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Desert Companion

Field notes: Void oh boy!

float_tank_brent_holmes.jpg

Float tank
Illustration by Brent Holmes

How I learned to stop worrying and just have a damn out-of-body experience already in a float tank

The manager gestured at the tank’s open hatch. “So, you’re going to step in, pull the door closed, orient your head at the opposite end, and just float,” he said.

Inside the tank was what looked like 10 inches of salt water, but I knew what it really was: a void at once claustrophobic and endless.

“It’ll be completely dark,” he continued. “What’s going to happen is you’re going to relax, maybe meditate, maybe fall asleep — and then, before you know it, it’ll be over.”

I’d been looking forward to my first time in a sensory deprivation tank, but now I wasn’t so sure. Scenes from Altered States and Event Horizon flickered through my mind, with supplemental clowns. Too late to turn back. The manager left the room. I stripped, showered and stepped in.

The deal was that I had lately started to feel like I was slowly drowning in needles, being stung to petty psychic death by a million tiny digital things: texts, emails, pings, Facebook messages, cat memes, open tabs, account alerts, sitcom GIFs. I had developed a hunger for an elemental quiet beyond what a 15-minute morning meditation could provide.

Thus my recent visit to a float tank. Once a somewhat obscure device — a curio of experimental psychiatry and tripping tool of devoted psychonauts — the float tank has come into the mainstream as something akin to a spa session for mind and spirit. It speaks volumes about the excesses of first-world techno-capitalism that we’re willing to pay for what amounts to a dose of solitary confinement in what looks like a Japanese hatchback. But damn, I needed some time in the void.

But, I’d hoped, not void as mere novelty or diversion or pacifier. We use such ad hoc private voids and shields all the time, right? Plugged into Netflix at the gym, earbuds deployed at the grocery store. We temporarily excuse ourselves from reality by subbing in replacement realities. I didn’t want just that. Rather, I wanted the kind of nourishing void that would rekindle, I dunno, the guttering rainbow flame inside me where I seem to recall abiding some sense of sure purpose and native cosmic equanimity.

Once I had settled into the water, hatch shut, limbs adrift, it was only after the motion-sensor light outside the tank clicked off  that I realized, gee, I had never really thought to ask myself whether successfully making it to adulthood meant that along the way I must have just sort of automatically shed my standard-issue primal childhood fear of the dark. Turns out: Not really! So, for a moment, I was seized by gelid terror. But an equal and opposite primal fear of the embarrassment associated with a newspaper story about firefighters having to rescue a wailing, naked 45-year-old man from ooh scary ghost water canceled it out.

Then I simply let the fears go. I embraced letting them go. Then I let go of embracing. I was like, Woo-hoo, come on, purifying void! But then I was like, Wait, words don’t exist in a true void. It’s certainly easy enough to shut out the physical world, but what about the hunk of it constantly roiling in your own head? Knowing that, is seeking void folly? And is void really a pure absence, or just a presence of a different kind I’m chasing? Is nothing … a something? So, yeah, my mind reverted to that of a 14-year-old stoner and started eating itself.

Then I eventually just floated — relaxed but alert, disembodied but strangely enlivened. I thought a lot, then didn’t think at all. Then I thought about lunch, and then had an astral rebirth in which The Infinite Love that is the universe rechristened me Q’iarra the Starchild.

Okay, that didn’t happen — nor did I turn into a primordial blob of ur-mind like William Hurt in Altered States, nor did I accidentally summon a devil spaceship through a dimensional rift á la Event Horizon. But an hour later, I did emerge from the tank refreshed and reset — ready to tackle the 27 emails that appeared in my inbox in the meantime. A little dose of nothing did close to everything I’d hoped.

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