When Meditation and Sensory Deprivation Unlock Wild Visions in Your Brain

When Meditation and Sensory Deprivation Unlock Wild Visions in Your Brain

One recent blustery spring day, I floated in a thin layer of water in a tank in Brooklyn. The unseasonable cold and raging wind outside might as well have been in another city, another state, another galaxy for all the bearing it had on my mind. I was focused on other things like trying to stay centered, both spiritually and proximally in my isolation tank. My body and my mind tended to drift to the corners of the tank and my consciousness.

In my mind’s eye, I saw Snoopy wearing a rasta cap. A cheetah’s eye. A still of card-soldier chaos in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. A dove canoodling a human’s head. I imagined myself floating in a black river against a black sky where a godlike figure watched me. Or maybe it was just a floating bronze head of Zeus, or the green face in a bubble on the cover of the paperback edition of A Wrinkle in Time from my youth.

Despite their insistence, the images were not the point. The point was to blot out as much mental activity as possible while taking advantage of a free isolation tank experience I had been offered at Vessel Floats, “a mindfulness-oriented spa offering sensory deprivation and float therapy,” in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood. “EXPERIENCE NOTHING,” the Vessel Floats website promises, a prospect so alluring because it is so elusive. Hyper-connectivity, 24/7 information bombardment, never-not-working lifestyle aside, the actual act of clearing one’s mind is not an easy prospect.

People train for years to work up to that point. I try virtually every day, meditating on my couch, and mostly fail. That doesn’t stop me. Studies have suggested that meditation can help strengthen focus and decrease depression. I love the idea of active intervention, that doing something as simple as just sitting there focusing could result in benefits that many rely on medicine to facilitate. It’s like compounding your own drugs via sheer will. Beyond the potential effects, it strikes me as particularly useful to just do something different with my brain for a few minutes everyday, to push against the grain and strengthen it by surprising it, as I do when I exercise the rest of my body.

If all of this is fuzzy science or woo-woo seduction, at the very least, I get to take in some ridiculous imagery that I concoct unconsciously. At least the infotainment is unlike any I can receive elsewhere.

Some recent images that have crossed my mind while not floating in saltwater in my apartment: A horse with hair that moves like fire but seems to have the consistency of soft serve. A Philippine eagle wearing a puffy shirt haughtily. The most conventionally beautiful Lhasa Apso face imaginable (symmetry, long eyelashes, a benevolent expression). A woman’s naked torso, but the breasts are two heads singing a duet (one has dreadlocks).

Some might label these “visions,” these pictures my mind is showing me with no discernible basis in conscious life. But if I am having visions, they are of the dumbest shit.

There are many different explanations for the conjuring of these spontaneous images. Gamma waves, one’s third eye, hypnogogic hallucinations that creep in during the liminal period between wakefulness and sleep, neurons that become ultra-sensitive in response to sensory deprivation. I can’t confirm or deny the science or spirituality behind the ridiculous shit my brain spontaneously presents to me, but I have a suspicion that the greater mechanism is allergy to boredom. Since I was young, I’ve been terrified of being bored. I used to carry a minimum of two books with me on road trips—the one I was reading, and the one I’d read in the event that I finished the first one. Along with the books came mini music libraries—boxes of tapes or books of CDs. The advent of the iPod and its promised portability of my entire music library thrilled me. Filling my life with entertainment has been my objective for I don’t know how long. When I started meditating a few years ago, I actively interrupted that nonstop stream of mental engagement. I believe my brain is revolting against my meditative goal of utter blankness.

Some might label these “visions.” But if I am having visions, they are of the dumbest shit.

Whereas I normally try to quiet my mind when I meditate at home, I had hoped that an isolation tank would gag it. The isolation tank was developed by counterculture neuroscientist legend John C. Lilly, perhaps best known for his research in dolphin language. (Lilly was depicted, albeit in fictionalized form, in Mike Nichols’s 1973 movie Day of the Dolphin and Ken Russell’s 1980 sci-fi feature Altered States.) Lilly first experimented with an isolation tank in 1954. Per a 1979 New York magazine feature: “He wanted to find out what the mind did when it was deprived of external stimuli. He discovered the mind stimulated itself.”

In the time since Lilly developed it, there has been plenty of research about the benefits of restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST), with suggestions that some time in a tank can induce hallucinations, boost creativity, and help mitigate anxiety. One study found that light deprivation in the short term boosted visual cortex activity. The concept of neural elasticity suggests that your brain can find a way of compensating for what it lacks.

Lilly remained a proponent of the therapeutic benefits of the tank. He’s quoted in that New York piece as saying, “Once in a while I’ll come back from one of these spaces and say, ‘Baby dolls, this is the truth with a capital T.’”

Vessel Floats may serve to shuttle you to such Truth, but you pass through a simulation of luxury en route. This is a spa experience with a capital S. The glass front that displays Floats’ reception desk struck me as more Miami than Greenpoint. After checking in, I received a virtual menu on my phone (via QR code) to customize my float. For audio, I was given the options of total sensory deprivation, a sound bath (via the recorded drone of singing bowls), an “astral projection exercise,” and a guided meditation. As much as I would like to travel the world without having to move my body, the astral projection exercise was also a guided meditation, as I discovered after inquiring with the person who checked me in. I don’t like having another voice in my head when attempting to block everything out. My own is plenty.

After I made my selection, the receptionist led me to my “room,” which was low-lit and black-tiled. It was essentially a dressing room with a shower attached. I was to bathe with a “charcoal pre-rinse” body wash prior to dipping into the adjacent tank, which was elevated a few feet and probably about 8’ x 4’ and white lit magenta, like ’80s retrofuturism through an Instagram filter. Above was a “star sky,” a constellation of twinkle lights you could turn on via a button on the left next to two other buttons, which controlled the lights and the sound. Turning off the lights meant floating in the kind of pitch darkness where opening and closing your eyes yields the exact same amount of nothing. The sound bath started to annoy me (I like a little more texture to my ambiance) and so I turned that off in a short amount of time. I experienced nothing.

