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total darkness

Illumination: What I Learned Spending a Week in Total Darkness

Written by
November 19, 2021

“Every man is two men; one is awake in the darkness, the other asleep in the light.” – Kahlil Gibran

By the end of 2019, I was physically healthy, but inside I was struggling. My eight-year relationship with my fiancé had ended, and I could feel my time as CEO of Onnit was coming to a close. I was also still unable to find resolution with my father’s mental disorders. And the deeper reasons for my suffering were still lurking in the shadows. 
I heard about darkness therapy from Aaron Alexander, which was one of many signs to take the plunge into the great unknown. He told me of a house in the black forest outside Frankfurt, Germany, near a town whose name translates to “the middle of nowhere.”

The house is owned by a family whose matriarch studied in the Hindu tradition and learned darkness therapy by staying in isolation in a cave. She is the real deal. In their house, there was a light-proofed room that you can pay to spend up to a month in. Away from your job, your friends and family, your life, and your world. And possibly the most significant aspect is the constant, ever-present pitch darkness. 

People who’ve been there say that room breaks you. But what did I have to fear? As I said, I was already pretty fucked up. So I signed up.

No sooner did I tell people about it than they were trying to talk me out of it. I’ve been on the psychedelic medicine path for over two decades, exploring many of the great indigenous traditions and initiations. But the reaction I got to the announcement that I’d simply be sitting alone in a dark room for a week was far harsher than any of the times I said I was going to a jungle in Peru for a month to do ayahuasca.

“That’s crazy!” said pretty much everyone. “You’ll go CRAZY! Aren’t you afraid of what will happen?”

To each of them, I had the same response. “Afraid of what? Being alone with my own mind?” My thinking was this: If the prospect of sitting in the dark with just your own thoughts frightens you, maybe that’s exactly where you need to be.

So, was I scared? Not really. I knew the isolation and removal of sight would test me, but if you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you know I like to test myself. I like to learn what I’m capable of, and who I am inside. And so if the learning process takes me to the brink, so be it!

Besides, the week before I went on the darkness retreat, I was with Wim Hof, testing my limits on a mountain in Poland. In the first week of 2020, I dove into a natural pool beneath a freezing waterfall, held my breath under ice for more than two minutes, and climbed four and a half hours up an icy mountain (with no shirt on).

I needed some time to be with myself. Just myself. And sitting in meditation for a week sounded like a powerful way to usher in the New Year. Little did I know how crazy the year 2020 would turn out to be. The world would shut down, and I would get together with my wife Vylana Marcus. But before all that transformation, I was entering the ultimate cocoon. 

A House In The Woods

I arrive at the house and meet Bharati, the woman who runs the retreat. She lives there with her husband and two young daughters. They are deeply steeped in the mystic traditions of India, and have a lovely little collection of artifacts from their years spent there. 

Bharati shows me to my quarters for the next week. It’s a 20’x10’ rectangular room with a cot, table and chair, couch that seats one person, dresser, yoga mat, and radiator. There’s one window that’s painted black, so I can’t see out of it, but at least I can open it for ventilation as long as I use my blackout blindfold. On the table is a single speaker that plays an “Om” chant continuously on a 15-second loop, in case I need help meditating, or just want a break from the silence. The only other voices I’ll hear (apart from the ones in my own head) will come from out the window when I open it— like birds’ songs or whispers from the wind.

If it sounds like I volunteered to do time in what convicts call The Hole, or The Box, I can assure you it isn’t that severe. First of all, a little bit of light in a jail cell is just torture. Because it’s a tease, and it prevents the psychotropic effects of the black. But beyond that, my bed includes a memory foam neck pillow, for goodness sake! There’s a 24-hour call button on the wall that I can push to alert Bharati if I need something urgently, or I lose my mind. But while the darkness retreat isn’t technically solitary confinement, it is solitary, and it is confining.

