At the start of the 11th century, Ibn Sīnā, a renowned Islamic philosopher and medical practitioner, found himself in a pickle. Captured and imprisoned in the basement of a medieval castle with nothing but time on his hands, he decided, as philosophers do, to spend his final days writing a treatise arguing that humans are self-aware. He asked his reader to imagine a floating man, someone “blind and suspended,” unable to hear, smell or feel anything at all. It was in this void, he thought, that we could truly recognize our own essence; the unknown would become known.
Almost 100 years later, Ibn Sīnā’s thought experiment is no longer fantasy. You can now simulate the experience of solitary confinement by dispossessing yourself of all sensation. Perhaps, in this sensory wasteland, you might just find your true self. Or, at least, that was the message that Shane Stott, the co-founder of Zen Float Co., offered in his book The Float Tank Cure: Free Yourself From Stress, Anxiety, and Pain the Natural Way. It was one of a few options to consider as I lounged on a black leather couch inside the Evanston Float Center (EFC), a brown building a few steps from the Dempster L stop.
For the uninitiated, floating – also known as sensory deprivation therapy, isolation tank therapy or spending $60 to lie in a very, very salty tub – is a form of alternative medicine popularized by neuro-psychologist John C. Lilly in the 1950s. Although you can float in many ways, at EFC this happens in a float cabin: a large, aquamarine bathtub held inside a lightless, soundless space about the size of a closet. Unlike a regular bath, a float tub has just 10 inches of water. Also unlike a regular bath, the water contains about 800 pounds of the finest San Francisco Epsom Salt.
EFC’s owner, Jillian Trespeces, explained this all to me as I filled out an introductory questionnaire. After cheerfully signing away my rights in case of a nervous breakdown and accepting full liability for any damages, I returned to The Float Tank Cure for a few more minutes before Trespeces gave me the green light.
Inside my room was a shower, a small wooden stool and a photograph of mist flowing over rocks – it looked like a motivational poster in search of a bad caption. The only features that made the space different from a Hilton hotel restroom was the lack of a toilet and the presence of a thick plastic hatch on the left side of the room (the portal to my float cabin).
As instructed, I put on a pair of orange earplugs from an EFC branded container, undressed (you must float au naturel), took a brief shower and entered the float compartment. Once inside, I closed the door and settled into the water. Staring up into the nothingness, I did not immediately question my sanity. The abyss did not stare back into me.
In true Northwestern spirit, I started my float by trying to compose a cover letter in my head (floating, according to every scientific study ever produced on the topic, is supposed to massively improve your creativity). But after about two minutes, I gave up and started reciting the lines to Young the Giant’s “Cough Syrup” in my head.
As I continued to stare into the impenetrable darkness, I grew increasingly uneasy. I must have made a mistake: What forces compelled me – a person who showers to music because I am uneasy with the prospect of being alone with my thoughts for five minutes – to place myself in a dark room with no stimuli for a full 60?
At the same time, I had already closed the door and there was little I could do but try to enjoy it. Slowly, the nagging voice in my head ceased, and my mind began to drift. It dawned on me that there was a certain beauty in the stillness mandated by floating. In a small way, I understood why people were flocking to these futuristic space pods with their promise of mindful fulfillment.
Later, when the sound of soft music signaled the end of my float, I emerged feeling a bit relieved, but mostly refreshed. I could feel the weight of life roll off my back, and after a longer, warmer shower, I put on my clothes and exited the room feeling upbeat. In what felt like an impossible miracle during a Chicago winter, I could even see the sun through EFC’s front window.
I thanked Trespeces, paid for my session and sat back down on the black couch. It was here, staring at the self-help books, the advertisement for Colorado hemp honey and the essential oils display, that I began to feel my happiness recede. I still felt weightless, but I also felt empty. Surrounded by these commercial palliatives and expensive ways for coping with personal problems that had no single solution, I felt naive and stupid. Floating seemed too self-indulgent; the vacuum it provided felt vaguely inhuman.
If this all seems too vague, though, let’s try another thought experiment. Imagine a pond in the early spring. There’s no wind, and the water is still. No frogs hop about, no mosquitoes buzz above the water’s surface. You hear no sound except that of the improbable silence that surrounds you. Focus your attention on the absolutely motionless water and you’ll find that the pond’s tranquility inspires awe in the biblical sense of the word: it is both wonderful and dreadful. Confronting this pristine serenity, you feel a guilt well up inside you. You see, in this immaculate idyll, a peace that you know is unachievable, or at least something you could not survive for long. You realize that an hour of sensory deprivation is sublime–but subject a person to it for a day, let alone a month or a year, and you have one of the most brutal and inhumane forms of punishment ever devised.
To experience nothingness for a fleeting moment may be wonderful, but it is untenable, a neverworld of sorts. On its surface, it is charming, but a surface is just that–a facade, an incomplete vision of life. Really, floating is a conceit, that if you stare at the empty pond long enough, you will eventually grow placid too. It is not a cure, for it belies the fact that we are doomed to choice, to rumination and to regret only if we are lucky.