My Long Winter's Nap
I am isolating myself and going deeply into my own psyche. What I find there will change my life.
As my car passes through the last small town and approaches the hibernation center, I can already feel my heart rate slowing down. There’s something about returning to this peaceful forest that my body remembers. Rest.
I was here almost a year ago, for my first sojourn into total darkness. I spent nine days blinded from all sources of light, and it was one of the most profound experiences of my life. As for why I was inclined to do this?
After decades of working hard for diminishing returns, burnout sank deep into my being. I'd spent years being “productive” with no advancement, struggling to find meaningful work. In our culture, what you do and who you are seem inextricable. Without a successful career path, I have often felt lost about my “identity.”
So I have sought to learn about other paths–those of vagabonds and wanderers, artists and communitarians, nuns, monks, and all who seek spiritual truth.
They have guided me to question–and to accept, with gratitude. So when the opportunity was presented to me, to enter a dark room for several days–I jumped at it!
On this day, I am visiting to help prepare the space for the next set of hibernators. I will be one again, too, at the end of January. This time, I plan to stay for eleven days.
We spend several hours at our little wooded retreat. Making beds, vacuuming, wiping off the dust and cobwebs that have settled. We work together, welcoming in the energy of renewal for all who will sleep, soon. As I revisit this room, inhaling the scent of cedar wood and pine trees, I find myself recollecting my last time here.
Enter Darkness: January 2021
I arrive in mid-afternoon, while there is still a little light. Driving up into the woods, I marvel–as I always do–at the massive trees that define Oregon’s green landscape. Walking up the winding pathway to the center, I slow down to appreciate the beauty of this place. My support person greets me, showing me to the room I will be sleeping in–up a flight of stairs. My heart races a little as I consider that I’ll need to navigate them blindly, to use the restroom.
I’m given a basic rundown about the opportunities for meals–once in the morning, once in the evening–if I want them. I’m shown a method of orienting myself within the room by using a yoga mat on my floor. And I’m handed a small tealight, already burning its precious fuel down.
“It’ll burn for about three hours. You can blow it out or just let it die on its own.”
I begin to get oriented with the small, almost square, room. The walls are made of scratchy cedar panels. There’s a unique, vaguely musty smell to the place, of earth and wood smoke. The space normally features a wraparound corner view of the woods, but this has been thoroughly blocked out with custom-fitted, thick cardboard panels. I examine the doorways, also blocked of light, and the ingenious ventilation designed by one of the organizers here, to ensure access to fresh, outdoor air, without any exposure to light.
I try to carefully consider the placement of the yoga mat, about equidistant from the doors. One door, I used to enter the room, while the other leads to a small, shared, outside balcony. I am welcome to enjoy it during my stay. Anytime I choose to leave my room, I will use a foam-and-plastic blindfold called a Mindfold. It’s a surprisingly effective method to remain in darkness, even with my eyes open in daylight.
I practice walking back and forth from the bed to the door. Then I tread a few times from the door, down the stairs, to the shared bathing area. The retreat space is large enough for three sleepers at a time, and we all have our own unique trip to the facilities. I neglect to visit the shower area, beyond making a mental note of its location. This will prove a challenge, later!
Finally, I unpack some of my belongings. I lay out my sleeping bag and pillows on the basic, narrow twin bed. It’s smaller than my bed at home, and I worry a little that I might fall out of it. C’est la vie, I decide. It’s the attitude I’ve learned I must have. Such is life. I cannot control every possible circumstance or outcome.
Before arriving at the center, I had carefully rolled up my clothing into bundles, one for each day. I now stow the bundles onto a small shelf in the corner of the room. I also stow away a few small portions of dried fruit, nuts, and granola. And I have a few oranges and apples. I don’t intend on eating very much during my retreat. Generally speaking, hibernating animals don’t require many calories, as one’s metabolic rate slows.
On the window’s shelf, which serves as the bedside table, I arrange my liter water bottle, my travel mug (which will be filled with tea roughly anytime I request it from the supporter), and my notebook. I have read advice from others that you can keep notes in darkness, provided you mark your spot with a finger and give yourself space.
I prepare myself to descend into the darkness. I find myself thinking about Haruki Murakami, the popular Japanese novelist and essayist who wrote Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, among many other titles. Murakami is fascinated with sleep and darkness. He often uses a motif of descending into small, dark spaces, such as dried-up wells. Such descent is typically followed by a transition in the characters’ lives. This is the type of descent I mean. I am isolating myself and going deeply into my own psyche.
