The Dark Retreat Dopamine Fast
8 days living in a cave in complete isolation and darkness,
Welcome to Building the Othership - stories about building a healthy experience Company combined with tales of personal resilience.
In the last 2 years I’ve been building a healthy experience company, for people interested in self-growth, that need relief from modern stress. We create experiences that get you into your body, build authentic connection and are actually fun. We believe the world would be a better place if people were more deeply connected by the shared experience of learning how to be happy and healthy. Previously, I worked on growth at the Ethereum Foundation.
Check out @othership
Why go to a dark retreat
I’ve been feeling overwhelmed — probably the most I’ve ever been addicted to my phone. You know that feeling when you’re bored and you immediately look to grab your phone to see what’s going on? It was happening all the time — while watching movies, eating dinner, before exercise, etc. Last year, I started scrolling Twitter daily to check Covid news (we’re building a physical business), which then that morphed into checking crypto prices and economic updates ALL THE TIME. With that much Twitter, it’s impossible to avoid comparing yourself to others and taking in negative news, and if you really notice how you’re feeling — I’d find myself feeling not super great after deep dives. Some of the negative patterns that snuck up through Covid include:
Booking 6+ meetings per day on zoom with no boundaries back to back (sometimes more). Totally missing my eating schedule as a result
Drinking way more coffee than normal - at least 2 cups per day, then a bulletproof and then a matcha
Stopped working out — at first because of Covid closures, and then felt too busy. Toronto has faced the most severe Covid restrictions of any city in North America. As expected, had some pretty bad changes in my respiration rate, heart rate and HRV
Started fasting all day (need that power coffee in the morning) — then would work until at least 5pm - 6pm on that first go and then get up drained and crash with an Uber Eats. Had never had issues with junk food before and was ordering Uber Eats like 5x per week
Working on weekends so I could “catch up” which meant no nature time
No outdoor activity because it was winter in Toronto
Launching two businesses — and looking at my phone almost all the time. At first it was to push things forward through massive excitement and then it turned into craving stimulation and quick dopamine hits all the time. This felt very much like when I have struggled with addiction in the past.
I went out for dinner on a patio with my sister while she was here and felt the urge to look at my phone the entire time == this is what happens when you reduce social time: you get used to living on internet time (which is consistent quick hits all the time). I was a smoker for almost ten years in my 20’s and addiction to stimulation via mobile is stronger.
Overall I felt burnt out most of the time — which made it easy to crank through “to-do’s” but super hard to do deep work — reading and absorbing challenging material, writing, creating: You know that space when you feel super overwhelmed by something new on your plate — it’s because you’re so busy, that even the thought of a new task feels overwhelming
I generally take a deep reset every year - Vipassana retreat, psychedelic medicine retreat, built a house in Africa, burning man, skydiving license — something that changes your mental state completely. Missed this in 2020 because of Covid.
If you go too hard, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you’ll feel yourself eventually start to bend and then you’ll break. The harder you go without balance, the more willpower it requires to maintain your healthy habits also. I think this is a result of overwhelming your impulse control completely — leading to need for more and more stimulation.
For example on my way to the retreat, I missed one of the flights because I was waiting at the wrong gate (guess what… responding to emails and scrolling Twitter).
What makes it even more scary, is that I’m not a first timer into understanding these behaviours. I have a wellness center in my backyard with a sauna and cold plunge, I meditated about 200 hours in 2019 and I’m super aware of proper diet, sleep techniques, psychedelic medicines boosters and productivity hacks etc. I’m pretty familiar with pushing myself to the max. I didn’t use social media for many years and never had it on my mobile prior to this year. Even with all of the practices above and education around the dangers of pushing too hard, I got sucked in. I just didn’t have any balance.
Enter the dark retreat - Watch the two minute clip below to get a sense for the space before reading on and also how dark it actually is! Wait for it…
What is a dark retreat?
I first heard about a dark retreat through the Inward community and I remember thinking that’s insane — however, interesting things often start that way. Being on the edge is where you find exponential growth. The first thing I actually heard about it was “it’s a psychedelic experience man - after three days the melatonin in the brain converts to DMT”. It didn’t sound super scientific, so I dismissed it. I’d then heard about it a second time through Kyle Cease, the comedian, who had done a dark retreat at Sky Cave - the only dark retreat in North America. Sky Cave sits on four hundred acres of untouched land, off-grid, no cell service — deep within nature. Part of the appeal was just being submersed in nature for 10+ days.
Based on his response, in the summer of 2020 I decided to reach out to the owner Scott Berman to learn more. He explained it to me as a deeply contemplative and grueling practice focused on finding deep relaxation in every moment. Scott had spent years in solitude, done upwards of 20 Vipassana retreats and had lived on retreat for years. He mentioned that within a day in the dark retreat he could find himself in similar states of meditation to those attained deep on retreat. One line that stuck with me — “you are bound to find your edge daily”, sounded like an amazing challenge and that captivated me much more than mention of “DMT Release”.
