10 Days in Total Darkness


To answer the question you’ve been waiting for…what was it like spending 10 days in the dark?

Well, let me paint you a picture first. Check out this 1-minute video so that you can see my accommodations during my time in Mazunte. Below, you can see what they looked like from the outside. As a quick reminder, I went through the darkness retreat with two friends, Akshay and Tim.

We each had our own separate dark room, but were able to hang out together before and after our time “in the void.”

In the above video, you may have noticed two candles on the desk. They played a very important role in this experience, since they served as symbolic markers for the beginning and end of my time in complete darkness. A major motivation behind this adventure was to let go of a need for control. The first candle made sure I was able to practice this right away.

During our orientation, Tim, Akshay, and I were told that these candles would take roughly two hours to burn out. We were instructed to light one after we had shut the door on the first evening, to facilitate the transition from light to darkness.

Further, we were told to let the candle burn itself out, not to blow it out. This way, “You don’t decide when the darkness experience begins, the candle does.”

From Light to Dark

This transition period was deeply memorable, and rife with symbolism. I remember feeling very tired at this time, yet determined to stay awake until the candle went out. I had never stared so intently at a flame or wick before, and I was struck by how brightly such a small flame burned. It brought so much light to a room many thousands of times its size. I took this as a reminder to avoid underestimating what one person can do in any given situation, even one which seems insurmountable.

Further, I noticed that within the flame, there was a darker portion close to the wick. It was almost as if I was being shown that even within pure light, there is some darkness. And yet, the darkness is the light; they go hand in hand. This realization aligned quite well with something else we were told during our orientation, “This is about meeting yourself where you’re at during this exact moment.” It was about embracing yourself, not running from who you are, and acknowledging the darkness within yourself.

This is crucial, because when we ignore or pretend the “darker” aspects of our personalities don’t exist, they’re free to exert a powerful influence on our actions and mindset. So, once the light went out, one of the first things I did was grab my journal and write a list of all the negative aspects of my personality and how they might be affecting my behavior and worldview. And yes, you can write in the dark. It’s just harder. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

As the candle burned, I stared closely at the wick, and noticed that its hottest point had formed the shape of a beautiful, golden butterfly. Directly behind this illuminated insect, burning orange and slightly less brightly, I saw what looked like a human brain. It was almost as if the butterfly was emerging from the brain – a metamorphosis borne of pure experience liberating itself from the shackles of logical thought’s need to relentlessly classify and analyze everything it encounters. And yes, I became a poet in the dark. That’s one of the side benefits they don’t tell you about.

Anyway, as the candle continued to burn, I was struck by how quickly it declined. From powerfully radiating heat and light to rapidly diminishing in a matter of moments, the fall was swift. After it went out, the wick gave off one final bright, beautiful spark. Then, pure blackness.

Pitch Black

I could not see my hand in front of my face. And my eyes never adjusted, either. It was this dark during the entire experience. I fell asleep shortly thereafter, waiting for my first full day to begin.

Upon awakening, a powerful sense of peace and relaxation took over almost immediately. I had no responsibilities, no demands, no obligations. When was the last time you can honestly say you experienced that? During this first day, I greatly enjoyed this “freedom,” which was somewhat ironic, given that I was basically in prison. I mostly used it to catch up on sleep, meditate, and write in my darkness journal.

Oh, and enjoy unbelievably delicious fruit smoothies.

We were fed twice per day, and my initial thought that the meal times would be staggered so as to facilitate losing track of time was incorrect. We were told that due to the hours of the restaurant responsible for providing our food, we would be given our first meal between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m., and the second between 3 and 4 p.m.
I elected to have fruit smoothies and parfaits only, to simplify my experience and avoid eating in the dark.

The smoothies were provided by a vegan, dairy-free cafe called Luz Del Sol (Light of the Sun), and I can honestly say I’ve never had better fruit in my entire life. Each smoothie was a delicious treat, with the taste amplified due to no other stimuli to interfere. And speaking of no stimuli…

Is what we see really “there?”

