At 47, Bill Sawicki has lived the life of a new-age Renaissance man, having been a professional dancer, artist, astrologer, independent filmmaker, massage therapist, and publisher of a small “human potential” magazine. Now he’s running the Float Experience out of the basement of his house in Andersonville.

Bill offers his customers astrological advice, shiatsu massage therapy, and workshops on left-brain/right-brain integration. But the main attraction is floating in one of his two sensory-deprivation tanks. With all these services Bill’s business can be seen as either a center for the advancement of human potential or the new-age equivalent of a crack house.

Bill subscribes to the philosophy that one’s house is a reflection of one’s personality, and an early-evening visit to his place bears this out. A small plaque hanging next to the front door reads “If there is no immediate answer, go around to the side entrance and ring bell.” Around by the side door hangs an identical sign directing visitors to try the front. Just as I’m beginning to think I’ve stepped into a Twilight Zone episode, Bill comes to the door and leads me down some steps into his basement.

There are two other float centers in the city, both located in business districts, both rather clinical. “This place has a little bit of a homey atmosphere,” he says, putting his feet up on the desk in what serves as his office. Across the room is an old couch and a rack of shelves crammed with new-age books. Examples of Bill’s own artwork are hung here and there, mystical paintings with titles like Cosmic Express. “When I opened my place, I used a little more creativity. I wanted more ambience–that’s why I have the Egyptian Room.”

The Egyptian Room is one of the tank rooms, decorated with wicker, soft orange lighting, and miscellaneous flea-market bric-a-brac with pyramid or sphinx motifs. A shower and toilet are in a small adjoining room. “I wanted to give people a little show, like when they go to Disneyland,” he says. “We get people here who feel that they can go back to ancient Egypt.” The other tank room is decorated with a huge wall poster showing a lunar view of the earth.

“Some famous writer said, ‘If you can’t be yourself, what the hell’s the use in being anything at all?’ And that’s one of my mottos–I have mottos all over this place.” No lie. Bill’s walls, even in the shower, are plastered with bumper stickers and scraps of paper relaying philosophical quotes and “old sayings.” He has a tendency to constantly sum up–his rambling tangents are punctuated by new-age sound bites. “I don’t just answer questions, I answer them,” he says.

Bill describes himself as a drugless hippie, a member of the “Peter Pan generation” whose search for himself took him from an interest in astrology to meditation to Eastern philosophy. He first tried floating on a whim while on a Florida vacation in 1981. Though unable to swim and afraid of water, he found his first tank experience cathartic. “It adrenalized me and got me fearful. And then when I realized I was safe, I collapsed and cried.”

Within a few weeks he floated again while attending a past-life-therapy conference in California (“techniques on reincarnation and stuff”). He was hooked. When he couldn’t find any place to float back home in Chicago, he decided to open his own center, which he did that spring.

Bill says an astrologer he consulted the previous October had foretold this business decision, which he realized when he played back the tape of his yearly progress chart. “I was shocked–I couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘Saturn is in the fourth house of your home, so it’s gonna be in your home. And it has to do with water, that’s all I know.'”

To go along with the tank experience, which costs $25, Bill offers the at-home version of the SynchroEnergizer, a light and sound machine designed to relax people by altering their brain-wave frequencies or EEG patterns. This device is basically a set of earphones and a pair of goggles with miniature lights inside. The lights flash in rhythms that are supposed to gradually lower your brain-wave rate, lulling you into relaxation. While all of this is happening you hear synchronized tones through the earphones (Bill recommends motivational and self-improvement tapes instead). It’s a little like having your brain assaulted with tiny karate chops through your eyes and ears. But Bill suggests everyone try it after floating. “It’s like icing on a cake,” he says.

The float tanks are oblong, horizontal affairs filled with about a foot of filtered, densely concentrated salt water. The salt increases your natural buoyancy, so that you rest more on the surface of the water than under it. When the lid is closed, you’re in total darkness and total silence (unlike the other float centers, where you can hear the noise of the el or people talking).

