You fill up my senses
Like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
—”Annie’s Song,” John Denver
A week ago, I paid money to float buck-naked, in skin-temperature water, in the dark, in utter silence, for an hour. What is this trending new experience in
wasting money holistic wellness?
Sensory deprivation float tank
In the past year, two “float centers” have opened in my city. Admittedly I was intrigued by stories of mind-altering, psychedelic moments experienced by some inside the abyss of these tanks. When I happened upon a float center discount coupon, I took it as a sign from the floating gods that my time had come.
What is it?
Also called isolation tanks or float tanks, sensory deprivation tanks are dark, sound proof chambers filled with warm saltwater—just large enough to accommodate one person (not sure if any centers offer a “couple’s float”).
The center I patronized had two float rooms, with a third room housing the impressive pump and filtration system to maintain the salty person-soup.
Isn’t it kinda gross?
My sanitation concerns were assuaged after a brief tour and explanation by the owner, outlining the steps involved to ensure a clean float:
- Shower: Duh. No one wants to share your nasty sweat and body oil. The owner helpfully suggested a cool rather than hot shower so that the 93-degree water felt relatively warm when I entered the tank.
- Salty-a$$-water: The salt concentration of water is usually expressed as specific gravity: the ratio of salt water density to plain-old fresh water density. Ocean water ranges from 1.02-1.03, but these salty tanks average 1.24—similar to that of the Dead Sea. Essentially no pathogenic bacteria can grow under such conditions.
- Filters: Between customers, the water is filtered to exclude any undesirable particulates larger than about 10 microns (1/10th the width of a human hair).
- UV light: Intense ultraviolet light is a bullet between the eyes of those unsavory bacteria to ensure they are extra dead.
- Mystery substance: From the company’s website: “A passive, liquid, and organic element eradicates the potential of any germs.” I don’t think antibiotics were in the water, but your guess as to what this means is as good as mine.
The initial entry
After my shower, I was ready to enter the void. Yes, you are encouraged to be naked, so I followed recommendations. The room glowed moodily with violet light. Although I lack any nautical experience, I imagined I was descending into the bowels of a tanker ship as I entered the tank.
To encourage a peaceful transition to your near-death experience (i.e. to prevent freak outs), gentle New Age music plays for the first five minutes inside. I eased myself into the tank and began to lie back in the dark and SWEET LORD SOMETHING JUST BIT MY THUMB!
In my moment of agony, I had a flashback to 10 minutes earlier when the owner said something about petroleum jelly to cover any small cuts. A light bulb went off: I had sliced my thumb gardening a few days ago, and the saltwater was concentrated enough to burn like the dickens.
So I got out of the tank, shook off the water, slopped some petroleum jelly over the cut, and got back in. Thankfully the pain did not return. On this second attempt, I extended my neck back and let the water lap over my ears and up to my forehead (as suggested by the owner). After a few minutes trying to ignore the incessant sloshing in my ears, I recalled another conversation about earplugs.
Back out again, shake off, squish in earplugs.
Alright, I’m ready to float now.
Coming to my senses
The first order of business was to find a comfortable position. Again, I have the owner to thank for his suggestion I place my arms in the “recliner” position: hands almost touching the hips and elbows out.
Before continuing, I need to confess that, under normal aquatic circumstances, I am disturbingly poor at floating. Toes-four-feet-underwater-and-face-barely-breaching-the-surface bad. But this hypersaline solution helped me float like a cork, and I soon melted into a deep relaxed state.
I’m not accusing the sensory deprivation industry of false advertising, but I must say that not all my senses were fully deprived.
- Touch: Especially in the first few minutes, tiny bubbles would skitter up the skin of my back (no, not from there), planting the image of crawling bugs in my mind. Needless to say, not conducive to total relaxation. Although I was fairly stationary for most of the float, I comically bumped into the side walls a few times as well.
- Smell: A benign but noticeable smell was omnipresent, somewhere between an indoor swimming pool and the ocean (but not fishy).
- Pain: The owner cautioned me to avoid rubbing my eyes after touching the water, as it can “sting a little.” Talk about an understatement. A minuscule drop of tank water found its way into my left eye at one point, and it might have been blood from the creature in Alien for how it felt.
What did I “do” whilst floating? Physically, not much at all. Mentally, I allowed my mind to wander, but also attempted to meditate at times. It was surprisingly difficult. Perhaps the absence of physical stimulation worked to amplify my thoughts, making my attempts to silence them more difficult.
Time lost all meaning. OK, it wasn’t quite so dramatic, but I was shocked by how quickly the hour passed. Before I knew it, the “outro” of music began to play, signaling that my time was up.
Overall, I enjoyed the sensory deprivation tank as a novel if not transformative experience. No visions of the afterlife nor communion with the cosmos for me. During a few brief moments of physical and mental stillness, I forgot where I was; I might have forgotten that I was. Or, I might have simply fallen asleep.
If nothing else, I was one relaxed dude for the rest of the evening.
Have you tried one of these? What did you think?