A Sense-less Rebirth in a Tank: How a Sensory Deprivation Chamber Changed the Way I View Everything

A Sense-less Rebirth in a Tank: How a Sensory Deprivation Chamber Changed the Way I View Everything
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Damien Gilley

This piece was written by Bri Jurries, an English major at the University of San Diego.

I thought there was a murderer waiting in the dark room. I opened up the heavy door to the sensory deprivation tank and couldn’t see a thing. Was my fear rational? No! But there I was, cold and damp from the pre-float shower and incredibly confused, with an hour and a half in darkness, silence, and aloneness before me. What the hell was I doing?

In a society obsessed with constant over-stimulation, the concept of intentional disconnection is foreign, if not strange and malignant. I instinctively reached for my phone, but then remembered it was already off, and time was ticking away. I climbed into the dark, waded into a tub of salty solution, and laid down as the receptionist instructed.

As a former collegiate swimmer, floating in water comes naturally to me, but even I was surprised at how immediately buoyant my body became in the tub. Lay back, put your arms over your head, let the water come up to your ears, lean your neck back, and float. Now what?

Full disclosure: I am not a meditator, do not consider myself particularly spiritual, and am definitely not religious. I vaguely heard about the float tank through various mediums, including Joe Rogan’s podcast, but went to the float spa wanting to simply relax from the late night I had the night before, think about breathing, and maybe listen to my mind. I had purposely not inquired about other people’s experiences to avoid getting my hopes up, since float tanks are rumored to facilitate interesting occurrences. But what happened to me in the tank that Sunday was unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in my life.

I immediately became aware that I’ve never been in absolute darkness before, at least not like this. It seemed my sense faculties had become irrelevant mechanisms, prompting my focus to shift to the less “normal” content of my subconscious. Staring into this blackness, scattered, random, and offbeat thoughts glided through my head. Compared to everyday thoughts, these were of a different type: I began contemplating the nature of form, the perception of image, and saw the relationship between shape and appearance as an illusory dance.

In reflection, the whole experience may be divided into several waves of realization:

As I continued to alternate between opening and closing my eyes, the first wave knocked out the solidity of location, space, as well as a fixed notion of time. The next deconstructing wave was particularly surprising, as my mind began to dismantle the whole of myself. All the labels I frequently used to define my identity over the years began to unravel. I no longer felt like a student, an athlete, an employee, a 22-year-old, a female, or even a human; it did not matter here, in a state of awareness free from the demands of sensory stimulation. I still felt like an entity, something that was being, but that’s it — just being.

After deconstructing myself and the surrounding environment, a feeling that can only be described as pure awareness appeared in the rubble of dismantlement; though I had no idea where I was situated in space, time, and location, I was more aware than ever that I existed, that I was something bigger, larger, more significant, something other than my surface-y, ego-based identity.

Was this me present in one dimension, or many?

What the hell was happening?

After staring into the dark for a while, I began to see a white, faint light near the top of my head. That’s odd, I thought, since there was not supposed to be any light in the tank. Then, the darkness engulfed the light and began to swirl in the space in front of me. I reached out to touch it, believing there was an actual swirling substance inches in front of my head, but there was nothing. As I waved my hand around, I quickly discovered there was nothing there to touch, so I laid it back down in the water and continued to watch the spiraling darkness. It moved like a jellyfish, in fluid blips, whirling revolutions all over the space in front of my face. Then, the colors purple and blue mixed themselves in gradually, creating helixes and shades that I couldn’t tear my vision away from. Maybe it was just my eyes trying to create a sight that was not there, but I watched whatever I was seeing—or not seeing— for what felt like forever.

Watching the whirls, I felt persuaded, with strange familiarity, that within myself is the ability to both create and be created, genesis and re-genesis, newness and renewal. I physically felt this conviction deep in my body, a sensation I can only describe as located in the space in the middle of my ribcage.

I felt myself drift in the tank, eyes shut, with my long hair extending around my head and purple swirls spiraling above me, I felt divine, like I was God. I am God.

Did I mention I am definitely not religious?

Contrary to normal meditative practices that call for sitting still and listening to your breath, I was floating about the saline solution in a strange world of thoughts I would have considered metaphysical nonsense only an hour earlier. I suddenly felt overwhelmed by compassion. I began to feel love for those who had wronged me in the past, as an assuredness transpired deep within me that all beings have experiences unique to them, but in the end we are still in the same cosmic realm. With this insight, I conjured that holding onto malice could only make life harder on others and myself. Then, something inside me declared that we all have souls, a complex form of energy and consciousness united, and our physical body is the formal expression in extension of the soul.

Did I mention that I am not especially spiritual?

I heard a gentle knocking on the door, and my time was up. I sat up alert, and crawled out of the space. What the hell just happened to me? As I closed the door behind me, I distinctly remember thinking: How do I process all of this? Time, space, and location all came rushing back to me at once. I felt gravity, grounded-ness like never before. I felt the Earth pulling me into the floor, each step heavy and forceful. I could have been told I had been in there for 2 minutes or 12 hours, and neither would have surprised me. I felt the separation of matter. I was no longer connected with the atoms and molecules around me.

I felt singular. I felt alone. I realized I was shaking.

When I reread what I just wrote, I can’t help but feel a bit cliché and guilty of sounding new age-y, faux-enlightened, or spacey. But how can one explain an experience that transcends ego-based rationality and the breakdown of all the barriers previously constructed? When the basic elements typically employed to measure and understand the world all disappear, the possibilities of thought and understanding seemed endless. I felt cosmically empowered, aware, mindful, rested, and most importantly, joyful.

As reality sets back in, with the semester’s final exams, a long summer ahead of me, and a checklist of things to easily become stressed over, everything feels strangely okay. Something within me whispers that everything is all right, that this state of being will be here again when I am ready.

I really hope it is. And, if this is what happens when we die, I am very okay with that.

Bri is a Keck Fellow studying the increasingly significant (and frequently maligned) religiosity of women from Judeo-Christian traditions practicing Eastern forms of spirituality in the United States.

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