The monkey-faced woman with the red hair, I'll be able to handle. And the debate with Fred over the keys, that's easy too, once I realize what's going on.

It's the Magnificent Careen that gets my attention. My torso tilts left, my feet right, an enormous rotation in space, it feels like -- total blackness with my body's starship shifting course, and any second the 2001 soundtrack might bite into the Blue Danube Waltz, if it weren't for a wisdom as old as the first bad gin drunk: What I've got here, lying in a Samadhi-brand Model C5 isolation tank in Silver Spring, Md., is a case of the whirlies.

The spinners? The martini merry-go-round when you climb into bed and the ceiling starts dialing? Whatever you call it, this case is stately, comfortable, even cosmic, but it feels so real , that's what bothers me.

I know that I'm lying in a four-by-eight tank, floating naked, soundproofed, on 180 gallons of water whose Dead Sea buoyance arises from the presence of 800 pounds of epsom salts. The water temperature is precisely 93.5 degrees, the temperature of the average human skin. I float on my back easily, with hands behind my head, feeling, seeing, hearing nothing.

Until the careen begins, lasting until curiosity or instinct or old gin wisdom impels me toward the old cure -- grab for the wall, the floor, anything. It turns out I've floated to the right, not the left. I'm no longer the Starship Enterprise, unless the Enterprise feels its shaving nicks sting in the epsom salts of outer space.

So... here... I... am. Which is to say nowhere, from my point of view. From yours, I'm lying in the back bedroom of a suburban house belonging to psychologist Fred Kleiner. Kleiner rents out tank time at $25 for the first hour, $15 for the second.

If any of the western outfits and franchise operators start moving in -- Los Angeles' Samadhi, Boulder's Colorado Tank Works, Autogenic in Phoenix -- Kleiner could face a fast run for the money. (Tanks sell for $1,000 and up, usually closer to $2,000). At Colorado, national sales manager Orvel Wilson talks about how "demand in the private sector is enough to make this business more consumer-oriented." He oversees franchises in Denver, Aspen, Austin, Tex., Atlanta and Evanston, Ill.

The long-term selling point, as opposed to some other mind-exploration techniques, is that nobody, apparently, has had bum trips. You can always just get out of the tank. And it's legal.

"Businessmen," says John Cartolano, at Autogenic Tank Company in Phoenix. "That's who we're trying to reach, because that's where the stress is."

Says Lee Leibner, 46, co-owner of Samadhi: "We sold one to a member of the House of Representatives in Oklahoma, to a member of the City Council in Los Angeles, to a couple of rock stars. I do an hour and a half in it every day, first thing in the morning. I organize my day, design things, work on emotional problems. Sometimes I just disappear into fantasy land. It would be perfect for businessmen."

Of course, if the good-for-harried-executives rap sounds familiar, it's because the Transcendental Meditation people sold it so hard all those years before they started promising to teach you how to fly.

"Last night my wife and I were up till four, we got into something, a big debate. I got in the tank for two hours this morning, and I felt fine," says Fred Kleiner, owner and proprietor, before my trip. He has bare feet, a moustache, a sweatshirt, and a guitar sitting in the corner of his office. I can tell it's his office because of the batacas, which are two padded bats "people use to pound on the chairs, get a lot out of their systems. We also do some screaming here, but pretty much the counseling is just talking."

His clients don't use the tank. "Mostly it's people who want to explore." The question is: Why?

For one thing, in my case here in Silver Spring, there's the Magnificent Careen, until reality intervenes and I'm left, ah, floating in the, ah, dark, wondering what I'm going to do for the rest of my two hours.

For a moment, it's sensation not unlike being stuck in New Haven, Conn. at 11:30 at night, except there aren't any dirty movies. I've already checked it out. For all the steamy briny atmosphere in here, for all that I can hear my heart squinching and thumping, this trip is remarkably uncarnal. No matter how hard I try to steer my imagination, it isn't going to go.

