What a Sensory Deprivation Tank Can Reveal About Facing Difficulty

Not long ago, I came across a reference to sensory deprivation experiments while I was researching something else, and this reminded me of my longstanding goal to give a sensory deprivation tank a try myself. It had been languishing in my mental “bucket list” for some time. It seemed like a lot of work. 

I mean, would you have to be part of a university experiment to do this? Who would I contact? Well, the other day I was in need of a distraction from the work I was supposed to be doing, so I started Googling. And it turns out, there are two sensory deprivation tank facilities within 10 miles of me. (Ah, of course! This is Los Angeles!) So, with a couple of clicks I booked a two-hour session the following week. It would be a Friday night—a Friday night in, really, in more ways than one. 

The “tank” was actually a small room housing a 7.5’ x 4’ pool of 12-inch deep water, into which 1,250 pounds of Epsom salt had been dissolved. What this means is that apart from, strangely, not getting water-logged fingers, you are unable to sink. Instead, in this slimy-feeling solution, the human body is exceptionally buoyant. The effect is a sensation of weightlessness second only, I imagine, to being in space. 

The room is completely dark and mostly soundproofed. It is kept humid, with air and water temperature maintained at the same temperature as the surface of your skin. This makes for the unusual experience of really not being able to tell where your body ends and the air and water begin. Some people report feeling dissociated from their bodies and having hallucinations. 

The Bump in the Night

So what does one do, resting atop a pool of magnesium sulfate-saturated water in pitch darkness and silence? Well, if you’re me, you practice mindfulness meditation! Some people, who want to meditate but have difficulty doing so in normal life, use sensory deprivation tanks to help them calm their mind and focus. 

Perhaps because I already meditate, I didn’t notice a particular change in my mental activity. My mind was busy at first, and then settled all by itself as I watched it work—nothing surprising there. But I did take the opportunity to do some mindfulness experiments, like observing changes in my mental activity when my eyes were closed, versus open—in both cases able to see nothing but pitch blackness. (My mind tended to produce more thoughts with my eyes closed. Interesting!)

I was probably an hour into my session, having a good-enough time (it was certainly very relaxing) but not having had any particular insights of note, when something interesting happened: I bumped into the wall.

Arms, and a Farewell to Walls

It happened several times, actually. I’m a tall person, you see, with not much free space around me in a 7 x 4 tub. Not wanting my body to be touching anything other than water, in order to maximize the sensory illusion of being boundless and bodyless, my initial reaction had been to gently push myself away from the wall.

But thanks to the hyper-buoyancy provided by the water, what would have been a gentle, sluggish nudge in a swimming pool had the effect of rocketing me across the surface to the other side. This wasn’t going to work.

Instead, I tried a new approach. I extended my arms and legs to the sides, holding myself still in the center and then ever-so-gently letting my limbs return to a state of repose. Much better. In fact, this worked perfectly. 

Until, that is, my leg randomly wiggled for some reason. In that pool, the slightest wiggle produced just enough thrust to eventually return me to the wall. Minutes later, I felt the lightest possible sensation of contact against my arm. But this time, instead of pushing against it or re-centering myself with my arms and legs, I tried something different. Since the wall seemed bound and determined to be part of my experience, I decided to let it in, and get to know it better. 

I allowed my arm to join with the wall ever so gently, like a good friend might rest a hand on your shoulder. I let it linger, feeling the smoothness of the wall, and then in a moment I was parted from it. The wall and I bade farewell to each other for the evening, not meeting again.

Your Core Self Floats in the Middle

Of course, there is nothing metaphysical going on here: mechanically speaking, I had simply pushed off the wall, same as before, but with such a tiny amount of force that my momentum didn’t carry me far. But as I lay there in the steamy darkness, I realized that that experience illustrated the struggle we humans face all the time. Irritants big and small steadily appear in our lives, and our primitive, lower-order brain parts relentlessly seek to rid our life experience of them without delay. 

Our “reptilian” brain keeps us hopping from one foot to the other, pushing away this unpleasant thing, the next one, and the one after that. Sometimes this process results in vacillation between extremes, like yo-yo dieting. Aversion to unpleasantness is a natural and healthy process to a point—after all, it wouldn’t be good for us not to avoid certain unpleasantness, like the feeling of your hand on a hot stove. 

But it’s also a process that perpetuates a fantasy held by your primitive brain: that it’s possible, if you play your cards right, to eliminate discomfort from your life. It’s the pursuit of this fantasy—that all pain and discomfort can be eradicated and that pleasantness can be acquired and retained forever—that is at the root of much human suffering. 

It runs afoul of a universal truth, which is that all things change all the time. Discomfort and pleasure will both visit us, and we can’t stop that inevitable flux any more than we can stop waves moving across the ocean. Trying to do so is an exercise in futility.

Our primitive brain doesn’t realize that pushing away from one wall, while providing temporary relief, merely sends us more quickly to the next one. That unrelenting experience of frustration and tension causes us to suffer about unpleasantness. The solution, counterintuitively, is to turn toward it. Accepting unpleasantness as part of your experience right now—just accepting it, which doesn’t require liking it.

Discomfort doesn’t only arise in physical sensations, of course. Negative emotions are also a threat to your reptilian brain’s pleasure fantasy, and become subject to all manner of avoidance techniques—repression, distraction, self-medication, etc.—that obscure their true value. Accepting negative emotions as they are and exploring them with curiosity and compassion, in addition to reducing their impact to your well-being, often allows you to see beneath the surface to a wound or vulnerability that needs your attention

Plus, it so happens that the behaviors that are most in alignment with your core self—your unique configuration of uniquely human needs and capacities—are usually uncomfortable right now, especially if they are new behaviors for you. Things like vulnerability, change, and connection are risky and unpleasant from the primitive brain’s standpoint, yet are fundamental to your long-term personal growth and well-being. Turning toward discomfort now can move you toward the innate ease and comfort that are always available to you in the center of your experience.   

Really, we’re all floating in an Espom salt bath, in a manner of speaking. At our most primitive level of functioning, we’re wired to be reactive, flail about, and wear ourselves out beating against walls when, instead, you can find peace and equanimity with a light touch and a willingness to soften to the barriers you encounter.

What difficulty have you challenged yourself to turn toward lately? Let me know in the comments!

Jim Hjort, LCSW

Jim operates a psychotherapy practice, helps people overcome roadblocks to self-actualization as a Right Life® coach, and appears at speaking and teaching engagements. He studied Sociology and Abnormal Psychology at UCLA and holds an MSW from USC, with a specialization in Systems of Recovery from Mental Illness. He has also been awarded the Certified Mindfulness Facilitator designation from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. 

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Rita Bourgeois's picture

Your articles are always insightful and interesting.

rightlifeproject's picture

Thank you, I'm glad you like them!

Heather Norwood's picture

Hey Jim, great article ! I have been turning toward the "not knowing" that is very much a part of the work we do. Walking with and not in front of our clients. The pressure to have the answers and help others allevite their own suffering often makes me suffer! I am leaning in and sometimes bumping into the wall, but I know that this uncomfortable feeling is a part of the process and my growth as a professsional and as a person! I hope you are well :) 

rightlifeproject's picture

Hi Heather, nice to hear from you! What a great observation--yes, even the helping process offers opportunities to turn toward discomfort, for sure! And given the benefit of doing so, the helping process is very healthy for both parties! Thanks so much for your insightful comment.

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