Yesterday I floated in a sensory deprivation tank for the first time. I’m writing a longer feature about “float tanks” for Gambit, but I wanted to jot down my experience here, while it is still fresh in my mind.
I have altered my consciousness in a lot of different ways, from distance running to PCP (I did not take PCP on purpose, for the record). I knew float tanks are a tool for that kind of thing, and I’d been interested in them, but not enough to seek one out. So when the owner of NOLA Float Tanks offered me a free float, I said yes with enthusiasm.
Then I set about Googling. One of my first search results came up on Erowid.org. I haven’t frequented that site since the rave days, but I remembered it as being a bunch of trip reports. That hasn’t changed since 2002. And apparently, float tank experiences are included alongside reviews of substances ranging from amanita to zopiclone.
That led me to what’s supposedly one of the Bibles of sensory deprivation: The Book of Floating: Exploring the Private Sea. I’m not done with this book, but so far, I really dig it. Sample quote: “To be human is to explore and make use of altered forms of consciousness.”
My sister floated once. She called the experience “really boring.” So I went to NOLA Float Tanks, a squat ranch house of white-painted brick, expecting the float to be a total mindbender or a total bore. In short, I didn’t know what to expect.
Owner Spencer Fossier was unfazed by the fact that I showed up an hour early. “I can come back,” I said, apologizing. He said we could go ahead and do the float now. He led me to the Samadhi* model: a closed, 150 gallon tank. It looked like a space pod that would conduct me into hyperspace. I regarded it with a kind of awe while Spencer placed his hand on it with love and pride, like a prize sheep.
“If it gets too stuffy in there, prop the door open with a rolled-up towel,” he said after showing me how to turn off the interior light. Then he left me to shower and hop in.
The water felt warm and slick thanks to the 800 pounds of dissolved salt. I closed the hatch, turned off the light and leaned back, bumping around against the sides of the walls for a while. Every tiny scratch, abrasian and nick came alive with fire, itching due to the extremely saline water. That died down soon, but the tiny blue cabin light was still on. I sat up and fumbled for the button. That’s when I realized the visual hallucinations had begun. Cool.
I watched purple clouds for a while, but it got boring fast. It was just the kaleidoscopic interplay of colors that greet closed eyelids. The tank experience wasn’t all that different from lying in a bathtub with the lights off. I could do that at home, and it wouldn’t be humid and increasingly stuffy, like in the tank. Plus it smelled a little mildewy. My senses were deprived, not gone– and the small amount of stimuli they had was unpleasant. My breath was as loud as waves crashing on a shore, and if I listened for it, I could hear my heart beat. Every so often there would be a juicy peristalic squirting sound that I can only guess was my lunch being digested.
I was bored. I waited for my thoughts to change shape, but it was just my usual feedback loop. I thought a lot about Jonah and his family, because he’s been on my mind. No breakthroughs, no emotional release or heightened empathy.
And now it was stifling in that damned water box.
I opened the hatch and savored the cool, fresh air. Only 22 minutes had passed. Would it look bad if I aborted this attempt? Should I just hang out in the pod room until the time was up? My sister was right: this was beyond boring.
I compromised by keeping the hatch open, flipping my head around to be closer to the fresh air, and closing my eyes. It wasn’t total sensory deprivation. But it was something.
And it was enough. I was awake and asleep at the same time, in a kind of anesthetized slumber. I don’t know how else to explain it. When I fall asleep each night, my boyfriend tells me I twitch, groan and grind my teeth. I never feel any of those things. But in the tank, I felt the occasional, uncontrolled hypnic jerk propel me ever so slightly across the water. Relaxed isn’t the word from it. Embraced in a warm, amniotic unconsciousness is closer. Deep in an opiate dream works only as a metaphor.
I had no sense of time. I got out when the tank switched into its self-cleaning mode. That was a fucking trip. I showered and dressed. I still felt high. I thanked Spencer, not sure what to say. “It was very…languorous,” I said, but that doesn’t come close. The floating book says you can’t understand sensory deprivation without doing it, which is really true.
I did feel high though, almost like I shouldn’t be driving. The cars hurtling down Veterans Memorial Boulevard were so intense about not letting me merge. Cars are monsters, I thought, watching their mean headlights and metal bodies. A very tripped-out thought.
I went back to work, but that wasn’t the best idea. I was only up to getting a massage or eating a sandwich, not replying to email and writing fashion news.
So yeah. That was my experience in the float tank. I will definitely go back, because I think it might be a good tool when it comes time to actually write this feature.
*Definition of samadhi according to Wikipedia.org: “Meditative absorption, attained by the practice of dhana. In samadhi the mind becomes still, one-pointed or concentrated while the person remains conscious.”