Field Report #2: Sensory Deprivation Tank
(Meditation: reports from the field are part of an ongoing series)
Not knowing how near Truth is,
People seek it far away – what a pity!
They are like he who, in the midst of water,
Cries in thirst so imploringly.
Hakuin Ekaku, Zen Master
Tonight was my first time in a sensory deprivation tank. Some friends of mine here in Vancouver recently purchased one and have opened it up to the public. Knowing I like to meditate they offered me a free trial run and I happily obliged. As it turned out, it was like a marriage between deep meditation and SCUBA diving at night. Both are experiences of vast expanse and boundary-less awareness; both keep you coming back for more.
For those who don’t know, a sensory deprivation tank is a chamber half-filled with a mix of water and Epsom salt (a lot of Epsom salt). Inside the chamber it’s completely black and essentially sound proof. So when you lie down in the tank you float effortlessly, and can’t see or hear a thing from the outside. The water is heated to 93.5 degrees, the temperature of the human body, so you can’t really feel the water unless you slosh around. The combined effect is a sensory deprived, suspended limbo.
When I arrived at my friend’s house he had the water filtered and the tank ready to go (he’s only had the thing for a couple of weeks and already has several paying customers per day). I showered down, hopped naked into the tank, and shut the door behind me.
The chamber was completely black. Lying back in water I was happy for the recommendations from my girlfriend not to shave before I came. The water was very salty and even without any knicks or cuts from a razor other orifices burned upon entry. That sensation passed and I was surprised by how easily my head rested in the water while my body floated, only partly submerged. It was a bit like a waterbed – without the cover. The disturbed water gradually stopped rippling around me until all that remained was the darkness and my breath.
The experience of complete blackness and spatial disorientation was not entirely new to me. As a former SCUBA dive instructor I used to go night diving with friends off the coast of Vancouver. While descending along underwater cliffs 20 meters down, we’d turn to face out to sea, shut off our lights, and rest suspended in the black abyss. From here it’s completely black, you can’t see anything and have absolutely no reference point to where you are. You’re also under 60ft of water so you’re pressurized equally at every point on your body (so you can’t feel gravity’s pull). The effect is complete disorientation and you have no idea of what’s up or down, or even how deep you are. It’s just you, alone, suspended in the vast black nothingness of the Pacific Ocean. It was actually pretty freaky (not to mention dangerous) and we’d usually turn the lights back on after just a few seconds of darkness.
Back inside the sensory deprivation chamber I settled into the water and was able to get comfortable pretty quickly. There was no fear of impending shark attacks and it was pleasantly warm and quiet.
I closed my eyes and began meditating as I normally would. I remained still, relaxed, and paid attention to my experience. After several minutes the thought struck me to open my eyes. To my surprise, nothing in my experience changed. I felt my eyelids opening, but there was nothing to see. They opened into the same blackness they were closed behind only moments before. This was an interesting experience and it made me feel as though I was looking out into endless space. Having absolutely no visual reference to where I was I couldn’t help contemplate the true vastness of the universe all around me. Normally the vastness is constrained by the walls around us, or the horizon line in the distance, but not in the darkness. Here it remains limitless and yours to consider.
This is when I noticed another interesting aspect of my experience. Although I couldn’t see anything, I observed the mind habitually creating images and outlines of where it “knew” my body and surroundings were. By this point my legs didn’t really have any sensation, as they’d become accustomed to the temperature of the still water around them. Yet my mind kept returning to a “visual” image of where my legs were and it groped and searched for some experience to locate them. While I resisted moving so as not to ripple the water and reveal their location, I imagined that this might be the experience that amputees have of missing limbs.
It was a strange phenomenon to observe the mind groping around habitually for some sort of reference, and then, when it couldn’t locate one, to just imagine it instead. It was like the mind needed an anchor otherwise it might melt away into the blackness. In fact, this is exactly what began to occur as I continued meditation and the mind relaxed of its own accord. At several points during the session I experienced no boundary or distinction between my mind, my body, and the water around me. My sense of awareness was no longer locked in my head, behind the eyes. It was an experience of awareness without boundaries.
Following these brief episodes, the mind would clamour back into gear and this is when I really noticed its habitual need for constrained boundaries and points of reference. It couldn’t really operate in a realm without limits. In fact, it actually created its own imaginary confines when it couldn’t feel any physically. I didn’t try to do it; the mind did it automatically: boundaries just kind of popped into every thought I had. It was very strange to observe.
It seems the mind can only operate in relationship to other things. This makes sense, I guess, because our egos apparently evolved as a way for us to differentiate ourselves from our environment. Without this feature of the mind we wouldn’t have the feeling of being an individual, there’d be no ‘others’ or world ‘out there’. So as the sensory boundaries of my experience fell away it's not surprising that the mind would keep trying to do its thing, defining boundaries even where there were none. This constant self-referencing in relation to other things is an impulse that’s powered by several thousand years of evolutionary habit! It doesn’t want stop, even in a sensory deprivation tank.
But it does stop during meditation. That was my brief experience anyway. As I described earlier, there were moments when something much more significant began to seep-in through the gaps between my thoughts. As my mind relaxed, eventually it was drowned out altogether. What was left was vast and boundary-less, with qualities that were free from the compulsive grasping that characterizes the mind. In a flash I realized that it was this undifferentiated state that was actually the baseline of all experience. And in fact it was this very state that the mind was so compulsively fighting against as it obsessed to create barriers/distinctions/'others’ in any way it could. I found this quote tonight by Ken Wilber that describes it well:
“We perceive all sorts of objects as if they were separate from us. And we resist, we actually fight, the awareness of unity with all these perceived objects… We fight, in short, unity consciousness. Thus we are brought back to our major point: through assuming appropriate spiritual practices, we start to learn just how we resist unity consciousness. Spiritual practice forces this fundamental resistance to surface in our awareness… To see our resistance to unity consciousness is to be able, for the first time, to deal with it and finally to drop it – thus removing the secret obstacle to our own liberation” (1).
Slipping in and out of this experience, I heard three knocks on the door of the chamber that signaled my hour was up. I climbed out of the tank, showered, and said good-bye to my friend.
When I got outside I realized I was experiencing a sort of reverse sensory shock. I was disoriented again, but this time in a different way. Now I was trying to get a grip on the physical world around me. Where the heck did I park my car? It’s hard to say if this was the result of the sensory deprivation or the meditation, but it faded after about 10mins.
All in all, it was a surprising experience to see the mind’s habitual need to always be in reference to something else. Ultimately, however, this mental groping for the safety of certainty was no match for what still lays beyond it. The vastness I felt as the false boundaries of the mind fell away was like night diving in my own consciousness: floating in a suspended sea of awareness, without any notion of up or down, left or right, just the pregnant expanse of directionless infinity.
(1) Wilber, Ken (2001). No Boundary. Boston: Shambhala Publications, p 134.