Last summer I had the opportunity to experience a flotation tank session at Float Seattle in the Greenlake neighborhood. Flotation tanks are basically enclosed bathtubs that resemble the cryogenic chambers of sci-fi films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Avatar, etc. but they’re a bit more spacious and instead of putting one in a cryogenic sleep in preparation for interstellar travel, it allows one to float in a super saturated saline solution heated to body temperature and isolated from external light and noise. This produces a quasi out-of-body experience as one’s senses and sensation of a body boundary are greatly diminished while the pressure of gravity feels reduced as well.
Flotation tanks, also known as isolation tanks, were invented in 1954 by John C. Lilly for his early research on consciousness (the effects of sensory deprivation in conjunction with psychoactive chemical use in particular). The novel and film Altered States was loosely based on Lilly’s isolation tank experiments. In the late seventies, other researchers began studying flotation tanks as a therapeutic treatment.
One might ask what someone with no major physical or mental issues might gain from a flotation tank experience. Fundamentally, it’s just relaxing. Of course one could have an Epson salt bath in a traditional tub, though it wouldn’t have the consistent and precise temperature control, ventilation and shielding from sound and light that flotation tanks provide. In most cases it also wouldn’t provide a comparable physical space which does play a significant role in the sense of freedom one could potentially achieve through flotation. The type of flotation tank I used was similar to but slightly larger than the one pictured above. I’m not sure what the dimensions were, but my body rarely touched the walls for the duration of the float session which was a good thing because at times the occasional gentle contact made with tips of fingers or toes would be the only thing breaking the pleasant illusion of floating in space.
On a deeper level, the flotation tank experience can provide the same benefits as meditation such as an increase of Theta brainwaves, a mind-state that’s conducive for creativity. This is not surprising, given that it’s difficult not to spend some time in a meditative state during a flotation tank session. In the context of our accelerated media-saturated society, one could argue that most of us could stand to gain from having more meditation and mindfulness in our lives. With the freedom to distract ourselves with electronic info, entertainment and communication at all times, it becomes increasingly difficult to experience true mental stillness and inner contemplation. Meditation and mindfulness (along with physical isolation) is one way to break such addictive tendencies, providing the freedom to delve further into one’s inner thought processes than one normally would, or to clear one’s mind of noisy chatter as much as possible.
During my time in the flotation tank, I had ample opportunity to do both, though the novelty of the experience took a little time to wear off. The physical process of using the tank was rather simple, involving a quick shower prior to entering the tank, putting on earplugs, closing the chamber lid after entering, and centering oneself in the middle of the tank. One can float with arms down or up, but I found arms up to be more comfortable. What’s most immediately noticeable is just how loud the body can be. I found the noise of stomach rumbles and cracking joints to be amplified and distracting so I spent a minute or two stretching by feeling the length, width and depth of the tank and rolling my neck and shoulders. Stretching also seemed to help get my body into a natural-feeling floating position. Once comfortable, I imagined myself drifting through the vast vacuum of space like astronaut Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not the most comforting thought for some, but I’ve always wanted to experience zero gravity and I realized this was realistically the closest I’ll get to it. Continuing on a science fiction-themed tangent, my mental imagery shifted to the cryogenic sleep chambers of the same film which made me feel vaguely claustrophobic but by focusing on breathing I was able to clear my mind to revert back to simply enjoying the sensation of floating. Similar to the experience of meditation (and some psychoactive drugs), one’s inner journey will be unique to each person’s experience, learning, current life situation and myriad other factors, but with enough focus, resolve and openness, everyone could potentially gain something of value from it.
Reflecting on the experience, it seems clear how flotation tanks can be especially therapeutic for musculoskeletal pain and stress management. If I had the money and space for it, I’d consider buying or making one myself simply for its meditative value. If you happen to live near a flotation tank center with reasonable rates, why not give it a try? For those in the Seattle area, I recommend Float Seattle, which was very clean and well managed and they offer a $40 “first float” rate.