A small memory of floating in a sensory deprivation tank.

The New York Times had a short article this Sunday noting the reemergence of so called “sensory deprivation tanks” in which one floats in darkness, suspended in salt water heated to the body’s temperature. The idea is to give you the sensation of weightlessness and break from the sensory barrage of modern life. According to the times, persons living with disabilities suffers of anxiety, and spiritual seekers all make use of the tanks. I used one once, many years ago, and thought I’d record the experience here.

I was living in San Francisco and fairly plugged in to the world of weird that exists in that incredible city. I knew so-called “modern primatives”, practicing magicians, radical fairies, and all manner of people on spiritual quests. Through one of these connections, I was turned on to the totally trashy film Altered States and the controversial man whose life it is allegedly based on – John Lilly.

Lilly was a physician turned New Age guru type who began his career as a reputable psychoanalyst and ended it thinking he could talk to dolphins. It was a pretty wild ride. Along the way, he developed the use of the sensory deprivation tank, using them for many hours at a time, often while high on psychotropic drugs.

Anyway, in mid-90s San Francisco, people were still pretty interested in Lilly and in sensory deprivation tanks. One of my friends swore by them, claiming they put him in a deep meditative state. Intrigued, I got the name of a gentleman who rented tanks out of his Noe Valley home and went to give is a try.

If memory serves, it cost me forty dollars for an hour. That was a lot of money to an underemployed punk rock kid, but I was excited by the prospect of discovering some new inner realm. I went to the guy’s home, which was decorated in the new age style of a certain SF resident of the time – Native American art on the wall, books by Starhawk on the table. It wasn’t my scene, but he was friendly, not too creepy, and the space was clean. He took my money and led me to a small room with its own bathroom. He told me that after he left, I should get underdressed, and get in the giant plastic chamber that dominated the room. He’d come back an hour later, and knock on the door. If I didn’t respond after a few knocks, he’d open the door and get me. Then I was free to take a shower, and schedule my next session.

I climbed into the tub and was struck by how buoyant I felt. It was pitch black. The only sound I could hear was my heart beating. At first, I was excited and a bit unnerved by the experience. But soon enough I relaxed and then…knock knock.

It was over. At the time I wanted to believe I’d been drifting in some sort of deep meditative state, but I think what really happened is I feel asleep.

Anyway, I acknowledged the dude’s knock, and he left the room. I got out of the chamber, took a quick shower, and demurred from his offer to schedule another session. While no harm was done by the experience, I saw no reason to go back. And I didn’t. One forty dollar nap in a black pool was enough for me.

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  1. Sensory Deprivation Tanks, Talking Dolphins, and Aliens: Remembrances of reading John C. Lilly | Milo and the Calf

    […] I wrote about my experience in a sensory deprivation tank here.  […]

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