Any theory applies to more specific ideas and finally action. Now we will examine the elements of hygienic darkroom retreating. Distinctions between hygiene and other approaches further aid understanding. Some mechanics follow.
Here I make natural observations of the psyche and darkness; show how hygiene applies to them; and reveal the secret of exactly why hygienic darkroom retreating works.
Shelton reviews hygienic ideas about the psyche: “Graham pointed out that the ‘vital instincts’ behaved as though directed by intelligence. Tilden held that physiology is ‘organized psychology.’”1 And here is Shelton’s own unsentimental view: “The conscious functions of the body serve primarily to protect and provide the needs of the subconscious functions.”2 This means consciousness is not an end in itself. It serves a biological function. Hygiene views consciousness as primarily autonomic (unconscious), secondarily volitional (conscious).
Furthermore, the psyche is the primary system in the human organism. “Consciousness—for those living organisms which possess it—is the basic means of survival,” as philosopher, Ayn Rand, put it in her meta-ethics3. The psyche coordinates all other systems. It does so consciously, subconsciously, and unconsciously. The psyche is diffuse throughout the organism, functioning at every scale, autonomically monitoring and harmonizing every one of sextillions (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) of organic processes per second (trillions of cells X 1 billion processes per cell). Whatever affects the psyche for good or ill greatly affects the rest of the organism likewise.
That’s a lot of work. Like any other organic system, the psyche needs a period of rest and recovery. Since its sensory apparatus is reflexive—the skin automatically feels what makes contact with it, the nose smells, the eyes see—sensory destimulation is necessary for psychic rest. Think back to the times you got your best sleep. Besides feeling at ease, your shelter was probably especially dark, well-ventilated, and quiet. While the exact circumstances at the time cannot be replicated, these critical elements can be.
Human beings are diurnal creatures, naturally awake in daytime and asleep at night. This physiological cycle is critical to psychic function. Modern life replaces the natural extremes of sun and stars with the relentless grey of artificial light and sunglasses. It replaces natural sleeping patterns with graveyard shifts and afterparties. This greyness, along with a hundred other civilized offences, has pushed psychic illness to epidemic proportions. Simply put, our lifeway is brutal, damaging and dysfunctional.
Modern distress (sensory overload, overwork, loneliness, malnourishment, etc) requires hundreds of millions of people to consume psychoactive drugs just to function. Most dislike this dependency, which causes further distress. Caught in a vicious circle, they wonder helplessly if things will ever change.
While many factors contribute to distress, hygienic darkroom retreating uniquely provides an opening: a simple way to begin reversing all of them at once. First, it harmlessly brings them to a halt. Second, it provides the being a chance to recover from them naturally, that is, by itself. Autonomically. No drugs, no therapy, no experts. Self-healing unleashed.
Thus, contrary to fairy tales, religion, and light bulb advertisements, darkness is a good thing. Darkness, like light, is a natural condition of life. We need nature’s full provision of it—10 hours a day—in order to rest properly.
In crisis, we need an extended period of darkness to rest and recover. Darkroom retreating is to the psyche what fasting is to the body:
- relief from sensory processing
- time to fully recover from injury, exhaustion, and toxemia
- overdue recognition of exactly which part of whom is performing the recovery
Instinct in extreme circumstances gives us a graphic clue to the basic need for darkness: when psychically overwhelmed, a person crouches down and covers her eyes, taking cover in solitude if possible. Depressed, hysterical, or shocked from violence, her whole being cries out, “Gimme shelter!”.
A darkroom is that shelter. Long sought yet right before our eyes, we couldn’t see darkness. It was obscured by itself, by our Apollonian obsession with light, thought and action, and by medieval fear. Now we can finally sink into darkness, unconsciousness, and rest, and recover our lost selves.
Having found shelter—a context—for darkness itself in hygiene, we can better understand why darkroom retreating works.
First, let’s retrace our steps a moment and analyze Webster’s sly definition of hygiene: conditions and practices conducive to the preservation of health.
- hygiene derives from Hygieia, the Greek goddess of health.
- “conditions and practices” refer to the normal conditions of life, the environmental and instinctive factors nature has always provided that make life, including healing, possible
- Conducive means:
- making it easy, possible, or likely for something to happen or exist
- tending to promote or assist
- contributive to
- Preservation refers to an organism’s preservation of itself
- Health refers to that of an organism
Thus, normal conditions support the organism in preserving its own health. Hygiene means self-preservation through providing oneself the normal conditions of life. This whole meaning hides within the dictionary’s definition. Natural Hygiene, as the standard bearer of the whole tradition of hygiene, makes it explicit.
