BY: DANIEL KORN
I’m on the phone with Jesse Ratner-Decle, the owner of Float Toronto, a sensory-deprivation-tank centre on the west end of the city. Customers pay to go into an enclosed, pitch-black, completely soundproof tank and float on their backs in a dense mixture of water and magnesium sulfate (often referred to as “Epsom salt”) for about an hour. Tomorrow, I will be one of these people.
After Jesse and I work out an appointment, we go over some of the precautions I should be aware of: don’t shave beforehand, because the salt will get into the recently-opened pores and cause an unpleasant burning sensation; if you have any open cuts, the water will sting, so be aware of that; finally, eat a small meal 60-90 minutes before your appointment. “The reason why I say a small meal,” says Ratner-Decle, “is because if you eat a really heavy one right before, you might actually hear it digesting in your stomach.”
I’m nervous as I head down Gladstone Ave. towards the venue. It’s a weird idea, being left to your own devices for such a prolonged amount of time. It’s not particularly controversial to state that we live in a time of over-stimulation; our attentions are pulled in every which way by incessant advertising, blinking smartphones, and lives impregnated with social media—we are never disconnected. We are never alone.
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As I pace down the sidewalk, I’ve got headphones on with music blaring as usual. In my knapsack is a portable game console, a novel, and my laptop; the idea of being left to my own thoughts, even for one minute, is alien to me. I know I’m not alone in this.
I am greeted at the venue by a warm handshake and a big smile by muscular guy with the speech pattern of a surfer. Jesse hands me a waiver on a clipboard, and asks me to take a look at it while he attends to some other patrons. The first thing I have to declare on the form is that I am not currently drunk or on any drugs. Jesse later tells me about how floating first started gaining popularity as “a hippie thing, more about consciousness-expanding by mixing it with psychedelics”, such was the psychedelic exploration of psychonauts like John Lilly.
More recently, sensory deprivation has become focused around the health benefits. Jesse should know, he studied holistic medicine in Montreal. When I told some friends of mine that I’d be doing this, they jokingly suggested that I take some mushrooms first. After a quick browse through Reddit and drugs-forum.com, they aren’t the only ones to have had similar ideas.
Once I fill out the form, Jesse recommends that I first head to the bathroom so as not to be disturbed from my float by any unwanted biological needs. I must be nervous because I pee three times. Afterwards, he shows me to the tank, which shares a room with a private shower. It’s boxier than I thought, looking more like an oblong bunker than the slick space-age pod I had imagined. Looking at it now, I may have just contracted claustrophobia.
He instructs me on the protocol: take a quick shower but make sure your face is bone-dry before you head into the tank – you don’t want to be wiping any liquid off of your face within, because that leads to a higher risk of getting the saltwater in your eyes. Put in some earplugs and get a good seal. Then float into oblivion. He mentions that he’ll play some light music through the speakers in the tank to “bring me back”. Then he leaves me. I’ll be inside for just over an hour.
I close the door quietly. I decide not to lock the door, just in case.
I follow the process like a monk. As I stick one foot into the tank, the resistance of the water surprises me—it feels like I’m stepping into a stretched rubber band that refuses to snap. I submerge. Click goes the hatch.
At first I tighten up, not fully trusting the liquid to keep me afloat. After a couple minutes, I let my legs go limp, and I am satisfied to know I’m not drowning. The only thing I can see is blackness; the only thing I can hear is my heartbeat.
It’s a funny thing, doing nothing for an extended period of time. Small changes gain increased meaning— I become hyper-aware of the mechanics of my shifting muscles. Just the movement of my hands from above my head to behind it is an event. Time loses all method of measurement, but breath after breath. Time is not a number anymore, just moments unfolding.
I begin to lose all sense of my physicality. It feels as though I am nothing more than a series of thoughts floating in space, unhindered by the vessel of my body.
For a glorious hour, I’m not thinking about Netflix, or deadlines, or why the last girl I dated decided she wasn’t into me. I’m just floating.
When my session is up and the music kicks in through the speakers, a grin cracks across my face uncontrollably.
When I emerge, I can feel my eyes swallowing the light of the room. This must be what a newborn feels like. After I’m dry, I put my clothes back on and head out to the lounge area, where I pour myself a cup of peppermint tea and sit down on a very comfy leather chair. Another man is sitting on a couch. I ask him if it was his first time too, and he smiles, nods and says that he doesn’t really know what to say. I agree. We don’t talk after that, but not out of awkwardness, but out of peace. He stares up at the ceiling, while my attention focuses on a small candle in the lap of a Buddha statue.
After ten minutes or so, when my post-float daze has worn off a bit, Jesse takes a seat on the couch and we chat. I intended to record this for quotes, but didn’t end up doing so; my phone was in my pocket, and turned on, but it seemed like heresy to break the peace with technology. Jesse says his goal is to get everyone to float; I ask him if he thinks the relatively high cost of floating limits people who could really use it. He agrees that it’s a good question, but is adamant that if someone really wants to float, he can find a way to make it work. In fact, he just traded a Float Toronto membership for Muay Thai lessons.
We finish the interview, shake hands, and I grab my jacket and knapsack from the front of the venue. It’s dark out now and the cool, mild downtown air gently strokes my cheeks as I open the door. I start walking to my bus stop, and though I know that gravity is holding me to the pavement, it still feels like I’m floating.