Float Tanks: Why Nothingness Makes Something-ness So Much Better

Activity and rest, focused concentration and dispersed awareness, something and nothing:  on each opposing side of these dualities, there is a positive and negative. Though we often like to focus on the positives, stay active, and maintain focus, we need balance. Within these dualities, each side needs the other. For example, without restful people, active people would just be people. In our day-to-day lives, we active Colorado College students are seemingly always engaged in something, whether it’s coursework, extracurriculars, or recreation. Rarely do we find ourselves with nothing to do, and when we find ourselves in this situation, we often grasp for our phones or laptops, rather than taking time to sit with ourselves. Have you ever really gotten to know what it is like to be you without any worldly distractions? This is exactly what a sensory deprivation tank forces you to do.

Illustration by Lily O’Dowd

About a year ago, I stepped into an isolation tank for a 90-minute session preparing to lose myself in nothingness. But I did just the opposite. The experience of a floatation tank is surreal. The tank is a soundproof, pitch black, odorless box, filled with about 10 inches of super-saturated saltwater. The float tank contained 900 pounds of Epsom salts in a roughly bathtub-sized volume of water. This massive quantity of salt increases the density of the water to the point where one can effortlessly float supine in the tank. The combination of all these factors as well as the temperature of the air and water in the tank being precisely body temperature allows one to become completely dissociated from one’s body in the tank. 

When I first stepped into the tank and closed the door, the first thing I noticed was the deafening silence, promptly giving way to my realization of a faint ringing in my ears. I often notice ringing as I’m falling asleep after attending a loud concert, or if I hold my breath for too long, but this ringing was different. It was a faint tone that I had been living with my whole life, but had never noticed until this point. 

As my attention drifted away from sound and toward my body, I realized that I couldn’t locate it. Staying perfectly still allowed my body to melt away into the salt water, and soon, I was unable to tell where my body ended and the water began. This was at about the five-minute mark. From this point on, it was just me and time and nothing else. Unable to distract myself from myself, I was forced to confront my very consciousness divorced from my physical being. It was the most bored I had ever been in my life. 

As time continued to pass, my expectations of a mystical experience accompanied by hallucinations and profound self-realizations were squashed. To pass the time, I began singing songs in my head, but that soon felt repetitive and like a waste of my time. I then moved on to exploring my own memories, thinking of my dog and my friends, but with my consciousness divorced from my body, these memories of my bodily form seemed insignificant. While in the tank, my grasp on the passage of time completely disappeared. Time seemed to come to a stand-still, and my brain began trying to convince me that time had stopped entirely. This thought pervaded, relentlessly leading all my mental activity to the notion of eternity. 

With eternity on my mind and absolute nothingness as my experience, for a brief moment I had the thought that I was dead, but immediately after this, I noticed my heartrate spike. This thought and the anxiety it produced shocked me out of this eternal nothingness I had entered. I remembered that my heart was still beating and I was still breathing, and these two things reminded me that time must still be passing and that I must be alive. I began focusing on my breathing and continued until my hour and a half was up.

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