A dark retreat entails spending time submersed in complete darkness. The darkness is so complete, your eyes never adjust - watch the video above to the end to get a sense for how intense it is. The atmosphere was about a 15 foot by 10 foot “cave”. There was a bed, a yoga mat, a toilet and a bath. Food was prepared each evening and passed in through a tiny double door cubby retaining the complete darkness (yes, you eat in the pitch black).
In buddhist traditions, dark retreats are super advanced meditative practices and are prohibited for novices — there is a practice spending 47 days in darkness to mimic the “bardos” or transitions between death and rebirth. It’s a pretty serious practice with an emphasis on mastering death. “If you die before you die, you won’t die when you die” is a famous zen and Sufi quote. Basically, if you die before you die, we're liberated from clinging to what we have, and we're free to celebrate with no limitation. This is an extremely powerful thought.
I definitely did not prepare appropriately — I would say less than 4 days off over an 8 month period, ripping coffee, hundreds of emails per day and just went right into it at 200mph mental state. I think I even pushed myself harder than I normally could for months leading up to the retreat, because I knew I had this reset coming.
I’d also done some research on dopamine fasting, “a method based on cognitive behavioral therapy, by which we can become less dominated by the unhealthy stimuli — the texts, the notifications, the beeps, the rings — that accompany living in a modern, technology-centric society. Instead of automatically responding to these reward-inducing cues, which provide us with an immediate but short-lived charge, we ought to allow our brains to take breaks and reset from this potentially addictive bombardment.”
If you take anything away from this article, let it be this statement: Anna Lembke: Associate Professor and Medical Director - Addiction Medicine at Stanford
“All addictive drugs cause dopamine levels to spike in one way or another, Lembke said, and in response, the brain weakens or eliminates the receptors built to respond to the chemical. That means drug users need more of the substance to elicit the same surge of dopamine, and that other rewards, like food and social interaction, steadily lose their appeal”.
It becomes more and more difficult to find satisfaction in everyday life, which should be an interesting realization for those checking their phones consistently (which is almost everybody with notifications enabled) and one not yet appreciated by mainstream society, which means there may be a way you can actually feel better.
Genetically, I cycle dopamine quickly, leading to even greater chances to get consumed by over stimulation. If you are checking your phone every five minutes, searching for “that certain feeling that something is happening” ask yourself if you can spend an hour or so being bored. If not, it’s an indication there could be a lot of leverage here for your personal happiness.
“Dopamine Fasting'“ doesn’t really have much to do with Dopamine or Fasting and there has been a bit of controversy around the specific name as you can’t fast from a naturally occurring brain chemical, however this doesn’t relate at all to the practice of abstinence and it’s power. The main idea is that by allowing ourselves to feel lonely or bored, or to find pleasures in doing simpler and more natural activities, we will regain control over our lives and be better able to address compulsive behaviors that may be interfering with our happiness. It doesn’t mean that your “peak” or “compulsive experiences” will be better when you come back, it means you can gain more control over your impulses. Also, you don’t need to “quit living life”. Be normal about it and read through this really strong guide to dopamine fasting from Dr. Cameron Sepah.
In the past, I’ve seen massive willpower increases from Vipassana retreats and psychedelic medicine retreats, so I expected that with such minimal stimulation in the dark, I’d be able to reset the brains reward systems, improve willpower and develop a better relationship with work and technology. Keep in mind that impulse reduction doesn’t happen from taking a “vacation”. The concept is not about taking time “off work”. It’s taking time away from your phone and away from other impulsive behaviours to build strength.
What Was it Like
My first impression of the space was the moisture, it was musky and damp. I was like, wow, this is a “real cave”, made out of clay with cold ground, this is the real thing! Scott did a little test run with me and when he first turned off the lights, it was insane how dark it was as and he said “your eye-sight won’t adapt the entire time”.
Prior to beginning, I went for walk through the forest, focused on my breathing and spent some time journaling, really going through my intentions for the experience. I was interested in:
Getting back some balance, specifically going back to a healthy lifestyle in terms of diet and exercise (I’ve been pretty healthy most of my life)
More time with my fiance, parents, friendships relationships
Have been so obsessed with building and personal growth results related to career, I wanted to be more in touch with my heart and my emotions. That feeling of giving to others.
I also planned a pretty detailed morning routine with a gratitude practice, meditation, breathwork, stretching and handpan to start each day.
12 hours in - 1 sleep down
When you start a meditation retreat, the first 4 hours are pretty intense. You hit your edge during those first few sits as you start comparing the first few hours to the 100 you’ll need to do and your body starts to ache. The doubt creeps in, “there is no way I’m going to be able to do this” and there is some discomfort as you adapt. The dark was slightly different but had it’s own flavor of adaptation. For the first two days, I was generally sleeping. If the idea of the dark is attractive, I think there would be value even in just going in for a weekend to catch up on sleep for a mini reboot.