Visual hallucinations started much sooner than I expected. Less than 24 hours in, my eyes were already playing tricks on me. The first thing I saw looked like an endless sky of stars. Thousands of tiny white pinpricks, everywhere I looked. Spaced randomly, with no discernible pattern, they reminded me immediately of the night sky on a clear evening. Interestingly, sometimes they were there, sometimes not. When they were present, I’d often just look up and stare at them, questioning their reality.

Later, I began to see smoky spirals, gently turning, and shapes like circles and rectangles collapsing in on themselves. By Day 5, (two meals per day made it easy to know which day it was) I saw bright and rapid white flashes at the outside of my peripheral vision. They were as bright as strobe lights. Around this time, I remember reflecting on how normal all of this began to feel. It was almost like, “Well, this is my life now. I see nothing but pitch darkness, and occasionally some shapes move and stars come out. That’s all.” Somewhat surprisingly, it all became rather unremarkable. So much so, that on my first day back out into the light, I actually forgot to mention the hallucinations to the first person who asked me about this experience. However, the part that remained interesting was that 90% of the time when these visual phenomena appeared, I could still see them when I closed my eyes.

This little guy caught my eye when walking through the streets after I came out into the light, because the pattern on his shell resembled the collapsing shapes that appeared before me, and his outer shell looks like the stars in the night sky that I saw.

Anyway, I recall multiple occasions in which I gently patted my closed eyelids with my fingertips to double check whether my eyes were open or not. This led me to remember a fascinating line of inquiry from the philosopher Alan Watts. I’ll paraphrase here:

“We consider our hands, feet, arms, and legs to be unquestionably part of our bodies, though we could easily survive without any of them. Yet, we don’t consider the air we breathe or the earth we stand upon to be part of our bodies, even though without them, we’d be dead in minutes. Isn’t that strange?”

With this in mind, it really drove home how much our brains are truly responsible for creating the world and objects that we perceive. They are mutually dependent on each other. Without any brains to perceive it, the world functionally wouldn’t exist. Without a world to perceive, what would the brain be able to do? When this relationship is expressed in such a way, the lines between “me” and “not me” begin to seem a little blurry, especially in the dark.

From the routine to the unforgettable

For the first three or four days, the experience was generally calm and relaxing. I never did develop much of a routine, though I’m pretty sure my sleep schedule completely flipped. I spent most of the time between the two meals sleeping, but I was awake all night. I would roam from the bed to the futon to the floor and back again, meditating, practicing breathing exercises and mobility drills, writing, and…peeing. With 10 gallons of water and ~64 ounces of fruit smoothies each day, I’ve probably never been better-hydrated in my life.

Then, at night on the fourth day, something happened that I’ll never forget. I’ll try to put it into words as best I can, but first I need to give a little context. During our orientation, they encouraged us to set an intention. I initially had not wanted to do this, as it seemed like a subtle form of control. I wanted to approach this experience from a place of openness, curiosity, and exploration. However, because they strongly suggested we do so, I went ahead and set one. I was convinced by their caveat that we should avoid getting attached to whether or not it happens. We were simply supposed to, “put it out there.” That sure sounded like letting go of control to me.

So, my intention had to do with something I’ve long admired in spiritual teachers, philosophers, and renowned practitioners of any tradition. Certain figures, the most obvious examples being individuals like The Buddha or Jesus Christ, were noted for their genuine love for all of humanity. They seemed to have tapped into a non-discriminatory, pervasive love for all that exists. Regarding people, it didn’t matter if someone was a saint or a criminal, longtime friend or new acquaintance, they would be loved all the same.

I wanted a taste of that love. I reflected that “my” love often felt like it was on some sort of hierarchy. I had Tess and my family at the top, then close friends a step down, and so on. I wanted to experience what it felt like to love all, equally and powerfully.

So, what happened?

