Is a session in a sensory deprivation tank as surreal, dangerous and psychedelic as it is in the movies?
Just for fun, start telling your friends and family that you’re going to do a session in a sensory deprivation tank.
When I told my friends and family that I was going to try it, the reactions varied from “Are you sure it’s safe? Don’t get hurt!” to “Great! I think it’ll be good for you.” The former reactions came mostly from people who didn’t know much about it, the latter from people who’ve actually tried it. The best reaction, though, was, “Be sure to take some psychedelic drugs before you get in the tank so you’ll transform into a monkey!”
That’s a reference to the 1980 movie Altered States, in which a scientist played by William Hurt repeatedly takes strong psychedelic drugs, like ayahuasca, before getting into a sensory deprivation tank. The combination causes him to physically devolve into a miniature primate. It’s a silly movie, but fun enough to have become a cult classic. It also stands as probably the most widely familiar use of a sensory deprivation tank in pop culture, so it’s often the first association people have. It’s also, of course, ridiculously inaccurate.
Sensory deprivation tanks were developed in the 1950s and became commercially available in the 1970s. The user is enclosed in a chamber, which is totally dark and soundproof, and about half filled with very salty water, which causes the user to float. Healing One, a new Reno business with a sensory deprivation tank, opened earlier this summer. It has a very New Age vibe—the website is all yin-yangs and rainbows. It’s the only such tank that’s been registered with the Washoe County Health Department in 20 years.
On the drive to Healing One, I had a bit of a sore throat, probably from the wildfire smoke that’s a perennial bloom every August in Reno. I found the prospect of a genuinely psychedelic experience appealing. But I was just as intrigued by the possibility of a good nap. I hadn’t been sleeping well because I’ve been very stressed—work, school and a bunch of other things that I don’t want to get into now. I was also worried that I might throw up. I’ve had stomach problems in the past and sometimes have trouble keeping my food down, especially in strange, unusual situations. I was afraid this might turn out like the last time I did a New Age health thing—when I got a colonic a few years ago (“Thunder down under,” feature, Feb. 17, 2011). That was a fairly terrible experience, what with me vomiting on myself and all, but it made for an entertaining story. As my dad says, you either have good times or you have good stories.Head over heals
Chaz Allen, the co-owner and manager of Healing One, is a hippie. He might not call himself that, but he does call himself an “energy healer,” so I think it’s fair for the rest of us to call him a hippie. Super nice guy, though, with an easygoing, amiable personality and that air of serenity that accompanies anyone who’s figured out a way of making a career out of helping other people relax.
And when he started talking some authentic hippie frontier gibberish, saying things like, “You can raise your vibration, your personal vibration, and transfer it to another living being, whether that’s a plant, an animal or a person,” I was pleased because this was the exact kind of thing I wanted to hear before my psychedelic meditation in a sensory deprivation tank—just like it’s a good sign when you hear Spanish spoken by the cooks at a Mexican restaurant.
Allen was born in Mesa, Arizona, lived in Utah for a little while as a kid, and has lived in Nevada for the last 20 years, since he was 8. He grew up in the little town of Spring Creek, four hours east in the Ruby Mountains. He has a bachelor’s degree in metaphysical sciences from University of Metaphysics in Sedona, Arizona, “one of the energy capitals of the world.”
After I arrived at Healing One, I sat down to chat with him at the business’s “chill lounge,” a sort of decompression chamber between the healing center and the outside world, basically a room with a bunch of really comfortable places to sit. For Allen, the chill lounge serves an important function.
“We’re putting people into sensory deprivation, which is the most passive experience that you’ll ever experience, so we want to kind of bring you down,” he said. “You’re out in the world, and you’re hectic, you’re in Alpha and Beta brainwave frequencies. … When you come in, we don’t want to throw you straight to the tank or straight to the massage table in that mindset. We want the chill lounge. It’s crucial.”
And where did he discover his interest in energy healing? One guess.
Yep, Burning Man.
“Four years ago, I went to Burning Man, and was talking to some people, and they were talking about energy healing, and it just resonated so deeply with me,” he said. “I came home and I started researching, and I found this stuff called quantum touch, and they were like, ’If you buy this book and read this book you’ll be able to do energy healing.’ I thought, bullshit.”
