hygienic darkroom retreat

profound rest for the self‑healing psyche

by andrew durham

1 - hygiene

Hygiene is a complete system of health and healing based on the self-preserving nature of life and an appreciation for its normal conditions. More than mere cleanliness, hygiene is a 185 year-old, globally embedded health care system. We hardly discuss it because it’s just how things are done. Almost unknown in its fullness, its details strike newcomers as oddly familiar.

Hygiene provides a comprehensive context for the restful use of darkness in support of the self-healing psyche. Hygiene enables us to understand what darkness is and how to relate to it for the purpose of health.

Which is the point. We are organisms, so our purpose is to live. To live fully, we need health.

What is health like according to hygiene?

“Health does not consist merely of the absence of symptoms of illness. It is a state of positive well-being that is evidenced by a constant state of euphoria. It is rarely, if ever, experienced by humans today.”
–Herbert Shelton, father of modern hygiene1

Euphoria is exactly the sign of long-lost function that my adolescent rapture hinted at. Once tasted, nothing else will do. The thing is to come by it on purpose, not just by chance. What conditions would make it possible? Identifying and providing conditions is hygiene’s forte. It accomplishes this by making ordinary observations of life in nature along certain lines.

So we will learn these lines—these principles—in this chapter, which relates the theory of hygiene. Chapter 2, darkroom retreat, relates its application. In chapter 3, we head into the uncharted territory of hygienic psychology.

I aim to do much in this book: reform hygiene’s laws, its pathology, and add a psychology. It is renewal through radicalization and completion. If the 19th century was hygiene version 1.0, and Shelton’s systematization of that vast body of work into modern hygiene was hygiene 2.0, then this is the beginning of hygiene 3.0. This is when hygiene becomes complete and instigates another global mass health movement.


Hygiene has three senses in its definition:

  1. the science of health; a branch of biology.
  2. conditions and practices conducive to the preservation of health
  3. cleanliness

In common usage, the third sense strangely dominates. Hygiene is reduced to vigilant cleanliness against germs and the use of safety equipment to protect against a hostile environment. Why? We will get to that. Meanwhile, the dictionary shows that hygiene includes all healthy conditions and practices. It is fearless and relaxed. It respects life’s resilience.

Natural Hygiene makes all this explicit. It identifies “preservation” with life’s defining characteristic of self-preservation. And it identifies “conditions and practices conducive” to health with the normal conditions of life. Thus it recognizes the self-preserving organism and seeks to provide it with normal conditions of life in both sickness and health. This originates in hygiene’s observation of ubiquitous health in nature, where organisms also get injured and sick, yet only normal conditions of life exist. For humans, these conditions and practices, both physiological and social, include:

  • air, warmth, water, food, light & darkness, shelter
  • rest, work, poise, exercise, cleanliness
  • family & friends, camaraderie, affection, sex, love
  • freedom, peace, prosperity, habitat

The extent and organization of this list are somewhat arbitrary. It simply helps ground our discussion in biology, including psycho- and sociobiology.


This book mainly deals with the condition of rest, which is half of life. In our action-obsessed lifeway, we disdain and resist it, viewing it as a waste of time. But not only is rest an end in itself, another equal aspect of living, but nothing else is possible without it, neither action nor healing. If we wish to be healthy, we simply must correct ourselves in this matter.

Rest is of two kinds: ordinary and profound.

Ordinary rest includes nightly sleep, naps, and relaxation, alternated with daily activity in light. It is for maintenance of health.

Profound rest means extended retreat lasting days, weeks, even months. It is for recovery from major trauma and sickness, including aging. It is gained in four ways (in ascending order of intensity):

  • silence
  • solitude
  • fasting
  • darkness

The benefits of profound rest accumulate day by day. If interrupted, some healing processes must start over. One good night’s sleep, or several in a row, are simply not enough to recover from what really ails us. We must bring retreats into our lives in a serious way to get the profound rest needed for healing.


