Floatation tank as legal psychedelic?
Dr. Dan Engle is described as “Board Certified in Psychiatry and Neurology, with a clinical practice that combines functional medicine, integrative psychiatry, neurocognitive restoration and peak performance methods”. He is lecturer, writer, and consultant for successful companies and treatment centers.
Overall his track record seems to be quite impressive, so it makes sense to look into what he says about floating.
I did floating a few times long time ago, listening to one of my favorite albums at that time (Arovane – Tides). I remember it was very enjoyable, but nothing really special happened. Now my situation is very different. I hoped that it will be extraordinary, after a few years of (not-as-consistent-as-I-would-want) meditation practice, and with deeper focus on specific aspects my life.
I didn’t know what to expect exactly, but I was opened to give it a go.
TL;DR version – did I like it?
This is going to be a long story. So if you just want to know the result, this is it: Hell yes, definitely! It was beyond what I expected and I’m doing it again for sure.
The best confirmation for me was this: I am going for 2 week business trip to US and I was thinking about going for another Zero Gravity experience. I absolutely loved it the first time, and they give nice discount for “frequent travelers” (=you’ve flown at least once before). But then I realized “Wait, I can do more than 30 floats instead!”.
Floating is not for every situation and for every person, but it is a great tool to spend some deep time with your own consciousness. Some experience with meditation practice is very helpful, but not necessary. Ability to stay for 60-90 minutes with just your own thoughts is mandatory.
Below I describe
- What is floating / sensory deprivation tank
- What is happening when you go floating
- What happened to me?
- Higher state of consciousness (how does floating compare to meditation or psychedelics)
- Some practical recommendations for your first float
What is floating / sensory deprivation tank
Floatation tank is a pod filled with almost-body-temperature water with lots of Epsom salt dissolved in it. When you lie down you feel weightless and have no sensual stimuli – you don’t feel any difference in temperature, you don’t touch anything. Pod is closed during the float, so there’s no light or sound either. There are no smells too. All 5 basic senses + proprioception get no external inputs whatsoever.
What is happening when you go floating
I bought 3 x floating package as a Xmas gift to my husband, but it happened that I took one of his expiring sessions in exchange for buying him another one later (or so we thought). We went there together during a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Palm Ave Float Club is in a nice building between the water channel and a park, and there are 2 of our favorite restaurants as well. The place is beautiful – white and bright, with trees behind windows, comfy lazyboys on the floor, some books to read, some drawing books and pencils, and a very very kind staff.
After quick bathroom stop we were explained how things work. Shower – into the pod – light off – float – light on – out of the pod – shower – chill.
Body and face towels were waiting, together with earplugs (to protect ears) and Vaseline (to cover bruises to prevent stinging). Pods were ready, half-filled with pleasantly warm water (34.5C) with lots of Epsom salt. Inside the floating pod, there is control for the light (you can turn off anytime), the spray with fresh water in case the salty water gets into your eyes, and the panic button. Having the small face towel near the pod is also a good idea.
We took 90 minutes float, out of which first 10 minutes there would be music, then silence, and then again music for last 5 minutes. The light was on, but we could turn it off (or on) at any time we wanted.
What happened to me?
I took a shower and hopped into the pod. I remembered that I’m supposed to turn the room light off, so I did that and got back into the pod. I closed the pod and lied down.
The feeling of how my body went up to the surface was not dissimilar to my Zero Gravity flight experience – extremely enjoyable.
The physics of bumping off the walls was the same too (just 2D instead of 3D) – tiny push will take you further than you think. As I was trying to achieve a stable position in the middle of the pod (to not accidentally touch any of the walls), I realized that I forgot to take off my Oura ring. OK, ring off, light off, looking for stable position again. The music was still playing, pleasant binaural beats.
What would you do if you had 90 minutes without any sensory inputs, just with your consciousness?
I started with short meditation I learned from Tara Brach, relaxing the body and becoming more present.
Then I just enjoyed the sensations, because for a change they were not coming from the outside world, but from the inside. I could feel how energy (blood? Electric signals?) flows my arms and legs, how my hands and feet have tingling in them, how my body responds to breathing.
I remember stretching my body 3 times during the float, just to feel the energy and relax even more. I tried position with arms alongside the body, and arms up. Both felt very comfortable, but if you’re worried about your head being too much in the water, I recommend arms up.
Then I focused on breathing for some time, following each breath from the start until the short pause at the end of each breath. I have no idea how long was I doing that, it’s almost impossible to track time without any clues.
