Every time I've ever had a haircut, I've felt like a Roman emperor. Decadent, with people in service. Someone with hopes, fears and a history is grooming you. Sometimes, they even wash your hair, which is something I can totally do. They sweep up the resultant mess, tell me it looks good and send me on my way. The money doesn't feel relevant in the face of explicit service. If you've cut my hair in the last thirty years and I was bad at small talk, it's not because I don't like you. It's because I'm embarrassed to have you in service.
If you don't like having people in service of you, relaxation can be difficult. Traditionally, relaxation can help deal with broken bodies, troubled minds, tortured souls and haunted hearts. And like anyone, all I can hope for is an uneasy peace between the four. My mind criticizes my soul while my body crumbles like a sandcastle and all I can do is stand by and watch, day after day.
Mind, soul and body, they're like lousy roommates. Annoying, but not bad enough to shuffle off to some unknown apartment. My heart, however, that's where there's war. Fucker won't shut up. It's always there; ready to sneak up on me. I’d be walking along, minding my own, and see a greeting card or a commercial and then my heart would be there to remind me, “That’s not for us.”
And I've always been jealous of my friends who talk sugar about manis and pedis and massages or shaves. Ways to relax. Ways to mute the heart.
"Oh man, at the end of a long day, there's nothing better than stripping off all of your clothes and having a stranger give you an oily muscle rub."
"I hear ya. For me, I'm way into getting a close shave. I just go talk to Old Crelbow L'Beau and have him drag a razor-sharp blade against my throat."
"The throat you use for blood and breathing and stuff?"
"You know it!" (High five!)
Not for me. But several years back when I found myself more stressed than usual, I was desperate for a solution. And that's when I discovered sensory deprivation, aka "the solo massage." Luckily, I live in Portland, Oregon, the hippy dippy nonsense capital of world, so such an experience is easy to find and affordable.
I admit I had to get over some initial skepticism. I scoff at all your ear candles and mystic dream traps. Here's an actual exchange that I overheard when I booked my first appointment:
Wanna play chess?
To my credit, I didn't excuse myself and take up a less annoying hobby, like stage magic or falcon mimicry or stage falconry or magic mimicry. I made my appointment.
For those who don't know, sensory deprivation, or floating, is when you go into a light and sound proof chamber and float in body temperature salt water for 90 minutes. "Gary," you may ask, "Why would anyone subject themselves to such a novel nightmare?" Because it's great. I mean it, it's super great. You get naked, you take a nice shower with good smelling soap and you just get alone. Like really alone. Spiritually, cosmologically alone with your heart.
Being alone, lost in the void, carries an immense freedom. Initially, I thought it was the freedom to think. I made a laundry list of problems with my life and thought, "You and me, mind, let's really tackle these issues." This was, as they say, what a fool believes. Floating isn't freedom to do anything. It's freedom from having to do anything. Your body doesn't have to hold you up. Your mind doesn't have images to consider . Here, try an experiment: how long do you go in a given day without reading? Even if you're one of those, "I don't even own a TV" people, you're constantly reading signs and emails and menus. Giving your brain a break from having to do anything at all is a singular bliss.
It doesn't feel like you're a solitary pickled egg keeping company with the world's saddest bar snacks. It feels like you have no boundaries, like there's nothing there except you and your terrifying heartbeats. You hear your blood. Your heart is a timpani until eventually it becomes a lullaby.
As you relax, your heartbeat fades, your breathing fades and you realize what they are: the essential clockwork of being, the gunk that enables the actual you to exist. You need them all, even my nemesis. My heart: the stupid pile of stringy meat that caused me to think I was in love with my friends. My heart: the bloody tragedy that made me cry when I didn’t get invited to a party. My heart: the calloused engine that encouraged me to reject perfectly nice people based on the ways I’d been hurt.
I’ve spent a lot of time alone with my heart and the best, most healing times were during sensory deprivation because it puts corks on the fangs. It puts thimbles over the talons. It reminds me that my heart isn't just there to hurt me. It is me. And I should renew the lease.