What I find there will change my life.
I can see that my candle is beginning to reach its end. I snuggle up in my sleeping bag on the bed, and take out the notebook:
January 2, 2021
I am writing in near total darkness now. I am looking forward to whatever the darkness has to show me. I may not need to record my thoughts. It all depends on what the presence of spirit dictates. I am open, willing, and I suspect honesty won’t be optional in this place. Onward…
The light begins to dim, as I put the book away and lay on my back, watching the ceiling’s corners steadily disappearing into the blackness. The light sputters as the fuel begins to disappear, and then suddenly, I hear a fuzzy little hiss, as the light dies out. I stare into total darkness, and am reminded of my visits to various caves in the US, where occasionally the guides will shut off the electric lights, giving a taste of the complete darkness underground. It feels a bit like I am in a private cave, now.
I let my eyes shut, and feel my body relax deeper into the mattress. Sleep comes quickly.
When my eyes open, I am greeted with total darkness. Sometime in the night, I hear a small knock, but it sounds so distant and brief that I ignore it, in favor of more sleep. Sleep has brought me a disturbing dream, in which I experience passionate rage against another. I ask for forgiveness for the anger I experience in my waking life.
I spend most of my first day asleep, foregoing any food. At one point, I am awake long enough to take out a set of prayer beads I made. I repeat the Serenity Prayer 108 times. Then, I wrap the strand around my wrist, and began to stretch on my yoga mat. I strain the beads, and the strand snaps. Suddenly, small, round beads are scattering across the floor. I experience a moment of panic, as I realize that I will need to locate and secure 108 small stones in total darkness.
C’est la vie, I tell myself again, as I slowly move into the room’s corner, digging out a pair of socks from the clothing bundles. I spend many long minutes running my palms over the thin carpet, seeking out the beads and stuffing them into the sock. I try my best to keep count, and decide that if there are any left, I’ll either find them with my feet, or after I’m back in the light. When I’m satisfied I’ve gotten them all, I twist the sock up and wrap it in its mate. I shove the whole thing into the “brain” of my hiking backpack. I’m disappointed that I won’t have the prayer beads to use anymore on this trip, but I am surprisingly unemotional about the loss.
I return to sleep.
The small, distant knocking is back. I drag myself out of bed, whispering “just a moment.” I’ve realized that it’s the support person. I slowly step across the yoga mat, and toward the corner where the door is located. It takes a moment to find it along the rough wall, but eventually, I am able to put the Mindfold on, and open the door.
I am offered plain oatmeal, and the option of a hardboiled egg, which I consent to. I request tea.
The food arrives a few minutes later. I await it, sitting very still, on the single, wooden chair in my room. The oatmeal is hot, and smells delicious. I find myself sitting on the floor, with my food and tea, waiting for it to cool. I even open the balcony door, to let in a bit of wintry air.
It takes probably an hour to eat my breakfast. Though I don’t really have a way to keep time, I’m guessing with my “internal clock.” I take slow bites, cautiously avoiding burning my mouth or dropping food on myself or the floor. I even peel the hardboiled egg and eat it, without ingesting any shell. I feel myself moving deliberately. The plain oats are chewy and vaguely (naturally) sweet. I feel as though I am tasting–noticing–appreciating this food for the first time in my life.
I spend more time sleeping, in-and-out of consciousness. It becomes hard to distinguish my waking and sleeping moments, though I “see” things in my dreams, and not much in darkness.
In my notebook, I record a Younger Futhark Rune that I see in the darkness. When I look it up later, I learn that it is the rune Kaun, which means “ulcer” or “disease.” But it can also represent a “torch,” or “light.” Ironically, within a day I discover a pimple forming on my eyebrow, near my Third Eye.
I continue to sleep for the majority of my time, during my first three days in darkness. Things are quiet and peaceful for the most part, although I do hear a neighbor loudly moving in on my second day. In my mind, I picture Bertie’s boyfriend Randy, on the Netflix series “Love.”
On the third day, I awaken to a pain deep in my right shoulder, in my “trigger point” area. I am often plagued by these shooting pains, and have brought my "thera-cane," a device that can be used for self-massage. I use it on the knots in my back, praying for the pain to be relieved soon.
“Randy” has brought a drum, and is playing it occasionally, while singing. He has a beautiful voice. I realize that I’m not totally alone in this darkness, and for some reason, I start to feel a little more lonely. I eat an orange and spend time meditating, praying, and stretching.