Now we can elaborate on self-preservation. It:
- is the defining characteristic of all organisms
- occurs at every scale: cells, organs, systems, and the organism as a whole
- is comprised of self-generation, self-maintenance, and self-healing
- requires more work, time, and energy than self-maintenance, but less than self-generation
- repair of damage
- elimination of toxins, exogenous and endogenous
- re-energization of tissue
Consciously, we provide the conditions of life. Unconsciously, we use them in life’s staggering number and variety of processes of self-preservation.
The unconscious is:
- the hidden part of consciousness. It is pervasive in the being, an integral aspect of every cell, organ, system, and the organism as a whole
- the biggest part of consciousness, coordinating millions of actions per second in each one of the 10 trillion cells
- omniscient, omnipotent, and infallible: all-knowing, all-powerful, and incapable of error
- just waiting for a chance to fix what is broken
Hygienic darkroom retreating is that chance.
At last we are prepared to understand the secret of why hygienic darkroom retreating works. There are three reasons: physiology, attitude, and environment
Circadian rhythms: The circadian system governs our 24-hour waking-sleep cycle. This system is controlled by the
suprachiasmatic nucleus. This tiny organ rests atop the chiasm, the intersection of the optic nerves coming directly from the eyes. The nucleus detects the presence or absence light instantly, before the imagery it carries reaches the visual cortex of the brain.
To the degree it is dark, the suprachiasmatic nucleus gives, for example, its famous instruction to the pineal gland to secrete melatonin into the bloodstream. This hormone causes us to sleep, dream, and lose appetite. In absolute extended darkness, the pineal gland floods the body with melatonin, intensifying these restful processes.
Melatonin is but one of many hormones, nervous signals, and processes that facilitate the deep rest and sleep necessary to recover from and assimilate the benefits of waking life.
- Sensory processing: we conserve the significant effort and energy of sensory processing. Sight requires twice as much processing as all other senses combined. Darkness eliminates vision and minimizes other sensation.
- Calm: without the abstract food of visual data, the abstract mind slows down
- fewer thoughts occur
- thinking becomes harder
- thinking becomes less interesting (!)
- directing attention restfully becomes much easier. (See protocol > attention)
The concrete sensations that remain tend to feed the feeling center of intelligence. Externally undistracted, the internal sense of touch sharpens in its many aspects. Intuition and instinct, suppressed aspects of consciousness in civilization are thus reactivated. They balance the psychic workload, making it more efficient, saving energy and internal activity.
- Attitude: hygiene’s passive attitude toward healing aligns the conscious and unconscious parts of the self. It enables the internal peace and cooperation necessary for super-intensified healing (miracles) to occur. At first, only knowledge of this attitude is necessary. Belief comes later.
- Environment: a retreat provides not only darkness, but all conditions of profound rest:
- safety, comfort, silence, solitude, and time
fresh air, warmth, and natural food
The contemporary scientific approach to darkroom retreating is called chamber REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique). As the name implies, and in accord with scientific materialism, it tends to reduce a retreat and its effects to destimulation: absence of usual sensory impositions. But the organism does not experience darkness, for example, as the absence of light, as a negative; but rather, as a positive fact, the presence of something which the active organism takes hold of and uses.
In terms of experiencing profound rest and the miraculous healing that results, a hygienic darkroom retreat is the perfect storm.
Not all darkroom retreats are alike. For eons all over the world, people of every lifeway and spiritual and cultural tradition have retreated in darkness. But subtle differences with profound effects exist between the hygienic approach and most others. I will explain these differences and their importance in using darkness on your own.
Civilization has taught us well: in various ways, we have all come to believe that somehow, someday, we would finally do something about our quandary. We feel pumped up by the prospect of doing something consciously and directly. We eagerly sign up for workshops, submit to treatments, undertake disciplines, and experiment with exotic psychoactive substances. Meanwhile, the all-knowing autonomic self rots in an unemployment line.
No pleasant way exists to put it: this is pure egomania. It is an act. It is a pretense of enthusiasm and competence to cover up painful psychic damage, self-loss, helplessness, and even the urge to total selflessness by suicide. Under regular circumstances, we won’t drop this act. We cannot. It would be too painful and frightening. We need a really safe place in which to do it. Nature provides it in darkness.
Even if we were not utterly helpless in our post-traumatic amnesia and denial, hygiene shows that we cannot willfully heal injury anyway. This may seem discouraging. But it is fruitful, for it can elicit a strong enough response from conscience to halt our futile efforts, notice the all-powerful self-healing organism, and finally provide for it.
Pathologically disidentified from life, we are powerless. We stumble infirmly yet presume to control the grand order of life rather than serve it. It is time to face facts. We are not going to handle our quandary. As we imagine ourselves to be—just the conscious, volitional part of ourselves—we are not going to get it done or have anything to do with its getting done. We are not going to figure it out. We are fit to be tied.
