The Thrill of Suspension

Story by Michael Shapiro. Photo by James Anshutz

When I meet Geoff Sato, he is kneeling, serenely collecting plumeria blossoms.

He stands to greet me slowly, deliberately, as if there’s nothing else on his to-do list than stand up. “Welcome,” he says in a voice one shade shy of soporific, his smile taking a full two seconds to complete itself. With his shaved head and unhurried gait, Sato reminds me of a Zen monk. It’s obvious: This is a man who floats.

Sato started Dream Float Hawaii, currently the only isolation tank on O‘ahu that’s open to the public. He guides me toward the waiting area in his East Honolulu home, where a woman who’s just finished her ninety-minute “float” is sprawled on a couch, working her way out of a trance. Isolation tanks were invented in 1954, when neuropsychiatrist John C. Lilly of the National Institute of Mental Health wanted to find out what the brain would do if deprived of light, sound, smell, touch or a sense of gravity and temperature—basically all external stimuli. One hypothesis held that it would simply enter a sleeplike stasis. Instead, sensory deprivation generated all kinds of altered states: visions, out-of-body experiences, phantasmagorical journeys and, yeah, the occasional freak-out.

The notion that sensory deprivation might have therapeutic benefits has been bobbing around in the New-Age zeitgeist for decades, but floating has only been mainstream since about 2010, Sato says, when “float spas” started opening around the world. That’s when Sato had his first float in San Francisco, a birthday Groupon from his girlfriend (who’s now his wife). “I came out feeling better than I’ve ever felt,” he says, and he wanted to do it all the time. So in 2015 he bought a tank, mainly just for himself and his friends to enjoy. But word spread and now, only a year later, you have to book two weeks out for a session.

Sato leads me to the dimly-lit sanctum where the “pod” sits (though “coffin” might be a more apt descriptor for what it looks like) and gives me a quick rundown of its operation: Fill the tank with ten inches of water, then add a thousand pounds of Epsom salts. Heat to about 94 degrees. The result-ant solution is ten times the salinity of seawater. (For those who balk at marinating in lukewarm human brine, the water is thoroughly filtered and UV purified between sessions.)

Now, I’m a journeyman psychonaut. I meditate, practice yoga. I’m familiar with the amorphous terrain of inner space, which is why I feel a twinge of anxiety when I step through the pod’s hatch and into ninety minutes of oblivion, with only my own circuitry for company. Occasionally someone can’t handle what their mind throws at them, Sato says, but if things get weird I can just, you know, get out.

I close the hatch and recline into the silky, slippery water. The darkness is so deep I can feel it, a physical pressure. For the first time since the womb I am weightless, completely buoyed—even my head. For the first half hour—or is it an hour? No clue—my body will have none of it, tensing as though it thinks I’m in some endless free fall. But through a combination of willpower and deep breathing, I loosen up. Then I do fall—into a physical stillness so profound I can hear blood surging in my head, feel my pulse vibrating in my rib cage. Unable to sense a temperature differential, I lose the boundary where the world ends and I begin—until my pinkie brushes a wall, a sensation so shocking it’s like being blasted awake by a fire alarm.

Very cool, I think. And I think: How long has it been? How much longer do I have? When do the visions start? What am I going to write about? What’s it cost to ship a thousand pounds of Epsom salts to Hawai‘i? Then soft music interrupts my mental chatter—float’s over.

“How’d it go?” Sato asks after I’ve showered. “Pretty noisy,” I say, “for sensory deprivation.” Sato smiles his preternaturally tranquil smile because he knows exactly what I mean. And that I’ll be back. HH