Reckoning in the Darkness~ a dark cave retreat

My eyes widened at the sight of the perfectly intact body of a dead Luna Moth that lay below the nesting box. I gathered the eggs with the curve of my shirt and scooped the moth up with the other hand, then wandered down the hill to show Hart. I couldn’t help but make meaning of these gifts coming in unison, right before I left for my 50th birthday dark cave retreat. Birth and death giving itself to me, simultaneously.

It’s been one moon cycle since I went into the cave, and I am beginning to find words to describe the experience. One thing I know is that I was not in there long enough. The work was just beginning, and then I came out. I didn’t get to the other side. 3 days and 3 nights was too short, so I will be returning one day.

I have longed to do a dark cave retreat for years but it just never happened— until it did. You know your life is overly full when the best 50th birthday party you can think of is to be left alone. And lean into the Mystic.

The week before, I began a cleanse- no black tea, dairy, sugars, or processed foods of any kind and very little food at all, actually. Mostly soups, buckwheat and ferments. The closer I came to the day of entering the cave, the less food I desired.

My friend Frank, who had done a week-long cave retreat in this very cave in Tennessee, came with me and was my ally through the process. He stayed up the road and would come at random times (3 times total) during my retreat and ring a vibratone at which I would ring a bell in response, our signal that all was well. A mystic in his own right, Frank supports our community with the medicine of the starry heavens. I’m so grateful for you, Frank!

When I arrived, I placed the roses, yarrow and mugwort I brought from my garden atop a boulder next to the cave’s entrance and filled my Sicilian bowl with water from the stream that runs under our home, setting Nadia’s crow stuffie next to it. I gave my prayers and intentions along with these offerings, and felt as ready as I ever would, to step into the darkness. I would be coming out of the cave head first, 3 days later, at my birth time, on my 50th birthday.

How incredibly huge this cave is! My dear friend Patrick, whose family has stewarded this land for 3 generations, is 56 and has been exploring the cave’s nooks and crannies since he was 5 and is still finding new places! Patrick is a gem through and through and was also a wonderful support in this process. He loaned me a hard hat fitted with headlamp and the 3 of us carried in my supplies for the stay, including two gallons of spring water. The cave’s entrance looks like a vagina as you can see in the only photo I took while there. The temperature drops immediately as you enter, and the moistness becomes palpable.

The smell of the cave took my breath away! I was really worried the smell would be dank and musty, but instead it was alluringly pleasing. Really, I had braced myself to be so physically uncomfortable for the time, thinking it would be smelly, cold and claustrophobic, but instead I felt like I was in an ancient temple of incredible beauty and cleanliness. I stayed warm and my body never ached like it always does when I go camping. The cave had a strong feminine energy that held me the whole time I was inside. Her walls shined in the light of my headlamp like hammered copper. In some areas the ceiling dripped water, and my first impulse was to lick a droplet. So I did. It tasted so so good, like a healing elixir. The curves, multiple caverns and rooms, the format and textures—I was left speechless at this beauty, I really had no idea!

Serpentining hundreds of feet within, Patrick and Frank led me to an open space big enough to stand up and lie down, and this is where I made my nest. I set up my bedding: a tarp, wool blanket, then a yoga mat, two inflatable sleeping mats, a cotton sheet and then my sleeping bag and pillow. The ground is damp and cool and can suck the warmth right out of a human, and so I put on my cave attire: cotton tanktop, silk undershirt then wool shirt then down jacket; cotton long johns and wool pants; wool sox and hat and only when I was inside of my sleeping bag did I take off the jacket and wool pants.

Next, I set up my pee area, because I know you are wondering- what did I do with my bodily wastes while in there? I laid a small bit of plastic down then set up a two-gallon bucket with lid and a roll of toilet paper inside of a ziplock bag, a few feet from my bed. It is pitch black in the cave- darker than any darkness I have ever experienced, and just locating the pee area a few feet away from my station was tricky. I could easily get lost. I had to move slowly and methodically, on my hands and knees, patting the ground and using my limbs like eyes.

I did a 3-day fast while in the cave because 1) you don’t want to eat in there…the environment just doesn’t lend itself to that. And 2) I didn’t want to poop. I brought plastic bags and yogurt containers to deal with that in case I did, but fortunately, I never had to deal with a bowel movement.

Once I was all set up, I said goodbye to Patrick and Frank and they made their way out with Patrick sharing a verse from that lovely song “You are beautiful, you are courageous,” the last words to linger in the air as I blew out the candle and gave myself over to total darkness and silence. No sounds from the outside world made it down here.

