For four days this week, home for Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was a pitch-black room. There were no phones, no television, no lights or distractions. Just Rodgers, alone with his thoughts, in a cabin built specifically for prolonged isolation in the dark.
When the four-time NFL MVP announced plans earlier this month to contemplate his NFL future in isolation at a “darkness retreat,” many were left scratching their heads.
“It’s just sitting in isolation, meditation, dealing with your thoughts,” Rodgers said earlier this month. “We rarely even turn our phone off or put the blinds down to sleep in darkness. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Rodgers is no stranger to alternative therapies. He credits psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca for helping to alleviate his fear of death and deepening a sense of self-love. The football star said he has done “many meditation and yoga retreats” in the past and defended his decision to try darkness therapy as one of several practices “that have stimulated my mind and helped me get in a better headspace and have a greater peace in my life.”
But what exactly happens in a darkness retreat? And is it just another new-age fad or perhaps something that could benefit the rest of us?
What happens in the dark
A darkness retreat is exactly what it sounds like: a prolonged stay in a space completely devoid of light. One of the centers offering the practice is Sky Cave Retreats, nestled in the Cascade-Siskiyou wilderness, in Southern Oregon, near Klamath Falls.
“The reasons for doing this range from people wanting to know themselves more, to people who want to rest, reset and relax, to those who want to explore consciousness and deepen their meditation practice,” said Scott Berman, who owns Sky Cave Retreats along with his wife Jill, adding the darkness helps illuminate what really matters by stripping away the constant bombardment of sensory input and stimulation many people experience in their hectic modern lives.
“When someone goes into the darkness, all these things that were important to them like money, fame, power, status, being worthy – they all become insignificant and meaningless in the dark,” Berman said. “In the dark, all you have is the present moment which reveals what is truly meaningful – whether it’s love, forgiveness, peace – and it begins to transform you as you truly authentically touch what is most important to you.”
The center currently operates three stand-alone cabins built specifically for prolonged isolation in the dark – earth-sheltered caves, which on the outside are somewhat reminiscent of a Hobbit home. Each space contains a bed, a toilet, sink and a bathtub, as well as a low table for eating and a carpeted area for yoga and meditation. Participants can leave at any time – the doors are never locked – and there is a light switch for emergencies which is protected by a childproof guard so it isn’t flipped on by accident.
The cost includes three meals a day, which Berman delivers personally all at once in the evening (through a lightproof double-sided food box) to minimize the disturbance. This is when participants have an opportunity for a conversation, which could be 10 seconds or 30 minutes, according to Berman, depending on the person’s needs.
Participants typically spend three to four days in the darkness at a cost of $250 a night and are encouraged to take an extra day before and after to integrate the experience.
Burak Dalcik, a 27-year-old salesman from Arlington, Virginia, said the four days he spent in the dark at Sky Caves Retreats in January gave him clarity about his priorities. He found he no longer labeled experiences as positive or negative, but rather allowed them to come and to go, which led to less stress and anxiety at work and in his personal life. He also said he started calling his mom, who lives back in Turkey, more frequently.
“It just really trims all the unnecessary fat and allows you to focus on some of the most important things and really allows you to understand who you are,” said Dalcik. “There’s nothing New Age about this – it boils down to can you just sit by yourself with yourself? And if you can’t, you should probably get pretty curious about why.”
Berman cautions the retreat isn’t for everyone, nor should it be seen as a quick fix to one’s troubles.
“It’s not like this magical, mind-blowing, amazing experience – it can be extremely difficult and uncomfortable,” Berman said. “But in the darkness, discomfort is the door to transformation. There’s an acceptance and a profound love that people start to experience when they’re no longer resisting that part of themselves.”
A therapeutic tool or junk science?
For now, there is limited research on how darkness retreats impact the human brain and body. Some centers claim the experience can help heal traumas or activate the pineal gland, another claim is darkness therapy increases melatonin production in the brain.
“That’s totally false,” said Dr. David Blask, the head of the Laboratory of Chrono-Neuroendocrine Oncology at Tulane University School of Medicine. “There may be some psychological benefits that people derive from a darkness retreat that they feel are important for them, but certainly not from a strict endocrine neuroendocrine or biochemical physiological standpoint.”
Dr. Marek Malůš, a psychologist at the University of Ostrava in the Czech Republic who has been studying darkness therapies since 2010, sees the technique as a promising therapeutic tool.
“Your thoughts, memories, emotions, inner world and mental processes become much more balanced and integrated,” Malůš said.
While he and his colleagues are working to secure funding for additional studies, Malůš said preliminary research showed just four days in a darkness chamber was enough to help increase mindfulness and self-esteem, lower symptoms of depression and anxiety, while improving parasympathetic nervous system functions, which helps with stress management and lowering burnout symptoms. Subjects reported feeling the benefits three weeks after the experience.
Berman said he hopes to see more scientific research into the benefits of darkness retreats, but cautions against anyone seeking to use the retreat for some sort of natural high.
“If somebody’s coming here because they want to have a so-called DMT experience, you’ve come into the wrong place,” he said. “But there is a lot of benefit in not looking outside of ourselves for confirmation of our worth and using the darkness to illuminate our true nature.”
For those who aren’t able to commit the time or money for a darkness retreat but want a taste of some of the benefits, Berman suggests starting small at home.
“It’s about becoming accustomed to authentically slowing down, putting the phone away, turning out the lights, closing the blinds and just resting,” he said. “Not to get somewhere, not to heal but just to be curious about what’s actually happening within yourself.”