Four lessons for business leaders from a five-day darkness retreat
By ATB Financial 22 January 2021 8 min read
After Zach Lyster sold the co-working side of The Commons, which he ran with his sister Erynn, he needed a break.
“I was ready to reconnect with myself outside of my business. I was experiencing decision fatigue and was craving time on my own where my biggest decision was what I wanted for breakfast” he says.
He planned a two-phase strategy to reconnect with himself. First, he spent three weeks in a camper van on a beach in British Columbia. Then. he spent five days alone in the pitch black darkness.
It was one of the hardest, most rewarding things he’s ever done.
Zach’s journey to the dark
A few months before his trip into darkness, Lyster was chatting with Treeka Drake, a close friend and fellow entrepreneur who sat in the dark for 10 days last year. Treeka mentioned she was considering converting one of the rooms in her float studio, One Love Float, into a dark retreat.
A dark retreat is when you spend a period of time alone in total darkness. It’s an advanced practice of self-discovery rooted in Tibetan Buddhism and is believed to support healing through rest and deepened self-awareness. The idea is that being in total darkness reduces stimulation on your mind and body while limiting your sense of time and space. This leads to focusing on the inner workings of your mind.
Lyster is deeply familiar with exploring these kinds of spiritual practices. Before growing The Commons with his sister, he was living in Thailand learning qigong (pronounced chee-gong), an ancient Chinese practice that uses meditation, controlled breathing and movement exercises to promote healing.
“I meditated for 10 to 12 hours a day with monks,” he says. “I look at ‘What is the most uncomfortable place I can put myself in to learn about myself?’ And when Treeka mentioned the dark retreat, it made me nervous, and I knew it was exactly what I needed to do if I was scared of it.”
That’s how months later Lyster found himself walking into a dimly lit ceremonial space at One Love Float.
“I broke down and cried when I showed up. I felt I wasn’t ready for this experience” he recalls. ““The thought of going into the dark for five days with only my mind and thoughts to keep me company was terrifying. Treeka brought me back to my why for saying yes. This was my 40th birthday present to myself. An experience that allowed me to review my first 40 years, and clearly and intentionally step into the next 40 years. I needed that pep talk.”
Calmed by that, Lyster began his five day journey into darkness as the dim lighting switched to candle light and finally complete darkness. While he was expecting to disconnect from the outside world and get some much needed rest, he wasn’t prepared for the self-guided learning ahead—especially these four lessons on being a business leader that he picked up.
1. Trust yourself.
“I found my voice in the dark. It was nice to be able to voice what I wanted. Making decisions becomes so much easier when you acknowledge what you want,” he says.
Lyster says voicing his needs led to a deeper realization about self trust.
“I forgot what it felt like to trust myself, especially since 2020 continually provided opportunities to second guess and lose trust in decisions. I began asking myself: What does trust feel like? My body knows and always has. I just stopped listening,” he says.
Being isolated in the dark meant Lyster could not rely on the opinions of others, business advice articles or recommendations from well-meaning fellow entrepreneurs. Without these, he turned inward and says he reconnected with listening to and trusting himself.
“As business owners, we're often disconnected from our intuition and we don't know that the voice speaking to us is ourselves. It’s our intuition,” he says, adding that it’s important for business leaders to connect with and believe in their personal instincts.
2. Change patterns that don’t serve you.
While in the dark Lyster noticed that he had recurring thoughts that he would get stuck in. A thought would arise and his typical reaction was to worry, stress, or catastrophize on the issue.
“I started envisioning coming up to the stop sign and I would always turn right. Right began to represent anxiety and stress. I know that path. I can stress my way through any situation. So I asked myself: What if I turn left? I realized it’s the unknown. Left began to represent change, freedom and strength to me. I can sit here and worry about all the things I can’t figure out, but worrying isn’t helping. However, I can choose to ‘turn left’ and explore new avenues of both thoughts and actions,” he says.
