Now approaching 30, I restrict personal mind-expansion practices to research and meditation. Despite the decrease in consumption, I still form much of my beliefs about the world as a psychonaut—literally translated, a “sailor of the soul” — one who willingly submits him or herself to altered states to expand their understanding of human consciousness. Such explorations built the foundation of my worldview from an early age, and I continue hunting for activities, like meditation, that will keep my sanity intact while opening my mind. Recently, while watching the series Stranger Things, I began to think about sensory deprivation. In the show, a mute telekinetic and her friends make a homemade flotation bath to expand her psychic abilities. Within minutes, I was making an appointment online to see what floating might expand for me.
I arrive at a tall metal door on Westwood Blvd. just blocks from the UCLA campus. On the metal doorframe is a sleek metal box with a bulbous camera eye and a buzzer labeled “Float Labs.” I push the button. Soon I am admitted to a short entryway leading to an elevator that takes me down to a room composed of gray walls, gray rugs, and gray foam panels dotted in little pyramids. The space, empty of people, makes me feel as if I’ve just docked at an abandoned lunar base. I take a seat in the silent room, wondering whether I’m about to meet a spa attendant or flight commander.
As a novice, I assumed the practice of flotation sat at the intersection of psychonautics and relaxation, though I was uncertain which of these attracted most first timers.
Culturally, our expectations tend to lie on the opposite end of the spectrum from sensory deprivation. We seek experiences that excite the senses—a massage or body scrub, a trip to the beach or a dip in a hot tub—rather than suppress them. We want to be coddled and cared for, swept away from our daily lives even in the briefest of pleasures. However, there are those who consider tripping to be quite relaxing: corporate executives and burger flippers alike who spend their weekends dosing their brains with hallucinogens at tropical raves and circuit parties.
WHETHER I’M COCOONED IN A BODILESS WARMTH OR EXPERIENCING OPEN-EYE VISUALS, I WELCOME ANY EXPERIENCE THAT FORCES ME TO DO NOTHING FOR A COUPLE OF HOURS.
I pass the time in the lunar waiting room perusing the literature: a laminated sheet detailing the disinfection process of the water. This involves the use of ultra-violet light to kill 99.9% of biological material left over from prior floaters. “We are concerned, so you don’t have to be” is written under the company’s logo. As I wait, two other floaters arrive. Finally, a young man with a side-shave and a Float Lab T-shirt enters and issues safety instructions not unlike the operator of a theme park ride. We are told to rinse in the shower beside the chamber before and after our sessions, that earplugs are provided and are required to be worn while submerged, that 1,200 lbs. of Epsom Salt is dissolved in the water of each tank but dries in solid clumps on the body and that we should avoid passing our wet arms over our faces mid-float lest saltwater drip into our eyes. We are conducted to a hallway of doors, each one open to a room with a rain shower beside a second door—this one a square plastic portal. Mine is blue.
I close the first door behind me and strip. I find a little plastic sack of earplugs and put them in my ears, although I find them to be a bit cheap and rough. I shower thoroughly before pulling the blue door open to find a black room about the size of a walk-in refrigerator, filled knee-high with water.
I step through, pull the door shut behind me and find myself in complete darkness. I drop down to my knees and lie backward, the water lifting me to the surface, its density thicker than water but not quite a gel.
A friend had warned me that finding a comfortable position for the neck was always the first problem, and he was right—your head wants to sink while your instinct tells you to hold it up. I quickly discover that if I just let go, my face remains well above the water, and my head is comfortably floating.
And so it begins.
As soon as I am on my back, I realize that it makes no difference whether I open or close my eyes. This is the first notably jarring departure from my senses. I remember the sensation of sitting in a closet or a dark tent at night and trying to see my hands passing before my face. Here, I realize it would be easy to forget whether my eyes are open. And if the water feels like a bed and my eyes may as well be closed ...The tingle of sleep is upon me before I can finish the thought. But suddenly, I feel an explosive pair of itches: one on the rim of my nostril and another on my forehead. I have been told not to raise my arms over my face, but I need to grab the small towel that’s tied to the bar on the door to scratch these little terrors. I slide my arm along my side to reach up, grab the towel and untie it from the bar with one hand. Getting the towel back on the bar afterward proves impossible, so I eventually let it float with me.
Once I am settled and becoming used to the sensation, I bump into a wall. I push off it and drift for what seems like minutes until I hit another wall. I push off again and find the floor with my hands to anchor myself a bit. I become obsessed by the need—and inability—to remain in place until I realize I am not actually moving anymore—I only think I am. Settled, I am again fighting off what feels like sleep. Two hours lay ahead of me. I try to think of ways to structure my time.
MEDITATION FEELS POINTLESS, SO I JUST FLOAT. I DO NOT FEEL ESPECIALLY RELAXED, THOUGH THE EFFORTLESSNESS OF THE EXPERIENCE IS PLEASING.
Soon, my mind wanders away from the tank until I am recalling scenes from Game of Thrones. I am following an assassin through the alleys and stairways of King’s Landing. We are being pursued, but I’m not sure by whom. I am eyeing my enemies when a vision of the evil queen comes over me, looming ever larger until I shake myself back to my dark tank.
