By Crabby McSlacker
Or hell, if I wanted to be even more cumbersome about it (and not leave any potential googlers out), I could also say: I undertook some "restricted environmental stimulation therapy," or a "flotation REST."
Yep: I lay there naked in the dark, closed off in a little heated box, suspended in a solution of epsom salts designed induce an extreme state of relaxation and make my arms and legs and everything else melt away, leaving nothing but a state of pure Crabby consciousness.
Why would I do such a thing? What was it like? Did I freak out? Did I see God? Would I do it again? Do I have any advice for how to prepare?
Answers to these and other questions no one has cared to ask me below!
Supposed Benefits of Isolation Tanks & Why I Gave it a Shot
I hadn't done any recent research, but had heard good things through the years. Articles like this one on float tanks in Men's Journal mention things like "reducing stress by lowering cortisol levels; managing chronic pain, injury, and illness; fighting addiction and depression; elevating mood; and even improving sports performance." There are even more health goodies listed at the Floataway website.
On the other hand, to paraphrase Wikipedia (go-to source for lazy bloggers): a lot of this "isolation tank research" is pretty darn sketchy. And I couldn't find any super-convincing links after an exhaustive two minute search on the google. But really, who cares about research? This is one of those things where your own experience is going to be a lot more important than what random subjects in some study report.
And honestly, it was the altered-state-or-consciousness aspect that appealed to me more than the health benefits. And consciousness is something very hard to measure in any study.
Because you guessed it, yet again I'm trying to be more diligent about my own custom-designed bizarro meditation practice. And one of my primary modalities is body awareness. I can get into some pretty trippy headspaces sometimes, yay! But one of my biggest challenges is relaxing and letting go. The idea of an environment specifically designed to accomplish this, to get my cranky little brain higher, deeper, and more nutty than ever? Very tempting!
However the thought of plopping down $60 to take a bath, even a trendy high-tech bath? Awfully hard to justify.
I saw one back in early December for a cheap float at a place right down the street. And since I'm really hard to buy Christmas presents for, I decided to drop a gentle hint:
"Honey? Go online and buy me one of these Flotation Tank Groupons for Christmas. And hurry okay, before they sell out."
Okay, maybe not so gentle. My awesome wife dutifully purchased The Groupon, and last week I finally got around to taking the plunge. (So to speak. You actually can't plunge when you're buoyant.)
My Floatation Tank Experience
Yes, I realize this is chronologically backwards, I should start with the "preparing" part first, but the tips make a lot more sense when you know what can go wrong.
Because yeah, if I had to sum up my experience, I'd say: Disappointing.
I went to one of the Float Sanctuary locations. I don't know if this is common, or if this was an anomaly, but the first thing I noticed was the air temperature in my tank was a little chilly. A sense of uncomfortable coolness is not sensory deprivation, it is sensory aggravation.
Why didn't I just tell them to heat it up? Well, there was no intercom in my room or anything, or at least I wasn't told about one. And I'm lying there in a darkened box full of salt water and would have to make my way to the hatch, climb out, shower off the salt, find my glasses, get dressed again, wander out and find the nice lady at the desk and hope she was empowered to tweak the temperature, get back undressed again, climb back in, reposition, wait, and hope it got better but not too warm. Meanwhile: clock ticking.
And here's the thing: it may have a perfect temperature for someone else. For all I know, it varies from person to person. But if there's no feedback mechanism, there's no way to get the right temperature for the right person.
Other sensory phenomena that were annoying: even though I tried to keep still, I kept floating into the sides of the tank and bumping the walls. Perhaps I'm just asymmetrical that way. Water dripped down on me occasionally from the ceiling. The air sometimes seemed a little under-oxygenated, like an airplane, though that could have been paranoia on my part.
Not as annoying: a slight electronic hum which, had I remembered to wear the earplugs provided, I might not have heard. There were a little dim light from the oxygen holes, which didn't interfere with a sense of total darkness with my eyes closed. It was actually reassuring to know that if I opened my eyes and looked that way, I could reorient if I felt the need.
You're not locked in the tank, so if you start to feel a little anxious, you can always just pop the hatch and re-enter the Real World. I didn't need to, but it was good to know that if somehow I found myself in some sort of freaked out state I wasn't going to be trapped there.
And the floating itself felt very nice! It does seem to allow muscle relaxation to a deeper level than lying on a bed. But my arms didn't feel entirely comfortable either in the recommended position above my head, or at my sides. I had to keep switching off.
So it wasn't horrible, it was sometimes pleasant, and I didn't experience any major anxiety or discomfort. But I did spend a fair amount of time grousing when I should have been relaxing, and I didn't float off into nirvana.
Would I do it again? Sure, if it was cheap, say maybe $15 bucks a shot, and I could make sure the tank would be warm enough. But failing that, I realized I've actually have better luck achieving the sense of my limbs disappearing by meditating at home, under the warm covers of my own bed. For free.
But if you're curious, don't be deterred just because a perpetually cranky blogger didn't drift off into bliss. A more easy-going attitude might make all the difference.
How to Prepare for Your First Floatation Experience
The float places will give you a general run-down of their particular procedures before you go. You'll probably be advised that you'll be showering first at the place before and after, that you're not wear lotions, that you should cover cuts with vaseline provided, and that you need to move slowly, particularly when you exit--like an astronaut returning from orbit, you can feel a little heavy and awkward when reintroduced to gravity. I'd also add that if you wear contact lenses, you may want to take them out and bring glasses so your eyes don't get all dry and scratchy and swollen.
But here are two additional things I wish I'd known to do:
1. Lower expectations for the first float.
A huge part of my problem was not realizing that flotation tanks apparently work best over time. (Which is great if you own a flotation business, or are independently wealthy, but not so great if you're looking for any immediate bang for your buck).
To use a medical analogy, flotation is more like a "therapy" than a "procedure." Much of my discomfort was self-inflicted because I'd had ridiculously over-optimistic hopes about what I might experience the first time out.
2. Check Yelp or other sources for reviews of your local flotation place.
Do a lot of people complain about temperature or conditions? If so, you may want to ask a few questions of the proprietors and make sure you will be comfortable.
(OK so as soon as I wrote "your local flotation place" I realized I was being an urban-centered asshat. Because yeah, how many people in this country, let alone the world, have the option of overpaying for the privilege of lying in a dark salty tub in their own neighborhood? Just be reassured that if you're cranky like me, you may not be missing much).
How about you all, have you, or would you, try a flotation tank? Any other experiments with sensory deprivation or altered states to report?