Floating in Isolation

I’ve had several intense experiences while receiving an acupuncture treatment or during a particularly deep meditation session, but nothing can quite compare to my hour floating in a sensory deprivation tank this past weekend. When I try to rationally consider my memories of those 60 minutes alongside other wellness therapies I’ve tried, I’m at a complete loss – my experience floating without sound or light was entirely otherworldly and incomparable.

The flotation (isolation) tank was developed in 1954 by a neuroscientist who wanted to study conscious activity in the brain when all external stimuli were removed. While the chamber was initially constructed for research, it was commercialized in the early 1980s after its health benefits became public knowledge. Floating slows the brain’s alpha waves and boosts the theta waves – a reaction typically found in most sleeping states – which generates a deep state of mindful relaxation.

Modern isolation therapy involves floating in 12 inches of water saturated by 1,000 pounds of Epsom salts, which creates a zero gravity sensation for the participant. When you begin to float, the chamber adjusts the water temperature to match your exact body temperature, making it increasingly difficult to register your arms and legs and torso as the minutes tick on. The air above you is also comfortably warm, which provides the feeling of total suspension.

Floating is not for the faint of heart or the claustrophobic – it requires that you actively push down any initial anxiety and continuously remind yourself that you are in a controlled environment and have made a conscious decision to do this. My background in meditation and my practice with diverse breathing techniques were crucial in remaining calm and ultimately enjoying my experience.

When I first climbed into the chamber and the tank door closed, the sense of nothingness crashed down on me. Without sound, light or stimulus of any kind – and most peculiar of all, without the sensation of gravity – my mind was completely released and I was flooded with thoughts and memories. After several overwhelming minutes, I settled down and began to relish the extreme buoyancy of the water. I slithered around the tank as much as I could, reveling in the marvelous impression of what can only be described as floating in outer space. I had no sense of time or place or purpose; instead, I was participating in nothingness.

Much like snorkeling, the only sound I could hear was that of my deep, measured breath as I explored my new environment. Eventually, I reminded myself that I probably wasn’t supposed to be having this much fun, and so I stopped my gleeful thrashing and settled into a deeper state of relaxation. As my breath became increasingly quiet, I too slipped away, enveloped by an incredible wave of calm. While it seemed natural to close my eyes, upon opening them, it felt as though I was in a cavernous space, simply because I had lost all ability to sense the tank’s dimensions. The solitude, the vastness, and the complete separation from my physical body were incredibly beautiful sensations, and something I imagine we are all trying to achieve when we choose to meditate.

At last, when my session was over, reorienting myself to reality was as foreign as my tank had once been. The intense focus and beneficial self-exploration I had achieved while floating were unparalleled to anything I have ever experienced, and for several moments I questioned some of my habitual, seemingly pointless routines – like picking up my iPhone to check if I had any messages.

As I’ve explored the world of wellness in light of my diagnosis, I’ve enjoyed challenging myself and experimenting with therapies that seem unconventional to many. Ironically, not doing anything for an hour will perhaps be one of the most bizarre, enthralling experiences of my life.