Drugs are a quick way to altered consciousness, which is why lots of us use them. Rates of drug use are remarkably consistent across demographics, with white people leading use rates and people of color leading rates of incarceration on drug charges. Those racial politics mean real differences in the lives of people who use drugs, but I'd wager most of us are using them for the same reasons: to escape a world that gives us lots of reasons to seek escape. We spend so much time in our own heads that sometimes it feels good to change the scenery.
Thing is, though, drugs are expensive, you might get tested for them at work, and the recovery time for some of them is just too much when you've got other stuff to do. That doesn't mean you can't get yourself high—or low, if that's your bag. Me, I want to quiet my busy mind and let it open up to new shit, and I want to do it legally, because I'm a Good Girl. This being capitalism, the "free market" has figured out a bunch of ways to sell us a break or two. I've discovered there's no quick way to quiet the mind, but a lot of this stuff feels seriously fucking good, and with a little practice, not only can you quiet the mind, but you can summon up some cool lucid dreams, substance-free.
People have been meditating for thousands of years—there's got to be something to it—and it is expressly about training the mind to disengage from the busy. We have capitalism partly to thank for our need to find some peace for a few minutes a day, as well as our inability to do so. I spend most of my waking hours in stimulation, staring at glowing boxes, typing words to others on multiple interfaces, tapping at screens if I'm forced to wait for longer than about 12 seconds. These same screens are now a monetized form of mind training for a few moments of release from them. I use an app on my phone that urges me in its soothing British voice to count my breaths and remember that on the other side of all this noise is blue sky. The goal isn't to stop thinking, but to not get dragged around by thoughts, to stay still in the midst of the noise.
And it's hard. It is so hard to sit still without thinking about what you wish you'd done yesterday or what you're going to do as soon as the app dings its timer. Sometimes, though, in that part of the meditation when you let your mind just go, it goes somewhere unexpected. I've had visions, seen worlds that do not exist, and felt my body disappear. This isn't the goal of meditation, at least not according to the British app dude, but it's a great side effect of a practice that will hopefully give skills to live in the present, not the future, which is where us anxious birds tend to dwell.
Acupuncture, as my dear acupuncturist friend Robin would say, works, whether you believe in it or not. I predict it'll be all the rage now that Michael Phelps has the tell-tale red discs from cupping all over his Olympic-sized delts, but most of us don't need our fascia moved around like that. I've been using acupuncture for treatment for insomnia, anxiety, and the occasional tennis elbow caused by checking Facebook on my phone—far more pedestrian needs. My favorite part of treatment is that it forces me to lie down and sit still with myself for at least thirty minutes, depending on what we're doing in a session. There are so few times when I'll just sit and not read, not look at a glowbox, not talk to someone or leaf through a newspaper (nostalgic throwback reference—Google it). Acupuncture, aside from the work of the needles, forces me to quiet down and check in with my head.
On the acupuncture table I lay perfectly still. It's probably just in my head, but I imagine the slightest movement might jostle a needle and mess the whole thing up, so it's best to just be still. Sometimes my mind is set entirely on not moving—don't scratch that itch, don't bend that elbow. But sometimes, when things go just right, I'll fall close to asleep and get this sensation that my body is spinning, my lower back the axis rooting me to the earth, my mind empty of everything except the feel of the spin. I can't make that feeling happen, but it reliably does every few treatments.
My practitioner tells me my points are very sensitive, that I respond quickly to treatment. Sure, I'm sort of bragging, but I'm also feeling lucky that whatever it is in the universe that has conspired to give me access to that sensation, the spins without the liquor and puking. I've also lucked into a world where acupuncture is partially covered by insurance, and although I don't "believe" in it, it is the only thing that's made a real difference in my insomnia.
Meditation and acupuncture have some woo in them, but salt therapy sounds, to the untrained ear, like pure make believe. Also called halotherapy or salt chamber therapy, salt therapy professes to be the solution to breathing problems from allergies, asthma, and COPD as well as skin ailments like eczema and what my mother calls "the heartbreak of psoriasis." The idea is that breathing finely nebulized salt will decrease inflammation of the bronchial tubes and kill pathogens that might be linked to skin and breathing conditions. Although it doesn't have the ancient pedigree of meditation or acupuncture, it has a pretty cool origin story: World War II fighters and refugees hiding in salt caves in Europe reported breathing more clearly after hunkering down.