It’s safe to say that throughout my retreat, I am on an inward journey, to explore and discover more about my inner being. I feel quite certain that my reality on this plane is not all there is to life. And I’ve heard that a retreat like this might awaken my Third Eye, allowing me to have visions. I am hoping for them, but feel somewhat doubtful, given the fact that I am already an “aphantasic,” a person without a “mind’s eye.” This is a bit funny for an artist, but perhaps explains why I am inclined to create text-based and abstract artwork, rather than representational images.
After three days of deep rest, I feel myself moving more into my emotions. I’m experiencing physical and emotional discomfort. I’m angry. My resentments are piling up in my mind. I sit down next to the space heater, and lean against it, just to have a sense of warmth.
Frustrated, angry, and alone, I feel myself begin to shake, and soon the tears are flowing. No one is here to see me or judge me, and I have nothing but time to let the wounding inside of me come forward. I have learned that it is better to let it out than keep bottling it up, and so I spend an hour or so sobbing quietly to myself.
I hear Randy open his door to the balcony we share. A few minutes pass, and his voice begins to float to me. He is singing, in a language I don’t understand. I listen quietly, feeling my body settling down, feeling my sadness disintegrating as my attention moves toward understanding. It’s that language I always confuse with Spanish and Japanese–it’s Portuguese. Such a beautiful language. I wonder about this person.
Before I have a chance to open my door, the singing ends, and I hear the quiet “click” of his own closing into place.
Another hour or so passes, before I hear a guitar through the wall. Randy’s voice is floating over the sounds of skilled strumming. I find bravery, during a break between songs, to open my door and tap on his. He murmurs, “sorry, do you want me to stop?”
“No,” I whisper. “I want you to open your door, so I can hear you more clearly.”
He consents to this. What follows is an evening of music and conversation, which draws out the third retreater, and the support person. We spend our time sitting together, talking in low voices, sharing our vegetarian dinner. We play instruments (I get the handmade drum), sing, chant, and play together in darkness. It is magical.
At the end of the evening, Randy offers me a hug, which I gratefully accept. We stand together for a long time, relaxed in each other’s arms, and I feel myself falling in love, with the stranger I cannot see.
Day 5--Maybe doting on a stranger I’ve never seen, who came for the same isolated, silent retreat, in the middle of winter during a pandemic wasn’t the best idea. [Randy] is in his own reality. Thinking we could share it without any prior relationship was kind of dumb, probably. I’m so good at inventing love that isn’t there. I wish this superpower of mine didn’t hurt me so much. I guess I’m going back to bed. Nothing else to do, since everything is still… dark.
It doesn’t take me long to get distracted, in my mind, with an obsessive type of attachment. Throughout my life, I have fallen into many forms of unrequited love, and I seem to be doing so, again.
I realize that it’s been almost a week since I took a shower. I have been a little scared to go try it. But I’m stinky from detoxing. So, I gather up my towel, clothes, and toiletries, and slowly make my way down the stairs.
After undressing, I step behind the curtain, and feel on the wall for a handle or knob to start the water. There doesn’t seem to be one. I feel up and down the center of the wall, directly under the showerhead, and find nothing. After about ten minutes of this, I am almost ready to give up. My hands are roaming all over inside the stall, when they finally land on the handle. It’s up, and to the right, of where I envisioned it. Well, I’ll never forget this, I think.
The shower rejuvenates me. Later, I receive a visit from one of the retreat organizers. He vaguely mentions that something big has happened recently, in the news. I ask what he means, and he says, “don’t let it interrupt your time here. You’ll hear about it when you’re out.”
I feel a little more “in the dark,” but accept this response, doing my best to set aside the intense curiosity this raises in me. We go on to discuss other topics, and after an hour or so, he leaves.
My mind is whirling as it creates multiple scenarios that might be related to this newsworthy event. I pray that maybe it’s something good. We need good some news.
During my long hours on the retreat, I find myself singing and humming a lot, and drumming on my body. I also wave my hands around rapidly. I’m trying to “see.” Anything.
I get another zit, this time on my belly, and decide to put a band-aid on it, to reduce friction. I’m astounded to find that the wrapper emits a bluish glow when it’s peeled apart. I realize, later, that this is simple static electricity. But in the moment, it is simply astounding! I find I have to keep myself from opening up every band-aid in my first aid kit. It’s as exciting to my hungry eyes as a fireworks show!
