Floating into Consciousness

06:00 December 19, 2015
By: Paul Bentley

Taking a dip inside the Space Sanctuary's Sensory Deprivation Tank

The Space Sanctuary inside Castillo Blanco Art Studios, located at 4321 St. Claude Avenue, is not the typical sensory deprivation tank spa, if that image is typical at all. Upon entering the studio, there is a small stage for live shows and a contemporary art gallery. The entire premises are basically an art exhibit—it stores all of the floats for Chewbacchus and other Mardi Gras parades. Past the aisle of floats (the epic statue of Chewbacca roaring, the enormous cow’s head that’s about the size of six of me) lies the isolation tank, the cosmic bathtub, the latest art installation at Castillo Blanco. The tank itself looks somewhat like a very large household water heater, a big round and silver tank located in the center of a dark room. But the glow-in-the-dark psychedelic artwork carved into its walls—encasing the entire chamber—certainly eliminates any spooky environments where water heaters are generally found and creates a surreal spacecraft effect. 

The primary purpose of isolation tank treatment is to relieve stress, both mentally and physically, by depriving oneself of sight, sound and touch—but the appeal is not limited to strictly therapeutic effects. “The sensory deprivation chamber appeals to people who are looking for alternative healing mechanisms—you know, people with bad backs, chronic muscle pains and such—it’s fantastic for that. It also appeals to people interested in consciousness exploration that doesn’t involve drugs. Its sort of a high-end toy for meditation,” explains Ryan S. Ballard, artist and co-installer of the Castillo Blanco Space Sanctuary (sensory deprivation tank).

Floating into Consciousness

The isolation tank essentially creates an easy-flowing passage to deep meditation—a level of meditation that normally would take years of practice to achieve. I confidently admit that I am one stressed-out individual at the moment, and I have not found a very helpful form of relief yet. My previous attempts at meditation were never consistent enough to become beneficial, so I figured this tour guide into the inner layers of contemplation and relaxation would be worth a try. “After exiting the isolation tank—or the space coffin—for the first time, the physical and meditative benefits are almost immediate. You’ll feel like you just left a yoga class or woke from a long nap. After about five or six sessions in the tank, I experienced the consciousness-expanding benefits: the hallucinatory and visual experiences. After about 10 or 15 sessions, the out-of-body experience occurred,” Ballard recounts. 

Before entering the chamber, I had to pay tribute to the “shrine of the sacred drunken wookie” that sat outside the door like the Queen’s Guard. The mini monument was composed of wookie action figures, ornamental skulls, candles, the standard alien faces, Darth Vader and Stormtrooper paraphernalia and Peter Mayhew’s (the actor who played Chewbacca) sock in a glass case. “Yep, Peter Mayhew sent me a little relic for the altar,” Ballard says. The room that holds the tank is not lighted by bulbs, but by glowing psychedelic art covering the walls. The artwork is quite beautiful and geometric, hand-carved into the walls by a team of artists hired by Ballard. 

I realized that I was asleep…or something like it. I felt like I was in the space between consciousness and repose.

There is a small bathroom with a shower behind the tank; you are required to take a shower before entering the tank, and are recommended to rinse off afterwards. There are filters in the tank that kill bacteria, but close to 100% cleanliness is a must for this business. Ballard briefed me on what to do, pointed to the intercom on the wall in case I had any questions during the session and then left me to begin my float. 

After a quick shower, I dried off and opened the cosmos coffin to find the interior tank lights on, which gave the water a greenish, glowing tint. Because the water has 800 lb of Epsom salt suspended in it, it causes you to stay afloat. The salt-to-water ratio also gives the water a thicker density than usual, almost like a thin gelatin.

After a guesstimate of five minutes inside the tank (even your sense of time becomes absent in there), I became a bit anxious, hoping that I wouldn’t feel the sliver of some underwater critter graze my leg. Ballard had assured me that panic attacks were not common in the tank, but it was still pretty unnerving for a while: all I heard was my own heartbeat, and it was so dark that I couldn’t tell whether my eyes were open or shut. But after some time (however many minutes, I’m not sure), I realized that I was asleep…or something like it. I felt like I was in the space between consciousness and repose. I was able to watch my dreams rather than be in them; I was the director rather than the protagonist. This is not to say that I was what people call “lucid dreaming” (where you control your actions in a dream), I was simply able to pick and choose them. At one point, the image of a galloping horse appeared in the left periphery of my mind, then two more nonsensical images that I cannot recall clearly (like most normal dreams) appeared in the center and right side of my cerebrum, as if the images were displayed on three flat-screen TVs in front of me. I focused on the galloping horse—what looked to be a GIF of a cartoon bronco running through a valley—and then I fell asleep for real. It was a totally typical sleep.

Floating into Consciousness

After exiting the tank and showering, my body felt very relaxed and composed, but I can’t say the same for my mind. My stress wasn’t any worse than before, but it wasn’t better either. I didn’t have an epiphany, as some “floaters” swear by, but all in all it was not a bad exploit by any means. In only one session (three are recommended for the tank’s functions to be fully effective), I experienced some very unusual occurrences—dreamscapes that I’d never observed before, the soothing sensation of Epsom salt in my muscles—but I still drove home just as frustrated and stressed by the random 6:45 traffic jam as I usually would be.  

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