In Placid Darkness

This story was first published in Critic Magazine.

 

The tank emits a soft, violet glow. The room’s lights are off and the door locked. I undress, shower and step inside.

I pull the lid down behind me and press a large button on the inside wall of the tank. The pinkish hue fades to darkness.

I slowly lie down in the tank’s warm, salty water. The water lifts me to the surface. I stretch out my arms and legs, imagining myself as Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. I push gently off one wall and drift to the centre of the tank. The rocking of the water gently echoes.

I open my eyes and close them again, the darkness remaining constant.

As I relax into the float, gazing into the blackness, I begin to hear small, light steps. They seemed to be coming from the hallway. I listen more carefully and realise the sound is the beat of my heart, amplified by the silence of the tank.

For the next 45 minutes I drift in and out of deep meditative states. My body leaves me, dissolving away in the water.

I imagined floating would be like going back to the womb, or maybe drifting through space. But I found myself as a small piece of driftwood bobbing aimlessly through a calm, tepid abyss under a black night sky.

And then the hallucinations began. Spots of light danced before me. I hadn’t anticipated them, nor expected them. For me, the light seemed to signal total peace.

Time ebbs and flows in the float tank. Some floats feel like minutes, while others feel like eternities. In complete awe of the experience, my perception of time left me.

Soft rainforest ambience began to play, signalling the end of my float. I climbed out, showered, and wandered into the reception at Floatfix. “You look totally zen’d out,” the receptionist told me.

She was right. I was almost incapable of speech. I emerged in the cool, spitting rain on Hanover Street, wide eyed and dopey. I felt like a child, meandering along in a beautiful stupor of awe.

In a way, floating is like looking into the cosmos and experiencing perpetual vastness and the realisation of infinity. The weight of the world vanishes, giving way to a sense of ease and understanding that, in a way, nothing really matters.

It was a feeling I carried away from my float. I drifted slowly to my car, smiling at everything.

 

“In our experiments, the subject is suspended in a tank containing slowly flowing water at 34.5°C, wears a blacked-out headmask for breathing and wears nothing else,” John C. Lilly writes in his 1956 paper, “Effects of Physical Restraint and of Reduction of Ordinary Levels of Physical Stimuli on Intact”.

“The water temperature is such that the subject feels neither hot nor cold: the experience is such that one tactually feels the supports and the mask, but not much else.”

Lilly, an American neuropsychiatrist, pioneered the construction of float tanks in order to isolate the brain from external stimulation.

His first float tank was rudimentary. It was essentially a small pool where Lilly and his volunteers floated, facedown in warm salt-water, breathing through a blacked-out face mask.

It was a time of free-thinking and psychedelia. Lilly was one among many who were exploring the unknown realms of the human mind.

Lilly describes a psychological state reached in the tank after two hours of floating where “the mind turns inwards and projects outward its own contents and processes; the brain not only stays active despite the lowered levels of inputs and outputs, but accumulates surplus energy to extreme degrees”.

Lilly essentially discovered that sensory deprivation did not put the brain to sleep, but, conversely, it inspired the mind into some kind of dream-like, illusionary state.

Devoid of external stimuli, the brain creates its own, this is often argued to be the cause of dreaming. Hallucinations range from mild hallucinations resembling dancing dots and lines of light to full on, psychedelic-esque out of body experiences.

Lilly went on to spend hours in his float tanks, tripping on LSD and communicating with extra-terrestrial beings. He spent years attempting intra-species communication with dolphins, exploring psychedelics and seeking cosmic enlightenment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lilly was outcasted by the scientific community.

While his ongoing experimentation with the float tank didn’t attract mainstream, scientific or corporate interest, he remained fascinated by the gateway sensory deprivation provides to understanding human consciousness.

 

Over the next decade or so, float tanks remained more or less shrouded in alternative obscurity. Perhaps it was their association with Lilly’s psychedelic tendencies.

In the ‘70s, float tanks did experience brief popularity, alongside the rise of meditation and Eastern philosophy. The modern float tank began to take shape. They became lightless, soundless, heated to body temperature and loaded with enough dissolved salt to allow cork-like buoyancy, resembling a coffin like chamber. The industry began to grow. Float centres opened and float tanks found their way into many celebrity homes.

The popularity of float tanks, however, was short lived. In the ‘80s their use began to fade away. The discovery and rise of HIV created widespread anxieties surrounding hygiene and close human contact. It created a climate of fear and paranoia. Bathhouses and other shared communal spaces closed down.

Float tanks disappeared for another three decades, only to re-emerge in the 2010s. The world has taken a renewed interest in float tanks and their popularity is soaring. Their use nowadays is no longer perceived as a wacky, mysterious practice championed by free-thinking, psychedelic scientists. They are sleek, accessible, and championed for a vast array of health benefits.

 

Oklahoma, United States - the Golden State Warriors are squaring up against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The score is 118-118.

With just 2.8 seconds on the clock, the Warrior’s Steph Curry pulls up and stops somewhere between the halfway line and the Thunder’s 3 point line - well beyond 30 feet of the hoop.

Heralded as one of the greatest players in the NBA, the Thunder’s defence leave Curry space, perhaps wary of the way he waltzed around them earlier in the game.

Standing still and low, in a calm meditative poise, Curry springs, leaping upwards and releasing the ball. As Curry shoots, the Thunder slow and watch as the ball flies above. With just over a second on the clock there isn’t much they can do.

Curry lands the shot with 0.6 seconds on the clock. The game is won for the Golden State Warriors.

