In a previous version of my life, I spent a lot of time around water. Eventually, I discovered that if you hang out around the pool enough, you might as well get paid for it: as soon as I was old enough to take the test, I became a lifeguard.
You can learn many things while guarding, from personal preferences like the roles you prefer to play in a team, how you handle boredom, and whether you can manage a crisis . . . to highly task-specific knowledge, such as how to safely help a person who has become unable to save herself.
The first rule: if you yourself are in the water, don’t ever try offer your own body as a saving base for an active drowning victim. This means do not grab the person without something between you and them, and never—EVER–let them grab you. This rule is why the rescue tube—that long orange floatie that lifeguards have been carrying for the past 15 years or so—was created: to provide a buoyant buffer between a rescuer’s body and that of a drowning victim.
This innovation didn’t arise from a fear of closeness: it’s because active drowning victims act irrationally and dangerously. They flail. They hit. They grab and hold without discrimination, and sometimes with strength and tenacity that are not entirely helpful.
In a worst-case scenario, the victim gets hold of your head, wraps her arms around you to keep herself afloat, and takes you both under. This is a dangerous situation that lifeguards practice in certification training, and the solution is counterintuitive: you must break the hold by swimming down—away from the surface, away from the air, and away from the person you’re trying to help—and then try again to approach from a different angle, remembering to keep yourself farther away. In some circumstances, it’s actually necessary to wait for the person to lose energy and stop fighting before you can assist them. Occasionally that happens only when s/he becomes unconscious.
Aside from drills, I have never been a rescuee. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where that would happen; I was basically born with fins. And yet, the past semester of freaking out—about seminary, the call to ministry, changes to my role in my congregation, and life-altering transformations, in general—it seems akin to a drowning process. Or, more accurately, to a fear-of-drowning process.
First I was the kid who climbed to the top of the high dive and then refused to jump. For a long time. A looooooong time. (and honestly, who hasn’t wanted to climb up there and give that kid a great big push?) But it’s so far down, and it looks different from the top than you thought it would, and falling is scary, and having to swim after that is daunting, and everybody’s staring at you and . . .
And then I was the panicked swimmer floundering in the water. Head back. Arms flailing. Oblivious to the crowd gathering, and a potential danger to those who would try to help.
Only—check this out—it turns out that the gathering crowd is yelling. At me. “Put your feet down!” “FEET! DOWN!”* They are yelling because it turns out I’ve been flailing around in exactly 2.5 feet of water.
I can stand here. My children could stand here. This is both noteworthy and embarrassing, but I don’t dwell on it, because I have also realized something else: I can swim. (It’s hard to do a thorough self-assessment of skills while actively drowning.)
In fact, it turns out that I actually love swimming.
I love it more than I thought possible. I love it so much that it changes my dreams—they get bigger. Much bigger. Bigger than I could even have imagined.
And so, this evening I went to look for some of those dreams . . . in a small and surprising container. One that, of course, is filled with water.
This is a sensory deprivation tank, affectionately known by devotees as simply “the tank.”
There is a chair. There is a tiled shower area. There is a warm glow from a candle, surrounded, altar-style, by shells and stones. There are earplugs, and a towel . . . and little else. There is not, for example, a clock. There’s not a window. There’s not background music, or light reading material, or an internet connection.
It’s just me . . . and the tank.
And I stand there, taking deep slow breaths while the uber-Zen tank guy gives me a floating 101 run-through, and I try to nudge my fear toward “excited” rather than “terrified.” That sort of nudging, after all, is what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks, and it has taken me places. I am leaning in—to my fear, using it to power through, to take the leap into the deep water—and I have found myself talking in class, holding a microphone at Vespers, offering a writing workshop to my classmates and leading experimental humanist worship on the sidewalk on Michigan Avenue. (yep, that happened. I did it. It was C-R-A-Z-Y . . . and wonderful.)