In my room is a small bathroom where I can shower and use the toilet. These will be in total darkness too. Bharati will leave food for me in a blacked out corridor outside my room, but I’ll have to find my way there and back. I’ll know it’s time to eat when they ring a bell. This will also help to give me a sense of how time is passing. If I count the meals, I can determine which is breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and then I might have an idea of what time it is, or what day I’m on. 

Not that it matters.

The meals will all be raw vegan food. That’s what Bharati’s family eats, but it serves another purpose as well. I’m going to have visions, just as if I’ve been taking plant medicines. This is the darkness “dieta,” to borrow a term from the ayahuasca tradition. If I’m eating food made from animals, I’m liable to imagine how they died to make it onto my plate. That could be quite a significant thing to reconcile, so it’s best to eat things that I won’t empathize with.

The mechanism behind why visions start to occur after a few days in the darkness is still being studied. Leading theories suggest either an increase in endogenous DMT—a hallucinogenic chemical—or an increase in the chemicals that break down endogenous DMT, therefore creating a surplus in the body. For more on the leading edge science of endogenous DMT, you can check out my podcast with research professor Jon Dean.

I have three other tools at my disposal. One is a Mindfold blindfold. It blocks light while allowing you to keep your eyes open. This will allow me to open the window for some fresh air without accidentally cheating some light in. Even with your eyes closed, light will seep in through your eyelids. 

The next tool is a rudraksha necklace, which Bharati’s daughter, Ananda, hands me. The walnut-sized prayer beads are rough to the touch, but I’m grateful to put them on. They’ll be my security blanket when the lights go out, and they make a comforting rattling sound—my only entertainment apart from the sights and sounds that will soon arrive in my head.

And lastly is my tape recorder. I memorized how to turn it off and on in the dark, and it is there to capture my experience. Little did I know that these recordings would eventually turn into the most powerful film I have ever been a part of. 

Day 1

Bharati’s family gathers in my room. It’s already dark, save for a single candle that’s working for all of us. We sing Hindi songs to prepare me for my journey. Then she asks me to blow out the candle, and they’re gone. Everything’s gone.

I start to do the only thing I really can, other than sleep. I meditate. Without any distractions, it’s not difficult to go deep within myself, and quickly. I begin to hear words in my head. One of them is “obsequious”—excessively obedient or attentive. This makes me think of a waiter in a five-star restaurant who has worked his way up over a lifetime of service. The blackness around me is providing everything I need, like an obsequious waiter. It’s giving me everything I came for.

A little later, I have my first meditation vision. It’s an upside-down heart. Then I see landscapes in my mind. Finally, there’s Buddha. He’s a shining golden figure, and he’s smiling at me. I ask him why.

“Why aren’t YOU smiling?” he replies. He’s laughing now.

“Buddha, why are you laughing?”

“Why aren’t YOU laughing?”

It’s a good question, and a reminder that I haven’t been happy for a long time. I’ve been a pretty somber person as of late, not giving in to playfulness or laughter easily. Unless I’m intoxicated, on some substance or another. Which is not the way I want to live—dependent on something outside of myself for happiness. 

I take Buddha’s visit as a message to, quite simply, lighten up. And I’m starting to understand that total blackness and blinding light are really the same. In either case, you can’t see. Nothing’s all bad or all good. You need both, and you can live in both. You need to appreciate both sides of everything.

Day 2

The roosters outside my window wake me up. That’s how I know it’s morning. I have to take a shit, and when I’m done, I realize I don’t know if I’ve wiped thoroughly enough. I decide to shower after every bathroom trip to be sure. It’s an unexpected inconvenience, and the first of many.

Back in the sunlit world, I was addicted to hand sanitizer. Before putting anything near my mouth, I would wash my hands or use the alcohol. But in this darkness, even if I had sanitizer, it would be useless. I’d have used the bottle up already. I have to touch everything—the walls, the toilet, even the floor—just to get around without smashing into something. I quickly learn not to fear germs.