The best we can do is fully admit our helplessness and surrender to the only force that could ever untie the knot. It is the Gordian Knot. But the knot must be untied, the precious rope put to use again. Alexander did not properly handle it by cutting it open with his sword, and neither will we with our scheming, effort, or skill. Only the silent, slow tendrils of the organism’s vast autonomic intelligence can ever untie such a tangle. But it needs our recognition, our commission to do the job. We must consciously support the unconscious. Integrity is the end, so integrity must be the means as well.
Hygiene’s passive emphasis on rest and healing is very important because it defines the appropriate attitude toward retreating. I learned in fasting that how one approaches a retreat has a great effect on what happens in it. The mind becomes extremely powerful when it is resting and purifying. If one’s attitude is really to passively support the omnipotent healing forces of the organism in doing everything, the effect of this internal unity will be much greater than if one has the conflicted doer-attitude of a practitioner.
I know no one who has explicitly gone into darkness with the hygienic perspective, with the sole purpose of simply providing the conditions of life to the self-healing organism. Since the organism is the only thing that heals the organism, this is far more powerful than any other approach can be. While stories of miraculous healing in darkness continue to find their way to me, I suspect they will pale in comparison to what the hygienic perspective will make possible. Attitude affects recovery.
The main effort involved is supportive: to maintain the conditions of healing. This ain’t a tall order. Stay in the darkroom. Lie down as much as possible. Eat. Exercise. Bathe. Eliminate. Meditate if so moved. Lie back down. Think when necessary. Stare at the backs of your eyelids, feel your breath and pulse, and let sleep come.
It will anyway. Darkness ensures it. Anyone with a bloodstream flooded with melatonin is induced to sleep. And sleep deeply. In my retreats, I have often felt positively knocked out. Dreams are fewer or more vivid. In 48 hours it is possible to catch up on all the sleep one has ever lost. (See the first of my four darkness experiences). I am not speaking metaphorically. It is impossible to believe until it happens.
I find even the least bit of light too distracting, too stimulating. I am on guard. I can’t relax. I can’t stay with what I’m feeling. I can’t “just be with it”. I can’t feel into myself. I’ve tried and failed my whole life. I have found solace only in darkness.
To me, it feels like falling through a trapdoor. At the end of my second successful retreat, I felt five or six more such trapdoors awaited me, which would take a total of about two weeks of darkness to fall through. Then I would see the other side of my personal struggle, my lifelong dilemma. I still await my chance.
There were times I felt I was crawling in my skin. So the whole thing was alternately very pleasant and very unpleasant. But it is no worse than what I go through anyway. It is just accelerated, concentrated, and without distraction. And there is a good chance of never reliving the horror again.
A very pleasant effect of this restful attitude becomes more apparent the longer a retreat goes on: a sense of fulfilment. It is as if all one’s futile efforts of the past are redeemed and their goal is finally realized. As lost parts of the self are recovered, the satisfaction of simply being alive returns.
When exhausted, just getting up to pee can feel like a chore. In darkness, this feeling of imposition can intensify at first. But then, imperceptibly, it turns to satisfaction again. For me, for example, to exercise became fun after three days. I felt how frustrated I had been in my inactivity.
Frustration is one of many effects of psychic damage. By definition, it incapacitates us. We can no longer do certain normal things. The organism generates fear of the activity to prevent us from trying, failing, and hurting ourselves even worse.
But we still desire these activities. Frustration is the conflict between desire, fear, and disability. The organism thus expends a tremendous amount of energy to keep us safe in our incapacity. Recapacitation removes the cause of fear, enables fulfilment of desire, and releases vital energy for other tasks. Self-recovery accelerates and deepens, and with it, satisfaction in living.
There are three things the hygienic use of darkness is not.
It is not a spiritual discipline like meditation. Discipline is consistent exercise of the will. Will is the most delicate, energy-consuming, and, due to atrophy, ineffective part of the psyche. The psyche is the system most in need of rest. So discipline sets into motion and takes energy from the healing of the faculties it depends on while giving the least possible benefit for time, energy, and effort expended. It produces impressive results only by our abysmal standards. It prevents accomplishment of the top priority: full recovery of the psyche from its catastrophic damage.
Spiritual meditation, like all spiritual practice, entails super-effort to force access to subtle energy reserves to fuel artificial transformation. The hygienic approach entails exactly the opposite: profound rest to accumulate energy for natural self-restoration. At rest, the conscious self attempts nothing to ameliorate suffering. It only provides conditions of healing to the unconscious, autonomic self, whose job is to heal the organism.
