My Sensory Deprivation (aka "Float") Tank Experience.
March 30, 2015
This single topic has generated so much interest from my Facebook friends (and extended circles!), that I thought it warranted a full write-up, rather than a simple check-in or status update. I don’t have a blog that I update regularly anymore, so I thought I'd post something here, as well as in my Facebook "Notes".
I am the kind of person that loves to dig in – I like to know what my brain is doing behind-the-scenes, when I’m not consciously running the show. I’m a big thinker, which should be no big surprise to anyone who knows me well. My brain is constantly running – I typically sleep for about 4-5 hours each night, usually because I can’t turn my brain off (i.e., solving math equations in my mind at 1am). I’m also very data-driven. I like to have as much information as possible about whatever the topic of the moment is. I have been known to check myself into a hotel for the night just to read, think, write, plan, and process. I have a “collection” of degrees, certificates, and accolades – I like to know that what I’ve done is paying off somehow.
I say all of this simply because as a result of my never-ending search for knowledge in whatever form I can get it, the idea of a sensory deprivation tank has come up more than once. I figured this might be a chance for me to get the scoop on my brain. Worst-case-scenario… I’d relax a little.
Sensory deprivation tanks, colloquially known as “float tanks”, are weird. The tank is a large, fully-enclosed metal box with about 10” of water at the bottom. The water is filled with 850 lbs. of Epsom salt, creating a super-dense, almost olive-oil-consistency water. The density causes you to float completely with no fear of tipping over or sinking. It’s impossible to sink in the water. The water, as well as the air in the tank, is heated to 93.8 degrees, which is skin-temperature. The idea is that within a short time, you lose your sense of feeling and weight, as you feel gravity-free. The tank is also soundproof and lightproof, further limiting your senses. (See where the “sensory deprivation” comes in?) The result of this deprivation is that your mind can switch out of the “keeping myself alive” mode, where you’re constantly (even subconsciously) assessing your environment and making small decisions. By removing the stimulus of sight, sound, touch, and smell, the brain has less to process and can get down to the nitty-gritty. Even for those not interested in self-exploration like I am, this is purported to be an extremely relaxing experience. Some say that it feels like getting an additional 4 or 5 hours of sleep! Read more about the concept here: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Sensory_deprivation.aspx
So it has come time for me to find out what’s going on “under the hood”. I have been in Portland for almost 6 months now, and it’s a weird city (YESSSS!), so here we go. I decided to check out Float On (www.floathq.com). I booked my appointment on the website, easy-peasy. It was $65 for a 90-minute session; they do offer packages as well, if you’re interested. My first impression of the facility itself was “humid”. Of course that makes sense – the air and water in every room is heated to 93.8 degrees! It took about 10 minutes for them to prep the room I was going to be in, so I flipped through a book called “Artwork from the Void” (which I later purchased of course), sipped some tea, and chilled out on one of their comfy couches.
Like I said earlier, float tanks are weird. There are no two ways about it – this was a weird experience. Incredible, beneficial, eye-opening, and potentially life-changing, but very odd.
I was taken back to a room that Float On designed itself – rather than a metal box-style tank, this one was a giant shallow pool inside its own room. My guide mentioned that it’s the largest they have, so for all you tall folks out there (and those who feel claustrophobic), this would be the most pleasant. The room itself is simple – a shower, a long mirror, a robe & slippers if you need to leave the room, and a tray of Q-Tips, lotion, wax-disc-style earplugs, and some petroleum jelly to put over any cuts. Please heed this advice: cover any cuts you may have with either liquid bandage beforehand, or with the petroleum jelly they supply. If you don’t, it is LITERALLY rubbing salt in the wound. It’s not pleasant, as my left-thumb hangnail will tell you. She told me that music would start to play under the water after the 90 minutes, and then I’d have about 20 minutes to shower and dress.
