Dark Retreats Have Been Used All Over The World For Centuries, But What Do They Do?

At the conclusion of the 2022-23 NFL season, pro-football observers wondered whether they'd seen the last of aging three–time MVP Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, as Sports Illustrated explains. Only a matter of days before Super LVII, Rodgers explained on "The Pat McAfee Show" that while he had not yet made his decision, he would enter a "darkness retreat" to do some soul searching and reach a conclusion, as ESPN reports. Although "darkness retreat" sounds like an audible play Rodgers might call on the field, darkness retreats have a long history with many purported health and wellness benefits, as Fortune writes.

For those unfamiliar, darkness retreats are something like time spent in a sensory deprivation tank, but those full sensory shut-down experiences in a tank typically last for just a few hours, per Vogue. On the other hand, darkness retreats, such as the complete sensory shutoff NFL QB Rodgers told McAfee he planned to undertake can last for a matter of hours or for days on end, instead. His four day/four night isolation retreat, Rodgers said (via ESPN) would allow him to contemplate " ... all things my future," so that he could then, " ... make a decision that I think is best for me moving forward and in the highest interest of my happiness."

Darkness retreats are rooted in Tibetan Buddhism

Darkness retreats, as The Kula Collective writes, are known in traditional Tibetan Buddhism but many cultures from all throughout history and from all around the world have engaged in similar practices, from indigenous cultures of Central and South America to the ancient Egyptians and Christian monks during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Per SFGate, similar rituals are referenced in the Old Testament, and ancient Greek philosophers are known to have undergone these types of spiritual journeys. One theory behind a darkness retreat relates to Pratyahara from the Ashtanga system, a form of Hatha Yoga. 

Full sensory isolation, or a type of sensory withdrawal known as Pratyahara, is said to turn the mind away from outward distraction and thoughts and toward inward contemplation. Exactly how a darkness retreat works can vary in terms of location and length, but participants are given everything they need to survive — food, water, and a place to sleep, for example — for however long their experience lasts. They then spend the duration in complete silence and total darkness. For some Tibetan practitioners, darkness retreats last more than a month. Others have reportedly lasted years (via SFGate).

Darkness retreats sometimes lead to hallucinations

Some reported outcomes from darkness retreats can be hallucinations, according to QB Aaron Rodgers, speaking on "The Pat McAfee Show" via ESPN. " ... [T]here can be some hallucinations in there but it's just kind of sitting in silence, which most of us never do ... I'm really looking forward to it," Rodgers said. The QB's assessment is supported by the Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia which explains that prolonged darkness triggers melatonin production in the brain which helps us sleep, and other natural psychedelic brain chemicals such as dimethyltryptamine, better known as DMT or the "spirit molecule" (via Britannica). The darkness experience can also be ended at any time, Rodgers said.

Speaking with SFGate, psychotherapist and meditation teacher Martin Lowenthal, who has experience with darkness retreats, said, "When you're not sleeping you can be meditating — depending upon how much experience you have, between four to six times a day. The rest of the time you spend time relaxing and reflecting." Of the visions that sometimes accompany darkness retreats, Lowenthal added he's seen woodland scenes and sunlight, as well as mandalas and rainbows. He's also heard unfamiliar sounds and smelled completely new fragrances. Lowenstein added the goal is to " ... relax your body and your mind so that the deeper aspects of your core awareness can arise. That's when these truths, along with lights and visions, can become evident."