Or something like it. Immediately, I saw a pattern of crescent moons like etches in sand expanding from the center of my field of vision and out. In addition to the images I already mentioned were abstractions: blobs of purple burning through my mind’s eye, flecked in black chars as though the color had been barbecued. I saw a similar greenish-yellow fluorescent bulb later, as if emanating from an orb that had been buried in the ground.

Are these visions good or bad? Are they just dumb distractions, or keys to my unconscious that deserve serious consideration? I ask because I don’t know. Mostly they just amuse me. They dazzle me or crack me up. It’s funny, they’re as inappropriate and sorely needed as laughter during a Catholic mass. They take me away from where I’m trying to be, but I can’t help myself from appreciating them.

Pollan refers to the feeling of inexplicable profundity that can define one’s psychedelic journeys as a noetic quality—like the feeling of fullness after a good meal, but for your spirit.

Last summer, I went on a psilocybin journey with the help of a shaman that I spoke to via Zoom. I had read Michael Pollan’s comprehensive account of the mind-boosting properties of psychedelic drugs, How to Change Your Mind, and I was interested in reaping some for myself in a somewhat controlled environment with expert guidance. I googled around for a shaman willing to guide me on a socially distanced journey, and in just a few hours had coordinated with one who told me he’d guided “dozens” of trips previously. Though not as formalized as the kind of psychedelic therapy that is rapidly gaining mainstream acceptance, it was nonetheless a moving, beneficial experience.

The session plumbed the depths of my consciousness via two distinct modes: therapy and internal spelunking. My shaman and I would chat for a bit, which often involved him telling me things to look out for or suggesting a mindset or things to consider (like not running from that which scared me but leaning into it), and then I’d put on my Mindfold (a blindfold with a rigid plastic backing connected to foam, which has two holes cut out that allow you to open your eyes to total darkness) and take a look around. The first few times I went under, as it were, I just sort of gazed at the imagery my mind had to offer. It was astonishing. Much of it was very dark, but I was never terrified. I was repeatedly confronted by images that were, for lack of a better umbrella term, gothic. One motif I saw was this infinite pattern of what I assumed was a section of a coiled snake, folded into a triangular configuration. I would travel looking from image to image—all was dark, and the tones were mostly greens, blacks, and purples. I saw a gorgeous scarab, an intricate beetle lying flat that looked like it had been carved by an artist. I saw H.R. Giger’s alien suspended in space. It posed no harm, I don’t even think it was alive, it was just there for me to behold. I can’t remember if it happened on my first or second time going under, but at one point, there was a sense of climax and a reveal of a giant, gelatinous bug-like creature that was mostly pink and opalescent. It was like the brain bug in Starship Troopers mixed with some of bottom-dwelling bug-like sea creature. I knew it was tremendously powerful, but I saw it at a remove and it wasn’t aware of me. It was revealed on a big ocean liner. I felt that I was only a spectator until the very end of this particular section of my trip, when I realized a bunch of faces were looking at me through haze. The shapes of these faces were angular and sinister, like snakes staring into my soul, but they also could have been wolves. I felt they were somehow demonic and judging me but I sort of blinked and understood them to just be curious and, in that way, accepting.

The entire session wasn’t devoted to me ogling my mind art—unexpected insights about specific personal relationships danced into my head and I left the experience with a deepened appreciation for the life I had and my connectedness to the world. Pollan refers to the feeling of inexplicable profundity that can define one’s psychedelic journeys as a noetic quality. It’s something like the feeling of fullness after a good meal, but for your spirit.

Unfortunately, that sense of profundity and connection tends to fade with time. But the insights (which sometimes come from a shift of perspective, like an alternate camera angle on a previously lived experience) and images remain. At a certain point during the six or so hours I spent under my own hood with the shaman I realized that the truly astonishing images I was seeing were of me. “I made that!” It was a moment of self-love unlike any that I had experienced, a way of feeling objective admiration for my own mind. Without that kind of concentration (and psychedelic assistance), my default mode is self-deprecation.

In the tank, I found it easier than during most meditations to hold onto the blank and ride the nothing. The images came but they were sporadic. My mind turned to the last club I visited before lockdown, Monster. There, Lady Bunny spun disco on a Sunday evening and I saw someone wearing the same shirt as me, a throwback to the notorious liberation-era gay club The Saint. I thought about how everything that’s happened to me, whether by my designs or not, has led me to this point and then I wondered if those things were actually distractions, slowing me down or diverting me from getting here faster. What is “supposed to” anyway? Is it destiny that I should find myself in a mode where “self-care” is irrelevant as its own concept because it’s been so fully integrated into my life that few things at this point do not qualify as “self-care,” or is the me that takes care of himself its own creation, a new form distinct from and in fact made to reject the chain-smoking, non-exercising me of 25 that thought introspection and meditation were woo-woo bullshit?

The thoughts lapped over each other like waves. I was shocked when I heard, via underwater speaker, that my session was over and was not fully convinced that I had spent an hour in the tank until I checked on my phone. In all, my Vessel Floats float was entirely pleasant. It was one of my all-time favorite Brooklyn bougie experiences. Were it not for my press pass, it would have been extremely pricey (sessions at Vessel Floats cost $75 for first-timers and then $100 for follow-up sessions for non-members) and I’m not sure what I saw and experienced there couldn’t have also been conjured on my couch. In that idea lies its own affirming realization, though: Your mind can be a wonderful vacation, and the best thing about it is you get to take it with you everywhere you go.

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