There was immediately a level of nervousness in the dark, that never really left, especially upon first waking. The intensity would dial up or down, but I started to realize how much we rely on sight to indicate safety. The world of darkness is a completely foreign environment for most human beings and one associated with fear. At the subconscious level, being in the dark, alone in the middle of the woods, you are sort of “on edge”.
It was cold, and the bed was quite “ascetic” (ie. not comfortable). The first evenings dreams were quite vivid. If you don’t dream much, the dream experience alone was magical. You are very aware of the colours, the images, thoughts - it feels real. Some of my first dreams were about having already left the dark retreat and then realizing I was outside and being devastated that I only made it one day.
When I woke up, the first challenge was going out in the new environment to use the bathroom. I honestly spent 45 minutes deliberating with myself before getting out of bed. Boom - here is fear creeping in, magnified by the colder temperature outside the comfort of the bed covers. Counting my steps, I realized I should’ve mapped the room better before starting the retreat! When I found the bathroom that first time, it took a lot of patience to calm the nervous system — it just feels like at any point something could reach out and grab you. And even if you’re not technically “scared”, there is a tax on the nervous system. Again - I realized how much we rely on sight to indicate safety, especially moving around or upon waking. Every time I left the bed in the early days, it felt like I had limited amount of “bravery power” that would slowly erode until it was time to go back under the covers.
After the bathroom, I went back to bed and the vivid dreams continued, all accompanied by physical feelings and emotions:
Being in a dentist chair at a carnival
Was hosting a clubhouse show where I got punched in the face and noticed there was light in the room which ruined the retreat (super weird)
Some voice came to me and said “you’ve passed level 1, next we’re going to send the mother spirit through the darkness for level 2”. I’d heard a bunch of stuff from some of the “kookier” in our community about spirits in the darkness and “chants” for protection. I come from a science background, so I take that with a grain of salt, but in a state of stress, I was definitely a little spooked… lol.
Every time you wake up there are a few moments of discomfort as you realize where you are. It takes some pretty extreme patience to calm yourself. It reminded me a lot of the ice bath experience in that way. A fight or flight stress response is triggered and you breath through the chest deepening the stress response. As I’m a Breathwork facilitator, I would notice and then slow the breath to move to a parasympathetic state. During days 1 to 3, I felt a massive pressure inside my brain and around my head. It felt like the darkness was all encompassing, squeezing like a vice, I imagined my neurotransmitters responses resetting - it just felt tight and uncomfortable. I’m sure the lack of caffeine, sugar and possibly jet lag made the adaptation period harder than it needed to be.
It’s really hard to describe, but it’s hard to change your mental state in the darkness. Your visual anchor is gone, and the environment is the same no matter which way you look, or even if you close your eyes. If you panic, there is no relief outside of your own mental fortitude. Scott taught me a pretty awesome technique on night 2. He delivered breakfast in the morning of Day 1, and then only came once each 24 hours. For the most part we’d share 1-2 sentences and that would be my only human connection. His technique:
“Focus on relaxing, but be playful about it. Can you make it a game? Do a body scan and continuously relax, over and over. When ready, start finding gaps in your awareness or thoughts, and then in those gaps, bring to mind a feeling you want to cultivate and feel it in the body” - it could be love for Emily, I saw my partner Harry pop in as a protector, bravery, kindness etc. If I could first relax and then bring to mind a powerful feeling, it really helped to change my nervous system state and overcome any fear. I must’ve done this a thousand times at least during the time in the dark and now feel like I have a new tool in my arsenal when I want to change my state. I’ve actually been using it frequently since being home.
Food was a challenge — I’d find myself internally debating that it was time to eat for 30 minutes, then using up my bravery meter to make my way to the cubby, slowly grab the 5-6 containers and set them up on one of the ledges next to the bed. Food consisted of an apple, peanut butter sandwich (this was the reward I looked forward to), a bag of amazing kale chips, hard boiled eggs, a salad, some type of soup or lentils, a thermos with tea, possibly a dish of rice or sweet potato and cutlery (no caffeine, no sugar, vegetarian). It was tough to eat in the dark. I’d suggest at home, if this is resonating with you, just try and bring a couple containers into the darkest closet in your house (like 2-3 items) and see what its like to unpack everything, assess what it is, use the cutlery, finish it and then repack all while slightly cold and a bit nervous.
There was enough for two meals, so it was important to keep things organized. I’d have mental maps in my head of what was finished, how things were left, where it was in relation to the rest of the room. Keeping the mental map was both fun and challenging, taking up space in the mind, and cultivating gratitude for the ability to see. Extremely grateful. It becomes clear how dominant sight is and how much we rely on it. Everything is a challenge in the darkness. For example, if you turned in the room 25 degrees and thought you’d turned 40 degrees, you’d end up lost and have to start feeling around on the ground for a landmark.
After that first breakfast, I went back to sleep until Day 2 morning dreaming about:
Running a gang in a ghetto running around shooting at people in a violent environment (what!)