Discipline begins with accepting as real, as natural, the appearance of an intrinsic internal conflict: original sin. Next, one struggles “against nature” (as Gurdjieff put it), fighting habits with practices to achieve an ideal. Hygiene begins with an assumption of natural harmony, of non-contradiction and a logical explanation of illness. This naturally motivates one to easily fulfill its aim, which is healthy in reality.
Lastly, discipline sets up artificial dangers and obstacles by partially retaining willed control of the process. Then it spreads fear about retreating without the necessary preparations guided by experts of the tradition. It’s a self-fulfilling delusion if not an outright racket.
It is not therapy. Therapy is done to a passive organism from the outside. The therapist, therapy, and therapeutic substances are the principal actors in a therapeutic session, not the organism itself. While depending on the organism to react to treatment, therapy views the organism as incapable of initiating a movement toward health. It fails to see such movement in disease itself.
In a darkroom retreat, darkness does nothing. Like air or water, it merely presents an opportunity to the self-preserving organism to better pursue its ceaseless tendency toward wholeness. The principal actor is life, not its conditions nor any treatment.
It is not a psychedelic trip: consciously experiencing normally unconscious phenomena using abnormal conditions like sleep-deprivation or chemicals, natural or artificial.
These three approaches all share the vain attempt to end suffering by subjecting the unconscious to conscious action, as if mere attention, analysis, or reconditioning could fix the unconscious. They try to willfully improve what they regard as an inert, even resistant unconscious self, as if it were incapable or disinclined of doing so itself. Unfortunately, this attitude is ignorantly coercive toward the injured conscious self and discouraging to the omnipotent autonomic self. It is internalized tyranny predictably accompanied by triune brain-drain.
In contrast, hygienic use of darkness is passive as regards the will. The conscious self only plays a supportive role. The unconscious autonomic self is the principal actor. Zero conflict. Maximum efficiency. Perfect result.
One way or another, successful retreating requires cooperation with a supreme intelligence and power that will direct the process. In spiritual traditions, this means one’s mature spiritual practice combined with the in-person guidance of a realized master under the blessed influence of an authentic lineage in service to god. (And good luck arranging all that.) Fortunately, the essence of all that is actually the simple recognition of the autonomic self. This is the hygienic approach. It involves no gold-leafed statues or exotic rituals, but it has the virtue of being cheap, quick, and easy to remember when the lights go out and you can’t read anymore.
Attention to diet and nutrition have always been a big part of Natural Hygiene. Due to decreased activity, stress, and appetite, darkness presents a miraculous opportunity to:
- eat well
- interrupt the malnourishing, dissociative, toxifying relationship with food from which most of us suffer
- clearly experience one’s thoughts, feelings and sensations
This is why I serve and recommend only fresh fruit and greens to retreatants. This is the frugivorous diet, common to all anthropoid primates like us. Being perfectly appropriate for human anatomy and physiology, these foods only nourish us. They don’t medicate us. They neither stimulate or intoxify the system, nor overtax digestion, nor suppress feeling or memory.
For more about frugivorous diet, I recommend The 80/10/10 Diet by Dr Douglas Graham. He is a professional hygienist, 30-year frugivore, former Olympic athlete and trainer to professional athletes. Also, watch some videos of Loren Lockman, another master hygienist and 30-year frugivore, apparently sent from the future to show us how to eat and relate to food.
If the prospect of eating just fruits and vegetables utterly stops you from retreating, then plan to eat as simply and naturally as you know how. Feel free to write me with your limitations; I am happy to help you avoid toxins often regarded as healthy. Reversing illness and suffering is a process with its own logic. Darkness is a starting point. Then it’s one step at a time.
Please note that just because the frugivorous diet consists of all raw food does not make it the “raw food diet”. Frugivorism has a rich set of criteria about food: timing, quantity, proportion, combination, season, source, one’s feeling, etc. It is a biological description, not an ideology like fruitarianism or veganism. Raw foodism is an ideology. It only has one criterion: no high-heating of food. Otherwise, anything goes! It lacks depth and seriousness. It is reductive fanaticism, not a whole relationship with food. I strongly recommend against raw foodism and the quasi-cults that grow up around it.
Since one can do nothing directly in a retreat to cause healing, preparing for it consists of providing its simple conditions:
- design and make a darkroom (1-30 days)
- learn the idea of the hygienic (passive) attitude toward healing. No need to believe before seeing for yourself.
- assimilate my discoveries and avoid my many errors by reading the rest of this book
- learn enough about eating frugivorously to feel satisfied (1 month to read and apply Graham’s book)
- schedule a retreat, arrange support, and obtain food
Deeper preparation than that is made the same way you prepare for weeks in traction in a hospital bed following a disastrous car crash. Ie, it is too late. You are already prepared.