“So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” - T.S. Elliot
I was lying in a foot of water that had been diluted by 900 pounds of Epsom salts, staring into a void of complete and inescapable darkness. The liquid was set to my body temperature and I was already becoming dissociated with my limbs, growing increasingly aware of their devolution into the nothingness that enveloped me. The only thing I could hear was the sound of my breath and the rhythmic thumping of my heart, which, as expected, was beating much faster than normal, due to the initial shock of my isolation. The air was thick with humidity and, as my body searched for a source of equilibrium, I finally came to terms with the situation. I was alone: purposefully isolating my mind, willingly depriving myself of all senses, and would not be receiving any external stimuli for another hour. I was in a sensory deprivation tank.
In those first moments of isolated fear, I succumbed to a bout of “mind chatter.” My thoughts wandered, retracing the decisions that would eventually lead to this Chamber of Nothing.
Earlier in the day, I met with two Insight colleagues, Maxwell and Nate, with the intention of sharing the experience of nothing together. As the excitement of the unknown pulsated through conversation, we drove to Carson City, where a man provides the service of sensory deprivation in the form of two coffin-like tanks that are located in the guest bedroom of his home.
The drive itself was a transcendental experience. Outside my passenger window, the sprawling Sierras looked down on the sprawling desert and two men were soaring through the air under yellow parachutes, escaping the limitations of gravity. Inside the car, we talked of our expectations, hopes, and fears while listening to Justin Bieber’s song, “U Smile,” at 8 times slower than normal, filling the car with the young pop-outlaw’s altered harmonics for an entire half hour and, ultimately, providing a surreally angelic atmosphere to the drive. I took this song’s transformation as a symbol of our intention: like the altered song, Maxwell, Nate, and I were seeking an altered state, abandoning normalcy in hopes of becoming something new, something more beautiful than the original.
But, what I did not realize on the drive, was that, in the process of altering a Justin Bieber song, one must sit in a room with the original for a very, very long time, taking it apart in small chunks and dissecting the 100 millisecond pieces, one at a time. This can be a truly horrific experience. Similarly, in order to achieve an altered state of consciousness through sensory deprivation, one must sit in a room with the inherited state of self for a very, very long time. This, I learned, can also be a truly horrific experience, like a forced form of self-realization, of self-examination.
We arrived at the house a bit early, but our nothing-enabler welcomed us into his home with the open arms. He showed us the two deprivation tanks, noted the efficiency of their filtration systems, and explained the flotation process: two of us were to go first, showering, in order to remove the natural oils from our bodies, and proceeding to float while the third person waited. Then, while the first two got out of their tanks, showered, and readjusted to external stimuli, the third would shower and begin his hour-long experience alone. We decided that, because Nate was the photographer for the trip, Maxwell and I would venture into the void first, allowing Nate to take his photos.
I soon found myself standing naked next to Maxwell, staring into the tank while Nate snapped exotic photos of our testicles. I said good luck to Maxwell, struck a pose for Nate, and took my first steps into the moisture of the tank. It wasn’t until the lid was closed, however, that I realized the gravity of the situation. I was immediately submerged into a pure, unadulterated darkness, unlike anything I had ever experienced.
In these initial moments, I experienced a series of irrational visions; I was subdued by a claustrophobia-induced paranoia that was driven by an absolute loss of control. I tried, desperately, to clench onto any form of self-orientation, any trace of the outside world, unable to let go and be truly alone. I realized that I was experiencing death, that this blackness is the inherent result of all life, and that, even if I stepped out of the tank, I was only fleeing from the inevitable. I had extreme, dark, obsessive-compulsive interactions with myself, simply unprepared for that level of solitude and existential dilemma.
I was experiencing the part of the float in which I had to sit and dissect the symbolic, original version of the Bieber song. My psyche was broken down into small, millisecond chunks and stretched out before me, expanding through the infinite darkness, completely unavoidable. I soon realized that in order to change, to achieve my goal of meditative transcendence and accept fate, the first step I had to take was awareness of that fate, and the second, accepting it.
An important thing to note is that, although these moments of visceral terror seemed to last for several minutes, they could have just as easily occurred in a single, fleeting flash; it is impossible to tell for sure. One of the first things you lose during a float is the ability to perceive time. Perhaps because of my initial claustrophobia and unwillingness to accept the unknown, I immediately became detached from the outside world, forced to face myself, my individuality, my limited life-span, my own being. And, seemingly as quick as it came, my negativity vanished, leaving me with an overwhelming sense of calm and relaxation.
This, if sticking with the “U-Smile” metaphor, was the portion of the float that was slowed down by 800 percent, entirely separated from regular time and expanding into an infinite void. The Epsom salt allows you to float perfectly atop the foot of water, creating an illusion of weightlessness. I heard the joints, muscles, and bones in my body align, cracking and shifting, coming to form a perfect, painless posture. My body melted into the liquid, detaching mind from body, and allowing me to physically transcend. I plunged, head first and confident, into my mind, having vague, warm hallucinatory fantasies that manifested themselves in the phosphenes in my eyes. This state I found myself in, I later learned, is called a “theta” state, which is the ultimate goal of flotation. In a theta state, you are partly asleep and partly cognitive, aware of yourself while reaching a point of pure relaxation.
Then, after what felt like only fifteen minutes, my hour was up, and I stepped into the guest room again, seeing the world and Max’s limp penis as if for the first time.
As I waited with Maxwell in the small room designated for recuperation, I underwent a massive struggle to understand the experience. Comprehending the utter darkness was difficult, however I found that the abandonment of an internal clock was most awing, and I virtually could not understand why it had gone by so quickly. I hoped that discussing the experience with Maxwell would help a bit, because comparing experiences with others as always helped me to better understand my own. But, because the experience of sensory deprivation is so specific to the individual, so magnified upon the self, the discussion only furthered my questions and curiosities.
The post-flotation experience has been described by many as profound and refreshing, like getting a full nights rest within the single hour spent in the tank. The typical formula presented by most sensory deprivation experts states that an hour in the tank is equivalent to four hours of pure REM sleep. However, I didn’t experience this kind of psychological or physical rejuvenation. I immediately felt like I wanted more time in the tank, and still believe that in order to truly grasp the potential of this experience, I would have to stay inside for several hours and delve deeper into myself and much deeper into this transformative theta state.
Although I did not get very deep into this theta state during my first float, having only a glimpse at sensory deprivation’s potential, the experience was enough to shift the way I perceive the world, leaving me pleading for more. This tool has a number of uses, both recreationally and medically, facilitating an entire reconstruction of your personal identity. Whether it be used as an exploration into natural hallucination, a form of pure, unfaltering meditation, or simply an all-out escape from the burdens of modern society, I would encourage anyone to give nothing a chance.