It’s been six days, now, and Randy and I are interacting more. We have a couple of brief conversations on the shared balcony, learning random details of each others’ lives. Everything is different within the context of our shared darkness. We speak thoughtfully, slowly, quietly. There’s a level of respect for personal space, and a directness in saying things, that is refreshing. I feel drawn to him, but I can tell that he isn’t seeking anything from anyone, during this retreat.
Still, despite what I tell myself rationally, I feel my heartstrings being tugged on by his proximity to me. It’s no secret to me that I fall in love, easily, and without much warning. I’m learning that it’s a kind of superpower, this ability to love anyone. And here it is, happening without any visual input. I thought the guy was going to be loud and obnoxious when he got here, and five days later, I’m falling in love with him.
The idea of him, comes the mental correction.
I take out my notebook and record:
Making a vow that I won’t pursue someone who isn’t ready for all of me. I am a big, bold, brave thing! I have limitless energy, or access to it, anyway. That means I don’t feel I need to be as protective of it. But I need to protect my intendeds. I can be dangerous and consuming to anyone unprepared. Like touching the sun!
I find myself processing memories of traumatic events in my life–like the time I hit my head so hard that I needed stitches. I was only five years old, and I wound up being taken to a strange doctor’s office, all alone. I was lucky not to be concussed. It was altogether handled badly, but I survived it with minimal scarring.
Nonetheless, the emotional scars had been ignored. I recalled other kids, taunting me for a fear of falling. I didn’t understand why I was scared. No one seemed to. Only now, nearly thirty years later, does the understanding dawn on me–the connection between this formative event, and the fear that has plagued me for so long.
The combination of emotional processing and feeling attachment to Randy, has led to a new exhaustion. I find myself missing my home, my cats, and my vision. I want to create artwork, and doing so in the dark seems…impossible.
So, I go back to bed again.
It’s day eight, and I’m starting to think I want to leave the darkness. My detox sweats are still pretty bad, and I’ve nearly run out of clean clothes. I didn’t really expect to stink up everything so fast, when I’m not burning any calories.
During my time in darkness, I haven’t really seen anything, except the static band-aids. One morning, I woke up thinking that I could see the tealight again, burning out as it sat on the floor. But that just as well could have been a dream. The truth about “awakening” your Third Eye is, it’s a bit like entering a waking dream, and I’m not very practiced at such things. I’ve only had one lucid dream, back in college. Anyway, dreams can quickly become nightmares.
But, as the day passes, I find myself having a new experience. My body is moving around. I’m dancing unabashedly, to music in my head. I begin to hear drumming in the distance. It’s in perfect time to the song. I assume I am having an auditory hallucination. Here it comes!
Over the course of the day, I receive meaningful messages from the Great Spirit. It tells me, “of course, I am in your voice, it is the way you can best understand me.” It goes on to convey that we each contain divinity, whether we are human, insect, whale, koala, tree, or rock. All of existence is divine.
I weep, as the Divine part of me continues: “I’m sorry for my part and I forgive you for yours.” I hear this in my mind, three times. I receive insights about the destruction of nature, and the awareness that what humans have created are events of Biblical proportions. It is made clear to me that while these events feel punishing, they are necessary, for nature to rebalance its equation.
As the day proceeds, I find myself more conscious of my spiritual being, even as it seems to settle deeper into my body. I become more at-peace with myself, as I discover that I am truly a spiritual being having a human experience. It is one thing to say it, and another to feel it.
And as I am feeling this greater alignment with presence, purpose, and spirit–I open the balcony door, letting the cool air rush around my body. I quietly begin to sing:
May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And the rain fall soft upon your fields,
And until we meet again, until we meet again,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And the rain fall soft upon your fields.
At each line break, I hear an alien sound respond to me. I feel sure that this is in my mind, along with the ancestral drumming that accompanied my dancing, earlier in the day.
Just as the song ends, Randy throws open his door, and steps out to the balcony. “What a weird call,” he says, softly.
“You heard it too?” I announce my presence.
“Oh, hi,” he responds. “Yeah, I heard it. There was some drumming, earlier, too.”
“Oh, wow,” I reply. “I thought it was all in my mind.”
“Well, it might be,” Randy chuckles.
“I guess so. Maybe we’re having a shared hallucination,” I joke.
“Could be,” Randy replies, seriously. And then he says, “I leave tomorrow.”
A tinge of sadness creeps into the euphoria of the day. I reply: “I’ll miss you.”
That evening, Randy comes to my door, and we share our last dinner together. We speak softly, getting to know each other a bit more, and revealing numerous shared experiences. The parallels between our experiences before arriving at the retreat, as well as during it, feel meaningful, if not a bit spooky.
