At first, there was nothing to see and nothing to hear except the beating of my own heart, which had the same tuh-tunk rhythm of a passing freight train. I wondered how something that sounded so loud right now could go unheard most of the time.
My eyes searched the surrounding darkness for light and found none. I thought maybe I’d closed my eyes, so I blinked. Nope, they were wide open. And so there I was, floating on my back in ten inches of 93-degree saltwater in a lightless and nearly soundless tank in someone’s West End apartment.
I was trying out a floatation tank and, admittedly, the concept sounds at bit weird at first.
The tank – eight feet long, four feet wide and four feet tall – is white and featureless on the outside, aside from a square door on one end. Facing it head on, it looks like a commercial-sized dryer. From the side, it looks like something a doomsday prepper might bury underground to store canned goods and weapons.
So why would anyone be inclined to climb inside such a thing? To relax, mostly. To decompress. To disconnect.
“More and more people are craving ways to remove themselves from the over-stimulated world,” said Neil Sattin, a self-described float devotee who runs Float Maine and owns the tank on Portland’s West End. “A lot of people are looking for ways to relax and heal their bodies from pain or tension.”
Floatation tanks aren’t a new thing. People have been floating – at dedicated float centers or in privately owned floatation tanks – for decades. In the 80s the concept experienced some popularity, but it never really caught on in the mainstream. In recent years, the idea has started to experience a resurgence, particularly on the west coast.
Sattin discovered floating in 2003 during a work-related trip to Chicago. “I was traveling a lot and always looking for random and unique things to do in the place I was visiting,” he said. He stumbled on Chicago’s SpaceTime Tanks.
“I floated, having almost no expectation around what it was going to be like,” he said. “It was weird how time just vanished.” He spent the first ten minutes just playing around, he said, “just being in water and being able to experience that weightlessness.” Afterward, he said, “I ended up walking out into a crisp winter night in Chicago…everything was just so amazingly vibrant. I found myself interacting with people randomly…I just felt so connected to every experience that I was having. I was hooked at that point.”
Not long after, he bought his own tank – a Samadhi Classic – and installed it in the apartment building he owns and lives in on the West End. “I wanted to do it for my own benefit but also because the experience was so unique and so exceptional…I was really curious to see what it’d be like to let other people have that experience.” So he started letting curious people give it a try.
“It’s a pretty broad selection of people who are interested in floating,” he said. Some float to de-stress. Some to help manage body pain. Some say it helps with creativity and focus.
“I think for a lot of people there’s this edginess around solitude, being alone in the dark, said Sattin. “It can be really liberating for people.”
The tank is filled with about 10 inches of highly salinated water (we’re talking 800 pounds of dissolved Epsom salt), making it so buoyant that you can float without effort. The water is kept at a temperature around 93.3 degrees – the average temperature of your skin – and the air temperature is about the same, which means your skin barely perceives the difference between air, water and body. The result: A sensation of floating in space.
It’s strange and surreal and incredibly cool.
But first, it’s just strange. For one, you’re naked. (Note: You can wear a swimsuit if you really want to, but it could become more of a distraction than it’s worth. Remember, the lack of sensory input means you’ll notice any minor sound or nuisance. And no one wants to spend 60 minutes thinking about how their swimsuit strap kinda pinches).
Then there’s the tank, the water and the dark – isn’t it claustrophobic?
“Claustrophobia is the fear of being closed into a space,” said Sattin. “When you float, you can leave the door open. There’s no restriction to being confined.”
If you float with the lid closed, there’s still plenty of space around you – about 3.5 feet overhead – plus plenty of air circulating. “The whole point of the tank is to feel like floating in space, floating in nothingness,” Sattin said. “It’s the opposite of the kind of situation that would produce claustrophobia.”
In Sattin’s experience, he said, anyone who has any amount of apprehension about it is usually surprised by how comfortable they were. In fact, people who float typically “come out in a place where they just feel good. They’re ready to go out into the world – although that can feel kind of surreal.”
But Sattin gets that it seems peculiar at first. But his advice for anyone who’s curious? “I want people who want to do it to do it,” he said. “It doesn’t cost much to find out. If it intrigues you, try it. You can always get out.”
Where: Portland’s West End (since the tank is located at a residence, the actual address is given out after you sign up for a float).
Cost: $50 for an hour, $70 for 90 minutes and $90 for two hours.
Contact: 207-808-0896 or firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s a great FAQ page and more specifics on the Float Maine website.
FMI: www.floatmaine.com or on Facebook
The Float Space
Where: 57 Glen Haven Road East, Portland
Cost: $50 for an hour, $70 for 90 minutes and $90 for two hours.
Contact: 871-7653 or email@example.com
Ten minutes into my float – after my heartbeat had gone from rapid to relaxed – I settled in to the comfortable black.
And just as Sattin said he experienced, time kind of evaporated. With no visual input for perspective, it felt as though the walls of the tank had opened up and I was floating in an expansive and endless ocean under a starless galaxy. Except, now I noticed, I could see things. A white speck here, a speck there. Then waves of soft white light that flowed into view from my periphery. Was I hallucinating?
I felt a tiny air bubble appear at the nape of my neck and slide up to the water’s surface, tickling as it went. At some point I must have drifted to the side, and my pinky finger tapped against the wall. I gently pushed off toward center again and it felt as though I had just shoved off into space. Not the freaky, lost-to-the-abyss “Gravity” kind of space. What I felt was a slow, silly-feeling cartwheel. I may have even laughed at the sensation and at how easily my perceptions could be fooled and exaggerated.
And then – with those dim waves of light still perceptible in the vast darkness and my body feeling like a thing I just imagined once – I started having thoughts. Deep thoughts. Thoughts about souls and nothingness and consciousness. “Is this what happens when you die?” I wondered. And then I laughed. Wow. Thoughts went deep in the floatation tank.
I easily could have fallen asleep there (people often do. The density of the salt water ensures that you won’t flip over, sink or drown). I felt relaxed and wonderfully disconnected from whatever was happening elsewhere outside of that space. It felt weird and great and extremely calm.
When my hour was up (music comes on through speakers in the tank to let you know you’re time is up) I sat up and pushed open the door, welcoming light back in with a squint and a peculiar sense of newness. I got out, toweled off enough to walk over to the shower without leaving a salty trail, rinsed and dressed. The strange floatation spell was broken. But not entirely.
Outside felt brighter somehow. Prettier. Novel. And for hours, maybe even days after, I felt…good.