March 1, 2006
Maybe, I think as I stand shivering and dripping water after my quick shower, this was a bad idea.
I wrap my towel tighter about me and stare down at the white, space-age tank in front of me. The overwhelming smell of salt hangs in the air, and the tank - while it looks like a streamlined coffin from the future - has a door that looks more as if it belongs on a furnace. I carefully open a package of two neon orange earplugs, squeeze them flat and push them into my ear canals. Taking a deep breath, I reach for the door and open it. I crouch into the tank, pull the door shut behind me and suddenly am engulfed in darkness.
I came to the SpaceTime Tanks Floatation Center, 2526 N. Lincoln Ave., in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood to try something different. Friends had mentioned floating as a way to relax and rejuvenate, and I was curious.
But as I slowly lower myself into the skin-temperature water and become painfully aware of the accelerating, thumping thud of my own heartbeat, I realize I am far from relaxed. The experience which my friends described - a dissolution and absence of the senses - must have happened for everyone else, but not for me. My senses, far from dissolution, are in revolution - a chaotic fury of salty nostril-searing scents and painful heart-pounding pulsations.
I close my eyes, which I imagine are drowned black by my pupils in the overwhelming darkness, and remind myself of owner Eric Polcyn's last words before he abandoned me in my floating abyss: "You might feel a little anxious."
Floatation tanks, sometimes called sensory deprivation tanks or isolation tanks, enclose their occupants in an 8-foot-long, 4-foot-wide and 4-foot-high space meant to provide deep relaxation and inner speculation. Filled with 800 pounds of Epsom salt that is dissolved in 10-inch-deep water, float tanks allow a floater (as regulars are called) to float freely, like a wine cork tossed in a harbor. Adding to the sensation of weightlessness, the water is set at skin temperature, about 93.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
The water temperature makes the floater feel as if his skin is as much a part of the water as the salt. With no light and no sound (thanks to the bright orange earplugs), floaters are suddenly freed from all stimuli. The outside world - filled with sights, sounds and stresses - suddenly disappears, and the floater is left alone with his thoughts. Floatation centers like SpaceTime Tanks allow their clientele to experience the effects of isolated floating for relaxation, meditation and physical and spiritual healing, among other reasons.
"One of the things I'm learning is how much our bodies are connected with our emotional and spiritual well-being," Reverend Jacki Belile of Grace Baptist Church in the Edgewater neighborhood says. Belile, who first floated three years ago, began floating regularly in 2005 after receiving a wellness grant from her denomination. She split the grant between a month of floating at SpaceTime Tanks and a meditation retreat. In what Belile calls this "stress world, stress city," she finds floating offers a way to escape everyday anxieties and explore her spirituality.
"The body is the gateway to emotional and spiritual health," she says. "Floating is a unique sense of nurturing."
Some regular floaters use the tanks to alter their mind states. Reaching these new levels of consciousness takes many ventures into the tanks, according to Thom Ayers, an avid floater who works at SpaceTime Tanks. Aside from journals provided by SpaceTime Tanks for floaters to express their reactions, some customers share their experiences with employees: entering lucid dreams in which they become aware of their dream state and take control of the dream, going through out-of-body experiences and seeing themselves in the tank and even past life experiences.
Long before the age of alternative medicine, John C. Lilly developed the first floatation tank in 1954. Lilly, a behavioral scientist who would later become famous for his work with dolphin-human communication, originally developed the tank to study the effects of sensory deprivation on humans.
"Originally, he was looking for the negative effects of sensory deprivation," says former SpaceTime Tanks owner Sarah Stephens, 38, who still works at the center. "What he found was it was actually very relaxing."
The tanks, as Lilly discovered, induced the brain-wave stages that humans pass through while falling asleep. Once a subject slips deeper into unconsciousness, passing through the alert beta waves and relaxed alpha waves, he enters the theta state. Theta brain waves are most comparable to the state of consciousness wavering between sleep and wakefulness. Reflection and meditation occurs most frequently in the theta state, and floaters aim to reach this hovering state for their float. Lilly helped develop the Samadhi floatation tank - the tank most recognized by float centers and the one used by SpaceTime Tanks.