I lie down and fell asleep right away, and awoke feeling unusually rested and peaceful, not really having a sense of how long I had slept. I wanted to pray aloud and sing but the silence was so profound, it felt insulting to pierce it with my voice. I thought about the huge camel crickets and the little spiders I had seen on my way in, and the rats Frank had told me about and whom I could hear scurrying near, and I remembered, “I am a guest here,” in the home of these creatures and this water that never sees light and this cool, damp clay and patches of dry, powdery dirt. I appreciated how receptive they all were of me.

Eventually, I felt ready to set up my spiritual container. I called in the directions, my guardians, gave thanks and offered up my intention. I began to see symbols on the walls, some recognizable but others I had never seen, like watching a busy moving wall paper or something. When I closed my eyes, they went away. I put my hand in front of my face to see if I could make out the shape of my fingers. Nope, not a one. These symbols came and went the whole time I was there. What time was it? Night or day? What did it matter? I became disoriented quickly and just accepted it as part of the experience.

The water dripped in the distance every few minutes- drip, drip, drip- I did not realize a drop of water could be so loud! I sat in meditation, breathing slowly and deeply, in and out, being the witness to whatever feelings and sensations arose, and then watched them pass. Suddenly, a new sound arose- what is that sound?? At first I thought I was hearing a helicopter but then it got closer and closer until, Zompp- the sound landed on me! A stink bug! I had brought a stink bug into the cave with me! I couldn’t believe it.

The stink bug stayed nearby the entire time I was in the cave. Come on, are you serious? I kept thinking, “You have this whole enormous cave to fly off to, go somewhere else!” But no. It wanted to stay next to me for whatever reason. I attempted to tune in with the stink bug, but I never could get over my annoyance with it enough to do that, so instead I tuned out.

I stood up and stretched my arms overhead, leaning from side to side. Inside the absence of distraction, I was free to give my presence to whatever was most alive in me. And unbeknownst to me, the first thing that beckoned my attention was the grief of my mother’s death. It had been over a year since she died, and I have felt the waves of grief many a time, but something about being alone in the belly of the earth allowed the floodgates to open. I cried and cried and called out for her. “Mama, mama, I miss you, I want you.” I saw her in her cotton nightgown and I ached a horrible ache to hug her and be held by her. I cried until there were no more tears and the ache had passed, and I felt her loving spirit right next to me.

Next was another wave of grief. I wept over my belated partner Frank’s abrupt death. It has been almost 14 years and there are still tears to be cried. And then I felt the essence of my paternal grandmother and cried over her absence in my life. I wept at the frailty of being human. My body shook with tears. I felt remorse for things I did or didn’t do, the ways I have failed as a mother and wife and prayed sincerely for my daughters and marriage. Then my little white kitty Junipurr came to me as a companion in the darkness. I swear I heard her purr.

I sat down, feeling worn out, but in that good relieving way, like when you have just completed  hard work, and now you can rest. I felt peaceful. I lie there, suspended in nothingness. Then Frank made his first appearance and rang the vibratone. I could not see him or any light, but could hear the beautiful sound in the distance and I rang my bell back. I was so grateful for this check-in. It was a welcome lifeline for me to the outside world.

I sang every song I could think of while I was in this cave. I loved it. Song after song arose out of me. I spent the majority of my time in the fetal position. Just floating in the watery womb of my Earth Mother, resting in peace. I really cannot put into words the love and comfort that I felt emanating from this place. I was also overcome with gratitude at times.

I would lay on my back or sit up in half-lotus. I’d do child’s pose, cat/cow stretches, forward fold, or stand and shake my body, swinging my arms and tapping my marma points. Then back down into fetal position again. I gave myself over to deep time.

I fell asleep again and was awakened by a train? No- it was Frank ringing the vibratone again- hadn’t he just done that? It seemed like no time had passed since the last check-in.

Later I found out that Frank made his first check- in about 15 hours after I’d been in there, his second one about 12 hours after that and the last one, he waited another 24 hours. Time really became warped. At the end of my stay, I was just beginning to catch on to what was day and what was night. The cave inhaled at dawn and exhaled at dusk, and I could actually feel a temperature and pressure change.

The amount of people, plants, animals and places that came alive in my heart while I was alone  was intense! Whomever I would think of, I prayed for their life. Bless their life. Weep weep weep for the blessing of their life! The first two days were fairly peaceful and blissful and then the hard work really started.

It began with a period of “What the hell am I doing in here? How boring! I have things to do, places to be! Get me out of here!” I moved through it mostly, but not fully. I knew I needed more time to do/be nothing, to accept that reality. But it was hard. Uncomfortable. But always, I felt very loved and held in this process.

I did not sleep, at least I don’t think I did, nearly as much as I had imagined I would. I asked for dream visions, but I only had two dreams I can recall, both of which were silly and mundane, like a flashmob party for pulling invasive weeds and making burritos on an abandoned road corner in Ireland.

