Dark Room Retreats

“It doesn’t matter if you live in a noisy world, in a world full of hustle and bustle, if you know how to practice Vedic Meditation, you can transcend all of that in a matter of minutes and experience the eternal bliss of Being in just a few minutes, with just a few minutes notice.”

Thom Knoles

Silent retreats and cave retreats are nothing new and have been around for millenia, giving seekers an escape from the demands of daily life and a chance to simply let the mind be with itself.

A modern twist on this is the use of Dark Room Retreats, a growing business model where the cave might be swapped for a cabin, and food and other needs are provided for you, leaving you alone to experience the potential bliss of sensory deprivation.

In this episode, Thom shares his own experience with cave retreats, along with his perspective on dark room retreats. 

He also shares an alternative method for sensory deprivation. One that doesn’t require dark rooms or even silence but which still yields the bliss we might be looking for if we were to consider a dark retreat.

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Episode Highlights


Awakening the Mind’s Innermost Potential



Techniques of Sensory Deprivation



How do I Experience Pure Consciousness?



Deep Rest in Vedic Meditation



The Charm of Silence



The Reason the Mind Falls Mute



Modern Technology’s Impact on the Search for Bliss



Limits of Sensory Deprivation in Achieving Bliss



Reduced Oxygen Consumption – The Measure of Deep Rest



Testing Bliss Levels



Extended Meditation in Solitude



Sensory Deprivation as a Test, Not a Shortcut to Bliss



Left With Your Own Joy



Passing the Bliss Exam



The Bliss of Being Beyond Relativity


Jai Guru Deva


Dark Room Retreats

[00:45] Awakening the Mind’s Innermost Potential

Jai Guru Deva.

Recently, I’ve been given the news by all of my helpers who help me keep up with the news that there’s some news about a thing referred to as a “dark retreat.” And from what I’ve been able to glean, the idea is that one goes into a darkened environment, and one is shown how to make it as dark as possible, and then, with occasional service of food, with occasional service of different kinds of needs, one stays in darkness as a retreat.

The idea being that by the use of sensory deprivation, one will begin to settle into states of greater illumination inside, to experience the pure consciousness state. And so I have a few things to say about that.

The concept of sensory deprivation in order to awaken the mind’s innermost potential is something that has been around for many, many years.

Starting in the 1950s, moving into and having a resurgence of interest in the late 60s and early 70s, a variety of sensory deprivation techniques have been employed, and the idea is that, it’s a sound fundamental basis, but the idea is that if pure consciousness, knowledge of the Knower, is knowledge that occurs when you peel away all the layers of thinking, and thinking will have to include in this moment the experience of sensory input having a taste, a touch, a smell, a sight, or a sound.

These five senses are constantly inputting into our inner awareness, and a neuroscientist would refer to these as cognitive processes.

[02:41] Techniques of Sensory Deprivation

We lay people can just use the word thoughts. A thought induced by an ant scritching and scratching around in the corner if you could hear that. The thought induced by an itch on your nose. The thought induced by light, for example.

And so in the 1970s, a combination of techniques in which people used float tanks for sensory deprivation and they created light-blocking techniques so that you could get into the float tank filled with salty water that you float around in and you have the sense of being weightless and in complete darkness, and you’re just left with whatever your thoughts are. And, of course, therein lies the exact problem, and that is, one is left with one’s thoughts.

In scientific studies on humans, it’s been demonstrated now, beyond reasonable doubt, that without a technique for decreasing the volume, and technique of decreasing the flow of thought material in the absence of a technique for settling down to the least-excited consciousness state, transcending which one experiences pure consciousness or Being, without a technique, the deepest rest that one can attain to is the restfulness that is accrued over a period of time sleeping.

In sleep, one has the experience of thought beginning to disappear because consciousness itself, which is the home of thought, consciousness itself is beginning to disappear. When consciousness disappears, thought disappears with it.

[04:33] How do I Experience Pure Consciousness?