Lyster says that when he began “turning left” to deal with his thoughts he felt a lightness and easiness while managing his mind instead of stressing himself out.
How does this apply to entrepreneurs? Lyster says it’s about catching how your mind is reacting to inputs or ideas and choosing to not react negatively.
“In 2020 decisions many business owners have made have felt like they were forced on us by external factors. However, we always have a choice in how we respond to those factors. Sometimes it is easy to react differently and sometimes it is very hard to remind myself to ‘turn left’ and change that behaviour pattern,” he says. “All the stress and anxiety is still there. I’m not trying to live a life free of stress. Instead, I’m giving myself a moment to relax and not be so judgemental of myself.”
3. Forgive yourself
As the days slipped by, Lyster settled into exploring his thoughts and emotions as they arose. One particularly fun way he passed the time was by giving himself awards.
“We play all these different roles in our lives. I started thinking about all the roles I’ve played in my life, such as: when did I feel most confident? Or when did I accomplish goals with ease? I’d list out various ages or times in my life when I felt that way or accomplished that and then I’d give an award to one of them. The flipside of that was the role that I’m not confident about or happy with, but I gave awards to those too,” he says.
“As leaders, there can be so much shame and resentment around decisions we’ve made that didn’t work out, but we have to embrace those versions of ourselves. I love myself for making the best decision I could at that time,” says Lyster.
You should too.
4. Tap into flow states.
There was no way of knowing what time it was in the dark which was a big challenge for Zach. Most of us are driven by schedules of where to be and for how long so removing this learned behaviour was jarring to say the least. Without access to a clock or a cell phone, at times, minutes felt like hours in the dark and pushed Zach to the edge of his comfort and on more than one occasion he wanted to quit and bring the experience to an end. We’ve all been there when we’ve tried to meditate and we end up spending our “meditation” time reviewing our grocery list or what’s on TV tonight. When we take a peek at the clock, it can be upsetting when we see only a few minutes have passed. Take that and multiply it by 5 days.
Lyster had to find a way to elevate from grinding through the minutes, hours and days and discover a way to be playful in the dark and connect to a different way to experience time. Zach discovered his own flow state in the dark which was a key ingredient in making his way through the experience.
A flow state is when you find yourself fully immersed in a task where you enjoy the process, are not easily distracted and feel energized and focused. It’s colloquially called being in the zone and can often result in losing one’s sense of time. Personal tools such as float tanks, dark retreats, meditation, etc. is the invitation and allowance to deeply experience flow states and navigate the pathway to them so one can recreate them in their daily lives.
Lyster’s flow state consisted of experiencing his wildest dreams and what they felt like to come true.
“We rarely have the time to truly dream and experience what it would feel like to have those dreams come true in our lives. In the dark and in my mind, I tapped into a way to experience my most amazing dreams I have for my life and found myself drifting away without any effort. I would lose myself in this process and discovered time passed by differently and more easily,” says Lyster.
“We can be bound by time or freed by time,” he says. “It is so important for small business owners to carve out time to connect with that flow state, to dream, to wonder, and to be creative. It can help when we return to the same problems [in our businesses] because we might have a different viewpoint or solution that we weren’t seeing before.”
Would Lyster do a dark retreat again?
“Absolutely. I would enter the dark with more respect for how difficult this work is as it pushed me to the edge. But because of getting to that edge, I was able to discover a renewed sense of self and increased resilience for whatever the future might bring,” he says.
The most powerful thing Lyster says he learned in the dark was that he had all the tools he needed inside of himself to find a path through every challenge that arose.
“Entrepreneurs often find themselves in situations that they don’t feel well equipped for as you end up wearing multiple hats in small business. To all the small business owners that find themselves in similar positions, please know you already possess the skills and tools you need to be a success. The answer isn’t in a book, a social media post or someone else’s opinion. The answer is within you, you just need to take the time to quiet the noise and listen to yourself,” he says.