In a boat in the NYC harbor with friends trying to convince them to do a cold plunge
Skydiving with a group in a storm — I pushed a women into the river as a prank and was kicked out of the group. Gave them some type of charity donation to apologize and they started crying leading to a mini heart opening (will talk more about this post dream feeling)
For those that like to dream or like lucid dreaming — this is the ultimate. You are soooo in tune with your subconscious mind and remember the dreams and how they felt when you awaken.
Day 2 - The Bath
I decided to get a little more acquainted with the space and took my first bath. I thought the bath tub initially was sort of strange, but it was so superior to a shower. It was the highlight of each day. The heat helps you to feel safe, helps tension dissipate and increases the bravery meter. I would take 90 minute baths and post bath would feel strong and safe and would usually meditate or stretch in that time frame. It became the staple when I woke up and before bed to help me calm down.
More moments waking up in the middle of the night, having to reset my nerves with breathwork. I was awake slightly more today. There isn’t really anything to do but meditate and sleep, so you become hyper aware of your thought loops with no stimulation. Some of the interesting ones below:
The Roald Dahl movie “The Witches”: coincidentally saw the remake on the plane on the way down. The original was the first movie I was ever afraid of as a little kid. Like the kind’ve fear where you’d run into your parents bed and didn’t want to let your feet hang outside of the blankets — this crazy image came up of her smiling with her mouth gaping with teeth a few times.
Tons and tons of thinking about crypto - what I’d sold and wishing I’d made different investment decisions — money and success seems to be a huge one on my mind lately and seems to take up a lot of mental space leading to a lot of unhappiness.
Thoughts about sex and my fiance Emily — as stimulation decreases, a lot of sexual power was evident. It felt more animalistic, a natural healthy human urge based on our survival instinct. It was interesting to know sexual desire without the shame that our culture relates to sexuality, and more as a natural feeling from our deepest brain chemistry
Day 3 - Thought Loops
I had some trouble breathing last night. My chest felt tight similar to when I had Covid. This triggered the thought process:
Perhaps I got a variant on the plane. Wasn’t there an outbreak of the P1 in Vancouver where I caught my flight? Would I need to see a Dr.? Was there even one nearby, I can’t leave after 3 days.
When you’re breathing is difficult, it’s impossible not to notice as you’re reminded every breath. After a few hours it past, and then I felt better.
My biggest takeaway today was that the mind is a wild animal. No control over your thoughts and the same loops. With no stimulation, the thoughts take on a much more noticeable role. It’s like “why am I thinking about these things, and really, again?”. As you notice your thoughts, its easy to feel experientially how much of an impact negative thought loops are having during your waking life.
I was having trouble associating with the world — a memorable loop was —> have I made the right career decisions —> what am I really excited about that’s authentic to me and not from society —> what do I really want then —> who am I? These feelings weren’t super pleasant —a lot of deep craving and daydreaming to change the past. This is how we live most of our lives and is a common meditation precept, living in the past or daydreaming about the future. It leads to immense misery and for the most part we cover it with stimulation. In the dark, you can’t do that, and that’s part of the power.
I set the intention that day to try and convert these thought loops into feelings of love and gratitude instead. In certain cases, ask..
But what has gone well here?
Why are you so lucky?
Is this really true?
These style of questions helped to pierce through daydreams. Dreams continue to get crazier:
Pink ice cream land visuals but hanging out at my physical space Inward. Cartoonish and friendly and warm and neon. Twitter videos promoting our space with this amazing animated ice cream vibe. Cartoon friends were dropping in and hanging out. I almost started crying in the dream because I was so happy to be hanging out with people and then I realized I wasn’t in the dark retreat and only did 2 days and was upset
Saw a young father fighting with his son and family, seeing the fighting, I could empathize with him and it opened my heart. I started having very strong emotional breakthroughs during the dreams. I was almost crying when I woke up and realized how much the pursuit of work blunts emotions. I saw this equation in my head:
Focus on “I” + achievement/ success + external vaidation + caffeine + overstimulation = blunt emotions.
It felt like I was slowly taking off armour I had built around my heart. During each sleep it felt like the DMT release that had been mentioned to me (although very minor in comparison). I have used both nn-DMT and 5-MEO DMT, so am familiar with the experience and I’m pretty skeptical this is actually what’s happening. There isn’t much science here, mostly a number of presentations by Mantak Chia surmising melatonin converts to tryptophan, to pinoline and then DMT when we aren’t exposed to light. I’m going to reach out to Andrew Huberman to get his opinion on what is actually happening, but I linked some interesting presentations in the notes below with more details
Day 4 - Surrender
The coughing continued. I was seeing weird images and still had the headache and pressure on the head. I found strength curling into a ball for an hour, then went into childs pose which helped with the cough and then took a bath (which also seemed to help). Dealing with persistent cough made the experience more challenging, but also brought up some interesting thoughts about mortality.
