Year To Live Project: Darkness Part 2 – Bum Showers & Panic Attacks

Last week I shared my introduction to Mahadevi Ashram in Guatemala. To Bhakti, the Ashram Golden Retriever and official sock thief. To Team Pantene, the Karma Yogis who run the day-to-day activities of the ashram and to Arpita and Arjuna, the awe inspiring, heart-centered brainchildren behind the entire establishment.

It was also my introduction to the dark retreat space—the twelve-foot-in-diameter concrete dome where I would be living alone in complete darkness for a month. It was the introduction to what life would be like for longer than I could conceptualize in the deepest recesses of my mind, the places in my own biography I had spent a lifetime ignoring.

When we left off last week, I had just given Arpita one final hug, said a prayer, and the door had closed behind me. I was alone in the dark. It was silent. Adrenaline was still my friend at this point and the entire experience was still relatively anticipatory and exciting. That would all end a few hours later after I climbed up the ladder to the sleeping area and closed my eyes, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Eating & Bum Showers

People tend to ask this a lot so I’ll share that I knew what time it was only by following the meal schedule. Thus I knew it was 9:30am on the first morning, when I heard a small commotion and the ringing of a bell— time for breakfast. The sound was faint given the thickness of the walls. I had woken up an hour or so earlier and climbed slowly down the ladder that separated the sleeping area from the “living room” as I later dubbed it. Arpita had explained that out of everyone who had undertaken dark retreats, she was the only one who had ever fallen when getting out of bed—and she’d done so with the door to the outside open while attempting to change the sheets. She was also kind enough to instill in me the idea that for the next month there was no reason to hurry. Ever.

Before breakfast, my morning consisted of using the toilet, brushing my teeth, and meditating. In that order. In Guatemala, you don’t have the option of flushing your toilet paper. The piping is too narrow, so if you do flush, you’re about to be knee deep in your own shit. There is a small garbage can next to each toilet in which you place your used paper, and at Mahadevi Ashram, each toilet is accompanied by an unceremonious kitchen sprayer nozzle.

Yep, you get to give yourself a “bum shower” by spraying cold water up into your main crevice to cut down on your paper usage. I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say when your sole sources of entertainment for an entire month consist of meditation, eating, sleeping, and spraying water up your ass, you become attached to new experiences. So, I may or may not have tried to purchase the freedom of “Dolly,” my nozzle, when it was time to leave the ashram. (If you’re reading this, I miss you, Dolly!)

Breakfast was a mix of fruit, oats, and a liquid banana/cacao/chia seed mixture called “chan.” Being unable to see the contents of my meals was a new experience—one that lessened the flavor of the food. I could smell what I was eating, but not being able to identify any of the ingredients until they were in my mouth turned all meals into a mid-level flavor experience, a blended gruel of sorts, no matter the chef’s creative intent. There were occasional exceptions to this. Like the soup I had for dinner on Day 8, one exploding with curry and basil. I can still taste it today.

Meals had to be eaten with the Tupperware container directly under my mouth to catch any fallout. Spoonfuls were measured carefully since dumping the contents down my shirt was common when I missed my mouth completely or accentually banged the utensil against the edge of the Tupperware. Cleaning up is not easy when you can’t see. It was these relatively insignificant aspects of this experience — spilling food, banging my face against shelves and the sink, stubbing my toe, and knocking my water glass over — that would take a toll on my mental state as time went on. But for now, let’s head back up to the sleeping area. Shit’s about to get real.

I’m Not Alone

Waking with a jolt led to slamming my head into the ceiling just inches above. I groaned out loud. I tried to inhale, but couldn’t due to the four hundred pound barbell of panic sitting on my chest. Rapid fire punches landed on my rib cage with every heartbeat. I wanted one thing and one thing only at that moment—to be out of the dark.

I had been dreaming that all six members of Team Pantene were there in the already cramped sleeping area, explaining to me with their perfect hair that they would be joining me each and every night for the duration of my stay. Having anxiety in a dream is no fun, but everything went from “uncomfortable” to “prepare for crash landing” when one of the team locked eyes with me and screamed: “WAAAAAAAAAAKE UUUUUUUUPPPPP RIGHT NOW!! SOMEBODY’S IN HERE WITH YOU.”

I replied by bonking my forehead on the ceiling and then lay in gasping silence, listening as if my life depended on making out the next sound. Over the thud of blood pounding in my eardrums, I swore I heard something. The faintest of sounds coming from below near the doorway. The sound was no more than two pieces of Kleenex being rubbed together, a leaf landing on the ground in slow motion, the sound of someone trying not to make one. It was deathly faint, but I heard it and two things were now clear:

  • I was not alone
  • I could see nothing

Arpita had guaranteed me that no one else had access to the room other than herself, but my rational thinking was long gone. I felt the blood rush out of my body and my fingers and toes started tingling. I was back in the night terrors of my childhood – frozen by fear and unable to move a muscle despite the overwhelming desire to run. Every horror movie I’d ever seen came rushing back into my mind, flashing images of hockey masks, machetes, and gloves with razor fingers.

