The journey within a sensory deprivation tank
By Chris Busby
I’m floating face-up, buoyant as cork, atop ten inches of super-salty water warmed to 93.5 degrees Fahrenheit, skin temperature.
Whether open or closed, my eyes see the same black void. The darkness is complete.
My ears, underwater, hear my heart thudding softly in its squishy cage, air blowing between my teeth like wind through a mountain pass.
I swallow, and it sounds like a toilet’s been flushed.
These wonders and more await the brave soul willing to enter a sensory deprivation tank, where silence and darkness reign, time jumps its track, and mighty gravity holds no sway.
One such soul is Neil Sattin, a thoughtful 31-year-old whose experience “floating,” as this experience is called, inspired him to buy a tank and install it in his Brackett Street apartment.
The four-by-eight-foot tank takes up most of a spare bedroom. To help offset the cost of maintaining his Classic model Samadhi tank — Sattin’s electric bill doubled after he installed it, and he buys Epsom salt by the 1,000-pound pallet every few months – Sattin offers the tank to fellow floaters and first-timers for a modest donation.
Sensory deprivation tanks were first developed in the mid-1950s by Dr. John C. Lilly. By the 1970s, Lilly had perfected the tank’s design. For example, in earlier versions of his invention, floaters were suspended in upright position, in fresh water, rather than supine in salty water. That outdated floating method took hold in the public’s imagination following the publication of novelist Paddy Chayefsky’s book Altered States, in 1978 – the book was loosely based on Dr. Lilly’s work — and the film of the same name, starring William Hurt, released in 1980.
Despite the freakish floating experience dramatized in the film, the popularity of sensory deprivation tanks took off in the early 1980s. As detailed in The Book of Floating: Exploring the Private Sea (Gateways Books), by Michael Hutchinson, celebrities like John Lennon and Robin Williams were among thousands who bought float tanks during this period. The first year that the Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies installed tanks in their training rooms, both teams had championship seasons, inspiring other athletes and teams to give floating a try.
Of course, sensory deprivation didn’t become a hallmark of the 1980s, a decade remembered now for such notorious sensory stimulants as cocaine and A Flock of Seagulls. And the dawn of the New Age last decade failed to make floatation tank centers as commonplace as, say, yoga studios and Wild Oats.
But sensory pioneers like Sattin persist, using tanks for relaxation, physical healing, increased mind power, and insights into questions mundane and existential – like, “Did someone just flush a toilet, or is that me, the speck of conscious matter pondering the vast universe that created it, swallowing its own spit in wonder?”
The Bollard: How did you first find out about float tanks?
Sattin: I worked for a while as a software developer. When I had to decompress, I didn’t have a way to get away from the computer, so frequently I’d just do random Internet searches for random things as they crossed my brain. One day I came across the notion of sensory deprivation … and that led me to this floatation center in Chicago [which Sattin visited in late 2003].
Were you worried before your first float?
I didn’t have much fear about it, because I’m pretty open to random experiences like that. I’d spent time in a monastery before, so I was OK with being silent and being in a meditative sort of place.
For the most part I was curious, just because I’m a really skinny guy, and I’ve always had trouble swimming, or floating in general. In swimming lessons, they’d have us do the “dead man’s float,” and I’d literally sink to the bottom of the pool.
I’d read a little bit about how it seemed like zero gravity, and being reasonably sure that I may not go into outer space anytime during my life, I figured this was as close as I was going to get to that kind of antigravity experience.
If I was apprehensive about anything at all, it was probably just being in a strange place and getting naked.
What was your first float like?
It was pretty amazing, and it’s probably why I have a tank now, because I thought it was so incredible that I wanted to do it regularly and share it with people.
I got in, and I found it was just so freeing to be able to float effortlessly. Initially, I just sort of played around in the water. I wasn’t splashing around, but I was pushing off the walls and just experiencing that feeling of floating. I had the lid closed, so it was totally light proof.
I did that for a little while, then I don’t really remember what happened at that point.
They don’t have music that comes on. The way they signal to you that your time is up is they’ll come and knock on the outside of the tank and you knock back to let them know that you heard them. The next thing I knew, I was hearing someone knocking on the tank.
I was gone. I wasn’t asleep, but I was definitely somewhere else.
