Why Athletes Choose to Sit at Darkness Retreats for Days

Why Athletes Choose to Sit at Darkness Retreats for Days

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On February 4, 2021, climber Colin O’Brady was attempting a winter ascent of K2, the world’s second highest mountain, when he and a few others were forced to sit and wait, crammed into a tent at 24,000 feet, due to deteriorating conditions. O’Brady had to decide whether or not he would continue the ascent.

O’Brady aborted his attempt and safely descended. During the 24 hours that followed, four climbers lost their lives.

Recalling his thought process, O’Brady recounts,“I closed my eyes and tried to relax my body and mind as much as I could to try to listen to my intuition,” he explains. “Meditation practice allowed me to have a tool to access that awareness.”

O’Brady has long considered contemplative practices to be integral to the mindset required to take on—or back down from—extreme challenges. No stranger to hardship, the former professional triathlete had become the first person to cross Antarctica solo and unaided a few years earlier.

Last year, O’Brady upped the solo exploration ante. Following his experience on K2, he enrolled in what would become his biggest challenge yet—a seven-day darkness retreat.

Meditation is an Extreme Sport

In athletic terms, being “the best” often means that someone is adept at handling the worst, whether that means exhaustion, cold, heat, danger, or pain. If an athlete is the best at enduring arduous conditions, they can often outlast the competition.

But what happens when the challenge is entirely psychological?

“Meditation brings in discomfort that then allows [athletes] to adapt and get comfortable in that discomfort,” says Pete Kirchmer, program director of mPEAK, a mindfulness course developed in 2014 in concert with coaches from Team USA BMX and neuroscientists from the University of California at San Diego. The program is designed to help high-performing individuals achieve that elusive flow state, in which skilled action overrides doubt or hesitancy during competition.  Rather than gritting one’s way through extremes, meditation requires a reckoning with quietude.

“Meditation is an extreme pursuit,” says Kirchner. Many Navy SEALs who have taken mPEAK found sitting in stillness more challenging than jumping out of planes or holding their breath in freezing water, he explains. As soon as they have to sit in stillness, most elite performers are challenged to do something that feels counter to what they’ve learned during years of training.

In some ways, meditation was the first endurance sport. The Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment after an epic 49-day sit under the Bodhi tree. Bodhidharma, the sage who brought Buddhism to China 1500 years ago and helped shape the practice of Shaolin kung fu, allegedly sat for nine straight years.

Despite the common association of calm and contentment with meditation, formal periods of intensive practice can be as challenging as any athletic training camp, involving early-morning sessions and marathon stretches of sitting still. These experiences push the mental boundaries in a way that seems to be particularly compelling for those accustomed to pushing physical boundaries.

Add the element of sitting in darkness, and the practice of meditation takes on a whole other level of extreme.

What Is a Darkness Retreat?

During his time in darkness, O’Brady stayed alone in an unlit cottage at Sky Cave Retreats in Southern Oregon. The cottage had a bed, toilet, sink, and bath, and there was a delivery of three meals a day through a double door so as not to break the solitude or darkness. Eyes require light to perceive, so retreatants become familiar with their environment through touch.

Scott Berman, who co-founded Sky Cave Retreats, where O’Brady, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and NBA player Rudy Gobert have been guests, says that athletes tend to approach the darkness with the same mindset they’ve used to physically overcome other obstacles. They soon realize their habitual strategies are useless in this context.

“In the darkness, there’s nothing to achieve,” explains Berman. In learning to let go, those who are wired to constantly excel may instead develop the capacity to roll with whatever arises. “There’s an ability to respond to what is actually happening, and then move from that,” he says. “There’s this rested, calm, clear space you’re connected with.”

It’s no coincidence that darkness retreats—of which there are currently dozens worldwide—have drawn the interest of athletes who have gotten to where they are because they’re accustomed to finding their edge and pushing past it. Just as it might take an extreme pursuit to challenge someone like O’Brady, a regular meditation retreat might not seem quite as spiritually gnarly when one could opt for total darkness.

“The warrior archetype needs their healing journey to be as big and hardcore as the rest of their life has been in order to feel aligned with their identity and make sense in their worldview,” Kirchmer explains.

“Beyond performance enhancement, I think these driven types want to feel something and they’re so good at turning off and pushing through feelings that it takes a hammer to open them up,” he says. “High performers love the idea that sitting in the eye of the storm for a short period of time can efficiently build resilience and focus.”

That resiliency can manifest as agency, not in terms of controlling one’s surroundings, but one’s reaction to them. “So much of endurance sports is realizing that your mind has significant control on your body in the moment,” says O’Brady. “When your body is tense and exhausted, when you climb a big mountain with the wind blowing in your face along a 5000-foot drop, just like in the darkness, you can find that calm, peaceful place inside your mind.”

This can also be true of the metaphorical 5000-foot drops we face in day-to-day life, from a big presentation to a medical setback. The sense of agency has been shown to reduce the cortisol response in research participants exposed to stress, as well as lead to greater motivation, exploratory behavior, and wellbeing. Cultivating this kind of agency might mean spending a lot of time with yourself in the dark.

Learning to Let Go

Christopher Maher, a former Navy SEAL who was training for the Olympic trials in Track and Field before incurring a series of injuries, found clarity during a darkness retreat in Thailand in 2007 with Taoist master Mantak Chia. He has since done 17 such retreats.

He relates that the experience allows him to simply be, with no preconceptions. “The way that I look, the way that I sound, all of that stuff affects others,” says Maher. “When you’re in complete darkness, you have no projection of your reflected image.” As someone who had come out of the pressure cooker of high-level athletics and the SEALs, he found the experience to be transformative.

“My esteem was no longer coming from my activity. It was coming from how I was being,” Maher explains. “Was I being present-centered? Was I being compassionate? Was I being loving?”

O’Brady experienced a similar detachment. Although he engaged in formal meditation during his time in darkness, he found it to be almost superfluous. “What was actually the most profound part of the darkness retreat was when I stopped trying,” he says.

While traditional meditation is about clearing your mind and observing your body and senses, O’Brady explains, there’s an active element to it. “The most potent and powerful times in the dark were actually the opposite of that,” he explains. “Just sitting there in this spaceless, timeless place.”

There is little scientific data on the effect of prolonged exposure to darkness, although some research suggests that total darkness might result in increased neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to reorganize or form new synaptic connections. As a result, there is potential for an enhanced capacity for learning. Extended exposure to darkness, one could theorize, might act as a sort of resilience incubator thanks to the sheer novelty and challenge of the experience.

Ultimately, for O’Brady, the darkness retreat was more than just an attempt at bagging another peak, even an internal one. “Darkness is an amazing teacher,” he says. “There’s no way to hide from your own thoughts in there. You can’t blame anything on external stimulus. The darkness shows how you create your own reality.”

“There’s something familiar about the intensity and the discomfort,” O’Brady continues. “What I ultimately found on the other side of darkness was peace and calm and depth and love and the realization that that’s all within me.”

RELATED: I Spent 82 Hours Alone in a Dark Cave. Things Got Weird.

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