On that night of the fourth full day, I engaged in a supine meditation. I had previously reflected upon the question, “Is there anyone for whom I don’t wish peace, love, and happiness?” I genuinely felt that the answer was no. I continue to want that for everyone, even someone like Vladimir Putin, who is responsible for unspeakable atrocities. It’s only because he never received love and felt true peace and happiness that he’s capable of such things. Imagine how broken inside one must be in order to perpetuate such violence. Such a person is in desperate need of peace, love, and happiness.

So, as I was lying there, a particular line of thought entered my head.

“Don’t confuse loving with liking. You’re never going to like everyone the same, but you don’t have to like someone to love them.”

Immediately, I felt what I can only describe as an explosion in my chest. Not in a painful way, however, more like a release. I could feel energy flowing from my head to my toes, my whole body vibrating powerfully. It felt almost as if love and gratitude was pouring from within me, with the strongest sensation originating in the center of my chest.

It was such an incredible feeling, and as I lay there enjoying it, more insight came to me. I don’t have a logical reason for believing this, but in the moment, I felt completely certain that this is true. Everyone has this love within them. It’s part of the essence of being human, even if it’s often concealed, buried, or forgotten. Further, it is only when we forget and lose touch with this love that we’re capable of harming one another. When we’re in touch with this it, though, harming another being would be unthinkably impossible.

The Aftermath

By the next morning, I really felt as if I had gotten even more than I came for. This filled me with gratitude, but also led to some feelings of intense boredom and restlessness. At no point did I feel panicked or like I wanted to escape, more like, “I’m ready to be out,” or, “I’m over this.” The gaps between the second meal of the day and the first meal of the next day began to feel longer and longer, and the experience of hunger started to intensify as well. Part of this was due to a food-related miscommunication. Let me explain.

On Sundays, restaurants in Mazunte are closed. We were told during orientation that we’d receive coconuts instead of our normal smoothies. Now, given that if you eat all the meat, coconuts have about 1,400 calories apiece, I wasn’t too worried about being undernourished. However, all I received for the entire day was a large jug of coconut water. So, from roughly 4 p.m. on Saturday to maybe 9 a.m. the next Monday, all I had was coconut water.

It turned out that Akshay had left a note requesting coconut water only, rather than coconut meat. Likely because he was the one who arranged the retreat, the staff thought he meant these instructions for all three of us! We all had a good laugh about this after the fact.

This lack of food undoubtedly contributed to the feelings of restlessness, but it turned out, these long and uncomfortable nights led to some more insight.

Late during night five, I just couldn’t fall asleep. So, I decided to meditate, and something interesting happened. Spontaneously, I realized I was radiating love out into the world. On each inhale, I was silently saying a different person’s name and sending them love. For what felt like quite a long time, I sent love to people I knew, people I didn’t, people I liked, people I didn’t, people whose political beliefs I agreed with, and those with whom I didn’t. The longer this went on, the more powerful the resonance in my chest became. It felt like a perfect connection between the love of the heart and the analytical powers of the finite mind.

This continued until feelings of love and gratitude felt nearly as strong as they had the previous evening, until I eventually fell asleep.

More Insight

On night six, a similar restlessness occurred. I resolved to try the same exercise as the night before. It seemed perfect, since it gave my logical brain something to do while my heart could simply run wild. This time, however, I couldn’t quite get into it. The exercise “didn’t work.” In hindsight, I realized that I was trying to copy what had happened the night before, but for selfish reasons. The experiences of nights four and five were spontaneous expressions of selfless love, but on night six, I was using the concept of love in order to get rid of uncomfortable feelings of restlessness. Thus, no luck.

But, another breakthrough was just around the corner. When I realized that I wasn’t fully committing to the exercise, I decided to simply accept my feelings of restlessness and resistance. I would no longer try to get rid of them. I would allow them to be as they were, despite their uncomfortable nature. At this point, a small but important change occurred.

The feelings of restlessness and resistance were still there, but I wasn’t bothered by them. This is difficult to explain in words, because the difference was so subtle, yet incredibly impactful. Let me be clear. The uncomfortable feelings weren’t gone. They were just no longer a problem. By stopping my efforts to get rid of them, the discomfort didn’t bother me anymore. Shortly afterwards, I could feel myself drifting off into deep sleep’s sweet embrace.