Hygiene originated in America when it was still the only marginally free country in the world. It was a generation after the Revolution, in the Age of Enlightenment. Hygiene became a mass movement in 1832 with the lectures of Sylvester Graham, physiologist and namesake of Graham (whole) flour. Two doctors, Isaac Jennings and Russell Trall, abandoned drugging, further developed hygienic theory and practice, and spread hygiene widely with publications, teaching, and organization.

Mary Gove helped bring hygiene to women of the 19th century, whose increasing independence it matched. Florence Nightingale transmitted its rudiments internationally through nursing (before medicine co-opted it). John Tilden buoyed and innovated in hygiene after the untimely death of Dr Trall. Herbert Shelton revived and systematized it for the 20th century. He formalized it as “Natural Hygiene” to strike the imagination and distinguish it from narrow medical usage.

Hygiene led the natural health movement of the 19th century which resulted in the famous improvement to public health then. Medicine, funded through Rockefeller’s pharmaceutical interests, opposed hygiene while taking credit for this. Medicine made war on hygiene’s exponents, institutions, and full teachings through propaganda, lobbying, and prosecution, nearly destroying hygiene. Medicine covered its tracks by using hygiene’s mistaken emphasis on toxemia to reduce hygiene to the idea of cleanliness. Thus few know the real story.

Nonetheless, hygiene remains the most effective and influential approach to health and healing in world history. It now benefits nearly every person on the planet several times a day with the understanding that fresh air, pure water, regular bathing and exercise, and nutritious food are matters of course in a healthy life. With the advent of a hygienic psychology and the astounding self-healing power of the organism in darkness, hygiene’s influence will increase exponentially. So I am leaving behind the special name, Natural Hygiene, to reclaim the ordinary word, hygiene, for our tradition.

laws of life

Shelton describes hygiene as “the employment of materials, agents, and influences that have a normal relationship to life, in the preservation and restoration of health according to well-defined laws and demonstrated principles of nature.”2 These laws of life are the absolute heart of hygiene and thus a great key to understanding it.

I have grouped laws by subject and importance. Four primary laws form the context for the rest. I formulated two of them, Coordination and Capacity. I suppose that has not happened since Shelton or earlier.

I substantially edited the original list. See it in
appendix: laws of life), along with my criticisms of it. Titles in parentheses below refer to it.

Here are all the laws of life, the strongest dose of hygienism you can get.

