Tag Archives: Existentialism

inside isolation: under the skin and in the water

“Come to New York for some isolation” she said. I had no idea I would also be spending the weekend staring at guts, blood vessels, body parts, skeletons, and still-born baby embryos?!? And somehow all of this happened before diving into the silence, darkness, and nothingness found floating in the pre-scheduled isolation chamber session. Wow! What a way to end this month’s exploration into existential spirituality! Gotta give it to this month’s writer Amy Rothstein for shaking “Living Chapters” up and literally pushing both my physical and mental comfort zones.

I warn the readers now that this entry is longer than most. I have found experiences in the past few days to be fascinating and at some point may write pages on the thoughts and questions that were inspired by this weekend’s excursion.  Tonight I will share what I can.

As suggested, I traveled to New York City to visit Amy and her husband Adam. I’ve been to the city countless times before and have always found it to be invigorating and stimulating (sometimes a bit overly so…)  I often come home from New York feeling as if I need to rest up from my trip. This was the first visit in which I’ve come home feeling revitalized and fully relaxed.

So, instead of shopping, gallery hopping, clubbing, or culture seeking, Amy had a not so touristy mission planned for us this weekend.  She asked me to step outside of the peaceful white wall, daily mediation sessions and challenged me to and take a peak under my own skin.  She asked me to contemplate not only who I am but what I am. What would happen if I looked directly into the dark isolated place of my inner self to seek existential answers?  I endorse following Rothstein’s approach of doing the nitty-gritty work of checking in with your day-to-day existence while pushing both your physical body, and mind to new places. It feels like a  bold endeavor and I thank Amy for asking this of me.

Day one: under the skin

Although not written directly into the chapter, Amy made one last request that we do together upon my arrival to the city. For the last week of this month, I was asked to focus on my body. How did I feel within my own skin in different situations with different people? Could I notice subtle changes? Could I listen to what my body was communicating and block out external sources? To assist me in this process, she suggested we attend Gunter von Hagens’ Body Worlds original exhibition “Pulse”

I had the opportunity many times before to see this exhibit, but have always passed it by. I passed up the chance to stare at and examine the stripped down layers of our human shells? I passed on the chance to be up close and personal with the human hide that we call skin, the marble like substance that we call muscles, the gorey guts that make up our digestive track, and the ligaments that somehow link our muscles and bones together. Oh and I somehow had been missing out on the opportunity to observe the slices of brains delicately displayed between glass.  Why had I passed up this great opportunity? Well it’s totally creepy!  So, Amy if you were trying to pick things that push my comfort zone, job well done – consider it pushed!

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these photos are taken from the Body Worlds exhibition website. Please go there to see more images – the photos are amazing but they do not do the exhibit justice. Go see the show!

Overall, I found the visit to the Body Worlds exhibit to be a bit less overwhelming and unsettling than I expected but it did greatly affect me. Looking at our physical form stripped down to the basic layers was fascinating. I quickly became aware of my own physical reactions.  The darkened space and carefully designed light fixtures transported viewers to another space where we humans could observe ourselves as beautifully displayed objects or sculptures. It was when I started comparing the figures to my own body and bone structure that I started to feel the exhibit rather than merely view it. My palms began to sweat and I felt a bit light-headed. It brought my awareness directly to the current moment and physical state of being. I was not quite queasy but I was not quite right either. I was actually proud of both Amy and I for making it through the whole exhibit without passing out in public. (Amy is my only friend who like myself is prone to fainting in doctor’s offices when giving blood or even getting a shot.)

Being in the darkened space with this spotlighted specimens – I have never been more aware of my own shape, shell and form or more amazed by it. How precious each tiny piece and part played in the overall picture! Breaking it down in this visual way reminded me of how strong yet vulnerable we are. Each layer protecting the next – a complicated and precise system making up our each of our individual lives. It is entirely up to us to keep it all moving smoothly and working properly.  It is up to us to take care of ourselves body mind and spirit.  This exhibit was a clear reminder of that.

Interspersed between the display cases of flesh, muscles and bones were Tibetan prayers, quotes from existential poets, scientists and spiritual leaders. I found it fitting that the curators of the show also designed the viewing experience to be balanced out with these open-ended existential questions about life.  How could you not wonder about these questions when contemplating and viewing the visceral creation of the human body.