So, I knocked back and got out of the tank, and the world was just totally vibrant with color, and the feeling of the water in the shower as I was rinsing the salt off my body — everything was so vibrant. When I went out into the lobby and they asked me how it was, the guy told me he’d actually been knocking for about five minutes before I knocked back.
I walked out and I was in Chicago, it was the wintertime, and it was pretty cold. I’ve always hated the cold weather, but I was outside and it was cold and I was just loving it. I really felt like I had been transformed into a more positive person. Like, “It’s cold. It feels great.” I was just welcoming the experience.
I was walking by restaurants and looking at people eating. It was just so fascinating.
Finally, I was nowhere near my hotel, so I had to hail a cab. I got in, and the guy was Palestinian. I got into this long conversation with him about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and by the end of the ride we were calling each other “Brother” and wishing each other a long life. We really were able to resonate with each other as humans, and I felt that was a carryover from the experience of being in the tank and being receptive to the world.
I went back the next night, because I was so blown away.
How do you use the tank now?
I’ve tried different approaches. Sometimes I go in focusing on a particular issue. I sort of feed it to my subconscious in hopes of resolving it. Or think about a creative project that I’m working on, because it’s a great place to focus.
They say that 85 percent of your brain power is devoted to overcoming the effects of gravity, so potentially, when you’re in a zero-gravity environment, you have 85 percent of your brain that you didn’t have before, that can focus on other stuff. So it’s been a useful tool in that sense.
Typically when I go in, I try not to have any intention, and just see what’s going to happen. I find that works best for me.
I’ve heard that you can do super-learning, and you can absorb vast amounts of information when you’re in the theta state, but I haven’t really tried that too much.
What’s the theta state?
It’s like being aware, but being so relaxed that you almost lose your attachment to your body. It’s a state that you go through between waking and sleeping…. If you’ve had moments when you woke up and you still couldn’t control your body but you were conscious, that’s a sign of being in the theta state.
Now, for some people, they might experience that and be sort of panicked, because you’re waking up and you can’t move your body. It’s kind of freaky. But in the context of the tank, it’s relaxing, because you can totally disassociate from anything physical.
Since a physiological byproduct of being in the theta state is that your brain secretes endorphins, which are your natural opiates, it can be a blissed-out sort of feeling. You just feel good. You don’t feel pain — it’s really good for people with chronic pain. It’s very relaxed. You’re aware, but you’re not so much caught up in the day-to-day drama of who you are as a person.
You’re more existing as a conscious being, and it is sort of a blissed-out feeling, which makes sense if you say this is the state Buddhist monks go into when they meditate, where they’re sort of communing with the deepest levels of existence, and it’s a feeling more than something you can articulate. But you can say that it’s a really good feeling, and it’s very relaxing and energizing at the same time.
How has floating daily changed you?
It was ironic that I was going through a lot of stress when I got the tank. I’ve always been able to handle stressful situations, but I really felt like I could just handle things a lot better afterward. It’s definitely helped me be more relaxed.
Even though I’m already an optimistic person, I feel more optimistic and positive about life experiences, and able to roll with the punches, as far as change and calamity.
Also, I’ve barely gotten sick since I started using it…. I feel that it’s enhanced my body’s physical functioning, as well.
Some people get in and they’re immediately blissed out and aware, and I envy those people. But for me, a lot of my initial experiences were getting in the tank and having time just disappear, and all of a sudden it was an hour-and-a-half later, and the music was coming on and it was over. I didn’t have a lot of awareness of what was actually happening in the middle.
But since then, I’ve had more hypnogogic experiences, dream-like things or visions. Sometimes it’s situational, sometimes it’s totally random — it’s always very interesting.
I’ve also felt like I’ve gotten to a point in awareness where I feel things in my body that I don’t feel on a day-to-day level, things like the current of electricity running through my body.
The tank sounds like a good way to counteract the over-stimulus of modern life.
Personally, I feel that the more centered we are, and the more relaxed we are, ultimately the happier we are, and the more we really feel the joy of living. It’s ironic that being bombarded with all this stimulation, in a sense that sort of dulls us to the world and can really deaden us to the joy of simply existing.
In the tank, you never lose sight of the fact that you have an existence that’s independent of everything the world tells you ought to be or ought to be doing. Even if you’re going through a horrible time in your life, it reminds you that you’re still a whole and centered being.
The more people who are doing this kind of thing, it couldn’t help but bring about something positive on the planet as a whole.