I have a birthday tradition I like to observe each year. No: not the one where I get roaring drunk and start a bar fight; I gave that one up. Each year on the day of my birthday, I like to do something I’ve never done before. It doesn’t have to be anything showy or dangerous, although I do like to keep the bar high. For example, in previous years, I’ve taken a bus tour of my home city, which proved remarkably informative, and attended the funeral of a stranger. This year, I went with my sweetie to spend an hour and a half in a sensory deprivation tank. That definitely sounds showy enough to qualify, but the truth is, as an accomplished hippy, I’ve actually done this several times before. This time, on my birthday, I decided to spend a chunk of time in the tank meditating to see what a lack of sensory information would add to the meditation experience.
If you’ve ever seen the film Altered States you already know what a sensory deprivation tank is, but trust me, this was way less creepy. The place we went calls it a floatation tank in order to minimize the creep-out factor, and emphasizes its harmlessness by putting the word tranquility in it’s name. The website aptly describes it as being about the size and dimensions of a hatchback. Getting into it is a bit like climbing into the trunk of a car and closing the door on yourself. There’s enough space for two people to lie side by side in a relaxed posture. The tank has about 18 inches of water, that’s infused with about 1000 pounds of Epsom Salts, making it saltier than the Dead Sea. The water is kept carefully at body temperature. Lowering the lid over yourselves puts you in complete darkness, and lying on your back submerges your ears, making it essentially silent. If you’re claustrophobic, you’d probably rather spend the afternoon in the park.
If you lie completely still, which is what you’re meant to do, the buoyancy created by the salt makes you feel weightless. The water and air temperature removes sensations of hot or cold, and makes it unclear how much of your body is actually in the water. If you position yourself properly so that you’re not touching the sides or your companion, your body gradually relaxes into a neutral position that is where your joints naturally go to with no gravity or muscle contractions to affect them. Once you submerge your ears, there’s only you and your heartbeat.
I didn’t actually like hearing my own heartbeat much. Since I don’t typically feel it beating unless I’ve just run up 3 flights of stairs after a venti mocha on the way to be reunited with my lover after a month apart, I’m only accustomed to experiencing it as a sensation against my fingertips when monitoring my pulse. Hearing it without any somatic experience of it was sort of disorienting and distracting. I thought about doing some biofeedback experimenting with it during the meditation, but rejected the idea as too radical.
My partner and I agreed on tactile signals for me to communicate when I would start and stop my meditation. With your ears under water, anything spoken aloud by your companion is reduced to an eerie and frustrating mumble. When I’d sufficiently settled in, I indicated that I was about to withdraw into my inner life, and began my typical meditation practice.
To my own surprise, I found it much harder to clear my mind than usual. I hadn’t realized how much I unconsciously expect or rely on external sensations when I meditate. The surface beneath me, the pressure of my own weight against it, the coolness of air on my skin or the warmth of too many clothes all make a kind of background noise that you don’t recognize until it’s gone. When I was able to remain absolutely still, parts of my body seemed to vanish: my legs especially. Without proprioception (the sense of moving in space,) the pull of gravity, or tactile sensation of clothing or a resting surface, there’s nothing to indicate to your brain that there’s anything outside it. Occasionally I’d wiggle a finger or tow just for the reassurance. My mind was impatient and twitchy, eager for my proscribed sequence to end so I could stop trying not to think, move around a bit to feel the sensation, or engage in the delightful, balletic nonverbal communication with my partner which is one of the sweet aspects of sharing the floatation experience.
Finally, when I had finished, I relaxed my concentration and lay still, and, paradoxically, found that I didn’t actually want to let go of my self-imposed isolation by letting him know I’d finished. Meditating is effort. I’ve always felt that, and it was restful to do nothing at all after I was finished. I started thinking about weightlessness in a way I’d never done before.
I’m a great fan of Chris Hadfield, and followed his tweets from the International Space Station avidly. He talked a lot about weightlessness, but I’d never appreciated the postural aspects before. As a massage therapist and yoga practitioner, I talk and think a lot about proper posture. One’s shoulders should always be carried back, down, and away from the ears; this is fundamental. In virtual weightlessness, my shoulders didn’t want to do this. When I relaxed, they slid upward in a way that felt quite unnatural, and it made me wonder a lot about how people carry themselves in microgravity.
Spending time in the tank deliberately separated from my companion by the intention to engage in that most private of mental activities: meditation, wetted my appetite for floating alone. My first experiences of floating a couple of decades ago were solitary. At this temporal distance I can’t remember what my brain got up to without the sweet distraction of company, and I wondered a bit what it might have gotten up to outside the constraints of meditating if I’d lacked the beautiful magnet that one’s partner makes while floating together weightless. Perhaps the function of meditation is to eliminate all the external sensations we’re used to. Maybe being in the sensory deprivation tank is a kind of default meditation; the kind you don’t have to work at.