When one is inflicted with bodily pain, mental distress, or existential doubt, we often turn to drugs, therapy, or religion, and neglect a simple solution. It’s a discipline many experts and users say compounds the healing potential of a pharmacist, psychiatrist, and clergyman all at once, sometimes within a single sitting: sensory deprivation. Tanks, the tool used to invoke no feeling, are soundproof, and lightproof housings of shallow skin-temperature water infused with high concentrations of magnesium. Realizing its comprehensive health benefits, thousands of modern day user testimonials document gaining transcendent physical, mental, and spiritual relief. After trying it for myself, I’m equally convinced that sensory deprivation is one of the more powerful holistic tools for self-betterment.
Within minutes of lying back afloat, my bodily sensations evaporate, and with it, tensions I’d been unaware of began uncoiling. The buoyant weightlessness of the tank environment depressurizes worn joints and relaxes stiffened muscles. Patients with unwavering neck and back pain who floated found that pain intensity fell and they were able to sleep more. Even the buzz of neurological pain is silenced. “I never really have a sense of my body, or space and time,” says Alana Bell, an eleven-year lupus sufferer and chronic insomniac, shares. The disease paralyzed her in much of her lower body, and the acute neurological pain left her in a state of frustrated restlessness most nights. “You’re so tired that it hurts, and the pain keeps you up,” Bell explains. She eventually regained her mobility, but the pain never subsided. That is, until she floated, she mentions, “My mobility was improved, and my sleep became less broken and deeper.” She laments that her condition has worsened since forgoing floating, but knows she needs to go back.
Back in the tank, my brain gradually began to feel safe. Pent-up emotional turmoil from days, then months, then years passed; all my irrational worries, petty anger, unfounded nervousness, and deep sadness were cast overboard into the warm water below. Mental rejuvenation like this is a proven clinical function of floatation therapy. Psychiatric research suggests that with just twelve floats, stress, anxiety, and depression falter, while a grander sense of optimism grows for four months afterward. Tracy Miles, a veteran psychotherapist and crisis program supervisor, explains how she used floatation to manage the unfortunate workplace circumstances she experiences. “I was working with people who were suicidal and whom had serious behavioural issues every day,” she says, “I started to drink quite a bit.” Alcohol couldn’t help Miles cope, so floating became a mechanism to atone for her own psychic ache. “The tank is a place where you can heal, where you can confront yourself and support yourself. I continue to do it because it’s a beautiful thing.” She has since quit her job to focus on more creative pursuits.
After what felt like somewhere between too long and not long enough, there was no me, no tank and no water, just an infinite plain to explore. A high-pitched ring reverberates in my head, while violet colours dance, pulsate, and meld into one another. My brain becomes the audience and viewer of its own essence’s production. Though the experience was unique, the state was not. Acoustic and visual hallucinations, as well as prenatal, unifying, and transient experiences have been noted in test environments before. “People described it to me as a legal trip,” says Chris Holiday, a former evangelical christian. “When I went in, a younger chain-smoking version of myself came to me. My heart was beating so hard that all I wanted it to do so was stop. Then I thought about the day that it would.” Holiday’s relationship with God was irreparably fractured. “He wasn’t there to save me. It was just me and the void. But that’s okay. I’m not living in a tank. I’m not alone with my thoughts. There is a whole world outside to be experienced.” He intends to go back very soon.
Waiting for me in the debriefing room were roaring aromatherapy oxygen tanks, fizzling taps of orange oolong kombucha, and a percolating, ultraviolet bubble wall. Jay Ziebarth, the owner of the Hamilton studio Zee Float that I attended, says: “We are all individuals undergoing our own journeys. So, what are you bringing to the table?” I still didn’t know, but I was glad I had set the table in the first place.