On a transfer bus from Cowansville to Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, in the lower Laurentians just north of Laval.
It does not matter if it is day or night. I cannot tell.
By Colin McGregor | File Prison
In the rear, in a cage, manacled and handcuffed, all is darkness. I hear the rhythm of the truck suspension against the road; feel the truck speed up and slow down; and stare into the void. Thoughts come and go in the form of dreams.
This is what a sensory deprivation tank must feel like, I say to myself. They have those tanks everywhere. A fiberglass shell encasing body temperature saltwater. No light, no sound. You strip naked, get in, and without feeling your body, you descend into the depths of your mind. It is called “tanking.”
These tanks became popular years ago thanks to psychologist Dr. John Lilly’s seminal book, Center of the Cyclone. Lilly was obsessed by dolphins, who he saw as just as smart as we are. He worked in aquariums studying dolphin language. He believed that if you could figure out how dolphins thought, how their brains worked, then you could communicate with them. He saw the sensory deprivation tank as the best way to get a human inside a dolphin’s brain.
A Zenmaster Tanks
Buddhist Zenmaster Brad Warner of California does not agree. The worldwide leader of the ancient Dogen Shanga sect, this Ohio native visited McGill University’s tank some years ago. He didn’t think it would lead to some great moment – Zen Buddhists believe we are one with the universe, so “the state of mind divorced from body never exists in nature.” Besides, “I was certainly aware of my, um, frank and beans flopping around there like a kielbasa carelessly thrown into the Great Salt Lake.”
Warner fell asleep. He awoke to the sounds of what to him, as a punk rock bassist for the group Zero Defex, sounded like the soundtrack of the cult sci-fi film Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. When he got out of the tank he felt dizzy. And he was thinking of prehistoric women dressed in seashell bikinis.
Lilly never did talk to dolphins in a tank. Dolphins have a lot on their minds: get food; find love; raise young; many of the same concerns we have. They are never alone with their thoughts. Nor am I in my sensory deprivation transfer bus cage. There is the bumping of the bus’ suspension; traffic noises outside; the radio played by the officers in the front of the bus. But it is true, as Warner writes in his book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, that when you have only darkness to stare at, “your brain goes to work digging out whatever it can find to try and keep itself occupied – kind of like a lazy employee pretending to work because the boss is watching.”
It is amazing what is stored in the attic of the mind. Music you once heard; old girlfriends; bad movies; childhood traumas; and lots of things you didn’t think were even in you. Just like a toilet overflowing. A lot of it is deep; a lot of it is just stuff.
In the end I am led out of the truck, at our destination. My chains are undone. A man asks me if I belong to any criminal gang. Nope. I am led to a holding cell, to stare some more.
For those of you left alone in a dark place – it could be a hospital room, or some closet an evil bully has locked you into – here are some tips for getting through the day.
1) Invent a 6-foot tall invisible squirrel friend.
2) Give him a name. Mine is named “Doug.” You cannot have that name for your invisible squirrel friend. It is mine.
3) Be nice to your invisible squirrel friend.
4) Topics to avoid: cats (they chase squirrels); pesticide; winter.
5) Dance with your invisible squirrel friend.
6) If, say, a hospital nurse or a prison guard asks you what you are doing, never say, “Go away, I am dancing with Doug my invisible squirrel friend.” (Though your invisible squirrel friend would never be named Doug – see point #2).
Or, you can simply stare into the darkness and meditate, as I did. And as the Buddhists teach. But none of their sacred texts even mention squirrels. Not even once.