Recently I got to try something I’ve been intrigued by for some time: sensory deprivation. I don’t remember where I first learned about the idea, but since I became aware of it I’ve seen it pitched as the centre of a Venn diagram between spa treatment and mindfulness experience. The core principle is simply to remove as much external stimulus as possible. That means absolute darkness, near silence, and weightless suspension in water heated to your body temperature, such that gravity and touch are counterbalanced.
In a private room, the first step is to take a quick shower whilst the pod finishes its cleaning cycle. Whilst it’s doing this the water bubbles gently and is lit pink by an underwater LED. I felt a little apprehensive about the whole thing at this point, simply because it’s so unlike anything else I’ve done. I would class myself as an experienced novice at meditation. It has been a while since I maintained a regular practice, but I probably have a few hundred hours’ of zazen over the course of two decades. In theory the state inside the tank is one that you seek during meditation: a still place in which to be alone with the breath. But any meditator will tell you that it’s not external stimuli, but the mind, that presents the most persistent obstacle – and I was due to take my mind in with me.
My entry into the tank was graceless. Not only are the surfaces plastic, and as such kind of slippy like the average bathtub, but the water fights you immediately. The 300kg of magnesium sulfate dissolved in the 1,000L of water means you float like a rubber duck. Whilst bobbing around, trying to reach up behind me to pull the lid of the tank down, I felt as ridiculous as I likely looked.
Once that was out of the way, I had a few moments to try and settle in. The pink light remained on in the pod, and the water continued to bubble gently around me. I considered and then rejected the earplugs that had been provided, and made several attempts to find a comfortable position for my arms. In the end I opted to have my hands resting underneath my head. And no sooner had I got that figured out, than the light and the pump shut off. Absolute darkness. Darkness that felt like it had a weight and texture. And complete silence unless I actively made a sound. I’ll admit that the nullification of my senses freaked me out at first. Understanding intellectually what the experience entails, and going into it, are two very different things. A couple of times, just to check I hadn’t entirely disappeared from existence, I moved my foot to splash some water, or stretched out and heard my back crack. Otherwise all I could hear was the beat of my heart.
For a little over an hour I floated; just me, in an enclosed pod about the size of a single bed. I found that, just like meditation when you’re not in the habit, the trickiest part was remembering that there was nothing to do – nothing I should be doing. I, at least, am so accustomed to asking myself whether I’m doing any given task ‘correctly’ or ‘well’ that it becomes reflexive for those questions to arise consistently in my subconscious. Several times throughout the hour I caught myself wondering whether I was floating as I ‘should’ be, or if I was having the ‘right’ thoughts during the experience. In meditation you learn that the mind thinks like the lungs breathe and the heart beats – it happens naturally and it’s not something you can stop; the key is in how you direct you attention. I found floating to be a similar experience.
I had heard beforehand that to many people the hour doesn’t feel like an hour. I didn’t sleep, as some people choose to do, but I did have the experience that the time seemed to pass quite quickly. I have certainly sat half hour sessions of zazen, with a sore lower back and numbing butt, that felt a lot longer. My uneducated guess is that this has something to do with how the mind processes time: that devoid of external stimulus your ability to approximate duration becomes increasingly inexact. When the water began to bubble gently, and then the pink light came on, I climbed (gracelessly) out of the pod. Momentarily it was odd to feel the weight of my own limbs again, and under my feet the grit of a little epsomite that dusted the floor. I showered once more, rinsing the salts off my skin and out of my hair, dressed, and made my way back out of the spa to surprisingly bright sunlight.
For the remainder of the day I felt calm, and more comfortable than normal moving at a slower pace, both physically and mentally. Restful, is probably the most appropriate word I can use. I was glad I didn’t have anything else planned for the day, as it meant I could just enjoy the feeling until I headed to bed a little earlier than usual.
It’s something that I’d like to repeat, I think. If for no other reason than to bypass the initial stage of apprehension at the unfamiliar, lessen the period needed for adjustment, and be able to settle in more quickly to the experience itself. I’d also encourage you to try it if it’s something you’re half curious about. As strange a way as it might seem to sign off an eight paragraph description of an experience, it’s kind of indescribable.