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Written and Illustrated byKimberley Saul

I think I know why creatives hold periods of isolation and sensory deprivation so dear now.

Bzzt bzzt bzzt. The phone’s ringing. Someone’s shouting your name from across the room and 500 thoughts are swirling inside a head that feels dreary and bogged down by the attention of all things everywhere. You’re driving from place to place thinking about dinner, the old cereal you used to love that’s been discontinued, the pressures of work, and if trying out a sensory deprivation tank may give you the answers to it all. There’s expectation, there’s responsibility, there’s socialisation, and there’s a wonder about why even the fun things in life demand a sense of planning and coordination that you just don’t seem to have right now. Or ever really. Sound familiar? This lovely little tornado of swirling goodness is called your attention and these days it’s unnaturally wired (think kid being given an energy drink on a treadmill with 24/7 Fortnite access and googly glasses). 

Your very senses are tuned into it. Yup. Sound, sight, taste, touch, and smell are all scrambling to the forefront trying to decipher the almost constant stream of information that gets thrown your way on the daily. My mind often feels like disconnected chatter that I’m trying to eavesdrop on only to find out that the conversation is painfully repetitive, awkwardly dramatic, and very geared towards surviving a personal ‘doomsday’ (whatever that means). Sometimes, our senses and minds throw us some gold every now and again though. Like trying out a sensory deprivation tank in pursuit of a better understanding of oneself and perhaps even the creative process. Which is exactly what I did.

Solitude isn’t loneliness. Solitude is when the entire serene universe seems to surround and hold you quietly.” – Victoria Erickson 

The practice of putting oneself in a sensory deprivation tank, also known as R.E.S.T. (Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy), is a weird but seemingly effective process to return to a womb-like state of ‘nothingness’. To do this, a float tank is hygienically filtered and filled with around 30 cm of water and then saturated with about 525kg of Epsom salt. This makes the water so dense you float upon the top effortlessly. This water is then heated to 35.5°C: the same as your body temperature. With the lightweight lid of the tank closed and amongst total darkness; the sensation of where you end and where the water begins is lost to a senseless void with rather strange effects.

American physician, neuroscientist, and all-around cooky guy John C. Lilly can be thanked for the development of this. Dolphin communicating, consciousness seeking, LSD, and Ketamine tripping kinda cooky. According to scientific studies conducted, this once-counterculture practice provides benefits including reduced stress, increased overall well-being, reduced anxiety, improved sleep, and increased creativity to name a few. As a generally anxious and stressed out individual (remember the personal doomsday mentioned earlier) I had to try this. Even more so, as a creatively interested person, I wanted to see if this might relate and build upon the urge of isolation/period of withdrawn incubation often experienced by creatives within their processes. What follows is my personal experience one-on-one with the void (or nothing-eater as cleverly nicknamed by others). 

After meeting lovely Angela who guided me confidently throughout the experience at Cloud 9; I was brought face to face with the mouth of a wide-open tank that reminded me of something out of Neon Genesis Evangelion (for all you anime peeps out there). I showered in the bathroom area and then made my way into the dark, spa-music-filled tank room which lit up subtly as I passed by the small motion-censored camp light. After popping in earplugs left invitingly in a small bowl; I carefully climbed into the ever-mysterious and futuristic tank that I had read mountains about (John. C. Lilly would be proud)! I pulled the lightweight door latch shut behind me and leaned back into the salty water.

I was pleasantly surprised when I bobbed back up like a cork. After about 10 minutes of listening to the faraway sounds of spa music, the backtrack started to fade away along with the sensation of my body. The tank started to feel like a womb and an unexpected trip down memory lane started to play out in my mind as I subconsciously agreed to follow it wherever it went. What else did I have to do anyway in this wide open warm expanse of space? What surprised me most was the vividness of the memories that came up. Old forgotten things that had grown dusty to the touch were now in cinematic quality. My old house and how the hidden passage between the garage and the outer wall grew weeds as delightfully tall as a forest to my younger self. My grandpa and how he used to hold my hands and rub them between his to keep mine warm in winter in his office. My past relationships (yeesh talk about a ‘don’t look now’ moment) became clarified and forgiven where needed.

It felt like my mind was exploring and re-organizing some key moments in my life and then relating them back to present times with a new sense of full permission. With no distractions around, I was fully present for the movie and free to reflect on it openly and honestly afterward. In this reflective pool of memories, I felt alone and free in a curious way that, although initially a little uncomfortable, became comfortingly natural. This void was not the scary and empty place I thought it might be. It was as expansive as an ocean with my thoughts becoming waves that I now felt capable of sailing across. The music faded back to life as I came to the realization that I had been in a state that was neither asleep nor awake for the last hour. After a second shower to get all the salt water off, I headed home with a sense of tired calm.

“You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” – Franz Kafka

I think I know why creatives hold periods of isolation so dear now. I also realize that this so-called ‘isolation’ is far from a desolate place. Separating oneself from the constant hub of notifications, opinions, and flashing lights creates space that’s not just around us but within us too. Einstein did it with his long walks on the beach and ceiling stares between busy periods. Nikola Tesla did it too and so did Franz Kafka, Pablo Picasso, Coral Sandburg, and many others. To let the mind wander and to be present throughout this without external judgment or justification opens up a space of acceptance, creativity, fresh perspectives, new ideas, and peace. It’s a place for exploring, re-organizing, and reconnecting much like the sensory deprivation tank or R.E.S.T. in general. Far from a fearful void of cold nothing; our minds are worlds teeming with life that deserve to be tended to.

We can incorporate this in our everyday lives by carving out times of existence outside of obligation and productivity. Even if just for a 5-minute sit on a patch of grass in the sun or a short meditation before bed. Allow your mind to wander and follow it. Treat what you find there with gentle curiosity and kindness instead of fear and rigidity. Schedule trips inwards as much as you’d schedule trips out and try to enjoy the scenery even if the weather changes. Try to meet any seemingly vicious animals you find with understanding as well, you’d be surprised what they’re hiding. When you’re done wandering around, be sure to return back to the usual hubbub of people and places though. The world will welcome you back to work together again.

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