A Guide to Monastic Dark Moon Incubation Retreats
Hosting an incubation retreat in Black Stone Sanctuary style
[Author’s note: the following guide is from a booklet originally compiled for monastic retreat attendees at the Sanctuary. It’s shared here in the spirit of building “creative commons animist monasticism.” It’s organized and presented in a modular way, such that each element can be swapped out & combined with other elements. Feel free to use it as a template or outline — you can freely adapt this model to suit your own contemplative practice, and I’d love to see what you do with it. The world needs more dark retreats!]
"…it is…complete immersion — submersion — in darkness that can have the most profound effects, which have included the healing of birth traumas and liberation from unhealthy life events — all delivered in images, mythology, and metaphor by the experience itself, without any need for therapeutic intervention."
~ Ross Heaven & Simon Buxton, Darkness Visible: Awakening Spiritual Light Through Darkness Meditation
As far back as I can remember, I’ve used dark atmospheres, seclusion, subterranean spaces, draping artistry, music, and spatial cues (including acoustic cues) to help heighten my subtle senses and access the intelligence of the imaginal realm. I often meditate in a walk-in closet made pitch-black with floor-to-ceiling black velvet curtains. I also love nooks, booths, canopy beds, makeshift blanket forts, and well-padded endarkened corners. This “goth nesting instinct” contains aesthetic, ascetic, and animistic dimensions.
Years ago, I read a visitor’s account of being moved to tears by her experience at an art installation in Berlin. The guest described a cave-shaped, dark, quiet space built with thick felt-lined walls. Entering this nest-like room prompted a wave of relief, including an intense desire to lie down and rest for hours, suspended in a zone of timelessness. Given my own drive to create something similar, the description stayed with me, and served as an affirmation that I was on the right path with Black Stone Sanctuary.
Today, the Sanctuary serves as a secluded space for incubation, meditation, and music-based contemplative practice. Designed to appeal to the nesting instinct, the Sanctuary aims to support states of awareness that connect with forces in the subtle realms. Endarkened incubation spaces promote restfulness, reflection, and relief from directed attention fatigue. This service work is inspired by animist pre-Christian Germanic/Nordic mythology and folk traditions.
The word nourishment is commonly linked with food, but restful sleep, joyful movement, sound, silence, and sacred space also provide nourishment and replenishment.
For retreats, the Sanctuary emphasizes its functions and atmosphere. The idea is to leave room for a range of emergent possibilities, all of which can be co-created through perception of the relationships of reciprocity that develop over time between the space, its inhabitants, and its caretakers.
Rilke writes of “gestation and then bringing forth,” which suggests the central theme of incubation retreats. The Sanctuary holds space — both literal and figurative — for gestation in darkness, and bringing forth of material from Holy Darkness.
Well-designed dark incubation spaces can be adapted to serve many purposes, including grief work, shadow work, dream divination, and meditation. The limits of the structure (darkness, enclosure, etc.) serve as key aspects to help “train” animist sensibilities and bring forth what wants to emerge.
Before the COVID pandemic, the Sanctuary occasionally provided community consulting services to customize the design of portable incubation spaces through the Black Tent Temple Project. These services have long been suspended for pandemic-related reasons, but incubation retreats are still much needed, so here’s a bit of our playbook.
It’s intended as “creative commons animist monasticism,” so feel free to take the ideas and run with them, as others have done in the past (notably Priestess of the Dark Mother). Please credit Black Stone Sanctuary as the original source.
What is a dark moon incubation retreat?
Black Stone Sanctuary hosts a contemplative incubation retreat during every dark moon (the 1-3 day period when the moon cannot be seen in the sky).
The retreats last for a minimum of 5-6 hours, and sometimes overnight. They are scheduled so that attendees can meditate at the peak or midpoint (the new moon, i.e. the exact time on the calendars when the waning moon ends and the waxing moon begins again.)
Attendees gather in a specially designed incubation chamber area, and jointly hold space for emergent moods and themes of the current lunar cycle.
We combine atmospheric drone music, soft textures and surfaces, black stones, conifer-based aromatics, and carefully arranged spaces for a synergistic effect that engages sensory capacities and facilitates connection with the subtle realms.
Incubation retreats at the Sanctuary aim to support deep rest, help hone and deepen listening skills, and create a nourishing sense of sacred enclosure.
What happens at the dark moon incubation retreats?
We open with prayer, hymn, and chant. Attendees then recline or lie down in a restful, dimly lit enclosed area decorated with dark-colored curtains, pillows, rugs, yoga bolsters, and blankets. Typically we refrain from all unnecessary conversation and enjoy companionable silence. Historically speaking, the purpose of ritual incubation sanctuaries is to invite healing dreams and insights. Retreatants at the Sanctuary are welcome to meditate, nap, and/or fall asleep and stay overnight.
