You recently came back from twenty-eight days in a dark retreat. Why don’t you tell people what a dark retreat is.
It’s a retreat that you do after you’ve been meditating a lot because you need a lot of stability, psychological and meditative stability, to do it. And you go into total darkness for periods of time—for a week, say. A month is a long time to be in total darkness. And somebody brings you your food, slips it in, and you have your meals. Other than that there’s nothing to do. There’s no practice. In the type of retreat that I did, all you do is you sit and look into the darkness, and you see what comes up. And what this does, in my experience, is that it removes much of the barrier between the unconscious and the conscious mind.
There’s always a pressure in the unconscious. C.G. Jung, the great psychologist, said the nature of the unconscious is it wants to be conscious. There’s a pressure, and to maintain our egos we’re always sort of pushing things down. What happens in a dark retreat is you’re not doing that anymore. Things begin to come up from the depths. That’s the practice, simple relating to what comes up from the depths, from the darkness. Sometimes it comes from very, very deep places and sometimes it doesn’t.
What happened in these twenty-eight days for you?
In meditation practice in general, we alternate between experiencing a tremendous peace and openness, and then there’s an upsurge of material to work with. That’s the nature of—at least in our tradition—that’s the nature of meditation.
It’s not always the way meditation is billed or sold to people—the upsurge component of unconscious material.
Yes, but the geyser of black mud is essential to the meditative journey. If you have gotten into a state of mind where you don’t’ have that then, you’re not going to grow anymore. So within the Vajrayana tradition, we love the peace, we love the openness, we love the experience of expansiveness. But when we get really turned on is when the black geyser of mud comes up and we have material to work with, and we have experience and trauma to resolve.
In the dark retreat, that cycle of tremendous openness and peace and stillness and emptiness, and then the eruption of unresolved trauma, is the nature of the practice. You do that day in, day out, for twenty-eight days. And night in and night out, I might add, because your sleeping thing is very disrupted.
Now I’ll tell you it’s a very difficult situation to be in because you’re pushed to your limit, and then you are pushed beyond your limit. Most of us are not really that easy with being pushed beyond our limit. I went into a couple of states that represent trauma from the age of two. And it’s not like I saw the trauma and I was watching it ... I became it. I became the two-year-old who had been basically ejected from my family. I was the two-year-old and I experienced what that two-year-old was not able to experience at the age of two. And just simply pulled back and shut down. It was horrifying. One of the episodes lasted for twenty hours. And during that time—of course I knew what was going on and I stayed with it—but during that time I had two thoughts. One was the gates of hell are open, that kept going through my mind. “This is what hell is like. This is hell.” And number two, “I’m fighting for my life. Am I going to go insane? Is this going to simply sweep me away?” But the thing is, I had the practice and I stayed with it. And strangely enough, it’s not a technique. It’s opening... opening... opening... opening. And whatever fear comes up you let it go. And you open, and you let yourself go through it, and last year—same thing happened last year, different traumas—I felt, when I got on the other side of it, that something fundamental in my state of being had been resolved. I’ve done a lot of practice—many, many years of solitary retreat—and this is different. I felt things were resolved in this situation that I’ve never really been able to get at before. So it’s very powerful and very, very interesting, but it’s extraordinarily challenging.
How would one know it they are ready for a dark retreat?
You’d have to work with a teacher who’s done it. You’d have to meet somebody, talk with them, share your practice. You have to be very stable psychologically. You have to be able to handle a tremendous amount of psychological pain, to be with it and not freak. That takes a lot of practice, a lot of psychological work. You also need to know how to rest your mind in emptiness. You need to be able to do it so you have some place to go to create a bigger space for yourself to experience what you’re going through.
One of the comments I heard from a small group that I surveyed was, “Interesting that you’re going to be talking to Reggie in a program called ‘Insights at the Edge,’ because he always wants to be on the edge. He’s addicted to the edge, some sense of insufficiency drives him that he always wants to be on the edge.” What do you think about that?
I heard a program recently, which I found very intriguing, about people who—it’s just who they are—they love risk, and somehow that’s how they express their humanity. And it’s apparently, like, 10 percent of the population has this in them. It’s just who they are. Some people love lying on beaches and soaking up the sun, that’s their idea of the fullness of their life. And other people are explorers and adventurers. What it is in me, I think, is an appetite to find out what’s next and what’s over the horizon. I’ve always had it, I had it even when I was a small boy. There was a big, dark wood behind us, and I wanted to know what’s in the wood, what’s on the other side of the wood. I would take off at the age of six and just disappear.
I think it’s genetic, it’s part of the human community, there are certain people who do that. And the thing is, they get killed at a much higher rate than other people—you know, hunters and gatherers, all the way down. They’re the ones who take the chances. They’re the ones that just have it in them. It’s part of who they are. So, as with most unusual things in human life that we pathologize—we have some comment about how it’s neurotic, or how it’s driven by some unfulfilled need. To me that’s ridiculous. Why don’t we take the point of view that every person who’s born has an expression of humanity that isn’t insufficient, and all the diversity we have in life—why don’t we take the point of view that that’s all interesting and it all has functions—that it’s not fundamentally neurotic. Maybe there are ways we misuse whatever our gifts or proclivities are, but I don’t’ really go for that. When we pathologize different behaviors and people, I don’t think that’s very interesting.
You’re just edgy by nature?
I enjoy the unknown. I enjoy the darkness. I enjoy meeting it. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but I’m called to it. And my friends are called to it, the people I work with, most of whom share a similar curiosity about what is beyond the current perceived world. What is beyond my current set up? What is beyond my ego? What’s out there? Let’s find out, I’m curious. As you know one of the analogies I love most is that human life is like a voyage on a sailing ship, and that most of us spend most of our lives sailing around the harbor and stopping at known points of reference. But there are some of us who look out, and we see the opening into the open ocean. When we see oceans that have never been sailed in, the only thing that we want to do is get out of the harbor and set sail, see sights that have never been seen and visit places that have never been visited. So, you know, that’s me.
Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D. brings us four decades of study and intensive meditation practice within the Tibetan tradition as well as a special gift for applying it to the unique problems, inspirations, and spiritual imperatives of modern people. He teaches within the dharma and meditation lineages of the great siddha Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. On the faculty of Naropa University since its inception, he is the author of Touching Enlightenment, Indestructible Truth, Secret of the Vajra World, Buddhists Saints in India, In the Presence of Masters, other books, and two popular Sounds True audio series, Buddhist Tantra and Meditating with the Body.
Tami Simon is the founder and publisher of Sounds True, a multimedia spirituality publisher based in Boulder, Colorado. A senior teacher and meditation instructor within Dharma Ocean, Tami began practicing meditation when she was 21 years old while traveling in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, attending intensive trainings in Vipassana meditation taught by the Burmese meditation master S.N. Goenka. Her path has taken her on a journey including the in-depth study and practice of kundalini maha yoga, as well as intensive practice with Zen teacher and nobel peace prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh. Tami cares passionately about the common path of transformation that is offered by all of the wisdom traditions of the world.