What I Learned in an Isolation Float Tank
Or, Shut Up Already!
I just completed my second isolation float tank experience.
In case you don’t know, an isolation float tank is a sensory deprivation tank.
You get in this big enclosed humid room, lay nude on ten inches or so of warm salt-saturated water, bubble up to the top like a wine cork, watch the lights and sound go out and just, well, float.
Nobody else there.
You’re entirely alone.
Just you and your thoughts.
Not even a cell phone.
For ninety minutes.
So, why would anyone want to do that?
That’s why I didn’t do it.
I had a gift coupon to have an isolation tank experience at The Zero Gravity Institute in Austin, and never used it.
Not for five years.
I lost it.
Or hid it.
I didn’t care, either, as I couldn’t imagine “relaxing” in a dark room with no stimulation but my breathing, my thoughts, and the warm water under my butt. It sounded like an MRI tube and I hated those.
But after five years of avoiding my complimentary tank experience, I was given yet another gift coupon to have one, this time from my wife.
I figured the Universe (or my wife) was trying to tell me something, so I called The Zero Gravity Institute and booked my first session.
The institute is clinically clean, well kept, and futuristic looking.
I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew isolation tanks had been around for decades, stood the test of time, and that friends I trust, such as the publisher of Austin All Natural magazine, regularly did “the tank.”
So, what did I have to lose?
After a relaxing massage, and a quick shower, I was led to the tank.
I was surprised to see it large and spacious. You could stand and walk around in it.
It was like an enclosed hot tub.
Or a covered shallow swimming pool.
When I opened the large door, I felt the humid air and smelled the Epsom salts.
A soft light and gentle music were all I could sense.
I got in.
I lay back on the thick water and felt myself rise to the top of it, like an inflated big balloon.
Or a duck.
The lights dimmed to black.
The music softened to silence.
I lay there, with little stimulation, thinking, “This is different.”
And then all hell broke loose.
My mind was driving me up the sides of the tank.
It kept going into fear, wondering if I was safe, could I get out, what if I die in here, what if I go mad, and so forth.
I desperately reached for the inside door handle several times, wanting to assure myself that I could find it.
I occasionally reached down and pushed through the thick salt water to touch the floor, wanting to be sure I could stand and move if I had to.
I sometimes panicked in the dark, floundered about to get a sense of direction, splashed burning salt water in my eyes, and reached for the walls to be sure I could touch one.
This went on for at least 30 minutes.
I hated it.
I told my mind, “Shut up, already!”
I remember thinking, “I’ll never last 90 minutes in here! This is hell!”
I started imagining what I would say to the receptionist if I got out early.
“Sorry. Stomach upset.”
“Sorry. Forgot I had a call with Oprah.”
“Sorry. I thought this was for a haircut.”
But I let my monkey mind chatter and I kept breathing.
And then something happened.
Or maybe nothing happened.
The lights started to slowly come up.
The music started to play and gently grow louder.
Somehow “I” had left and the 90 minutes had passed.
And I was euphoric.
My brain was dancing with fireworks of delight.
I felt completely relaxed, and my body felt washed; as if it had been cleansed both inside and out.
I got out, showered off, got dressed, and felt giddy.
Now this is cool, I thought.
In the reception area, I was smiling.
I couldn’t stop smiling.
The owner told me I just detoxed my body and my mind. Endorphins were playing. I had gone into an alpha “non-mind” state of rejuvenation and relaxation. She added that I would feel the effects for a good week or more after this session.
She was right.
I slept better, had more energy, was more optimistic and relaxed, and accomplished even more tasks during each day than I normally would, and I’m already a pretty prolific and productive guy.
Afterwards I talked to a few people who had also experienced the tank.
They all had battles with their mind the first time.
They all realized that the monkey mind had to chatter and bite for thirty minutes before it would go on vacation and allow a deeper relaxation to occur.
So I wasn’t a wuss, after all.
I liked the first session so much, I booked a second.
The second was easier.
I already knew I’d be safe, so I didn’t flounder, reach for the door, or panic.
The “fight or flight” response was gone.
I just breathed, relaxed, and observed my mind.
When it’s just you and your breathing in an isolation float tank, your mind becomes the loudest voice in the room.
It can also be the most negative, belligerent and irritating voice.
My two tank experiences taught me what I already knew but needed to really feel: our minds are keeping us in fear all the time.
Not only in an isolation float tank.
It doesn’t want you to take risks or do anything unusual because you might get hurt. Even when it’s obvious that you won’t get hurt, the mind still keeps talking.
Your mind is talking right now, passing judgment on me and this article, warning you not to get in an isolation tank (or do anything out of your comfort zone).
Your mind is doing its job in keeping you safe, but it’s also, ironically, performing over kill.
You don’t need to be that safe.
While in the tank, I’ve learned to more closely observe and detach from my mind.
Sometimes I herd my thoughts like cats and nudge them into focusing on my goals for the week. That’s constructive use of my alone time. I call it The Intentional Tank Manifestation.
If my mind is going to talk, I might as well give it a task.
But at a certain point, about thirty minutes into my tank experience, “I” let go and simply unplug.
And that’s where the magic happens.
With my mind “off line,” my body can release, my unconscious can process, and I can remain open to inspiration and relaxation.
Again, when the lights came back up and music came back on, I was surprised that 90 minutes had passed.
Dressed and relaxed, the receptionist asked me how it was.
“It’s hard to explain,” I said. “I know I wasn’t thinking in there for ninety minutes, but I don’t know what I was doing if I wasn’t thinking in there.”
“You lay in there and think?”
“I lay in there and think I am thinking,” I replied. “But in reality, I have no idea what happens in there.”
Because I had no idea, I did a little research.
Turns out neuroscientist John Lilly invented sensory deprivation tanks in the 1950s. He and others discovered that complete isolation in a safe place triggered a relaxation even deeper than sleep.
The Zero Gravity Institute site explains it this way:
“The sudden lack of stimulation to large areas of the nervous system triggers a spontaneous chain reaction throughout the body known as the parasympathetic response. Muscle tension, blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen consumption all drop dramatically. The entire chemistry of the body changes. The parasympathetic response is the body’s natural mechanism for healing and regeneration. “
Tank results prove erased anxiety and fear, and multiplied confidence and healing.
Most people experience profound relaxation, release of physical and emotional stress, and more.
Creativity increases, moods are brighter, and spirituality is alive.
People use tank experiences for ADHD, PTSD, addictions, depression, pain, recovery, spiritual exploration, athletic performance, improved sleep, high blood pressure and, well, the list keeps going.
It might grow hair, too. (Or not.)
The Zero Gravity Institute’s site also says-
“The endorphins released while floating create intense feelings of well-being, alleviating fatigue and chronic pain, as well as improving many of the higher brain functions such as memory and learning. The body’s endorphin level is what makes some people naturally happy and others less so. Happiness is not an illusion – it is an endorphin.”
After my second float, I drove home, turned on my computer, and wrote virtually all of this article in one sitting. I usually rewrite fifty times. Or more.
My next morning’s weight lifting workout was a record-breaker. I was unbelievably strong and energetic.
And an interview I did right after it was one of the best in my life; I was calm, articulate, and inspired.
I’m booking a third float right now. I’ll make “floating away” part of my self-care, along with massages, good books, music, exercise, healthy food and purring cats.