1534 NE 100th St, 286-0268. By appointment only, wwwfloatzone.com
$50/hr; $70/1.5 hrs
I WAS GONE. I wasn't sure exactly where I had gone, but I definitely wasn't where I was a minute ago. I wasn't awake, exactly, but I wasn't asleep either. My eyes were wide open. But I was dreaming. Sort of. What a weird feeling! Was I in a trance? Was I out of my body? Was I about to see god? I hoped so--I had heard a lot of really great things about him. And was my heartbeat always this LOUD? It was thundering so hard and steady that my entire body was throbbing. And then my elbow gently brushed the side of the tank and BINK! I was back....
The Sensory Deprivation Tank was developed in 1950 by neurophysiologist Dr. John C. Lilly at the National Institutes of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The tank contains 10-15 inches of water, which is kept at a perfect 94 degrees: skin temperature. It is big--roughly the size of a Toyota--and looks like some kind of pseudo-futuristic New Age economy car. It has a gaping mouth at the front, which opens like a hatch. When it's closed it completely shuts out all light and sound. The water inside is so heavily saturated with Epsom salts--700 pounds of the stuff!--that when you climb in, POP! Up you come like a cork. You can't help but float.
The idea is to climb inside, shut the hatch, lie flat on the surface of the water and just float there, in the dark and quiet, relaxing until--well, until your time's up. The tank is supposed to create a womb-like environment in which all of the daily sensory distractions our minds and nervous systems are forced to process are removed. By eliminating these experiences, your mind and body are introduced to a profound state of relaxation. Or so the theory goes. It's like a great big New Age Jacuzzi.
Seattle's only public flotation tanks are located in the home of Doron Weisbarth, a self-styled "float coach." "My interest in flotation came as an epiphany," Weisbarth says. "I had been meditating for about 10 years and grew to appreciate the inherent benefits--but it was sad how many people never got to experience these great benefits because of the time and training required." This inspired Weisbarth to create an easily accessible environment in which people with hectic schedules could conveniently reap the benefits floating has to offer. And so FloatZone.calm was born. "My job is to make sure that floating is available to as many people as possible," says Weisbarth.
Proponents of floating--who have included Buckminster Fuller, Timothy Leary, and, of course, Yoko Ono--make grand and ambitious claims. Many believe that floating accomplishes everything from inducing simple relaxation to spontaneously curing drug and alcohol addictions to flat-out giving you ESP. In the FloatZone.calm brochure, Weisbarth even goes so far as to claim that visiting FloatZone.calm will make you a nicer person! "By removing external simulation the float tank induces in you such a deep state of super relaxation that it can be even more beneficial than sleep. Once you learn what true relaxation is, you can begin to reproduce a calm state of mind in your day-to- day experiences. You can change and improve your entire response to everyday stresses." Thus you are much less cranky. Weisbarth believes that "flotation has the potential to grow to be as common as massage therapy, acupuncture, or chiropractic." But like those alternative therapies, floating definitely has its skeptics.
"The evidence supporting the claims [of alternative therapies such as floating] consists mostly of practitioners' observations and poorly designed studies," according to Dr. Stephen Barrett, who heads up the online medical fraud watch group "Quackwatch." "Controlled studies usually find that these therapies have little more than a placebo effect," Barrett says. "I don't think flotation tanks have any medical benefit." In other words, it's all in your head. Whatever the case, I was eager to find out for myself.
The tanks are located in the basement of Weisbarth's home. A warm and solicitous man, Weisbarth took a great deal of time to make me feel comfortable and explain the floating process in detail before I began. "I want you to know what to expect and what not to expect," he told me, stressing heavily the idea that regular use is the key to the best results. "Most people find that after their fifth float, everything opens up for them." He gave a well-rehearsed speech on the benefits of floating and tips on how to maximize the experience (e.g., don't pee in the water). I was certainly no stranger to altered states of consciousness, and I was very excited to give this whole floating thing a whirl. Was I going to emerge from the tank with superhuman psychic powers? Or was I just going to fall asleep and drown? Weisbarth was very careful not to let my expectations get out of control, and he informed me that neither of these things were likely. "The effects of floating are cumulative," he claimed. "You learn to relax more deeply with every float." I took this to mean that if I were going to emerge with the power to telekinetically take on my senior class prom, I was going to have to spend a heck of a lot more time in the tank than the hour and a half I had scheduled. Weisbarth said I wasn't going to drown, either. "Many people actually float just to get some sleep," he said. "They say it 'resets their buttons' and allows them to sleep better out of the tank. There is no danger." Whew. With Weisbarth's lecture over, I showered, stripped (only one client has ever insisted on wearing a bathing suit), climbed inside, and shut the hatch.
It was relaxing, I guess, but also a little awkward. My head was at a funny angle, and I didn't know what to do with my arms. Suddenly, I was overtaken with a strange sense of timelessness. Had only a few minutes gone by, or was it time to get out already? I had no idea how long I had been in there! How would I know when my time was up? Then I remembered Weisbarth's words: "When it is time to come out, I will knock gently on the tank." That's when the paranoia set in.
What if he were standing outside the tank right now? That was a little freaky. I was very vulnerable. And who was this Weisbarth dude, anyway? Could I trust him? How did I know I wasn't I being watched right now? Sure, it was pitch black, but there are night-vision webcams, aren't there? My little white behind could be broadcast all over the Internet right now! That thought made me chuckle a little and brought me out of my panic. I took a deep breath and felt the world melt away....
"My goal is to establish several local FloatZone.calm centers with the intent to expand nationally over the next five years," Weisbarth told me when I emerged from the tank. "Seattle has proven herself time and again as fertile grounds for incubating new global trends... particularly cool ones." I was in no position to argue. I felt warm, gooey, and very, very relaxed. Weisbarth was right; 90 minutes in the tank was better than a whole night's sleep. I felt great! And who really cares if it was all in my head? I was a little disappointed that I wasn't able to move objects with my mind, but hey, it was only my first float. I have at least four more to go!