When I returned from my first trip to New York City, the moment I dropped my bags and stopped moving, my suburban apartment struck me as unnervingly quiet. It made me realize that in every moment for almost four weeks, my ears had been filled with some kind of background noise.
There’s no true quiet to be found in New York. Even when you’re alone and you become perfectly still, there are always traffic noises and muffled voices in the room with you.
Sleep is no respite from this, because the sounds penetrate that too. My dreams always contained whatever sound I would eventually wake up to — construction noises, honking, shouting, appliances running.
We spend our whole lives at the end of a firehose of sensory experience. It seems like it would be healthy to step out of that stream once in a while, if it were possible.
One afternoon a few weeks ago, I made my first attempt to do exactly that. It involved sealing myself, naked, in a darkened sensory deprivation tank. There’s a business a few blocks from me that offers 90-minute sessions.
Inside the car-sized tank, there’s about a foot of water thickened by a thousand pounds of dissolved Epsom salts, allowing you to float on your back safely while relaxing all of your muscles. The tank is soundproof and lightproof and warmed to skin temperature. Once you settle into position, you no longer feel the water, because it’s the same temperature as both the air and your skin. Without this temperature contrast, or light or sound, there’s virtually no sensory input happening at all.
Even though it was totally different than I expected, it turned out to be a fascinating and wonderful experience, and I will be doing it again.
90 minutes in space
The day of my appointment, I signed the waiver and entered my private room, where an employee briefed me on what to do: undress, shower thoroughly, put in earplugs (to prevent water from getting in), get in the tank and get comfortable. When you hear music playing through the water, your session is over. Get out and shower again. Then she left me to it.
Here’s the tank:
You get in the hatch (which, mercifully, has no lock), lie down, then pull it shut.
Then there you are. A strong feeling of “Now what do I do with myself?” arises very quickly, which reminds you that you’re here precisely because it’s the only place where there’s nothing to see and where nothing comes next. It takes a while to come to terms with this very foreign situation.
You do have one important task though: making a final decision on where to put your arms. Floating in liquid gives you a rare opportunity to let every muscle go, and at first no configuration feels quite natural. I began with my arms at my sides, but my biceps floated, which felt like I was stuck in a “bird dance” position. After trying to relax into it for a while, I decided to try the other possibility, which is to rest them above my head, like I’m signaling an NFL field goal.
Moving my arms above my head triggered the uncanny sensation of tumbling end-over-end through space. When I moved my arms back to my sides, the tumbling stopped. But I wanted my arms above my head, because it was much more comfortable. So I switched again, and just observed the tumbling feeling until it went away a minute later.
This whole time, there’s nothing to see, but your breath is incredibly loud. For meditators this is a boon — it has never been so easy to observe the breath’s details and texture without distraction.
In any case, the breath remains prominent in your experience, and may be the only thing reminding you that you’re there at all. Once you’re still, your sense of distance and spatial relationships quickly disappear. You might think you’d retain a pretty good idea of the shape and position of your body, because you’re so familiar with it, but it goes away pretty quickly when you have no feedback. Even gravity is no help, because you’re so buoyant that no body part is pressing against any recognizable surfaces.
So not only do you get the sensation of floating in space, but you aren’t sure exactlywhat is floating in space, because you don’t seem to have a body. Occasionally a physical sensation appears in the ether, and the moment you deduce that it’s a toe bumping the inside of the tank, it’s gone.
I spent some of the time actively meditating on the breath, but for the most part I just let myself explore the experience. At one point, I decided to open my eyes, and was surprised to find I couldn’t, because they were already open. This happened several times. Evidently there’s no way to know if your eyes are open except to physically check, unless you could somehow remember the last position you left them in.
Life is sublime, until you forget
With no stimulus, time really seems to stretch out. After I’d lost track of my body, I realized I had absolutely no idea how long I’d been in there, only that it could only have been a fraction of the full 90 minutes. By that time I was extremely comfortable, much more comfortable than I ever get in bed or in an armchair.
One completely unexpected effect was that my ability to imagine became supercharged. I pictured being in a hammock on the beach, and some very specific details came flooding in — the smell of hot sand, the feel of my bare feet on a sunlit nylon rope, the sense of being away from Canada, even.
This wasn’t a hallucination, it was just incredibly easy to imagine. I noticed I could imagine almost anything in incredible detail, with almost no effort. I imagined myself putting on a beautiful suit, and it was all there in extreme vividity: the fine material of the shirt against my arms, the soft non-sound of pushing a button through its hole, the feelings of importance and dignity you get when you know you look good, even a vague feeling of sadness that this shirt will only stay this clean and new for a few wears.
I found I could even imagine being in particular rooms with particular people, complete with all the obscure details of such a meeting, particularly the feeling of immediacy and vulnerability of really having that person there, live.
All of these visualizations contained details that were so subtle, they had never evenoccured to me outside of the moments in which I actually experienced them.
This was the most fascinating part of a thoroughly fascinating experience. There is a place in our minds, evidently, that holds on to these super-subtle details and can replicate them later, under certain conditions.
One of my visions came accompanied by harps and soft piano notes. I had all but forgotten the larger context of the blackness I was in — the tank, the room, the building, my booking — when the session ended. It took me a minute to convince myself that I was indeed hearing music that wasn’t in my head. I took a few minutes to float there in space and enjoy the music (Enya?) before opening the hatch.
In the hours following the float, everything I did seemed imbued with significance. It seemed curious that every little action in life (like squirting shampoo into my hand) came with its own unique wardrobe of sounds, looks and smells. It occurred to me that life could be totally bland, sense-wise, and still allow us to function, but for some mysterious reason it happens not to be. It’s extremely colorful and flamboyant; we just stop noticing this because we’re blessed with it all the time, for no clear reason.
Walking home was sublime but I knew the feeling would fade. I imagined how magical life would be if it were lived the other way around — if we spent most of our existence with no colors, shapes or sounds, and let ourselves out into the world for a couple hours at a time, to conduct our business and our relationships with full engagement. It would be hard to lose sight of how strangely beautiful it all is.