Into the darkness

Finding peace in a sensory deprivation tank


Two hours before I go into the tank, I’m wondering if it can help my more, ahem, acute concerns of the day—later this afternoon I’ll speak in front of an audience of business leaders (mad respect, but this group isn’t exactly composed of my peers); next week I’m flying to visit my mom, who just finished another bout of chemotherapy . . . I’m not sure if the sensory deprivation tank experience will help me process these anxieties or perhaps quiet my mind and allow me to witness the nuances of these feelings, similar to the way my meditation practice works. Or will I be so relaxed I’m practically asleep, held in a warm, moist, silent facsimile of the womb?

In this new-ish column, Altered States, we explore (and sometimes experience) the different unorthodox ways we hack our bodies, our neurology, our psychology, our feelings—with medicine, and without. That’s why I’m going to undress completely and close myself in the tank later this morning.

It’s a rare individual who doesn’t want to feel better, physically or mentally. We try exercise, religion, therapy, prescription antidepressants, whatever it takes to find some relief. Now, 18 months into a global pandemic that hasn’t stopped throwing curveballs at us, threatening our and our loved ones’ health, destroying businesses, and instigating political strife, we’re all begging for a break more than ever.

Ben Gleason opened Isolate Floatation Center in 2012, after he’d had some life-altering experiences floating in other facilities’ sensory deprivation tanks. “I credit it for starting a huge series of events that led to me being a lot healthier and a lot happier,” Gleason says. After he started floating regularly, “I felt present; I felt alive in a way that I’d never felt before. So I did it a few more times and ended up opening my center.”

Gleason credits his regular floats in the tank for helping him lose 100 pounds the first year; “it just completely changed my life,” he says.

Worth a shot, I tell myself.

The room with the tank is a large bathroom with a shower (the tank is filled with Epsom salt water to make you float; you need a rinse afterward), and the tank, perhaps four feet tall, four feet wide, well long enough to fit a tall man. (There are larger tanks for the claustrophobic, but that isn’t one of my issues.)

Inside, I first try following my breath, the typical meditation technique. I can hear my breath and my heartbeat—that’s all, the tank and some foam earplugs shut off all sound. Mostly my eyes are closed, but when they open there’s no difference (except a solid sting from a drop of salt water that made it in). The salt water is slightly thick, the consistency of KY jelly maybe, but it enforces the float—a couple times I check with my hands the distance between my butt and the bottom of the tank; the bottom consistently feels about six inches below me.

There is some exploration—I’m 5’11”, and can probably shift two feet lengthwise in the tank; the side walls are wide enough that I rarely feel enclosed. After I explor the sensation of completely effortless floating (I’ve never jumped in the Dead Sea or the Great Salt Lake), an impressive sensation on its own, and become comfortable in the wet darkness, my mind travels less with my breath and begins to wander on its own. Not regarding the upcoming panel discussion, or my mom’s illness, or the endless deadlines that comprise my job. My imagination conjures what I think is a photo album, or a journal, but I never see photos or journal entries—it’s as if I’m looking at a scrapbook of the rest of my life, yet to be filled.

When the New Age music comes on that signals the end, I’m surprised it’s been an hour already. I could have stayed in there much longer—though I’m not sure I would have remained awake. (Isolate encourages 90-minute sessions, which I initially thought would be too long, but I get it now—and I did return for a longer session.)

The experience was not dissimilar from meditation, mentally—really, it’s enforced meditation, you have nothing but what’s inside your mind (once you’re done feeling how far your butt is from the bottom of the tank). The advantage is that enforcement, the silence, the closed metal door of the tank inside a room that’s empty except for you.

I have grade-school children, and a fast-paced, hectic life. I manage to maintain a meditation practice by waking up at 5 a.m. and taking advantage of being the only conscious soul in my house—no requests, no inquiries, no responsibilities for those few minutes. At Isolate, those elements are a given, and for me that was the most compelling reason for dropping money on an isolation tank session.

In a way it’s beyond meditation, though—a semi-lucid waking dream state characterizes the last half-hour or so of my time in the tank, something I don’t get in my meditation practice or from a hot eucalyptus-scented bath (the water in the tank is not hot, it’s skin-temperature, so not really like a bath at all).

Gleason concurs—he’d tried meditating before his first floating experience, and “it didn’t click for me,” he says. “There’s a way that the tank gives people access to that state of consciousness or just that way of being.”


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