After 9 years of marriage, I went through a brutal and challenging divorce. Up until that moment, I never experienced such pain. By then, I had faced and transcended many of my demons. I sobered up, I wrote and published Fearvana, I was running ultramarathons, and I built a global business.
But as it happens, life often throws new curveballs our way. Life shows us that we can never conquer all our demons, we can only learn to rise above them.
When that new pain hit, it hit me with an unforgiving force I could not have been prepared for.
I ended up breaking my sobriety. And when I do anything, I go all out. So when I broke, I broke hard. I fell deep into the pit. I remember throwing up in the toilet after days of binge drinking, and despite my body rejecting the poison, I would pick up the bottle of vodka to down as much of it as I could once again.
I didn’t like that version of myself. He disgusted me. I needed to go deeper into the depths of my soul to find some answers. But the prospect of stillness terrified me. So I knew that’s where I had to look…
I decided to go into a 10-day silent retreat. Vipassana’s, as they are called, were somewhat well known. Some of my friends had been through these silent, meditation retreats. As I researched more about them, I stumbled into the much lesser-known concept of a darkness retreat.
I was instantly sold…
By removing one of the primary ways in which we engage with the world, our visual sense, my mind would no longer have any external stimuli to attach itself onto. My consciousness would not be able to engage and interact with anything in the outside world. Whether I liked it or not, I would be forced to go within.
Inevitably, by opening new doors, I was bound to unearth new treasures.
I found a darkness retreat center in Germany, and soon after that, I went into 7 days of darkness, silence and isolation…
For the first couple of days, I worked out often on the floor of my tiny new home. Then I realized I was using working out as a means to escape the stillness. Punishing the body was within my comfort zone. Sitting still engaging the spirit was not. For the rest of my time in the darkness, I imposed a rule upon myself that I could no longer work out. I had to be with what is. I had to completely and utterly surrender to whatever showed up.
From day 2, I experienced magical displays of light that stayed with me for the entire 7 days. At first, I saw purple lights moving through the air, as if inside of a lava lamp. Then for some reason I can’t explain, the purple disappeared and I saw primarily red, and sometimes green lights that enveloped me on all sides.
One day, I even saw a bright red, burning bush in front of me while meditating.
It is said that immersion in complete darkness for an extended period of time causes DMT to be released in the brain. DMT is one of the primary ingredients in the psychedelic medicine, Ayahuasca. Perhaps these mystical light shows were a side effect of this hallucinogenic neurotransmitter spreading through my consciousness.
The most powerful display of light came to me on day 5…
I saw the brightest white light I’ve ever seen in my entire life while sitting in a dark room. I kept touching my eyelids because I couldn’t tell if they were open or closed. I tried covering my eyes with my hand to shut out the light. But of course, that didn’t work. The light was blinding.
I don’t know how long this lasted. I can’t remember when the light disappeared. I have no idea what really happened or how it happened. All I know is in that moment, I witnessed an ephemeral glimpse of pure oneness with all that is. Darkness and light became one. I believe I experienced a brief moment of enlightenment.
Throughout my time in the darkness, I kept a journal to document the journey.
In this journal I found answers to deep, existential questions I had been wrestling with about God, enlightenment, the meaning of life, the nature of the self, and much more. This is not to say my answers were the “right” answers. I do not believe there are inherently right answers to such questions. But the “truths” I discovered quenched my thirst for wisdom about such matters.
To this day, when I read the words I wrote in my journal, I do not feel as if I wrote them. It was as if something came through me.
One of the most valuable revelations I gained from the darkness liberated me from an excruciating angst that tormented me since I first enlisted in the Marines….
For a long time, I felt guilty for being happy while so many others in our human family were in pain. Even as I type these words, there are people all over the globe suffering in the darkest corners of hell.
Why do I get to be happy while millions of people are confined to a lifetime of unimaginable agony? What have I done to deserve this happiness? What right do I have to a good life?
I struggled with these questions. They plagued me with an intense pain I wasn’t fully aware of when I picked up that bottle again.
And as Carl Jung says “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
The deafening silence of the stillness revealed all that lay buried inside me. The demons had no place else to run. No distractions to keep them from rising to the surface. I had to confront them. By doing so, I learned how to transcend them.
As Carl Jung also says, “one does not become enlightened by imagining figures of life, but by making the darkness conscious.”
By making the darkness conscious, I found my way into the light.
I had many profound “conversations” with myself in the darkness. About this inner conflict, I wrote these words in my journal…
“I understand why you feel guilty for being happy, and I think it’s a beautiful symbol of your desire to serve and make a difference in the world. But this is what led to you breaking your sobriety and feeling the need to. Inevitably you’re gonna get burned out and just want to cut loose. But it’s on you to be happy because if you’re happy you can get more done. Think of happiness as service fuel. You being happy or sad isn’t going to change the fact that people are suffering in the world. But you being happy will give you greater ability to do something about it. So be happy in service of those you want to make a difference for. This DOES NOT mean you let go of the need to earn your place on this planet. It simply means you sprinkle lots of joy to the doing so the doing gets done. But you never fucking forget why you are here. Never forget people are in pain and it’s on you to do something about that. Do not wear this as a cross to bear, for it will only break you. But hold onto this responsibility with a smile for it is your gift, your blessing that you get to do this work. So smile and enjoy the ride.”
I’ve stopped asking the question: why do I get this life?
I will never know why things happen the way they do. That is far beyond my understanding. All I can do today is make the absolute most of the blessings I have, and use this life in service of the greater good.
I got many great insights from the darkness, but my most profound experience was when I came back into the light.
After 7 days in darkness, the intensity and power of seeing the light again for the first time brought me to tears. As I sat there looking out into the forest, I thought to myself I want to see the world through these eyes every moment of every day moving forward.
I also felt a deep sense of gratitude for all the suffering I’ve ever experienced in life. I knew, at that moment, in a very visceral way, that I could never have seen the true radiance of the light without having first been in the dark. My pain led me to more bliss than I could possibly have imagined.
The darkness exposed me to the light in a way I never knew it before. Like all things though, that moment faded. It was no more than a fleeting glimpse into the possibility of a new reality. Once I returned to the world, I acclimatized to it. And once again, the light lost its luminosity.
But that glimpse was just enough to leave a lasting mark on my spirit.
I know with every fiber of my being that the path to enlightenment does not demand the destruction of the darkness. We couldn’t even if we wanted to. It calls for a union with it. The light and the dark, can and must coexist.
I will never stop seeking out the dark, within and without, for contrast gives life its flavor. Only by returning into the all-consuming grasp of darkness will I be able to once again feel the awe-inspiring power of the light. I know this means a lot more pain. But it also means more than multiple lifetimes worth of joy.
There is bliss in all of it. In the darkness and the light. In the pain and the pleasure. We can only experience that bliss if we dare to venture forth boldly into both.
I invite you to get out there and explore all edges of the human experience. There, on the fateful frontiers of life and death, darkness and light, suffering and joy, you will come to know, not just feel or think, but know from the core of your being the very essence of the human soul.
This is the map of the route we took from Kangerlussuaq, on the West Coast of Greenland to Isertoq, a tiny hunting village on the East