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Self-Help Patrol: Floating

What does sensory deprivation actually feel like?

Float tanks, isolation chambers, womb-to-tomb wet boxes — whatever you want to call them, small, dark spaces where you can float in the nude are spreading across the nation like vape shops. Joe Rogan loves them. Kristen Wiig enjoyed one in North Carolina a couple years ago. They were even a vehicle for Lisa-Homer bonding on The Simpsons back in 1999.

So, while we put together our photo profile of Venice Beach float pioneer Crash Hoefler, the editors at MEL sent me out into the floating world.

The Premise

Physically, a float tank is an enclosed space, big enough to comfortably lie down in, with about ten inches of water on the bottom. The water is packed with hundreds of pounds of dissolved Epsom salt, so you float, and heated to around skin temperature (approximately 93 degrees). Once you shut the door, it’s pitch black. Once you put in the earplugs, it’s mostly silent, though small ripples, the sound of your breath and your heartbeat are all hard to avoid.

Mentally, the idea is that the almost total subtraction of external sense stimuli will allow you to become a being of pure thought. The float tank was invented by the famous psychonaut John C. Lilly, who was big into psychedelics, cybernetics and dolphins, to “free the body from the necessities of the external reality programming and metaprogramming.” With the external world reduced to almost zero, the inner world can expand to fill the void.

In The Deep Self, his book on floating, Lilly describes a wide range of possible experiences in the tank. Sometimes he naps, sometimes he comes up with answers to complicated mathematical problems, sometimes he reorients his metabeliefs as they pertain to the existence of a self and reality. Other times, he hallucinates. It’s really a mixed bag.

The Goal

Floating, as you might guess from the name, isn’t the most goal-oriented thing going. Repeated use over years is supposed to help you gain objective self-awareness and change yourself for the better, whatever you believe “better” to mean by that point, but any one session can be a freaky confrontation with your hangups or a low-key snooze.

But one of Lilly’s precepts for floating (and other inner explorations) is that, “in the province of the mind, in the inside reality, what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits.”

Which means that, since I’m generally devoid of existential anxiety about the fine-grained nature of reality, the self and truth, my inside reality might be a little dull. Or maybe the tank will unravel the heretofore warm and fuzzy threads of my sweater of consciousness! Either way, I am always down for a nice warm bath.

The Method

First, I went to Float Lab’s Venice Beach location for a two-hour session in the evening. The next day, I went to the just-opened Pause Float Studio for a one-hour session in the afternoon.

I wanted to try two different float centers to see if the tank experience would change drastically depending on the tech. At Float Lab, the tanks are designed and built by Crash Hoefler, who’s been tinkering with the technology for 17 years. The look like battle tanks: giant, black, metal, and covered in various nozzles and valves.

At Pause, they have a pair of the popular, commercially available Float Pods (and a larger float room, which I didn’t try), which you can experience at many of the centers cropping up across the country. They look like Apple products: rounded, white, plastic and serene.

The aesthetics of each float center pretty much matches their tanks. Float Lab is utilitarian and feels semi-legal, tucked in a grungy strip mall on the beach and lit with slightly freaky red-and-blue LEDs. Pause is all blonde wood and chic day spa decor, like an annex of the Ace Hotel. There’s also a price difference — Float Lab is $41.50 for two hours, where Pause was $75 for one (they do give you tea afterward).

Once I got inside each tank, though, the experiences were almost identical. The air at Float Lab was more humid, which made me feel like I was breathing through a snorkel before I got used to it. The commercial Float Pod at Pause has internal lights and music, which you have to turn off, and isn’t itself lightproof, so I had to get out and mess with the room lights to get full darkness. Each was buoyant in a slightly different way.

The Results

Somehow, even though I’d never floated before, the experience of floating in a dark pod did not feel entirely new, or disorienting, though it did get a little stranger as it went on.

At first, it takes some time to settle in. As the salty water hits sensitive orifices and patches of dry skin, it stings slightly, then subsides. My joints felt a little weird, unsure what to do without having to resist gravity. But then, I just began to float.

Wiggling in the tank is surprisingly fun. In the absence of sight or much sound or the normal stimulus of real world touch, my inner ear and the lesser accelerometers of my body hair became the most interesting physical input around. With just a tilt of the head, or a slow lean to one side, I could make myself feel like I was coasting off into the distance, like the plastic puck on an air hockey table. With a deep breath, I could feel my body rise out of the water and, just for a moment, keep expanding up into the air.

However, one can only wiggle so much. Lying still, staring into the darkness, my thoughts began to loom larger and almost take on visual form, like afterimages against the black.

I was anticipating nightmares. As a kid, I’d often been stuck in the dark in that place before sleep, telling myself to “think of nice things,” only to see the family at the picnic in my mind’s eye eaten by ants and then turn, stripped to the bone, to eat me. But I was happy to find that, in the float tank, thoughts about recent experiences coasted in to be chewed over slowly, then just as easily coasted away.

And then, I slept. I think. Time becomes slippery in the tank, and more so when the time is spent in the borderlands between naps. Once or twice, I woke up a little panicked, wanting to turn on a light and find my glasses, but some gentle wiggling calmed me back down to drift off again. People say it’s womb-like, and they’re right — I felt like a delirious baby, or a single, conscious sperm.

Once the half-sleep set in and the thoughts were difficult to tell apart from the dreams, I would wake up and stare into the dark and, with the light, unmoored sense that I could be floating down a river, felt like I was looking up at the very dim dome of a planetarium, with the almost-invisible stars making a slow progression across the sky.

When the time was up, I got out, washed off all the salt, and put on my confining clothes, happy to see again but missing the amoebic body sensations of the floaty fluid. I didn’t solve any problems, or reconstruct my personality, or hallucinate anything crazy. I didn’t even feel dramatically better-rested than I would have from just napping for the same amount of time.

But one does not float to achieve, or to gain. Lilly describes himself as doing work in his float tanks, in the sense of inner work, but I didn’t have any tasks at hand, or discover any new ones in the process.

I floated simply to float. And floating itself felt good.