The adventures are continuing now in 2015, starting with almost the opposite of an adventure – the removal of all external stimuli. My friend Kari treated me for my birthday to a session of flotation therapy, which is where a person floats in salt water inside a sealed container with no source of light or sound. In other words – a sensory deprivation tank.
When she first mentioned wanting to treat me to this, I immediately thought of the 1980 William Hurt movie Altered States (actually I had thought it was a Beau Bridges movie) where Hurt starred as a researcher using a sensory deprivation tank to explore the limits of his mind. In the end, he started reverting to an amoebic blob.
Uh, thanks Kari.
My second thought was – would I be able to handle the sense of claustrophobia?
Of course, I do love floating in warm water…
So yesterday, we went to Hope Floats, a place in Bethesda, Maryland, where sensory deprivation is used as a way to meditate, or at least to de-stress from external influences. I won’t go into all the potential benefits – the website details many. I did not read these details before going (I didn’t even know whether I’d need a bathing suit; I didn’t), but they are interesting to read now. I don’t think I quite reached the state of euphoria mentioned as a benefit, but who knows, maybe I am no longer deficient in magnesium (see below).
Anyway, when we arrived, Hope Floats was running a little bit behind, so we started off with about 20 minutes of relaxation in their sauna. I normally do not like saunas because they are just too HOT, and I feel like I am going to pass out. This one was pretty close to the perfect temperature. Nice.
Then the tank…. It does look like the one in Altered States… Joy.
The water looks inviting, but it is filled with 800 lbs (can that be right?) of Epsom Salts, magnesium sulfate. We were told to use Vaseline to protect any cuts before we got in, and not to rub our hands against our eyes when floating. Okay – good advice.
Here, without the flash, you start to get the sense of how dark it can be in there.
I climbed inside. Here are some of the main (often repeated) thoughts running through my mind while immersed in pitch blackness inside a big metal container, floating on such salty water that it is impossible to get your body under the surface.
1st 2 minutes
– Panic. Complete utter darkness when I open my eyes. Don’t open eyes.
– Air is hot, and it is a bit of a struggle to breathe. Force oneself to breathe calmly.
– Enjoy the sensation of floating on such salty water. This must be what floating on the Dead Sea is like.
– Curse the stupidity of shaving one’s legs the day one does this, and not putting more Vaseline on.
– Panic every few seconds, hold on to handles near one’s head, breathe deeply. Wonder how many people open the door to let in light once the attendant has left the room.
1st 10 minutes
– Latch on to the piped, new-age music as a lifeline. Occasionally open eyelids, shut them again.
– What does one do with one’s arms? The water is so salty, your arms float at the surface at awkward angles. I raise them above my head for a good portion, but then when my shoulders become sore, I rest them on my stomach – such is the saltiness, you don’t sink as a result.
– Do not think of coffins, do not think of being trapped in a coffin…. Do not open eyes while thinking of being trapped in a coffin…
– Oh, cool, my hair is dispersed in a complete nimbus around my head.
Next 20 minutes or so
– The music ends – no more sound….
– Think of space instead, that one is in floating within the universe. Aahh, better.
– Except for the hair, though, one can only float two dimensionally – it is impossible to move vertically – the salt water grasps onto my arms, and they become extremely heavy to lift. (Kari said the same thing happened to her.)
– Play around in the tank. push your self from one end to another. Panic a bit when you occasionally can’t feel a wall.
~45 minutes in
– Think about how you are suspended in the universe, breathing in millions of atoms.
– Wonder whether there’s enough oxygen in the tank, and if you are going to start getting dizzy from too much carbon dioxide… No dizziness so far, but no sound of mechanical ventilation. (I found the vents afterwards.)
– Did I just fall asleep?
Last 10 minutes
– Why can’t I feel like I am connected with the universe, like I do sometimes when contemplating life at home? At home, with my eyes closed and thinking about how my mind controls my arms, legs, and about the of atoms I breathe in with each breath, I feel connected to the 3-dimensional space of the universe. But here, I cannot get to that state-of-awareness. Unless I move, I cannot sense anything around me, even my feet. There’s not even much sense of gravity. I lose that sense of connection to the universe. Instead it is just me.
– I should really start thinking about my own mind then. But my thoughts keep wandering.
– After each session, do they drain all of this salty water into the sewer system and then into the Potomac and kill tons of fish? (No, it is filtered and reused; as it is too salty to harbor any microorganisms.)
– Did I just fall asleep again? As the water was too buoyant for me to even put my head underwater, I feel relatively safe having ‘spaced out.’ (It turns out some people use the tank to sleep in – that’s a little scary.)
– And the chimes sound. The session is over. Panic as I initially can’t find the door, and then when I do, my arms are so relaxed, and the door is so heavy, that I have a hard time opening it. I sit for a minute in the tank – enjoying the beautiful light…
Thank you Kari, for that incredible experience, which we have agreed not to repeat….
Next up, volunteering at the Polar Bear plunge. Another experience I plan to never repeat.