Nothingness is a hard drug

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I found myself lying in a shallow pool of warm water about 10 inches deep and 10 times more buoyant than seawater. If I moved, the water tickling my arms reminded me that I wasn’t hopelessly adrift on the Dead Sea at night. Instead, I was enclosed inside a sensory deprivation tank, and the water was heated to 93.5 to 95.5 degrees, just below body temperature. The longer I lay there, the more difficult it was to feel where my skin stopped and the water began. Maybe that’s how jellyfish feel as they pulse softly through the ocean.

I found my way to one of Zazen wellness center’s two sensory deprivation tanks in San Francisco, because I’ve started getting panic attacks. The irony of someone who writes weekly about health and wellness developing panic disorder on the last week of her stint is not lost on me. A lightproof, nearly soundproof room the size of a big closet hardly sounds like a cure for waves of mind-numbing, hand-shaking, headache-inducing spells of anxiety, but there I was. The anxiety, when it breaks, seems to wash away all the faint etchings of efficacy that I imagine I have, so I was there to learn to let go. I opened my eyes. I shut them. I half-opened them. I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or not. I felt like I floating in a yawning black abyss in space (cue “Space Oddity”).

At Zazen, they provided earplugs, because as it turns out, 1500 pounds of dissolved Epsom salts is not quite enough to keep 10 pounds of dense human head entirely afloat. With my ears plugged and water all around me, all I could hear was my breath and my heartbeat, as it sped up with each inhale and slowed with each exhale. I focused on breathing from my diaphragm, feeling my belly rise and fall with each breath, instead of gulping air from the top of my chest, the way the anxiety wants me to. My mom used to get panic attacks. (There’s a genetic component to mental health struggles.) I remember dining at a dim sum restaurant one afternoon, and it was a normal family lunch, except my mom couldn’t make eye contact with any of us, much less hold a conversation. At some point, she stood up abruptly, clutching the table to steady herself, and told us she had to go outside. She just needed some air, she said. She was shaking. I’d never seen her like that before.

When we’re not stressed or anxious, the heart rate speeds up with each inhalation and slows down with each exhalation. This heart rate variability reflects levels of sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system activation. The sympathetic nervous system, responsible for our “fight-or-flight” response — and panic attacks — keeps the heart rate elevated and decreases heart rate variability, while the parasympathetic nervous system is active when we’re calm and increases heart rate variability. I lay there, listening to the dubstep bass of my heart and my scuba-diver breath, and I could feel myself fading. I moved a little now and then, and I’d bounce gently against the sides of the pool, but otherwise, I was floating . . . and disappearing. My body, which I’m constantly receiving external sensory stimuli from, felt like it wasn’t there. My mind, which I always assumed makes up the core of who I am, had nothing to cling to but its own racing thoughts. But, if we’re not our body and we’re not our mind, what could we possibly be? What’s the consciousness that lies at the core of the human experience, which we assume other animals lack — the consciousness that’s busy interpreting our senses, our reactions and our thoughts? And when we’re thinking about thinking, who’s doing this thinking (about the thinking)?

As I lay there, swallowed whole by the nothingness around me, I thought, maybe there’s actually nothing there, and the inherent nature of consciousness is the absence of consciousness. In fact, it feels good not to be self-conscious. Neuroscientists have found that we reconstruct memories every time we recall them, because it’s more efficient to store small chunks rather than entire sequences, which also explains why different people remember the same event in different ways. In that way, all the stories we tell ourselves about our pasts are part fiction, and all of our ideas about the future are mere guesswork. We’re suspended in an empty space of possibilities that reside only in the present. Even though it’ll take time to settle my sympathetic nervous system back down to baseline, letting go of self-consciousness and recognizing the only choices I need to make and the only actions I can take in this moment have been a relief.

A week filled with panic attacks doesn’t need to mean a future filled with them. An older gentleman once confided in me how he stays calm. He said, “For the things that I can’t do anything about, why be frustrated? And for the things that I can do something about, why be frustrated?”

He was right.

Sophie Lee writes the Thursday column on health and wellness. Contact Sophie Lee at [email protected]