I also have to trust my food. I can’t see what I’m eating, so I have to believe it’s clean and well prepared and that there isn’t a bug crawling on top of it. And if I spill some on the floor, I accept that I can scrape it up and eat it or go hungry.

Brushing my teeth is another challenge. I can hardly find the bristles of my toothbrush with the hand that holds the toothpaste tube, so to avoid squeezing gobs of it everywhere else, I decide to drop it directly into my mouth and then rub it around with the brush.

These little frustrations add up, and my mind turns faster to deal with them. I’m becoming more aggressive with myself. I have verbal fights with people I care about in my head, arguing both their side and mine, but to no resolution.

At some point, I decide I need to sell everything I own. It’s holding me back. I also think everybody needs to do a public confessional. Now and then, we all need to get up in public and say, “Here’s what I’ve been hiding. This is who I am. These are the sexual thoughts I get off to…” I imagine how liberated that would make us all feel, and how we’d all be better people as a result.

Annoying as my new daily tasks are, they’re working. I’m starting to let go. I’m not going to die without hand sanitizer. I can eat food off the floor. And I can afford to brush my teeth with some procedural modifications frowned upon by the American Dental Association for a few days.

I’m learning how to just be. 

I hear my friend Mike Posner’s voice in my head. He says, “Bro, honestly, it’s not that important.”

I sleep well that night.

Day 3

I don’t wake up with the same calm I went to bed with last night.

It’s starting to get hard. I’m questioning why I’m doing this. All I have to do is look out that window, or push the call button that alerts Bharati and tell her I quit, and I can go back to my life. It’s tempting.

I try to remind myself of my why—the reason I wanted to do this in the first place. But I can’t remember it. Did I ever really know what it was?

I put my blindfold on and open the window, but I don’t look out. I just need some air… and oh fuck does it smell sweet. I take the rudraksha beads in my hands and I begin a breathing exercise. I take in deep breaths until the oxygen rush has me feeling tingles, and then I hold my breath and let out one small atmosphere of it at a time. I say “I love myself” in my head on every in-breath, and on every exhale, I try to expel anything that isn’t love.

I see I’ve been caught between serving other people—my stated purpose in life—and my own ego. I’m both self-rejecting, and selfish.

Breathe it out.

I am in a constant chase for validation, and nothing I ever do is enough for me. 

Breathe it out.

I miss my friends. I miss hearing music. I want out of this fucking room. What the fuck am I doing in here?? 

Breathe. It. Out.

I see my grandfather Aubrey. My namesake. I never actually met him in life, but here he is in front of me now. My grandmother is with him. They tell me they’re proud of me.

“I don’t know why I’m here,” I say, with tears coming down my face.

“You’re here for the darkness, son.”

And that’s when I stop resisting it.

As the ego softens, my bargaining melts away.

Mike Posner enters my head again and starts talking to me. “You make deals with yourself so you can learn to trust yourself,” he says. “When you break deals, you trust yourself less.”

Day 4

The endogenous DMT visions are really coming on strong now, and some of them are seriously fucked up. I’m seeing demons. Images so gruesome they might not be allowed in theatres if they were part of a horror movie. 

A wheat thresher is mowing people over. Heads are being crushed and limbs are spraying blood.

The more I don’t want to see it, the longer the scene lingers. My 22-year journey with plant medicine has taught me that what you resist persists. So I begin to look for beauty in the desecration and destruction. I get the word “aperspectival” stuck in my head—the absence of perspective. I remember that from the perspective of unicity, there is no good or bad. No polarity whatsoever. There is just God, who I define as “the Loving Aperspectival Witness,” or LAW. From God’s perspective, I understand that destruction is as necessary as creation, and that evil is a requisite consequence of a world of free will. 

I’m big into coming up with acronyms now. My guide to relationships is LARK—Loving, Aware, Respectful, and Kind. You have to be able to let love in and love others for exactly who they are. You need to be aware of your behavior, and your partner’s. Respect means to respect their boundaries, and your own. And, lastly, be kind.

