What Is It Like to Float in Total Darkness?

And is this the path to true relaxation? These are questions we wanted answers to.

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Modern living is defined by constant overstimulation. The device you're likely reading this on—the very same one with which you text, Tweet, Instagram, check the weather, tell the time, and receive calls from your mother—is something we clutch tightly in our hands at nearly all hours of the day. What would it be like to turn it all off for a while? Wouldn't your brain, and general sense of well-being, benefit from a brief pause from round-the-clock access to tiny supercomputers?

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This is how I began thinking about sensory deprivation tanks. What are those, you ask? They're structures designed to create a womb-like experience, filled with skin-temperature (93.5 fahrenheit) water infused with enough epsom salt to allow one to float effortlessly. Their purpose is to help induce deep, meditative relaxation—and people have even reported achieving such altered states that they experience hallucinations while inside them.

A little oasis away from it all, in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn.
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When I find out that Lift, a spa-style business with a number of such tanks, has opened in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill neighborhood, I immediately make an appointment ($99 for a one-hour session). I tell my colleagues of my plans, and they express their concerns: Maia (social media editor) worries I'll like it too much and go broke depriving myself of my senses, while Chantal (assistant editor) can't shake the irrational fear that I may never fully get back my senses, and might simply be deprived of them forever.

I'm here to report that, happily, neither of those fears turned out to be true, and that I did have a transformative—albeit not entirely relaxing—experience.

Phase One: Learning the Ground Rules

The last thing you'll see before starting your session.
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After a brief tour of the facility, I am led to a small room of wood and stone where I first lay eyes on the pod: it's a smooth white orb, cracked open like a clam shell, housing a small pool of water and radiating a deep, purple glow. It reminds me of something out of the science fiction films I've loved since childhood, a cute little UFO with a capacity of one. We're off to a good start.

The attendant proceeds to give me the rundown of how the whole process works: first I shower, then I get into the pod, then I close the lid. This last bit is the part I've been worried about, thinking it might be claustrophobia-inducing—but the pod is shaped in such a way that you can fully sit up if so desired, and it's even equipped with an easily accessible light switch and a button that triggers mellow, ambient music. Anxieties assuaged.

Where Lift's clients sit and decompress post-float.

Due to the abnormally high salt content of the water—1,000 pounds are used per pod, in order to help keep you afloat for the duration—she recommends adhering to the following cautionary measures: using the foam earplugs on offer; avoiding salt-induced stings by covering all cuts and abrasions with the provided Vaseline; and, lastly, being extra careful about getting salt water in my eyes (a common rookie mistake, apparently). I nod along vigorously—the same exact way I do whenever I'm introduced to people for the first time and immediately forget their names.

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Phase Two: I Do Not Feel Relaxed

I disrobe, shower, step into the pod, and promptly ignore all of her advice. Once I turn the lights off and am floating on my back in total darkness, I discover I didn't properly squish the foam earplugs when inserting them, and I'd completely forgotten about the cut on my right pinky I'd gotten while playing with my dog. The ear plugs pop out, and my finger begins to sting intensely.

The pod: more spacious than I'd initially imagined.
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I fumble for the light switch, pop the lid open, tend to my cut, put the ear plugs back in, close the lid, and turn out the light once more. I press the button that triggers the ambient music and begin to space out. I draw my hands away from the edge of the pod so I feel nothing touching me aside from the warm, relaxing water. I begin to feel so calm that I allow my eyes to slowly drift open—and that's when they fill with salt water.

I turn the light back on, grab a towel, dry my face, turn the light off again, and return to floating.

This comedy of errors continues for about 20 minutes—or was it 5 minutes? The salt lingers in my wound; the burning sensation in my eyes persists; the water trickles into my ears.

And then it all stops.

Phase Three: Beyond Relaxation

I suddenly find myself in a state not unlike lucid dreaming, similar to that elusive, wondrous feeling I get some mornings when I hover ever-so-delicately between wakefulness and sleep. Except instead of just being a fleeting moment, it keeps going—for minutes on end. The blackness in front of my eyes seems to slowly dissipate, and I begin to think I can make out blue skies, a glass structure, and a small gathering of people. 

Phase Four: The Aftermath

The lights go up and a soothing voice alerts me that my hour is up. I emerge from the pod with a deep, lingering sense of calm—one that proceeds to stay with me all day long. When I get to work, I feel lighter in my desk chair, and my eyes seem to be more open than usual.

This sensation even follows me home later that night, where I attempt to relate my experience to my girlfriend. I find it all hard to put into words, and just find myself saying one thing over and over: we need to spend more time daydreaming. 

If you're in New York City and would like to try it for yourself, see liftfloats.com.

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