Day two: in the water

What the heck is an isolation chamber? I had been thinking about this since Amy unveiled her final request for this chapter last week.  She scheduled us both to spend 60 minutes in an isolation chamber. I can not say the request did not spark a tiny bit of anxiety at first.  There is something about the word “chamber” that creates a sense of fear that only bad horror movies involving torture and psychological tests could bring. Amy had posted a few links online for me to learn about the process and experience, but I purposely held back peaking at them so I could go into the experience with a clean slate (without preconceived notions or judgement). I decided to trust my friend and let go of the stereotypes that movies have led me to believe about isolation. My anxiety quickly faded to excitement and curiosity. Is it even possible to be in complete isolation in the midst of New York City? And if it was, what can isolation bring? Why do people choose to do this? These were questions, I was ready to explore. Also, Amy was along for the ride, so if it was torturous, we would weather the weirdness together.

After coming out of this experience, I am sure my description won’t do it justice. Reactions to this process, I am sure are intimate and unique to each individual much like our sensory experiences. Sound and sight are not the same for you and I so how could the absence of them feel the same to us both. I urge you to try this out for yourself (that is if you are not claustrophobic) and see what you get out of it.

So you may ask like I did, what is an isolation chamber? Basically it is a small room/large closet with a large tub in it (it’s about the size of the space I sleep in on the sailboat I live aboard). The tub is filled with water kept at body temperature. It has a high density of Epson Salt in it and possibly some chlorine. It is big enough to stretch out and float effortlessly in. The walls are sound proof and the darkness is opaque when the lights are turned off.

If you are wondering about the actual step-by-step detailed logistics of this process, I urge you to take a peak at the blog post (that I should have read before I entered) New York’s Last Sensory Deprivation Tank. This writer’s description of her interaction with Blue Light Flotation and its proprietor Sam Zeiger was quite similar and on par with my own observations. The only notes that I will offer in addition to her right-on review are my personal experiences being a first time floater.

I was not sure what I would get out of this “isolation” experiment. Amy and I entered the nondescript apartment building and told the doorman which floor and apartment we were visiting. Knowing exactly why we were there, he responded to us by asking, “Are you sure you want to do this?” Amy laughed a bit “Yes sir!” she said confidently. I shrugged my shoulders, smiled and followed her into the elevator. Exiting on the 4th floor we walked down a “Shining like” hotel hallway and passed by a silent young man, grinning gleefully from ear to ear. His expression was both blissful and a bit bonkers. He had just left Blue light – a first time floater maybe?

Sam welcomed us in his home and gave us both a brief (yet incredibly detailed) instructional session on how to get the best experience from the float. He was very particular about cleanliness, privacy, and efficiency. He explained that we would first shower before entering the tank, how to enter and exit the tank and then shower afterward. OK, yes this may have been one of the more bizarre things I have done in my life. Showering in some unknown guys apartment in NYC then floating naked in his self-made isolation tank full of salt water for an hour sounds like a recipe for disaster. These are the ingredients that make up most people’s worst nightmares but I can honestly say it just was not creepy at all. The guy outside in the hall was more unsettling than anything I experienced or saw inside Blue Light floatation.

Sam is one of the most professional and non threatening guys, I have met in a while. He believes in the benefits of floating so much, that he devoted his life to the process. In a sense his apartment in itself is his own isolation chamber that he can only really leave on Sundays (his day off) The rest of the week, he is booked back to back with curious visitors like ourselves and frequent floaters that come in to float for 3 hours at a time.  He finds himself rarely able to get out of the apartment to even do simple errands – he is stuck in isolation of his creation.  Now I can’t begin to tell Sam’s whole story after only talking to him for a mere 15 minutes but I can tell you about my first float.

I found very little to be negative about the isolation experience, in fact it was quite the opposite for me. The 60 minutes inside the chamber floating was the closest thing I have experienced to self-created and contained contentment or shall I say happiness. I would not call it life-altering or being bathed in bliss… by no means did any golden thoughts or answers fall from the universe into my subconscious during this time, but I have to say I felt ready and willing for them to do so.

When I first slipped into the tank I was surprised how buoyant the salt water made me. I floated directly to the surface of the water and stayed there. I had no fears or qualms about sinking. The weightlessness instantly relaxed me. I easily laid my head back, switched the light off, closed my eyes.  I focused in on the few things I could remember Sam telling us. He suggested doing a quick body scan or check in with each part of the body. How does this feel? How does that feel? Notice if there is any tension – don’t resist it. Accept that it’s there and breathe into the tension. Don’t ignore or avoid the discomfort, focus in on it and try to dissolve it. And practically, he reminded us, that staying still would obviously enhance the experience and of course warned us not to get the salt water in our eyes.

