It was built with earth bags, recycled rice sacks, filled with raw earth, piled atop each other in a circle plan and finished with a cement plaster, tapering at the top to form a pointed dome.
Inside, it had a bare concrete floor and a trapdoor concealing a squat toilet. It was ventilated by a pair of computer fans driven by a small solar panel. Entry to the interior was via two sets of doors, the doorway so small you had to crawl in on your knees. When totally shut, the interior blocked out most of the noise of the forest, a disturbing amount of fresh air, and all of the light.
It was built by Julien and Hubert of Phangan Earthworks, natural building and permaculture enthusiasts who, when hearing about the benefits of darkness retreats, decided to build one themselves, then proceeded spending days and weeks inside in solitary confinement.
A totally dark environment, according to Mantak Chia, is a distraction free reset of the mind from its preoccupation of the senses, making it an ideal environment for self enquiry and meditation. On top of that, he claims, the body is stimulated in darkness to produce dimethyltrypthamine (DMT) from the amino acid tryptophan. This “Spirit Molecule” is responsible for heightened transcendental states of love and compassion.
Fresh from my Hridaya Meditation Retreat at Agama Yoga, I was eager for another intensive meditation program before returning to Singapore. Having had three prior Vipassana 10 day courses and the Hridaya retreat, I wasn’t completely new to the idea of extended solitude. This one, however, would be my first unguided retreat. It would also be my longest, lasting 2 weeks, and my darkest.
With burning desire overtaking apprehension, I made arrangements. One week later, I sat inside that same dome, and watched as Hubert non-chalantly closed one door after another, my last sight of the world for the next two weeks, shutting out all the light and leaving me in complete and utter darkness.
The cave retreats of monks and sadhus have always held a romantic draw for me, it had been my secret desire to attend one since 2008 when, upon visiting Arunachala Hill in Tiruannamalai, I learnt that it was littered with secret caves where enlightened beings sat undisturbed in stoic communion with the Divine.
So my biggest concerns, that I might feel claustrophobic or averse to the environment, were quickly put to rest when i realized that my keen enthusiasm did not wane even after the doors were closed and I felt the damp, warm air close around me like a thick soup. Instead, I was feeling a strange sense of fulfillment.
How dark was it? Put simply and aptly, it was pitch black. The absolute darkness reduced even simple acts of bathing, visiting the toilet and eating to a laborous act of groping and crawling.
What does one do to pre-occupy the mind? Nothing, of course! There is no light to read and no sights to entertain. And though the mind eventually finds ways of entertaining itself (where even going to the toilet becomes a high point of the day), the womblike ambiance lent itself very well to a focused meditation practice.
So meditate I did, the sessions getting longer and deeper each day, interspersed with yoga, rest and bodily functions. I was averaging 8 hours of meditation which is less than the typical schedule of a Vipassana retreat, but just as intense given the sensory deprivation.
Sleep came heavy and long initially – the darkness made me drowsy and lethargic and I napped frequently throughout the day, but eventually my body adjusted and fell to a natural rhythm of 8 hours of sleep.
Once a day a server would knock on the door to deliver food. The knock would rouse me from my meditation and I had to blindfold myself – an elaborate routine to ensure that any light resulting from the act of opening the doors would not reach my eyes.
The darkness also had more inexplicable effects to perception. Sometimes I would find myself amidst a strange lunar landscape that persisted in front of my eyes even as I knew logically that I should not be able to see anything.
My dreams took on a lucid quality, at times I would not know if I was dreaming or awake. I had 2 instances where I became aware that I was dreaming, and was able to control and explore my dreams. Unencumbered by the cloudiness of dream recall, I found out in those dreams how real, vivid and alive the Astral Realm really was.
Evenings of Ecstacy
The most powerful experiences of all, however, were the ecstactic spiritual insights.
Having spent entire days in meditation, by evening time my heart would feel so full of burning activity that ecstatic and beautiful openings would occur, which were profund and inexplicably powerfully emotional revelations of spiritual truths.
The first one happened when, on the third night, my sexual thoughts were becoming rampant and uncontrolled, and I had decided, in my helplessness to contain them, to surrender all my thoughts to God.
The mental space of surrender that had been created then and there was a relaxation, an aspiration, a transpersonal trust that everything had its place and was being taken care of.
In that space, a sweet upward feeling of inner weightlessness occured throughout my entire body. I recognised it immediately as a rising of energies that I had experienced in my very first Vipassana Retreat in 2008, which was my first encounter with higher experiences and moved me to tears.
Like 2008, the rising sensation intensified and built on itself, till there was a brightness inside that grew so intense as to be blinding, pushing my head backward and straightening my spine like a flagpole. From Darkness to Light, like in the Vedic prayer.
Unlike 2008, however, there was a sweet feeling of release and freedom, it was a lesson in surrender, one that I built upon in subsequent meditations. I learnt that surrender and equanimity are very close to each other, and that expressing your trust and abandoning and relaxing from your self during meditation is the most powerful catalyst to a deep absorption state.
The second experience came later, when upon thinking of loved ones, a deep empathy manifested itself in me that made me feel with shock and horror, the level of suffering experienced by all beings. It wasn’t an intellectual notion, it was a very real firsthand experience of imprisonment – a feeling of panic, of feeling trapped, and of deep sadness. It moved me to a tearful night of prayer and asking for blessings to be given to loved ones and strangers alike, which became my nightly routine.