What was that? I figure I must have fallen asleep and dismiss it as a slight dream. I find myself thinking of daily things: schedules, errands and eventually of a funeral I’ll be attending soon. Before I know it, I am standing beside my mother. She is in an ivory gown, and we are looking down from a balcony onto a procession of people passing a casket that holds a sleeping uncle. It’s sunny. We are outside, and we’ve been standing here forever. My mother is about to say something when I jolt myself awake again. No, not “awake,” as I was not in fact sleeping.
These little thought adventures are nearly impossible to remember, much like actual dreams.
The images are as crisp as the sound of crashing waves but slip from my mind the moment I shake myself from them, leaving only random impressions in the ripples of the saline tub. I spent most of my time in the chamber lost in this shifting awareness. The lack of control, however, was not stressful. It felt more like a challenge. This goes on until I hear a metal tap on the side of the tank, the signal from the technicians that my two hours are up. I am showered and dressed when a red light appears over the closed portal door, signaling that the water filtration process has begun taking place inside. The red light, paired with the whirring sounds in the walls, seemed somewhat sinister, as if it has wrung me of my visions, plans and anxieties and was now processing them for fuel or storage. I could also feel the salt all over my body and even what felt like an oily purple “ultra violet” in my pores. That feeling remained on my skin for days.
Before my next float, I decided to do some research and discover mine was a textbook experience. The facial itch, I read, is the brain’s reaction to being deprived of its senses, a sort of call and response. The dream thoughts that took over were the result of my body’s inability to tell the difference between open and closed eyes and my restful state. The darkness and relaxation downshifts the consciousness to its lowest gear, transmitting what are known as theta waves. These are responsible for the drowsy sensation one feels just as he or she is drifting off to sleep. The explanation is so simple, and yet something does not add up. There has to be another explanation of why these visions and why now.
I decided to consult a few websites I tend to review before I take any new or unknown substances: message boards on which fellow psychonauts—first timer and veterans alike—shared stories and techniques about altered states of consciousness.
I read in earnest to determine why exactly regular practitioners float. What I found could be split into three categories: physical therapy, mental health, and psychedelic experience.
One animated user reported that the floatation heals aches and pains accrued from years working in a factory while, at the same time curing, him of porn addiction and alcoholism and eventually leading him to astral projection. One thread compiled accounts from former soldiers and corrections officers citing the benefits of flotation in dealing with PTSD. Deep relaxation—and a lost sense of time—seem to provide ample release from the moment-to-moment terror induced by PTSD, offering better sleep afterward. There’s even a home-flotation unit that gives discounts to military personnel.
I also came across stories of former trippers like myself who float to “see what they would see.” All reported extremely vivid expanded memories and twisting thought streams, although most agree that the experience is closer to lucid dreaming than to hallucinating on psychedelics. Some users even used terms like “peak” and “euphoria” in recounting what they felt during and after their floats. Some used mantras to stay grounded, whereas others successfully meditated. These users recount reaching a level of healing through the ability to see their lives and memories—no matter how mundane—as part of a profound narrative. But one phrase was repeated through nearly every post: no two floats are quite alike.
For my second float, I choose an evening appointment on a day off from work. I arrive at the buzzer feeling relaxed and meditative. I sit through the instructions and am led to another little room, identical to the last but for one feature: The portal door is red. I have a passing thought about the use of red doors in films as warning signs as I rinse. This time, I’ve brought my own earplugs—smooth and easy to manipulate.
I CLOSE THE DOOR BEHIND ME AND DROP INTO THE WATER, READY TO GIVE MYSELF FULLY TO MY EMERGING VISION QUEST.
But I could not forget the red door. Feeling the tingles of sleep, I think of how horrifying it would be if, mid-drift, my head bumped into someone’s bare, hairy belly. I contorted with revulsion and tried to let the image dissolve. Instead, unease climbed the ladder of my mind. Images of a stranger inside the tank with me drew me ever deeper into a series of nightmare-thoughts as inescapable as the dream-thoughts of my first session were. The tank felt like a bowl of invisible flame when I realized I was experiencing sleep paralysis: totally awake but unable to move a muscle, not even to shout. Thoughts of horror engulfed me, and it was only when I forgot where I was that I found some peace — which may or may not have meant that I finally fell asleep. At some point, I heard the metallic knock and found release: fully awake and able to move.
While showering, I glanced again at the red light over the portal. Just as with my first float, I remember nothing specific about the visions, only the character of the float. Dressed, I stepped back into the hall, and my mind felt like putty. Two technicians were wiping down rooms and vacuuming the halls. I pulled one aside to ask some questions. As I spoke, my words sounded like another language to my ears. I managed to ask how many people leave the tank before two hours are up. I had trouble hearing what the technicians said, but I made out that nearly no one exits early. I asked them how many customers are regulars and was told that it’s evenly split between people who come once a month, or once a week, whereas the rest are just curious first timers. “People keep coming back, man,” the one with the vacuum said to me. “I’ve been working here for years, and I’ve never had the same experience twice.” I consider the truth of his statement and thank them over my shoulder as I walk up the stairs and emerge into the night.