Saturday, November 03, 2012

A quiet place to relax

On Saturday, Jane and I payed a visit to the Float Shoppe on 23rd Avenue in Northwest Portland - our second visit and hopefully not our last. I'm taking this opportunity to post a short article on Sensory Deprivation Tanks that I wrote for a writing course back in 2008.

                             Enjoying a quite interlude with Flotation Tanking.

          I’m suspended in the dark with a slight feeling of vertigo.
Eyes open, eyes shut, no difference. I picture myself slowly tumbling end over end through the void. There’s no sound. No feeling of gravity.
In reality I’m floating in a few inches of water, buoyed by a strong concentration of Epsom salts. The water is blood temperature. I can’t feel where my extremities end unless I wiggle something. I’m in a flotation tank; they’ve also been called “isolation tanks” and, originally, “sensory deprivation tanks”. Since the experience is a pleasant one, and the term “sensory deprivation” sounds a little scary to some people, it’s currently advertised as a “flotation tank”.
            I’d been curious about sensory deprivation since I saw the Science Fiction film “Altered States” when it came out in 1980. The film, set in the wacky world of those mad scientists at U. C. Berkeley, shows huge, cumbersome tanks, complete with breathing apparatus head gear, based on the ones first used by Psychologist John C. Lilly in 1954 at the National Institute for Mental Health in order to test the effects of physical isolation. Lilly found that the brain acts quite differently when there is no sensory input.
One result of Lilly’s experimentation was the development of floating as a leisure activity. Glenn Perry started Samadhi Tank Company in 1972, building tanks to Dr. Lilly’s improved design. With 800 pounds of Epsom salts dissolved in 10 inches of water, the human body floats easily, with the face above the water’s surface. These tanks are still being built, and are the ones I’ve had the chance to use, at a couple of different locations.
My first experience with these tanks was while living in England. My wife and I went to the London Float Center just a few blocks from the bustling open market by Brixton Tube, in the early 1990’s.  They were housed in the basement of an office building, which seemed to act as a layer of concrete insulation from the noisy street life of nearby Electric Avenue.
A Samadhi tank looks like a chest high bin with a light, fiberglass hatch at one truncated end. This was set in a room with a shower, tiled in soft blue and white – swimming pool colors. The attendant explains that the hatch lid can be opened with a light push of my hand; some people are anxious at the thought of confinement in the dark, and the tanks and surrounding spaces have been designed and laid out to minimize claustrophobia. Five minutes before the end of the “float”, soft music fades in to let you prepare for your return to the glaring and noisy world waiting outside the tank. It’s always been the kind of New Age music I can’t really stand to listen to for very long, so it’s a good indication that it’s time to get out and shower off the salt.
After my session, I feel great – squinty eyed, giddy, and light.
No tension anywhere – my hour in the isolation tank left me thoroughly tenderized.  My wife Jane felt “fine until she tried to talk”, then realized how disoriented she was. We managed to navigate to a local pub, where we retoxified enough to find our way home. We went back to that office block south of the River several times, and once Jane had a double session – after a long and stressful bout of business travel – effectively erasing the effects of jet lag. She reports that she felt like she’d had 8 hours of quality sleep – after 2 hours of weightless silence.
Every time I’ve come out of a tank, I’ve felt wonderful – fascinated by the simplest sights, relaxed, euphoric. A little dazzled by the outside world.
Last year, we paid a visit to Common Ground Flotation Center in Northeast Portland, Oregon. This is a healing center in a residential neighborhood. Once again, they use the same Samadhi tanks I’ve used in London. Located on a quiet street, with lush greenery outside and surprising, creative tile work in the Spa areas, this is a great place to go to really get away from “it all”. The experience itself was similar to those I’d had in London, right down to the artless New Age music signaling the end of the float.
A lot of what has been written about the benefits of flotation gets into the metaphysics and physiology involved. It’s so quick for this kind of talk to turn into hype and nonsense; and I can see that my initial interest in Flotation was sparked by a youthful interest in just such hype and nonsense. But the experience is of a simple and solid value; by removing yourself from sensory input, and by removing the weight of the world from your shoulders, you achieve a relaxed, open state.
As much as I’d like to avoid talking about the mind and the spirit (- and any other disembodied bits anyone might want to throw into the mix -) there’s no question that most of us have minds that rush around and get out of control once in a while. Even in sleep, we support our bodies against gravity. Our thoughts still rush along, in our dreams. It’s great to have a brief respite from everything – from absolutely everything - and reenter the world fresh, damp, eyes startled by the light, ears catching sounds that were lost on the wind.

All that I can really add to this earlier writing is that the Float Shoppe has tanks different from the Samadi tanks I'd floated in previously - I've used their Floataway Tranquility tank, with an electrically operated hatch,  and Jane has a preference for their Open Float Spa. They provide a 90 minute float, which passes quite quickly.  I'll also mention that the gentle selection of music they use to signal the end of the float is a big improvement over the above mentioned "Artless New Age Music". The Float Shoppe is located in a lovely old wooden house, the staff is cheerful and helpful, and provide a wonderful space for your float experience. 

You can learn more  at their site -
or contact them through Facebook -