I am able to see my habit of loving people for their potential, not for who they are in front of me. I love them when I see how great I think they could be. But making people feel that your love is conditional upon some future achievement isn’t Loving. All you’re doing is telling them they’re not enough right now.

I see Whitney, my longtime lover and ex fiancé. She’s wearing a crown of eagle feathers like a first nations moon dancer and looking over herself. She meets my gaze and asks, “Am I doing it right?” I always wanted her to reach her spiritual potential, and now I’m overcome with guilt and sadness about how I made her feel.

“Yeah, babe, you’re doing just fine.”

I understand now that the best way to support someone is just to love them. I can’t drag them up a mountain to help them climb it. I can’t make them sit in darkness. It doesn’t work that way.

My purpose now is to love people as they are. If someone asks me for help, or an analysis, or a judgment, I’ll give it and let it go. I won’t be attached to it, and I won’t try to force it.

Another acronym that comes to mind is HEB, my new guide to life. In Austin, where I live, it’s a supermarket chain. In this dark room, it means Honesty, Expectation management, and Boundaries. The importance of honesty and boundaries are obvious. But I’ve had a hard time letting go of expectations. I see how stupid that is now. Having expectations is saying I know better than what’s going to happen, and if what I expect to happen doesn’t, it’s wrong. What an ego!

Saying that anything “should be” is hubris. There is only what is. And you deal or dance with it.

With these revelations, I achieve some peace. The greatest calm I’ve felt since I got here. I see more demons, but now they’re throwing confetti in the street. Seriously. Probably some deeper meaning there, but not worth exploring for now.

In the most profound vision of the entire journey, I see my father. He’s in a corner reading a book. Back home in Austin, he’s mentally ill. He hears voices that give him delusions of grandeur.  

I ask him what book he’s reading.

“The Book of Lies,” he says. “It tells me things I want to hear.”

“Why are you reading that book, Dad?”

“Because I never loved myself.”

He throws the book over his shoulder and continues speaking to me.

“Remember that you’re worthy of love. You don’t have to be a king or a messiah to be loved.”

Wow. I take a moment to see him, and I understand his plight with deep compassion.

“Thanks, Dad. I want you to know that everything you did was perfect, because look at where I am now. I love you.”

After that vision integrates, I feel like I’m ready to leave the darkness. I got what I came for. 

I find the call button and ring for Bharati. I can’t see her when she comes in, but I hear her gently speaking to me. “The mind is tricky,” she says. She asks me to think about it another day and be sure I’ve had enough before I come out. There might still be a clue or two more to find in the dark. And I already committed to two more days. I agree to stay.

Day 5

I see my mom. She tells me she always loved me, and I confront the fact that, in spite of her efforts, I never fully let that love come in.

Why? Because if you let yourself feel loved, you’ll get attached to it. You have to say goodbye to everyone at some point, so in order to avoid the pain of losing them, we hold back the love we feel with them. It’s easier that way.

To be afraid to die is to be afraid to live.

You need to have the courage to love things in spite of the risk of losing them. You WILL lose them. Eventually. We love them BECAUSE they can be taken away. Whether it’s people, a rose, or a sunny day, they won’t last. To not enjoy them protects us from missing them as much when they’re gone, but it also denies us the pleasure of having them in the first place.

I didn’t love Whitney as much as I could because I was afraid she would choose someone else. And sometimes she did. But she always loved me; that never wavered. 

I sob for probably 20 minutes. Catharsis.

I’ve spent so much of my life not really letting love in or putting the maximum amount of love out. Not anymore. I’m terrified of going through another day of life not loving it as it is. Not loving people as they are.

Then another horrifying thought enters my consciousness. What if someone I love dies while I’m in the dark? I’m not home. I will have never gotten the chance to really love them like I know I am capable now.

