Night Crawler

Going in the Tank

I pause for a while on the threshold, standing naked and alone on a plastic runner that leads away from a lukewarm shower into the dimly lit room beyond. I rub my callused toes along the pattern in the plastic, feeling it stick to my feet a little as I move forward, aware of the heat of the bathroom light fading from my right shoulder, aware of the constant hum of the bathroom fan and the smell of unfamiliar soap in my hair. I pull off my jewelry piece by piece, noticing how the links fall together as they hit the table, and reach for the fresh package of earplugs left there. I take a good, long look at the Samadhi Floatation Tank that dominates the room: 8 feet long, 4 feet wide, 4 feet tall, with a door and 10 inches of water reflecting dully inside. It is featureless but imposing, like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, completely open to interpretation. I listen as the foam expands in my ears, crushing out the whir of the bathroom fan until all that remains is the sound of blood pumping behind my eyes. I am very aware, stepping into the silky smooth water fortified by nearly 800 pounds of dissolved magnesium sulfate, of all the reasons people work 14-hour days amid a jangle of telephones and blinking computers, why people listen to blaring music over their car stereos, why they check e-mail, chat with friends, fight with wives, drink beer, and enjoy canned laugh tracks until unconsciousness finally grabs hold of them at the end of the day.

I sit down and pull the tank door shut.

"Your brain always wants to process something," explains Lynette Anderson over her desk in the homey welcoming room of the Floatation Center, "and there's nothing happening in there. You might find that your mind plays tricks on you. Your heartbeat might sound unbearably loud, or your breathing. It might sound like there's a lion inside the tank with you. Or your face might start to itch. It's just your brain trying to get you to do something. Some people suddenly get worried about running out of air, which can't happen. (The tank is not air-tight, and there's a fan inside that carries in fresh air.) Then there's the chatter, your mind detailing every single thing you did today, or just random thoughts. But, finally, your brain decides to give you a break and quiet down."

Which is why most people don't take keenly to the idea of sensory deprivation.

"Why the hell would you pay someone to put you in a dark room for two hours with nothing to see or do?" exclaimed an incredulous friend. "Isn't that like torture? Shit, you read books and listen to music even when you're in the bathtub, and most of the time you just take showers." True. Fact is, most people I know spend most of their time making sure their time is spent doing something -- work, sleep, music, TV, work, alcohol, sex, sports, art, laundry, whatever. The idea of total silence is just begging for trouble or, at best, sleep.

Twelve years ago, Lynwood Anderson, Lynette's husband and high school sweetheart, may have thought similarly. Lynwood was, as Lynette describes, a quadruple type-A personality who ran eight businesses simultaneously and bore all the predictable consequences: high blood pressure, stress, anxiety, weak heart, irritability. Still, Lynette convinced him to accompany her to an isle in the Virgin Islands without phones. While there, boredom led Lynwood to read a book left by previous guests, Michael Hutchinson's now-out-of-print The Book of Floating. The idea became something of an obsession, and, upon returning to the mainland, Lynwood floated once and bought a tank for the house. When the Andersons relocated from New Jersey to the Bay Area, they brought their tank with them and were shocked to find that their neighbors had no idea what the big box was.

Invented in Santa Barbara by Dr. John C. Lilly, who was conducting research for the National Institute of Mental Health on the physical origins of consciousness in the 1950s, floatation tanks reached their height in popular culture after the release of the 1980 movie Altered States, which was based on Lilly's more incendiary private work floating on LSD and ketamine. (Lilly had already been brought to public attention for his interspecies communication research between dolphins and humans, popularized by the 1973 movie Day of the Dolphin.) While Lilly continued to challenge the line between science and mysticism, befriending folks like Timothy Leary and writing books like Simulations of God: The Science of Belief, universities around the country studied the effects of floating in regard to psychotherapy, while physical therapists swore to the benefits for patients with chronic pain. Privately run floatation centers appeared all over the country. The Dallas Cowboys even trained inside tanks, watching plays while floating in a cloud of Epsom salts. But by the time the Andersons arrived in the Bay Area, all the float centers were regarded as a past fad.

"Floating had really changed Lyn's life," says Lynette, "so he started thinking."

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