That's what the monkey-faced woman with the red hair would probably tell me, in any case. She holds her storm door open, standing on a two-step concrete stoop, her face tough and goofy at the same time, with the frail, transparent look that some red-haired people have to their skin. It's a cold day. She doesn't say anything. I've never seen her before, but I know her. That's all.

What? You want to put that last slide up on the screen again? But no, I'm just floating now, feeling my skin slippery with the epsom salts and wondering what the hell she was all about.Not that she felt real like the careen, but she wasn't like a dream, either. It's as if my thoughts are getting more and more concrete, as if somebody is cutting them out of cookie-dough, as if thought itself had the same right to be called real as, say, my right knee -- which of course vanished long ago, here in the tank.

In 1951, a McGill University psychologist, Donald Hebb, got curious about what would happen if he stopped applying all his stimuli and reinforcements to his test subjects and instead barraged them with nothing at all -- total isolation.

He had no reason to be hopeful. Not many people like solitary confinement, for instance.Explorers and solo circumnavigators have reported ghosts and bizarre fears. One Alain Bombard talked to his doll mascot, and the doll mascot talked back. Then again, Plains Indians willfully sojourned alone on spirit quests.

In any case, the territory out there in No-Man's Land was strange.

Hebb put his subjects into cubicles lighted 24 hours a day. They wore cotton gloves and cardboard cuffs to restrict touch, translucent plastic visors to blur vision. They lay on bunks, their ears covered by U-shaped pillows to shut out noise.

After thoughts of family and friends wore thin, and fantasies gave out, subjects got irritable and childish, hallucinated, or said they couldn't control their minds.

In 1954, at the National Institutes of Mental Health in Bethesda, Dr. John Lilly decided to take the experiment further, immersing himself in a soundproofed, lightproofed tank of water. Refinements came over the years -- the salt to add buoyancy, air-recirculation systems. At one point, Lilly would inject 100 micrograms of LSD into his thigh muscle before closing the lid. He reported all of this in a series of books: "The Center of the Cyclone," "The Dyadic Cyclone," "Deep Self," Programming and Meta-Programming in the Human Bio-Computer."

He talked a lot about God, contacting the Universal Mind, and two "guides" who took him further and further. He kept floating. But as Adam Smith wrote, in "Powers of Mind," Lilly's accounts read "as though dictated while jogging."

As Lilly never misses a chance to repeat: "In the province of the mind, what is believed to be true is true or becomes true, within limits to be found experimentally and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind, there are no limits."

Lilly, bony-faced and fathom-eyed, might have turned himself into a guru, had he not been so snappish with audiences, and hard on his readers. In any case, he started up the Samadhi tank company and gets a royalty off each one that they sell, such as the one I climbed into, good old C5.

How the mind wanders. I start having trouble with a racquetball serve that cuts down the left wall and dies in the back corner, but then I'm back in the brine again. When I think about physical activity, like that serve, I twitch here and there, like a sleeping dog. Thought gets that cookiedough feeling.

"Don't forget the keys," Fred says. We're standing by the door to the tank room, with some other person I don't know.I'm holding a towel. Outside, the lawn is winter pallid, the trees black. It's all very ordinary.

"Just close the door. You've got the keys, right?"


Except I'm lying in 180 gallons of salt water, realizing that if I were part of the neo-gnostica, talk-to-your-plants crowd I'd call it an out-of-body experience, me and Fred chatting about the keys. But then, what difference does it make what I call it?

The low booming begins by my left foot. Hurry up please, it's time. I sit up. Push open the door.

"Two hours already?"

"Didn't seem that long, did it?"

I am very relaxed. Very. I feel like I feel you're supposed to feel after people who live in California tell me how everybody feels out there. No Universal Mind, no Two Guides. It's enough to make me worry that, as Peter de Vries once said, deep down I'm very shallow. Then again, there was the Magnificent Careen, the monkey-faced woman....