Reprinted from SFGate.com, with permission from the author.
Well before electricity kept us up at night, mystics and seers of many spiritual traditions retreated into literal, total darkness for extended periods to heighten their senses, gain clarity, and see worlds beyond ordinary sight. Prophets of the Old Testament performed such rituals, called dark retreats. So did ancient Greek philosophers like Parmenides and Pythagoras, as well as some Christian mystics and Hatian voudons.
Martin Lowenthal, a psychotherapist, meditation teacher, and longtime student of Tibetan Buddhism, has been doing dark retreats for 14 years, a practice he describes in his book "Dawning of Clear Light: A Western Approach to Tibetan Dark Retreat Meditation." He's also the founder of the Dedicated Life Institute in Newton, Massachusetts.
How does going into the darkness tend to illuminate things?
Our visual capacities in everyday life are bombarded by lots of external images. Often, there isn't much room for other images to arise, other than in our imaginations.
The idea of the dark retreat is not only do you create a setting in which you have no visual stimuli, so that the eyes relax, but you also sufficiently relax your body and your mind so that the deeper aspects of your core awareness can arise. That's when these truths, along with lights and visions, can become evident.
Over the centuries, people have done these retreats in caves and in the basements of temples. Where do they do them now?
I learned the tradition from Tibetans, who have rooms built in monasteries for this purpose. There are a few of these centers in the United States, but not many. When I first started doing retreats, I converted a room in my house by blocking off the windows with materials used in photographic darkrooms.
How long does a dark retreat usually last?
That depends on the person. Tibetans often do it for 49 days straight. And there are stories of yogis who stay in for years. When I first started, I just did three days and I've worked up from there. So far, the longest I've done is a month, but I tend to do at least two weeks a year.
What do you do when you're on a dark retreat? Are you meditating most of the whole time? Are you moving around?
Generally, people start out by sleeping a lot because it's dark, and that's an important part of the process -- just relaxing. When you're not sleeping you can be meditating -- depending upon how much experience you have, between four to six times a day. The rest of the time you spend time relaxing and reflecting. Initially, doing any intense physical exercise is discouraged so that the body doesn't get too active. You want everything to settle down. But people tend to do some stretching and sometimes yoga.
What kind of meditation do you do?
The initial practices are often mindfulness meditations, where people focus on their own breathing or whatever is arising in their thought patterns or feelings. When they become fairly stable and are able to just be present, there are other practices they can do for cultivating qualities like compassion and the wisdom that's behind our emotional structures.
In Buddhism, there is an assumption that we all have a Buddha nature that underlies everything and it's our confusion that takes us out that understanding. Similarly, Christians might talk about everybody having a Christ. These practices are designed to get in touch with that essence.
And that's what makes this a spiritual practice for you, rather than simply a form of relaxation?
Yes, I see it as a way of getting in touch with a dimension of our being that is sacred. Also, you begin to see certain qualities of light and certain actual visions in the dark that you don't see during the light. In that way, I think the sacred is more readily available to us in the dark.
What kinds of things do you see?
Many, many things. Sometimes, it seems to me like I'm in the woods and I'm seeing the sunlight breaking through the trees. Other times, I have visions of rainbows or mandalas or particular spiritual teachers I've had. And sometimes, it's just mysterious to me what I'm seeing.What do you think is really going on when you are seeing these visions? Is your mind playing a trick on you, or is there something that you are actually seeing?
I don't know quite how to answer that, and I'm not too concerned about it, either. It's just something to be present with, and you see if anything comes of it. Sometimes, there have been teachings that have come to me. And sometimes, it's just a visual. I've also heard sounds and even smelled fragrances that aren't like anything I've ever smelled.
In our culture, we're taught to fear the darkness. It's built into our myths and our popular culture. Do you ever get frightened on a retreat?
No, but I do know people who have been scared. I've led a lot of these retreats, and my sense is that generally that doesn't happen. What happens when you are very relaxed is that you don't tend to get into those kinds of reactive fears.
Actually, one of the main concerns that people have is that they will be incredibly bored. That doesn't tend to happen either, and I think it's because a lot of boredom is about a desire for stimulation.
What do you mean?
It's the momentum of our brains wanting to think about things and the constant mental chatter that makes us look for ways to keep ourselves awake by being interested in something. When you relax, you don't need that stimulation. Being in the dark is sort of like being in a very safe womb.
How did you happen to start doing dark retreats?
There's a Tibetan lama named Lon Gil Rimpoche that I know quite well. He gave a series of talks here in the Boston area, and he introduced dark retreats as part of the teachings. Then I created this dark retreat space to do it myself.
You grew up in San Francisco. Were you raised with a particular religion?
My family was Jewish by background, but they were sort of non-observing, although my grandfather was a practicing Orthodox Jew. By the time I was an adolescent, I had read a lot on Buddhism. And when I began to feel spiritual impulses at that age, that's where I turned.
What's the main thing people can learn from a dark retreat?
I think the main thing you learn is what it means to be profoundly relaxed. We often think of relaxation as going unconscious, zoning out in some way. And this is a way to be relaxed and completely alert, with a clarity of presence.
The other thing is that you discover very quickly how your mind works because whatever thoughts arise in that state are so clearly something generated by your own habits of mind. So it becomes a way to see those patterns and experience the real possibility of moving beyond them by wholeheartedly participating in what's going on in our lives.