Days before the game, back in San Francisco, Steph Curry strolls along a wide open street in the Marina district. Nestled between tall narrow buildings lies Reboot Float Spa. Curry passes through the reception and into a small, neat room, softly lit by pink neon lighting.

In the centre of the room there is a futuristic, glowing, egg-shaped bath. It is a float tank. The water in the tank is heated to body temperature. When the lid is closed, no sound or light is able to reach inside the tank.

Over 500 kilograms of Epson salt is dissolved in the tank’s water. Curry enters the pod, closes the lid behind him, and lies atop the pod’s tepid waters.

In the placid darkness, Curry slowly lets himself go. He watches thoughts travel through his mind. He ruminates upon a decision in life he might need to make, or a missed shot from a previous game.

Amidst the busy NBA schedule, floating is an opportunity for Curry to escape the world.

“It’s kind of Russian roulette with where my mind goes,” Curry told ESPN before one of his regular floats.

In space-like weightlessness Curry’s spine decompresses and the tension in his muscles relax. Devoid of all tension, each float is like one great sigh of relief.

“I have a very clear head when it's done, and it shows in the days after floating. It gives me a nice boost of focus and perspective. The more I do it, the more I get from it.”

 

Joe Rogan is perhaps the world’s most avid supporter of floats. He is self described on his Instagram page as a “Stand up comic / mixed martial arts fanatic / psychedelic adventurer”. You’ll probably know him best as the host of Fear Factor in the early 2000s.

On one of his popular Joe Rogan Experience podcasts, Rogan introduced float tanks to hundreds of thousands of listeners.

Karl Bloxham, a strength and conditioning coach at Otago Rugby, first heard about floating mid-way through 2015. At that point Bloxham didn’t know floating would change his life was one of them. Inspired by the seemingly innumerable benefits of floating and Rogan’s passionate ramblings about them, Bloxham set out to try it. His first was in the Gold Coast, Australia.

“My first float was mind blowing really, a pretty awesome experience … You lose sensation of where your body is and it’s just you and your mind basically, you and your thoughts, in tune with your breathing and your heart beat.”

Bloxham sat before me, perched on a bench, next to a float tank at Floatfix on Hanover Street in Dunedin. Inspired by his first float, Bloxham set about to bring a float tank to Dunedin.

After years of hard knocks on the rugby field, major hamstring surgery and lingering back pain, Bloxham’s first float seemed to bring almost instantaneous relief to his worn body. He experienced first-hand what it could do for recovering athletes and remained attracted to the holistic benefits of floating.

He joined forces with Ash Stiven, a physio at Eclipse Health Clinic, and opened Floatfix in March 2016. Since opening, Floatfix has had everyone from pregnant mothers and sufferers of chronic pain to Highlander and All Black Malakai Fekitoa come through their doors.

Bloxham’s demeanour is one of calm. Perhaps it’s all the floats he’s been doing over the last year. He speaks with great ardour in slow, passionate spiels of the experiences of those who float at Floatfix.

“If you come in and just let go and see where it takes you, that’s where it can unwind. Some people might have some traumatic or mental anxiety, some people might have pain or fatigue or they might struggle with sleep. Other people might have a combination. So floats affect people differently depending on where they’re struggling. That is the beauty of it.”

 

A quick scan of academic search engines will reveal a surprising lack of scientific studies on float tanks. While they were initially incepted as a tool of science, few scientists since John C. Lilly have dedicated large-scale studies to float tanks and sensory deprivation.

In a blog post for Discovery Magazine, science journalist Shelly Fan describes the research conducted on float tanks as “imperfect”. She explains: “For one, studies are generally small. For another, it's not obvious what counts as an adequate experimental control for flotation: Relaxing in a dark room? Going about daily activities? The mysticism and recreational drug use that surround flotation have also slowed research on the technique by the broader scientific community.”

The proclaimed benefits of floating by float centres does at times come across as mystic and far-fetched. They talk of “super-creativity” or “brain-synchronisation”. It is often touted as an “alternative therapy” and its claimed benefits seem to echo those of other naturopathic practices.

Nonetheless, the small range of scientific studies do paint a picture of the varying benefits of floating. A study in 2006 concluded that floating can help to relieve stress-related pain. Researchers noticed that the positive effects of pain relief lasted months after the float. Other studies have identified the relief of anxiety, muscle tension, insomnia and headaches after floating.

Anecdotal evidence seems to fill the void left by scientific study. Just because there are few scientific studies on float tanks, doesn’t imply there are few benefits. 

People who have floated often describe a deep sense of calm and self-awareness after exiting the tank. It is described as a break from all of the incessant chatter of modern life, a break from the relentless interruptions provided by an increasingly digital world.

The effect is often compared to that of meditation. Floaters frequently experience a profound sense of self-awareness after finishing a float.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, hallucinations. Devoid of external stimuli, the brain creates its own. This idea is often argued to be the cause of dreaming. Many floaters have reported mild hallucinations resembling dancing dots and lines of light. At the other end of the spectrum, some have experienced full on, psychedelic-esque, out of body experiences.
 
From sports recovery to revisiting traumatic experiences, the benefits of float tanks are well documented by the floaters themselves. Float centres are opening rapidly worldwide. Steph Curry, widely considered to be the best shooter in the NBA, endorses them, along with a host of other professional athletes. Knowledge of their benefits only continues to grow. At this point, it doesn’t seem like floating will die as a modern-day fad. So let go, leave the world for a little while, and see where your mind takes you