What Happened When I Tried Laying In A Sensory-Deprivation Tank

Photo: Reboot Float & Cryo Spa
Flotation therapy

By Luke Allison

I am floating. In a black void; no visuals even though I wave my palm in front of my face, I hear nothing; an absolute silence tuned out through wax earplugs and noiseless walls, I feel nothing but a vague feeling of my body heat and my beating heart. I am floating through an objectless space akin to my imagined depiction of outer space or the substance of my dreams.   

Where am I? I am just a few feet from the calm waiting-room of a flotation therapy center near Music Row in the heart of Nashville, Tennessee. One hour earlier I was greeted by friendly staff, that gave me a tour of the facility dedicated to the holistic experience of floating.   

Floating, or the use of sensory-deprivation tanks is a growing trend among wellness enthusiasts, athletes, adventurers, psychonautics, and those suffering from chronic pain. A sensory-deprivation tank, or isolation tank, is a lightless, soundproof tank filled with water and 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt, in which individuals float. Mimicking the Dead Sea, but more buoyant the float tank leaves people in a suspended state.

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With most other senses: sight, hearing, and body temperature regulated, a float tank is an amazing experience. For all of you Stranger Things fans, rudimentary sensory-deprivation tanks were used by scientists in the show to help Eleven connect with The Upside Down. Luckily for us, full submersion tanks are a think of the past.

Barring mind-altering substances, a float tank is one of the few life experiences where one can have a quote on quote “out of body experience.” I first heard about float tanks on the Joe Rogan Experience, a podcast hosted by stand-up comedian and former Fear Factor host Joe Rogan.

I did my due diligence, and the more I researched sensory-deprivation tanks the more fascinated I became. Created in 1954 by John C. Lilly, a medical practitioner and neuropsychiatrist, the tanks were used for psychoanalysis. Lilly, (a psychonaut, philosopher, writer, and inventor) went deep into his study with consciousness. He even tried using his tanks, combined with LSD, to communicate telepathically with dolphins.

Your smartphone is buzzing, the TV is playing the newest episode of Game of Thrones, your girlfriend is telling you about her horrible day at work while you can’t stop thinking about how the boss put you in charge of the new copy-editing assignment. Our minds are filled with hundreds of fleeting thoughts every day. Every day when we drive to work we pass billboards saying “Buy our insurance,” “Drive our truck,” and “vacation on our resort island.” We are inundated with bright reds representing sexual desire in lipstick and makeup ads, and deep blues of calming and trustful products Facebook, Ford, and NASA. Advertising has us, as Tyler Durden in Fight Club poetically muses, “chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”

Even if you aren’t a counterculture minimalist everyone can agree that our busy lives are filled with distractions. Sometimes it is a jackhammer and other times a Snapchat — either way, we rarely have time alone with our thoughts, let alone utter uninterrupted silence.  

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Before my float my sister was skeptical “I can turn off my lights and you can float in my bathtub free of charge.” I see the skeptical view, paying to float in a futuristic chamber may seem like a giant waste of time. Trust me, you should try it once before you make jokes. It alleviates pain during the float much the same as a deep tissue massage and after the session, you are full of a “post-float glow” more relaxed than you have been in months.

When I entered the room for the first time and was alone with the tank it was an anxiety-inducing time. The tank, a long white enclosed pod, looks like something from a Sci-Fi movie. “Close the Pod bay doors, HAL,” I found myself thinking after I had done the 10-minute obligatory pre-float shower. It was very much a 2001: A Space Odyssey-like experience.

Lifting the latch closed on myself and laying into complete darkness was anxiety-inducing. My mind wondered, what are those people in the waiting room doing? What will I seem like when I come out? Where will I have dinner tonight? Will there be traffic? Why am I here in this tank? I began to feel claustrophobic. Then I gathered myself, I took five deep breaths, I occasionally bumped into the tank walls and was reminded of my earthly location. I centered myself and then I began to float.

All judgment of time is lost in an isolation tank. Had I been in there for 30 minutes of 15? I let go of this idea, I moved past caring about time or the problems outside the tank. I focused on my breathing, tried to remember breathing techniques and a mantra from medication courses. What was that old Woody Allen joke? A young Jeff Goldblum in Annie Hall is dazed on some drug leaning against a wall on the phone, and says into the receiver “I forgot my mantra.”

After I would say 35 minutes, (of worldly time), I sank into a deep floating cerebral event. I felt like my body rise from a horizontal resting manner to a vertical forward moving motion. It was as if I was gliding through space standing up and I could look around and seem fleeting fractals of light. Bright yellows, mellow oranges, and other fluorescent hues passed by me in this suspended wasteland. I knew they were not really there, just phosphenes; the ring or spot of light produced by pressure on the eyeball or direct stimulation of the visual system other than by light. I did the float stone-cold sober, but leaving the tank I felt completely relaxed and reenergized. I felt like I was on hashish minus the paranoia.

I am aware of the New-Age-Hippy-Dippy nature of the art of floating. I think that is what draws me the most to it. It is an experience, it costs money (on average $50-75) per float but for me, experiences are worth more than money. When you are old and gray will you worry about the things you did or the things you did not do? I highly recommend everyone try the floating experience once. It temporarily helped my chronic back pain, helped give me a break from the hectic world, and gave me insights into what areas of my life I want to improve. Not too bad for the cost of a dinner at a nice restaurant.

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This article was originally published at Unwritten. Reprinted with permission from the author.