Reflecting on my Dark Room Meditation Experience

The idea of entering a pitch-black 15’x15’ Earthdome for 14 days may seem like a crazy one to most people, but for me, it represented my Mt. Everest—a seemingly impossible task that would challenge me to my breaking point. It did not disappoint.

The idea started over a year ago when I read a Facebook post about the physiology of darkness. In the post, it talked about how the body starts to produce natural DMT. It begins with a build-up of melatonin, after 3 days of melatonin buildup, your brain starts to produce Pinolene, which it said is only produced during lucid dreaming on near-death experiences. This turns into a ‘conductor’ for the universal energy, it stated.

Date: 9/30-10/13 Location: Ground of being 76/9 Moo 8, Koh Phangan Surat Thani, 84280 Tel: 0992451605

At day 6 the brain begins producing the neuro-hormone 5-MeO-DMT(5-methoxy-dimethyltryptamine). 5-MeO-DMTswitches on 40% more of the cerebral cortex and awakens the nervous system to become self-aware. After some 10-12 days one starts to see in infrared, and ultraviolet, the article claimed. On day 12, the body starts producing DMT, known as the “spirit molecule” for its similarity to a near-death experience and promises of life-altering changes of consciousness.

Being no stranger to DMT, having spent 2 weeks in the Ecuadorian Amazon on an Ayahuasca retreat (but that is a story for another time), my curiosity as to whether the body can achieve these states naturally was a strong motivator. At this time, I was in Peru and casually started looking for locations that host a dark room retreat. To my surprise, the practice was quite popular. Every place I contacted was booked solid, for almost a year in some cases. So, I just filed that experience in my mind with my other wild ideas of climbing to Everest base camp and sleeping under the Milky Way in the clearest sky in the world at San Pedro de Atacama Desert in Chile.

It wasn’t until a year later when I was in Vietnam and had just finished a book by David Goggins, called “Can’t hurt me” that the idea resurfaced. In the book, Goggins talks about “being comfortable with being uncomfortable” and how, in order to grow, you need to challenge yourself. I began to think of the greatest challenge I could test myself. Immediately the idea of spending 14 days all alone in pitch blackness with nothing to do, no cell phone, no Facebook, no tv or books, would be the perfect test. Just me, alone with my thoughts. This I thought would be equivalent to, if not greater than, any test of physical toughness I could ever experience. After all, with any test of physical stamina, it is the mind that will usually quit long before the body does. This was to be my opus. My confirmation that I am, as David Goggin’s puts it in his book, “an uncommon man among uncommon men”.

So back online I went. In Asia, as far as I could find, there are 2 places where I could book a dark room meditation, both in Thailand. Of those two, only one was a solo experience, the other was a group meditation. I emailed the director of the retreat and after telling him this would be my first experience in a dark room, he immediately rejected me. Telling me that it was almost a certainty that I would not be able to last that long on my first visit. He agreed to book me for 5 days. I immediately reflected on the article I had read on Facebook. If I was to experience a DMT release, it would take a minimum of 12 days. So again, I asked for 14 days. It took about a week of back-and-forth emails to finally convince him to let me have the 14 days.

Luckily for me, the resort had an opening only 3 weeks away. As the days grew closer and my anxiety increased about what I was about to experience. I decided to reach out for support and encouragement through several personal growth groups I belong to on Facebook. To my surprise, I was met with harsh criticism about my decision. The online community can be a cruel place where people take satisfaction in trying to beat you down. A reflection of the real world I guess, only more in your face due to the anonymity of the internet. I was called stupid, crazy, and a few other words that I won’t repeat. Here I was, self-doubt slowly creeping in and taking hold, looking to find strength in others, something to cling to when the hours of self-talk to rationalize why I should give up, will undoubtedly come. Again, Goggins whispered in my mind; “be uncommon among the uncommon”. I knew that most could not understand what I was doing and why I was doing it. The desire to challenge me to do the impossible. For me, this was a metaphor for life. To push yourself past your breaking point. Don’t give up under any circumstances. Just as Sylvester Stallone stated in Rocky I if he could just remain standing at the end, “I wouldn’t just be another bum from the neighborhood”. It seemed the entire world was shouting at me “YOU’RE GOING TO FAIL”. I decided to use this as fuel. To prove them all wrong.

