Sensory deprivation and meditation

October 6, 2015

“Can I go in naked?” I asked awkwardly.

Why do they make you ask this question? I thought to myself.

“Most people prefer being naked, but if that grosses you out, feel free to put a bathing suit on.”

“OK”

“But, most people go naked, and don’t worry, the salt kills everything”.

Nice.

Ever since reading The Lost Symbol, I have been intrigued by sensory deprivation tanks. I would tell people that it was the intense relaxation that I found so alluring, but truthfully it was the possibility of hallucinations without drugs that I craved. It is hard to get your hands on the caliber of tank that Professor Langdon ‘died’ in, but in cities like Toronto, float clinics are becoming quite popular. So I had booked one. In fact, I booked three (50% off) and this was my first time.

In front of me lay a large car shaped object that would be my home for the next hour. It was white, curvy, and full of a thousand pounds of salt. The salt modifies the dynamics of the water and even the heaviest of humans are able to float in a small amount of water. This effect, combined with the darkness, and sound proofing leads to a deprivation of sensory input. Your brain processes billions of inputs a second and heuristically collapses them into an experience we call conciseness. Removing these inputs reduces the load on your mind, and focusing inwardly becomes easier, so they say.

I opened the hood and instantly my eyes started to water from the salt saturated air. Dipping a toe in felt strange, the water was porridge, heavy and thick. Sitting down, I extended my legs in front of me as I leaned back and lay my arms to the side. The water was no more than a foot deep, and I was floating. “Experience 0-G weightlessness”, that’s what the ads had said. I could still feel the weight of body but I did feel lighter. Maybe not 0-G but close to it.

Craving darkness, I pushed lightly on the hard plastic button to kill the lights. This small outward force propelled me back and to the side. Now, in complete darkness, I countered with a quick push to my left and found myself against the right wall. “Smaller movements”, I thought. Using my fingers and toes as range finders, I mapped the area. Photons are the stewards of space, without them I was lost. Settling into what felt like the center, I lay motionless.

Meditation is more boring than difficult. I am no Buddha but I know from experience that meditation’s simplicity is what makes it so difficult. Like arithmetic, the basics can be taught to child, but it’s depths can take lifetimes to explore. Floating in the dark shallow water, I closed my eyes and dove deep in search of light.

If I could only stay awake. Five minutes into my dive and it was clear that sleep would be the only threat lurking in these waters. I can’t remember the last time I got the doctor recommended dose, and I had abstained from caffeine all morning to keep the session pure. Sleep is so easy. Sleep is surrender. Sleeping is giving in… this wouldn’t do. I needed a garrison. I turned my awareness towards the base of my spine, took a deep breath, and created light. The light started off as a single point, but quickly grew in diameter. As it stabilized I watched it slither its way up my spinal column to my crown. I felt an electric feeling diffuse through my body, like a battery recharging. I was buzzing, and could feel the weight of sleep being slowly lifted.

“I wonder how Mary and Bill are? Was is Hal Put-off or Hal Poughtof? I wonder who will play the villain in Lost Symbol? Have they started filming? There is no way that Ned Stark had affair, Jon is dragon born. I have to remember to email Old Row, did I set a reminder? Maybe if he’s a warg, he can control the dragons and unleash them on the Others. I wonder what Jack and Christina are doing…

Thoughts.

I would deal with them in a minute. Meanwhile, my inner eye turned away from the beam of light and inspected my heart. The rhythmic firing started to slow and for a second I worried it would grind to halt. My heart would serve as timekeeper for today’s expedition so I listened intently for several minutes and found my pace, trying my best to match my breathing. Comfortable that it would continue for at least another moment, I seated my awareness in my feet. Starting at my toes, I began the scan. Traveling up my body, through my chest and ending between my eyes I sent fresh blood and oxygen to any areas that encountered resistance. Feeling clear, I took a deep breath.

“Now… about those thoughts”, I thought to myself.

“How would I rig a cron job to run in multiple timezones for different users? I this what the Dead Sea would be like? The Dead Sea is dead because it only takes and does not give. I should re-listen to Zig’s stuff. I wonder if Seth Godin has a new book? Should I learn Elixir or Go next …”

Thoughts.

I opened my eyes and saw a blue sky. Healthy green grass surrounded me and the air smelled crisp and fresh. I had been here before. Shuffling my hands under my head and digging my shoulders into the ground I got comfy and tilted my head to the sky. The sky was so clear. It felt nice to look at nothing but empty sky. In the distance, columns of air were condensing into familiar shapes. I could see them moving towards me and couldn’t help but feel connected to them. “Where did they come from?” The coral blue sky seemed to birth them so naturally. From apparently nothing, came something. The longer I watched, the less familiar they became. A cloud that had looked like a wing transformed into a shapeless lump by the time it passed overhead and I suddenly felt cold as the sun tucked behind a large cloud.

Focusing, I tried to remove the clouds but nothing happened. The more I tried to stop them, the more I could see them coming, taking familiar forms, faster than ever now. Letting go, I decided to play a new game. Rather than stopping the clouds, I watched them, attention without attachment. The clouds would always come, it’s just the nature of the meadow. I watched for what felt like hours, watching shapeless lump after lump pass. Day turned to night and darkness filled the sky. Fresh, salty water brushed past my face as the jets turned back on. I opened my eyes. The sky was black, and I was floating inside a tank full of salt.

My body was buzzing, from toe to crown, I felt electric. The jets of water were a subtle signal that my time had ended. Did I fall asleep? I was not sure. I couldn’t tell you how long I was in the meadow but I felt relaxed. My skin was soft and chunks of salt had crystalized in my hair. I rinsed off and dressed, clothes felt strange as my body was still buzzing. I threw on my backpack, waved goodbye to the receptionist and hit the streets of Liberty Village for my walk to work.

Work that day was different. While the buzzing on my skin had subsided I felt lighter. I ate healthier and opted to stand for much of the day. I was very productive too. Heading home to my family was sweeter than ever. I took my son to the park with my wife, gave him bath and fell asleep on the couch watching Coronation Street.

When I finally went to bed, the buzzing returned. Would I go back to the meadow? I couldn’t say, but I would be going back for two more sessions in that tank, where I would surely find myself in that sweet and salty place again.

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