What I Learned From Floating In a Sensory Deprivation Tank

What do John Lennon, Anthony Bourdain and Lisa Simpson have in common?

Aside from world fame and trips to Japan, they all, at some point, found themselves inside the curious device known as a sensory deprivation tank.

“Floating” in zero gravity sensory chambers specially designed to create the experience of weightlessness has been a thing since the early 1950s, when a neuroscientist by the name of John C. Lily developed them to test its effects on the human psyche.

Since then, the practice made its way into spas and new age facilities around the world.  Some people regularly use sensory deprivation for relaxation, enhanced meditation experiences, or even to treat pain from conditions like arthritis.

As someone always looking for experimental approaches to meditation and spiritual insight, I found this concept intriguing.

So I put it on my bucket list . . . where it remained for years.

But this week, when the folks at Mystic Flow Wellness Center invited me to try it, I felt fate tap me on the shoulder.    No time like the present to dive (or ease?) right in.

Ah, the spa.  The smell of essential oils, the skilled hands of massage therapist, the feel of mud sinking into my skin.  Just the word spa drops my blood pressure.

After 19 months of first-time motherhood, the idea of spending 90 minutes in silence should have sounded like a granted wish.  But  I found myself surprisingly nervous when I arrived in the lobby that morning.

(I distracted myself by wondering how awesome that chandelier would look over my dining room table.)

spa reception

Rose, a friendly, approachable attendant, met me at the door, introducing herself as my “float host.”

Say hi to Rose.

rose from mystic floats

She gave me a little tour of facility before my treatment, swinging open the door to one of the “float rooms” to reveal a space-age-looking machine that glowed with empyrean aquamarine light.

IMG_6557

I wondered briefly if I might wake up in the Matrix.

But Rose assured me that I could, at any time, open the door and get out.

She also promised I’d float beyond any scientific doubt, explaining that the chamber solution contained 1,000 pounds of salt—-a larger concentration that the Dead Sea.

I was provided a robe, some earplugs (apparently, water in the ear canals is a common distraction) and left on my own to confront the alien pod.

sensory deprivation tank feet first

I got in, closed the door and laid back, surprised at my extreme buoyancy.  A robotic-yet-soothing feminine voice welcomed me to the session and the glowing turquoise light faded into oblivion.

My initial claustrophobia faded.

Inside, I struggled with all the things common to ordinary meditation.  My mind wandered.  I resisted the urge to fidget.

But some of the physical discomforts I usually experience during “land meditation”  (like my lower back pain, and tension in my shoulders) instantly alleviated.  After a few minutes, most of my major muscle groups softened.

I started to feel as though I were floating through deep space.

I personally experienced nothing close to the hallucination, but I definitely found my visualizations more vivid and easier to stabilize.

Occasionally, I bumped into the sides of the pod, which briefly jolted me from my visualization, but I found if I centered myself and held as still as possible, I could stay with my meditation for long stretches.

About halfway through the session, I started to lose orientation.  Time became difficult to gauge.  I guessed I’d been in for about 45 minutes when the same robotic-yet-soothing feminine voice beamed through my consciousness to tell me my 90 minutes was up.

I opened the pod to discover that I had not, in fact, been transported to the Matrix.

Rose met me in the lobby and told me to expect to feel pleasant after effects for several days.

She was right.  That night, I slept beautifully.  In addition, I felt the strange but delightful sensation of weightlessness for several hours, like walking around on the moon.

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