5 Surprising Takeaways from Sensory Deprivation

My children and I spent the Christmas holidays in Asheville, North Carolina.  My daughter gifted me a Salt Water Floatation experience at a spa in downtown Asheville. I was apprehensive but excited to try it out.  I’m not sure exactly what I expected in retrospect but the experience was different than I imagined.

Here are my 5 surprising takeaways from my sensory deprivation experience:

Get naked

In anticipation of this experience, I brought my bathing suit.  I imagined someone sliding me into a bathtub and I’m modest. In reality, the attendant showed me to a private suite of sorts with a toilet, sink, shower, and flotation tank.  He showed me around the suite and then advised to lock the door behind him as he left. He had advised against the bathing suit, and I took his advice.  When you realize how much salt is in the water and that you are truly alone, it seems ludicrous to wear a bathing suit.  I followed the instructions and took a shower first before entering the tank. My advice is to get naked.

Fumbling in the dark

The tank itself can best be described as a walk-in refrigerator size room that has a six-inch-thick door that seals you into complete and utter darkness and is covered in a coating similar to a swimming pool.  I sat on the door frame,wet from the shower, naked, holding a ring to support my head, mashing ear plugs into my ears, my legs in the shallow body temperature water and feeling for the hand towel dangling by the door so I could navigate myself out again (if need be). It was a lot to keep track of. I took the “plunge” and closed the door. There I was fumbling in the dark, trying to center myself in the tank, put the ring to support my head and leaned back into the experience.  My advice is to accept the fumbling.

Relax into the experience

Initially, I was trying to set my boundaries and figure out where the edges of the tank were. I guess I imagined having a panic attack and trying to find my way-out in hysteria.  I was a floating island.  My big right toe would feel a wall so I’d tap off it and next my left pinky would feel a different wall.  Once I had settled in, I was in the middle of the tank (I assume) with no body parts touching any walls.  I don’t know if the ring behind my head was needed but I kept my head rested on it for the entire experience. I realized that I had all this tension in my neck and shoulders, probably imagining that I would sink in the water. There is so much salt in the tank that sinking would not happen, I finally, and consciously, released the tension. My advice is to relax into the experience.

Floating in extreme consciousness

I became hyper aware of everything going on in my body.  The banana I ate about an hour before the float making its way through my digestive track. What felt like a droplet by my nose most likely from the extreme humidity in the tank that made me lift my hand to scratch my nose and upset the equilibrium of my floating body.  The sound of my breath in the hollowness of the room.  My heartbeat assuring me of my existence. I repositioned my arms from facing up to face down. I started bending to the right and left from my waist. I suddenly felt a pain in my jaw that dissipated in about a minute. I was alarmed when I felt something floating in the water. I felt my left ear and realized my ear plug had fallen out. I was acutely aware of everything on planet Cathy. My advice is to accept the floating in extreme consciousness.

Infinite time and darkness

The float lasted for 60 minutes. I had no idea what time it was. No phone to refer to.  No clock on the wall. No music or sound intervals to punctuate the experience. I had my eyes closed for probably the first fifteen minutes.  I’m not sure why.  I guess I thought I might sleep. I opened my eyes and there was absolutely no difference.  It was pitch black. I wonder if perhaps I thought keeping my eyes closed meant, to me, that I could open them to light at any moment. The attendant had told me that at the end of the float, music would come on and a blue light. I started imaging a slight blue cast to the darkness.  I imagined that this is what it was like in my mother’s womb, unaware of time and light, but utterly supported by warm fluid.  My advice is let go of the distraction of time and light.

When the blue light shattered the darkness of the tank, I got out quickly.  I was anxious to shower and get the film of salt off my body.  I shampooed my hair twice trying to get what felt like a syrup of salt out of my hair.  In the end, much like the silent retreat I went to some four years ago, I recommend the experience.  I feel like I was reintroduced to planet Cathy in all her stripped down, conscious, imperfect, authentic glory.

The Anatomy of a Silence Retreat

I posted last week about a Silence Retreat I went to over Labor Day Weekend. It sparked a lot of feedback and some faithful readers want to know more! I admit, I was a bit surprised. So this, is that more. To start off, when I arrived at the retreat, I had an expectation that everyone there, including all the employees and other guests, would be silent. I was anticipating as I drove up that I would need to zip my lip. And I also assumed we would all communicate via sign language and gestures going forward. Not so. There were other events and participants going on. The “silence” portion didn’t start for another 36 hours and the employees of the center were active, communicating with participants like anyone else would on the job.

