Originally published on everup (February 2016)
As I lowered myself into the oversized bathtub I wondered, "Would I be elevated to an enlightened state of consciousness... or freak myself out?"
Amid the quaint hustle and bustle of second-hand boutiques and Indian restaurants on Court Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, an austere but friendly second-floor edifice offers Next Level Floats. It’s not an ice cream store but rather an opportunity to transcend into an elevated and enlightened state of consciousness via a soundless sixty-minute super salty dip. And I was about to take a plunge with a mixture of anticipation and just a smidgen of fear.
Before arriving for my virgin float, I had packed my bathing suit and a swim cap. I was politely informed during my introduction that visitors take the plunge au naturel. That was the first sign that this was going to be different from swimming laps in the lane pool at the Y alongside a grumpy octogenarian with a Styrofoam kickboard.
I was gently reassured by the mellow mood at Next Level, whose spacious reception area is set off by an architectural mélange of industrial meets old world. The room features a 15-foot tin ceiling, a cool concrete floor, reclaimed wood, and wide windows that allowed white winter sunshine to pour in on the day I was there.
Next Level and similar facilities are riding the wave of a newfound interest in spending an hour or so suspended in a state of liquid buoyancy, in complete silence. Floating is also known as R.E.S.T. or Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy. The object is to quiet the body and mind and create a state of effortlessness. The theory is that by eliminating physical stress and external stimuli, our brain is able to dive deeper and we become more available to a state of transcendence. Even the water temperature is calibrated to match the skin’s so there’s no too-hot, too-cold sensation. It needs to be juuuust riiiight.
As a seeker of transcendent experiences, this sounded like fun to me. Well, not exactly fun fun like shopping for designer shoes at a 90 percent-off sample sale, followed by tempura, karaoke, and Bloody Marys. This was, as Float’s friendly co-owner David Leventhal described, a more “subtle experience,” and that floating, like meditation and yoga, should be viewed as a practice. While some may experience a “profound spiritual journey” on their first float, Leventhal explained that the effects of floating are generally cumulative, and recommended three sessions over a two-month period as a baseline to begin to notice physical and emotional changes.
“Many people feel like they’ve come home from a vacation after a float,” Leventhal said. He added that floating may also support healing of physical ailments from eczema and psoriasis to fibromyalgia and other autoimmune disorders.
Here’s a little history about flotation. Neuroscientist and all-around mind prober—sometimes labeled a wackadoodle—John C. Lilly invented the isolation tank in 1953. His philosophy and experiments were famously depicted in the 1980 filmAltered States in which floaters experienced florid hallucinations to the brink of madness.
Next Level and others like it are the evolved and elegant grandchildren of 1970s sensory deprivation tanks, a term that fell out of use because of its punitive connotations and associations with psychogenic drugs like LSD, mescaline and ketamine. Newer references include isolation tank, flotation tank, float tank, John C. Lilly tank, REST tank, and sensory attenuation tank. Despite the new nomenclature, the basic philosophy remains the same.
The number of Float Centers has grown from 85 in 2011 to over 250 today. The science has grown as well. Neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein operates the only float lab in the country: the Float Clinic and Research Center at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Feinstein has studied what goes on inside your brain while you’re floating. Though his research is preliminary, there is evidence that the fear-based fight-or-flight part of the brain shuts off. He thinks that floating shows great promise for veterans who are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Earlier studies from the 1990s showed decreases in the stress hormone cortisol as well as improvements in mood, pain and muscle tension.
During the 1980s tanks fell out of favor, according to Leventhal, due to concerns over HIV and AIDS transmission. Today’s tanks are maintained in pristine condition via water that is completely re-circulated at least three times between each float through a one- or 10-micron particulate filter, and then treated with either a combination of a germicidal UV lamp, ozone, and hydrogen peroxide; or with a small amount of bromine.
