The first thing I always notice is my neck. The unlocking of those seven vertebrae takes patience, time. Or maybe it’s the ceaseless conspiracy between the sternocleidomastoid and scalenes, the muscles holding your cervical spine intact. Given the ways we mistreat our cranial support system — gaze hunched toward our screens, the kyphotic lurch of driving and sitting — it’s no wonder we have so many problems connecting head with body.
Every time I surrender to the sensory deprivation tank, it’s my neck crying for release. Sure, little stings of salt on forearm scratches carved by rambunctious felines aren’t pleasant; they subside quickly. Yet here I am, contained by the blackness of a 5x8 chamber, floating in a half-ton of Epsom salt in a 95-degree pool, and my head is still pitched forward at a disturbing angle.
This time it takes longer than usual to submit to darkness. A half-hour in and all I’ve done is the aquatic version of tossing and turning. Mind you, the stretching feels good. You can accomplish postures in this environment that would prove impossible elsewhere. Subtle articulations, certainly: the free rolling of shoulders, the outstretched arms pinned against the tank for leverage, the many unique hip and ankle rotations, a submerged ballet rendering a consistent creaking of previously immobile joints.
I’ve never opened the door to check on the time before, but I’m frustrated by my inability to chill, which obviously doesn’t help in the quest of chilling. It’s a number of things — job stress; the existential threat of climate change; a newly adopted cat who, at only three years old, spent a weekend in the emergency room with congenital heart failure — but we all have things. Contexts are different; all nervous systems are cut of similar cloth.
My instinct proved correct: a half-hour. I lie back again, plunging into black, knowing frustration is antithetical to the goal. My neck in much better condition, it’s my mind reeling. While I’m certain the five milligrams of cannabis I consumed has indeed kicked in, for some reason, this time, attempt two, it really kicks in. Within moments I’m gone.
A close friend is planning to partake in his first ayahuasca ceremony. He’s not inexperienced: mushrooms, LSD, MDMA — he’s been places. As a longtime practitioner of Zazen, he’s used to the discomfort of being alone with your thoughts. I tell him, more than any psychedelic I’ve indulged in, that’s what ayahuasca offers me: a deep dive into your thought processes. No hiding, no games. Time to fess up and, if all goes well, make better decisions moving forward. At the very least you can no longer claim ignorance of the situation.
Problem is, psychedelics get marketed all wrong. We get so lost in the visuals we forget the neuronal firings that let us see anything in the first place. The inner gaze proves much more informative — the images that occur before the words come.
Over the course of forty-three years, I’ve tried to remain hypervigilant of my environment, paying attention to the subtleties of our constructions. Yet I often don’t feel equipped for this world: the constant distractions plaguing the every day, lines of consumers unable to wait thirty seconds for their place at the register, thumbing relentlessly through a scrolling feed of fallow content. They continue even at the head of the line, the person in front of their eyes nowhere near as relevant as those embedded in their screens. We lose our humanity one swipe at a time.
And the anxiety it produces, this addiction. Perhaps I’m not equipped, yet I have no choice. We embody the culture we reside in, even if we feel built for another. Time travel would only make us feel alien elsewhere. Surrendering to the moment is what matters, a task that can be accomplished anywhere, with proper tools and guidance. It requires a tuning in, not a dropping out.
Which is where I spend the next fifty minutes, at last liberated from the havoc of self-criticism and doubt, truly and finally floating. I’m not released from my body — it doesn’t “go” anywhere — but rather I’m delivered from the constraints of constant distraction. Not disembodied; fully embodied. I return to the solitude of my thinking and the physiology it produces: tempered breathing, relaxed architecture, the freedom to let my mind wander. My neck muscles no longer distract. Boundaries between skin, air, and water dissolve. It feels like home.