Best of Eddie, this was originally posted November 2013
I mentioned last week that I was going to try an isolation tank for the first time and a bunch of you asked me to write about the experience, so here goes. Rather than write a really verbose post about everything from start to finish (this post might run long anyway), I'm just going to go off the notes I took immediately following the experience. Still, if you don't have the time or inclination to read the post, here's the tl:dr version: it was absolutely incredible and you should do it as soon as you're able.
Why did you do it?
Before I get into the specifics of what it was like, it's probably helpful if I cover my reasons for wanting to do it in the first place. There were many, and first among them was curiosity. Ever since I saw Altered States in high school, I've always wondered what it was like and how much of it was just Hollywood bullshit. Was it a life-altering head trip or an hour-long bath? I wanted to find out.
Second, I needed access to the more creative facets of my mind, and if there was even a small chance I could access that it was worth trying. I've recently tripled my workload, and a part of that increase requires a great deal of mental bandwidth. I need to find solutions which don't now exist to problems that do, and that requires maximum creativity. I've read and heard numerous accounts about isolation giving you access to the most creative parts of your brain, parts that only come to the fore when the mind is untethered from the body. Again, it was worth checking out for myself.
Finally, it's so far outside the mainstream and is so shrouded in mystery and mystique that I figured I'd have to try it at some point. That point came after @AndyLouis and I went on a pretty epic bender. He's practically an isolation evangelist, and he made me promise that I'd try it out as soon as I could. So I tracked down the two locations available in Paris and I made an appointment for last Saturday.
What was it like?
Okay, first of all the place I went to was a really nice day spa. They offered all your typical spa stuff (massages, reflexology, facials, laser hair removal, all that stuff) and they only had the one tank, but it was one of the Rolls Royce-type tanks. The tank pictured above is the exact model I used. You climb in, get comfortable, and then hit a button and the lid closes and seals you in.
Inside the tank is about 12" of water and 800 lbs of epsom salt, (and a bunch of magnesium to protect your skin) so it's basically the Dead Sea in a closed environment. You float. It doesn't matter how much you weigh, you will float in water with that level of salination. The temperature of the water is computer-controlled to match your exact body temp, so after a few minutes you don't even feel the water. Your ears are submerged, so you wear ear plugs to keep the water out. Your eyes, nose, and mouth are out of the water so you don't have to worry about breathing or getting the salt water in your eyes (unless you rub them with your wet hands like a dumbass).
You can keep the lid open and just float, and many people do for relaxation. If you choose to close the lid, the pod has interior lighting (with several different colors), or you can go lights out. This particular model even has the ability to hook up to your mp3 player and play tunes for you, but that defeats the purpose of sensory deprivation (if that's what you're there for).
It was hard for me to get used to at first. It was hard to relax. For about a quarter of the time, it was actually painful. Zero gravity is a strange environment, and it takes some getting used to. I guess I'm normally so tense that I don't even realize it, but my neck and shoulders were in considerable pain in that environment. Like I said, it took what I perceived to be about 15 minutes for the muscles to unknot themselves and enable me to fully relax.
A lot of people worry about getting claustrophobic inside what amounts to a water coffin. I was concerned about it myself, as I'm mildly claustrophobic. I found it was much more claustrophobic with the lights on (because you can actually visually see that you're locked inside a casket) than with total darkness, which was actually really freeing.
The time flies by, and I now know why people who do this a lot do it in segments of two or three hours at a time. You lose all track of time in there, and it feels like it goes by in the blink of an eye. When I booked my next appointment I scheduled 90 minutes, and I'll probably change that to two hours before I show up.
Absent all other physical stimuli, the sound of your breathing can be really distracting. This is where it helps to have some proficiency in meditation, so you can block it out. I'm for shit at meditation, so I tried skip breathing (and old SCUBA diving trick) and that not only relaxed me further, it also made my breathing somewhat less noticeable.
Once I was completely immersed in the experience (no more pain, no more physical inputs, breathing under control) it was time to see what my mind wanted to show me. I'll admit that I was pretty nervous about this. I've seen some horrendous shit in my day, and to this day my nightmares have the power to wake me screaming, so I was naturally pretty apprehensive about what I might experience in there. I was way off. It was like my mind was completely bored with that shit and I was overcome with curiosity.
I'm not going to tell you I had some wild, transcendent experience (because I didn't), but with a little practice I was able to give myself the sensation of falling (you've probably experienced this in a dream). It wasn't unpleasant, and I found I was able to do it over and over again with a little concentration. This was the wildest thing to me. I was able to produce a physical sensation in my totally motionless body using only my mind. I'm talking the lurch in the stomach and everything. That's pretty trippy.
At this point I can go into how I've come to understand that there's a sort of door in your mind that we're not even aware of 99% of the time because so many externalities demand our attention every waking minute of every day. I could probably get pretty metaphysical and you'd probably think I'm full of shit. But there's definitely something there. If you want my (admittedly neophyte) take on it, you can ask me in the comments.
Gravity is a bitch. To signal that my session was nearing an end, they turned the light on inside the pod. A few minutes later the hatch opened (this was all done remotely from the front desk, as I was in a locked room). The first sensation you feel is the cool air. It's pretty warm in the tank, so the cool air feels really good. I couldn't move. I just laid there in the warm water feeling the cool air on my exposed skin. After a couple minutes I tried to get up. "Tried" being the operative word. I don't think I can adequately describe the effect of going from zero gravity to 100% gravity in a single motion.
It was a bit of a struggle to stand up at first, and my first few steps were really clumsy. My body was relaxed in a way I don't ever remember experiencing before, and the very act of moving hurt a little bit. It's just the sensation of going from total weightlessness to feeling your full weight on the pads of your feet again. Impossible to describe; it has to be experienced. But it's not pleasant. The lady who ran the joint told me that it's best to get a massage right after the tank, and she's probably right (and also definitely trying to sell me a massage). The shower I took immediately after getting out of the tank was nothing short of amazing.
I basically felt awesome for the next three days, and I'm still in a great mood. I'm typically a pretty dark guy, so that's a welcome change. I can't wait to get in the tank again a week from Saturday. I can definitely see why people take psychedelics before floating, because that makes the process of mind expansion so much more natural. I know you can definitely get there without it, but I'm sure it takes a hell of a lot longer. That said, eating a bunch of mushrooms and tripping balls in a tank is probably a lot of fun, but I'll bet it doesn't do much for self discovery.
Anyway, this went way longer than I anticipated and I'm sure you guys have some questions, so fire away.