Then I did kindness meditation (metta). From my whole heart, I was wishing happiness to different people, starting with my family, some friends, my younger self, colleagues. Then I moved on to wish the same to random people (e.g. girls from the floating club) and animals. There was nothing else just the warm kind darkness and the happiness I was imagining others experiencing, my heart felt soft and warm and I know was smiling inside.
At this point I started an experiment that came up with a discussion I had with someone a few weeks earlier.
Is it possible to feel loving kindness for someone you think is pure evil, for example Kim Jong Un?
I picked two people to test this. Kim Jong Un, and India’s PM Modi (slightly lesser evil – at least he doesn’t kill people directly). In theory, it should be possible to wish them happiness. I just couldn’t do it. It pulled me out of all the softness and warmth inside, I started justifying that I wish them happiness but only if it makes them do less harm to others. I realized that I’m frowning and have an ugly feeling.
I had to do go back to Tara and then do breathing meditation for some time after that.
Which lead me somewhere where I haven’t been for very long time. I don’t even know how to describe it.
There was no light, but there was consciousness and it was bigger than my body, it was bigger than floating tank. I don’t know how big because space didn’t really make sense. It was just awareness and presence, independent of time. It was beautiful, kind, deep and void of meaning (I wasn’t looking for any meaning). I could feel sliding away from it a few times, but slow breathing got me back.
I don’t know how long I spent in that state, but at some point I realized that the music is playing for a while (seconds or minutes? I don’t know).
Soon the music stopped, I got a bit stressed and quickly got out of the pod and took a shower, my heart pounding and a big happy smile on my face.
The smile stayed there for quite some time, even after I found out that Tomas didn’t enjoy the experience at all and he finished early. He even gave me the last remaining session. I was quite sad, but I guess I’ll just have to find a better gift for him. We stayed a bit more relaxing in the lazyboys, drinking tea and water.
Conclusion: Higher state of consciousness
When you read about floating, there are stories of being in womb again, seeing own life again, or having visions. I didn’t have visions, or anything spectacular like that.
But I got somewhere where I was not expecting to get.
This experience opened new possibilities to me, showed me new that are possible, new things to try. By naturally filtering out my bodily sensations I was able to spend time as pure consciousness.
I was able to hold completely still. For the first time I was able to observe my thoughts, how they appear and disappear, causing ripples.
Floating is very therapeutic. I can’t comment on the physical health side, but there are suggestions it should be helpful for recovery, chronic pain, hypertension and arthritis. I didn’t find any specific studies, but it makes sense, because during floating session the body switches to parasympathetic mode.
But I can see great possibilities for mental health and wellbeing.
Two of the less conventional treatments that are being explored the most are mindfulness/meditation and psychedelics. But realistically – meditation requires people to put time and effort, and most governments are still stubbornly blocking even research of psychedelics (despite the growing amount of evidence of how it helps with treatment resistant depression, with PTSD, with addiction and even anxiety in terminally ill patients).
On the scale, floating is somewhere between these two when it comes to required frequency, intensity and associated risk (if we’re talking about carefully controlled environment).
Its impact is limited compared to long-term meditation or psychedelics, but it has two great advantages – it’s both very accessible *and* legal.
And as Tim puts it “If you can’t handle at least 60 minutes in floatation tank, you aren’t ready to have an unstoppable psychedelic experience.”
Plus, the risks are low, almost non-existent under right supervision. Side-effects are more than pleasant. I felt calm happiness, thought about even practical things in different way, which seemed much clearer and less cluttered.
I think this is an underappreciated approach, same as holotropic breathing, and I hope it will be explored more. And of course I will be using it myself.
Some practical recommendations for floating
- You can eat up to 1 hour before your float, but don’t take caffeine.
- Arrive early to avoid being in a hurry.
- If you have a bruise on your skin, cover it with Vaseline.
- Don’t forget to take everything off (like I forgot my Oura). And that includes swimmies. You want as little sensation as possible.
- There is one exception: I recommend using earplugs. Supersalty water in ears is no fun.
- Pee just before your float starts float, and drink a bit water.
- Keep small towel near the pod in case you need it for the face.
- Breathe. Enjoy.
- Don’t complicate things, at least first few times.
Example – In second session I tried guided meditation through earbuds, but it was an unnecessary distraction. And that was the most mind-bending guided meditation I know (Sam Harris’ Looking for Self. Seriously, try it.). I’m sure one day I will try floating with brain.fm, but first I want to explore sensory deprivation without any crutches.