There I was. No, there I am, suspended in liquid darkness; infinite darkness in a finite box. The rushing wind is unimpeded and jungle-humid. Distant drums are beating out an ancient rhythm.
Then I see it, a faint light floating above. The rhythm crescendos and the wind gales as the pale orb gradually comes into focus: the moon.
The dimensionless space solidifies, and I can feel the earth beneath my feet. I’m standing near a river, surrounded by a primal forest. The drums are pulsing from a nearby camp.
The air is littered with smells: burning wood, cooking meat, water, sap, and forest green. I can feel something rising inside of me: Wildness.
Then I remember that I’m not supposed to be here, I live in the 21st Century Midwest. Confusion shouts and echoes fear. “What’s happening?”
I sit up, gasp, and flail around; my bum struggles against the Epsom infused water for some sort of solid surface. My finger brushes up against an interior wall. Relief washes over me as I remember where I am.
“That’s right! I’m in the tank!”
The jungle air was salt water fumes, the rushing wind was my breath, and the ancient rhythm was my pounding heart. I breathe in slowly and then settle back into the warm water.
I was only in the isolation tank for one hour—they also offer two-hour sessions. Maybe next time.
Like any kind of eye-opening experience, the isolation tank isn’t a walk in the park. The second you close the door, there’s a mad scramble to get your bearings. But you can’t get your bearings in there. Only the occasional bump against a wall reminds you that you’re somewhere.
Float tanks come in a variety of designs. The one I went into, the Samadhi Tank, is a rectangular steel box filled a third of the way with warm Epsom salt water. If you’ve ever swum in the ocean, ya know how easy it is to float in salt water. The salt’s so concentrated in the tank that you have to fight to touch the bottom—even though it’s less than two feet beneath you.
You’d think that you’d feel claustrophobic in such a small box, but it’s kinda like the TARDIS from Doctor Who: it’s bigger on the inside.
There’s no lock on the door so you can prop it open if you like. You can even hookup your mp3 player and pipe some tunes into the box. That’s kinda lame, so I kept the door closed and the tank silent.
It wasn’t easy. Sometimes, I just wanted a teensy bit of light to give me the sensation of “place.” I had to fight tooth and nail against myself to keep the door closed. Also, music would sound weird in there since your ears are under water.
After a few minutes, your breath and heartbeat seem deafeningly loud. You’re suspended there, in silent nothingness, with only your body sounds to keep you company.
I intended to meditate when I was in there. Haha! It was impossible. You’d think that complete isolation would be great for zazen, but the isolation offered by the float tank is… different.
It’s solid isolation. The lack of stimulation is actually more distracting than wading through a busy city sidewalk.
It isn’t all dread and discomfort; there are periods of extreme relaxation. If I tanked a few more times, I’d probably get used to the disorientation. Regardless of whether you’re calm or anxious, it doesn’t take long for the hallucinations to kick in.
A friend and I each experienced the tank that day, and we had similar experiences. We both felt a nagging primordialism, a sense of ancientness and feralty. We both saw the moon hanging high overhead, we both felt the heart of the wilderness calling us back. There’s something untamed that reveals itself when you’re in the tank; something wild, ferocious, and free.
Alma Sander Moyer, who maintains the tank at the Metamorphosis Float Tank Studio (maintained, the studio is now closed), programmed a Buddhist bell to go off when the hour was up.
It was beautiful and mind-shattering to hear it wade through boundless space. When I opened the door, and it was like stepping back into the world after falling into some kind of crack in space-time.
My wet feet met the floor with a desperate gratitude, like a hungry infant finding the breast.
Like many experiences I’ve had, the float tank psychosis was just a neat adventure that I soon forgot. Yet these mystical moments have a way of catching up with us, of becoming relevant as time goes on.
The float tank experience has recently found itself in my mind again, reminding me of the primal nature of existence and the heart of the Tao.
During that hour, I tapped into an inherent Wildness that’s easy to overlook as I pace around my cage sifting through an incessant stream of distractions and commodities. It showed me my heritage, my lineage, my place among the wild things.
I plan on heading into the tank again, and I recommend it to everyone.