The Power of Retreat 6 – Darkness, Light, and Nothingness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Silent retreats are a kind of crucible that reveal the workings of the mind in a unique and illuminating way.” James Baraz


This essay is the 6th of a continuing series of essays about the experience of silent meditation retreat. Click on the numbers to follow the links to the prior essays, titled “The Power of Retreat 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5”. This essay is written as we are about to embark on another 7-day silent retreat at one of our favorite retreat sites located in the beautiful smoky mountains in North Carolina. In a sense we’ll be on vacation as everything will be taken care of for us, beds made, towels and linens provided, all meals prepared for us, and our time will be dictated by a detailed schedule of meditations, talks, question and answer periods, and reflective time. All we have to do is show up, meditate, relax, contemplate and listen. We’re terribly spoiled!


That seeming ease, however, is deceptive. Retreat is actually quite difficult and challenging. It can be very tiring as it runs from 7:00 in the morning till 10:00 at night every day. It can also be physically challenging as engaging in sitting meditation repeatedly over the day is guaranteed to produce many aches and pains in the legs, back, and neck. But the real challenges are psychological, emotional, and spiritual. Retreat can be a real test.


Retreat isn’t all relaxation and fun. Far from it. The darkness can descend. During silent retreat deep emotional issues can emerge and may even overwhelm the individual. There are plenty of tissues available at the site as many will spontaneously burst out in tears. Others may become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety and break out in cold sweats, and still others are sleepless and tormented. How can this be, that something so seemingly peaceful as silent retreat can be so emotionally wrenching? The secret is that the situation removes the minds ability to hide and distract.


Humans have done a tremendous job of providing distractions for the mind including books, movies, magazines, music, television, sports, amusement parks, surfing the internet, tweeting, texting, etc. Any time troubling thoughts or memories of traumatic experiences begin to emerge in everyday life, we can easily change the subject by engaging in a distraction. So, we never have to truly confront the issues. But, in silent retreat there is no escape. Difficult issues emerge and there is no place to hide. They must be confronted and experienced. For some people this may be the first time in their entire life that they’ve had to directly face themselves and their darkest thoughts. It’s no wonder that retreat can be so wrenching.


So, why, you might ask, should someone put themselves into such a position? Simply put, you can’t address problems until you recognize them. Retreat is a safe place to do so. Many other people there, have gone through similar experiences and as a result, there’s a great deal of acceptance and compassion from others. It is, however, advised to not intervene but to let anyone in crisis simply work it through themselves. They’ll let you know if they really need help. In the warm and accepting environment of retreat it is actually possible to work on these issues that may have been impossible to address elsewhere. This can lead to substantial personal growth. This is the benefit, that individuals can begin to resolve the very issues that may have, unbeknownst to themselves, been holding them back for their entire life. This is very powerful, and confronting the darkness begins to let the light through.


There are much more positive and pleasant sides to silent retreat. One simple one is that many modern adults are overworked, stressed, and as a result sleep deprived. The opportunity to rest and sleep is priceless. Many people fall asleep during meditations and talks early in the retreat. This is not only OK, it’s desirable. If need be it is encouraged to skip sessions and take naps.

The positive benefits of retreat can only emerge when the individual is sufficiently rested to have the energy available to meditate deeply, to look inside, and to begin to remove the veil of delusion that blinds us all.


The opportunity to have repeated meditation sessions over prolonged periods of time in a quiet, accepting, and peaceful setting provides the ability to build from meditation to meditation. It allows for deep, repeated engagement into the inner realms, to begin to peel away the layers of awareness, and to begin to dissolve the delusions standing between the individual and their true nature. This progressive process can reveal the light, the positive and pleasant side of retreat. The individual begins to feel happier, more peaceful, and more mindful of themselves and their environment. They can even develop into deeply blissful states. Many people can go no further, but this is far enough. They emerge from retreat feeling peaceful, happy, insightful, having a better understanding of themselves, being better able to deal with their emotions, and with a sense of well-being. In fact, toward the end of retreat the most frequent question asked is how can this be held onto as the process of reintegration into everyday life unfolds.


