(CNN) — For four days this week, the home of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was a dark room. There were no phones, no television, no lights, and no distractions. Only Rodgers, alone with his thoughts.in a cabin built specifically for prolonged isolation in the dark.
When the four-time NFL MVP announced earlier this month his plans to contemplate his NFL future in isolation in “retreat in the dark,” many were left in awe.
“It’s just sitting in isolation, meditating, minding your thoughts,” Rodgers said earlier this month. “We rarely turn off the phone or pull down the blinds to sleep in the dark. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Rodgers is no stranger to alternative therapies. He credits psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca having helped him alleviate his fear of death and deepen a feeling of self-love. American football star he said he had done “many meditation and yoga retreats” in the past and has defended his decision to try dark therapy as one of several practices “that have stimulated my mind and helped me have better headspace and peace in my life.”
But what exactly happens in a dark retreat? Is it just another new age fad or maybe something that could benefit the rest of us?
What happens in the dark?
A dark retreat is exactly what it suggests: a prolonged stay in a space completely devoid of light. One of the centers that offer this practice is Sky Cave Retreatsnestled in the Cascade-Siskiyou wilderness of southern Oregon near Klamath Falls.
“The reasons for doing this range from people who want to know more about themselves, to people who want to rest, reset and relax, to people who want to explore consciousness and deepen their meditation practice,” said Scott Berman, owner of Sky Cave Retreats along with his wife Jill, adding that darkness helps illuminate what really matters by stripping away the constant barrage of sensory input and stimulation that many people experience in their hectic modern lives.
“When a person goes into the dark, all those things that were important to them, like money, fame, power, status, dignity, become insignificant and meaningless in the dark,” says Berman. “In the dark, all you have is the present moment that reveals what is truly meaningful, be it love, forgiveness, peace, and it begins to transform you when you authentically touch what is most important to you.”
Today, the center has three separate cabins built specifically for prolonged isolation in the dark: earth-covered caves that, on the outside, somewhat resemble a Hobbit house. Each space contains a bed, a toilet, a sink and a bathtub, as well as a low table for eating and a carpeted area for practicing yoga and meditation. Participants can leave at any time – the doors are never locked – and there is an emergency light switch that is protected by a child-proof guard so it cannot be turned on accidentally.
The cost includes three meals a day, which Berman personally delivers all at once at night (via a light-proof, double-sided food box) to minimize discomfort. That’s when the participants have the opportunity to have a conversation, which can last 10 seconds or 30 minutes, according to Berman, depending on the needs of the person.
Participants typically spend three to four days in the dark, at a cost of $250 a night, and are encouraged to take an extra day before and after to integrate the experience.
Burak Dalcik, a 27-year-old salesman from Arlington, Virginia, said four days spent in the dark at Sky Caves Retreats in January gave him clarity on his priorities. He found that he no longer labeled experiences as positive or negative, but instead let them come and go, resulting in less stress and anxiety at work and in his personal life. He also said that he began to call his mother, who lives in Turkey, more frequently.
“It removes all the unnecessary burden and allows you to focus on some of the most important things and really understand who you are,” says Dalcik. “There’s nothing New Age about it: it comes down to whether you can sit with yourself and yourself. And if you can’t, you should probably be curious as to why.”
Berman cautions that retirement is not for everyone, nor should it be seen as a quick fix to problems.
“It’s not a magical, mind-bending, amazing experience — it can be extremely difficult and uncomfortable,” says Berman. “But in the dark, discomfort is the doorway to transformation. There is a deep love and acceptance that people begin to experience when they stop resisting that part of themselves.”
A therapeutic tool or junk science?
For now, research on the impact of dark withdrawals on the human brain and body is limited. Some centers claim that the experience can help heal trauma or activate the pineal gland; another claim is that dark therapy increases melatonin production in the brain.
“That’s completely false,” says Dr. David Blask, director of the Chrono-Neuroendocrine Oncology Laboratory at Tulane University School of Medicine. “People may get some psychological benefits from a dark retreat that they feel are important to them, but certainly not from a strictly neuroendocrine endocrine or physiologic biochemical standpoint.”
Dr. Marek Malůš, a psychologist at the University of Ostrava in the Czech Republic who has studied dark therapies since 2010, sees the technique as a promising therapeutic tool.
“Your thoughts, memories, emotions, inner world and mental processes become much more balanced and integrated,” says Malůš.
Although Malůš and his colleagues are working to get funding for other studies, preliminary research showed that four days in a darkroom was enough to increase mindfulness and self-esteem, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improve nervous system function. parasympathetic, which helps manage stress and reduce symptoms of exhaustion. Subjects claimed to feel the benefits three weeks after the experience.
Berman says he hopes more scientific research will be done on the benefits of dark withdrawals, but he cautions against anyone attempting to use the withdrawal to get some kind of natural high.
“If someone comes here because they want to have a so-called DMT experience, they’ve come to the wrong place,” he said. “But there are many benefits to not looking outside of ourselves for confirmation of our worth and using the darkness to illuminate our true nature.”
For those who can’t dedicate the time or money to a darkness retreat but want to try some of its benefits, Berman suggests starting small at home.
“It’s about getting used to slowing down authentically, putting the phone down, turning off the lights, closing the blinds and just chilling out,” he says. “Not to get anywhere, not to heal, but just to be curious about what’s really going on inside yourself.”