My Time In The Tank

Have any of you heard of sensory deprivation chambers, aka "float tanks"?  I remember reading about one in a Dean Koontz novel a million years ago, thinking that it was kind of a cool idea, and then dismissing it as nothing more than a figment of the authors imagination. The premise is this: if you take away any and all outside stimulation, including gravity, you are left with nothing more than pure consciousness. While in this state, you can not only relax but also have certain revelations and experiences that can only come with a perfectly clear head. Sounds intriguing, doesn't it? Years after I read that novel, I read something else about these float tanks, only this time it wasn't fictional. They were cropping up here and there, and I thought to myself that if I ever discovered one in my area, I would definitely be open to trying it out. And this weekend, I finally had a chance to.

I was in Vancouver recently, celebrating my 40th. While I was out exploring, I stumbled upon a place called "Float House." Curious, I ventured in and found that, yes, this was a place where I could finally explore the magic of sensory deprivation! I was thrilled, and they even had appointments available the same day! I couldn't sign up fast enough, and began to give my info.

But then...minor setback. Apparently you are not supposed to go into the tank if you've imbibed, and well...it was my birthday weekend. I had already had a cocktail or two in my travels. I resigned myself to coming in the following day, with an untainted liver.

On Sunday, I returned and was handed a pile of paperwork to fill out. I did so, practically bouncing up and down with anticipation. I couldn't wait! Paperwork completed, I was given a video to watch on how to get in and out of the tank. I was asked if I had any questions, and led to my tank.

The tank was in a large white room with a shower in one corner. It was pristine. I was told to shower thoroughly, to insert earplugs, and then to enter the tank. The tank itself was filled with a solution of water and salts carefully dosed to provide optimum buoyancy. It was heated to 98.6 degrees. The idea is to create a liquid in which your body has no sense of its own weight or temperature. After the earplugs are in and the tank is closed, sight and sound are erased, as well. Nothing exists outside of your own thoughts. Without the distraction of sensation, the mind creates space to wander.

In theory, it sounded fantastic. I've never been claustrophobic; in fact, I kind of like being enclosed in tight spaces, it's almost comforting to me. However, as soon as I put the earplugs in, I began to feel mild anxiety. They were silicone and designed to cover the inside and outside of the ear, effectively blocking out all sounds aside from your own heartbeat. I lifted the cover to the tank and contemplated the darkness within as my anxiety cranked up another notch. Finally, feeling annoyed at myself for being so hesitant to do something I had wanted to try for years, I forced myself to settle into the tank, closing the door above me. I drifted weightlessly into the no-temp water, marveling at how strange it felt to lie on the surface of the water with no effort at all. I tried to push my arm down to touch the bottom, and while I could do so, it was difficult. When I stopped resisting, my arm shot right back up to the surface. I closed my eyes and tried to tell myself that I was relaxing.

Except...I really wasn't. The moment the tank closed, panic took over and I started to feel breathless. There was plenty of air; I kept taking huge breaths to prove this to myself. Regardless, my brain kept telling me that I was slowly suffocating. I resolved the issue by opening the door to the tank and propping it open with a floatie device they had provided me to support my neck while floating. This helped immensely.

After I rested on the water for several minutes, I felt myself beginning to relax into it. About 15 minutes in, I felt calm enough to close the door completely. The brief flare of unease slowly abated, and I was left to drift, alone with my thoughts. All I could hear were my internal workings: heartbeat, intake of breath and exhalation, and the sounds of my joints as I cracked them. They sounded like pistol shots, but nothing else outside of my body was audible. Since I was left with nothing to focus on outside of my physical and mental state, I tried to assess how I was holding my body, if I felt any discomfort, if there was anything revealing itself in the silence that I wouldn't normally be aware of due to the distractions of my senses. I realized that my shoulders kept rising up toward my ears, even though I was floating. I made a conscious effort to push them downward, but they kept rising back to their original position.

The most interesting thing about being in the tank was the distortion of proprioception. This is your sense of where your body parts are in relation to its other parts. I've often thought that my proprioception is slightly off; I am endlessly poking myself in the eye when trying to scratch my forehead, and spilling drinks that don't quite make it to where my mouth actually is. I walk into things often, and I'm terrible at anything that requires balance. In the tank, proprioception is the only sense you can really focus on. You can't focus on your sight in pitch darkness, or your hearing in a soundless chamber. But you can get a feel for where your arms and legs are in relation to the tank, and to yourself. However, your perceptions are lies. I would turn my body slightly and feel myself gently moving in a full circle. But then I would realize that, no matter how much my mind told me it was so, it simply couldn't be. The tank wasn't wide enough to complete a circle. I would get the sense that my arms were extended straight out, then shift a bit and feel them touching my sides. It was so disorienting. And it made me realize how much of our reality is just in our own heads.

I'd like to say that I had some mind-shattering revelations or at least a few good hallucinations in the tank, but sadly, what I mostly felt was boredom. Random snatches of conversations I had had previously, mostly with my boyfriend, kept rising to the top of my mind. I would disregard them and wait for something else to come up. The same pieces of conversation would return. I would quote it here but honestly, it was so banal and meaningless, there's no point. All the while, my physical body was completely relaxed, but my mind kept wanting to move on to something else.

I ended up leaving early, mainly because I was bored. As I showered off the salt solution, I reveled in the light of the room, the sounds of the shower, and the warmth of the spraying water. I was kind of disappointed in my inability to shut my mind off for a mere two hours, but then again, I spend much of my day in a semi-meditative state while I perform hypnosis. Perhaps the tank was relaxation overload for me.

I'm glad I gave it a try and added it to my repertoire of weird experiences, but I wouldn't do it again. It would probably be great for Type As who never give themselves a chance to breathe, though. As long as they're not claustrophobic, that is.