Though reassured by the cleanliness and cool vibe, I still felt a bit anxious as I reviewed my options with Leventhal: either a tank (about the size of a generous bathtub), or pods (about the size of a tanning booth) filled with 250 gallons of water. To allay my concerns and help make my decision, I reminded myself that the Pod is the tank of choice of the XLIX Super Bowl Champions, the New England Patriots, who installed one in their training room at the start of the 2014-2015 season.
I chose the tank, mainly because it sounded less confining and it was readily available. I was escorted to a dimly lit room with an open shower and a small bench. On the far wall was a small white door, which reminded me of a hobbit-sized refrigerator. Leventhal patiently provided me with instructions on how to proceed: shower, insert earplugs if needed, avoid eye contact with the water as it is extremely salty, apply Vaseline on any parts of the body with cuts for the same reason. I felt a tiny bit overwhelmed as I opened the small door. What if I accidentally blinded myself with the caustic water or passed out or began to drown…or…freaked out, or peed or….worse…in the pool?! How would nice Mr. Leventhal react then—if I contaminated his facility and ran out screaming and naked onto Court Street? My floating license would be revoked and I’d be forever banished to pools with near lethal levels of chlorine and teeming with water noodles. Even more distressing was the worry that my $250 head of highlights and equally expensive keratin treatments would be reduced to a frizzled mess from the water.
I took Leventhal’s advice and brought a wet washcloth in the event I got any of the salt water in my eyes. As an extra precaution, I also filled a paper cup with cool fresh water for security against any untoward stinging, burning or dry mouth. I was prepared for all manner of calamity. Then I entered the tank.
It took a few minutes to adjust to buoyancy. I kept struggling to keep myself afloat when no effort was needed. It took a few more minutes to really trust the water to hold me up. I was told there would be an initial learning curve and that was exactly right. I tried a neck rest pillow. Too rigid. I turned onto my stomach. Then back again. I wondered if I should turn on the optional music.
I decided against the music and instead focused on the sparkly lights in the ceiling seven feet above my supine body, which slowly turned from red to purple to blue. I liked being naked and alone. I liked the soft bouncy water. When I closed my eyes, I experienced my own brain-show of shapes and lights, possibly just visual echoes, or possibly my mind on a float of its own.
I can’t say that I transcended to an astral plane, but there was definitely the sense of the world falling away. My body began to feel like less of a physical presence. Thoughts, however, are powerful things and they poked about, dragging me from grocery lists to presidential debates.
As a lifelong spiritual seeker—Buddhism, Transcendental Meditation, yoga retreats, not to mention almost 20 years of psychotherapy—I was probably primed for the experience and willing to just go with the flow. The fact that thoughts popped into my head unbidden did not concern me. If someone goes into a flotation tank expecting a tsunami of profound insight and psychedelic wonder, they may be disappointed, especially on his or her first journey.
I noticed a little sting on a part of my body that required a dab of Vaseline. Then about 20 minutes in, I finally settled down, closed my eyes and really relaxed. Though I have no memory of being a fetus, I imagined this is what is must have felt like. Safe, quiet, cushioned in fluid, supported and loved. I began to enjoy the subtle fun of it. I let go of my worries, I found my mantra, and lost my brain nag for moments at a time. I let the back of my head float so that my ears were immersed (with ear plugs).
I’d been told that when the hour was up, I would hear some music. I began to hear a soft harmonic humming, perhaps an organ? The music was ethereal and pleasant. Time’s up, I figured. I sat up; the music disappeared. When I rested again, slowly the music returned. It sounded distant but very much a part of my experience.
I gently arose from the still twinkling-ceilinged tank and showered. To my delight, my dry winter skin felt silky and comfortable. And after shampoo and conditioner, my hair was in great shape as well. My fears were not only allayed, but banished.
When I mentioned the kind of musical sounds I heard to Leventhal, he just smiled. It wasn’t their music, it was my brain’s little orchestra.
Afterwards, I felt relaxed, mellow and a little hungry. Me, with my silky skin and hair and busy little mind, will definitely be back for another float or two or three or more.