  • Force: A force inherent in an organism, called lifeforce, sustains its structure and the instinct of self-preservation in its every cell, organ, and system. (Life’s Great Law)
  • Order: Life’s defining characteristics are its self-preserving nature and conditional existence. The constant practical aim of self-preservation is health, life’s natural state. Self-preserving means it is completely self-generating, self-maintaining (self-ordering, directing, and defending), and self-healing (self-repairing, cleaning, and energizing). From the outside, it needs only its original conditions: air, warmth, water, light and darkness, food, company, etc.
  • Coordination: The instinct of self-preservation coordinates living processes. Instinct is a basic form of consciousness. The faculty of consciousness is the psyche. Thus the psyche is the coordinating system of animals. It works mostly unconsciously (involuntarily). The voluntary conscious mostly serves to maintain conditions.
  • Capacity: Capacity determines function. Capacity is the degree of an organism’s structural integrity. Function is its physical, emotional, and mental ability to live. Capacity increases with rest and decreases with trauma. How one is determines what one can do—and benefit from.
  • Action: Whenever action occurs in an organism in response to external influences, the action must be ascribed to the living thing. It has the power of action, not the external thing, whose main characteristic is inertia. Much related to the laws of Power and Capacity.
  • Dual Effect: Every action and substance has a primary effect followed by an opposite and equal secondary effect.
  • Vital Accommodation: The organism accommodates itself to external influences it cannot use, control, or destroy. It distributes the force of acute harm, lowering overall health.
  • Proportion: The success of each organism is directly proportional to the amount of its life force and inversely proportional to the degree of its activity. (Life’s Great Law.)
  • Economy: An organism under favorable conditions stores excess vital energy and materials above the current expenditures as a “reserve fund” to be employed in time of special need. (Special Economy)
  • Compensation: When activity has expended the substance and energy of the body, rest is induced in order to replenish them.
  • Development: The development of an organism is directly proportional to the amount of vital forces and nutritive materials which are available to it, and limited by the factor in shortest supply. (integrates the law of the Minimum)
  • Power: The power used in any vital or medicinal action is vital power, that is, power from within and not from without.
  • Distribution: Distribution of power is proportionate to the importance and needs of the various organs and tissues of the body.
  • Limitation: When the expenditure of vital power has advanced so far that a fatal exhaustion is imminent, a check is put upon the unnecessary expenditure of power; the organism rebels against the further use of an accustomed stimulant.
  • Utilization: The normal materials of life are all that an organism is ever capable of constructively utilizing, whether it is well or sick. No substance or process that is not a normal factor in physiology can be of any value in the structure of an organism. That which is unusable in a state of health, is equally unusable in a state of illness.
  • Selection: When the quality of nutriment being received by an organism is higher than that of the present living tissue, the organism will discard lower-grade cells to make room for appropriating the superior materials into new and healthy tissue. (Quality Selection)
  • Elimination: All injurious substances which, by any means, gain admittance into an organism are counteracted, neutralized, and eliminated as fully as bodily nerve energy supply allows and by such means and through such channels as will produce the least amount of harm to living structure. (Selective Elimination)
  • Conservation: Whenever nutritive abstinence occurs, an organism’s reserves are conserved and economized. Living structures are autolyzed in the inverse order of their usefulness, while toxic substances are eliminated. This law refers to fasting; it applies to starvation as well.

The perfect sense of these laws exposes common myths of health. The laws affirm our deep sense of life’s correctness. They intrigue and inspire. They give grounds for hope. Consider yourself initiated into hygiene.

Elder hygienists have written much about these laws, and I refer you to their work, beginning with Shelton. I will make a few comments here.

As we can see, hygiene is philosophical. It mirrors the axiomatic concepts found in realist metaphysics. Hygiene is based on the being, identity, consciousness, and causality of life. Life is. Life is what it is: alive (self-preserving). Human life is self-aware and volitional: Life knows and chooses. Life acts in accordance with its nature.

Life is assertive, intelligent, and active. It is not a helpless, stupid reaction. This regards the laws of Force and Coordination. Self-preserving means self-generating, self-maintaining, and self-healing. These obtain in every aspect of life and at every scale, from the cells to the organism as a whole. This is part of the Law of Order. It preserves itself as well as it can stand to, and this capacity varies. This is the Law of Capacity (more about this law later).

Other laws follow. The Law of Action states that only the organism performs vital action, including healing. So only the organism can heal the organism. Again, this is true at every scale. Even a cell must heal itself; another cannot. The Law of Power states that energy used to perform action resides only in the organism, not anything external to it. (This law might have treated the ability as well as the energy to act. The Law of Capacity now addresses ability along with other elements.)

Thus, no drug, herb, or food heals; neither any condition or practice; nor treatment, person, or device. Thus there are no cures. Attempting to heal the body from the outside further damages it or drains its power to heal itself. Whatever benefit might appear in the short term, such attempts mask the body’s illness and delay its healing. This is an example of the intriguing Law of Dual Effect.

The other laws compliment and develop on these.

NOTE: In an earlier edition of this book, I wrote:

Sixteen laws is too great a number for the mind to apprehend at once. So over time, integrating laws will emerge or some laws will be recognized as primary to others. Three to five “Great Laws”, with the others as corollaries or sub-laws, will bring hygiene within reach of everyone’s understanding.

In the above list, this process has commenced.


Whether well or ill, one’s conscious (volitional) role is to discover and provide the normal conditions of life in the proper proportion. The autonomic processes of the omniscient, omnipotent, infallible organism handle the rest. Hygiene systematically describes how this happens with these logically interrelated laws. All are derived from simple observations everyone can make. It is science for everyone, ripe for self-experimentation.