At first I did feel tension between my shoulder blades at the back of my neck. I was distracted by this for at least the first 5 – 10 minutes of the float. Other initial distractions included the thudding sounds of my heart beating, my now Darth Vader under water sounding breath and the almost deafening background sound of silence itself (which to me was like a ringing in my ears). I tried to focus in on the tension, and then went to focusing on my breath and then switched to listening to my heart beat.  As I focused in on one thing, the other sound or sense would fade. Not only was I able let go of the tension but I was also able to let go of holding my body entirely. I simply let go to the best of my ability and relaxed deeply into the floating feeling itself.

Thoughts of time came in and out of my head. “How long has it been? Is this supposed to be what happens in here? Don’t move – salt water in eyes would suck!” I also couldn’t help but be reminded of the tiny baby embryos in the Body World show.  I felt like one of them in them floating in the darkened womb.  When these thoughts came in, I steered my mind back to the silence sound and the darkness. The thoughts would then evaporate into the thick air. I tried to imagine the line of water around my body hitting the moisture filled air above me. Where was that line? Sometimes I still felt it around my face and sometimes it would disappear. When I was completely still, I felt as if I was floating in open space lifted in the air instead of the water. When I moved slightly it felt as if my body was spinning horizontally clockwise. Is this was astronauts feel like? Was I asleep? I thought for a few moments that I was. My legs got those jerk jolt reactions that sometimes happen just before or after falling into an REM state. At one point I felt as if I was floating face down instead of face up in the water. Did Sam slip something else in the water other than salt? These changing perceptions made me wonder.

Before I knew it I was hearing soft sad sounding music – this was the sign that the session had ended. I tried to sit up in the darkness and felt even more disoriented – I found the light switch and wandered back out into the world (Sam’s living room) where he had a cold class of herb tea waiting for me.  60 minutes had gone by in what seemed like less time than my 20 minute mediation sessions.

While waiting for Amy to take her 60 minutes in the chamber, I stood outside in the sun at the corner of west 23rd and 7th Avenue. I was basking in my isolation hang-over of sorts. I’ve never had such a great hang-over. I felt elated, yet grounded and surprisingly alert at the same time. I noticed my posture was even a bit better.  The world was moving quickly all around me on the busy city street but it didn’t bother or affect me. I patiently stared at everyone moving by and felt no need to be anywhere or do anything but be there in the sun.

Spending the hour-long session with only myself and the silence left me feeling not isolated but more connected with my surroundings and with a great sense of inner calm. The feeling stayed with me about an hour after leaving the float tank even amongst the hectic flow and pulse of the city around me. Was there something in the tank water? Was there something in the herbal tea? Or was there something in the simple act of looking inward instead of outward that brought me to sense of calm and comfort level in my own (newly salt covered and smooth) skin? Anyway you look at it – I rate it an A+ experience and would return to the isolation chamber. I will start tonight back on the boat in Annapolis, its my less intense version of the isolation chamber.

9/29/13

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September Writer Response: Amy Rothstein

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As predicted, sticking to the meditation practice was really challenging at first. For the first two weeks, I was grouchy, my body resisted and my mind ran like a noisy wild bronco. I did stick with it, kicking and screaming inside. Around mid-month, my thoughts during meditation started to lose potency. They became quieter; and while they still arose, they were easier to let go of. As a result of the meditation, I’ve become slightly more aware of my thoughts at times when I wouldn’t normally be. Meditating has also made it easier for me to moderate my consumption of (legal) substances and to be slight more disciplined in general. I have still been only meditating for 15 minutes.

I have tried to make a frequent practice of listing persistent, reoccurring thoughts, which tend to be subtle fears. I have found that proactively surfacing these ghosts helps me to prevent them from snowballing and allow them to exist if necessary. I plan to keep doing this.

As far as the one-year, five-year and lifetime-goals go, I created a list like this in January of 2012 and I took this opportunity to revisit it. Beth and I discussed her (and my) resistance to this assignment. While she resists planning; I resist commitment.  We agreed to only list what genuinely comes to mind.

I seem to be striking some sort of balance between being comfortable with where I am and also taking action about the future- perhaps that balance between what ET calls “Life” while working on my life situation. At this point it’s obvious that I tend to ask a lot of questions. Knowing which questions are best left unanswered is a skill I’m also honing these days.

So, where is my sense of humor? Do I take this stuff too seriously? This month hasn’t been any more serious than usual for me but I always do a fair amount of clowning around. Most importantly, having a disciplined routine to help address big questions (with or without answers) has actually made me feel a bit lighter this month.

So far we’ve covered “just being” and “doing” and for the last week I’d like us to cover “feeling”.