I worked through my pettiness. My worries of who was going to take care of things on our property the way I think they should be taken care of and oh so much more. And I still have heaps of work to do on myself out here in the light. It really is most humbling.

The most difficult thing I experienced was facing my own death. Like I would never make it out alive. At one point I became paralyzed with the fear that my support had been murdered, no one knew where I was, and I would not be able to find my way out. Since I couldn’t count on it being daylight to use as an affirmation I was near the entrance/exit, I could wander the caverns endlessly, weak from no food. I definitely did not have confidence I could get out of the cave on my own as there are many turns. In fact, when I did finally exit with Patrick and Frank behind me letting me lead the way, I made a wrong turn.

I let myself go down another rabbit hole- that a boulder had rolled in front of the entrance or that it had caved in from an avalanche and I was stuck in here. I knew this was farfetched, yet it consumed me and I saw my rotting corpse and the bones of other corpses. I needed to let myself face these fears and suffering. To die before I die.

At this point, it seemed like it had been 2 days since Frank had checked on me. Why was he not coming? We had left the check-in times rather vague on purpose. “Oh please, Frank, please come, I am done with this” I thought. I am complete. I am ready to go. Still, he didn’t come. I had torturing thoughts that dragged on and on. It was Holy Terror. I was past my own death and feeling into the the suffering of the world, past and present. The grief, horror, sadness, pain- all of it was flashing before me.

Then suddenly Frank rang, and instead of ringing the bell back, I called out to him, whining. I asked him what day it was and he answered, “It’s dark out now and you have 16 hours left before your birth time.” I told him I was having a very hard time and then wept.  He gave wise words of support and it gave me the strength and courage to carry on. And then he left and I had some time of peace, yes a real deep peace. But then the fears started to rise again.

It dawned on me that this work was not for everyone. It seems very natural for me to go into a cave alone, but I don’t think it’s for everyone. Then I fell asleep for a brief time and awoke to such a sense of wanting to be done with this hard work. That’s why I know I need to go back- I didn’t make it through those deep layers to the other side, but came out prematurely. I wanted to stay longer, but I have chosen the life of homemaker, property manager, earth steward, teacher, wife and mother and had an agreement for how long I’d be gone.  Also, I could sense the longer I stayed in there, the harder it would be to re-enter this bright, loud world.

And suddenly, as if it had actually been no time at all, Frank was back and candle light was with him this time- the signal it was nearing my birth time, and I was finished here.

Frank had carried in and lit up the Dogwood candle holder Jason made me that I knew I wanted as the first light. I didn’t even think about it having 5 candle shelves, but Frank said it was my cave birthday cake, representing each decade. I felt so tender and raw, like a newborn might feel. I shared with Patrick and Frank some of my experience and they lovingly listened and held space for this significant moment of my life. I said a goodbye gratitude prayer and packed up and felt it was very important for me to carry out my own pee. Gah- that was heavy, and I was feeling very weak as I meandered through the dark tunnels.

And then I saw the light, Oh the day! I put the pee bucket aside and fell prostrate onto the leaf litter and buried my face in it. A Virginia Creeper sprout looked so dear and special, when in my garden, I am pulling them out left and right! I am an above ground creature!! I love the light! The shadows! The green and growing things! Rain was gently falling. My friends had spread around roses to welcome me back. I gave the land right outside the cave the blessing salts I had brought, some soil from home, more flower petals. Patrick’s girlfriend Leah made me the most delicious green smoothie and earrings with vertebrae from a snake she found on the land, that she painted with a glow-in-the-dark substance, to remember my cave time. Thank you, Leah!!

The gifts of the Cave were many. They are still coming. I would say one big one is how the frantic-ness of my everyday life was made so blatantly evident. It played out like a movie before my eyes. The craziness of how we we live our lives in this modern world. How hurried and busy. I don’t want to live like that anymore. It has worn me out and is not healthy for me, the ones around me, the planet- none of us.  I turned off my cell phone for 5 days during this time, no internet, no schedule. How can I allow this reckoning in the darkness to be integrated into my daily lit-up life? I have not figured that out yet, but I am very aware that it must change. I sense it already changing.

Another gift is that same knowing that comes through the birth and death portal, labor and the passing of a loved one, of how precious and miraculous and fragile life truly is. Why do we waste it on quarreling or judging or killing or oppressing each other and ourselves? How can we live our daily lives embodying the humbling wisdom that everything is temporary, that each moment is a treasure? We are endlessly consuming all this unnecessary stuff- information, entertainment, material possessions, excess foods etc… in order to avoid facing our own mortality and imperfections. By facing the dark, I was able to shed a light on this knowing in a deeper way.

In the cave, the superficiality of my persona slowly falls away and what is essential has more space to be.