Brunettes have historically been my downfall. Thus, I was surprised when I walked into Mahadevi Ashram in the lush Tzununa Canyon of Guatemala and a blonde instantly stole my heart. Her name was Bhakti, which is the Sanskrit word for devotion, and she owned me with her coy, over the shoulder, “I really shouldn’t be doing this but I just can’t help myself” look—a look women have been giving me for as long as I can remember. Ok, maybe Bhakti was the first to ever do this but I like to tell myself I’ve been getting this look since puberty.
“Bhakti, no!” said Arpita, one of the founders of Mahadevi and the undeclared team mom of the Karma Yogis who live and work on the property. She casts a stunning profile, with a calm, loving demeanor, but I also had the feeling she knew how to field strip an AK-47. While blindfolded. Under water.
“No, no, no, no, no!” she scolded.
Apparently Bhakti shouldn’t have been doing what she was doing and really couldn’t help herself to boot.
Socks, Toilet Paper, & Love
“You’ll have to excuse us,” Arpita went on to explain in an accent I couldn’t quite put my finger on. “Bhakti has a small fetish for both socks and toilet paper. She was rescued from a shelter in Guatemala City and has some idiosyncrasies.”
I looked down to see that not only had Bhakti stolen my heart, but she also had one of my socks in her mouth and the coy look was more about getting me to notice and chase her, than anything amorous. I was in love, regardless.
I was about to enter a completely dark space for a period of 28 straight days. That’s a month of solitude and virtual blindness, the host of the space wanted to make sure I was on the saner side of crazy.
“Let’s have some tea. You are going to be in the dark retreat for a very long time and I want to get to know you better beforehand,” Arpita said with a smile.
I took a deep breath and smiled back, feeling the weight of what lay ahead of me and how unnerving it was not having anything even remotely resembling a reference for this experience. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck refuse to go down.
“My accent,” Arpita said as we sat down, “is a mix of five different languages, so you cannot pinpoint it, but I am Bulgarian.” Her cadence was that of a slow poetry read — half song, half maternal bedtime story. I could have easily listened to her talk for hours about nothing but potential changes in weather patterns, yet still have been captivated.
When meeting foreigners I like to brag since I can speak both English and Japanese, and can order dinner and ask for the bano in Spanish. This makes me a lingual god of an American, but I kept quiet in the face of Arpita’s quintuple skill set and saintly demeanor.
Anything But Going Vegan
Arpita was to be my tour guide and overseer for the dark retreat, so we started off discussing some of the logistics.
“Do you have any dietary challenges?” she asked. “Your diet will be vegan for the whole time you’re in the retreat.”
The sound of a needle scratching unceremoniously across a record ripped through my head. I was going to be eating what? The idea of twenty-eight days alone, without human contact, without any form of distraction or entertainment, even without an ounce of light suddenly paled in comparison to the idea I was going to be forced to go vegan for a full month.
My mind spun out of control, intuitively knowing at day thirty-five of a vegan diet any red-blooded American male becomes a jihadist. Rumor has it that when ISIS kidnaps new recruits they feed them no meat for over a month and then wait. Inevitably folks come out looking to kill them some infidels.
This dark retreat was going to be more challenging than I anticipated.
The Dark Space Dome
After an introduction to Arjuna — the man of the house and a half deadpan-serious German electrician, half hilarious-spiritual guru-belly laugher — I was given a short tour of the ashram property, which consisted of a large, open yoga and teaching space built above the kitchen and dining area, as well as a number of small residential buildings.
Then, I was shown my new home. It was a white domed structure that came to a point at the top like someone had dripped a giant glob of sand down onto the land. Holy crap, this was now real.
Arpita turned on a headlamp and we both ducked through the three-foot-high door separating the rest of the world from the dark room. Immediately upon entering I was hit in the face with the stillness inherent in the space. There was no breeze, gone was the smell of the lush foliage I had just enjoyed, and beyond the subtle sounds of the birds chirping outside, the room was silent. It was also thread bare.
The space itself was circular, roughly twelve feet in diameter, with one cutout section dedicated to the bathroom. If you think of Pacman, his mouth would be the toilet, shower, and sink, and his head the open floor. The bed was built into a loft above the restroom area, and I would soon discover that the curve of the dome would make it so that I would sleep with my face inches from the ceiling and there wouldn’t even be enough room to drape my right arm across my face at night. Numerous times over my twenty-eight days, I would wake and try to sit, only to be reminded of the proximity of this barrier with a bump to the forehead.
In one corner of my soon-to-be living space sat a five-gallon jug of water next to a set of shelves. There was a mediation stool on the floor, and a yoga mat. And that was it. That was literally all there was. What the hell was I going to do with myself for a month? My mouth went dry.