A drug, for example, is a poison by definition. This is why drugs are legally controlled. An organism does not relate with poison but rapidly neutralizes and expels it. It gets hurt in the process and we call it side effects. By contrast, an organism assimilates food into its own structure without harm or compromise.

Fasting when ill is an instinctive extension of time between meals. It is observable in many other animals and has long been a part of Natural Hygiene. In this pause in eating, the body can rest from most metabolic processes. It repairs tissues, eliminates deeply stored toxins and waste, and replenishes itself with unabsorbed nutrients and energy to the farthest reaches of every cell. For example, anemia, supposedly caused by iron deficiency, disappears. Blood iron levels normalize during a fast. We might say a similar case is women who cannot conceive become pregnant after fasting. The capacity either to absorb iron or conceive is restored. Just as fasting enables metabolic rest, darkroom retreating enables profound psychic rest.

One of hygiene’s most striking insights regards disease. In disease, the symptoms we observe do not afflict the body. They are precisely how the body is healing itself and signaling for care. Disease is not hostile. It does not invade from without, as in the germ theory. It is the body itself in action. Pain signifies damaged tissues and their repair. Infection and inflammation after first aid signify neutralization and elimination of internal toxins. Unpleasant discharges—vomiting, diarrhea, extra sweating, rashes, bad breath, dark urine—are the elimination of gross accumulated toxins and waste through every organ. Fatigue indicates energy has been diverted to all this critical work.

These healthy processes must not be stopped but supported and waited out. Drugs or treatment require the body to neutralize or recover from them. Creating “another disease” does not aid healing but delays it. It adds to one’s damage, toxic load, and exhaustion. It guarantees worse symptoms later when one has less time and energy to deal with them. With medicine, one goes from a cough to a cold to bronchitis to pneumonia to death. We can trace similar tracks in the pathologies of those with cancer, diabetes, stroke, digestive disorders, depression, AIDS, etc. More about pathology in psychology > pathology

Loss of appetite conserves energy from the immense effort of digestion. Pain, nausea, weakness, and exhaustion immobilize the organism, enabling all vital force to be used for healing. Every one of these is a biological virtue. None should be feared or suppressed. All should be viewed as vital victories to be trusted, observed, and supported, not fought. All occur in the most efficient possible way for the purpose of restoring health. Disease is our friend.

In the relationship between food and nerve energy lies another example of vital relations. Food does not actually give energy to the body directly. Food initially takes nerve, chemical, and muscular energy to eat and digest. Otherwise, we could just eat to restore our vigor, even when sleepy. Food provides sugar, which refuels everything from large muscle movement to thinking to cell operation. Some of this refueling can occur within seconds of eating fruit, the most easily digested food. But even this takes material and energetic reserves to accomplish. The body only transforms sugar into reserve electrical potential of the nerves during sleep. It only repairs tissue eliminates toxins from it completely while they are unused. Eventually we run out of the power necessary to utilize food and must rest.

Again we see that no external force has the power to act for life, only life itself. Life is the doer. Hygiene helps us redirect to the autonomic self the vast attention paid in our lifeway to the volitional self. Volition plays a critical yet small part in the whole process of life. Hygiene puts these elements in their proper places. Hygiene can now offer darkness as a means of caring for the autonomic self in its primary system, the psyche.

The deep self will not solve all one’s problems in darkroom retreat. But it will have the chance to recover lost capacity. Recapacitated, one can then make the radical changes in lifeway necessary to handle one’s remaining problems. See
protocol > post-retreat.


I have mentioned capacity a few times. It is the idea that integrates this whole book. It is so important, I have formulated a new hygienic law about it. I’ll restate it then explain.

Law of Capacity: Capacity, the degree of an organism’s structural integrity, determines function, its physical, emotional, and mental ability to live. Capacity increases with rest and decreases with trauma. How one is determines what one can do—and benefit from.