In my new film, Awake In the Darkness, these moments recorded live on my tape recorder and animated for the screen are absolutely devastating for me to watch. 

I think back to when I was in high school, living with my mom and sisters in a cramped cabin in Dripping Springs, Texas. We didn’t have much—not even a TV—so we’d sit around the living room, playing music and singing along to the words.

Our family was never happier.

Right now, I don’t miss my house, or my ranch, my companies, or my possessions. I miss the people I’ve shared those things with. Human beings crave intimacy, not items.

The darkness has broken me, as I was warned it would. It’s made me see that I love life. My life, yes, and also Life with a capital L.

I’m ready to leave this room and re-enter the world.

I reach out to Bharati again, and we agree that at sunset tomorrow, I’ll take my blindfold off.

Day 6

Bharati opens the door, and I remove the blindfold. Even with my eyes closed it’s like someone is shining a flashlight in my eyes, and it’s several minutes before I can fully open them. When I do, a feeling of grief and gratitude like I have never experienced overwhelms me. 

I see the soft rolling hills of the German countryside. I see the forest. The small homes speckling the scene. It’s the most painful and beautiful thing I’ve seen in so long. Until then, I’ve forgotten how incredible my life truly is. This is one of the most powerful moments in my life, and I feel blessed that it is all captured on film. So I’ll remember. So I’ll never forget.

Let There Be Light

Darkness is the most powerful form of therapy I’ve ever experienced. It took me deeper into myself than any type of meditation or even plant medicine I’ve tried. Your trip comes not from taking something but by REMOVING everything. You don’t need drugs when you ARE drugs.

The first thing I did when I got out was listen to music. I didn’t want to look at my phone. I just sat with it on the table in front of me. Eventually, I took a peek at my texts, and eased back into social media, but I loved the feeling of being without it all, and I wanted it to last.

When I got home, I made good on my promise not to tell people I loved them, but to SHOW them. I felt even more vulnerable than I had expected to, but with that vulnerability I was alive. When you are armored to protect from pain, you are armored from beauty as well. Every warm human interaction I saw made me cry, from a guy opening a door for a woman, to the kids in Stranger Things playing together. Seeing people be human affected me like never before. It was too much.

It was like the skin of my psyche had all been ripped off. It would grow back, but it needed time. Eventually, I put enough layers back on that I could function as a normal human being again, but I haven’t forgotten the lessons I learned in the dark.

The most important of which is to love the world as it is. You don’t have to change it; you have to change your mind, because you can choose the attitude you take toward any situation. The game of life is here for us to enjoy playing it. If we do, then we’ve played well.

We are all capable of much more than we think we are. We are worthy of love and able to give it in return.

You don’t need to spend a week in darkness to prove it to yourself. You could just put your phone away and sit alone for a little while and be still, or go for a walk in nature. That’s a good start.

Remember that we live at a banquet. There are so many amazing things in our lives we completely take for granted, like daylight, eyesight, music, and fresh air. In the world of polarity, we understand through contrast. If you never deprive yourself of anything, you can never really appreciate what they offer you. If you never fast, you’ll never realize that every meal is a feast. 

Sometimes you just have to choose nothing, so you can have everything. 

You can access my film, Awake In The Darkness, HERE. Directed by Ben Stewart, and featuring music from Nahko, Porangui, and Jon Hopkins, it shows the full journey of my time in the darkness. It’s like stepping right into the ceremony with me. I hope you enjoy it and share it with anyone who could use a little inspiration to live their life like a warrior poet.

Aubrey Marcus founded Onnit in 2010 as a nutritional supplements brand based on a holistic health philosophy he calls Total Human Optimization. He has since grown Onnit into an industry leader, providing innovative peak performance supplements, foods, fitness equipment, and apparel. A 20 year native of Austin, Texas, Aubrey graduated from the University of Richmond in 2004 with a degree in philosophy and classical civilization.
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