But he bought the book anyway. And now he’s a believer.
“There’s no ’science’ behind it,” he said, using air quotes around the word science. “It’s a feeling. It relies on the good vibes, the bad vibes. When you walk into some place and people have been talking down about you, talking crap. You feel that. You know you don’t want to talk to those people. … That’s energetic vibration. Those people are literally putting out a negative vibration toward you, and you feel it.”
Elena Charles, from Carson City, is the resident massage therapist at Healing One. Like Allen, she exudes a serene charisma. She’s also an energy healer, a white girl with dreadlocks, and a hula-hooping fire dancer. In other words, she’s also a hippie.
But, also like Allen, when she speaks the New Age lingo, she makes it appealing, convincing and comforting.
“Honestly, as energy healers, we deal with skepticism a lot,” she said. “Energy healing can help with anything. It can help, but I’m not going to sit here and claim it can heal cancer.”
“We believe 100 percent in ourselves and our abilities, or we wouldn’t practice this,” said Allen. “But because the world is so ’scientific’”—again with the air quotes—“We can not make any bold claims. … We don’t make any bold claims at all with the tank, with massage or with energy healing. It’s more like, ’This is what we’ve seen and this is some documentation on that.’ But other than that, it’s up to personal experience.”
“It’s like an addiction,” said Charles. “You can’t make someone get clean. They have to make a choice. You can send them to rehab. You can make them do this. You can make them do that. If they don’t want to, they’re not going to do it. You have to make a decision to be open in order to heal yourself. We can’t make you do it. As energy healers, we are conduits. This is not a final thing. I’m not going to heal you, and you’ll be healed forever. I’m a conduit. I’m going to connect to you energetically, and I’m going to do the practices that I know and I studied, and the universal energy, the life force energy, is going to move through me, and your system is going to absorb it however it sees fit and heal itself. We are facilitators.”One in the chamber
The sensory deprivation tank is a bit like the cave in The Empire Strikes Back. (“What’s in there?” asks Luke. “Only what you take with you,” replies Yoda.) After chatting with Allen and Charles for an hour or so, acclimatizing to the New Age atmosphere, re-learning to speak a language I hadn’t spoken much of since the last time I dated a real hippie, back in college. I was ready to enter the tank.
Healing One’s tank is an Oasis Float Tank, with 10 vertical inches of water, 200 gallons of water mixed with a 1,000 pounds of Epsom Salt, pumped through a custom pool filtration system, blasted with UV rays and chlorine in compliance with health department mandates, which regulate it like a public pool or Jacuzzi.
“People get a little claustrophobic or they think that their mind won’t shut down,” said Allen. “People are afraid to be alone with themselves. You can leave the tank open if you’re claustrophobic. You don’t have to shut the tank. But after you float for 15 or 20 minutes, your brain drops from Alpha and Beta frequency to Theta frequency, which is induced meditation, basically.”
Reporting, gathering information for a story, requires a very active mind. Floating a sensory deprivation tank, in a meditative state is a totally passive, inactive experience. I was going to attempt to impose language on an indescribable experience. I was already confused. And I was afraid I might get sick. But then I got to ask one of my all-time favorite journalism queries: “What if I have to take a shit?”
I could just get out, put on a robe and sandals, and walk over to the bathroom down the hall. It’s not like I was going to be enclosed in there, unable to leave. The room with the tank in it is fairly large, with a shower in one corner. Allen instructed me to use the shower before and after my float. (He would often refer to himself and others as “floaters,” which always made me laugh.)
He left the room. I was alone with the tank. I put in the heavy swimmer’s earplugs he had given me, took a shower, climbed into the tank, and closed the door behind me. I laid back into the thick, salty water, feeling a mild swooshing sensation as I was swept up by the water, but quickly finding equilibrium. My mouth, nose and eyes were above the water. The chamber was totally dark. I felt a burn on the back of neck as the salt seeped into my skin, which had been shaved when I’d gotten a haircut the day before. (I noticed later that the FAQ on Healing One’s website warns against shaving or waxing before a float.) At first, there was music playing in the tank—mellow ambient stuff—but it sounded distant and buried. The music was scheduled to play for the first 10 minutes and then for the last 5 minutes, mostly as a cue for me to get out.