As the days grew closer, my anxiety grew greater. I decided to arrive in Koh Phangan a few days early, to try and relax and focus on what I was about to do. When I got to the resort, the manager informed me that his last occupant had booked a 3-day meditation but quit less than 24 hours in and I could go in early if I wanted. My anxiety immediately spiked. She quit at less than 24 hours and I was going to try and do 2 weeks, was I crazy? At that point I decided that thinking about it too long would only bring more doubt, so what I thought would be 2 days to psych myself up, turned into 2 hours.

In the darkroom, you enter at dusk because you come out at dusk, to avoid excessive eye strain. With 2 hours to kill, I went into town and got a bite to eat. This would be my last “normal meal”. In the meditation, meals consist of a morning smoothie and an evening raw food salad. As I sat in the restaurant, I decided to order something light. I got a falafel and some hummus. I took the time to text friends and family, letting them know that I was going in early and I would contact them in two weeks.

The 2 hours spent before entering the biodome were a haze. I was walking around in a dream-like state. A surreal feeling of an altered reality. The minutes seemed to slow down. At this point, I just wanted to get in and center myself. The wait time was like a drug. A euphoric high. Half in reality and half out. After what seemed like an eternity, I was finally ready to enter the dome…

Into the pod

As I climb through the 3’x3’ doorway into the pod, I take one last look around, to orient myself to where everything is. Toilet, consisting of a hole in the floor, on my right. Shower next to it, and when I say shower, I mean a hose of cold water. Blankets, water, pillow(—all in their proper place. Then the door closes. It has begun…

Almost immediately, reality begins to set in. 14 days of nothingness. What if I can’t do it? What if I fail? I will have to live with that regret for the rest of my life. Have I made a huge mistake? What if the naysayers were right and I lose my mind in here? My mind was racing a mile a minute, flooded with negativity.

I knew I had to do something to calm myself down from the “what ifs”, so I decided to do some deep breathing meditation. A very simple meditation where you sit with your spine straight, you breathe in slowly, into your belly while counting. Whatever count you get, maybe somewhere between 4-6 seconds, you double that time while exhaling. This meditation helped me quickly shed thoughts and fears about future possibilities and brought me back into “this moment”.

After what I can only guess to be about half an hour, my mental state was peaceful and calm. I came out of my meditation and lie on my floor mattress where I had nothing but my thoughts. Again thinking about the experience I am embarking upon, but this time, with the spirit of an explorer on a journey of the unknown. I have always been fascinated by the unknown and trying new things for the first time. So, I had a nervous excitement building within.

Luckily for me, this time did not last long. In the absence of light, our bodies begin producing melatonin, the chemical that makes us sleepy. So I soon fell asleep.

The first time I woke from sleep in the Earth pod was a strange experience for several reasons. First, I had lost my orientation to time.  Whether I had woken up in the middle of the night, as I often did, or I slept through the night and it was now morning, I couldn’t say. The other strange thing was the disruption to my morning routine. Reaching for my cell phone, first thing in the morning had become an unconscious habitual way of life for me. It is difficult to put into words the anxiety I felt from being cut off from something that had almost become an extension of myself. I that instant gratification I got from seeing the number of notifications I had received throughout the night. The dopamine spikes we all get when we hear the little bell notification. Suddenly in an instant, my drug of choice, my cell phone, was gone. I would have to go cold turkey.