Had a crazy dream with a fight with my family at xmas (I teleported there and was pissed about missing the rest of the retreat) - the whole family was aggravated I was going to miss xmas and I was being a dick about it and starting yelling. The family got in a huge fight until my dad started crying and then gave me a hug. It felt like my family, but didn’t look like them. During the hug, something seemed to break in my heart — again some bigger chunk of armour around it was released. I woke up and felt so relaxed. Felt real comfort and openness.
I’ve past the limit edge and can now actually meditate for awhile and am also more comfortable in the darkness. Some stuff is also happening in my visual field. I saw brown images and blobs. Sometimes women of all sizes melting into each other. It reminded me of the movie Dumbo when Dumbo accidentally gets drunk and hallucinates, however it’s mostly the darkness swirling. The effect is called prisoners cinema and is believed to be a combination of phosphenes combined with the psychological effects of prolonged exposure to darkness. A phosphene is the phenomenon of seeing light without light actually entering the eye and is thought to be shown in neolithic cave paintings. Likely the cause of the visualizations.
If you’re looking for a psychedelic experience, you’ll be disappointed. The darkness is about reducing stimulation, conquering fear, building personal awareness around your thoughts. It’s much more grueling with long long long stretches of boredom. It’s not about visualization theatrics. For example, despite around 4-5 hours of meditation each day, most of the day is still spent in thought loops. My practice wasn’t quite strong enough to meditate 12+ hours per day (which would’ve been better I think).
I also noticed that my mind had daily energy bursts that feel really good - often in the morning. I used to think these were related to external stimulus (ie. a new idea, a new problem). But it’s the opposite. The energy is naturally occurring. With a super power like that, I realized the question is “how do I channel it”? I find myself so often excited to be starting new projects and solving new problems, because I thought it’s what created the energy. But it’s not. The energy is just there! Which means, it’s imperative to know how to harness it, how to get into that state, what to avoid in that state. I’ve been working on too many things — so instead of getting excited and searching out new problems, I need to turn it towards the ones I’m already working on.
Day 5 - Mortality
Constantly thinking about how many days left. I’ll think in many different ways how many hours, quarter days, half days and full days I’ve made it and how many are left. Over and over, immense boredom. The breathing issue got worse. Some thoughts:
I was coughing so severly, I’d be in childs pose for 3-4 hours. I have Covid - shaking and coughing and spitting phlegm and yelling. What if I’m pushing it too much here? I remember Emily telling me about somebody our age that deteriorated in 24 hours and had to be put on a ventilator. What if that happens and they don’t find me? What am I doing this for? Am I going to die alone in the dark without seeing my family and Emily?
I almost left this time. It was such a long period of coughing which increased the possibly irrational fear, but I really started thinking about dying and it was clear, I did not want to die. It’s amazing in a period of weakness how much you move from the “I” to wanting help and love from others. Nothing else matters. The ego shrinks. Meditating on the reality of death also has a lot of leverage and is something I’m interested in learning more about. Despite the fear and the pain, I just couldn’t bring myself to quit. My resilience and toughness was too intertwined with my personal identity.
It’s getting harder to sleep and the dreams are so vivid but so strange. Was at a comedy show and the comic was Bill Hader. He was wearing a wet suit and he was trying to run away — telling me he didn’t want to go onstage, complaining about having three kids, “I gave comedy my life, why do I have to do this shit”. No pleasant burst this time and was so hard to fall back asleep… then second time I fell asleep, some amazing stuff unleashed:
Emilys face came in and seemed as tall as a skyscraper. I was looking into her eyes and they were glistening. My heart was bursting with immense love.
Dreamt I was a black woman in the 1960’s, with a son named Omar — I was a school teacher and was talking about integrity and promise in life. Felt like there was a connection to equality and had an intuitive sense that people are equal. Was very surreal.
Again I Felt loving and relaxed. It seems to be the pattern after each sleep. Some type of progression around further letting go or surrendering
Crazy kiteboarding session - hovering around in a parachute, getting the gear ready — then went out kiting through the desert, but the board was a giant sand dune statue that was 10 feet high, I was riding it and it had two giant kites attached while I rode. Crazy sunset colours, massive waves of water turning into sand while crashed picking up in the distance. They would fall and turn into sandcastles until all the water turned into sand and I couldn’t escape
Pixar cartoons session - there was a little Emily teapot and I was rubbing her tummy
Thought a lot about my Mom / Dad. Had visuals of my Mom when she was young, and remembered this moment of being grounded and having to do a bunch of handwriting as a punishment and I saw through her eyes how hard it was for her to be a mom and how stressed she was and how hard it was to raise three kids — had deep feelings about having my own family and calling her to say I love you
Day 6 - The Critical Day + Flow State
Found out what was happening with my breathing! Scott gave me some peppermint essential oils. I used some peppermint and lavender essential oils on my chest and when I woke up, I felt fine again. I had started to suspect that it was something I was breathing in caused by moving around during the day (ie. no issues day 1 or in the morning) and I realized that I was meditating more and more each day and kept sitting on a giant meditation cushion - puffing up dust right into my face every time I sat down. I was allergic to the dust. I stopped using the cushion that day and that made things better. Dropping the fear of death helped me power through to new sets of challenges and thought loops.