First floats, regular floaters will tell you, are adjustment experiences. In a world of ringing cell phones, blaring stereos, beeping pagers, roaring traffic and loud soccer moms behind the wheels of minivans, there is rarely a moment without stress on the senses. For this reason, the idea of entering a sensory deprivation tank might sound more like a nightmare than a fantasy. But for those floaters who become regulars, the experience is vital to their well-being. "It's a way to live life lucidly," Ayers says.
Regulars at the center, Ayers explains, take advantage of not only the tank's influence on altered states of consciousness, but also its benefits for the body and rest. Research performed by private tank-sale groups shows that the effect of two hours in a floatation tank is comparable to a full eight hours of sleep. "Of course, we wouldn't tell people to replace regular sleeping with the tanks," Ayers says. Nonetheless, many clients float to rid themselves of a bad night's sleep, jetlag and even hangovers.
Many occasional floaters here at SpaceTime Tanks are overstressed Chicago professionals who opt for an hour of floating to unwind, meditate and simply relax. But of the 2.8 million city residents, Ayers explains, there aren't many who take the time to kick back, especially in a floatation tank. "Everybody needs to relax, but not everyone knows how," he says, rubbing his shaved head thoughtfully. "People say they don't have time to relax, when really, you have to make time to relax."
For seasoned floaters who have made time for relaxation, the benefits of their floats keep them coming back for more. Clients claim benefits from floating span everything from physical therapy to altered states of consciousness. "We get people from all walks of life," Ayers says. Lawyers from downtown, mothers who bring their children, brokers from the Chicago Board of Trade and elderly individuals all frequent the tanks. SpaceTime Tanks can even boast such celebrity clientele as Peter Murphy, Laurie Metcalf, Sting and Jewel, who all came looking for escape and creative inspiration.
The float-induced inspiration, at least, is undeniable. "Peter Murphy was so excited when he was done, he said he was going to open a center in Turkey," Ayers says, laughing. "I'm not sure he ever did."
Ayers explains to me that he once encountered a past life experience while floating seven years ago on his birthday. While undergoing the usual modes of relaxation and meditation, Ayers saw a bronzed face with heavily-charcoaled eyes appear before him in Egyptian garb.
In response, like almost any non-floater, I raise my eyebrow in skepticism.
"I know what you're thinking," Ayers says, stopping himself mid-story. "You're thinking, 'This guy's crazy.'" Ayers points out he hasn't had any deep investment in Egypt before, although he had ankhs tattooed on his scalp and arms as the Egyptian symbol for life. "I didn't imagine it," he says seriously. "It just happened."
I realized what he said made sense - for him and other floaters, the experiences
just happened. Once they adjusted after their first float, there wasn't a right thing to feel or see. But I needed to experience floating again to believe for myself. For my second float appointment, Ayers leads me down a narrow corridor, past other private rooms until we reach mine.
"Have a good float," he says, smiling.
I can't help but smile back, feeling as though I am in on the secret now. I quietly shut the door behind me and stare again at the mammoth of a meditation tank. No fear shudders inside of me this time. I gaze at the white hulking tank, which now I feel is a stranger to whom I've been introduced by the stories and experiences of our mutual friends, a stranger who I feel like I already know.
After readying myself, I slip easily into the tank and shut the door behind me. My eyes adjust to the darkness and I feel my way around the edges of the tank with my fingertips.
There's a lot of pressure with the first few floats to feel that something big is going to happen, a friend told me back at school after the debacle of my first float. Like Ayers says, these floatation experiences just happen. During my first float, I tried to force an experience before I was ready. No wonder I had been so anxious.
"We are each our own path," Ayers says with a grin that makes me wonder if somewhere in his floating experiences, he had become unusually wise. "Who's to say what this experience will do for you?"
I take a deep breath of the humid, dark, salty air and clear my mind. I focus on my breathing and lose all sense of myself, except the constant circulation of oxygen through my body. Not even my heart, which had pounded so fiercely before, is a part of me.
Slowly, I drift away.
Medill junior Caitlin Grogan is a PLAY writer.
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