How did I end up naked in a stranger’s apartment—floating in a saltwater tub, surrounded by darkness and silence—realizing that for the first time in my life I had achieved total mindfulness?
Let’s begin our story in 1961, when Peter Suedfeld was a first-year psychology graduate student at Princeton. Another scholar in the department was running a “sensory deprivation” study that offered $20 to volunteer subjects. Suedfeld wanted the cash, so he agreed to be shut inside a pitch-black, soundproofed room for 24 hours, with only a bit of sustenance and a toilet to keep him company.
He couldn’t handle it. “I was nervous, and I got itchy and jumpy,” he says now. So he left early. He wasn’t the only one. Many subjects panicked, and some even reported they’d had hallucinations.
Though (or perhaps because) he’d gotten spooked, Suedfeld became intrigued by isolation chambers. Sensory deprivation was a sexy field of study in the ’50s and ’60s, and Suedfeld began to organize chamber experiments of his own. Soon enough, he became aware of another isolation technique. A man named John C. Lilly—first at the Naval Institute, later at the National Institute of Mental Health—had pioneered the use of an immersion water tank. In early trials, the subject was completely submerged, wearing a breathing mask, with an air hose connected to a pump. In a later iteration, the subject simply floated in saltwater, on his back, in a coffin-like tank that was completely dark and silent.
Lilly became a cultish, Timothy Leary-like figure as his experiments grew more outlandish. He made attempts to communicate with animals (later dramatized in the Mike Nichols film The Day of the Dolphin) and became famously fond of entering his flotation tanks only after he’d dosed himself with powerful hallucinogens (later dramatized in the Ken Russell film Altered States). Suedfeld met Lilly and was impressed with his tanks—but not his methods. “He started out as a straight scientist,” says Suedfeld. “But he got into taking drugs and thought he’d made contact with some sphere of consciousness beyond the normal. Thought he’d had conversations with Shakespeare and such. We didn’t see eye to eye on how the tanks should be used. I always ran standard experiments with control groups and data and objective tests.”
I had long ago seen Altered States, in which William Hurt devolves into a glowing, primordial beast after he indulges in a little too much tank time. But until I read a trend story about floating in the Wall Street Journal this February, I’d never realized it was possible to float in a non-scientific setting. Nor had it occurred to me that anyone would want to. I was suddenly intrigued: What could sensory deprivation do for me?
There are only a few places to float in New York City. I first tried La Casa, a day spa near Union Square, which features a tank in large part because co-owner Jane Goldberg loves to float.* On a weekday morning, I climbed the stairs to La Casa, took off all my clothes, and, after showering, stepped into a large tub inside an enclosed chamber. I slid the blackout door closed behind me, eased down into the water, and touched a button that switched off the lights. I was floating in total darkness and silence. The saturation of Epsom salts in the water made me unnaturally buoyant—my face, stomach, and knees an archipelago of islands amid the tub’s ocean.
For what must have been the first 15 minutes, I wondered what I was doing there. I thought about my plans for that evening, stories I was working on, whether there was any food in the fridge back at my apartment. I felt bored. I felt silly. Like Peter Suedfeld in that chamber in Princeton, I even got jumpy. I had a brief urge to stand up, water dripping everywhere, and walk out.
Then a transformation began. If you’ve ever taken psychedelic mushrooms (and come on, who hasn’t?) you might recall a certain feeling that arises as the drugs take hold. “Something is happening, something is happening,” your body says to your brain, with mild urgency. I got a feeling akin to that while floating. My brain went a little haywire. When the storm passed, I found myself in a new and unfamiliar state of mind.
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