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The silence itself focused on the participant not communicating versus everyone else not communicating. When I think of silence, I think of a church on a weekday where there is little if any noise and folks kneeling to pray. Very hushed and quiet. In reality, the silence is not about outside or even participatory communication; it’s all about silencing your mind through meditation and relaxation. The silence is internal and that silence can be a bit  allusive to start. Kind of like trying to hold onto Jell-O through finger tips.

 

So, this is the anatomy of a Silence Retreat:

 

  • Reception. Upon arrival, I was expecting the aura of a monastery combined with pantomime. Not so. I parked and followed the signs to the reception desk. The gentleman greeting me was quite friendly and gregarious. I was taken aback, as I figured silence was from the get go. He immediately established which program I was with; so this was my first sign that there was more than just us Silencers here at the retreat center. And, since they didn’t duct tape my mouth or tell me to shush the silence portion might start as the event kicked off after dinner. I was really surprised when he gave me not one but two Wifi codes, “You know; for two devices.” I didn’t bother bringing more than my trusty smart phone but I didn’t imagine I would be streaming Netflix House of Cards on a silence retreat. No silent reception. Who knew?

 

  • Accommodations.  Essentially my room had three single beds, a desk and a bathroom. I was a little apprehensive that, even though I had asked for a private room, someone might show up for one of the bunks. I didn’t feel like sharing my space with anyone. I had imagined myself being in the fetal position in the middle of the night, sucking my thumb and crying for my mommy. Ok. Well that didn’t happen and neither did any roommates pop up as well. In fact, I think all of us silencers were in the same far flung building; they wanted us to be silent together instead of mixed in with all the folks who weren’t silent and more likely to be playing Metallica after midnight. There were property rules that I be quiet after 10pm but my impression was that all the Silencers were in the same building.

 

  • Food.  The thing I did once I dropped my bag off, made my bed – sheets and blankets provided – make your own bed; I headed to the dining hall. I was still thinking that at some point someone was going to tell me to not talk. Nope. I knew the menu was vegetarian but almost all of food was gluten free and vegan. This meant no scrambled eggs, cheese or fresh baked bread. In addition, our instructor, Mona, told us that during the retreat, they were cooking lighter food so that it was easier to meditate. I’m not sure if it was vegan menu, buffet style service or that my enlightened mind wasn’t up for much food, but I barely ate at meals. I was rarely hungry. Or perhaps my carnivore mind knew to be on strike.

 

  • Monkey brain.  I didn’t realize this at the time but since returning, I have read that the pain and anguish I was feeling in the first twenty-four hours of silence was my monkey brain. Imagine all your thoughts flying through your head like a pack of orangutans jumping from vine to vine to vine. Your thoughts start going haywire with no distractions such as conversations, Facebook notifications or sitting for hours at a time. Literally, I thought I was going “bananas”…how appropriate, right? Apparently, it takes about twenty four hours of silence for those orangutans to settle down. And once they do? It’s beautiful.

 

  • Nature.  This retreat center is on the top of a mountain in western North Carolina. Once my mind was silent and the monkeys were finally relaxed and quiet; I was able to focus in on the spectacular scenery. The smallest of details came into focus as I noticed butterflies, the breeze through the trees, the stones on the ground, the path through the forest. Each intimate detail; I was enthralled with it all. Turning off all the hustle and bustle of everyday life, let me wake up my senses to what was going on around me. There was so much going on around me that I normally would never have paid attention to. It was mesmerizing.

 

  • Inward.  Introspection is the end result of two and half days of silence. THIS is the ULTIMATE prize – it is like shining a light inside yourself, after the monkeys have calmed down, and being able to be with yourself and truly appreciate just being in the present moment. No agenda. No to-do list. No planning. No rumination. Just to be. I honestly think that the last time I was in the present moment with myself was when I was four years old and my mother would force me to take a nap I was alone in my bedroom with no distractions but my own present moment. It’s incredibly powerful to be with yourself. Taking a break from all the helter-skelter of everyday life is an enormous gift. It’s almost like unplugging yourself and letting the batteries run dry only in order to be completely rejuvenated. Hollow and empty but profoundly peaceful and enriching.

I highly recommend a silent retreat, especially if you are facing a major life change like retiring, changing jobs or leaving a relationship. There is deep clarity once all the distractions are gone and the monkeys have gone to bed.