Preliminary Dark Retreat

The retreat took some interesting turns.  First, just before the retreat began, I had a guest at my weekly Access Bars® trade offer to facilitate some breath work.  The first session was so amazing and fun I asked him to stay and join me in the dark and do some joint breath work.  We quickly transformed the house into a dark cave and the beginning of the retreat was focused on pranayama.  This was unexpected, but seemed like the right thing to do.

I ended up forty hours in the dark, with the last twenty-four hours alone in silence.  As is typical of any of my personal retreats, my experience ranged from sadness and despair to elation and inspiration.  I started the retreat not wanting to be on retreat and in the dark.  However, when I asked myself if I wanted to break retreat I found there was really no place else I wanted to be and nothing else I’d rather be doing.  I was simply experiencing sadness and dissatisfaction arising.   Nothing to do about that.

Later I would have moments of inspiration where I would think about ways to extend the retreat.  I was simply experiencing calm and confidence arising.  Nothing to do about that either.

This preliminary retreat was undertaken to see if it might help deepen my ability to stay in instant presence and inform a decision for a longer retreat.  The darkness did not change my ability to stay in instant presence significantly during the time I was in retreat.  However, this is not to say that a longer retreat might not give a different result or that some unnoticeable benefit occurred.  I did like the dark overall and would consider a longer retreat.

My friend that had done a three day dark retreat said that the first day or so is marked by increased sleep.  I expected this, yet found that my sleepiness was not increased beyond what I normally experience when meditating all day.  Indeed, after twenty-four hours, I was “tired” of practice and wanted to go to bed early, yet sleep would not come to me.  I did have a subtle sense that melatonin was increasing in my body, not by feeling sleepy, but by my body having an increased sense of heaviness.  I seemed to have a slight sense of headache, which may or may not have been related to changes due to the darkness.

Some of the logistical things I learned:

1)  During the retreat, my front window cracked, which I attribute to the heat generated by the inserts I used to darken the window.  Apparently the black plastic over a foam insert was too much.  The inner pane of the dual pane windows has a large crack in it now.

2)  Running the swamp cooler after dark was feasible since at night the attic vents that open when it runs did not allow in noticeable light.

3)  It is hard to maintain balance in the dark and even after forty hours this was not stabilized.  What this means, practically, was that walking and some of my chi gung moves didn’t really work.  I did find that by putting a quilt on the ground to mark my boundaries, I was able to do some “nine-palace walking” without running into things. Of course, even though I thought I was walking a pattern, my bearing and orientation were completely off.

4)  I would need to devote more attention to motivating to do physical exercise during the retreat.  The lack of ease of moving and difficulty doing my usual routine meant I did very little movement.  This, along with my extended sitting/lying, contributed to a slight flare up in my chronic back tension.

5)  After twenty-four hours the physical movement of switching positions (i.e. standing up) would stimulate the receptors in the eye and create a mosaic of light.  The optic nerve could also be stimulated directly by pressure on the eye.  The “light” would die out after a minute and then it would take about 10 minutes of rest before the phenomenon could be repeated.  Palpating the eye in a specific manner was one of the dark retreat practices.  I do not have a clear explanation of why it is done, but I did notice that the experience of “light” seemed to elevate my mood a little and make me feel more expansive.

I broke retreat by lighting a candle and slowly increasing the light from there.

I am still curious about doing a longer retreat, not because I am confident that it will facilitate instant presence, but because I am curious about the changes that occur with extended darkness.  My major concern is how to do that exploration and maintain balance.  During a daylight retreat I maintain balance with a couple hours of internal arts practice and a couple hours of reading of basic spiritual texts.  I have found that I don’t have the personal capacity for eleven hours (or even eight) hours of straight meditation for extended periods (I become depressed).  However, I can retreat successfully if these additional practices are included.

I think that if I were to repeat the dark retreat I would want a partner for the initial few days (or perhaps longer) with defined periods of silent practice and partner practice.  Although I have a little voice that says that this would be “breaking the rules” and in someways makes the whole retreat “invalid”, I remind myself we are encouraged to practice at our capacity and not beyond that.  Besides, what have I made so essential about being alone and being in silence?



