Sensory Underload: Ninety Minutes Inside An Isolation Tank
Because 5 months in the woods wasn’t enough to isolate me from the surrounding world, I decided to kick it up a notch.
While on my little walk thingy, I became a big fan of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. It served as my social fix when I wasn’t in the mood for actual interaction. For those who are unfamiliar, Joe Rogan is a stand up comedian/UFC commentator/host of Fear Factor/Carlos Mencia basher.
One of the many reoccurring theme’s on the podcast is Rogan’s fascination with introspection. In several episodes, he would reference a “sensory deprivation tank” (aka isolation tank/flotation tank) that he had set up in his house. The tank, as Rogan puts it, “is the most important tool that [he's] ever used for developing [his] mind“. This, coming from someone who is an outspoken proponent of both psychedelic drugs and marijuana.
Naturally my curiosity was piqued.
For those who are unfamiliar (me, as of 3 months ago) an isolation tank is basically a giant metal coffin with about a foot of salt water at the bottom. The water is heated to the same temperature as a human body, eventually resulting in an inability to feel the water. After an individual gets inside and shuts the door behind them, there is only total darkness. Once the water settles, the only sound you can hear is your own breath. Because the water is extremely dense – about 800 lbs. of Epsom salt is dissolved into it – a human body, which is made mostly of water, floats very easily. The theory goes that because there is no sensory input causing distraction to your brain, the mind is left to more freely wander. Beneficial claims include everything from pure rest and relaxation, to improved health and vitality, to being a shortcut toward enlightenment.
A quick Google search for flotation tanks pointed me toward A New Spirit, a spa in the outskirts of Denver. I scheduled an appointment for the following day.
One would assume that living in a black bear’s habitat for a half year may help to calm someone’s nerves before going into something like this. I suppose that’s true. Pre-trail, lying in a coffin for an hour, being anything shy of “very dead”, would undoubtedly result in pooping and panic attacks. With that said, I was still mildly nervous.
After a quick pre-tank shower, I stepped into the isolation tank room. I put the ear plugs in (which is apparently more for preventing salty, crusty ears than reducing sound), opened the coffin door, and stepped inside, leaving the door as wide open as possible. I first sat down, then slowly moved into a horizontal position, finding myself surprised by how easy it was to float. In a pool, (for me anyways) there is little margin for error in finding a position that allows for effortless floating. In the tank, you can raise your hands and feet out of the water, and still not make contact with the bottom of the tank (keep in mind the water is only 10” deep). I was already impressed. It was time to face the inevitable and shut the door. I did.
Holy shit- apparently I was not ready for such a sudden transition to darkness. My heart raced, my mind lapped it, and I quickly sat up and re-opened the coffin door. I took a few breaths and reminded myself I could leave at any point if I wanted. I laid back down and closed the door, again. This time the anxiety seemed to disappear almost as quickly as it arrived. Time to float.
At first, although there was nothing meditative about it, the sensation of floating without being able to see anything was really trippy. My mind was telling me that I was floating off in distant directions. The fact that I wasn’t making contact within the small coffin walls was proof that my brain was playing tricks on me. Instead of fighting it, I rode the roller coaster for a bit and enjoyed my faux trip to nowhere.
Once the drifting sensation subsided, it was time to wrestle around with the anarchy of thoughts that rule my head. “I wonder if the spa lady is single?” “Did I forget to print out my Daily Social Whole Foods voucher? I crave Kombucha.” “What’s Dennis Rodman up to these days?” After about 10 minutes, the circus of insanity ceased, and I reminded myself that I didn’t come here to float, I came here to achieve enlightenment. Shut up with the Dennis Rodman.
I practiced some Dr. Andrew Weil breathing meditations. Although I had done these many times in the past, the sensations seemed to be exponentially more powerful inside the tank. An almost surreal energy passed through my body (wherever that was), but just as I thought I was going to disappear into space, I would brush up against the side of the tank, and get pulled back into my thoughts. Sensory input has a way of doing that. I would go in and out of this routine many times over and again.
It wasn’t until I made a conscious effort of turning my brain off entirely that I really felt the potential of the isolation tank. I disappeared into a state somewhere between sleep and quiet alertness, into a place where time loses its effect. I say this because it felt like I was in the tank either forever or almost no time at all. Both seemed true. There is no way to put an accurate depiction on it. Having a grasp on time is hard to do when you lose sense of your body.
Just as I began to think, “I wonder when my hour is….” I heard the knocking to indicate that my hour was up. As I slowly climbed out of the tank, I noticed my body was shaking similar to the how it would after an intense weight lifting session. Considering all of the muscles in my body were as relaxed as can be, I’m guessing this was the result of inner tension being released, but that’s only speculation. After another quick shower (three showers in one day = a months worth of showers on the AT), I sat in the lobby for another 30 minutes, too relaxed to move, and tried to comprehend what happened over the previous 90 minutes (spa lady was nice enough to give the N00B some extra time).
It’s fairly common knowledge amongst float-ologists that the first couple of sessions are merely introductory. You build on your next float from the previous; it’s a cumulative effect.
If this is the case, I may have just discovered my newest addiction.
For anyone who is interested, this website will help you find the isolation tank facility nearest you. As you may have already guessed, I recommend it.