11.18.2013

I Floated in the Infinite Black Abyss and So Should You


For my birthday, Kat gave me what is easily the most unique gift I've ever received: three sessions in an isolation tank. Normally a loved one telling you to go lock yourself in a water-filled tomb might put some people off, but it was something I had mentioned several times before that I wanted to check out, so I was pretty excited. 

It was surprisingly difficult to find a spare hour to float alone in a silent, dark pod, but I was able to book my first session a mere 10 days later. I wasn't quite sure what to expect: I've heard varying reports on the experience, from "peaceful floating nap time" to "mind-altering, overwhelming dive into your own terrifying consciousness that will permanently alter your thinking or maybe even drive you insane." Which when you think about it would not be a great birthday present at all.

I showed up slightly late because I'd gotten into an argument with Kat, because when you're about to spend an hour alone with only your thoughts you definitely want to be agitated and upset with your spouse. The lady at the counter asked me if someone had told me to come early, which is a really polite way of saying, "You're late, fucker." She asked if I'd done this before and, when I said no, made me sit down with a little tablet to watch a helpful informational video about floating that I pretended to watch while skipping forward when she wasn't looking.

"Any questions?" 

"Nope, I think the video covered it." She nodded and led me to a dark room with a spaceship in it.


It's a weird experience, having an attractive stranger walk you through the process of how to shower. But she did. She pointed out that there was a shower, told me to shower before getting in the tank, and explained the order in which I should apply soap and shampoo (not conditioner, though; that's for the post-tank shower). She explained the process in the first person: "I shower first," "I wash my hair before scrubbing my body," "I usually rub one out to relax," etc.

Okay, that last one was just my own mind wandering. She finished showing me how to flop my naked ass into the tub, pull the door down on top of me, and turn the light out. With that, she was gone and I was left to my own devices. I showered in the instructed order and walked to the pod, gingerly easing myself in so as to avoid slipping and cracking my head open.

As soon as I sat in the water my legs floated up and I slipped backward. The water has something like 1500 pounds of salt dissolved in it; it makes you super buoyant and lets you completely let go and float effortlessly. I tapped a large, soft button on the side of the wall and the ethereal blue light filling the tank blinked off. I was alone in the dark with only a calm, new-agey meditation music leaking in somewhere. My host, the attractive hippie lady who told me how to shower, recommended I have music for the first 10 minutes to help kind of acclimate myself.

I stretched my arms out at my side, making contact with the walls. In the process of sloshing around and laying back you create some waves that will slowly bump your head into the wall if you don't take a minute to steady yourself. The room was like a sauna but the pod almost perfectly matched my body temperature. I sat, waiting for my eyes to adjust, but they never did. It was perfect, infinite blackness. 

I had the sensation of falling, but falling upward. Each breath brought my chest up and out of the water a bit, giving the illusion that I was rising up. It was almost as if I was flying through space. My mind raced and eventually wandered as I got over the initial "Holy shit this is amazing" phase and settled into the long-term floating.

And then the itching started. Faint at first. The friendly hippie lady had warned me to spend extra time drying my face so as to avoid even the slightest chance something would tickle or itch or bother me and cause me to touch my face at all, because I was floating in a pool of condensed epsom salt. But your brain, when faced with a complete absence of stimulation: no electronics, no car noise, no conversations, not even light and shadow, kind of flips out and starts manifesting shit to distract itself. 

I rubbed my eyes before I could remember her advice, though, and instantly my journey through space came crashing down to earth as the fire of pure agony erupted in my eyeball. 

I tried blinking it out. No luck. I was now in a completely dark, silent room with nothing to focus on but the furious burning of salt in my eye. I had to tap out. I pushed open the hatch, crawled out slowly to try and avoid slipping and falling on my ass, and snatched a towel. After a few minutes of gouging out my eyes with terry cloth, I was okay. I slipped back in and resumed my spiritual excursion into the ether.

Eventually the burning subsided and I tried to really maximize the experience. I tried different poses, I tried different breathing techniques, and at one point I inadvertently cracked my neck and scared the hell out of myself; the noise was like cannon fire in my tiny black bubble. My brain slowly got used to the lack of stimulation, or maybe it freaked out even harder, I don't know. What I do know is by about 45 minutes in I was watching giant, blue jellyfish pulse across my field of vision. Huge, silent shapes swirling and pulsing and moving, to my mind, with purpose. I've had mushroom trips that weren't this vivid.

I was floored that this could even happen. What does it say about all the noise and distraction I submit myself to that the first time I spend 45 minutes alone in the dark I hallucinate jellyfish? What the hell else is my brain keeping locked away from me? And would the hippies at the front desk get mad if I do mushrooms in here? 

The music picked back up, cueing me that my time was almost up. The light faded back on in the pod and I exited, hopping in the shower while the tank cycled all my filthy water out and cycled in new salt water (I assume. The tank cycled; I have my doubts as to whether it completely recirculates the entire amount of water.) I squirted vinegar in my ears to break up the salt residue, conditioned my hair and beard, toweled myself off, and walked out. The next floater walked in immediately, which makes me wonder about how rigorously they clean those things, but I guess there's enough salt in there to kill anything.

My back felt better, my shoulders felt better, and I had a weird, dazed kind of clarity. My vision felt sharper. My hearing felt keener. It was basically that scene from Spiderman when he first realizes he has powers. I found myself staring off into the sky for long periods of time. Things were just sort of different.

That night I slept better than I've slept in...uh, ever. Like, in the history of sleep. It was fanfuckingtastic. If floating did nothing else for me I would still go every day if I got to sleep like that at night. Seriously. It's worth the price of admission just for that.

But you should try it. There are stories about it being like a scary acid trip into your own brain or whatever, but it can just as easily be the most comfortable, relaxing nap you'll ever take. I think the weird spiritual side of it manifests itself if that's what you end up chasing after. Sort of like yoga: some people there are aligning their chakras or cleansing their aura or whatever, some people are just stretching.

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