We prepare for dark moon observances by:
Shutting down and silencing all cell phones and electronic devices, so that we're not interrupted by light or sound.
Setting up the music loops beforehand and turning off all device screens.
Turning off all electrical lighting sources and preparing candles.
Placing a bowl filled with black stones inside the incubation chamber. Retreatants may choose stones to hold for company and potential guidance.
For some retreats we share a silent meal, tea, or snack together by candlelight (with food prepared in advance, to minimize disruptions).
If the official time of the new moon falls during daylight hours, we start on the nearest evening. We typically meet at dusk, with the retreat beginning at sunset.
Dark Ambient & Drone Music
To facilitate deep listening, we employ meditative dark ambient and low-frequency drone music. Typically we select tracks with deep bass and isochronic tones for theta brainwave entrainment and sound healing potential.
We set up a custom playlist (e.g., Blood of the Earth) to correspond to the themes of the current moon cycle and/or loop the channels of drones and atmospheric soundscapes on MyNoise.net. With MyNoise, we mix the channels and adjust the sliders until we have a loop of drones that strikes the right balance.
We also use hour-long loops with monastic chimes or bells, such as:
Guidelines for Retreatants
Except for the devices providing music, all electronic devices must be shut off for the duration of the retreat.
Candlelight only for the duration of the retreat. No electric lights.
Due to allergies and chemical sensitivities, no smoking or scented personal care products are allowed at the Sanctuary.
We encourage retreatants to dress in black from head to toe. We recommend comfortable, non-binding clothing. If all black is not possible, wear the darkest colors you can.
Start times are firm. We do not operate on "Pagan standard time" or allow latecomers for any reason.
Leaving times are flexible. If you leave before the retreat officially closes, please take your leave in silence as much as possible, so as not to disturb others.
Observe silence throughout the retreat. If voices are absolutely necessary, please use soft whispers.
Guests are free to decide on the spur of the moment that they'd like to stay overnight and sleep in the incubation area for the full duration of the retreat.
It's often a good idea to eat comfort foods beforehand.
Creature Comforts to Bring
any personal items for an overnighter
coffee, tea, or other beverages
Our Dark Moon Incubation Retreat Philosophy
"...that is what lies at the core of the dark moon — surrendering, just being with what is and not trying to push it into a form. If you can, give yourselves some time…to really sink into that stillness."
—Eldin, Swedish pagan musician
In keeping with our monastic rule ("follow the ways of non-contrivance"), we approach the dark moon as a time to honor our often-neglected need for deep rest.
Our over-arching intention for dark moon retreats is to create space to "do nothing" and counter the cultural narrative that insists everyone be "self-supporting." After all, deep ecology teaches us that there is nothing in nature that is "self-supporting."
At the dark moon, we affirm our willingness to be supported through improved flow, and we recognize the forms of support we already receive.
We do our best to release effortful holding patterns of stuck-ness and strain, and discover what lies in their wake.
The idea is for our little “node” to cultivate favorable conditions for a small-scale perceptual shift that can help contribute to a larger-scale cultural shift toward ease, and away from striving and strife. Rather than single-mindedly pursuing what our conscious minds think we want to do or "should" be doing, we look for the ways support might show up for us and flow through our lives according to our needs. If we find a sense of ease, it typically shows up not intellectually, but in an eco-centric, animist-informed quality of engagement with the space itself and each other.
This kind of contemplative practice emerges, of its own accord, when the conditions are ripe for it. It’s something we discover and experience, not something we plan.
Of course, good retreats do involve planning! Paradoxically, it takes a lot of advance planning to create spaces of true emergence.
We recognize all the entities, human and non-human, that are supporting us right now.
We create containers, both literal and metaphorical, to hold space for nascent possibilities.
We rest in un-knowing and non-doing, and release our striving to "figure things out."
We sit with our unanswered questions, and allow them to remain unanswered.
We invite retreatants to plant a seed in the fertile soil of the enclosed incubation space and see what grows.
We present ourselves to the Holy Powers and allow Them to guide us into the depths.
We water and nourish the seeds of creativity lying in wait within us.
We cultivate deep listening skills by removing environmental barriers to deep listening as much as possible.
We use light deprivation retreats as an aspect of building ascetic monastic practices suitable for the modern animist-polytheist revival.
We create physical, emotional, and spiritual atmospheres that affirm the transformative alchemical potential of allowing things to be exactly as they are.
Meditation Topics and Questions to Consider
This is merely a starter list of a few ideas we’ve used; it should not be treated as definitive or essential. The list is intended as a springboard to imagination, rather than a limit on it. Retreatants can determine their own topics, and change them at will.
