I lay in bed. My partner, Mark, was up making espresso, having left an empty space beside me. I stirred, my mind flooded with visions of schoolchildren sitting at desks behind plexiglass shields, their faces shrouded by medical masks. A tsunami of rage overwhelmed me; I tossed and turned but no matter how I lay the rage boiled up and over, along with an onslaught of images. I saw myself snatching those masks and setting them on fire. A few times in my life I had felt rage, but never a kind so wild and frightening that I was at its mercy. Paralyzed in that half-awakened state, eyes shut, I could do nothing to stop the scenes of masks ablaze, and my torment. In the chasm between sleep and waking I was caught powerless and yet, somehow, I recognized that powerlessness was at the very root of the rage I felt.
A year has passed since that summer morning and the height of the lockdown measures. Since then, many everyday routines have resumed, and for now, where I live, the coronavirus of Wuhan has waned. Those isolated days of homebound malaise punctuated by tensely distanced public ritual have also faded — but I have not forgotten my awakening that day, the flames curling and blackening the blue surgical masks, one by one, inside my fitful dream, and how the glee I’d felt watching them burn did nothing to abate my fury.
To keep myself from succumbing to powerlessness, I knew I had to do something. Mark and I lived in a guesthouse next door to his 92-year-old mother. Although yoga studios, spas, and massage services had reopened, if I brought up the possibilities of attending these at dinner, I would face a family blockade.
One evening while driving to the beach, we passed a plaza with a sign that read, “Souler Float.” Aloud, I wondered what that was. “One of those sensory deprivation tank places, where you can float to meditate and relax,” my sister-in-law replied. Might this be possible? You float alone, the very definition of distanced. Though wouldn’t being shut inside a float tank trigger claustrophobia?
You may read about some people who hallucinate or have out-of-body experiences while in float tanks, claiming similarities to LSD or mushrooms. I knew nothing of this, but my curiosity prompted Mark to share with me the 1980 film Altered States. Written by Paddy Chayefsky, the story follows a prominent psycho-physiologist played by William Hurt who experiments with drugs and a sensory deprivation tank. Hurt convincingly portrays a man obsessed with becoming the subject of his own experiment. He spends hours submerged until he bursts forth, sputtering and incoherent, claiming to have seen flashes of early Hominids, then believes he’s regressing into one. One night he leaps from the tank as a scrawny ape-like creature and bounds into the streets, wreaking havoc. He recovers but continues his submersions. The climax features Hurt’s face aglow, screaming and gnashing, as he morphs into a blob of primordial matter. Despite its grainy and dated special effects, the film retains a mesmerizing, Jekyll and Hyde-like horror.
I was undeterred. Altered States was, after all, a film — a fiction. Should I decide to book a float session, I would not be injecting myself with any mind-altering substances, nor would I be floating for hours upon hours like the, unfortunately, ego-driven and narrow-minded scientist played by Hurt. The I-Sopod depicted on the Souler Float website looked nothing like the industrial chamber, heavy and grim, used in the movie, but rather a seashell-hued dome that opened wide; beneath shimmered its shallow pool, a brightly lit aquamarine. I wanted — needed — the assurance of escape if I was going to float for the first time in an isolation tank.
You float naked, I learned, for maximum relaxation. You shower before and after. Between floaters, the water passes through a double-filtration system. Bacteria and viruses cannot survive in the high concentration of magnesium sulfate required for flotation. Such tanks often use over eight hundred pounds of pharmaceutical-grade Epsom salt — an extremely sterile environment, to my relief. Only now, as I write this, did I learn that my anxiety about a particular pathogen was hardly new or unique. In 1981, after Altered States, interest in isolation tanks had taken off, until the arrival of AIDS. With so much about the new virus unknown, including transmission, fear abruptly killed off the floating spa for the next two decades.
I booked the Souler Float appointment for 3:30 p.m. on a Saturday, sight unseen, for the sum of 49 dollars. I’d be floating someplace called the Green Suite. The screen had prompted me to sign a lengthy series of declarations and waivers. Have you dyed your hair in the past two weeks? Have you recently gotten a tattoo? Have you any open cuts or wounds? Do you suffer from any kidney disease? Magnesium absorption can affect the kidneys. I checked no. And lastly, if you urinate, defecate or otherwise soil the tank with bodily fluids, you will be charged a cleaning fee of 15 hundred dollars.
I read this last one aloud to Mark on the morning before my appointment. Every day we ate on the porch, in the same places, like two prisoners under house arrest. Every day the heat index hovered near a hundred, the most oppressive wet season I could ever remember.
He made a face. “Fifteen hundred dollars if you pee in the tank?” he said. “That means it happens. Still going?”
“I feel like I’m fading away,” I said. “I have to try something.”
The lobby of Souler Float was dim and gray. Soft, ambient music played. A lone woman sat behind the check-in desk, where she passed over a tablet for me to sign more electronic forms. I boldly declared myself symptom-free. Would I like earplugs? I said yes. She spoke in hushed tones and, after holding a temperature gun to my forehead which beeped to her satisfaction, led me down the hall to the Green Suite and pointed out the restrooms opposite. If the room was green, I didn’t notice; the pod awaited, yawning, its shallow pool of saline aglow like a vortex. After some brief instructions on how to work the lights and call button, the staffer left.
I surveyed the room with an undercurrent of unease. Before my arrival, aware of the requirement that one must shower beforehand, I had envisioned that the private room would contain its own full bathroom. But only a shower stood in the corner. I suffer from a somewhat rare and chronic bladder condition, or cystitis. This condition ebbs and flares but ensures that I must always choose the aisle seat on airplanes and limit my caffeine intake. And this I had done: followed the pre-float instructions to not consume any caffeine at least six hours prior to my appointment. But I had consumed one espresso early that morning, and along with my apprehension about the float, I now realized that my choice to drink even that smallest of cups had likely been a mistake.
Oh well. PEACE COMES FROM WITHIN — DO NOT SEEK IT WITHOUT, read one of a half-dozen signs on the back of the door. I made use of the facilities across the hall and proceeded.
Swiftly, I showered. From the dispenser oozed a green gel, the kind offered in budget hotels, its scent a cheap, pungent pine. Naked and somewhat blind, contact lenses stowed, I cautiously stepped into the pod. Silky warmth enveloped me; my body temperature matched. My bottom met its bottom but my limbs popped up, cork-like, as if on their own. I fumbled like a rag doll and struck the button on the right side of the tank to start the session, but when I drifted over to the left side, toward the button to turn out the lights, I paused. The buoyancy felt strange enough; I would leave the darkness for another day. Nor would I shut the lid but pull it down just enough for the clamshell to remain agape, the air fresh.
I lie back. Weightless, and perfectly warm in the embryonic waters — why had I ever left? The mad world shut out, what heaven. Only the bright light piercing like a beacon at the end. The light is enough, and the ambient waves of music. My body has never felt so light — and yet my limbs so heavy at the same time! My awareness drifts up, up and away, like a balloon. Gravity, and the body, belong to Earth, but I am not my body. My consciousness is hanging on now by the thinnest of tethers. How I would like to leave! Death will come one day and snip that tether. For now, a gift of rest, of sweet release, of nothing but no mind. Sound fades. More emptiness.
Eyes open, I see patterns. Are the lights dancing? The beam shines steadily from the tank’s end. I half-expect to hear the voice of the computer HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Above me dance streaks of lightning, or the aurora borealis, which I have never seen. I sit up and push my hands beneath the water, making ripples, entranced — as if I am seeing the water, and my body, anew, their liveliness and unsteadiness. Everything is vibrating, nothing is steady or fixed, the water molecules, light waves, and I are all in ever-changing motion. How do I walk around each day and not notice this? I splash and feel a silent smile.
Once again, I lie back and float. Time stops yet passes. I am not wholly untethered; soon, a familiar pressure nags in my lower regions — adrift or not, I must pee. I linger for a moment, wishing away the feeling, irritated, much like when the urge awakens you from a deep sleep.
I dragged myself out of my dreamy chamber, wrapped myself in a towel and shuffled, sleepily, across the hall. The restroom light was harsh, the surfaces too cold, but the urge was real. On the way back, I bumped into the front desk clerk, who hopped back, clearly startled to see me out mid-float, a sodden ghost.
I attempted to refloat, but my session was nearly up. Next time, no caffeine for a day.
Once again, I showered with the goo. My skin felt soft, inevitably buffed by so much fine salt. When I climbed into my car, everything felt too loud and hard. I shouldn’t have been driving, but I only had a mile to go. Along the way, cars passing me on the right, vroom! — the speedometer told me I was going 40 in a 45. Oops. I crawled into the turn lane and ahead of me, the left-side blinker of the car ahead pulsed red, lulling me into a trance. I was in a state I hadn’t felt in a long time: stoned.
At home I stumbled in, laughing, declaring that I was high and saw things. No more float sessions without a designated driver, and Mark agreed, laughing. I washed off the cheap soap. The salt in my hair plus shampoo made a fragrant bouffant of lather. I collapsed into bed and slept hard for several hours. When I awoke, I was no longer stoned, but groggy, dehydrated, and somewhat nauseated. But I slept well that night and the next. The float freed me to recalibrate.
Had I truly seen those patterns of neon lightning rods dancing inside the blank pod walls? And the graceful, rippling trails as I ran my limbs beneath the water? Hypnogogic hallucinations can occur when the brain enters the theta state — the transition state between waking and sleeping. The lack of sensory input may stimulate the brain to plunge deep into one’s consciousness and bring up sensations, from subtle to vivid, but mostly fleeting, dream-like in nature. Graphic scenes may appear, flashes of images, past and present, without narrative context, revealing insight to what lies deep within our psyches, buried by the everyday. In the float tank I had experienced no such scenes, but the very visions of masks burning which had sent me there, I realize now, were hypnogogic. This realm fascinated Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote of “the moment of fusion between waking and sleep . . . a passing beyond the extreme limits of consciousness, without getting lost in the domain of sleep.” You may read of others who hear sounds and voices when floating — and may have experienced something similar yourself, adrift in that hazy realm, neither asleep nor awake, hearing your own or someone else’s voice.
In 1954, when John C. Lilly, the neurophysiologist at the National Institute for Mental Health, had set about to design float tank experiments, scientists believed that without external stimuli, the mind would “pass into unconsciousness.” Yet Lilly (an eccentric sort, who served as the inspiration for Chayefsky’s protagonist in Altered States) came to dramatically different results. With outside distractions eliminated, the mind didn’t shut down, but grew more inventive — thereby making “sensory deprivation” a grave misnomer. The tank enhanced sensory input, allowing the creative experience to unfold.
I find myself asking, how might this experience go wrong?
THE QUIETER YOU BECOME, THE MORE YOU CAN HEAR. I’d returned to the Green Suite, and this time, nestled within the silken water, music fading, I pulled down the lid. Shall I try turning off the lights? I hit the button and then I was naked, in the dark, weightless in a foot of water. My heart leaping to my throat, I grabbed for the lid to thrust it up, swishing and sloshing, off-balance. But the lid was heavier when completely shut than I expected, and I blindly banged the left inside of the tank until I landed upon the button. Light again. I steadied myself, sat up, and with both hands, hoisted the lid to remain ajar. Fresh air wafted my cheeks; gratefully, I gulped. A few minutes later and with the pod lid ajar, I turned off the lights again — no matter. Panic struck. Entrapment in a water-filled coffin is the stuff of nightmares; this I somehow could not evade or dispel, and at that moment I surrendered the hope of more fully depriving my senses by floating in darkness.
I didn’t feel that I would die. The I-Sopod lid snapped shut like a fuzzy jewelry box, no latching mechanism, and once I sat up, reclaiming gravity, I could lift it. But a few rare souls have inexplicably perished in similar pods.
In 2018, the family of Gloria Fanning filed suit against The Float Spot in Texas after the 71-year-old woman drowned. The spa worker said she found Fanning in a “state of distress” before she called for help. When paramedics arrived they found Fanning unconscious, not breathing, and without a pulse. After eight days on life support, Fanning died. According to medical records, her body contained extreme levels of magnesium, presumably from having aspirated so much of the flotation solution.
A trickle of tank water struck my eye once, so briny and burning that I immediately reached for the spray bottle of freshwater that hung on the pod’s interior and squirted the eye clear. I cannot imagine taking a lick, let alone a mouthful, of such water — far saltier than any dunk in the ocean. But never underestimate the power of humans in panic. Had Gloria Fanning, upon initially entering a restful state, experienced sights and shapes, or flashbacks, of a disturbing, rather than benign, nature? Was she one of those rarer souls who heard voices, auditory hallucinations? Or had she never entered blissful relaxation at all, but merely shut the lid, turned out the light, and — feeling trapped in the dark inside a water-filled coffin — panicked, striking her head on the lid and swallowing water?
Then there’s the incident of 28-year-old Aaron Traywick, also in 2018, who was found dead in a pod at Soulex Float Spa in downtown Washington, D.C. — a stranger case, perhaps, considering that Traywick was a biohacker known for injecting himself with experimental substances. Perhaps his sudden death was the result of his own mad scientist doings, wholly unrelated to his float session. Or was it possible, in a state of unadulterated bliss, his soul drifted out too far on its tether, and he snipped his own tenuous cord to his flesh, and this world?
We won’t ever know. Only that the float experience is one that magnifies the mysteries of being human. In floating between the veil of the seen and the unseen, both more and less are revealed about our experience of what we think is reality.
“What one believes to be true either is true or becomes true in one’s mind, within limits to be determined experimentally and experientially,” Lilly wrote. “These limits are beliefs to be transcended.”
In 2011, 85 float spas operated in the United States. In 2021, such facilities number over 300. Weeks turn to months, and I float in the Green Suite, then the Purple, of Souler Float. Mornings, I skip the espresso entirely and never again feel the urge to urinate mid-session. Limbs heavy, my mind can forget the body and float. I spin slowly beneath the geometric light shows; they may be the closest I ever come to seeing the Northern Lights. Nothing too disturbing has happened yet — but if I would float longer than an hour, what then?
Toward one session’s end, I sat up and beneath the water, turned over my hands. At once they seemed distorted and large, bulbous and swollen. Shadows jumped through the water and now the muscles and tendons appeared defined, my hands hardened and old looking, ancient, as if I was gazing back in time. I was struck by a visceral sense of primordial man — much like William Hurt’s character in Altered States.
The music sounded, gently calling me back. I jumped out early, hurried to shower, dress. OBSERVE THE MASSES, THEN DO THE OPPOSITE. FLOAT. Outside the spa, the trees rustled, their leaves so sharply glistening and alive — I lingered, struck by the vast pavement and industrial racket, the roars, and squeals of the many cars rushing past. The hibiscus trembled, its blossoms so brightly pink I stepped nearer. How we’ve taken over the living with so much inert concrete and metal, deadening everything! A blatant awareness of our imminent extinction washed over me. But that was to be; Homo sapiens would meet our own undoing and go no further. Breeze warm on my cheek, I breathed deeply. Mark glided up in the car, and we slipped into the din of late day sun and traffic.
“There is, however, a class of fancies of exquisite delicacy, which are not thoughts, and to which, as yet, I have found it absolutely impossible to adapt language,” Poe wrote. “They arise in the soul only at its epochs of most intense tranquility – when the bodily and mental health are in perfection – and at that mere points of time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams. I am aware of these ‘fancies’ only when I am upon the very brink of sleep with the consciousness that I am so.” •