Just going this far makes the retreat worthwhile, but there is a possibility for much deeper experiences and realizations. It is possible to enter the realm of nothingness. It seems like five to ten people in each retreat have some form of spiritual awakening. It is, however, not predictable who will this happen too. It sometimes occurs to long-time veterans of retreat and meditation practice, but it also often happens to complete novices on their first retreat. One has to always be open to the possibility. It is sometimes a nearly complete enlightenment, but sometimes a relatively shallow but real awakening. Again it is unpredictable. The teacher, Adyashanti, calls it falling into grace.


What is the nature of these experiences? They tend to have a common property of an experience of oneness, an experience that everything is singular, there is no distinction between subject and object, such that the sound and the listener, the sight and the seer, and the feeling and the feeler, are one and the same. These can be what are termed extrovertive awakening experiences wherein one experiences and observes the entire environment, sights, sound, smells, feelings, thoughts, etc. as simply an experience that all are one, with no distinction or separation. They can also be very deep experiences of nothingness that are termed introvertive awakenings. In these experiences everything dissolves into a void a nothingness, in which only pure awareness exists.


These are shattering experiences revealing a reality that was entirely unseen previously. People having had these experiences frequently state that death is not to be feared but rather seen as part of the fabric of existence, not an ending, but simply a change. These are frequently life changing experiences, forever altering the individual. They are never the same again. Needless to say, these are powerful spiritual experiences that many people previously believed were only open to special enlightened beings such as the Buddha. They are glimpses into our true nature and the workings of the universe.


There is no requirement that a retreat is necessary for these awakening experiences. Indeed, they occur spontaneously, quite frequently in everyday and even unlikely settings. But, retreat appears to greatly increase the probability that an awakening, a descent into the void, the nothingness, that is the basis for all existence, will happen. We have no expectations regarding what will happen on our upcoming retreat. We have enough experience to know that every retreat is different and to expect to repeat or build on an experience from a prior retreat is a fundamental error. Whatever, happens, if anything, can’t be predicted. On a previous retreat I went with great expectations only to get terribly sick and missed about half of the retreat sick in bed. You never know what will happen. But, know that whatever it is, it will move you in a positive direction.


So, go on retreat and feel its power, it’s power to fundamentally change you in mundane ways and sometimes in the most profound ways imaginable.


“One of the most powerful aspects of retreat in aiding the factor of determination is the collective energy of the community that is inherent to the retreat setting. When the bell rings and 150 people make their way into the meditation hall to sit, again and again, it becomes evident that this impulsion is like a powerful, gentle, loving force calling us back to remember again and again that we are loving, connected, resilient and forgiving. We, like so many others carry the responsibility of influencing the overall humanness of our totality.” – Scott Francis


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


The Power of Retreat 5 – Meditation and Spirituality

“Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.” – Alan Watts


In a prior essay ‘The Power of Retreat 4 – the Container of Silence’ (, the effects of the container in which retreat is conducted were explored. But, the point of retreat is not the container, it is what transpires within it. Meditation and contemplation are the primary practices of the retreat. The amount varies with different types of retreats. The one we just returned from the amount of meditation varied between 3 to 4+ hours per day occurring in 6 to 8 periods beginning at 7:30 in the morning through 9:30 in the evening. The retreat not only allows for deep meditative experiences that build over the course of the retreat, but it also allows for time for contemplation. Just sitting or walking while reflecting on our environment, immediate experience, or the insights occurring in meditation is as important as the meditation itself.


The specific type of meditation practiced can vary with different retreats (see links below for explanations of meditation techniques). But, all practices emphasize quieting the mind, reducing the internal conversation and chatter, in order to better see and understand the operation of the mind. The amount of meditation is important as it is a ‘practice’ and over time the mind gets quieter. When the mind quiets all sorts of things can emerge, some expected, some a complete surprise, some sublime, but some very uncomfortable and upsetting. Be forewarned, meditation can produce wrenching experiences. We’ve seen many people spontaneously break out in tears at any moment. Most deal with it effectively, confronting and experiencing troubling experiences and the attached strong emotions. This is actually a very good thing as it can help to heal inner wounds that may have festered for decades. But, some participants are overwhelmed and need assistance or need to leave the retreat. Don’t be put off, these are important experiences and may constitute breakthrough moments, leading to self-transformation.