Herein lies a fundamental problem: how do I experience pure consciousness if the only method by which I can experience consciousness becoming quiet is for consciousness itself to become snuffed out by sleeping?

During sleep, and we’ll analyze this for a few moments, and then we’ll come back to sensory deprivation, during sleep, when we set up an ideal sleeping environment, we do like to do as much sensory deprivation as possible.

There are exceptions, I’ll warrant that, but most people will try to have their pallet for horizontal resting time, their bed, the place in which they intend to sleep, in an environment that minimizes light, minimizes audible stimulation, minimizes the potential for outside interruptions, so that, successfully, the mind is not attracted to any outside stimuli, and then settles down into that least-excited state of sleep, least-excited for someone who doesn’t know how to meditate. When sleep occurs, because consciousness disappears, thought disappears with it.

If we have the great good fortune of having a methodology of measuring, let’s say, oxygen consumption while a person is resting, then we can watch the body decreasing its demand for oxygen in the process of sleep onset.

In sleep onset, when the mind is settling down, it’s not quite asleep yet, but no longer quite awake either, there is a concomitant change in the rate at which one consumes oxygen. The body goes into a state of considerably deeper rest than it is going to be in when proper sleep occurs. Sleep onset is more restful than sleep.

[06:32] Deep Rest in Vedic Meditation

So we’re conscious but not thinking for a moment. And then, consciousness begins to disappear and proper sleep comes. When proper sleep comes, the body’s metabolism begins to increase quite measurably, and over the next five hours of sleeping, the average drop compared with the waking state, sitting restfully in the waking state, as the control or the comparison point, compared with the waking state, the body may drop its metabolic rate, as measured by oxygen consumption and CO2 elimination, by about 10%.

When people practice Vedic Meditation, their bodies rest very, very deeply. They’re awake inside, and they are using a Bija mantra, a specific kind of mantra that we teach in Vedic Meditation. Bija means a seed, and mantra means a mind vehicle, a mind conveyance.

Using a Bija mantra, which for the thinker of it, there are different Bija mantras for different people that are sympathetically vibratory with the thinker. Different people should practice with a mantra that is assigned to them by a qualified teacher of Vedic Meditation.

And when the technique is being done properly, easy, effortless repetitions of the mantra cause the mantra to begin going through change. And that change is a change of it becoming softer, fainter, vaguer, and finer. Mantra itself begins to take on a quality of charm.

The charm of the mantra is what draws the mind inward because the mind’s natural tendency always is to move toward any stimulus or any experience which has the promise of making the mind happier.

[08:35] The Charm of Silence

The quality of the sound of the mantra is mellifluous. It has this quality of decreasing excitation because it’s becoming softer and fainter and finer, and the awareness is being drawn to follow the ever-increasing charm of a sound that continues getting infinitely fainter, until a point is reached where the mantra is super, super faint.

Why is it so charming? Because the source of thought, the fountainhead, the bedrock of the mind, that place from which all thoughts come, is itself a field of bliss, supreme inner contentedness. Not ecstatic bliss, but supreme inner contentedness.

When the mind approaches that supreme inner contentedness, all of the thought pulsations that are arising from that bliss field are imbued with that quality of charm. And this is what draws the mind inward.

Greater bliss causes greater contentedness, of course, and that contentedness decreases the tendency to think about things. Why is that? Because we have, when we have thoughts, the purpose of thinking is to see if it’s possible to have an experience that is better than the one we’re having right now.

[10:24] Relationship Between Bliss, Thought, and Actions

Supposing I’m driving my car, and I’ve been driving for five hours, and I have a thought, “Maybe I’ll pull over and have a coffee.” Why do I want to pull over and have a coffee? Because my mind, rightly or wrongly, has conceived the idea that by applying a stimulus to the heart and to the brain, I’m going to feel better.

And so the coffee idea becomes charming, and I find myself looking around for a place that might serve some tolerably delicious coffee. Why am I having the coffee thought? Because it seems for the moment to be a conception that provides greater happiness than continuing simply to drive the car and watch the stripes on the road going by one after another.

