Perhaps now more than ever, the idea of taking regular retreats is a critical one. Last week, in my post on the Winter Solstice, I shared the deep need for restorative activities that allow us to heal, process, and deepen our practice–particularly in today’s age and as we move further into the age of the Anthropocene. Finding restoration activities are particularly critical because so many of us are languishing, dealing with the real effects of deepening climate change, dealing with the long-term upheaval and separation due to the pandemic, among a host of other issues. Thus, this week, I want to share one practice that I’ve developed over the years that is particularly helpful–I call it “going dark” or “inner life retreat.”
What is a Going Dark Spiritual Retreat?
The principle of going dark is very simple–rather than being always on, always available, and always connected–you step off the grid for a bit. You set aside time for a retreat, where you withdraw, physically and virtually from all of your external obligations and instead focus instead on your own spiritual life, your own thoughts, your own healing, and your own creations. The reason I call it “going dark” is because you literally power down your devices. The screen goes dark and stays dark. The quiet is present. You are off, free from all of it, to focus on your inner spiritual life and connection with the living earth.
Going dark basically is a way to create a very intentional space for yourself, allowing you to withdraw from the world, and eliminate any external inputs from the dominant culture, and be with your own thoughts and mind. You replace these typical inputs with as much time as possible in nature and with your own thoughts.
The other reason I call it “going dark” is that I usually take this a step further–and do some candlelight evenings. By reducing my dependency on electronics in general, and living by candlelight or firelight for a few days, I find that it is extraordinarily rejuvenating.
Why Go Dark?
Our modern technology creates a series of situations that severely hamper our inner life and create constant demands on our time and attention. First, where we are always expected to be on, 24/7, where many of us are tied to a technological device that is literally always within a few feet of us. It creates a societal or workplace obligation where we are always available. Many have noted that this has grown immensely worse during the pandemic, where boundaries between work and life have blurred beyond recognition. This creates a situation where our obligations–facilitated by increasing technology–become constant and where we are able to comfortably step away.
The second issue is apparent anywhere you go in public: the culture of screens, voices, and talking heads. This is abundantly clear in doctor’s offices, airports, restaurants, etc., where there is a constant chatter of screens. Screens are everywhere people congregate, wait, or travel. This creates a situation where other people’s thoughts, ideas, and perspectives constantly fill our eyes and our minds. For example, I recently went to the dentist’s office and not only did they have a loud TV in the lounge, I was also expected to watch TV while in the dentist chair (I asked them politely to turn it off). We become so used to this constant input that we don’t realize how much it fills our minds, preventing us from developing a quality inner life. If we spend all of our time with other people’s thoughts in our heads, we have no space for our own. Without access to those thoughts and space, we lose our rich connection to the subconscious, our dreams, and our creative selves.
The problem is, the stuff above is hard to avoid if you live any kind of typical life or work a typical job. I work to limit it in my daily life, but I still find that it creeps in more than I’d like–a lot of it has to do with the obligations that I have to work and my other long-term commitments. So creating a regular “detox” and “downtime” from it can really help. Hence: going dark.
Going Dark: Suggestions and Ideas
When you go dark, you power down the devices and intentionally create quiet space for your own thoughts, creativity, and subconscious to flow. You realize that technology is not an extension of you, but a tool that can be replaced with other things. You get into the spirit of nature.
If you want to try this practice, I suggest setting some goals and supports upfront for your spiritual retreat. They are:
- Decide how long you would like to go dark and what guidelines you will put in place. Once you have a sense of it, stick to your plan if at all possible.
- Let others know as appropriate. I’ve been doing this for about a decade, but the first time I did it, I didn’t let anyone know. Suddenly, by about day 4, I had multiple people showing up at my house checking on me cause they thought something happened to me. So…let your family and friends or other people to whom you are obligated to know that you are doing a retreat. Put an away message on your email, social media, or whatever else so people leave you in peace.
- Consider setting intentions for your going dark. Spend some time considering how you will spend your time–now that you’ll have more of it.
- Do you want to stay home or go somewhere different?
- Do you want to cook or have prepared foods so that you can focus on other things?
- What kinds of things might you do in the absence of screens? Meditation, journey work, reading printed books, creative/bardic practices, hiking, being in nature, etc, are just some possibilities.
- Do you have some goals for the retreat (healing, rest, working on a creative project)? Even if you have some goals, its also really useful to create a lot of open and unstructured time to be led by the voices of spirit, the creative flow of nature, and your own whimsy.
- Time of year matters. I like to go dark twice a year. I always go dark in late December and early January because I’m off from work then. This is usually when I do my best spiritual work and deep dives of the year, allowing creative and spiritual practices to flow. I also usually go dark in the summer for a week or so, but usually, this involves some outdoor solo trip.
If you want to try going dark, even for a day or two, I do have one other thing to point out. At first, some people can literally experience technology withdrawal with this practice. That’s because things like social media are addicting and can literally harm us and change our brain chemistry. If we suddenly remove ourselves from the devices we’ve grown so used to, it can be a shock. Stick with it for a day or two, or even a week, and see how you feel at the end of it. Too much screen time can lead to a host of chronic conditions in both adults and children, so it’s worth doing this practice.
I believe this kind of practice is particularly important right now. The more tools that we can create to help us navigate these difficult times with sanity and care, the better. Being able to take a break from the many things that weigh us down and just the stressors of everyday life, and really create quiet time for ourselves, is an important part of how we can navigate these challenging times.
Finally, in honor of my own spiritual retreat, I’ll be going dark for the first two weeks or so of January and will be refraining from blogging again until mid to late January. I’ll see you in 2022–may it be more joyous, healthful, sane, and kind than the last two years. Blessings!