After night 5, I no longer had dreams and sort of stopped falling asleep. I was going to leave Day 7, so I wanted to spend the rest of the time thinking through what it is I really want more of in life. What came to mind was:
Getting back to a healthy body, especially in relation to food.
Doubling down on my own creative energy: keep expressing my true self and continue to learn who that really is. “When do I feel most like myself”. This is almost like magic — what makes you feel the way you did when you were a kid. What really inspires the real you.
The rewards system related to external validation —> “Be good enough, be successful”. There is a feeling there I want, but it’s not related to success. I want to feel powerful and strong - and those feelings are already in my life, so I want to spend more time focused on the times I felt like a real leader. Leadership is the antidote for external validation.
Self Judgement. I have no real control of my thoughts and have had a lot of trouble accepting the past. The opposite would be accepting and reducing mental energy here. Accepting means remembering I made decisions based on how I felt at the time. Mental energy focused on “if only” is wasted. How do I spend more time in my body focusing on the now? I think a gratitude practice is the antidote here.
I had 2 baths today and meditated all morning. I can actually breath! I can feel a transition in my brain. Honestly, I thought I was healthy and mentally extremely resilient. But today, I can viscerally feel how looking at my phone, Twitter, emails all day has been destroying my willpower. It’s changed my response to stimulation exactly as Dr. Lembke described in the quote above. I crave more and more stimulus. Lightbulb: It made me realize why ascetic practices and restriction are popular in all cultures and religions: fasting, prayer, meditation, etc. All of these help control impulses. Restriction provides the ability to actually enjoy your life more in the normal moments. It’s pretty interesting to realize the power of boredom.
It feels so good to be able to focus and think without non-stop incoming — at home, it always feels like I have so much to do with tasks building each day, it’s like a rapid rain fall of tasks, you can’t avoid getting hit. I feel like I opened an umbrella, and I can pause and map things out where they belong. With stillness and no input, it becomes quite easy to manage free from overwhelm, to manage from an open space for new ideas instead of task-based thinking. How did I let myself get into this automated mindset for sooooo long this past year! What a refresh. I felt on fire, in complete flow.
New ideas and connections started to form around how I want to live (mostly work related). When there is space, pieces come together in new ways as you move away from surface thoughts. You can’t be creative without space. It’s like a reset button clearing away everything else, allowing you to rebuild the foundation.
I also learned a ton about fear. That’s what this experience is really about. Regulating your bodies response to fear continuously. Learning to move from a stressed state and downregulate. Pushing your edge. As I said, when I was young, I was very afraid of the dark. I’d run to my parents bedroom and sit outside of their door. I’d run up from the basement as soon as I’d shut the lights off. I was afraid of movies like witches, the original buffy the vampire slayer, this evil villain called the “Evil Spirit” in a Care Bears cartoon = which I hadn’t thought about in more than 30 years and the movie It.
Over the week, I learned how to turn off fear or bring fears up and make them friendly. I could see these villains come up in my mind as “off-duty” retired characters. We joked — “remember when you were young, it was our job to scare you”. Felt like they were past their prime athletes smoking cigarettes and reminiscing about their glory days, and the whole thing became comical.
Fear is related to the unknown, especially when the brain perceives a lack of safety — but being in the dark for so long allows you to find comfort in the unknown and reforge your relationship. I felt like today I started to develop a different relationship with the darkness, to crave it, to fall into it deeply during my meditations. I felt through everything I’ve done over the past 6 years to build resilience and the results. The more you can sit with discomfort, the less you care what people think, the more you can become closer to who you really are. If you can tolerate failure and tolerate rejection, you can just go for it, which means your window of opportunities becomes larger. The more discomfort you can hold, the more likely you are to fail, the faster you’ll grow. I’ve done so many things where people said “I could never do that” and as a result, my perspective has shifted. When you persevere through things like Vipassana or ayahuasca retreats, entrepreneurship, things that you find tough, you push your limits and that translates in life. I used to be scared to reach out and ask a stranger for help 6 years ago, “what if they think I’m stupid” and that thought pattern is completely gone.
If you’re interested in becoming an entrepreneur, I’d highly recommend working your own personal limits. I learned today that Bravery is one of my core values and it pays dividends every time. I also thought through some boundaries I wanted to take home from the experience for the next 90 days. Most are health guard rails to make sure I have balance.
Delete Twitter on my phone. Only use on desktop to post something. No scrolling. At least 90 days.
Day off on Sat every weekend with Emily. Mostly in nature. 90 days. This will help reduce stress, which helps with willpower for everything else (diet, sleep, focus, caffeine intake).
1 three day weekend retreat at Arcana with no phone (my friends nature retreat)
Intermittent Fasting using Simple App. Dropping the late night Uber Eats which ruins sleep and makes the coffee necessary
Reboot my nighttime routine - shut down any work with verbal commitment, convert to red lights in the house, romwod with Emily, evening breathwork. 4x per week.