And so, what is it that causes us to think? It is a lack of bliss that causes us to think. When we have a lack of bliss, then we have a preponderance of thought. The less the bliss, the greater the volume of thought. In psychiatry, we refer to this as pressure of thought.

That thought increases in flow and the number of incidences of cognitive processes. Movement of the body is associated with this, so the body tends to squirm and get a little wiggly and movy. And one is having pressure of thought. One is looking for experiences that are better than this.

In Vedic Meditation, we solve this problem by settling down past the subtlest layer of thinking and experience the bliss of Being. The reason why Being and bliss, or silence and bliss, are associated with each other is not because if you silence the mind, then you’ll experience bliss. No, you cannot experience bliss by silencing the mind. Why? You cannot consciously command the mind to go silent.

[12:02] The Reason the Mind Falls Mute

A mind that is not yet experiencing bliss, a mind that has a lack of bliss, simply will refuse to be quiet, no matter how much you command it to be quiet. And so quietness does not yield bliss. It’s the other way around. Bliss yields silence.

The reason why the mind falls mute when we go beyond the subtlest impulse of the mantra during Vedic Meditation is that the mind has approached and touched upon, made contact with the bliss field, and that bliss field is the field of supreme inner contentedness which then rubs out the need to have any thoughts.

The mind experiencing bliss is not a mind that is askance about what more could I be experiencing now. What better experience could I be having? One is already having an experience that is better than the best. That’s what bliss is.

So now, let’s apply this logic to sensory deprivation.

We identify, “Well, all right, it may be that I’m overstimulated. I watch screens all the time.” That’s a fairly new thing. The last 10 or 15 years, people have just been dousing their eyes with screens day and night. There was only television before that or movie screens, but you couldn’t stay there all the time.

Now you have these little handheld computers that go everywhere with you. And you can examine all the contents of the World Wide Web, 24 hours a day, if that’s what you feel like doing.

[13:39] Modern Technology’s Impact on the Search for Bliss

And if there’s a lack of bliss, the trigger is to reach for the phone, to see if there might be anything on that phone that’s better than what you’re experiencing right now. Even if you’re sitting quietly with a few friends, enjoying a meal, or even a singular friend enjoying a meal, the telephone is never out of reach. Why?

In case they get up to go to the bathroom or excuse themselves for a moment, we’re going to reach for the phone because sitting at the table alone suddenly has underscored a lack of bliss.

“Let me see if there’s any bliss on the telephone. Could I read about current events? Could I read about somebody’s new car on Instagram? Could I read about somebody taking their dog for a walk on Facebook? Could I check out the latest chit-chat on Twitter?” X, I mean, is what it’s called now.

And so then, the process of the mind looking for charm doesn’t stop simply because you suddenly remove some stimuli, take the phone away, take the person away, take the restaurant away, put you into a room, make the room dark, make the room silent, as silent as possible.

[14:52] Limits of Sensory Deprivation in Achieving Bliss

The silence, the very best silence attained to in the very best recording studios in the world, which are made so that all outside noises are filtered out is only in the nineties of percentage, 90, 91% soundproof. There’s still some ambient sound from the outside, so let’s see if we can get that 90%. Let’s see if we can darken the room.

Now we’ve got sound turned off. We’ve got sight turned off because there’s no light anymore. Do we have inner vision turned off? Well, no, we don’t have inner vision turned off. We still find ourselves visualizing things.

Do we have the desire for taste turned off? No. Do we have tactile sensations turned off? No, we don’t. Could we somehow anesthetize ourselves into a state of bliss? Could we numb ourselves, or maybe if we were to take some kind of anesthetic, could we somehow get into a state of bliss?

What we have to realize is that the bliss state, the pure consciousness state, is not a product of reducing sensory input. It’s not by reducing sensory input that we’re able to experience the bliss of Being.

It’s by the mind going through subtler and subtler layers of the thinking process, using the thinking process itself, to experience the subtlest levels of thought and to transcend, and then one can directly experience it even in a completely noisy environment, even in an environment in which there’s traffic noise or a marketplace or whatever.

A seasoned practitioner of Vedic Meditation could sit on a park bench in a busy marketplace, close their eyes, start the technique, and go beyond thought in a matter of minutes.

[16:52] Reduced Oxygen Consumption – The Measure of Deep Rest

When the mind goes beyond thought and consciousness is retained, the oxygen consumption of the body, workload of the body, as measured by oxygen consumption, drops dramatically. Usually, in the first 2 to 3 minutes, compared with the minus 10 percent that one attains after 5 hours of sleeping, the Vedic meditator can get to minus 20, minus 30, minus 40, even minus 50, has been measured.

And so the process through which we’re going, of decreasing excitation of the mind itself, is not mediated by removing sensory data. It’s not the external sensory data that are the enemy of the state of pure consciousness. The enemy of the state of pure consciousness is a lack of bliss. Lack of bliss will always create a situation in which the mind has a propensity for thinking.

And so, although it could be, I imagine, quite pleasant sitting in a sensory deprivation setting, with very little light, achieving no light at all is almost impossible. With very little sound, achieving no sound at all is almost impossible. But reducing at least two of the sensory inputs, sight and sound, enough that one is left alone with one’s thoughts.

What one actually is left alone with is whatever lack of bliss one has. And being left alone in a lack of bliss state is not the answer.

[18:20] Testing Bliss Levels

I was once given the enormous privilege, though there were some around me who considered it to be a punishment, I considered it to be a privilege of entering into a beautiful deep cave that exists on the banks of the Ganges River, the Ganga, as we call it in Sanskrit in India, the sacred river of India.

In the upper Ganga, north of Rishikesh, lies a cave known as Vashishtha Gufa. And Vashishtha Gufa is a cave that goes back like a tunnel. It’s about head height to someone my height, which is 5’8. Anyone any taller than me has to duck down in order to walk into this tube-like cave. Probably, it’s an ancient lava tube. That’s my guess, best geological guess.

And as you enter it, it has a slight curve in it, and it’s not just a straight line, and that curve blocks out the light of the entrance. And when you get inside there, it takes a few minutes, probably about 10 or 15 minutes, for one’s eyes to adjust sufficiently to be able to see the very, very tiny amount of photonic bombardment which makes its way even into a cave of that depth.

And there’s a place there where you can sit and meditate, and my instruction was to go there and meditate until I was called out by another assistant who was sent to fetch me. And it turned out that I was in the cave for about six weeks.

[20:03] Extended Meditation in Solitude

Whenever there was a bodily need, like having to go to the bathroom, one got up and left the cave, and there was a house nearby of some friendly people who allowed one to use the facilities. It was also those people who provided, once a day, a meal that was brought into the cave and laid before me. But the rest of the time, I was expected simply to sit and meditate.

Now let me emphasize that this exercise was not an aid of my going deeper in meditation. What it really was, was a test of the degree of bliss that I already had. It was an exam. If you want to see if someone can pass the exam of having a lot of bliss, then put them in a sensory-deprived environment and see how long they can sit there contentedly.

It’s not that if you sit there and try to handle being in a sensory-deprived environment that you will then arrive at the state of bliss. No. That doesn’t happen. I know this because people came in there— it’s not a private cave, anyone from the public who knows where it is can go in there— people came in there and couldn’t stand it after half an hour.

And I managed about 23 hours a day for a solid six weeks. If you took that one hour that I wasn’t in there, it was for washing and refreshing myself and coming out for a few moments, but the rest of the 23 hours a day, I was in there in the darkness.

[21:37] Sensory Deprivation as a Test, Not a Shortcut to Bliss

The idea was to test the degree of bliss that’s already there. Minimal amount of bliss, maximum amount of dissatisfaction with a sensory-deprived environment. So, one of the ways that we can test just how much bliss is present is to situate somebody, anyone, in a sensory-deprived environment and see how they fare.

