What is a darkness retreat and why would Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers go to one?

What is a darkness retreat and why would Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers go to one?
What is a darkness retreat and why would Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers go to one?

Aaron Rodgers is known for spending his offseason in what can be described as unconventional methods of self-reflection. In 2020, the Green Bay Packers quarterback traveled to Peru to try ayahuasca, a plant-based psychoactive traditionally used in indigenous ceremonies, and nearly got stuck in South America as the coronavirus began to shut down the world.

He has openly discussed his affinity for retreats – yoga retreats, meditation retreats, silent meditation retreats. So, when he recently shared the news that he was about to go into a four-night darkness retreat – a visit he had been planning for the past four months – it sparked a lot of online conversation, some good, some not so good.

“I think we could all use a dose of turning our phones off once in a while and unplugging from society, some people don’t want to do a few days and nights of darkness, and that’s fine,” Rodgers recently said on “The Pat McAfee Show.” “But to out and out judge it like you have any understanding of it, that’s not exactly a way to come together as a society and connect better as a people.”

Rodgers, 39, completed his darkness retreat at Sky Cave on Wednesday, according to Scott Berman, who owns the facility on hundreds of acres of forested land in southern Oregon. The quarterback, who has played his entire 18-year NFL career for Green Bay, hasn’t said whether he’s playing in 2023. Before entering the retreat, he said he was hoping to “have a better sense of where I’m at in my life,” but was not going to the retreat just to figure out whether he’ll play in 2023 or retire. He is under contract with the Packers for $59.465 million guaranteed if he plays in 2023.

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Retreating into darkness is a spiritual practice thousands of years old, with origins throughout India, China and Tibet. The Sky Cave website traces the roots of darkness retreats to various ancient practices and rituals. Some medical benefits are possible, yet it states that those benefits are not scientifically proven. When discussing origins of the retreats, Berman acknowledged the different cultures who he says have practices related to darkness, such as the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians, and the Kogi, an indigenous people of Colombia who Berman explains select certain children at birth to live in darkness with their mothers.

Berman, a Skidmore College graduate, began exploring alternative therapies more than 20 years ago while finishing school in east central New York. He lives on the grounds with his wife and two young children and has hosted more than 300 darkness retreat guests.

When speaking with Berman about the space and its purpose, sadness is a theme that comes up often. He likes to say that “discomfort is the door.”

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“We kind of hold discomfort as a negative thing and not to say that it’s positive, but there’s such a hard structure that discomfort is bad,” Berman said while sitting among the trees of Oregon. “The moment somebody feels uncomfortable, they get on their phone, they go for a walk, they eat food, or they do wholesome activities, they do yoga, they go for a run. There are a million things that people do to avoid discomfort.

“If somebody’s sad in our culture, it’s like, ‘Let’s fix you immediately.’ There’s not a real genuine exploration of, ‘Why are you sad?'” Berman said. “What happens if you just include the sadness and rest with the sadness, and be with it, without trying to change it? What happens from there? That is a unique aspect of darkness retreat.”

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed a darkness retreat at Sky Cave, a facility on hundreds of acres of forested land in southern Oregon. Courtesy Sky Cave

At Sky Cave, the entire experience is mostly self-guided. There is no hard-and-fast rule that guests must remain in the dark at all times. Everyone is invited to walk in the woods if the need arises, turn on the lights if the feeling is too much, or just leave. The door remains unlocked and ready to open.

Berman checks on his guests once a day, more if needed, and offers short contemplative prompts. Those visits happen in the evenings when he delivers a day’s worth of meals through a two-way wooden door. It’s the only time guests get a sense of time of day or that 24 hours have passed.

“I am able to have a little window into what’s going on. And sometimes it might be a 10-second conversation and sometimes it might be 20 minutes,” Berman said. “It just kind of depends on what feels appropriate and what that person wants.”

Colin O’Brady, an endurance athlete who has summited Mount Everest twice, crossed Antarctica solo and finished the “Explorer’s Grand Slam” in record-breaking time, completed an eight-day, seven-night darkness retreat earlier this month and stayed in the same room as the one Rodgers occupied.

O’Brady said the thoughts Berman shared with him during his time in the darkness were remarkable and would trigger deep contemplation.

“He’s just wise,” O’Brady said. “It’s a couple of little thought starters, and then he just leaves. … I thought that his very, very subtle guidance throughout was a really beautiful byproduct.”

A self-described extrovert, O’Brady said the darkness was a chance to rest, reset and refocus.

“People always ask me what’s more important, the physical or the mental side of that?” he said. “If you take my first solo crossing of Antarctica … to be able to pull a 375-pound sled, 1 mile, let alone a thousand miles, there’s a minimum physical requirement for that.

“So of course, I train my body to get stronger to sustain the physical challenge of that. But I often say the physical side of that is just the table stakes. There are a lot of people that could pull that sled a certain amount of distance, but that basically just gets you to the starting line.”

