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Altered States

isolation-tank2_500It is 1983. I gave up LSD and other drugs as a significant pastime several years previous because my ego solidified. Any further doses of drug simply make me bored and irritated. It has been over between me and altered states of consciousness for years. Others who are uncomfortably close to me continue to ply me with hallucinogens, hypnotics, stimulants and depressants. Tools of seduction? Supplication? Alienation? The personality distortion in this continuing aftermath of “druggeria” has created issues: psychic confusion and for lack of a better term, hysteria, with serious lapses in judgment and compromised self control. But my body is sound, and it continues to be the ballast of this very unstable mental atmosphere in which I waft.

The flotation chamber is in an apartment in West Hollywood. I don’t recall the name of the business, something like Altered States? The apartment is like the home of a man I dated, with trepidation, several years previous. (Only once, because the trepidation was justified.) There is an air of experimentation and illicitness about the whole float operation, like this tank business is an idea hatched by faux floaters, people whose Dionysian impulses were floating on a solid ground of enterprise. I am a real floater, see, and I have nothing to show for it, which is as it should be. I’m not even paying, I am using a gift certificate from a friend, whose motives I suspect. So—no, not even high–in I go, true to form, with and without qualms, fill out the paperwork, get naked, take a shower, put on a robe, and pad into a room with a large tank shaped something like an oversized water heater laying on its side. Disrobing, I slip in through a sort of porthole, close it behind me, ease myself into the water, and float.

My hour in the tank I pass through several states of dream, where I am floating on a river of soft hands, or adrift in a still sea of ink, or gathered up on a cloud in deep space. There is faint new age music playing, which I forgive, and forget who I am, whoever that was. In the days following my time in the tank, the relaxation of my muscles is deep to the bone, and sitting in wide second position I can lay my entire torso to the floor and hang my body over my legs, slide down into the splits and rise back up like Little Richard, and do innumerable backbends effortlessly. This wears off after about five days, and I go back to my normal state of mediocre physical ability.


The AIDS epidemic closed down the flotation chamber business, and there was nothing further to think about this slightly sinister but eminently pleasurable experience for many years. Then recently I read an article in the New York Times about a new fad in New York City, the sensory deprivation chamber/flotation tank. Something clicks, and I do a quick search for flotation tanks Los Angeles. I am slightly nervous as I open my search engine, as though the article in the New York Times will have started a huge wave of flotation popularity and I will never get a date to float. Apparently I really liked the tank, way back then. Something was deeply compelling me to repeat the experience.

Of course, now I am over sixty. My body is like an old car with dents and deteriorated paint. I let my gray hair grow out so that I would no longer be fooling myself. My heart no longer beats in a steady rhythm, but a sort of helter skelter syncopation because I refuse to give up coffee, and my sinuses are always reacting to any number of allergens. But I trust that I will not die as I float.

Now, that was a very long preamble, and perhaps a fresh young soul would just begin their account by saying that the Float Lab location I visited was in the heart of Westwood Village in the basement of a modern office building. They would, I daresay, not mention the creepy youth vibe, only creepy because it is incongruous with the weirdly seedy quality of Westwood (or maybe not). Westwood Village, for as long as I have been in L.A., has been a place where businesses are continually tanking, and where there are ubiquitous homeless or mentally ravaged folks sharing the streets with callow college youths.

The door to the office building at the Float Lab address is imposingly large and of steel. A laminated sign asks that you call the Lab on your cellphone to gain entry. Good I didn’t stow the phone in the car, I think, as I wait… when a man answers and instructs me to press B on the elevator. The basement, I think, oh no. When the elevator doors open on B I step into a smartly designed reception lounge with a tech forward feel to it, sort of like walking into a hard drive. It’s warm in there, heated to about 80º. A bunch of young kids who look like UCLA students are sitting around on the lounge couches. The receptionist, appealingly disheveled and slightly dissipated, is just the right combination of welcoming and chilly. I only half think I am projecting when I figure him for being a regular user of psychotropics, either now or in the not too distant past. The last thing you would want going into a strange place where you are going to float would be a theme park-style greeting from a fake wholesome lad or lassie waiting for their first big CWtv role. I am directed to the bathroom, which is pristine and of completely hard surfaces. It is designed to reassure you that no pathogen would feel welcome, much less have the temerity to reproduce there. During the very short wait there is an information sheet to read in the reception area, laminated in plastic like the sign outside, facts about the water cleansing system which sounds adequately dangerous for germs, and the thousands of pounds of Epsom Salts that are dissolved in the baths.

