When was the last time you felt nothing? The constant haul of gravity isn’t something I consider much but I feel it. It’s under my feet, on the seat of my chair, wrapping round my lower back and tugging on the straps of my bag at my shoulders. I think about it more than I think I think about it.
If, like me, curiosity often gets the better of you and you enjoy feeling like Alice clambering down the rabbit hole from time to time then don’t overlook spending time floating in nothingness. It starts with curiosity, apprehension and discomfort then lands you somewhere on the opposite side of that divide. Bear with me here.
Alright, first things first I have to ground this entire post with what float tanks are before I advise you let yourself sink into one! There’s not much to it — no really, that’s the whole point. The other name they go by is Sensory Deprivation Tanks and I guess their purpose is to do very little, but give a lot. It’s a box, with water in it and that’s about it.
Born in the 60’s with the wave of consciousness exploration, floating started with the name REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy). And although that sounds like you’re going in to a lab and never coming out the same again, it does what it says on the tank.
The water is set to body temperature (a skin-receptor-neutral 37.5 degrees, the temperature at which you lose track of where the body ends and the water begins), the air is also set set here and each are regulated so that you feel no divide between ‘above’ and ‘below’. The other element that makes it the place of detachment it is, is that the water is packed with epsom salt, giving you buoyancy in the constant fight against gravity. There are no lights, no sound and ultimately no feeling of being grounded. With three out of five senses temporarily switched off it really frees up headspace.
Sam Harris, Stanford Philosopher, UCLA Neuroscientist and author, described yoga as taking a soothing sailing ship through enlightenment –meandering through mapped pathways which you smoothly navigate towards improvement. Opposite to that he explained that psychedelics offer the same destination but, it’s more like being strapped to a rocket and set off. Floating could well be a happy-medium.
I eventually found a spot to climb into one at last and I’m not going to lie here and say it’s relaxing or comfortable, because the first 15 minutes after sliding into these little holes in the Universe are of chaos. It’s not relaxation to start, it’s the opposite — tension and panic. You open the tank and it’s just a dark box of knee-high water. You get naked and awkwardly fumble your way into a position inside, in the dark. Each time it makes me nervous as I lay down in the water, let go of the walls and start to giggle when I feel myself bounce back up towards the surface. Ride out that first wave of discomfort and there’s a very strange lift waiting for you.
If you have a large turnover of thought, these dark, hypnotic wombs are an easy place for the mind to go sideways. But after weathering the initial window of this you’ll quickly lose track of both time and physical orientation. I feel my head frees up as much as my body and with each session in the tank this comes about a little quicker.
I’ve struggled to describe it when people ask and the only common place I can come to is that it feels similar to that tiny window of time right before you fall asleep. You’re not awake, you’re not yet sleeping but you’re dangling in the liminal space between. Floating lets you get some serious hang-time there! In bed you fall off either side of that divide pretty quickly, always scrambling for the wisdom you just had for those few seconds. Although there’s a host of studies by the Lancet Medical Journal dedicated to the physical restoration qualities of floating, the biggest payoff for me is spending time with some mental real-estate. Without attention divided across the senses you get to run with clarity of undivided thought. It’s not a shut-down like sleep is, it’s just as if your operating system closes some apps and lets you run a lot smoother.
The first few floats should give you time to get used to the strange, wet, dark and clumsy chambers. If I had one tip above any other it’d be not to expect anything in there. Born in the 60’s boom alongside LSD Hippies used it for transcendental experiences, 50 years on and athletic types are turning to it for physical recovery to get ‘the edge’. I’m probably somewhere in between those uses. Either way it takes time to get comfortable with not holding yourself in any posture, it takes time to stop situational analysis and it takes time to stop the background checks our systems run. Sometimes we might not need a hard restart, all we need is to free up some memory.
If you plan on jumping in the deep end of a very shallow, salty pool then here’s some mistakes I’ve made that you can short-cut:
- Speaking of cuts, get vaseline on any bumps and grazes. It’s salt water.
- Don’t rub your eyes. It’s salt water.
- Work on letting go of your neck muscles and stop holding your head up.
- Embrace the first 15 minutes of weathering the chaos and it’ll pass.
- Give it a few shots, it really takes some flight hours before managing to get comfortable enough to stop holding yourself.
Let me know if you‘re interested in it or if you tried it out already. Ping me a message on Twitter at @AsaRodger.