What do we need to release and purge?
What forces are providing support for us right now?
What patterns of striving, strain, and dis-ease might begin to unravel in the darkness?
Can we open to the ways of non-contrivance (our monastic rule), and trust that improved flow can carry us wherever we're needed?
Where might we be starting anew, with a fresh slate?
What alchemical influences bear upon us?
What is sacred endarkenment? How might it be applied in our contemplative practices?
Is this a time for us to delve into a specific kind of shadow work?
Might this be an auspicious time to deepen our creative work?
Prayer: In Praise of Holy Darkness
Prayers may be recited by one person or by all attendees in unison at the opening of the retreat, before conversation halts.
May we hearken to the wisdom and gifts of darkness, rest, and shadow.
May we remember to create space for silence, stillness, solitude, and mystery.
May we dwell respectfully in states of unknowing and non-doing.
May we permit our imagination unfettered freedom in contemplation of the sacred.
Praise be to the Holy Powers.
- prayer by Danica Swanson from “Of Hearth and Shadow: A Norse Polytheist and a Fledgling Animist Sanctuary,” in Polytheistic Monasticism: Voices From Pagan Cloisters (2022), p. 66.
Hymn: New Moon Cradle
by Birka Skogsberg
When we sing this beautiful hymn, we typically repeat the last lines three times:
Dark moon dagger stinging
Revealing what is true
Shadow power bringing
Drawing down and through
Songs I will be singing
When her face is new.
Tips for Retreat Organizers
Low frequency effects (LFE) are key for incubation retreats. Set up your audio components for optimum acoustics. Check for proper airflow and suitable low bass levels in advance by testing your subwoofer with your intended music.
If you're using a custom playlist and want a set time for the retreat to stop, put together a playlist that can serve as the timer, so you don't need to occupy your mind with matters of timing. When the music stops, it signals the end of the retreat.
It's important to select the drones carefully in advance, since once all lights are turned off, the music continues on loop for the full duration of the retreat without any opportunity for adjustment. We recommend giving the MyNoise channels and/or your pre-arranged playlists a trial run for a few hours well in advance of your retreat, so you're not thrown off by any surprises.
The Sanctuary typically uses instrumental music only. Vocals, samples, and sudden shifts into percussion can be distracting for those in meditative states.
Everything taking place at an incubation retreat should happen without electric light as much as possible — meals, snacks, ritual baths, etc. Select foods and drinks that can be prepared in advance and consumed with a minimum of distraction and noise.
Keeping the incubation space as free of potential interruptions as possible is essential. Double-check in advance that all attendees have turned off their electronic devices.
You may wish to place a box of tissues in the shared space.
If you use holy water, arrange it in advance. We typically fill a small vessel or mist-spritzer with Douglas Fir hydrosol, which also serves as our holy water for worship services.
Remember to set out the text of poems and prayers beforehand, and keep a candle handy so they can be read. Or simply read all poems and prayers before the lights are turned out for the evening.
If the endarkened space is set up correctly it should be very difficult to see one another once the lights go off, so arrange the space to reduce the threat of accidentally stepping on feet or bumping into one another when attendees visit the restroom and kitchen.
You may wish to keep a cooler nearby with drinks and ice packs for the duration of the retreat. (We do this so retreatants can quench thirst without introducing light from the refrigerator into the space.)
Music for Incubation Retreats
The Sanctuary maintains a voluntary subscription to MyNoise ($5/mo) since we are heavy users of these dronescapes and we believe in supporting artists. However, many of the generators are also available free of charge. Here are some of our most frequently used channels.
Modern Spaceship - for this one we use Warp Speed (with the three "rumble" low frequency slider bars on the highest settings, the flutter bars on medium-low, and the sci-fi, control room, & interference bars on the lowest settings).
Contemplation Cave - we recommend the Pitch Black Lullaby setting
Dark Noise - chthonic and rumbly...we turn the four lowest-frequency sliders all the way up
Ideas & Inspiration
Pinterest board for the Black Tent Temple Project
Hygienic Darkroom Retreat - “profound rest for the self‑healing psyche.” Note that this outstanding guide by Andrew Durham is for extended retreats of several days or weeks in complete darkness. The Sanctuary does not currently have access to a space suitable for extended retreats, but maybe one day we shall...
For the first new moon of the year, Johannes of Trolldom writes:
“Here is some old traditional trolldom spellwork done at this time. Dress up, fill pockets and hands with what you want more of and go outside. Turn to the moon and bow three times, and you will get more of what you hold during the coming year.”
"I remember lying down in the middle of my room — this is something I used to do spontaneously, meditate by just lying down either on the floor or on my bed, which was interesting as later I discovered there was actually a history of this practice in Ancient Greece..."
~ Peter Kingsley