I stayed paralyzed in bed for another ten seconds trying to regulate my breathing and waiting for the damn pounding in my ears to go away. When neither eased up, I broke the spell by yelling out loud and forced myself to move—to do something other than wait for whoever was in there to start climbing the ladder cutting off my only escape route.

Ignoring Arpita’s initial plea to only move slowly, I swung my legs over the edge of the loft while performing a rapid 180-degree, near mid-air spin to face towards the ladder rungs. My feet landed on one of the rungs and I jumped the rest of the way down landing with on the concrete floor with a thud, both feet hitting the floor, my face smacking against the back of my own hand instead of the ladder it was grabbing a hold of.

Jumping backwards, I threw myself against the wall, covering my face in a defensive position while bracing for whatever was going to come next. Bracing. I’m panicking. Waiting. Goddamn this darkness. Covering. Pain I can handle, not knowing when it’s coming, I cannot.  Nothing.

I yelled into the room, “STOP FUCKING WITH ME, COME ON LET’S DO THIS.”

Nothing but silence. More bracing but no contact. More covering but no damage. Still nothing.

After what felt like an eternity, I took a deep breath and started repeating what would become my survival mantra over the next month: “I got you.”

“It’s ok, man. There’s no one in here. I got you. I got you even if there is someone, but I don’t think there is. Take another breath. I got you. Do it again, breathe. What would the Fonz do? Yep, we’re cool. I got you. I got you. It’s OK – I got you.”

A New Enemy

When my head hit the ceiling and I knew I wasn’t alone, I thought that moment would be the worst experience of the night, and perhaps the worst of the whole month. But I would soon find out it wasn’t. It wasn’t even close.

What was worse was what came after—after I’d calmed myself down, taken a number of deep breaths, had a bit of a laugh and sworn that no one would ever know how scared I was that night. What could be worse than that, you ask? Nothing.

And that’s exactly what came next. Not a fucking thing.

No one to fight, no mountain to climb, no external stimuli to feverishly react to—nothing to push back against, get energized by, or tussle with. Nothing. I’ve fought for my life mere milliseconds from drowning in the Nicaraguan surf and been kicked so hard I’ve pissed blood – both equally exciting experiences. Adrenaline is life.

Yet, it was raw stillness that cut me down at the knees as I realized no one was coming to help me or hurt me. There was nothing to brace against and no danger – there were no goals nor opponents. Every defense I had spent my entire life developing was now completely useless. All I could do was be still.

The enemy I now faced was more insidious than any evil I could conjure. It didn’t sleep, it didn’t eat, and it didn’t have the ability to feel. I now faced that which we’re all running from, trying to escape, and dissociating against—scarier than public speaking, naked, in a pool full of sharks—the underwhelming stillness of the present moment.

The stillness from which pure silence bubbles forth. The silence that holds the key to unleashing our greatest tormentor —our own thoughts. Thoughts with the potential to reveal the one thing I desperately hoped to find here in the darkness, but also feared the most—Truth.

Truth Unfolds

The underwhelm of the experience continued for the next seven days. I’d wake, whisper sweet nothings to Dolly, meditate, eat, meditate, lie on the floor and contemplate life, and meditate some more. Each afternoon, I’d knock out a 100 squats, 100 lunges, 100 sit ups, 100 push ups, and 100 V-twists. I found out on Day 1 that doing burpees made my hand hurt since it inevitably smacked into the bed ladder, and doing handstands meant my ankle bled when it inevitably smacked against the shelves near the “foyer.” Got it, ballistic movements are no bueno.

Every single day I would start with, “Ok, it’s now day X,” and would repeat that number throughout the rest of the day so I had a solid grasp on how long I’d been in there. Up to Day 7 sleep was still something that was happening at night, evidenced by mealtimes, and I moved into what I will call “a semi comfortable schedule.” I actually began to wonder what the point of a dark retreat was beyond the depravation of creature comforts, eyesight, and bacon.

What I didn’t know was that no matter how far you’ve buried an unresolved aspect of your life, an argument, or a trauma, it’s still in there somewhere. On Day 8 my dark experience changed significantly. My mind opened up and the floodgates to the past followed suit. Truth, now with nothing preventing it from springing forth, did so over and over again and I began the most challenging portion of my month.

Stay tuned next Monday when my real story begins and truth starts to seep out.

Cheers from Tzununa Guatemala,


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