As I lie on the mattress on the floor (it was more like a couple of blankets folded up, but it was comfortable enough), my mind did what it usually does when I am trying to fall asleep, replay memories and experiences of the past few days. This was a bit different however because I wasn’t also concerned about tomorrow’s events, knowing I had no “tomorrow’s events”. It was here that I had my first, what I will call the “gift of the experience”. I realized how much time and energy my mind spent on thinking about the future. All the “what ifs” and “how am I going to” that would fuel a low-grade anxiety, like a pot of water on the stove at a very low simmer. Without that anxiety, I had a peaceful calm. I was more present in the moment of just being. My thoughts were purer and I could think about them with celerity and joy that had been missing before. I can’t say how long I lie in bed thinking but it couldn’t have been more than half an hour before I fell asleep again.

When I woke up this time, I could tell it was morning because I could hear the birds outside. Now, the only thing I had to look forward to, to break up the monotony of existence was my two meals of the day. I would quickly learn that the morning time would become the most challenging time of the experience. Not knowing if breakfast would come in 10 minutes or 2 hours was torture. Over the two weeks, I tried different techniques to help this time go by easier, but when you are stuck in a tiny room with no light, your options are limited. This brings me to my second Gift of the Experience. One that would not reveal itself until much later. The gift is this; expectations can take us out of the present moment. I was self-inflicting harm on myself by not valuing the present moment but by my expectation of a future event. It reminds me of the wise words of Dan Millman in his book Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives; “There is never anything going on. There are no ordinary moments.” This is a life lesson that I would not come to realize until after my experience has ended, but it is through my experience that I am able to value and apply this gift. Anytime we worry or are anxious, we are not living in the present. We are living in the future, and this robs us of experiencing the present to its fullest.

 I slept quite a lot for the first two days until my body adjusted to the darkness. Probably my only regret about the experience was that I was not able to measure how much sleep I would get each night after those first two days. It would be nice to know how much sleep my body naturally wants, without the interruption of the dawn. However, if I was able to measure time, it would have defeated the experience that robbed me of living in the moment.

Probably the first physical change I had was with my dreams. I have never been one to remember my dreams much. Usually just fragments here and there, but almost immediately I began to have lucid dreams. I wish I could say that this ability stayed with me after I left the dome, but sadly it did not.

A second detail that I experiences was that after about day two when my mind ran out of current events to replay in my head, I started to recall some memories that my consciousness had long forgotten. At first, I thought that maybe it was just my mind trying to stay busy by creating a new story but later found out through family members that they were actually real memories. These memories were also a gift. Not in the same way as the other two. They were a gift in that they helped me see past events for how they really were and not think of them through rose-colored glasses, as we all seem to do with our memories. They helped me to stop fixating on certain issues and to stop wanting to go back to something that was only real in my self-edited memories. This alone was worth the price of admission.

Over the following days, as you can imagine, there is not much to tell. The challenge of sitting alone with yourself, with no distractions is an exercise in stillness. That is where I found the most value. Unfortunately, unlike the article I had read so long ago, I did not begin to see in the dark or have out-of-body experiences. A bit disappointing but I guess that was not my journey to take (this time). The universe had more important life lessons to teach me, and for that, I am grateful and will be forever changed.

Coming out of the dome was a strange experience for me. I came out at dusk, still light enough to see but without direct sunlight. Even without the harsh illumination of the sun, my eyes still were sensitive and I felt the discomfort of using them again. A second thing I experienced was episodes of disorientation. For the next several days, I would get minor vertigo. Not enough to be dangerous but certainly not a pleasant experience. I took the next day to simply rest and acclimate to life again but I made the mistake of going SCUBA diving the next day. This area of Thailand has some of the best diving in the world and being a lifelong diver, it was something I was looking forward to since before I entered the dome. If anyone is considering a dark room meditation, I would highly recommend planning at least 3 days to adjust to living among the light again.

The final gift I was given was one of patience and contentment. Prior to going into the dome I would have very little patience and would get angry often. I am not saying that the dome has solved all that for me but I most certainly came out different than I went in.

When talking about my experience, I am often asked if I would do it again and although I am glad I did it and achieved some personal development that is priceless, I think I have gotten what I needed from it and highly doubt I will return to the dark.