The intent of meditation is not to elicit thinking or emotions, even though thinking and emotions occur frequently during meditation. The intent is to allow inner silence to prevail. At the retreat we attended we all wore tags stating “I am observing silence.” This can be viewed very practically as a message to everyone around who may not be participating in the retreat, that we’re not open to conversation, or even everyday niceties. But, it’s true meaning is deeper. It suggests that we are observing silence itself, the silence within that is ever present and the foundation upon which all experiences emerge. It is a wonderful experience to be deeply immersed in the silence.


A powerful component of retreat is the commitment and intention that the participants bring. Most people coming to a retreat are very committed. The investment of money and especially a week’s time is a concrete expression of that commitment. The week taken away from work and everyday activities is dear to many. It could have been used to take a cruise, tour a foreign country, go to a beach or theme park, visit friends and family, etc. So, the choice to go on retreat instead is meaningful. This commitment provides the motivation for the individual to focus on the work of the retreat and particularly on their intention. Most come with an intention to work on self-understanding, which may paradoxically include a loss of self! In addition, the fact that there is a group of committed individuals with a shared intention present energizes the retreat.


For many the intention is for spiritual development. Some come to retreat with a specific intention to experience spiritual awakening or to experience a union with God. But, even those who come for personal development reasons often migrate toward spiritual development. This is a natural outgrowth of meditation. It is impossible to look deeply inside, particularly at the silence and emptiness and not be spiritually affected, to not glimpse the deeper aspects of existence. In fact, it is common in retreat for people to have awakening experiences. These frequently occur not in the meditation itself but during the contemplative time. That’s frequently where the fruits of meditation ripen. Additionally, the supportive environment of retreat can promote awakenings as the individual knows that these unusual experiences will be accepted and understood, whereas in everyday life they are not.


Silent meditation retreat is an opportunity to move away from our everyday lives. Some may see this as an opportunity to escape them but the power of retreat is not to escape our lives but to provide perspective on them. Yes, work, chores etc. must be done. But, by putting perspective on their true importance we become less stressed and anxious about them and don’t ruminate about unfinished tasks. Rather, we can begin to live our life with balance, making sure that we take care of what constitutes the to do list of our happiness and growth. It has been pointed out that absolutely no one, on their death bed, wishes that they had spent more time at work. Retreat can provide this same kind of perspective. We come away from retreat with a clear realization that we must give higher priorities and more time to our emotional and spiritual lives. We must invest the precious time of our lives in rest and contemplation. We must devote ourselves more to others and especially, to caring for ourselves. We can see how important our relationships, family and friends are to our inner reality. Retreat can provide this perspective for us and is part of its life-altering power.


We highly recommend retreat, especially silent retreat, for those who wish for personal or spiritual development. But, be prepared. It is often not the pleasant relaxing time off that many envision. It can be emotional and spiritual dynamite that needs to be approached with caution.


As gold purified in a furnace loses its impurities and achieves its own true nature, the mind gets rid of the impurities of the attributes of delusion, attachment and purity through meditation and attains Reality. – Adi Shankara”


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies



The following links to the CMCS Blog review the methods and consequences of meditation.


Beginning Meditation 1 – Preliminaries


Beginning Meditation 1 – Preliminaries 2


Beginning Meditation – Getting Started 1 – Positions


Beginning Meditation – Getting Started 2 – Breath Following 1


Beginning Meditation – Getting Started 3 – Breath Following 2


Beginning Meditation – Getting Started 4 – Open Monitoring Meditation


Meditation Techniques – Loving Kindness Meditation


Meditation Techniques – Body Scan Meditation


What to Look for in Meditation

The Power of Retreat 4 – the Container of Silence

“Speak only if it improves upon the silence.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

“silence is the language of god, all else is poor translation.” ― Rumi


We spent all of last week at a silent meditation retreat. It is a powerful experience that I highly recommend. First off it is liberating from the mundane chores. Everything is provided. You don’t have to shop, cook, or clean dishes. You don’t need to clean or even make your bed. In addition, your day’s schedule is pretty much set out for you. Our teacher commented that it’s a ‘lazy man’s nirvana!’ This frees up the mind from planning and the mundane duties of daily life, allowing for more focus, more self-exploration, and less doing and more being.


