floating into nothingness

I’ve always known I have an active mind. But I never knew how screamingly, relentlessly active it was until a couple of weeks ago, when I spent 90 minutes alone in a sensory deprivation (isolation) tank.

It was quite serendipitous, really.  Last month I was on my way to a good friend’s place to begin a 4-week cat-sit, and I thought of an establishment that recently opened in my city – home to five such sensory deprivation tanks.  I’d like to try that someday, I thought.  The first thing I saw upon arriving at my friend’s place?  A voucher for a visit in one of these ‘float tanks’, as they’re also called.  She left it as a gift for me.

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I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I’ve never considered myself claustrophobic.  Being enclosed in  complete darkness, floating in a pool of water (would I really float?) sounded either completely relaxing or mildly terrifying.  On the day of my visit, the guy on staff was very friendly and (not surprisingly) extremely chill.  He gave me and another newbie a tour of the space, and showed us to our respective rooms.  My tank was filled with epsom salts – 800 lbs! – dissolved in water, which felt pleasantly warm against my skin.

As I closed the tank door and began my session, anxiety quickly crept in.  I was relieved that I could indeed float with no effort on my part, but the profound blackness and quiet was totally foreign to me.  As the minutes wore on, my uneasiness grew.   I have to lie here for 90 minutes?!  Holy shit, I am claustrophobic!  I began to panic.  I felt a million miles away from everyone and everything.  The most irrational fear-based thoughts engulfed me.  Some too embarrassing to mention here.  I felt completely alone and small.  What if they forget about me?   

Fortunately, a part of me could also see myself experiencing all this.  In those moments, I remembered that this was my mind and ego turned on full tilt as they – probably for the first time ever – had nothing to distract them.  And they were not happy about this.  They tried to convince me I was bored.   They tried to attack me with all sorts of flimsy arguments and crazed rationalizations and justifications and projections about…anything.

How do people find this relaxing?!   This is the most stressful thing ever!

And yet, there was no way I was leaving that tank.  This is your mind.  This fear of nothingness, of separation, is the undercurrent of your everyday life and you are seeing all the ways in which your mind tries to distract you and numb you from this fear.  And I understood that no amount of affirming or reading or philosophizing or Abraham-Hicks’ing will work if I am running from this place.

For 90 minutes I would experience waves of anxiety, panic, deep breathing…and relief when the mind actually would stop.

I’m pretty sure my experience would’ve been a whole lot different if I meditated more in general.  Even in meditation, though, my surroundings seem a lot closer, more palpable.  I can just open my eyes and everything will still be there.  I can still hear everything around me.  (My meditations obviously aren’t that deep.)  In the tank, there is nothing.  No escape, short of exiting the tank.  So the insanity of my mind was felt all the more intensely.

When it was time to emerge, I felt like I’d been through the wringer. I was practically hyperventilating.  After showering and getting my things together, I left the room in a slight daze. “That was intense,” I told the chill staff guy, now folding towels.  “Isn’t it great?” he responded.  “I love watching people come out of the tanks.  They’re always so glowing.”

I looked in the mirror.  He was right; I was glowing.  I walked home, still buzzed, and had the deepest, most relaxing sleep that evening.

***

Now that I’ve had some distance from the float tank experience, I no longer view it as terrifying.  Because now I can more identify with the space that contained it – with the part of me that was witnessing my struggle.  I caught a glimpse of something I cannot ignore. I feel relieved.  Instead of being scared by the nothingness of it all, I’m intrigued by what that space, that void, holds.  Is it really ‘nothing’, or just unknown to me?  Maybe I don’t need to fill it with anything.  There is a peace and curiousity within me.

The really funny thing?  Chill staff guy had informed me that I could have another session on the house, as construction had been taking place next door and it might have interfered with my experience.  (If it did, I didn’t notice.)

Something is clearly drawing me back into that tank.  I wonder where I will be carried to next…

when does karma become an excuse?

The concept of karma has long played a central role in my life.  It imprinted on my psyche at a young age and has since shaped my identity.  My theories about what ‘my karma’ is have defined who I am and what I see myself as capable or deserving of in this lifetime.

Life experiences, mundane and significant, are often filtered through the lens of how they might relate to my karma. Maybe I have ‘unfinished business’ with so-and-so.  Maybe I did this to someone in a past life, so they’re doing it to me now.  Future plans and decisions are made with a cautionary inner voice: Maybe it’s not in your karma to do/have this.

Gold Parvati. Artst: Sonja Picard (www.sonjapicard.com)

Gold Parvati. Artst: Sonja Picard (www.sonjapicard.com)

Where did this obsession with my karma originate? Ancestors, religion, society…an innocuous comment someone once made, which caused a fundamental rewire in my brain?

Does it even matter anymore?

So much of my life has been about trying to understand the why’s of things, and the lessons behind them.  But what if I’ve been so wrapped up in this process, so fixated on understanding the details, that I’ve missed the actual living part of life?  How many opportunities have I let pass me by, how many inspirations have I not pursued, because of a latent belief that it’s ‘not in my karma’?

Karma has become a filter through which I’m limiting what life truly wants to offer me.

Karma is a beautiful yogic philosophy.  Its basic tenet of cause and effect – that we are responsible for our actions and their consequences – resonates with me.  But I am seeing how easily karma’s spiritual complexities and intricacies become reduced to good/bad/right/wrong, and how our ego might use ‘karma’ to further its own purposes.

What if karma is actually a mask of fear?  Of feeling unworthy?  Of feeling undeserving?  Of remaining in one’s comfort zone?

Perhaps I’ve been holding on to karma (and all other outworn self-definitions) because life is so unfamiliar without it.  What happens when I ditch my karmic story?  Nothingness.  Emptiness.  The unknown.   New territory, with no roadmap.

And the thing about karma is…it is essentially unknowable.  We can guess about the ‘why’s’ forever.  We can endlessly analyze our past experiences in the desire to figure out the reasons behind them, hoping it will make everything fall into place and magically transform our lives.  But this is an endless search.

I personally don’t know anyone who remembers one of their past lives (in detail), let alone a hundred.  And even if we did remember, our analysis will be greatly influenced by our experiences, personality, and circumstances in this life.

It’s a radical thought for me to play with: what if my karmic slate is wiped clean?  What if all that truly matters are the decisions I make now?

From here on I’m going to be more conscious about what I’m telling myself.  I’m choosing to break through those seen and unseen barriers that long ago made their decisions of what I’m capable, worthy, and deserving of achieving in this precious lifetime.  I don’t want karma to be an excuse that prevents me from living life fully.  I want to allow all experiences of love, joy, abundance, freedom, and bliss coming my way.

Ultimately, all I really know or have control over is the level of integrity I’m living in this present moment.  That feels like a beautiful place to start.