You don’t know what light is until you’ve experienced the dark. A dark retreat may refer to advanced practices in the Taoism, Dzogchen lineages of the Nyingmapa, Bönpo, other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, but is a practice common to many of the ancient and contemporary spiritual traditions across the world.
From the monks and lamas in Tibet, to the Kogi Mamos in Colombia; the ancient Egyptians and the mystics of 15th Century France, Dark Retreats have provided revelation and illumination to countless practitioners who have sought the light within.
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The darkness called. I felt a desire deep within me to find solace and space, withdrawing myself from all responsibility and contact with the outside world. A little extreme perhaps, but yogis and spiritual practitioners of various cultures since antiquity have sought dark havens of stillness such as caves for long periods of meditation and sannyas (renunciation). It was my turn for solitude.
The space I discovered in San Pablo la Laguna, Guatemala at The Hermitage was comfortably equipped with a single bed, a space for meditation, a yoga mat, a toilet, shower and filtered water, which was everything I needed for this journey. My gracious hosts, Severin and Emma, made me feel safe and cared for. After explaining the details required, they left me alone to blow out the candle. After a final stroll around the room I took a deep breath and blew it out. As the flame diminished, I watched the soft veil of black slowly wash over me, and I smiled inwardly, curious to discover what was about to unfold.
As the darkness enveloped me, I maintained intense seclusion for four nights and three full days. Plunged into a deep witnessing awareness, I was able to empty out the contents of the mind-field, and rest in the space of Being. Deep introspection and clarity came to me throughout various practices of asana, pranayama, mantra, meditation and relaxation.
The dark retreat allows us a deeper understanding of Pratyahara - sensory withdrawal. Pratyahara is the fourth limb of Patanjali’s eight-fold Ashtanga system and interestingly marks the shift where awareness now begins its inward journey into Self, where withdrawal of the senses can now flow into the following limbs of Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditative absorption) and Samadhi (integration) can unfold if Pratyahara is possible.
The willingness or the unwillingness to withdraw attention from sensory experience is a significant mark for us as spiritual practitioners. Without it, we merely achieve relaxation and perhaps concentration. However, to move deeper into Self, sensory withdrawal becomes necessary. In the dark, without sight, and little noise, it is easier to break the attachment to sensory engagement, allowing attention to focus and move inward.
My eyes wanted to find concrete form upon which to rest, but the optical cinema of ever changing form and light, and even colour, provided a very textured visual experience. The third day was most peculiar as my eyes produced a strobing effect of flashing lights for many hours. In order not to be attached to the unusual visual world that I was experiencing, I continued various practices of pranayama and mantra, and observed as I settled deeper into concentration and meditation.
Sensory engagement (and therefore also sensory withdrawal) is a mental function. When that function is drawn to the objects of the mind-field, there is active engagement of the senses. Whether the object is external or internal is irrelevant. It is the internal withdrawal of sensory attention to all objects that is the process of Pratyahara. If the mind truly goes inward, the senses will come racing in behind.
Clinging to the senses is not just an attachment to objects of the external world, but the clinging really has to do with attachment to the process of sensing itself. Withdrawal of the senses literally means the cessation of seeking the sensing experiences through the senses, in relation to both external physical objects and internal mental objects.
As time in my little dark retreat room went on, I noticed my attachment to sensory experience slowly diminish, and observed as the peace of deep stillness settled within me. I had brief glimpses into the perception of the inner light of pure Consciousness and All That Is. I found my inner light in the darkness.
Saraswati Hayley Tennyson