The full experience requires refraining from communicating with everyone around through speech, writing, gestures, or non-verbals; removing access to media and the internet; turning off smart phones; and completely removing reading materials, and access to TV, computers, etc. At first glance the container of silence in the retreat may seem a bit intimidating. For an individual accustomed to the modern world this can seem daunting, as a friend commented ‘it sounds awful.’ To many, particularly first timers, this can initially be very disorienting. But we adjust within a day or two and enter the flow of retreat. The disquiet notwithstanding this container of silence is foundational. It is responsible for many of the extremely positive benefits of retreat. It sets that stage for deeper explorations and understandings. All the negatives are soon eclipsed by the obvious benefits.


One of the simple things we learn is how little communications is actually necessary. By doing without it we come to understand that much of it is small talk, automated social responses, serving our own egoic agendas, and self-generated distractions. It also highlights what communications are really important, from simply dealing with the logistics of life, like where and when shall we meet for lunch to the truly important emotional communications that sustain us and the ones we love. This sets the stage for what we do after retreat in focusing our communications more on those that truly matter.


The silence has some interesting effects on our senses. We become much more aware of and sensitive to sensory experiences. Food tastes and odors are amplified and meals become savored, appreciated and eaten slowly. This is in contrast to our normal distracted forms of eating while conversing, listening to music, reading, watching TV, texting etc. We become much more aware of not only our senses but also our internal states of hunger, fullness, and satiety. Sounds that we usually ignore become vibrant and salient. The silence reduces many of the noises that often pollute out sensory environment, so bird chirps, footsteps, trees rustling in the wind, a cough, a car driving past, are not only noticed but deeply experienced. Our thoughts even become clearer, unencumbered by the din of external speech. All of this serves to heighten our awareness of the present moment, making us more aware of what actually constitutes the experiences that form the stream in which we live our lives.


The container of silence makes us much more aware of our thoughts and clearer on their content. This is an important benefit that helps to make the retreat work. By being better tuned into the incessant chatterbox that constitutes our internal speech, what a friend calls ‘her crazy roommate’, we are often shocked by their repetitiveness and vacuous quality. This is a lesson that is strongly reinforced in meditation. In addition, everyday our minds and energies are dominated by the demands of our lives, from work, family, friends, chores, or simply the to do list. The immediacy of the demands somehow gives them an importance that is unwarranted. Moving away from these demands in retreat provides perspective on their true place in the grand scheme of our lives. We begin to see that most of these demands are really not that important after all. We begin to see that other things that have been relegated to back stage and neglected are actually much more important. So, the container of silence allows us to both see the triviality of many of our thoughts producing a highlighting of the truly important ones.


The container of silence also heightens and makes us much more aware of our emotions. There is little to distract us from our bodily sensations that are an essential component of our emotions. There is little going on to blame them on. So we have to confront their internal origins. I became very aware of my frustration while having to wait for my partner as she meticulously prepared to depart for the dining hall for a meal. Where previously I would blame her for my upset, the environment of the retreat allowed me to see how I was making myself upset. It allowed me to see that I felt the way I did because I wanted things to be different than they were. The insight burst forth that trying to oppose what is, was the source of unhappiness. When I simply accepted it, I felt much better and learned to use the time to look deeply at my own inner world. As an added bonus it made a wonderful relationship that much better.


In this context of silence, it is impossible to escape from oneself. Under normal conditions we can avoid troubling thoughts and memories by distracting ourselves with media or conversation. In a silent retreat that is impossible. Thus one has to confront one’s inner self without opportunity for escape. This is an opportunity that is rarely present in life. This is an opportunity to grow and develop psychologically. This is an opportunity to understand ourselves and our minds. What a phenomenal opportunity to become fully integrated human beings. This is an opportunity not to be missed.


Of course this is an idealized version of the reality of the retreat container of silence. It is never this clear or this easy. It has many challenges and some are derailed and leave retreat early. But those that persevere are richly rewarded.


In the next essay, The Power of Retreat 5 – Meditation and Spirituality, we will look closely at the real goals of the silent retreat.


“Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.” ― William S. Burroughs


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies