Most people tend to have strong reactions when they initially hear about float therapy—aka sensory deprivation tanks or float tanks. For some, the idea of floating alone in complete silence and darkness seems like the ultimate in relaxation. For others, especially those prone to claustrophobia, it sounds terrifying. As for me? My first float happened more than 10 years ago, and that strange, mind-expanding hour has stayed with me ever since.
I’ll explain why that is, but first, a little more about float therapy for those who haven’t heard of it. Back in the 1950s, a neuropsychiatrist named John C. Lilly developed an isolation tank that, he surmised, would allow the mind to flourish without distraction. Then, in the consciousness-expanding 1970s, commercial versions began to hit the market. Today’s tanks are built on the same concept as Lilly’s original tanks: they’re lightproof, soundproof, and filled with salinated water heated to the human body temperature. Once inside, you float in darkness and silence.
Proponents of floating say that it has a host of benefits, from muscle relaxation to stress reduction. But to me, the real draw was the possibility of zoning out and slowing down the flood of thoughts rushing through my brain. The first time I considered floating, I was still deeply grieving the loss of my father, and there was something comforting about the solitude of it all. I liked idea of opening the door to a float tank, closing the hatch, and existing in a quasi-embryonic cocoon separate from the outside world. For an hour, at least.
Although I approached that first float with an open mind and a spirit of possibility, the situation felt different once I’d disrobed and prepared to step into the tank. When I’d booked my float session, I hadn’t realized that the tanks were one floor below ground level. And so, for the first few minutes, my mind did what it does best by creating an impressive catastropic spiral: I’m in San Francisco. Where earthquakes happen. Where the Big One is overdue! What if the Big One happens while I’m floating, and—wait, how old is the building above me? At least 80, 90 years. What if the whole thing isn’t seismically retrofitted, and it COLLAPSES on top of me, and the rescue crew can’t hear me because I’m locked into this pod? What if the earthquake causes the salt water to slosh around and I drown in the float tank? Or what if somehow, I survive, and when the rescue crew eventually finds me under a pile of rubble, there’s a live television crew covering the rescue, and everyone sees me naked and pruny on television?
But with nowhere to go and nothing to distract me, I had to let my tightly wound mind do its thing for a while. I started to practice deep breathing, and as I inhaled and exhaled, my thoughts shifted from anxiety to—well, I won’t say Calm Town, but somewhere in the general vicinity. I cried a little, as is my wont. That was cathartic, but there were also unexpectedly intriguing developments. If I kept my body still and just allowed it to float, I lost awareness of a division between where my body ended and the water began. I was delighted to discover that in the silence, I could hear my eyelids blink. And after a while, I could no longer tell when my eyes were open. The black nothingness in front of me began to shift, becoming dappled with streaks and spots of colors and light. Was I weirded out by what I was observing? A bit, but I was also mesmerized by what my brain was making me see. It felt like my mind was being given a chance to do something different.
When that hour of floating was up, I was deeply relaxed and more than a touch disoriented. The worried-about earthquake hadn’t happened, and when I returned to the street, the world felt more vivid. My senses gulped it all in: the low hum of the city buses, the chill of the fog, the sun-bleached stucco on the buildings around me. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I felt well-equipped to navigate it all.
Since that first float, I’ve returned to floating when time and dollars allow. To me, it feels like a chance to reset and give my brain an opportunity to reconfigure itself into a more peaceful state of being. Of course, with two young children, I can’t always find the time or the babysitter budget to let me float. So I’ll MacGyver my own mini-float situation in my home bathtub by running a warm-but-not-hot bath, sprinkling in a heap of plain bath salts, and soaking in darkness for a little while. It’s not exactly the same as a float session, but it’s deeply relaxing nonetheless. When the house is quiet and my mind is ready, I can sometimes even hear myself blink.