At one point, he says, “we chose to meet in the dark.” I find myself silently swooning. We sing to each other, and we say goodnight with a shared hug, As I feel his body relax against mine, I wonder whether we are meant to do this in daylight, too.
I go to bed, blissful and still, confused.
When I awaken on day nine, I am feeling spooked. I’ve just had a series of repeating dreams, in which a wraith-like figure startles me awake by flipping on a bright light. In hindsight, I can see that this is likely an invitation to confront something internally that needs attention. But in the moment, I’m simply weirded out, and eager to avoid it.
I can hear Randy moving around. He’s already been up for a while, having returned to the daylight at dawn. I knock on his balcony door. He invites me to have breakfast with him.
The support person joins us, and I realize after eating and talking with them for awhile, that I cannot stand being the only person who’s still in the darkness. I need to see what Randy looks like, before I lose the chance. My rational mind knows that I might see him another way, on another day. But my magical-thinking mind says, nothing is guaranteed.
And so, without much fanfare, I squeeze my eyes shut, and remove my Mindfold.
Thankfully, there’s only a little daylight coming in through the open balcony door, so my eyes have a chance to adjust more slowly, as I open them.
What I see are two very normal looking people, somewhat agape that I’ve just spontaneously ended my retreat. They’re still blurry, so I return to my room and put my glasses on. Randy is good-looking, but I don’t get the instant sense that he’s my soul mate!
I feel simultaneously disappointed and perfectly at-ease with this revelation. He’s just a guy, like most guys. Could I love him? Sure. I can love anyone!
And that, as it turns out, is the thing I needed to learn about myself all along. My capacity for love can extend to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Not all love is romantic, and the love I’ve been feeling all week for this man is less about romance than about our shared human experience.
I slowly pack up my belongings. I still have the room for several days, if I want it. I can stay here and process my feelings with a notebook I can see. The woods here are beautiful and serene.
But I don’t chose to do this, either. I’m overwhelmed with a desire to get home, to clean clothing and warm kitties, to see people I know, and who I know love me.
I give myself a couple hours to adjust back to the light. I walk along the wooded paths, and run across a kind young couple, pushing their baby in a stroller. “Have you just emerged?” they ask.
“Yes,” I reply quietly, smiling.
“It’s a beautiful place to wake up, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I say again, adding, “the world’s a pretty beautiful place.”
“What a nice thing to say,” they respond. We wish each other a beautiful day, and I go on through the forest, singing to myself.
I wind up leaving before Randy. My body is suddenly urgent to get home, back to familiarity. I have now heard a brief account of the January 6 insurgency, from the support person. I want to learn more about what has happened. I want to reconnect to others, now that I’ve spent so much time connecting to myself, and to the spiritual realm.
I empty my belongings from the room, taking slow, steady trips to my car. I ask the support person about the drumming I heard the day before. They confirm that it was likely a drum circle up the road, probably including the young couple I’ve just met in the woods.
I take a last look over my room, checking under the bed for beads–it seems I found them all in the darkness!–and then I venture out to the balcony for the last time. I am overwhelmed by the serenity and beauty of this place. My eyes well up, as they seek out the weak, distant sunlight, filtering through the tall evergreen trees. Still new to its brightness, I find myself focused on the prism effect of my tears.
“Thank you,” I whisper reverently out to the forest.
Emergence takes time, and I discover that my eyes are highly sensitive to the bright lights of humanity. I find myself doubting my decision to have left, almost as soon as I’m back.
Nonetheless, I find myself re-integrating with our shared reality. I make a couple of bad decisions–including immediately eating a hamburger my first night out, because I’m sick of the steamed vegetables and plain oatmeal I’ve been consuming for nine days.
I discover that I am still feeling pretty lonely, but I’m much clearer on what I want in a long-term relationship.
And I’m more comfortable in my body, in fact I love it more than ever before. Having disconnected from its appearance and focused on how it feels is doing wonders for my self-esteem.
A few months after my experience in the darkroom, I am able to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and a new kind of emergence happens. For a brief month or so, I am comfortable meeting new people. I go on a few dates.
And I meet a person who I quickly recognize as my soul mate. Amazingly, it’s requited! It’s hard to explain, but the adage holds up: “when you know, you know.”
We now share our lives together, with our cats, and lots of art that we’ve made together up on our walls.
And now, as I prepare for my next long winter’s nap, I count my blessings for all the good that has come from delving deeply into the dark.