Some of the work that I’ve done, perhaps quite famously by now, was in the prison systems of Australia and United States, where my modus operandi was to have the prison governor agree to lock me into a cell for two weeks or more and for me to be there as the in-house teacher but to be seen by the inmates in the incarcerated setting to be in there with them, rather than as other consultants did, to arrive at 9 a.m. and to leave at 5 p.m., I was there 24 hours a day.

And in my memory, one of the most pleasant experiences I had was in a famous, notorious maximum security prison in solitary confinement for two weeks, except when I was allowed out to teach. But, I enjoyed the solitary confinement enormously.

It’s not that the solitary confinement gave me the bliss state. I got the bliss state by practicing Vedic Meditation twice a day in regular environments. One who has as many children as I do is never really in a completely noise-free setting.

Once the mind has learned how to transcend sensory input, how to transcend the phenomenology of thinking, one is able in any environment to experience transcendence, that state of bliss, and by experiencing it regularly, one awakens that deep inner layer. It is no longer transcendental. It ends up becoming something that is conscious.

[23:42] Left With Your Own Joy

And when it becomes a conscious experience, then when you have an opportunity to be in a less excited environment, let’s say a prison cell, in solitary confinement, you’re left there with your own joy. Your mind is constantly radiating whatever its quality is into the environment, and the mind’s vibration, the mind’s quality, radiates out into the atmosphere to the surroundings, and it bounces off of the surroundings and returns to one.

So if you were someone who is unhappy, sitting in a room somewhere, whether it is a bejeweled room with lots of delicious food sitting in it, but you’re unhappy, your unhappiness is radiating out and bouncing back to you from every surface, the surface of the lovely grapes on the table, the surfaces of the delicious food, of the very nice smiling, well-dressed people who are surrounding you, waiting to serve you the bejeweled walls. We’re just making this up, right, so that we, it’s an extreme to prove a point.

Or you could be in a prison cell and be grossly unhappy, and your unhappiness is bouncing back from every surface and afflicting you. It doesn’t matter if it’s dark or light or bejeweled or what it is. Unhappiness creates more of itself through the process of reflection.

On the opposite end of that scale, someone who is in a bliss state could be in a concrete cell in solitary confinement, and their happiness, their bliss radiates out, bounces off the walls and comes back to them. They’re living in the ocean of bliss, irrespective of the environment.

[25:27] Passing the Bliss Exam

So, the test of sending me into Vashishtha Gufa evidently was passed, the exam, and my teacher, Maharishi, never gave me a big opportunity to have a big head. I was brought out of there at six weeks, and when I saw him, I was a little thinner in body but fatter in consciousness, and I said “I’m, you know, I was there for six weeks.”

And all he said was, “Very good. Let’s do this now.” And he changed the subject and put me on to some work, hard work task, which was his want. He wasn’t going to sit around talking about it and congratulating me. That wasn’t his way.

And so we have this whole understanding of where happiness actually comes from. It comes from within you. And where does unhappiness come from? Unhappiness also comes from within you.

When you have the inability, through thinking, to figure out how to create a perfect utopia environment for yourself, and any perfect utopia is only perfect for a few minutes before you discover something wrong with it and you figure out how it could be better, and then you’re dissatisfied again.When the thoughts fail, as always they do, to construct, to conceive, and construct a perfect utopia for you, then there’s unhappiness.

[26:45] The Bliss of Being Beyond Relativity

Life in which one is incarcerated in relativity. Relativity means the ever-changing world whose various kinds of satisfaction that it provides are very temporal. Temporary satisfactions.

Incarcerated in that ever-changing world, one is going to be perpetually confronted with unhappiness, the mind’s own unhappiness. It doesn’t matter if you darken the room and make the room very quiet, you’re still unhappy.

It doesn’t matter if you live in a noisy world, in a world full of hustle and bustle, if you know how to practice Vedic Meditation, you can transcend all of that in a matter of minutes and experience the eternal bliss of Being in just a few minutes, with just a few minutes notice. So this is what we think about all that.

Jai Guru Deva. 

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