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Sensory Deprivation

“Silence is a source of great strength.”

Lao Tzu

Removing the last of my clothing and placing it on the bench, I mold the silicone earplugs into my ears and step into the shower for a quick rinse. Emerging from the shower I open the door to the tank and peer into the darkness tentatively. Gently lowering myself into the shallow, warm water I reach up and close the trap door and the room goes pitch black.

Today I did my first isolation chamber float at the Float House. Float House, located in Gastown, Vancouver, is one of the largest float centres in the world. There are all sorts of reasons to float, both psychological and physiological. Some of the benefits that appealed to me personally included: relaxation, rejuvenation, stress reduction, meditation and endorphin release. Oh sweet endorphin release…

As usual, I got nervous in the hours leading up to my float and found myself poring over the Float House’s website to ensure I understood exactly how this whole thing would go down. The float would be 1.5 hours in length, in body temperature water saturated with 800 pounds of dissolved epsom salts, making me buoyant in a pitch black, totally silent float tank.


Me at Expo 86

The website suggested I could enhance my experience with “coupling activities”; which thankfully was not a sex reference but rather referred to doing some exercise or yoga shortly before your float. (I chose to do some Tai Chi). It further advised “Be briefed, shower and enjoy your experience” leaving me to wonder if I needed a bathing suit after all (surely you did this naked?) before realizing that wasn’t the kind of “briefed” they were referring to.

Perhaps even more pressing than what to wear, I wondered: how will I know when to get out? And also: will I want to get out? I find myself flashing back to being 6 years old at Expo 86, in the ball pit. As the attendant calls out that our time is up I do my best to lay perfectly still at the bottom of the pit, hoping I won’t be noticed and can stay there forever. Oblivious to the fact that I’m displacing balls on the surface (making my location obvious) I enjoy a few moments of silence in my delightful ball pit kingdom before a giant arm reaches in and drags me out. Would floating be like Expo 86 all over again but with more salt and nudity?

When I arrive I’m asked to sign a waiver and take a seat. Several people are prepping for their first float by watching a short video. Temporarily short of iPads on which to watch the video, I’m asked to share with a man who is also about to do his first float. He holds the iPad up for us and we lean in to watch the short but informative video (which tells me that music will cue the end of the float, answering that question). As the video ends the receptionist says: “Thanks guys. I’ll show you to your room now.” I look up and am relieved to see he’s talking to me – not both of us.

I luck out and get one of the “new” rooms, which is quite spacious with a float tank and a shower built into the room. After inserting my ear plugs and rinsing off, I step into the tank and reach up to close the door. Lying down in the water I feel intensely claustrophobic. I breathe deeply and after a minute or so I’ve managed to suppress my urge to get the fuck out of there.

I struggle the first 10 minutes or so, first with allowing my neck to fully relax (they say you can put a pool noodle under your neck but that just feels weird) and then with pinging around in the tank. The tank itself is not that large so you want to float in the middle and avoid bumping into the sides, which tends to destroy the whole relaxed, disembodied effect when it occurs.

Once I manage to stop pinging around the tank, what follows is a series of incredibly varied emotions and states. Practicing some deep breathing I get very relaxed for a while. Then I start to wonder how much time has passed. Then I relax again. Then I start analyzing my experience, composing a description in my head. I wonder how my video husband is doing, off somewhere floating naked in his own abyss. Then a moment of panic when I notice the air seems stale. Am I starting to suffocate? Might this be what the waiver I hadn’t read was warning of? Back to the deep breathing.

In the distance I can hear some bass playing and am briefly annoyed before realizing it’s my own heart beat that I’m hearing. As the outer world goes silent I can suddenly hear not only my heart beating but also my breath moving in and out of my lungs and the blood rushing through my veins. Damn, it’s noisy inside my body.

I experiment with opening and closing my eyes, both being equally dark. Shortly after that the “northern lights” start. Flashes of blue and green start faintly in the lower left of my vision and gain intensity as they arched across the top of the tank. Electrical impulses in my brain? Pressure in my eyes? Hallucinations? As suddenly as the lights started they stop and I’m back in the darkness.

I grow increasingly relaxed and no longer feel my limbs. A little while later I hear some music faintly, signalling that the float is coming to an end. The water around me vibrates with the music, sending shivers up and down my spine. Slowly I wiggle my toes and fingers and find my way back to reality. I take a few a few minutes to enjoy the musical vibrations, floating weightless, before sitting up and cautiously opening the tank door to the light and sounds of the world outside.

Getting out of the tank, showering, dressing and heading home I realize I am incredibly relaxed (and just a little high) and despite the moments of boredom and claustrophobia, I enjoyed my experience and look forward to doing it again.

If you enjoyed this post, you can check out another sensory deprivation experience I had dining in the dark.

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