A rare Tibetan practice manual on dark meditation leads a practitioner on a decades-long journey to uncover its secrets.
“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their souls. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” –Carl Jung
After forty-nine days of retreat in complete darkness, I let in the nighttime by carefully removing the light-block- ing panels on a couple of windows. We usually don’t experience total darkness in our everyday lives, and I quickly noticed A the pouring in of the 3 a.m. light. With that change, the visions remaining from my dark retreat began to fade. The floating spheres of rainbow light with buddhas, dakinis, lineage gurus, and bardo deities grew faint, as did the firmament of interior starlight illuminating my mind’s eye. As they faded, I realized how easily this world of light would get in the way of my new awareness of our awakened essence. Not really “in the way,” I reminded myself, but a potential distraction from who we are.As the sun began to rise, the greenery of New York State, the morning birds, and the pale blue sky revealed themselves to what felt like my newborn eyes. The palpable sense of being reborn back into the world of light and busyness felt imminent. I knew I couldn’t relate to this emerging world in the same way I had in the past. Something had shifted. I would be returning to my family, my work on Rikers Island, dharma teaching, and the rest of my life—all real and apparent—and yet, all of it would be experienced more differently than I could have anticipated.
Dark meditation (Tib. mun mtshams), or yangti yoga, is an advanced Vajrayana Buddhist technique practiced in the Nyingma school’s Dzogchen (Great Perfection) tradition. It is often described as a leap-over (thod rgal), or breakthrough, practice done after extensive open-awareness meditation practice known as cutting-through-hardness (khregs chod). This practice utilizes the elaborate visions—mental experiences of light and form—that occur to confirm the natural, spontaneous purity of existence as nothing but self-perfected awakening. Recently, dark meditation retreats have been gaining mainstream popularity: Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (now with the New York Jets) planned to enter a dark retreat after the 2023 Super Bowl to “do a little self-reflection in some isolation.” Not a trendy, simple sensory deprivation experience in which to dabble, the rigorous Tibetan practice of dark meditation retreat is reserved for senior practitioners.
I first learned of dark meditation in Sikkim during a retreat with Pathing Rinpoche (b. ?-2007), a disciple of Shukseb Jetsun Choying Zangmo (1853/1865–1951), one of several important female Dzogchen lineage holders of her time. During another journey to Sikkim, Rinpoche gave my dharma brother an illustrated text describing dark meditation practices and visions. He offered to teach me if I stayed in Sikkim, but I had recently become a father and needed to be with my partner of the time and my young son. Unfortunately, Rinpoche died before I could learn this from him.Over the next twenty years, I showed the text to several prominent Tibetan teachers, but they either didn’t know about it or didn’t find themselves skilled enough to teach it. All agreed that I should share the sacred text only with accomplished masters. I was fortunate to finally meet the traditional Tibetan doctor and yogi Nida Chenagtsang, who decided to teach me. My journey to find a teacher of yangti yoga has been part of the practice in some respects. One can never separate from the twists and turns of the path; all we can do is show up and see where the karmic journey takes us.
Preparing the proper place for a dark meditation retreat, with all the conducive conditions, is part of the practice. Dark meditation has traditionally been practiced in caves and in specially prepared rooms where a complete lack of light is guaranteed. One eats, sleeps, uses the bathroom, and practices in total darkness. Others prepare your meals and deliver them through a light-proof door, and the space must have adequate ventilation. The typical length of a retreat can last from seven to forty-nine days. The great Tibetan practitioner and yogini Ayu Khandro (1839–1953) is said to have spent years in a dark meditation retreat, but a few hours is a safe place to start for most beginners.
The tradition has detailed instructions on which meditation practices and yogic postures to maintain during the retreat. Prospective practitioners must first learn these instructions from an experienced teacher. The practitioner must be adequately trained, be healthy, and be able to practice in a relaxed, gentle way. This practice can mentally destabilize an unprepared practitioner, and the teachings contain many warnings to this effect. The practitioner should avoid extremes: food should be nutritious and supportive, and one should be conscientious about self-care as the retreat unfolds. If the practice becomes too difficult, knowing when to quit and being prepared to stop without shame or remorse is vital. Regardless of when one stops, the eyes must gradually acclimate to light. Preparing for a post-retreat time to decompress and be with the experience after such an intense practice is more important than many realize—especially in our busy, modern lives.
