First Experience with Sensory Deprivation

What better way to ring out the old year than to immerse oneself in a tank of body-temperature saline solution, suspended in near-perfect darkness and near-perfect quiet for an hour-plus, drifting and floating in mind and body, meditating out the old to ring in the new?

A friend and I spent New Year’s Eve floating in a pair of sensory deprivation tanks at Oakland Floats. This was my first experience with sensory deprivation and I truly didn’t know what to expect – would it be a simple relaxation session, a hallucinatory dream, a life-changing return to the womb, or …  something else?

In the end, the experience was more like my occasional experiments with meditation: A few transcendental glimmers, but mostly the ever-slippery mind weaving back and forth between calmness and thoughts of the day, as when falling asleep. At one point, I became water and the water had a softly breathing throat, breathing into the universe, which itself was represented by a slowly twirling dodecahedron of blue light. But most of the time was spent thinking about the bowl of Pho I intended to consume afterwards, the conversations I’d had with family over the break, my impending return to work, etc. Non-concentration is a hard thing to hold onto.

The tanks themselves were not fancy: Fiberglass construction, with a push-out entrance/exit flap at a 45-degree angle. Inside, I did not find perfect darkness as I had expected — for safety, a gentle purple light glimmered underwater so one could at least re-orient if claustrophobia set in,  or if one had a need to remember which way was up.

Your life experiences in water have been marked by strong temperature differentials between moisture and the surrounding air, but not here. In a sensory deprivation tank, both air and water are precisely at body temperature. That got me wondering: With almost infinite variations in the human body amongst individuals, how amazing is it that we all share almost exactly the same body temperature? In the tank, temperature is so precisely controlled that your arm feels a bit chilly when you wave it in the air. But if you remain perfectly still, you cannot “feel” the air at all.

For the first few minutes, as I transitioned into the experience, I found myself looking for a hot tub experience. Where are the bubbles? Can I turn up the heat? But this is not a hot tub – it’s something different. Once my mind quieted down and stopped looking for stimulus, the edges of my body seemed to disappear into the air and water, until I could no longer figure out where my body ended and the air/water began. This undifferentiated feeling helped me to lose myself in the experience. This experience of total support is the one that manufacturers of memory foam mattresses are trying to emulate – total support from all angles, so that the effects of gravity seem to disappear. Weightlessness, like what I feel when scuba diving, but without all of the sensory stimulus that comes with diving,

The buoyancy provided by the strong saline mixture is such that half your body is in water, while half of it is out. When I flipped over face-down for some breath-holding meditation, my butt was 100% out of water, which would never happen in the bathtub. Every now and then, as my body slowly drifted in the tank, some bit of it would touch the sides, which was a gentle but jarring reminder of where I was and what I was doing.

A “halo” of light foam is provided to rest your head in, but I realized after a bit that I didn’t need it – the buoyancy is so effective that one’s head is actually supported by the water without assistance.

After a while, I realized that I had no clear sense of how much time had passed. Had I been in for 15 minutes or an hour? With no external stimulation, I found that my time-sensing radar had become completely unplugged, which was both a disorienting and a welcome experience.

The saline solution is strong enough to sting if you have any cuts or wounds on your body — wish I’d thought in advance to cover mine with NuSkin or Vaseline. After my face-down experiment, my eyes stung a bit, even though I’d kept them closed. A squirt bottle filled with clean water is provided to flush them out if this happens, but I didn’t use it.

So what exactly is this sensory deprivation experience? A form of meditation? A salve for tired muscles? Simple relaxation? It’s anything you want or need it to be. Like anything, you get out of it what you put into it. I can’t exactly say that I emerged a different person, but I’m glad I experienced it, and would be happy to do it again. It was certainly a perfect way to say goodbye to 2018, far removed from the fireworks of the world. Yum.

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