What is a Black Tent Temple?
A Black Tent Temple is an enclosed tent-like or cave-like incubation chamber of sacred endarkenment. It’s designed and built especially – but not exclusively – for women and gender-non-conforming folks whose needs for darkness, retreat, stillness, withdrawal, and contemplation have gone chronically unmet.
In a culture that expects us to perform positivity by pasting on a happy face even as our suffering deepens, show up at school or work even when our bodies and souls cry out desperately for restorative leisure, and extol the virtues of love and light even as we descend into darkness, a Black Tent Temple can be a welcoming space for what Charles Eisenstein has called “mutiny of the soul.”
Need a safe holding space that is free of all talk of “love and light” and New Age transcendence? A space in which you are invited to meditate on sorrow and endings, pray to and worship dark deities, and contemplate the deep receptive power of Holy Darkness? Do you gravitate toward enclosed, intimate spaces over expansive, sweeping vistas? Then the Black Tent Temple may be for you.
My intention with the Black Tent Temple Project is not to malign or disparage the light, but to encourage appropriate respect and appreciation for the darkness. We need endarkened places of worship. Too much light can be blinding, after all. And in the US especially, I’ve noticed, we have far too many cheaply built, unattractive, utilitarian buildings that are not well aligned with the subsurface energies of the Earth. A well-designed, well-implemented, emotionally evocative Black Tent Temple can help satisfy our need to create and enjoy places of dark earthy beauty, even in the midst of otherwise unremarkable spaces.
I’ve also been inspired by Andrew Durham’s work in designing and building darkroom retreats. In an achievement-driven culture held in thrall to the Protestant work ethic, we have precious few places for the kind of deep self-care and healing that can be found through extended time spent in solitude and darkness.
One day I hope to find a space for the Hermitage that would be appropriate for building both a subterranean Black Tent Temple and a full darkroom retreat using Andrew Durham’s DIY plans. In the meantime, I’ve taken steps in that direction by creating a shadowy Black Tent Temple incubation space at the Hermitage, and collecting images on my Black Tent Temple board on Pinterest to help convey the feeling tone I aim for with this project.
Of necessity, this space must be kept within the confines of my 550-sq.ft. studio live/work space, without interfering with the flow of daily life. To accomplish this, I installed two sets of black curtains to introduce a sense of separation between the temple space and the spaces I use for sleeping, grooming, etc. When I do incubation work, I draw the curtains closed to mark the boundaries of the space. For everyday activities, I simply leave the curtains open.
Of course, as you might expect since I’m a dark ambient music specialist, I have playlists I designed for the Black Tent Temple; they focus on themes of descent, alchemy, grief, subterranean spaces, underworld deities, and so on.
Black Tent Temple spaces can be used many ways, however. There’s plenty of room for creativity!
One of the beauties of the Black Tent Temple concept is that it’s portable. With the appropriate supplies, it can be pulled together in any suitable space. A basement, a garage, a tent at a festival, or whatever suits your needs. There’s no need to wait until a permanent temple is built.
I design and set up Black Tent Temple spaces for the communities I serve. If you’re in Portland, there’s information on my services page about engaging me to create an endarkened meditative space to suit your needs. If you like the idea, feel free to get creative and run with it on your own! I’d love to see photos and descriptions of Black Tent Temple spaces all over the world.
How did this idea get started?
“What would it be like,” I often wondered to myself when I first felt the stirrings that later became the Black Tent Temple Project, “if there were such a thing as a feminist harem?”
Well, all right, not a harem…but some kind of beautiful place with veiled women and gender-non-conforming folks lounging in comfortable garments, dancing and creating art, working on their own terms, meditating, praying, helping to care for one another, and reclining in leisure – instead of, say, spending the bulk of their time in stressful 9-to-5 wage labor jobs and handling a grossly disproportionate share of unpaid caring labor, as so many of us do right now?
This portrayal of a harem is largely utopian Orientalist fantasy, of course. Nonetheless, I felt there was a seed within it that could be worth exploring in a decolonizing context. What could that kind of environment be like if it weren’t operating under the yoke of patriarchy – i.e., if it were designed and maintained by women, queers, and gender-non-conforming folks for other women, queers, and gender-non-conforming folks? Could a building used for religious purposes – a monastery, even – be adapted to serve their needs, instead of the purposes of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?
Soon after that fantasy seized me, I came across the Red Tent Temple movement. In it, I saw a glimpse of what I wanted: a safe (and artistically lush!) space for women to just be people – to be who they are – instead of being conscripted into the service of patriarchal, heterosexist roles and endless unpaid, unreciprocated emotional labor. Still, there was something about the Red Tents that didn’t suit me; much as I liked the decor, I knew I’d never feel 100% at home in that space. The atmosphere wasn’t dark enough for my tastes, and as a non-parent with no particular interest in women’s blood mysteries, I needed something different.
I was raised in a New Age family and had to endure a lot of New Age gaslighting, so as an adult I became instantly suspicious of anything that smacked of false or shallow “positivity” and spiritual bypassing. Much as I respect what the Red Tent Temples are doing and appreciate that they serve the needs of some women, I knew they weren’t for me. I knew I needed something darker, and more explicitly queer, witchy, and devotional. I needed a space for incubation.
Around that same time, I discovered Peter Kingsley’s book In The Dark Places of Wisdom. “We already have everything we need to know, in the darkness inside ourselves,” Kingsley writes in this extraordinary book. He describes ancient practices of quiet, motionless lying down in caves or other enclosed spaces for long periods of time, until entering a state described as “neither sleep nor waking” and being given a mystical vision, perhaps an encounter with a goddess or god. Kingsley emphasized that what is important for this incubation is to
“…do absolutely nothing. The point came when you wouldn’t struggle or make an effort. You’d just have to surrender to your condition. You would lie down as if you were dead…sometimes for days at a time. And you’d wait for the healing to come from somewhere else, from another level of awareness and another level of being.”
I knew there was wisdom here that I needed – wisdom I wish I’d had in the aftermath of the loss of my marriage, when I was overwhelmed with grief and had nowhere to turn. I wanted to help create endarkened spaces where the receptive wisdom of mystical incubation might become available to others.
That’s how the first Black Tent Temple was born at the Hermitage.