She left the room and I was left to my own devices. I took some quick photos and then got in the shower. The heat in the room is really odd as well – yesterday was a little chilly, so I had on essentially four layers – a hoodie, a shirt, a camisole, and a bra. Usually when you remove layers getting undressed you feel cooler each time. Not so. I was warm until I got into the shower and rinsed with cold water. I put in the earplugs they offered, and once I stepped into the water, I was surprised to find it was… slimy. Not in a gross way at all, but definitely not like a bath – more like the olive oil-consistency others have mentioned in my research. I climbed into one corner of the pool and marveled at how strange the sensation of the water was for a minute. I sat down like in a bathtub and reached over to hit the light switch on the wall. After a minute or so of anxious breaths at the sudden, eerie dark silence, I let go of the bottom of the pool – my hands popped right up to the surface. Then I picked up my feet, and the same thing happened – I just floated! I have never felt so buoyant in my life. At this point, there is nothing left to do but to let go. I stopped fighting it and laid back and found that it was wonderful! I spent a couple of minutes (I think… it’s hard to tell time with no senses) feeling around and trying to figure out how much space my body was taking up. Within just a few seconds of turning off the lights, I couldn’t remember what the room looked like or where I was in relation to anything else. It felt like floating weightlessly in space.
Again, it’s almost impossible to tell time or find out where you are in space. So my overanalyzing mind just went with it… and had a little fun! This is when the spinning started. I can’t say for sure if I really WAS spinning, but that logically doesn’t make sense, so I can only assume my mind was playing with me, trying to get its bearings and figure out where it was. I felt like I was spinning like a clock – around and around; it was really relaxing. Also for a while I felt like I was being pushed from behind, end-over-end. A couple of times I reached out to feel if I was still next to the wall and I was definitely not – I must have been all over the place! At one point, I went to wiggle the fingers on my left hand and found that my arm had drifted up over my head, and was not at my side like my brain had led me to believe. I will say that I’ve practiced Zen Buddhism for nearly 10 years now, and I have never been able to locate and slow down my heart rate so quickly, as when all external stimuli is taken away. I had forgotten what my body looked and felt like – I was only my soul. (Sorry for the hippie, new-agey talk – there are no other words!)
Throughout the whole session, I kept hearing music. Not like a song was stuck in my head – it was like nothing I’ve ever heard before. I kept trying to push my head underwater to see if maybe the business next door was playing music and I could hear it conducted through the water, but no. This was internal. I reverted back to my familiar friend Zen, and began chanting “Om” to myself. This was happening right at the end of my session, so when the music came in to signal the end of the session, it startled me a bit. I was in a deeply meditative state at that point, and the music they played was monks chanting, and when they came in, their tone exactly matched my own tone, and that was a little confusing.
The music played for a second and then two small green lights came on so that I could see where I was and get back to the entrance to the pool. I opened my eyes to find that I was in the opposite corner of the pool than where I started, facing the wall. It was a little disorienting, but I immediately started grinning from ear to ear. I felt like a new person!
Overall, the experience was incredible. Some find it relaxing, like a day at the spa. Some find it fun. For me, it was both, as well as very, deeply, profound. I felt like I got to have a nice, long chat with myself. I feel almost like I met an entirely new person and I’m in love with her. And more so than any of that, I feel as though she called me out on my bullshit – told me it’s time to stop acting, and that I’m in a safe place now (yay Portland!) where I can be myself and be fully authentic. I hadn’t realized that I was playing a character in my life on some small level until last night. Now? Well, I’m still glowing. I feel like I shed my skin!
I do think that next time, I will opt for a room with an actual tank – I think the large, open room is good for anyone that thinks they may get claustrophobic or wants to feel more in control of the situation, but for me, I was looking for more of a “cocoon” feeling, and I think a tank will do that for me. I can’t wait to go back – it is definitely going to be part of my regular life maintenance.
Please feel free to reach out to me if you are interested in this experience. I highly recommend it. And if you’re in the Portland area, I’ll join you!