Benefits of Chi Gung

chi-gung-poster-photoChi (or Qi) is another name for “energy” and refers to the subtle energy that flows through and around us.  It is also called prana or inner winds. Gung (or gong) simply means cultivation. Chi Gung is, therefore, the cultivation of our subtle energy.

There are many ways to “work” our subtle energy and smooth flowing energy characterizes states of peace, calm, vitality and health.  Indeed, in traditional Chinese medicine disease, such as cancer, begins as a block in energy flow.  What follows from stoppages in chi flow are alterations and blocks in fluid flow that then lead to dysfunction in the immune system.  Finally, we have the gross manifestations of disease such as inflammation, pain and tumors.

The regulation of chi is a fundamental practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine.  Health is maintained by using herbs that influence energy flow as well as stimulating points on the body where chi blockages can occur (as in the practice of acupuncture).  Specific exercises are referred to as “chi gung” and these are part of the ancient longevity practices of Taoism.  Dragon and Tiger Chi Gung is one such practice.  As a powerful stimulator of chi, It is use in China to treat cancer.

I was taught that in order to maintain good health one should practice twenty minutes a day.  If one was interested in developing internal power in order to compete in marital arts then one needed two hours of practice a day.  For spiritual development eight hours was the minimum.

The health benefits of chi gung have been validated by many studies.  A research review in the American Journal of Health Promotion informs us of the following scientifically validated benefits:

  • Reduces Stress
  • Reduces Anxiety
  • Reduces Depression
  • Enhances Immune Function
  • Enhances Cardiopulmonary Function
  • Increases Self Esteem
  • Enhances Quality of Life
  • Improves Bone Density
  • Reduces Blood Pressure
  • Increases Sleep Quality
  • Increases HDL – Decreases LDL
  • Decreases Total Cholesterol & Triglycerides
  • Improves Balance
  • Increases Ability to Handle Pain
  • Enhances Detoxification from Heroine


Am J Health Promotion 2010 Jul-Aug;24(6):e1-e25. doi: 10.4278/ajhp.081013-LIT-248. A comprehensive review of health benefits of qigong and tai chi. Jahnke R, Larkey L, Rogers C, Etnier J, Lin F.

We Are Not Our Emotions

dakota ridge boulder CO chi gung spotMoods intrigue me.  I woke up this morning and headed out for a morning walk just before dawn.  I was, as always, watching myself.  I was in a foul mood.  I didn’t want to get up and I didn’t really want to be walking.  The thoughts that kept arising were predictable and almost humorous.

I was miserable and the weather was no good (actually perfect: clear, sunny, and about 40 degrees).  I could be satisfied by nothing including the nice warm coat I was wearing (scratching my neck).  I did not give much energy to the thoughts that would pop into my mind and decided to just be in my state of blues.

After I walked for about a half an hour on the Sanitas Valley Trail (trailhead just a few block from where I was staying in Boulder, CO) I noticed a heaviness in my heart.  I was walking quite slow on a fairly flat trail, but I could feel that my heart was not functioning properly.  Physically my heart is in great shape, but I am aware that a certain number of heart attacks are caused by emotional, and not physical, effects.  I could feel that it was not pumping adequately and that my blood pressure was just a tad low.  I breathed energy into the area and kept walking.

Finally I came to a lovely spot in the sun overlooking the entire city of Boulder and beyond.  Nestled in the boulders I had done my morning Chi Gung exercises here yesterday.  Today, I just lay down on the rocks.  No energy for anything else.

The pressure in my chest was still there, so I did an advanced Thetahealing technique called heart toning.  This lifted the pressure within minutes.  I then proceeded to clear my energetic field of negativities.  I am aware that being negative can attract more negativity and that picking up negativity can subsequently make one negative.  In either case, I used Thetahealing to clear myself.

Although I was resolved to just be in Dakota Ridge Trail, Boulder COwhatever state I was in, the energetic work shifted everything.  I felt connected to all-that-is and energized.  I got up and did  Dragon and Tiger Chi Gung and even the Eight Brocades Chi Gung that I rarely find the time or energy to do.

The day suddenly seemed marvelous.  Moods seem so arbitrary and transient, yet it is so easy to give them more weight and attention than they deserve.  Thought for the day:  What would true freedom from moods be like?