The average recommended float time is an hour, though customers can arrange to float longer if they want. Bill pipes music through speakers built into the tanks to ease people into the float, as well as to let them know when their time is up. The source of the music is a portable tape player on a shelf next to Bill’s desk; the left channel is labeled “Space,” the right, “Egyptian.” He invites people to choose the music they will hear from his collection, mostly new age and classical. “If they don’t ask for anything, I just play some nice, celestial-type, kind of meditative music.”

Commercial floating centers have been around since the 70s, but the average person tends to associate sensory-deprivation tanks with William Hurt’s regression in Altered States. Some people may also be familiar with John Lilly, whose pioneering work with tanks during the 1950s provided the inspiration for the movie. To most people, the concept of paying money to float in total isolation still sounds weird.

Bill sees floating as a way to unplug from the “karmic merry-go-round.” It’s “a pretty nice high, a buzz at first. It’s a nice relaxing thing. It’s a good place to go to be at peace with your thoughts.” And it’s a way for people to discover that “peace of mind and tranquillity aren’t outside of themselves.”

Bill is quick to point out that he doesn’t view floating as a cure-all

for Western angst or

a way to gain instant enlightenment. “Drugs weren’t a quick fix in the 60s or 70s, and floating isn’t a quick fix either.” Rather, he sees it as a transitory experience that can help people unwind and give them a chance to explore their minds. “Once they realize where it’s at, they start working on themselves. And once they realize they can’t buy serenity and peace of mind with one float, then they start realizing that the work is really on themselves and one hour in a tank isn’t going to change their lives.”

Michael Hutchison, author of The Book of Floating: Exploring the Private Sea, what seems to be the only book on floating, makes wildly enthusiastic claims that regular floating can improve physical and mental health, diminish pain, increase performance in work or school, reduce brain chemicals associated with stress and anxiety, and balance the usually dominant, detail-oriented left brain with the more creative and intuitive right brain. “When people come here, they’re trying to get direct access to their right brain,” Bill says. “Even if they don’t know that, it’s what they’re doing.” The most obvious effect of floating seems to be the lowering of brain-wave frequencies to the theta state–a level of consciousness we achieve daily just before falling asleep or waking up, a meditative state marked by particularly vivid mental imagery, free associations, and insightful access to normally unconscious thoughts.

Bill’s only other guest this evening is an apprehensive young accountant. As soon as he comes in, Bill gives him a sheet of instructions, then takes it right back. “You don’t have to bother reading that,” he says. “Give me that.” This is the accountant’s first experience with sensory-deprivation tanks. He says he signed up to float after reading an ad in the Discovery Center’s catalog that told him he would be part of a class but didn’t say anything about being in someone’s basement.

“It’s not a class, because you’re gonna float all by yourself,” Bill says. “The first experience is the float itself, and I’ll talk to you about it afterwards. So let’s go and put you in the tank, OK?”

The accountant is visibly nervous, but he follows Bill out of the office. “Come on, we’ll float you in the Outer Space Room.”

“The outer-space room?”

Bill tells him he’s going to float in his “birthday suit” and explains how music will be piped into the tank to let him know when his hour is up.

“So I’m in there an hour?”

Bill walks back into his office and sets about picking the perfect music to start the accountant off with. He finally decides on Pachelbel’s Canon in D. “Kinda like the theme from Ordinary People. It’s probably the most beautiful piece of music ever written–he’ll like that.”

Over an hour later the accountant emerges from the room, a spacey smile on his face. He appears eager to talk about his experience. “I feel like I’ve been asleep for hours. I feel lighter. Did I lose weight?”

Bill ignores this, sits him down on a couch, and hands him the “log book” in which floaters are supposed to write down their thoughts about the experience and read the thoughts of others. “If you don’t want to write anything, you can color. Some people color their impressions.”

A few minutes later Bill is trying to describe floating to a potential customer over the phone. The accountant looks up from the book and enthusiastically offers, “It’s like floating in space.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.