Breathing and Floating

By Dominic Stephen (accompanied by Dylan Jongbloed, and Danick Trouwloon in spirit)

I was thinking too much. I lifted my head up and gazed downwards at my outstretched naked body floating in a salt solution. With the water at body temperature and undetectable against my skin, there was a seamless continuity between the two. I felt perhaps like my earlier embryonic self – in the dark and cosy cocoon, and peaceful sanctuary of my mother’s womb. With my physical receptivity to the outside world anesthetized, I was curious to experience myself devoid of a body, and left only as a shimmering mind perceived purely through the clarity of consciousness. Given the initial encouraging nudges by celebrity floatation tank user and psychedelic enthusiast Joe Rogan, I was cautiously optimistic as I closed the hydraulic lid, lay back and let the warm salty water lift me into its serene, if somewhat clinical, embrace.

Entering the sensory deprivation tank was part of my on-going personal exploration into mysterious states of consciousness. Those who are familiar with any form of meditative activity – yoga, meditation, prayer – will be sympathetic to these practices’ fundamental precepts. Mental focus is essential, and the practitioner aims to narrow awareness to a disciplined minimum from the infinite cosmos of stimuli that make up our everyday sensory experience. Notice the cool and humid air around your nostrils with every inhalation and exhalation; gaze with half-closed eyes at the flickering glow of a candle flame; control your breathing as you progress through a yoga sequence. Choose one and exclude all else. I initially had trouble with this – before I could reach mental equanimity, I had distractions.

The tank reminded me of my weightless servility by bobbing me back and forth against its inside walls. The smallest disturbance I made to the water – a flap of my fingers, or a muscle twitch – took its revenge in the form of a tiny but sufficiently disruptive answering wave ten seconds later. It took patience, but after having found a compromise between the stubborn water and my buoyant unpredictability, I found a stable floating position. With each second I grew more comfortable with my situation, but I could not help but notice the tickling of tiny air bubbles rolling up my spine and shoulders. Reaching around to brush off these pesky bubbles of mischief, I was sharply stolen away from my relaxation attempts and forced to return back to square one, distracted. Despite these trivial interruptions that, in my naivety, I gave too much attention, my entire body was all the while growing numb and irresponsive. My fingers grew heavy; I forgot I was attached to those large limbs called ‘legs’, and the awareness of my extremities slowly dissolved. But I soon realised that, while a sensory deprivation tank may dampen all external stimuli, the user still has to confront the sensations from inside. Using the spa’s advisory earplugs, I became aware of the dull thudding of my gradually slowing heart, and I often had to swallow the saliva that collected in my mouth. These were concerns that I could not shake and that I hope will improve with practice, repetition and research. I was waiting for something to happen – I wanted to “enter the void”. I began to see the suggestions of dark, swirling waves that passed across my vision. But they were transient, unreliable and fleeting mirages that I cannot claim were anything profound. Had I entered into a realm of higher consciousness? No, probably not. I had set my expectations too high.

But the morning was not one of only crushed hopes and thwarted ambitions at transcendence. After forty-five minutes, the tank’s inside lights were slowly raised, dipped, and then raised again – the signal that my exploration must end. Like other reflective experiences, this was one in which most of the effects became apparent shortly afterwards. I truly felt refreshed, awake, wide-eyed and like a person who had gained a miniscule of more valuable experience into the mysterious universe of the Mind. I will go again, definitely – the student discounts at ‘Koan Float’ in Amsterdam are generous. But don’t expect too much at first; switch off, and embrace the illuminating opportunity to realise yourself both as a physical body and a twinkling, intangible and infinitely complex subjective mind. “Enter the void, man”.

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