I am glad that I was on time, because it seems that the schedule is fairly tight. Six people were booked in to the 9pm time slot, and four of them were already waiting when I arrived at 9pm precisely. The last one could not have been more than five minutes late. Once everyone has arrived, another attendant checks us all in, and we are given a quick tutorial on the use of the baths. Then we’re sent to choose a seat in an adjacent hallway, next to the antechamber from which we will enter our personal floatation chamber. “You see, you have the orange door,” the attendant says to me. Oh, I thought it was red. I turn up the light a bit and see, yes, orange. We are instructed to take off our shoes and leave them on the floor under our chair, then take all other belongings into our personal anteroom and lock the door behind us, so that we can rest assured that no one will be entering our personal space. I have a slight problem with the lock on my door, but the dissipated attendant kindly shows me how it locks, and then rattles it from the outside to show me that I am secure and private within.

The anteroom to the float chamber has a changing area and a rainfall shower stocked with Dr. Bronner’s soap and Trader Joe’s natural hair products. It has the same very hygienic tiled surface as the bathroom off the reception lounge. You shower before going in, pop in the earplugs supplied by Float Lab, and then to the float chamber. Mine has the shiny red-orange door so cheerful and reassuringly modern. Inside there are hand rails on the walls on either side, black plastic-lined soft insulated walls above a tiled pool about 18” deep. Into the water I go, and with one hand on the rail I shut the door. It is now entirely black, and I lie down in the salt water bath, where I float. It takes a few minutes for my muscles to completely relax. The water is warm and the only sounds are very distant, faintly mechanical building sounds, my breath and my heart.


The water is like a skin, an inverse of my body, made of softly rippling flower petals or fur, and the temperature is almost unsettlingly perfect. They say it is skin temperature, so I had worried it would be too cool, but this is not like a bath that is always cooling down—the air is tropical, so you are surrounded by air and water that matches your physical body. Resistances relent. I begin in the session by practicing very basic mindfulness, but soon realize even this minimal effort is superfluous: the sensual perfection is such that I find myself without thoughts, for long spacious stretches of time, listening to my heart, and interrupted only by my breathing, which has slowed so much, because of the deep relaxation into which I fall, that I tend to forget to breathe at all, and then need to make up for the lost oxygen by taking occasional deep long breaths. As the novelty of the state of perfect physical calm and comfort wears off, I begin to explore my surroundings, the soft plastic of the walls, the smooth tile flooring with its slight chalky residue. I play with bouncing myself off the walls and floating slowly from one side to the other. Reach down to touch the bottom, measure the sides by touching them with my toes, spread eagling my legs, then crossing them. I pretend that I am dead and in a state of bliss and emptiness and unfettered awareness. Through this, there are so few thoughts that, as with breathing, I feel that having thoughts must be a conscious decision, and there is no pressure to decide on whether to have them or not. The channel changes, and I fret about my irregular and distracting heartbeat, which for a while seems to echo from somewhere deep in a vein in my groin. I notice that my nose is stuffy, but the air is so moist that breathing through my mouth causes no discomfort.

The time becomes oceanic, and at some point I realize I have no sense of how long I have been floating there. I sleep, I think, without dreaming, more like trance where all the usual brain busy-ness is suspended. But looking back now I cannot be sure if it was sleep, dream, trance, meditation, torpor, phantasy, or simply a very peaceful void where one state follows the next, the usual, the unusual. I am roused by a gentle tapping on the side wall of the chamber, and slowly grope my way to the door. Engaging my muscles to walk feels strange, as though I am roughly aborting my transformation to water creature.

Blue space mandala, computer generated abstract background

Afterwards my skin is velveteen, no shriveling in the fingers or toes like after a normal bath. I comment on this to the kindly dissipated attendant, and he agrees that yes, this is the effect of the salt water, but he has no scientific explanation to offer me. The exit is in the alley, and I find my body has become warm to the core from the float chamber, so that the chill and dark of the night cannot penetrate. It is hard to accelerate my car on the freeway; I have to force myself to the speed limit, and at home there is nothing but solid bed, the cat and dreamless slumber.

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