The third was the sweetest one of all. I was suddenly overcome with a sense of being loved, being protected and guided. I was shown how priviledged I was and how the set of circumstances that allowed me to be in that dark room looking for the Divine was so rare and precious. To be born as a human, in an environment of family and circumstances supportive enough that I could spare the time to travel, to search, to even entomb myself for half a month, most of all to have been exposed to the knowledge of meditation and self enquiry, and to be given a burning desire to pursue and practice. I was blessed, blessed, blessed. In that realization, only gratitude would be the appropriate response.
But there was also the longing, the homesickness. Not my home in Singapore, another home. In the night, the longing would be so intense that on one occasion I howled and wept loudly, feeling the most desolate sense of lonliness and abandonment, and begging to return home.
These constituted the roller coaster ride of emotions unleashed from my heart. It was a divine ecstacy that I have not yet forgotton, nor do I ever wish to. In the darkness I finally understood the words of Sahajananda, who taught me the Hridaya meditation technique, that the heart could be an organ of knowledge. In my rapture, the dome itself became a cosmic golden womb, Hiranyagarbaya, its darkness ripe with fertile potential, the very air an amniotic fluid. I worshipped the very walls of my confinement every time I felt like a gestating foetus, and dared to dream about how I would be reborn upon completion of the 14 days.
And completion occupied my mind more and more towards the end. I imagined loving hands helping me out of the door and a joyous celebration.
But alas completion did not happen the way I envisioned it. On the 11th day I awoke with an ache in my left ear that had almost certainly been brought on by my carelessly putting a finger in it on an earlier date.This I paid for dearly, for it had grown to a full blown infection by evening time, with my sense of hearing visibly affected and my mood turning to panic.
The panic intensified throughout the evening, it became even more difficult than normal to sleep, and the thoughts came in relentlessly in nagging doubts driven by fear and paranoia, and my natural tendency towards hypochondria. The possibility of permenant hearing loss soon became all I could think about. The darkness was amplifying the fear and turning a simple ear infection into a perceived life or death situation.
It took a huge effort of equanimity to finally raise my mood high enough to remember the lessons learnt in the earlier days, of trust and surrender. I fell asleep that night putting matters in the hands of the Divine and feeling certain it was all planned. It was a challenge that was part of the expereince and I was meant to overcome and learn from it.
I had a temporary respite on the 12th day as the sweet bliss generated from meditating was particularly enjoyable. I modified the daily yoga routine to include Arda Matsyendrasana which would strengthen the Vishudda chakra, and Maha Yoga Pranayama where I pushed the prana intently to the left ear. I also kept away from inversions, sadly this meant that I could not enjoy my daily headstand.
I fell asleep that night repeating affirmations in my head. “My left ear is healed overnight. My hearing is restored.” I told myself. The repetition helped alot in stopping my thoughts from being overtaken with night-time panic.
The turning point of my resolve came when I was awoken from a very light sleep by an alarming waking dream encounter, in the form of a demon, reptilian, childlike and almost caricaturish, sitting on my naked hip, watching me with great delight.
“My left ear is healed overnight.” it mocked. “My hearing is restored.”
The demon itself wasn’t scary enough to have ilicited any kind of panic, especially when it was clear to me which parts of my experience was real and which was astral, I could clearly see the collaged mess brought about by the darkness. The panic came when I checked my left ear to find, with horror, that it had lost almost all of its hearing capacity overnight. There was an intense pressure inside, with spider tendrils of pain branching down all the way to my jaws.
A Premature Exit
I put on my first set of clothes I worn since entering the dome, a pair of fisherman pants. I opened both doors and waited for the light of dawn, breathing in air with a quality of crispness that was made all the sweeter by my two week confinement.
“I have one day to go,” I told myself, “But I am leaving now. I could not hold on for an extra day.”
I knew then with deep sadness and a resigned humility that my surrender was not yet complete, that I still had attachment to experiencing the world and still put undue importance to sensing and sense organs, so much so that even the distinct possibility of losing my hearing would be enough to unseat me.
When it was bright enough I emerged and the oppression of the ear infection immediately lessoned, and in the new clarity of thought outside of the darkness of repetitive and obsessive panic-thought, I realised that I had been duped and defeated by my mind, yet again.
It was a strange, semi nude person with a sarong wrapped over his eyes and walking unsteadily like a drunk person that woke a very concerned Julien from his jungle home that morning.
“You did the right thing,” he assured me as he sped me to the Hospital in his scooter. “You listened to your body.”
The doctor’s prognosis too seemed to corroborate, having spent forty minutes clearing both my ears of wax that had been building up steadily over two weeks. “You have an infection in the walls of your ear that has spread to your ear-drum.” he said with great concern.
In the hospital weighing machine, I checked in at over 5kgs lighter and with a temperature of 2 degrees colder than my normal self.
The 13th Day
There is sadness, disappointment and regret when I look back on that last day. I still wonder if I had held on till the 14th day, if it would have had any permenant impact on my ear. I wonder what experiences I had missed out, and I am very sad at having broken my tapas.
But I am still healthy and capable of many more retreats. My failure has given me something to work for: a greater degree of surrender and trust in the Divine.
When I think about how I had lived during the other days however, I am filled with fond memories and gratitude. It was the first time I had been confined in darkness for any period of time. It is definitely something to write home about. They were thirteen days of extraordinary revelations, deep absorption and remarkable states.
Empathy, compassion, surrender, gratitude. These are the realizations I hold dearest, in the new level of understanding that had been given to me. I know I will uncover yet deeper layers of meaning, in time, but for now, I will endeavor to concretise them by allowing them to change my life outside of the darkness.
On top of that, a new sense of things. A nagging reminder at the back of the head and a persistent sensation and all I am experiencing is as real as a dream. A constant longing to return to that brilliant sense of joy that transcends all experiences.