Sensory Deprivation and Fun

Flotation Tank - 2
Your Technological Womb?

Last night, R and I went to Float: The Flotation Center and Art Gallery nearby in Oakland. Float is, as the name implies, a place to float. In this instance, it is floating in a flotation tank aka a sensory deprivation or isolation tank. (Apparently, the older names are now no longer commonly used with their odd associations.)

This is something that I’ve wanted to do for more than 20 years, ever since I read the slightly whacked-out writings of John Lilly when I was a teen. John Lilly (not the same John Lilly as my employer, Mozilla) invented the tank in 1954 and proceeded to use it while whacked out on drugs like Ketamine. (Remember kids, a horse tranquilizer is not for fun!). In spite of these odder connotations, it struck me that the odd isolation would be an interesting thing to be experienced and something that is a bit hard to replicate in one’s day to day life. As it turns out, while flotation tanks are fairly uncommon in the United States, they are quite common in Europe, being associated with spas and relaxation. The co-owner of the facility from last night stated that there are more tanks in London, alone, than all of the United States.

The procedure for the tanks involves, like a Japanese bath, a complete scrub down before getting into the tank. The tank has roughly 10 inches of water with 1,000 pounds of medical grade epsom salts in it. This provides a very odd, oily, consistency to the water but causes it to be slightly denser than a person, making one float on it kind of like an skater bug. The water is heated to around 93 degrees and the air in the tank is pretty warm and humid (I think R called it “fetid”) as well. As experienced by me, you climb into the tank (mine pictured above), turn around to face the outside, sit down and, when ready, swing the door shut. You then gently ease back and find yourself floating pretty naturally. I’m slightly claustrophobic (let me tell you about my attempt to go into the burial chamber under the main pyramid at Giza sometime) and the air is pretty warm and muggy. I had been assured that it wouldn’t set off my claustrophobia, which wasn’t entirely correct. You don’t feel boxed in since the tanks that we were in are eight and a half feet long but the close and warm air in the darkness caused me twinges for a few minutes. I put on my zen game face and just “sat” with it and it went away as I relaxed.

Initially, we were encouraged to play around a bit when in the space, to get a feel for it and because it is the closest to a weightless environment that most of us are likely to get. It also takes a little unlearning to let one’s neck fully relax in the water and not to try to hold the head out, as we have all been trained for pools and the like. As the minutes went by, I gradually lost the sensation of my arms and legs, except when I moved them. The only things I felt were the sensations of water around my face (as the rest of my head was submerged) and my heartbeat pulsing through my chest and limbs. R reported feeling her heartbeat in her neck and the same sensations around the face as well. As an aside, ever since my illness, I have had a fairly strong sensation of my heart beating and my skin or muscles moving in time with it at most times (no one knows why) so I was pretty prepared to feel that. I relaxed, gently feeling like I was kind of spinning or floating in space. Occasionally, a hand or a foot would bump the wall as I kind of drifted about. My mind drifted and I relaxed. Lacking anything in particular to “do” in the tank, I did my shamatha meditation thing and watched my mind and letting my physical body relax since it had no need of support and almost no sensation.

Toward the later part of the float, I had a myoclonic jerk (a sleep start such as when your leg kicks) and then, later, a couple of more. Now, I have these whenever I transition from waking to sleeping since my illness. We had been told that we might fall asleep in the tank and I was skeptical since these jerks have kept me from daytime sleeping for a year. As it turns out, R had them as well and the co-owner mentioned that she has them in the tank. Apparently, they are pretty common as people transition into deeper brain states in the tank. I did find myself in a very relaxed state without much of a sense of time or place with some dreamlike mental churning at that point (I’ve been watching too much Venture Brothers so I saw dreamlike imagery inspired by it). I did not see much in the way of visual effects from my bored optic centers, just some mild colored traceries, such as you see when you rub your eyes lightly when closed. (Note to self: when you see odd things, if they don’t change or go away when you open or close your eyes, they aren’t really “there.”) I had no great bouts of creativity or problem solving occurred (though I did have the epiphany of going to In and Out Burger for burgers after the session while floating, which we did).

After an hour, the co-owner gently rapped on the tank three times (which is the least jarring way of letting people know that they need to get out) and I exited. Following a float, one has to shower as you exit covered in a pretty large amount of powdery salt particles. I rounded out the experience with an hour massage, making it an all-relaxation Christmas Eve.

I would definitely say it was an interesting experience, hype and history aside, and I want to do it again at some point now that I know what to expect. I found it pretty relaxing, though hardly life changing. Apparently, there are some people that arrange to do six hour overnight floats where they sleep in the tank, as well as longer, two hour or more, floats.