Floating Through Life


About forty years ago, I spent an hour in a flotation tank. It was a coffin-like affair, filled with salt water, light-proof and sound-proof. The specific gravity of the water was set to a point that allowed one to float in the water without any effort at all, as if one were floating in the Dead Sea. The water was also heated to about body temperature, so that I became completely oblivious of the environment. The situation is such that without the distractions of the outer world, the only sensory inputs are the sounds of one’s own breath and heartbeat, along with the mental phenomena that the brain is generating.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to do this again, coincidentally only a block away from the building where I did it the first time. But time marches on, and so it is with flotation technology. No longer does one go into an enclosed pod. Instead I went into a small bathroom-sized room with a shower. I took a shower and then opened up a door on one side of the shower into a smaller room, which contained what looked like a large bathtub. I could stand up in the bathtub which was filled with about a foot of epsom-salt treated water. The room was dark and soundproofed except for a light switch on the wall that could be controlled by myself. I lay down in the warm water, and because the dimensions of the tub were large enough, no part of my body touched any of the walls of the tub. And since I was floating, my body essentially simulated a weightless and suspended mass.

For the first ten minutes soft music was piped in, (it seemed very  soft, because beforehand, in the shower, I put in the supplied earplugs) and I reached out to the wall with my right hand to turn off the soft purple light, which left me in total darkness. There was a brief moment of panic, like What am I doing? Maybe I should just get out (no, there are no locked doors or anything like that), but that feeling quickly passed and I decided to just relax with it.

Now forty years ago, when my body was a lot more co-operative, I remember relaxing very quickly. In a few minutes back then, I was hallucinating without drugs, seeing color cartoons in the black space above my head. This time, I did not experience such phenomena. But I wasn’t in it for the tripping this time, instead, I thought that it might help with some back pains I had been feeling a lot more this year. The experience for me was really enlightening: I realized that in a way, I was in the same position as that of a patient in analysis. That is, in analysis you are presented with the blank wall of the analyst, and eventually you realize that everything you are surmising about the analyst is in fact the result of your own mental projections onto the blank slate of the analyst. So you begin to understand the prejudices of your own mind. Under flotation, a kind of analogous process happens: because there are no physical stressors on the body from the outside environment, you realize that the tensions you are holding onto in your body have nothing to do with say, coping with gravity, or the lousy mattress, but are in fact tensions that exist despite those factors.

And what happened for me as I was floating was this: I felt very little tension in my back, but very much in my neck, a lot of pain. I realized that this was the source of the pain I was feeling in my everyday world. The environment and gravity may have masked it and  transformed it into back pain, but in reality it was the neck that was the problem. I put my hands under my neck for a while, and it started relaxing. Soon, I felt a lot less neck and back pain. I then went into a deeper state of relaxation. It was not before too long though, that I heard the music being piped in again—a signal that my hour was about to end. It had gone more quickly than I had realized. I gently sat up in the tub, and turned back on the dim purple light. It surprised me how harsh the light now seemed; I had to shield my eyes as it seemed as bright as sunlight after an afternoon movie.

When I got dressed, I was told to sit down for at least ten minutes, and drink some water or tea, before I went back out into the street. I felt less anxious and calmer than usual, more focused and centered, and I had much less back pain. I read some of the literature in the office, and it mentioned that the first float is often about adjusting to the new experience, and that after subsequent floats, people tend to get into the relaxation state more quickly. I signed up for another session for a few weeks later.

The rest of the afternoon, I was quite relaxed and had little pain. But unfortunately I can’t say that the positive effect lasted more than the day. The next day was a very high humidity day, the kind of day that really aggravates my muscles, and the effects of the float were no longer apparent.

Will I have the same experience in float number two? I’ll let you know a few weeks from now.

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