Trungpa Rinpoche equated the practice of dark meditation with going through the bardo. The bardo process, within the context of the Vajrayana tradition, describes a series of intervals during the dying process. These intervals include the period leading up to physical death, specifically the dissolution of the elements leading up to physical death, the moment of physical death, the dissolution of the eighty different kinds of consciousness after physical death, and the arising of the visionary experience of the peaceful, semi-wrathful, and wrathful bardo deities. The practice of dark meditation cultivates vivid and intense visions to guide one through this same process. Experiencing a bardo-like state through dark meditation before we die has benefits. One is the recognition and processing of fear and anxiety associated with death and the need to let go of all that we hold dear. More importantly, dark meditation leads to a deep sense of relaxed trust in the death process and the subsequent opportunities to experience awakening.
Discerning the separation between waking and dreaming can become difficult at various times during practice. Trying to determine the difference may not even produce any benefits. Everything begins to blend into a nonspecific, nonreferential, nonlinear-time-based experience. An unfabricated experience emerges, characterized by an utterly unstructured relationship to what is unfolding. This experience is an essential characteristic of the practice. Acting as an accelerant or a propellant to help one break through, it’s like playing the children’s game Chutes and Ladders, shooting multiple steps forward into our original state of wakefulness. There is no race to completion because one transcends time during the practice. No development. No gradual or sudden awakening. There’s only pure being. Dark meditation helps bring that fresh, spontaneous being into hyper-focus. For some people, it will bring them to that state of pure being for the first time. For others, it may return them to childhood experiences or profound past moments that allowed them to see and experience with clarity—allowing this spacious, nondual state to arise with clearness and ease.
Eventually, the mind transcends space and time and rests in our original nature—the vast, limitless expanse of awareness. The potential to directly discern the relationship between the conceptual mind (sem) and spontaneous awareness (rig pa) arises. In other words, the difference between an organized, conceptual, rational mind and the vast timelessness that is the essence of our being is brought into focus. We can begin to understand how unfabricated things really are. We begin to know how unfabricated we are. We begin to perceive the constructs that inform, shape, and ground our everyday experiences—how we organize ourselves, how we relate to one another, how we define love and hate, and how we experience aggression, jealousy, loss, joy, and tenderness. In perceiving all this, a spaciousness endowed with energy, potentiality, and creativity emerges.
As a result of seeing and recognizing our original state, a sense of heartbreak emerges. This heartbreak is not constant, but it periodically arises when we begin to see how we all suffer through loss, attachment, and clinging. We don’t need to push anything away. We don’t need to react. We’re just here, and the suffering doesn’t need to be transformed. We experience and allow everything to release into its fundamental nature, this vast spaciousness. This bittersweet glimpse of our liberation and the ease of backsliding into suffering is a profound experience. And this powerful brokenheartedness can stimulate a tenderhearted compassion for our fellow beings. It’s love. It’s an eros for being, and even an eros for suffering and liberation.
Dark meditation retreats shouldn’t be regarded as simply sensory deprivation. On a material level, there is a relationship. Some have speculated that the brain produces endogenous DMT during extended sensory deprivation total darkness. However, rigorous research still needs to be done. But reducing dark meditation to biochemical processes may undercut the importance of specific training and techniques, which have been crafted and perfected over many centuries and cause the practitioner to have a somewhat curated internal visionary experience. In one way, this practice feels very shamanic. As we travel on this transhuman journey, many moments that feel like timeless human experiences arise, as if this practice goes back into prehistory and is a very seminal human experience.
Understanding the bardo process is one thing, but experiencing it is entirely different. I’ve worked as a chaplain in hospitals, hospices, and correctional settings. I have been with hundreds of people during death and have blessed the bodies of thousands of people buried at New York City’s public cemetery on Hart Island. Being able to experience the bardo process through the practice of dark meditation has been transformative. In our youth-
obsessed culture that shuns illness, aging, and death, dark meditation has many practical applications, particularly for those at the end of life.
In our intensely dualistic existence of hard and heavy thinking that causes so much violence and harm, the benefits of dark retreat are multifaceted and possibly hard to grasp fully. The timeless wisdom of dark meditation may help liberate us from such a heavily structured existence. So many of our relational limitations—even how we imagine our interconnected reality on this beautiful planet—may be healed through such a practice. At the same time, we need to guard the ancestral thread, the core heart essence of dark meditation. We must maintain an energetic connection to those who practiced and transmitted it. This lineage practice of making use of darkness, of embracing and traversing its womb-like quality, has transformed many great Vajrayana masters. They have guarded and transmitted the teaching out of respect for its transformational power to help guide us toward the vast potential of a whole mind and body integration. Embracing darkness has the potential to be spiritually, emotionally, and perhaps even biologically therapeutic.
— © Tricycle magazine, Fall 2023, by Justin von Bujdoss