This is the philosophical law of causality applied to health: a thing acts in accordance with its nature.

Everything has a structure, whether it is an idea, a building, a body, a galaxy. In organisms, structure is the psychophysical framework of life, holding it up, keeping it together. Like life, capacity is a union of being and consciousness. It is the vital pattern of an organism. It exists at every scale like a fractal or hologram. It is lifeforce in a particular form. Yet it cannot be reduced to consciousness, the nervous system, the skeleton or myofascia, or DNA. Any of these might serve to represent its status.

Capacity is synonymous with constitution, endowment, type, inheritance, stock, and potential. Like these, capacity is conventionally assumed to be static; in fact, it is dynamic, changing constantly. Capacity is experienced as a sense of ease in doing something. It shows up in colloquialisms:

“Do you have it in you? Do you have what it takes? The wherewithal? The right stuff? The touch? The X factor?”
Or, “He’s a natural. He was born to do it. It’s in the blood.”

Two influences affect capacity significantly: profound rest (positively) and major trauma (negatively). Profound rest is both physical and psychical. Fasting provides primarily physical rest; darkroom retreating, primarily psychic rest. These can be used together or separately depending on capacity.

Contrary to common opinion, effort, will, and discipline affect capacity insignificantly. Lifestyle, the daily conditions one arranges for himself, merely help one realize one’s capacity. Whatever gains one makes by them beyond one’s capacity are minor, however impressive they may seem, and they are easily lost.

Likewise, heroic discipline or super-effort (doing something twice as much or twice as fast) have the notable but still insignificant effect of turning people into weird assholes. Common examples include religiosity about god, politics, work, and food. Fortunately, this condition abates with enough rest.

This law has a strange implication. The benefit one derives from anything cannot exceed one’s capacity for it. When structure is damaged (as with virtually all of us now), the unconscious self prevents further damage from the increased energy of normal levels of pleasure, joy, fulfillment, and success running through damaged circuits. We often call the results of this life-saving mechanism “self-sabotage” or “bad habits”. But we can best understand it as a symptom of disease. Thus, as hygienists, we seek to understand and support it, not fight it like the moralists. Which hygienists have unfortunately been when up against a person’s habits.

Same goes for more obvious means of self-protection like resistance and stubbornness.

Imagine a damaged electrical device. Simply running a regular amount of power through it won’t repair it, and may well cause further damage to circuitry. It is best to immediately stop it, turn it off, unplug it, and bring it to a mechanic for repair.

Likewise, one’s capacity for ordinary rest determines how much of it one will enjoy. A good night’s sleep begins a deep healing process that may take days or weeks to complete. A good night’s sleep entails stillness and leads to re-energization and clarity. These tend to irritate damaged capacity. It’s like rebreaking a badly set bone. The organism accepts it if the new energy will fuel complete repair. But if light and activity will interrupt the process in the morning, then, from the comprehensive perspective of capacity, it’s best to not start at all.

If, due to a lack of time, safety, or understanding we have not met all the conditions of healing, then unconsciously, we will be prevented from sleeping until we can really sleep. Insomnia typically results. As with the rest of functioning, only in profound rest does the organism restore its capacity for ordinary rest.

This analysis applies to everything we try that repeatedly fails and frustrates us.

Like staying on a good diet. One starts eating well. Congestion clears. Sleep becomes easy and delicious. Clarity, motivation, and joy return. Eventually, the energy level reaches a fever pitch and something snaps. With the indifference of an executioner, one inhales three pieces of stale cake that, just a few days before, was obviously horrifying.

The unbearable level of energy in real emotion has the same effect on many of us. Or in meeting a magnificent personality. Or in getting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Choke artistry springs from nowhere. “Boy, it’s time for an all-night movie marathon! Where’s the ice cream?” To prevent further damage to capacity, the autonomic self does whatever it takes to curb one’s enthusiasm.