Speaking of sleep, during my time in the dark, I had some of the most vivid dreams I’d ever experienced. Even two weeks later, I still remember some of them perfectly. One was fully lucid. However, I could spend a whole entire post discussing them, so I’ll leave it at this. It became somewhat difficult to distinguish between waking and dreaming, and my dreams often involved themes regarding my negative personality traits and questioning whether or not I was awake. It typically wasn’t until I was awake that I realized a dream had ended.

Here’s a photo of a short reflection I wrote about one.

Leaving the darkness

It was on the fifth night when I decided I was very likely going to leave the darkness ahead of schedule. Our original plan was to have roughly 48 hours back in the “real world” before flying home, but plans changed. Instead, we were going to have less than 24 hours to adjust, and this didn’t seem sufficient.

One of the things that has not resonated with me in my various philosophical and spiritual explorations over the past couple of years, is the practitioners who almost seem to have a disdain for the body. They tend to treat this worldly existence as a burden of sorts, since they believe there to be so much more. Regardless of whether or not that’s true, I feel very strongly that this existence is a beautiful gift. It’s one to be explored and enjoyed to our fullest capacity. To this end, I remember being completely taken by Mazunte’s natural charm and beauty, and desiring to experience all it had to offer.

Further, I wished to have the freedom to be alone after exiting the darkness, and to spend at least a day not using my phone at all. Neither of these would have been possible with less than 24 hours before flying home.

Given that my experience in the darkness had already exceeded many of my expectations and hopes for it, I felt drawn to explore the town on my own. The most compelling reason I could come up with for staying the full time was not wanting other people to think that I’d “given up.” Upon examining it more closely, this didn’t seem like a particularly good reason. One of the items on my list of negative personality traits was caring too much about what others think, so this offered the perfect opportunity to overcome that. Not only would I leave early, I would be completely transparent about it.

In the end, I spent about 200 hours in the dark out of a possible 250. I left on the morning of the 9th day, having spent 8 full days and part of two others. When deciding when to exit, I remembered that the only repeat meal I had scheduled happened to be on the evening of the 8th full day. My first meal of the 1st day and my 2nd meal of the 8th day were the only ones that were the same. This seemed to offer a nice bit of circular symmetry to complete the experience.

So, early on the 9th morning, I lit my second candle.

At first, it felt a little bit like being drunk. My vision was hazy, and my balance was quite off. Not having had the ability to focus on a given point for over eight days, my brain found this quite jarring at first. However, once everything stabilized after a couple of minutes, I was again struck by the power and beauty of the flame.

Once it burned out, I left my room.

Returning to the outside world

had miscalculated the time, and it was still quite dark out. All I could see were the lanterns on the walking path and thousands of stars. The air was thick and heavy, and a powerful lightning storm started almost immediately.

I climbed into the hammock to enjoy the feeling of weightlessness while watching jagged bolts of electricity angle through the sky. Some of the flashes were so intense that they lit up the whole sky in a pale shade of green. And I must say, coming out of the dark into a lightning storm illuminating a sky full of stars was an unforgettable experience.

After sitting outside for a while and enjoying the sights, I decided to go back inside to sleep until morning. Upon awakening, I went outside again, into the light this time. I was immediately struck by the vivid colors of the trees, flowers, and rocks. Everything looked so sharp and crisp, like seeing the world in HD for the first time. It was immensely enjoyable to simply look around, drinking in all of the sights.

I spent this entire day walking around the city, enjoying delicious food, getting a massage, and hiking the trail to Punta Cometa, which you can see in the photos above and below. This is one of the most naturally beautiful spots in Mazunte, with views like this around every corner. I felt incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity to experience this stunning part of the world on my own, at such a relaxed pace.

When Tim and Akshay emerged, we had such an enjoyable time sharing what we’d seen and experienced, and exploring the town on our last full day in Mazunte.