And yet this tank is something else entirely. For one thing, it’s dark. This is not a run of the mill, lights are off kind of darkness. It’s not even lost-in-a-forest, or heard-a-noise-at-midnight darkness. This is primordial darkness. Darkness as living entity. Darkness as beginning, middle and end, the kind in which you might experiment to determine whether it even matters if your eyes are open or not (answer: it does, and it doesn’t).
For another thing, an hour can seem like a very (very . . . very) long time when I am alone with my brain and nothing else. Which I eventually am—it simply comes down to that once I stop fighting. There is nothing else left.
First, though, I have to overcome my physical fear, and I realize that I am literally trembling as I lie down in the tank, door still ajar. My body rises immediately to float atop the surface—there are 800 lbs of Epsom salts dissolved in these 200 gallons of water, creating a buoyancy roughly equivalent to that of the Dead Sea. My head tips back a bit, and I float peacefully. Calmly. With pleasant orange-toned visions of the ceiling outside of the tank. Just this, I think . . . it is almost enough.
Except that I’m done with almost enough. And so, I close the door.
It is a bit heavy—heavier than I thought, definitely heavier than Alix said (“You can push it open with a finger!”) and it closes with certainty. And then I am alone.
It is dark. I cannot see. I cannot hear. The only thing to feel is water, and it’s a pleasant nothing, warmed to exactly skin temperature. All that is left is to float, and I lean back, slide down, and rise again to the surface. This is ok. Odd. Surprising. I’m doing it.
Then I take a deep breath, reach out to feel the walls, and realize that I’m turning a bit in the darkness. I’m not turning over—the buoyancy makes that essentially impossible—but around, as you might floating down a lazy river. I take another breath. IcantseeIcantsee. I worry about finding the door.
I sit up suddenly, splashingly, and scratch my way toward the where I think the door might be. Saltwater runs down my forehead toward my eyes as I try to keep franticness at bay. I find the large circle with my fingertips. I push, hard.
Door open. Air. Breathe. Sigh. Sit.
And so it goes for maybe 10 minutes, until suddenly, during a floating moment, I have a realization. It’s a thought both small and profound. It belongs in the category, a designation for which I recently laughed at my float-experienced friends, of “Things the Tank Told Me.”
This realization is: “’Trapped’ is just a feeling.” I turn that over in my mind, and realize it’s true on a deep level: there is no space that will feel big enough unless I’m content to find myself within it. And conversely . . . perhaps I could choose to find myself right here in this tank. To be here. To fully inhabit this space and my body for this hour. To live into where I am for now, and to trust that I am safe here.
And so I do. I start with this moment in which I can concede that I don’t need to do anything—but for my panic about “what if?,” I am calm and happy and safe. Realizing this, I commit to remain calm for the rest of the hour. It sounds reasonable inside my head, but almost immediately, I feel the familiar well of fear. Too big. Too much pressure.
Well . . . perhaps, then, dear self, we can agree to remain calm and happy in each moment where that works, knowing that we can make a new plan and respond appropriately if something changes. No need to worry about it now. Just be, until it’s time to be in a different way.
And this works. This I can do. One moment to the next, until the moments cease to be.
I dream. I imagine. I lose track of time and thought entirely. I come back to myself and use my hands to scull the length of the tank until my head bounces gently off the top. I scull back down to the bottom, pushing off with my feet like an amphibious pinball. The water moves sloshily around me, rocking, swaying, and I feel an unnerving sense of vertigo. This too shall pass, I think. It does.
And so does the hour, until I hear a knock at the door and then another knock on the tank. Relaxed and ready, I meet that knock with two of my own, sit up, and climb back into the light, leaning in toward whatever comes next. I’m grateful to be swimming, grateful to be floating . . . grateful to be here.
*water safety PSA: joking aside, yelling is not an effective strategy for an actual active drowning victim. (come to think of it, yelling is also unlikely to be helpful for people who only think they’re drowning.) We’re taking some literary license for the purpose of telling this story. 🙂