Thus, we can see how moralizing about choices, habits, commitment, etc, is ineffective because it is irrelevant. We are not creatures of habit. We are creatures of capacity. In any given moment, we do absolutely the best we possibly can. Whether willed or automatic, every thought, every feeling, every action is an utmost expression of one’s capacity. The instant capacity rises or falls, so does function. Life cannot do otherwise.

Genuine benefits gained by normal efforts simply realize one’s capacity. That’s why they feel fun. When emergencies or unusual opportunities call for extra effort, the body supplies adrenaline for it. But we err in continuing to exert extra effort over a prolonged time span for any purpose, let alone the mind-boggling task of restoring original human capacity. The will fails to achieve it. Only the involuntary power that gave us life in the first place can. This power cannot be manipulated, only provided for.

Like the Law of Force, the Law of Capacity integrates several existing hygienic Laws of Life. It casts them in a different light. It contains elements of the laws of Compensation, Distribution, Development, and others. It has many implications. If, like me, it takes over your perspective, you may realize some of your usual efforts are futile. You may feel your attention freed to focus on what you can actually accomplish.

This idea of capacity has its roots in the Ayn Rand’s character studies in Atlas Shrugged and in esoteric spiritual teaching such as Gurdjieff’s. I have simply resituated it in hygiene. Here it is in harmony with nature, universally accessible, and more useful by orders of magnitude.

false capacity

The world equips us, its creatures, with everything we need to live fully. This seems to be about 50 times more than we need to just survive. Which is good because we have lost so much of it. But even this huge margin is proving insufficient. In our permanent state of emergency and distress, a single major crisis can overwhelm most of us.

We compensate for damaged normal capacity by building false capacity. By constant effort, we attain substance and momentum as personalities, even some personal power. We gain knowledge, strength, skills, character. We beat competitors, achieve independence, win respect. We gain a modicum of stability, reserves, resilience. It’s hard work, but if you are a good person, you do it. If you are lazy and don’t struggle, you only get what you deserve. (Sound familar?)

False capacity is not only hard to build, but hard to maintain. It is inefficient and gives partial results. So as the organism restores normal capacity in darkness, it removes false capacity as soon as possible, similar to the Law of Selectivity.

False capacity exists near the surface of the personality, where we use it. Normal capacity gets restored from the bottom up. This occurs rapidly in darkness, slowly in regular living. So we retreat long enough for it to reach the surface before too much false capacity is lost. Then it can replace false capacity in practical ways.

With false capacity go the survival tricks it sustained. The ego is concerned with survival. It constricts its attention and rules to a specific disaster. The organism is concerned with overall function and efficiency. False capacity is specialized. Normal capacity is generalized and adapts to a variety of situations. It is natural, but takes some getting used to after a lifetime of faking it.

This idea contradicts our perversely moralized perspective. How shocking to discover that years of hard work on oneself accomplish little compared to doing nearly nothing for a few weeks in darkness; that our efforts make us fake; that our pride in them keeps us stuck.

This is the hardest lesson I have learned about darkness. With every new breakthrough I had in darkness, I would experience a corresponding loss of function. It confused me for years and began to scare me. Abilities I counted upon, that I always had, suddenly disappeared. Retreating seemed like it was backfiring.

But, no. Doing far too many 3- and 4-day retreats caused the problem of overloss of false capacity. False capacity breaks down too much before the organism can restore normal capacity to the point of usefulness. The solution is simple: do no more than one or two 4-day retreats. Advance quickly to 8-day and medium-length retreats. I discuss this more in format.


This is the general theory of hygiene 3.0. Our main subject, the darkroom retreat, instigated the revision. Now, in context, we can see our subject more precisely.


  1. TC Fry, Life Science Health System, This is actually Fry’s ‘elegant paraphrase of original quote by Herbert Shelton in Natural Hygiene: Man’s Pristine Way of Life 

  2. Herbert Shelton, Science and Fine Art of Natural Hygiene, back cover 

<   ^   >