I turn 46 today.
I was thinking about a very vivid birthday memory I’ve probably written about several times. I turned 23 in college, in 1994, on the tail end of a bad case of pneumonia that had me out for the month of January. I was pretty much better by the 20th, but I remember going to the mall to spend some birthday money, and the walk from one side to the other was exhausting, after spending weeks in bed. I bought a boxed set of the Star Wars video tapes, the original VHS set without all the CGI remastering garbage. I probably went to Denny’s, too.
The thing that stuck with me, though: I remember getting out my birth certificate, this pink piece of paper from North Dakota, to look up my time of birth. And I realized that both of my parents were 23 when I was born, and I was now 23. And it depressed me that I was 23, and single, and living in a shared apartment and struggling to get through college. And I didn’t want to be married or have kids or anything else. But I guess turning 18 or turning 21 didn’t really make me feel like an adult, and turning 23 made me realize I needed to start acting like one, figure out an exit strategy, get something started. And within about 18 months, I did graduate, get a job, move across the country, and finish writing a draft of my first book.
Today, I realized that this moment of clarity at age 23 happened exactly 23 years ago, half my life ago. And I am not the same age (more or less) as my parents were when I was in college.
* * *
I did not want to deal with any of the obvious today. I needed complete isolation, which is exactly what I did.
There is this place in Oakland called Oakland Floats, which has sensory deprivation tanks. You go in this pod-like thing and everything shuts off. It’s 100% dark and quiet. You have in earplugs. And you get into a large tank of water, which has been saturated with hundreds of pounds of epsom salts and heated to body temperature. Every one of your senses is blocked. You float in the water, not touching anything, completely weightless. It looks the same if your eyes are opened or closed. It feels like the temperature of your body, both in the water and the air; you can’t really tell where one begins or ends.
I’ve done this before a few times, but I did hour-long sessions. This time, I did a “superfloat” — I paid to get three and a half hours of tank time. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do this, or if I’d get bored or fall asleep or what. But I figured I needed to do this, so I signed up a few weeks ago and locked in the entire morning.
When I got there, it was somewhat miserable out: dark, rainy, cold. I arrived a bit before my time started, and got shown to my room. There was a bathroom-like space with a shower and a shelf of various supplies, and a plate heater running so it felt like a sauna inside. My chamber was named Ringo — it looked almost like a shower with a door, but the door was not transparent, and inside was a large tub, maybe four by eight feet, and a foot deep, filled with hot salt water, and a blue glowing light so i could get in. I took a shower with antibacterial soap. Then, right before the government changed and facebook was exploding, I shut off my phone, put in the earplugs, slipped into the womb-like chamber, and turned off the light.
The first thing you notice when you start a session is that the sensation of floating is really weird. You’re programmed from childhood to know what a bath feels like, how your body sinks in the water. But in the chamber, you can’t sink — your body hovers in the briny water. After you stop yourself from drifting and become still, the only think you hear is your own breathing. For me, I became entirely too self-conscious of my breathing, because it’s the only thing I could do. I could not see anything, and couldn’t hear anything outside my body. And of course any and all external stimuli were gone. I could not look at my watch, or pull out my phone, or check my email. I’m not going to go into the neo-luddide “technology is bad” thing, but not having that instinctual tic is really abnormal.
I cheated a bit on the superfloat, although I guess most people do — I broke it into three sessions, so I could get out, use the bathroom, and drink water. The bathroom part, I probably could have made it, but soaking in epsom salt is extremely dehydrating, and I drank about a quart of water total during the quick breaks.
So, three sessions. The first went about 90 minutes. I probably spent ten or fifteen minutes getting used to the tank, and trying to relax my neck and back muscles to stay in a neutral position. Then I tried some basic meditation techniques: mindfulness, scanning my body from top to bottom, slowing my breathing, etc. This was good, but it got boring. I focused on a piece of music I’d listened to in the car on the way over (the new Brian Eno album, Reflection) and got lost in that for a bit.
After maybe thirty minutes in, I stopped thinking and went into a pure theta state. This is the state you’re in when you start to fall asleep, but aren’t unconscious and into the delta stage of deep sleep. If you abuse the snooze alarm on your clock, you probably experience brief drips of theta state when you get back in bed and almost black out, but dance through the halfway land between consciousness and sleep. The difference here is that it was sustained, timeless, and I had no connection to my body. I was just drifting in this sea of thought, memories I hadn’t touched in years. And I was there for about an hour.
I came back, did a quick bio break, and checked the time. Then the second session started. I had a little more trouble getting back in, and spent about ten minutes trying to get my neck to pop or stretch or decompress. But then I fell into a weird… thing. I was looking into the darkness, and could see nothing, but then saw… I guess a pattern. It looked like a mandala, a geometric pattern, and I could only see a quarter of it, like it was four times bigger than my field of vision. It wasn’t a defined or religious symbol, like a Buddhist mandala, but just a vague, swirling of shape, like a zoetrope’s image, that was darker than the pitch-black darkness. And as I tried to focus on this, I felt like I could no longer tell I was laying down. It felt more like I was standing, looking down, like at the top of a place with no three-dimensional space, watching this swirling oil-like pattern below me, like the floor had melted and turned into this primordial stew. But it wasn’t a constant thing, like a strong vision or a hallucination. It was very intermittent, and would drift in and out. I know I was back into the theta state, and in that, nothing is real or connected. It’s like trying to explain a dream that has no start or finish or linear explanation, like describing a five-dimensional scene to a person in a three-dimensional world.
This slowly faded, and within a matter of moments, I realized it was time for a break. I got out, and about an hour had passed. After a quick fluid exchange, I got back in and finished the last hour. For whatever reason, I got hung up thinking about a conversation I had with someone in 1992, which either sounds pretty grudgy or stupid, but it was more like the essence of that moment I spent with the person was there. I didn’t go that deep in the last hour. My neck was starting to hurt, and I was starving. I drifted a bit, but then came back out. Coming back out of the tank was hard and weird. My internal thermostat was broken from soaking for so long in the heat. Also, my skin was covered in salt. And it felt weird to have a sense of feeling, and to hear again. Taking a shower again, the water was deafening to me.
I got dressed, and went to the front counter to settle up. It turned out while I was in the tank, there was a huge thunderstorm, tons of water dumping, high winds, black skies. I missed all of it. And I missed all of the other festivities of the day, which was excellent. I left, and walked to a nearby restaurant and butchery called Clove & Hoof, and ordered a fried chicken sandwich. The walk over seemed surreal to me. Everything outside, the light rain, the traffic on 40th Ave, the people waiting in line for lunch, it all seemed alien. I’d say there was a calm over me, but it was more than that. It’s like everything was shut off, or like I was watching a distant TV with the volume on 1.
Anyway. I’m back. The day’s almost over. I’ll have to go back and try this again.