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Sky Cave has three 300-square-foot dark rooms, with a queen bed, a bathroom and a meditation-like mat on the floor. Courtesy Sky Cave

O’Brady said he is fond of saying “the most important muscle any of us have is the six inches between our ears.”

“I’m always looking for ways to tap into the power of my mind,” he said, “and I thought the exercise of being alone in the dark would really be advantageous in a number of ways, emotionally, spiritually.”

He said he might understand why Rodgers is interested in going into the dark for four nights. Beyond building mental muscle, the time in insolation is a way to unplug.

“We can turn on our social media, we can flick through our phone, and we can turn on Netflix,” he said. “We pretty much have the ability to constantly have inputs going in, but I think as humans over time, we’re not necessarily hardwired for that. [I need] time to reflect, time to recalibrate, time to meet myself and explore the scary corners of my own psyche, but ultimately overcome that discomfort and thrive on the other side.”

Hannah Eden, a personal fitness professional and influencer, spent five days and nights in darkness in November 2022. She said it was a chance for her to be still and as she describes it, “lift the hood.”

“I’ve always liked to do really hard things. I cycled [and ran] around the entire country of Iceland in nine days, I’ve run hundreds of miles and I’ve always thought that I was testing my mind,” she said. “But it became very apparent whenever I started to find some stillness in my life, whenever the pandemic happened, that I’ve actually, really never tested my mind.

“I’ve been able to utilize these acts of momentum and movement as something to avoid really being alone with myself. [The darkness retreat] was the most intense, it was extremely hard, but, also the most beautiful experience I think I’ve ever, ever had.”

“I’m always looking for ways to tap into the power of my mind,” said Colin O’Brady, an endurance athlete who completed an eight-day, seven-night darkness retreat in the same room as the one Rodgers occupied. Courtesy Colin O’Brady

O’Brady and Eden spoke of their approach to the darkness retreat in similar ways; with a plan of action, a “to do list” of how to keep busy during their days. However, as the days wore on, those plans for meditation, breath work, journaling and exercise went out the window and eventually a “surrender” happened. They described it as a surrender into the stillness and an awareness of being in the present. They both also described a newfound vividness of memories, additional details, smells and sounds from past experiences.

Each came out of the darkness with their own personal lessons learned while inside the room. Eden learned about forgiveness. O’Brady learned about internal fulfillment.

At the end of his stay while still in the darkness, O’Brady wrote in his journal in big letters: “I wish I could stay; I’ve touched the calmest places of my soul in the dark.”

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After his emergence, O’Brady went back inside and spent another 14 hours in the dark. Both said they’d do it again. Eden has booked another darkness retreat for later this year.

There is no formal screening process for guests who want to attend Sky Cave. Berman said he can usually determine pretty quickly whether someone will benefit from the experience, or whether they aren’t a good fit. He said it’s those who have a healthy amount of fear for what they are about to embark upon who get the most from the experience rather than those who want to do it and conquer it as a pure physical feat.

Sarah Meyer Tapia, associate director of Health & Human Performance and the head of the wellness program at Stanford University, said questions about safety and support should be asked before entering any practice, especially one as solitary as a darkness retreat.

“How [do] they support the psychological safety when somebody’s in there and completely in the dark alone with themselves,” she asked. “How do they feel supported in processing it and not further damage processes that might not be healthy inside themselves.”

Tapia’s areas of research include the study of high achievement and well-being. While she has not specifically studied darkness retreats, she said meditation isn’t one size fits all.

“Meditation is not a panacea for anyone and everyone in any situation,” Tapia said. “There are moments when it’s contraindicated, somebody’s spiraling in a psychotic episode or even a depressive or anxious episode to go inward and sit in that, is kind of to reinforce it.”

While she expressed some concerns around darkness retreats, she said mindfulness in general is important for everyone.

“Rest is where the integration and the healing and the growth happens,” Tapia said. “If we stress and stress and stress without rest, then we break both mentally and physically.”

She said it’s an important lesson she teaches her high-achieving students at Stanford, and it’s a lesson for high-achieving athletes, too.

“The athletes’ performance and capacity to handle pressure and to heal and recover and increase their resilience, that’s going to be benefited by supporting their mental and emotional well-being through practices like meditation or retreats or just inner exploration and journey and reflection,” she said. “That’s not going to take away from performance. It’s going to expand their capacity.”

But she cautioned that meditation and wellness is not a competitive sport.

“I often say to my students, let’s not take ourselves too seriously. No one’s watching and no one cares,” she said. “This practice is yours. So, if you think this would be of benefit to you, great. But there’s no gold star for enduring X, Y or Z.”

A lesson also echoed by Rodgers when he spoke with McAfee: “There’s no hierarchy in my view of spirituality or meditation or mindfulness. We’re all trying to do our best on the path that we’re on.”

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