The only channels that I watch on "regular" television are MSNBC to watch Rachel Maddow at 9pm and the Viceland Channel, which I watch compulsively. There's a new show called "Hamilton's Pharmacopia." Hamilton is the son of the great documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. He is a chemist and a pyschonaut. Well on one particular episode he was exploring sensory deprivation tanks and I became more than intrigued, not quite at obsessed, but approaching the later.
After a quick internet search I came upon a place called "Drift and Dreams" out of Wilmington. I called and was informed there was a cancellation on Sunday. As I was going to be in Wilmington anyways, I said I would be there on time and ready for my transcendental experience. I was assured it would be "trippy" and was even told that if I could shut my thoughts off I could come into contact with "the nothing." I was hoping this wasn't "Never Ending Story" type nothing. I was wanting Nietzsche-when-you-stare-at-the-abyss-it-stares-back kind of nothing. Luckily the experience would be none of the former and some of the later.
The first thing I did when I entered was this 40 minute light and sound experience that was meant to put me in a "theta" state. I don't know what any of that means and it sounded like hocus-pocus, but I figured let's just go for broke. Whatever the owner suggested would improve my experience, I said "sure." So for 40 minutes I was on a message table with glasses that sort of had movie screens in them and headphones. I heard a very repetitive rhythm that could have been made on an Atari and there were lots of colors flashing that you could see even if your eyes were closed. Well - I don't know how different I would have felt if I were just relaxing and listening to a Mahler symphony or a Bach concerto but time went quickly and it was over before I thought it should have been, but the clock suggested 40 minutes had passed. I was in a bit of a trance-like state - nothing extreme, but I was very relaxed. Then it was time for the Sensory Deprivation Chamber.
After incredibly easy instructions to get in the tub: "Take off clothes. Put in ear plugs. Don't freak out if you hear or see things. Nobody is back here. It's just you," I was ready to start my 90 minute experience. So I get in and sort of float around - you cannot not float. There must be hundreds of pounds of Epson salt in 10 inches of water.
So after you get adjusted - it's just you in total blackness. You quickly realize how many distractions are in your every moment of waking life and a peacefulness happened that was unprecedented. Even though you're basically in a bathtub with a lid closed, there was zero sI ense of claustrophobia. When you get settled you start to lose the sense of having a body. This is because the water is the same temperature as your body and you are weightless - there's no experience of gravity in the tank. This means at a certain point you cannot tell where your body ends and the water begins. You feel like you are just a collection of thoughts floating in space. Now to be clear, it's not like you can't wiggle your fingers - you know your body is still there, but there are periods of time where it doesn't occur to you. At one point - late in the float - I had this experience that's a bit hard to describe. I was wide awake but I felt like I was back on the message table. I don't know how long this lasted but I had this very clear thought of "I can't wait to get into the sensory tank" I sort of immediately popped back in my mind and thought "Oh, yeah. That's right I'm here." Lots of other moments of interest as well, but instead of me describing them, I would encourage others to experience it for themselves.
I was told that the way I would know this was over would be that I would hear three knocks on the tank and I was to respond with one knock indicating I heard the knocks. Then I would get out, dry off, and get into a shower. When I heard the three knocks, I couldn't believe an hour and a half had passed. That seems like a long time to just lay still in water, but it honestly felt like maybe 45 minutes. Time and space both go wonky.
The whole experience was wonderful - I came out with a glow that is still alive and well this morning. I came out of the tank feeling sort of "stoned" but I was completely sober except for the tank experience. It was fascinating to both have moments of losing track of one's body and moments of being vividly focused on having a body and then having but not being able to sense one's body. There were many thoughts of "can I feel my thigh right now? Do I feel my toes?" Sometimes the answer was "yes" and sometimes the answer was "I'm not quite sure" and sometimes it was simply "no."
I think next time - this isn't exactly cheap; the entire 130 minutes cost about 140 dollars - in a couple months, I will see if I can do 2-3 hours in the tank. I don't think I've seen the full potential and I'm definitely curious.
One note of clarify - I did have weird experiences but this was not a full on hallucinatory episode at all. So don't expect that this is going to mimic the experience of psychedelics. Perhaps for some - maybe if you stay for 8 hours as Hamilton Morris did in his episode. But for me, it was exciting and strange, rejuvenating and invigorating. Like I said - the experience of losing and contemplating my body led to me getting out of the tank and noticing my body felt relaxed and messaged and better than it had felt in a long, long time. Bodies and minds are strange and beautiful things, especially when they are forced to configure a new experience.