Learning to Float
Through the online chaos vortex that is Facebook, the opportunity presented itself recently to spend some time in a sensory deprivation tank. An old friend from high school had recently taken to “floating” as it’s called, and he was looking to get other people into the experience. There was no pause, no hesitation. Locking my body and mind into a total void went from something I had never given any serious thought to do, to something I was willing to drive from one end of the city to the other at the drop of a hat for. Like most things in life I did it just to see what it was like.
On the topic of Facebook: People give Facebook a lot of shit (and rightfully so) but I gotta say this is one of those instances where it shows its worth. I hadn’t seen this dude live and in the flesh in over a decade, and here we were reconnecting to have a grand adventure together. Left to my own devices…probably would have never done it. All I needed was that spark, that nudge we get from other people. Yeah, it’s annoying when people post pictures of food, or bitch about their day, but when stuff like this falls into your lap because of Facebook, it puts it all into perspective. We are stronger together as a group.
Originally, I had wanted to do two hours, even though only an hour was suggested for my first time. I felt like a teenager again, dropping acid with my friends. Everyone is taking two hits? Fuck it, I’ll take three just in case. I’m a big dude! What if it doesn’t work? That’s like my number one fear with any psychedelic exploration. “What if it doesn’t work?” Consume extra drugs, give yourself twice as long of time in the sensory deprivation tank. I want to trip and I want to trip balls my first time out. I can handle it. I’m an American, we over-consume. But there was an issue with scheduling and all we could get at the time we wanted to go was an hour, so an hour it was.
Once we got there, my buddy and I split up and were directed to our individual rooms, where we showered and entered the tank. I’m a tall guy (6’4), so I fit in there alright, but as I was floating on top the heated salt water solution that filled the tank, I would occasionally bump into the walls. A good portion of that first float was getting used to the actual floating aspect. Because while the tank is silent and dark, it’s not so huge that you can bob up and down, floating around without ANY physical sensation whatsoever. This aggravated me at first, and I wasted a lot of time trying to reach the mythical point of equilibrium when I would be totally still and motionless.
And so, that soon gave way to me goofing around in the tank. The sheer absurdity of it at times was so overwhelming. What the fuck am I doing lying naked in 800lbs of salt water (or was it 300lbs, I can’t remember)? It was so warm and dark and buoyant in there, it was easy to just regress back to being a kid and bounce around like a Ping-Pong ball. I was a big swimmer growing up, so I’ve always been at home in the water. I can imagine some people getting claustrophobic, or worrying about drowning, but I can attest to having zero concern in either of those regards.
In retrospect, I have to say I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how it should all feel. Way too much focus and time and attention was spent on the physical aspects of it. I had this preconceived notion going in that I would be floating in total darkness and silence with zero physical sensation, and maybe it’s just my size and shitty sense of balance or the dynamics of the tank, but that never really happened. However, at some point, probably about half way through, I realized this and gave up trying. Were my senses ever completely and totally 100% deprived? No, but I was floating naked in a warm, tranquil pitch black and mostly silent state, and once I realized that would have to be good enough, I started to relax. And once I let my body relax, I could focus on my mind.
On the topic of Meditation: While the concept of meditation isn’t really anything new to me, I always met it with mixed results. It’s hard as fuck to quiet my mind and I’ve tried a ton of different techniques. The most success I’ve had is by using some of the different guided mediation tracks you can find on Spotify. I need something concrete to focus on. My mind constantly spirals between what I had for breakfast, to whatever new creative thing I’m working on, to the next creative thing I want to be working on, to whatever is going on at work or school and then there’s usually sex somewhere in there. There’s no fucking way I’m sitting there picturing a waterfall for any significant length of time. Not going to happen.
Going into the sensory deprivation experience, I tried not to bring any work with me. I mean, the big question is what the hell are you supposed to DO in there the whole time, right? You feel like you should bring some kind of checklist, or agenda. I went in there as blank as possible, I had no mantras prepared, and I didn’t particularly feel the need to try and work through some ongoing problem in my personal life (two things the facilities website suggested “Floating” was useful for). Before parting ways my buddy had mentioned a technique he likes to use where he counts down from ten to zero, all the while picturing himself floating underwater looking upwards at the bottom of a boat. Once zero is reached, he pictures himself sinking deeper into the ocean, and farther away from the boat.
“So you want me to go in there and picture myself drowning…”
I skipped visualizing the boat, but I took him up on the counting down from ten part. When I reached zero I’d try and silence the chatter of my mind, if only for a few moments – kind of like hitting the mute button on a remote. Whatever thoughts were buzzing around would stop and there would be a few moments of pure silence before it would all start back up again, and then I would resume counting. This seemed to work, so it went on for a while.
One of the times, as I reached zero, just before my thoughts were consumed by silence, a stray thought had formed and made itself heard… “Who else is in here with you?” My mind seemed to ask to no one in particular. The voice hung in the air, and for a long time I couldn’t ignore the question.
Which is what I think the breakthrough I had (if any) during my experience was. “Who else is in here with me?” Absolutely no one. I went into that tank as naked as the day I was born. No light, no sound, no additional input. What happens in that tank is 100% between you and your mind. The secrets of the universes didn’t unfold before me, and I crawled out of that thing more or less the same caliber of asshole I was when I crawled in, but I learned to love myself a bit more. See, we constantly bombard ourselves with TV and the radio and our phones. I am just as guilty, if not more, as everyone else. But the thing is we don’t have to. If we choose to drive along in traffic alone with our thoughts we won’t get bored! Our thoughts are awesome and entertaining. And since when is boredom such a horrible thing anyway? Maybe that’s just me, some people look at that tank and think, “oh shit I’m going to suffocate in there” and me, my biggest concern was, “this better not suck”.
My friend and I met in the parking lot after the fact to compare notes. I mentioned that time really flew by in there, and how one of my irrational fears going into the experience was excruciating boredom. I hadn’t anticipated the physical adjustment period and I expected a solid hour of staring off into
empty space in complete darkness. My friend made an interested comparison to the time distortion one experiences inside the tank, to being akin to the kind you experience in jail, but with a much more positive connotation. Spending the night in jail sucks and goes on forever. You’re alone in your little holding cell. No stimuli, no idea what’s going to happen next. It totally sucks. On paper the two situations seem similar, but when you’re floating, the lack of stimuli just leads to an increased sense of self. Or hell, maybe BOTH experiences lead to an increased sense of self and it’s just all about the frame of mind your in at the time.
On the topic of drugs: I wasn’t high my first time, and I probably won’t be for my second, but maybe my third. “Floating,” is definitely its own thing, and the physicality of it all is overwhelming enough. Get the hang of that before you introduce controlled substances into the equation. My first time in there my body was drug, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine free. Why introduce so many variables at once?
So in closing, any advice to would-be floaters? It’s an experience. Just have the experience. Don’t worry about what you think it should feel like, or how you think your mind should perform. This is a totally new thing you’re experiencing with a lot of moving parts. Don’t try and control every aspect of it and just let it happen. Because like I said, it’s just you and the tank, man. You’re the only one in there. All the micromanaging and expectations are only limits you’re putting on yourself. You ARE the experience. Any disappointment you manifest is just disappointment in yourself. Learn to enjoy your own company. Because if you can’t stand yourself, how the hell do you expect anyone else to?