Float on

I found serenity buck-naked in a saltwater bathtub.

I hadn’t been searching for any miracle stress remedy when a friend suggested we visit a flotation tank — a lightless pod in which the user floats alone in water — in the waning days of this year’s winter break.

The idea had been spurred by a 2013 VICE documentary featuring the website’s intrepid science editor, who secluded himself with nothing but his own thoughts in a grassroots stab at psychedelic research.

“I prepare for a long and grueling excursion into the terra incognita of the human mind,” said the editor, Hamilton Morris, as he sipped water from a Mason jar and clambered inside the emptiness of the tank.

To me, visiting a tank was more of a fun diversion before heading back to Kingston, where 60 hours a week spent fretting over the operations and welfare of this newspaper loomed. One hour of quiet couldn’t hurt.

We set out from Ottawa — home of Canada’s government and shawarma joints on nearly every block, but no flotation tanks — one afternoon, bound for Toronto. I drove and my friend extolled the virtues of sensory deprivation from the passenger seat.

He had me convinced midway through the ride, after passing from clear weather into a snow squall and a lengthy stretch of newly formed ice. (The trouble started around Kingston, in a wry bit of symbolism.)

We arrived in Toronto that night, fingernails nibbled to the bone. The tank waited until the next day.

The spa we chose for our excursion was modest and pleasant; white-clothed employees prepared tea and oranges for a few customers, who emerged from back rooms in bathrobes with goofy smiles on their faces.

It was certainly a calmer working environment than defending editorial autonomy with a jagged stick.

We greeted a receptionist and filled out information sheets, including a question on how we’d heard of the flotation tank. One of the most cited references, according to the receptionist, was American comedian and tank enthusiast Joe Rogan, who Morris interviewed for his VICE series.

Rogan is known for frequenting flotation tanks under the influence of various hallucinogens — a practice this spa hastily forbade at the top of its terms of use agreement.

Clad in white robes of our own, we were directed to adjacent rooms, where we’d spend the next hour bobbing in saltwater.

My friend was shown to an egg-shaped pod, whose top half opened and clicked shut, encasing the user in darkness. I had opted for an “open concept” room, which contained a rectangular tub in which I would float aimlessly.

I shut the door and climbed in.

The first thing you notice is the black. The lights cut out as soon as my limbs dipped into the water; I raised my arms, but couldn’t discern them even right above my head. Drips of saltwater landed perilously close to my eyes.

One quirk of flotation is that time evaporates into a meaningless construct — and so these events unfolded in order, but without any known timeline.

I felt an intense desire to explore, which basically consisted of whirling my arms indiscriminately. I lay completely immobile, yet still pulled a series of 180-degree turns without realizing, until I felt varying texture on the side of the tub.

Aloud, I spit-balled any words or ideas that sprung to mind, without any other thoughts interrupting the stream of consciousness.

I tried to simulate anger and frustration by thinking of things and events that upset me. I couldn’t conjure either. I was at ease — a level of ease I’d never felt before.

Sensory deprivation implies the total loss of external sensation, but you only realize after that any light or sound must have been manufactured from within.

Suffice it to say that the patches of white lightning I saw and the crescendo of rumbling trains I heard encapsulated the purpose of the tank: the brain whirring to life and creating an experience out of nothing, unencumbered by anything outside the room.

And at the end, I lay in self-imposed silence, presented with the chance to think of nothing and be completely still.

The lights flicked on; I stumbled into my robe and into the hallway, grinning stupidly at the aide waiting outside. My muscles and mind were relaxed. I wandered for a few minutes in a lingering daze.

We dressed and tied our shoes and the spa manager — who isolated himself in the tank once a week, he said — regaled us with a story of his most memorable customer: a man who once fell asleep in the tub and couldn’t be woken by banging on the door, in such a state of bliss that he unknowingly wrested another 20 minutes of use.

We laughed. It was a drastic but understandable measure, it seemed, of warding off real life.

The need for escape is a feeling Fred Sherri knows well. The owner of Odyssey Float Spa in Stirling, Ont., Sherri said many of his clients seek flotation tanks for stress relief.

“The biggest things we see from clients are sleep problems or stress problems at night … they just can’t stop the train of thought of all the things they did throughout the day,” he said.

“The tank is actually able to quiet that and essentially turn it off. So you can go into a state that’s like a stasis state — a brain state where your body can start to regenerate.”

Sherri finds it difficult to explain his first floating experience. Put simply, he described it as a feeling of complete weightlessness, akin to plummeting through the sky.

The floating experience ultimately depends on the person and his or her background. Sherri practices meditation, and said his first time may differ from someone without that level of self-awareness.

“People a lot of times comment on feeling like they’re in the womb again,” he said. “And then the biggest thing that they point out … [after] the night of their first float is that they haven’t slept so well in months.”

They can credit sensory deprivation for that calming effect. It essentially forces the mind to stop thinking.

“It shuts down the input from all of your senses so your mind now really has no feedback mechanism. It’s not interpreting any data that’s coming in,” Sherri said. “You can’t feel anything you can’t hear anything, you can’t smell anything, and you can’t really taste anything when you’re in the tank, either.”

Many of Sherri’s clients remark how much more vivid their dreams are after floating. For some, it’s the first time they’ve dreamt in years.

“It would change your life, right? If you didn’t have dreams or anything like that for five or six or more years and then now, all of a sudden, you’re starting to have vivid dreams again,” Sherri said. “To see ladies that are in their 60s just light up when they come out of the room because of the experience that they have, it’s really rewarding.”

The float-centre owner said he enjoys helping people heal their minds, body and spirit. But he didn’t always intend to go into this particular type of business.

It wasn’t until his father passed away five years ago that Sherri — a former engineering student — began exploring meditation, hypnosis and past life regressions.

“[His death] sent me on … a spiritual journey where I was kind of trying to seek out what consciousness was and where we go when we pass.

“So I started building my own tanks and my own filtration systems and it’s kind of just snowballed from there,” he said. “It’s just [been] a four-year journey of figuring out life’s true purpose, and that’s where it ended up.”

— with files from Chloë Grande and Kate Meagher

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