Buy somebody a small gift once per week and send them a nice note.
Back to 3x weight lifting and 1x boxing per week
Complete a Whole 30 diet in the next quarter
No caffeine on Sat. No coffee for 1x month. Try and ride out Match for as long as possible.
Have FUN: Go to three dance parties or concerts when Covid ends (haven’t been spending nearly enough time having fun), get the OneWheel out for hour long rides.
Creating: Finish my death / rebirth experience and facilitate for a group, finish another 10 awesome breathwork / ice bath / sauna sessions!
Day 7 - Time Stretches
I can no longer sleep, but I can see visuals in the dark related to Phosphenes mentioned above. They aren’t full visuals, more like patterns as the eyes adjust to darkness. Swirling, colours and light patterns the brain makes of the dark. Some images that came to mind:
Fat mermaid in a sea aquarium - the whole darkness looked blue. The entire visual field looked like an ocean with fish floating through it
Everything looked red - felt like a version of what hell would look like
Depth changed rapidly — the area would grow or shrink. Sometimes expanding out to feel like the ceilings were 100 feet high and I was in a giant cathedral. This had an expansive property.
Sometimes the darkness would shrink the area rapidly and I would feel a weight or suffocation around my head. If I was walking it would literally look like I was walking into a wall which felt so strange! I’d have to put my hand in front of me. Look at a wall at your house, stand within 5mm and imagine walking into it over and over.
The darkness turned green. I could see leaves growing and rotating — it felt like a forest in the mist
Felt like the world in stranger things (the upside down) most of the time — completely silent, the same, but different. Sometimes with a sinister presence.
Felt like the start of an ayahuasca experience when the environment changes before the visions start
Every time I could feel immense bravery, I would get cocky and could feel the fear testing me again. Sometimes I would see shadow creatures on my bed. The room would morph into a massive courtyard far below the ground in front of a great keep.
One of the most memorable fear based experiences reminded me of Voldemort’s secret meetings with the death eaters. Dozens of hooded creatures gathered in a circle in the courtyard mentioned above. They would float right up to my vision merging with where my body was. I couldn’t really control any of this. Even if I shut my eyes. The only thing to do was the “relax” technique I’d been practicing the whole time
During this day, things started to go sideways mentally. I felt less engaged about life, and very scared to die. I thought a lot about how life is so short, I’m possibly almost halfway through my life at 37. Especially my perceived life (life seems to move faster as you age, because you have a longer reference horizon). I felt melancholy, like some of the excitement of life had been sucked out. My learning here was that living for “yourself” has diminishing returns. All of my hardwork lately to build our business and feel validation are self related goals. They felt pretty empty.
I know I don’t have enough balance. Not enough giving or focus on others. I thought a lot about my parents and if they are afraid to die. I thought about what actually happens when you die? Is that a journey you take alone? Leaving everything behind. It felt very scary and isolated. It’s quite frightening when you really allow yourself to contemplate it. All of these thoughts made me very excited for a family and for children, realizing that opening my heart is the most important thing I can do with the rest of my life. How can I soften the need for external validation through increasing my ability to give to others and be strong for others?
Most of my “busy” thoughts related to validation through others which relates to lack of self love. I have an intention to soften those feelings. I’ve known they are a problem for the past six years, but it’s just continuous work to soften my ambition. It seems that being more in a state of giving is the answer. I need to think about some more boundaries here to continue to help with growth. Maybe more self love CBT exercises, and more giving. Open to advice here!
Day 8 - Coming Out
The last three days, it’s been impossible to sleep. After Evening 5. It’s been grueling sitting in the same spot hour after hour, meditating, laying down, meditating, laying down, meditating, bath…laying down. After Day 5, the time effectively doubles because you are awake the whole time which was very challenging. I’m not even hungry anymore. I had told Scott around day 6 that I was going to leave on Day 8, one day past my initial stretch goal. When I hit my time and I finally made the decision that I was going to leave, there was no holding me back. It was a mad dash to the door, I was like a blind man, had lost all my senses, stumbling, gasping for air, frantically pulling on the door handle. It finally popped open and BOOM. The hallway looked like the static screen of a tv, every ball of light was pulsing and vibrating, it felt like I could see individual protons / electrons glowing. Oh and the fresh air!
Fresh air, so fresh, absolute ecstacy. Stars so bright, feel like I can breath…. ahhh. Literally felt like a first breath of a new life. It was cold and crisp at about 5am. It felt so crisp and clean it was like I was drinking it. I would say those breaths were some of the single greatest moments in my life from a sensation perspective. Imagine walking in the desert for days and then finding water. That’s what it felt like.
My balance was super off, I walked around the outdoor fire pit with a heightened sense of smell. I got low to the ground. Touching it. Smelling the ground. It felt like an experience of rebirth. All the negative thoughts gone. Only gratitude, laughter, oneness with nature. Beautiful.