Everything seemed so vibrant, and we all were overcome with gratitude. Even the ridiculous journey back home couldn’t dampen this. If you read my piece from last week, you’ll recall that we had quite the adventure to make it home. The hurricane severely disrupted our plans, and there are two ways to look at that experience.

It’s all about how you frame it…

I was “supposed” to arrive home on the evening of Sunday, May 29th. I didn’t actually arrive home until the morning of Thursday, June 2nd. It would have been so easy to see these four extra days as time spent waiting in lines, dealing with annoying uncertainty, sitting in long car rides, and wasting a lot of money to get somewhere I was already going. It could have been highly frustrating and distressing.

Alternatively, I could see these days as an unexpected joy, filled with amazing conversations, natural beauty, delicious food, examples of human kindness, and incredible people. There was Alier, the hero of a cab driver who, true to his word, showed up at 6 a.m. on Tuesday morning to drive us to the airport, despite us having been unable to contact him due to the hurricane knocking out power, cell service, and internet. Then, there was Wilber, another saint of a cab driver who took us all the way from Huatulco to Oaxaca city, (a seven hour drive), then drove straight back home the same night.

On the way, when we’d been stopped by a mudslide we got to witness tons of people get out of the cars, grab shovels, and help the military engineering corps clear the road.

And of course, I can’t forget Mama Karlita. That’s the nickname we gave Karla, the owner of the Hacienda Maria Inez, the beautiful Bed & Breakfast where we rode out the flooding, rain, and high winds of the hurricane.

Anyway, she was an incredibly kind, funny, and generous woman, who took care of us like we were her own sons. We spent those two days drinking hand-melted Oaxacan Hot Chocolate, eating the best guacamole I’ve ever had, and chowing down on her home cooking, everything from chilaquiles with handmade mole to grilled octopus ceviche. We helped her prepare the building for the hurricane by moving furniture and unblocking the pool drain, and we all played dominoes by candlelight when the power went out. She even messaged me on WhatsApp once I arrived back in the states to make sure I’d gotten home safely.

In Oaxaca city, we spent a wonderful evening with three fellow American travelers, Amy, Jacob, and Johanna. We randomly met them at a sushi restaurant, and spent hours discussing everything from acting as an art form to strength training to Buddhism to parenting. Even the 14 hour drive with Akshay from Dallas to Phoenix was an absolute blast. We spent the entire time talking or enjoying each other’s different tastes in music.

None of this would have been possible if I’d engaged or identified with the frustration that disruption to travel plans can bring. Likely due to my experiences in the dark, it felt quite easy to stay positive. All three of us embraced the absurdity of the situation with humor and even-temperedness. This was especially true once Akshay and I realized that our flight from Phoenix to Dallas had been canceled.

This is where the final lesson became clear…

Letting go of control doesn’t mean doing nothing. It simply means letting go of an attachment to your preconceived notion of a particular outcome. It means embracing what you can do and not dwelling on what you can’t. This is why we drove to Oaxaca City instead of just standing outside the Huatulco airport for hours on end. It also meant accepting that there was no realistic way we’d arrive home on Sunday evening like originally planned. If we’d refused to accept this, we’d have been miserable. Even worse, if we’d been resentful about it, we could have missed out on the incredible experiences those next four days offered.

In the end, this all aligned beautifully with the realization that life is a gift to be experienced. It was almost as if the universe said to me, “Okay, you’ve practiced calmness, peacefulness, and meditation for over a week…here’s a chance to test it out in the outside world.” I’m quite happy to report that the lessons of the dark stuck with me, even amidst bright lights and challenging situations. Sure enough, the darkness and the light do go hand in hand, mutually dependent on one another to exist.

We should embrace them both.


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Every Tuesday, learn about topics you might expect to see on a strength coach’s blog, like how to overcome injuries, train smarter, and become more athletic…and about topics you might be surprised to find, like mindfulness, philosophy, and leaving your ego behind.