over a day and no snapping like that had happened the entire time I had been in the darkness.
I’ve had enough experiences like this to know the only proper response is laughter and tears, so I laughed until tears fell.
I picked up my recorder and I spoke these words:
“The breakthrough came through. The vision of my life, professionally, vocationally, is The Regenerative City Project. And the Regenerative City Project is a non-profit that gives out grants to artists to contribute to the schematics of a future city. Kathedra (my company) is a vision for a University in this future city. Hermea (the name of the Goddess I pray to) is a vision for a hospital in this future city.
The Regenerative City Project is a multi-generational vision for artists to contribute to, to create the blueprint for a future city.
Cities might be the only thing that can survive atom bombs. We saw that in World War II. Cities are arguably the most complex technological creation in the known universe. Cities, especially a project like this, gives Hope. It helps orient artists, that whatever your craft is, if you so choose to dedicate it towards this, is to contribute to creating a regenerative city.
There're a few things here. One is that it is a testament that we are going to stay and help earth. We’re not going to run off and get our little piece of land, and we’re not going to blast off to mars.
What is a Regenerative City?
There is room for all sorts of contributions.
And I love the idea of nonprofits that give grants to artists.”
My primary goal for the rest of this year is to get more clear on this vision.
In the same way the Founding Fathers came together, argued, debated, and collaborated until they produced a system of ideas that eventually birthed our country, I want to gather a group of people to begin arguing, debating, and collaborating until we produce a system of ideas that can birth a city of the future.
It’ll take the best of what I have to attempt to do this, and maybe it will fail, but the message of my dream rings in my ears:
“No matter how bad, the world starts to improve as soon as we decide to enter it.”
Eventually dinner came and I knew I had done it. Tomorrow I would be emerging from the darkness.
I ate with the pulsing lights. I bathed as they got stronger. And while it was harder to fall asleep because of the light show, I eventually fell asleep accompanied by my own inner glowing Buddha.
On this last night in the darkness, I dreamt I was playing a 5 on 5 pickup basketball game in a large auditorium. I played great. Every shot felt perfect and they all went in. I remember making a half-court shot to win the game, and as we were all saying good game to each other, a black lesbian woman who had been one of the best players on the court, pointed over my right shoulder and said, “Damn, that's some God shit!”
I turned to look where she was pointing, and like a movie scene, my entire field of vision was on a massive cathedral shaped window where the cross beams of the window created the shape of a cross, and beautiful golden evening light poured through the window.
The vision felt deeply spiritual, and I awoke from the dream and realized that my entire upper right field of vision in the darkness was being bathed in golden light.
I laid there in awe, feeling deep spiritual communion with this pulsing radiant light.
It was religious. I wept and repeated ‘Thank you.’
Eventually I ate breakfast, and after a few more hours in the dark, I heard the front door open.
Scott was there to bring me into the light.
I found a blindfold in the darkness, put it on, and let him gently bring me out of my home for the last four days.
I can feel in my bones that darkness retreats will be a fundamental part of my life.
I loved it. It brings me into communion with my beloved Unconscious unlike anything I’ve done before.
Primarily because nothing is being added, there is only subtraction. And in the subtraction, there is profound revelation. It is a process by which we remove the mud on the golden Buddha.
As a student of Jungian psychology, I want to sit with the visions that begin to arise after 5 or 6 days. I can also feel the incredible healing that arises from the deep rest that comes to us when we relax into the void.
I believe this is a great balancing tool for modern minds.
And most importantly, it is a container where we get to commune in radical intimacy with the multi-million year old living intelligence that beats our hearts and dreams our dreams.
I love that being like a Christian loves Jesus, the way a Buddhist loves Buddha, and the way Laura Huxley loved Aldous Huxley.
Thank you for reading. I hope this inspires you to consider a trip into the Darkness. I hope you too find the light there.
“Less is more, even less is even more, and nothing is everything.”
PS. Here's a poem that came from the dark:
I'm sorry you have been lied to.
That you believed you had to do anything
to be cared for,
to know God.
What you weren't told
Was your birthright
That if you just stopped
For long enough
You would notice
God's breath on your cheek
That you are being held
By the boundless, timeless
You would know, now
That you are ready
grieve the tragedies of your life
quake and seethe your resentment
spit your disgust and revel in your lust
You would know
that you are ready
to give up pretending
that you don't feel everything.