I walked around for ages and the sunlight slowly turned the world from a black and white movie to color picture through a gradient - firstly noticing what the world looks like without light and really understanding that colours, shapes and sight only come from light. So engaged in the details of each object. At first its starlight and I can only see greys, and slowly as the sun rises, its brown, green and whites, and then the blue of the sky, and then the direct rays of the sun across the mountain lighting the green of the trees with a golden light. I watched magnetized for hours. So engaged in colours and details. Immense gratitude for my childhood and the beauty of nature, the ability to see colours, the trees, the sun rise. I wish Emily was there to share it.
I’m greeted by a giant dog running towards me — looking like the Never Ending Story. Running after me barking. Putting out a paw. I look into her eyes and see a soul. Is this real? An emotional connection with my first being in 8 days. I lay down with her and pat her belly smiling.
I walk down to the village all the way to the roof of the sauna built directly into the rock. Standing on top of the sauna - seeing the sun fully rise above the mountains, the direct light coming out for the first time, the actual sun’s rays. Greens of trees are insane, the sun hits my face, directly in my eyes. The brightness is so intense, it brings me back to a moment of childhood, where the sun was so bright during skiing lessons, reflecting directly off the snow in the morning at Talisman resort after my parents dropped me off. What a specific memory - I was teleported right there (to a class with a group called black bullets)!
I started the day with a wood fired sauna and cold plunge in the creek. Using brilliant lavender, peppermint and cedar essential oils and just sitting with the heat. It was the happiest sauna of my life.
How much joy can be tucked into one half day — breathing the first breath of life, seeing the stars, the colours, smelling the ground, watching the sunrise in all its glory completely present, walking and feeling my heart beat, the direct sunlight in my eyes, cuddling with a dog spirit, a cold plunge in the creek, two sauna sessions in a wood burning sauna, essential oils over the stove, eating hard boiled eggs and a bengal spice tea, all before 10:45am. More bliss and feeling in this half day than 100x the entire last week. The entire retreat in the thinking mind vs. what its like to be engrossed in your body and the present moment!
How do I feel Now
I’ve been sticking to my boundaries above and I feel amazing exactly one week later. I’ve been having an easy time living in a healthy way and controlling impulses. I would say that for my goals, it 10000% worked and would highly recommend a retreat if the first paragraph of the article resonated with how you feel. I’d recommend starting with a Vipassana retreat (you can read about my first Vipassana here).
A few interesting things I thought about for a follow-up piece. I did a 6 mile hike to a secret cave (the Sky Cave) the day upon leaving the dark retreat with the whole community and it was very special.
The fresh air, giant cedar trees, waterfalls, fresh soil. Every breath felt healing. The space itself had a beautiful community. It’s kind’ve like a commune where everybody has built their own house, yurt, treehouse, tiny home or other living structure and lives in a regenerative way giving back to the land. They have a beautiful garden that feeds them all with hundreds of vegetable types. This is very appealing to me as a way to live. I’ll follow-up with some thoughts around lifestyle design based on what experienced also but some initial goals to explore a few months from now:
Very inspired by Scott to hit 10K hours of meditation in my lifetimes
Live in nature with Emily and kids similar to a Dave Asprey or Ben Greenfield setup
Build a retreat centre or community like Steve / Austin with focus on cooking, gardening, facilitating transformational ceremonies for people, daily walking outside and a coworking space
Your resilience journey, your breathwork journey, your health journey, your nature journey, your psychedelic journey, your journey Inward, your journey to connection, your personal growth journey. Going together, somewhere better on the Othership.
Follow me for a behind the scenes look at building a healthy experiences movement where people will be more deeply connected through the shared experience of learning how to be happier and healthier. Our purpose is to provide healthy experiences that help people manage modern mental and physical health challenges, connecting them to their hearts, bodies and local communities.
https://www.dmt-nexus.me/forum/default.aspx?g=posts&t=49248, https://shaitubali.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Darkness-Meditative-Therapy-OnlineBooklet-EN.pdf, https://issuu.com/mantakchia/docs/mantak-chia---dark-room-enlightenment
This was a WILD story. Love the raw sharing here, Robbie. A few things that stood out to me:
1) “If you die before you die, you won’t die when you die” i
2) "Restriction provides the ability to actually enjoy your life more in the normal moments."
3) Generally, your relationship to the dark and how much we rely on our sense of sight to tell our brain that we are safe. I imagine you crawling or feeling your way to the toilet. Fiddling around to open your meals. It's insane how much we rely on this one scent.
Glad that you didn't have COVID and the half-day out on Day 8 felt like heaven for the simple animal that all humans are. Funny how normal for even the most educated people to fall into slumps. These kinds of resets are what many need right now. Maybe not a Dark retreat but a trip to Inward when things open up ;)
Thanks again for writing this!
I felt everything with every word sometimes to the point of tears and other times laughing out loud. Such a an extraordinary courageous experience. Wow!