My initial introduction to floating was through an acquaintance who had received some floats at Float On and asked if I would be interested in going with him. I enthusiastically agreed without hesitation, though back then I hadn’t heard much about floating, nor was there anyone in my circles who had done it before. I understood that the idea was to create an environment with limited sensory input, and that this was accomplished by filling a “tank” with very salty water.
I was eager for any experience that was strange or unusual. I also had an interest in phenomenology, a school of thought which posits that an individual’s consciousness of the external universe is created through sense data. How ever a person perceives their universe through their senses is how reality will inevitably appear to them. If you’ve ever wondered if your blue is the same blue as someone else’s blue, this would be an example of a phenomenological inquiry.
Through this particular philosophical lens an experience in sensory deprivation was especially intriguing. Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher of phenomenology and ethics, even offered a thought experiment that somewhat resembles sensory deprivation. You cloak yourself in quiet solitude in complete darkness, imagine that nothing exists, and rid yourself of all your beliefs. What do you experience in the absence of your usual sensory and mental phenomena? Never at any point did Levinas stipulate this exercise required any set up quite as elaborate as float tank, but I thought it would be a nice touch.
“Eyeful” by Clypto Robertson
Dipping my Toes
The first time I climbed into the tank, I immediately became far too preoccupied with my physical environment to allow myself sink into any kind of cerebral experience. It felt like being in a tank alright. I felt awkwardly aware of my proximity to every wall and noted that the water seemed unusually slippery. The ceiling lights arranged to look like constellations were a far cry from the natural sky. The artificial blue glow emitting from the “stars” faded in and out in a pleasingly hypnotic pattern.
The whole thing, I decided, had a bit of sci-fi vibe about it. At some point my mind drifted off to Philip K Dick’s iteration of Precogs from Minority Report, particularly, the photon milk baths in which they were kept.
I came away from the experience thinking it was both enjoyable and interesting but also feeling like I didn’t entirely “get” it. Also, I had completely forgotten about Levinas’s thought experiment!
It wasn’t until maybe my third or fourth attempt I had my first real float. Now that I was more accustomed to the spacial peculiarities of the tank, I could glide more gracefully into the waters of the theta realm.
This float was at night. Since I’ve always been somewhat of a night owl I felt relatively relaxed at these later hours. With several hours set aside for my experience and a long day behind me and no obligations ahead, I felt both mentally and physically still.
As I settled in the tank, I mentally ran through Levinas’s thought experiment. Darkness and silence? I hit the large grey button which turned off the lights. Check. Imagine that there is nothing. Easy. Disbelieve in everything. This was always the most challenging of the three, but I didn’t understand why. I was an agnostic after all, and I made every conscious effort to be a relatively open minded person. I thought again of the strangeness of my environment, how though I rather liked it, in some ways it seemed to inhibit my experiment. Why do you think it’s strange? I asked myself. Because it’s not normal. What is normal? Normal is whatever you happen to be used to, like gravity for instance. I had identified my belief that normalcy was relative, but what if I simply stopped believing there was such a thing as “normal” at all? If nothing is normal then nothing is abnormal either.
In the tank, I spent some time musing about concepts like “normal” and “weird” before transforming these thoughts into imaginary clouds and watching them drift away in an imaginary sky. Then, I imagined the sky too now drifted away. For a time, there was nothing. No light, no air, no thought, no sound.
The now somewhat familiar feeling of the water gently lapping my skin gradually vanished and was replaced by an entirely different sensation. It was a sensation of a vaguely warm static-like fuzz. Faint at first, this fuzz created a sort of second skin, one made of energy, perhaps the heat energy generated by my own body. The static intensity of the fuzz increased. Within an indeterminate amount of time, this layer around me expanded. As it expanded further from me I could feel my body temperature dropping. My blood slowed to the pace of magma chilling to form a trail of shadowy obsidian in what might have been my veins. I was rapidly losing any sense of my corporeal being. The tank was no longer a tank but a vast void that exceeded comprehension. I made no effort to comprehend it. Within the void, the fuzz formed a bubble around me that was at once physical, yet not solid.
Within this space of silence and stillness, a low hum reverberated within the bubble. It seemed to be growing louder and more prominent. I couldn’t tell if I was experiencing the hum through sound, sight, physical sensation or all of these at once. A kind of synesthesia comprised of the humming sound, which sometimes warbled and trilled, glimmering lights, like colorful sunlight reflecting from rippling water, and the strange static-y sensation of bubble energy. Waves of sound (or something else) converged upon me or rather through me creating steady oscillations throughout the bubble. The humming formed a kind of pattern. That there was a pattern was apparent, but the pattern itself I could not make out.
I believe this was the state in which I spent the majority of my float. The conclusion came suddenly and unceremoniously. The hum seemed to momentarily raise in frequency, and my bubble seemed as though it was beginning to contract. Before it reached my body it was gone, the hum with it. Blinking, I realized I had a body. As everything faded back in, I noticed I was cold. I had just begun to stretch my limbs when a sound, this time it was undeniably a sound, passed into my awareness. It was the wake up music.
It’s strange how quickly an unusual experience becomes extraordinarily fragile in the afterglow. Like attempting to cup water in your hands, the details trickle away as a more analytical attitude takes hold. In the absence of sensation what phenomena had I experienced? Could that hum have been the same that was known to various mystics? An interference of some solid state intelligence? My imagination?
One thing that was certain was that in my attempt to experience nothingness some somethingness had sprung forth. That somethingness had a beckoning quality to it. Mischievous and elusive it flickered in the distance of my memory like foxfire, or faerie lights or machine elves. I was again reminded of another concept from the mind of Phillip K Dick, what he called “perturbations in the reality field”. This seemed to me to be as good as any description of my experience. I anticipated I would pursue more perturbations in the future.