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The Body

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Chapter 4; Week 4

One of the core agreements of existentialism is that being human means we will experience anxiety. There are countless sources of anxiety, but comfort seems to be its opposite. To access feelings of comfort when we would normally be anxious seems to be a truly lofty goal. For the last week I’d like us to look at how we access and experience comfort and discomfort in our bodies out-and-about in the world.

Assignment #1: I urge Beth to be mindful of her breath, body/extremities, movements and actions this week. Try to remain aware of your breath, your body, movements, and actions throughout the days this week.

  • Start after your morning meditation at home with some mundane tasks like cleaning or making your bed.
  • Work towards doing this in public, while you’re in groups and in social situations.
  • Identify how your body reacts to stress or anxiety. Start to observe your body in different situations and emotional states.

Assignment #2:  Come to New York City for some isolation! Beth is coming to visit me in New York. On Saturday, Sept. 28th we both have separate 60-minute appointments in the floatation isolation chamber at Blue Light Floatation. For more information on what the heck that is and what to expect, visit the Blue Light website here: http://www.bluelightfloatation.com/floatation.html

Here are some pre-float prep notes:

  • Don’t be on a coffee buzz the day of the float.
  • Don’t drink too much water.
  • Get good sleep the night before.

A skeptical Blue Light Floater documented her visit on this blog. http://www.theawl.com/2012/10/new-yorks-last-sensory-deprivation-tank The post goes into great detail about what to expect when you go to Blue Light for a float. What you choose to think about (or not) inside the floatation chamber is up to you. See you this weekend, Beth!

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chapter four

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Theme: Existential/Spirituality

The Goal

In September, Beth and I will welcome and indulge in reflection on existential questions. In light of these questions, we will seek to both obtain wisdom and experiment with practices that may lead to a more fulfilling existence. I will also complete all assignments with Beth this month.

Background/Agreements

My old Existentialism: Basic Writings book from college cites a core existential agreement that “what is unique to humans is that their being is ‘in question’ or ‘at issue’ for them. Humans are not content with simply satisfying their basic desires, for they care about what kinds of beings they are, and they therefore reflect on the worth of things they desire.”[i]

The core existential concepts examined within this human condition are:[ii]

  1. “Existence precedes essence”: we exist in the world first and then determine how we want to be in the world. We are our own creations.
  2. We are free: we can make choices at every moment that have significant consequences.
  3. Life is absurd: There is no meaning to be found in the world beyond what meaning we give it.
  4. Anxiety is part of life and is inherently part of the human condition.
  5. Facticity:  we are who we are and cannot change our pasts; yet we still can make choices and create our future
  6. Authenticity: in creating oneself, we must take into account our facticity, our freedoms, and assume responsibility for conducting ourselves and our lives in a way that is constructive and true to who we are. The inauthentic self can be described as a conforming (with the masses or with the alternative rebels).
  7. Despair: can be the byproduct of living a life that is mundane. As Wikipedia puts it, “So long as a person’s identity depends on qualities that can crumble, he is considered to be in perpetual despair.”

Sounds dizzying, right? In our everyday lives, these concepts translate into more practical, reoccurring, modern dilemmas that result from nagging questions like:

 How do we lead an authentic, meaningful, and fulfilling existence?

 What is the gap between what is/where we are and where we want to go/what we want to be like? How do we bridge that gap?

 Does happiness really exist? How can we create it or feel it?

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Our Approach

We will let these questions serve as a guide this month and will draw wisdom from secular thinkers who share the existential view of the human condition and from those that claim to have the answers to these questions. We will take both a cognitive/intellectual and physical approach this month. Through the physical approach we will employ techniques proven to assist in strengthening the connection between mind, body and “happiness”/that which is bigger than us (you know, “spiritual feelings”).

General rules for September:

  1. Eliminate expectations. We are not trying to achieve nirvana or enlightenment.
  2. Try to consume all things moderately: media, food, alcohol, coffee, etc.
  3. Identify a single location where you will privately record your reflections and written assignments this month.

 Method

This chapter theme is very intimate. It commands solitude, reflection, experiential learning, and presence. Thus, we will avoid publishing the whole month’s plan at the outset. We will post a weekly topic on each Saturday with new assignments (*excluding the first week’s theme, which will be disclosed on September 3rd). Beth can report out when she’s inspired to, but we want to avoid the notion her readers are waiting for her to have and share transcendental experiences.


[i] Existentialism: Basic Writings, Second Edition. Edited by Charles Guignon and Derk Pereboom.

[ii] Kudos to Wikipedia for identifying these themes

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