Today's salt therapy doesn't involve hiding out in caves to avoid certain death. Instead you sit in zero gravity lawn chairs in a room with salt walls and a salt floor and breathe finely ground salt for about 45 minutes. You can't tell the salt's even there, but it ends up not mattering. I don't have particular breathing or skin problems, but I hoped sitting and breathing in salt could trigger the lucid dreams of other practices that require quiet sitting with oneself.
I met a friend looking to grab 45 minutes of napping, a nearly impossible task with a two-year-old, at The Salt Sanctuary in Elkridge for our first session. We took off our shoes in a tiny changing room, slipped paper wrappers over our feet, and crunched into the salt room to get comfortable in our reclining lawn chairs. Our guide handed us headphones that we were told played "alpha wave" music, the type of brain wave that shows up during "wakeful relaxation." I turned up the volume, hopeful that those brain waves would help usher in an altered state.
I closed my eyes and settled in, using meditation's breath counting skills to try to alpha way myself somewhere new. It actually didn't take long for my mind to start the cycle of "c'mon, relax, you're wasting it, DO IT." But eventually I settled in, my mind started telling stories, and I was somewhere else. Until my friend's snoring woke me up. She needed a nap more than I did, so I was happy to cede the altered state to her. We walked out feeling refreshed, drove to another part of the sprawling mall complex for dinner because that's what you do in Elkridge, and vowed to return.
Sensory Deprivation Tank
My very favorite locally sourced drug-free altered state, though, can be found at Baltimore's Be Free Floating sensory deprivation tank. The tank is allegedly therapeutic in a number of ways. You float in water completely saturated with Epsom salts, and folks have been soaking in salts to ease and relax sore muscles for hundreds of years. The tank itself is completely enclosed, and once inside you hear nothing, see nothing, taste only your own mouth, and the water is precisely at your body temperature. The idea is that once your brain no longer has to adjust to sensory input it can completely and utterly relax, though what I've just described is for many absolutely terrifying. Everybody needs to try this thing.
Baltimore's tank is located about as west in West Baltimore you can get before you're out in the county in a neighborhood that bears all marks of structural disinvestment Baltimoreans know well: vacant homes, blighted blocks, and excessive police presence. When you step through the wrought iron gates and inside the heavy carved wooden doors, though, you are transported. Twig Harper greets you, shows you into the tank room, goes over the rules—shower first, don't get salt water in your eyes, rinse your ears out afterward—and then the tank's yours for over an hour.
On my first visit I was too scared at first to close the hatch on the tank. To have nothing but my own mind, not even the distraction of light, was, well, not a trip I was sure I was ready to take. But that's the thing with the tank that isn't true when you drop or shoot, snort or smoke: You are entirely in control of the experience. I left the hatch door open. And then I closed it, panicked that I wouldn't be able to get out, opened it again, calmed down, and then closed it one final time. My mind was everywhere, trying to see and feel when I couldn't see or feel anything, wondering what time it was, what it would sound like if I sneezed or farted, why I wasn't relaxing, ISN'T THIS SUPPOSED TO BE RELAXING?
And then something magical happened. My body let go, my mind let go, all resistance vanished, and I experienced the deepest relaxation I had ever experienced in my life. Afterward I felt invincible and open to the world, a deep sense of calm replacing the usual busy busy of my mind. I wasn't in a hurry, I wasn't already late—I was right on time, absolutely present, taking note of what an altered state presence really is.
These feelings aren't really describable with words, a trait this altered state shares with drug-induced ones, in my experience. My hunch is that people have different experiences in the tank, just as because people are different from each other. That's true of meditation, acupuncture, and salt therapy, too. You've got to try them to see what your own mind looks like, and even though it might be scary and uncomfortable, as my father would say, all bad trips do end.