Los Angeles seems to be the testing grounds for the latest snake oil diets, weird versions of yoga, and other whacky mind and body improvement methods. I'm an L.A. transplant from Indiana, so even the most mainstream of mind exercises, like meditation, feels a little too hippy for me.
However, many of these hippy methods have now been rebranded with a badass buzzword -- biohacking -- and all of the sudden, I have become a willing guinea pig for L.A.'s weirdest biohacks. Is it because I'm the type of guy who would never touch something called Patagonian toothfish, but now happily devour it as Chilean sea bass? Or is it because I'm a sucker for any cheap Instagram likes? In the words of Sterling Archer, it's probably "a little column A and a little column B."
One mind-body experience with an irresistible name for me, a self-proclaimed sci-fi geek, is the sensory deprivation tank. All I knew of sensory deprivation tanks, or isolation tanks, was that biohacking enthusiasts like Joe Rogan hail them as mind-blowing, life changing experiences.
This of course intrigued me because Rogan played my fourth favorite character in my second favorite sitcom of all time (seriously, NewsRadio had the deepest cast in history behind Cheers).
In-depth Google dives offered conflicting testimonials. Some dismissed the practice as merely floating in a tub of salt water in a tiny pitch-black room, while others declared it a transformative, psychological journey nothing short of becoming the Starchild from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many friends had heard of it but they were all too terrified to try it. I was determined to be our human guinea pig.
My attitude was fairly blasé when I walked into the lobby of the Float Clinic in Torrance, California. The atmosphere was an appropriate blend of an overpriced hotel spa and Tom Wilkinson's office in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The only employee working was a soft-spoken man with a beard who gave me a waiver to sign, as expected. What I did not expect was one peculiar phrase buried deep in the fifth paragraph of otherwise standard legal jargon:
Risks and dangers may arise from foreseeable or unforeseeable causes including, but not limited to, my own determination, where I guide myself, where and how I move or travel, in my own decision making, including that I may misjudge myself, routes, locations, perceptions, and level of control...
I went full Keanu and involuntarily muttered, "Whoah." What shenanigans went down to warrant their lawyers insisting on that specific language? Where the hell were these routes and locations that I may or may not be misjudging?
The Phillip K. Dick legalese sent shivers down my spine, but I quickly parried them off with the logic that if isolation tanks were this bananas, they would be outright illegal.
The employee took my form and led me to a tiny room with a large shower. I jammed in the provided earplugs, took an awkward silent shower, and opened a small door in the wall: the gate to my tank.
I climbed into the tank, which was the size of a modest walk-in closet and flooded with two feet of room temperature water. I took a breath, shut the door, and became immersed in cave-like darkness. I crawled through the water to the back of the tank and spun around in a crouched position.
My first thought was, "yep, this is just going to be an hour and a half long salty bath in a dark room. I should have brought my iPhone."
I slid feet first and lay face-up in the warm water, and, sure enough, misjudged myself, routes, locations, perceptions, and level of control.
I cannot stress how quickly the following happened. Immediately after I lay on my back and with my arms at my sides, my brain went haywire.
Yes, on paper, I was merely floating in a tank wearing earplugs. I won't pretend to know the science behind why I lost control, but it was mental chaos. It started with the instant feeling of reclining in a hospital bed hurling through outer space. But I hadn't moved at all.
Meanwhile, I was wrestling a legitimate panic attack. My heart pounded. My mind was an indecipherable jumble of fear. It was a terrifying feeling for which I had no context to compare. It felt like I was going to die if I didn't get out of that tank.
I was ready to bail on the whole damn thing, but at the last second, I remembered a mediation technique I had heard of where you count up to seven and back down again -- over and over. And it worked!
I slowly chilled out. My heart rate returned to normal. I wasn't going to die. Most importantly, I wasn't quitting yet.
The space hospital feeling left, but I still felt weightless for the most part, except for an incredible strain on my neck. I tilted my head up and leaned it back, but I couldn't rid of the pressure.
I became more comfortable, but it wasn't long before I discovered that my initial panic was merely the opening ceremony to the mental Olympics.
My thoughts started racing as if my neurons were doing blow in a bathroom with Charlie Sheen. One thought would lead to the next and to the next in short bursts with wonky transitions. I would think about LA's great burgers, then how buffalo should be more popular than beef, then how insane it is that buffalo used to cover the U.S., and then decided I would totally watch a Pixar movie about a buffalo...
It was like James Joyce wrote Ulysess as a BuzzFeed article. And the stream of conscious thoughts came terrifyingly faster and faster. I couldn't dam up the flow. I found myself having Gollum-ish arguments about my life choices and the life choices of the characters in Doug.
I couldn't tell if it had been twenty minutes or an hour -- and then suddenly my mind was blank as if I had violently vomited out every thought I had ever had.
I sank into a powerfully deep zone and felt like I was floating around in nothingness. This lasted until I heard my phone vibrate through the wall.
I knew I had made a rookie mistake. I didn't put my phone on silent. Would this screw up the experience? Were my eyes supposed to be opened or closed? Was I too near the walls? Why won't my neck stop straining? I blew it.
And then, out of nowhere, classical music sprouted through the speakers to signal that my float was over. So I crawled through the door and reentered the world.
I was serenely relaxed for the rest of the night, with both my mind and body in a calm harmony.
The "Beginner's Guide to Floating" brochure they handed me described isolation tanks as a type of forced meditation. If that's the case, I was a soldier with no combat experience pushed out of a Higgins boat to storm Meditation Beach. It was scary, intense and an adventure deep into my mind.
Is the isolation tank merely meditating in a dark room of salty water, or is it 2001 Starchild The Ride? It's probably a little column A and a little column B.
At the very least, it could be a way to purge from life's pesky thoughts and media saturation that's constantly crammed in our brains. I'm convinced if I try it again, I won't freak out and will reach the mediation portion faster. Only this time, I'll be sure to turn off my phone.