Brief Adventures in Sensory Deprivation

A woman lies in an isolation tank during flotation therapy in Mumbai, India, March 28, 2019. (Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters)
Into the dark

I  had just signed a form certifying that I was not currently on any illegal drugs, nor was I about to take them. I thought about the legal implications of that as I kicked off the ill-fitting shower shoes I was wearing. I stepped into the oversized tub, roughly eight feet square. I reached over to the edge and pressed a big rubbery button. This caused the lights in the room to go out, and the New Agey music to stop. Then, in complete darkness, I slowly leaned backward into ten inches of water, being careful not to drop my head so far in that the water got into my eye.

Because this water had roughly 850 pounds of epsom salt mixed into it, as I leaned in, the rest of my body floated upward. I started smiling maniacally at the sensation. After a minute or so I relaxed my neck and let my head settle in. The feeling of buoyancy, combined with the absolute darkness and silence, immediately gave me the startling impression that I was sliding across the surface of a body of water with more than a little velocity. Sometimes it felt like I was moving downstream, other times moving stern to port, even spiraling. I could consciously remind myself that I was still in an eight-by-eight-foot tub. But my senses contradicted me. They tried to convince me I was moving the way a fallen leaf floats atop an energetic creek.

The thought that made me giggle was, “I was right!”

We are told YouTube’s algorithm radicalizes people. You start watching some videos of comedian Bill Burr, suddenly you’re into Joe Rogan’s podcast, and then the algorithm feeds you cartoon frogs, and after a few weeks you’re donating to fascists in the Baltics. I got diverted somewhere. A few years ago, YouTube served me up a video of Joe Rogan talking about sensory-deprivation tanks. He praised the revival of this 1970s wellness and consciousness trend as a supercharged form of meditation and talked about hallucinations he’s had while doing it. He even praised it as better than a practice of meditation, a comment that still rubs me the wrong way. He praised the way he was able to work through emotional problems.

I hate wellness. I hate the cult of self-care. I really hate expensive consumable experiences when they are marketed as an alternative to the rigors of self-discipline. And besides that, the sensory-deprivation tank was invented by Dr. John C. Lilly in the 1950s. Lilly was a true American oddball. He did research into ketamine and psychedelic drugs. He preached the possibilities of teaching dolphins to speak English so that we might establish cross-species communication. He wrote dense works with titles like “Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer,” which you could get from the Whole Earth Catalog. Again, I’m the sort of person who would run from anything promoted alongside astral travel and telepathy. Lilly believed in and tried both.

But as soon as Joe Rogan described the idea of flotation, I had an intuition that I would probably enjoy being a Gerald Ford–era salted hippy doing consciousness experiments. At least for 90 minutes. I have an experimental side – I’ll write about extended fasting some other time — and right around the time I came upon the Rogan video, a flotation-tank center opened up just a few blocks from my home.

And now, here at National Review Online, I’d like to share my experiences in the tank, where I have learned to project my astral body into the dimension where Dr. Lilly now resides. It’s a telepathic vestibule located near the planet Kolob where astral dolphins have disclosed to us the great doings of Donald Trump’s fourth term as president of the United States.

I’d like to do that, but of course I’ve had none of the mystical experiences or drug-like trips some float devotees describe. I’ve floated a handful of times the past two years. It’s not cheap, but I try to go a few times a year. It’s still an odd experience. You sign a form saying that you aren’t on drugs or about to do them. When you get into the room, you take off all your clothes, shower, and put in ear plugs, before taking the plunge.

Eventually, that feeling of leaf-like movement abated in the first float and a stillness overtook me. I tried moving my arms around to find the maximally relaxing position. All positions were maximally relaxing. The water was heated to the human body temperature. If I concentrated on the sensations on my skin, I could still tell the difference between the water temperature and the air temperature. But sometimes even that sensation disappeared.

I normally cringe at comparisons between the human brain and computers, but some Millennial tech-tinkerers will remember that years ago you could cure a computer of some of its slowness by defragging the hard drive. Flotation feels like defragging the Human Biocomputer.

It’s not without discomforts. If you absent-mindedly attempt to scratch an itchy nose in the tank, that salty water will get in your eyes and sting like crazy. Usually a fresh-water squirt bottle is within reach to help you recover. As you dip into the tub, any cut on your skin, usually one you didn’t know you had, will be revealed to you through a very memorable lash of pain. But those sensations disappear quickly enough.

Really, I think of flotation like “screen therapy.” It seems to reverse some of the anxiety or stress that we inflict on ourselves by constantly using backlit screens — monitors, television sets, and smartphones. You might think you would fall asleep if placed in the dark and deprived of sensory input, but I tend to feel more intensely aware and awake in the tank, even as it primes me for reverie. Flotation also seems to help with several mysterious hitches in my body. My habitually tight pectoral minor muscles and the soreness in my right hip disappear or are relieved by that dip in the dark.

When I was young, we went on vacations to Jefferson, Maine. At night – sometimes along with a girl staying in one of the other cabins at the site — I’d lie in a grassy field and hunt for meteors in the great darkness above. At that time of year, the Indian summers turned to a dewy chill after dark. The stillness of a night sky conveyed nothing to me but a sense of awe, humility, and even piety. Now if I went back, I think I couldn’t escape the knowledge that the same still night sky is conveying text messages, emails, and Instagram photos about the enviable lives of my peers. But in the flotation tank, I’ve snatched back some of the darkness, stillness, and silence from the modern world. And though it is no substitute for religious practice, I do in fact feel that I’ve gotten a cheating glimpse of the “Habit of Perfection” Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about in his poem. A state of being where Silence sings, lips are lovely dumb, and one has eyes “shelled . . . with double dark” to “find the uncreated light.”


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