The float tank resembled a coffin, oblong, pitch black inside, and tucked into the wall like a closet. My float specialist, soft-spoken and Zen-like, held the door open for me as he explained.
“There’s half a ton of Epsom salts in about a foot of water. It’s kind of freaky at first, but you’ll get used to it. Don’t worry. You’ll float.”
I nodded mutely, my shirt already uncomfortably sticky in the humid air of Still Point Wellness Spa’s private room. I couldn’t seem to remember why I thought this was a good idea. Floating, or sensory deprivation, can boost immune function, provide pain relief, and lower blood pressure, the website claimed. It can also promote deep states of relaxation and enhance creativity. I cared about these results the most.
He smiled and gestured to the shower, towels, and hospitality table topped with lotion, cotton swabs, and earplugs. The table sat under a larger-than-life image of Buddha’s head carved into wood, peering benignly at us. A psychedelic, rainbow-colored fractal print hung near the toilet.
This is definitely one of the most “Asheville” things I’ve ever done, I thought.
Once he left, I peeled off my clothes, showered quickly, and gingerly stepped into the tank. The skin temperature water lapped around my ankles like a kitten’s tongue, and I pulled the door closed. Womb-like darkness enveloped me.
To sit down, lean back, and relax into the water’s surface was an act of faith. Lo and behold, he was right. I was a buoy.
The strange thing about utter silence—it wasn’t actually silent. The thump of my own heartbeat soaked the tank. When my to-do list, or any other number of stress-inducing thoughts erupted, I noticed the way my heart sped up, driven by adrenaline, ready to help me spring into action. With a deep breath, I practiced letting go, and my heartbeat slowed to a soothing rhythm. I eventually fell into dreamily following the skipping stones of more random thoughts and images that surfaced: music as a vehicle of spirit, a sleeping child with her arms stretched overheard, the fertile, earthy perfume of the riverbanks.
I have a friend who believes that everyone has a superpower in life. And your life’s work (or mission, or calling) stems from using this superpower in service of the world. I think most of us could benefit from recognizing this—the things that make us unique, or sometimes that we might even try to hide, can be our most powerful allies in shaping what author Charles Eisenstein would call, “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”
Until recently, I never would’ve considered my trait of sensitivity a superpower. I’ve felt weak, sometimes easily overwhelmed, with difficulty distinguishing my own emotions from the emotions of others. As a child, labeled “quiet” and “shy,” I would’ve entirely retreated into myself, had I not consistently been well-liked by my peers. This must’ve had something to do with my ability to instinctively share kindness with everyone, even the class pariahs. In fourth grade, Melanie’s dishwater blond hair, chubby cheeks, and faded clothes meant she sat alone at lunch, and she was only picked for teams as a last resort during P.E. and recess. During one such P.E. class, as we all sat on the gym floor waiting to be chosen by team captains, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed her sucking her thumb, refusing to look up, her stringy hair curtained her face. Without much thought, I scooted across the slick floor to sit next to her and held her free hand in mine.
The Washington Post recently published a perspectives piece citing empathy as the key to dismantling white supremacy. Not the only tool, but at least a step to unlock the door toward a “foundation of mutual respect that could reach across racial lines.” The Dali Lama calls love and compassion human necessities, not luxuries. While some of us seem neurobiologically hardwired for greater empathic capacity than others, love is a source of vitality we can all use to permeate our public, political discourse, as well as our inner dialogues about ourselves and the people we share this earth with. We’re interconnected in ways we’re only beginning to grasp inklings of.
Several years ago, my empathic superpower led me to work in a community for people experiencing homelessness. I would experience some of the holiest, sweetest moments with people that we usually want to turn away from, people that have become invisible. And as life-giving as my time in that community would be, there were other moments I didn’t want to endure: the grief of women living on the streets losing children, the sweat-soaked smell of men who hadn’t showered in weeks, or the rages of opioid addicts who needed to keep numbing their pain. After a particularly hard day at work, I made sure my children were occupied with cartoons so that I could sit in the corner of the cool bathroom floor with the doors locked, in the dark. I could’ve used a sensory deprivation tank then, had I known they even existed.
Now, I know the truth of Audre Lorde’s words; caring for myself isn’t indulgent but an act of preservation she equated with political warfare. To assert that this body, mind, and heart, wrapped in tawny brown skin, is worth treating with infinite kindness, the same kindness I give to others, is a political statement as well as a spiritual practice. Kindness carries significance. Kindness contains power. Kindness moves like ocean waves crashing against the shore. It’s a force of nature.
While I floated in the tank and listened to my heartbeat in the silence, every so often I imagined I heard another heart, beating along with mine. I wondered if this is what we all experienced as babies in utero, this sense of being held in the dark. Of effortless connection. Of knowing we are not alone. If we all started there, isn’t it possible we can return?