I was allowed to bring in personal items to make my stay “more comfortable” and I did:
- A framed photo of my dog, Lucas
- My hospice rock
- An I’m Fucking Awesome card
- Some herbal lozenges
- A bottle of Ron Teagarten’s Adrenal Support my friend Tom had given me
- Clothes that it turns out I would never wear
- A notebook and three pens (I figured I would lose a pen or two given that I do that regularly even when I do have the benefit of vision)
The mailbox-like system for supplying my meals was explained to me. Three times a day at 9:30am, 1:30pm, and 6:30pm, Tupperware containers would be slid into a double-sided slot in the wall. The outside door would be closed and a bell would be rung. I could then open my side, retrieve my meal, and close the door. Three times a day, eighty-four meals in total, with nothing in between them but water.
Arpita and I sat on the floor together and she explained that she was going to close the door so I would know the silence and darkness with her present. I think this is the last “are you going to freak the fuck out” litmus test she typically gives before leaving someone on their own. I was set to enter the space for good less than an hour later, so this was do or die.
The door was shut and the room went jet black. Eerily black. Not-a-single-drop-of-light black. Holy-fuck-I-can’t-see-my-hand-in-front-of-my-face black. Jesus-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into black.
Dinner With Team Pantene
Arpita and I returned to the main house to commence with the evening meal. I was introduced to the Mahadevi Ashram team of volunteers — the Karma Yogis — and I was immediately struck not only by how beautiful everyone was, but how they all had luscious heads of hair. I dubbed them Team Pantene and said a silent prayer that perhaps I would come out of the darkness not feeling like the comb-over equivalent of the one fat kid on an Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot. Por favor.
Prior to sitting on floor mats and cushions surrounding a large L-shaped floor tab,le to eat, Team Pantene and I circled around the spread of food, held hands and together sang:
Om Asatoma Sat Gamaya
Tamasoma Jyotir Gamaya
Mrtyorma Amrtam gamaya
Om, Shanti Shanti Shanti
From untruth to the truth – guide me
From darkness to light – guide me
From the idea of death to the understanding immortality – guide me
Om, peace, peace, peace
Although this was the first time I had held hands and sang before a meal, it would become a ritual I would grow to love and later miss after leaving the ashram. Sacred is what you make of it, and here on this property, everything we did, thought, and expressed was held in a sacred light.
Dinner was surprisingly tasty for lacking any kind of dead animal — a mix of vegetable soup, Brussels sprouts, pickled cabbage, and homemade bread. The conversation around the table was light and friendly, like a family that actually enjoys each other’s company. Team Pantene was made up of a Bulgarian, a German, a Canadian, and three Americans, but nationalities were not as relevant as everyone’s personal commitment to service and growth.
After dinner Arjuna retrieved his harmonium, an instrument I had never seen before and the group instinctively broke into song — beautiful devotional music dedicated to the divine within all of us, and the divine that is unrecognized in so many parts of the world. Not only could Team Pantene crush the shit out of a Vogue magazine photo spread, they could also carry a tune. I meditated in bald silence, soaking up the delicious sound of their voices, knowing it would be an eternity before music made its way into my ears again.
See You On The Other Side
By the time the fourth or fifth song had been sung, a silence hung over the table. Eyes were closed, prayers were silently spoken, devotions were given, and hearts opened. It was time. I took a long, slow, deep breath, and made eye contact with Arpita who simply nodded in knowing.
There were hugs and good lucks from the Team and see-you-on-the-other-sides. With Bhakti wagging her tail in the lead, Arpita, and I made our way back down to the dome via headlamp and in silence. The closer we got, the shallower my breathing became despite my best efforts to the contrary. It was no different than that first walk out to fight in a cage that I’d experienced a decade earlier and the goal was the same – don’t shit in your pants.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen to me, but I’m going for it,” I thought. Having no reference and no idea of what was to come was both a blessing and a curse. How bad could it be? What it if would be amazing? Only one way to find out.
At the entry of the dome, the three of us stopped. I kissed Bhakti, took another deep breath, and put my hands together in front of my face in prayer. I’m still not sure who I’m praying to when I do this, but at that moment I knew both that I wasn’t alone and that I wasn’t going to get through this experience without a divine pat on the butt from time to time. I voiced my intention for the month to whomever was listening, gave Arpita a big hug, and ducked my head through the entrance.
“See you on the other side,” she told me and the door closed with a jolt.
Nothing But Darkness
It was dark. So, so, so dark. This would be my reality for the next 40,320 slow crawling minutes. No light. No hugs. No one to talk to. No one to touch. Nothing but the thoughts in my head and whatever else planned to make its way into my consciousness.
Twenty-eight days didn’t feel that long at that moment, but I had no idea how naive I was.
Twenty-eight days and counting had begun.
Little did I know that another countdown had also begun, and only a few hours later, at some point in the middle of the night, I would awaken to the second panic attack of my life. In pitch darkness.
Stay tuned for next Monday for Part II of The Year To Live Project – The Darkness.
Cheers from Lake Atitlan Guatemala,