I thought about the music. The music ended, and then I thought about sex. I thought about music. I thought about sex. I thought about all the errands, tasks and chores I had to complete. Sometimes I was very aware of the confines of the space. Other times I was not aware of the space at all. My memory flashed back to a cherished moment from my teenage years, floating on my back in a large hot water pool in the middle of Nevada, a little stoned, staring up at the wash of stars on a moonless night, and feeling a grand sense of connection to the universe.
Salt stung my eyes. I had to get out, get some air and wash out my eyes with the freshwater bottle next to the entrance of the tank. At one point, I thought I could see a tiny pinpoint of light, but without glasses or contacts, my eyes are so bad that I might have imagined it.
I thought about music. I thought about sex. I felt a strange sensation of deja vu, like I had done this before before, although to the best of my admittedly spotty memory, I had not. After a while, all my thoughts seemed to drift away, and I found myself in total stillness, not sleeping exactly, but in a blissful trance-like state. I think I peed a little in the tank, which was gross and embarrassing. I decided not to mention this to Allen.
The temperature was a bit too hot, and a few times I felt like I had trouble breathing. I had asked for the water to be a bit on the hot side, since I usually like my baths hot, but that wasn’t the right choice for me since my body temperature runs a bit cold. The deja vu feeling returned. Time seemed like it was dragging on, and then it felt like it was over far too quickly. The music came back on.
I got out. I felt groggy and contented, like I’d had a really good nap that had ended too soon. My legs felt wobbly as I walked over to the shower to rinse off. Then, I walked back over to the bench where I had left my clothes. I picked up my phone to check the time because I had to pick up my son from school at 2 p.m. I had trouble focusing on the small screen in my hand. As soon as my eyes focused on the phone, the screen went black, the phone dead.
I finally stumbled out of the floatation room. Allen was there at the door.
“I was just coming to check on you,” he said. “It’s nearly 2.”
I felt frantic and panicked. It was jarring, after being in that blissful state of relaxation, to have to do things, and talk to people, and to have to engage in the world. It was like getting thrown from this perfect dream state to the woes of trying to do things, the high stresses of modernity, and meeting people at specific times. To suddenly feel rushed, stressed and vexed by modern technology.
I suddenly understood the real value of the chill room. The transition from the float tank back to the outside world was horrible without any time to decompress.
For the rest of the day after my float, I had particles of salt flying from my hair like the world’s worst dandruff. Some of the saltwater had slipped past my earplugs and felt heavy in my ears, like I’d been swimming in the world’s thickest ocean.
When I talked to Allen again a few days after my float, I told him my ears still felt clogged with salt. He said that was fairly common and recommended a simple home-remedy solution: rinsing out the ears with vinegar. After checking with my sister, an audiologist, I tried that, and it helped.
I also asked him about the light I though I saw in the tank.
“There are a lot of people who do imagine that,” he said. “I’ve definitely had people come out and say, ’Hey, those are some nice LEDs you have in the float tank.’ … At the same time, if you don’t shut off all the lights in the float room”—and I did not—“there will be a little light seeping through the ventilation.”
He also told me that they updated the ventilation system not long after my visit, which should clear up the problem I had not feeling like I had enough air. And he was intrigued when I told him about my recurring sensation of deja vu.
“That’s really interesting,” he said. “It’s most commonly associated with either being in outer space or being in your mother’s womb. Maybe you’re closely relating it to that experience somehow.”
The experience was relaxing, and just strange enough to be surreal and memorable. I enjoyed talking to some native hippies in the natural element. I enjoyed the dreamy sensations of the tank. I enjoyed peeing on myself and being too embarrassed to mention it. The next time I enter the tank, I’m going to do it on a day when I don’t have anything else to do later on. It’s a lot like any other psychedelic experience like that.
“People come in here anxious like they’re going to jump out of an airplane at 13,000 feet,” said Allen. “And then they lay in 10 inches of water and think, ’Oh, this is nothing to be afraid of. I’m just laying in water, floating effortlessly.’”