I looked into floating locally after reading an article about it as a potential treatment for PTSD. I don’t have PTSD myself, to be clear, only a standard form of decades-long anxiety that I am sometimes good at managing and sometimes not. The science of whether floating in a dark, soundproofed tank filled with ten or so inches of heavily salinated water can help manage anxiety or PTSD is still mostly anecdotal, although as a trend it’s been catching on over the past few years. And apparently some creative people credit it with making them more creative.
But to me, the real appeal was threefold: 1. I love water, 2. I love silence, and 3. I love being alone, like so alone, like so so so completely beautifully isolated and alone, it’s a delight, it’s one of my favorite things.
I showed up to Float Boston for my Monday afternoon appointment and received a thorough orientation. You shower before you get in; you put in earplugs before you shower. Each tank has something like 800 pounds of Epsom salt dissolved in it; this is what makes floating possible, but it is also not something you want in your ears. I was told to dry my face thoroughly before going in; you don’t want that much salt getting into your eyes either. I had read that shaving beforehand was a bad idea. Any irritated skin, as well small scrapes or cuts, will sting (however briefly) in the water, so those need to be covered with a layer of petroleum jelly for your own comfort.
The tiny room I was in had an open shower in one corner, and the door to the tank itself in the opposite wall. The tank was huge, easily big enough to do some feeble jumping jacks in, if the super-slippery salty water wouldn’t cause you to fall and probably break your legs. There was about ten inches of water in the bottom, kept to the same temperature of human skin so as to be comfortable but neither too hot nor too cold. So you step in, you lay out in the water, and you float. That’s it.
The whole thing struck me as vaguely Kubrickesque, and I mean that in the sense that, like a Kubrick film, I wasn’t sure about it at all, but I was here and I was going to carry it through. Did I mention how big the tank is? Tall enough to stand up in, it’s something like eight feet long, and wide enough for me to stretch my arms almost (but not quite) straight out on either side. You could probably feel claustrophobic in it if you’re very prone to that, but I didn’t feel closed in at all. Most people float naked, I think, as both the showering/changing space and the float tank are totally private, and I briefly weighed the pros and cons of wearing the swimsuit I’d brought with me. Eventually I decided I felt more secure in the suit than without, however illogical that might be, and I figured as a first-timer I was allowed some baby steps. I also turned off my phone. (I actually can’t remember the last time I did that for more than the few seconds it takes to restart it.)
Finally I went in, shut the door, and sat down. For a moment I wondered if the floating thing was really going to work, as my butt seemed pretty firmly planted on the floor, and ten inches is not an especially generous amount of water, even for someone who displaces as much as I do. But I was here to try, so I laid back, as one does. And immediately I floated.
The first few seconds were sheer wonderment. The sensation was bizarre, but not uncomfortable, or even unfamiliar. I had been warned that a lot of people have trouble relaxing their neck, because there is a reluctance to trust that your head is actually going to float. I did my best to let go, and my head bobbed along with the rest of me, and I was all floating, touching nothing except for the water supporting my body.
I chose this particular tank because it had internal lighting, in the form of two soft underwater LEDs at one end, and also a starfield on the ceiling, which could be turned on and off independently. I was willing to try shutting myself into a giant water coffin if it had lights. Many traditional tanks do not, as the full sensory deprivation angle kind of requires that you not be able to see anything. The lights were soft and not distracting, and I kept them on while I tried to figure out what I was doing in there. I assessed my body, going directly to an old meditation technique. The first thing I discovered was that apparently I’m carrying a horrifying amount of tension in my lower back; it didn’t hurt, and I’ve luckily never had back problems, it just felt super tense. I focused on relaaaaaxing. The cool thing about floating is that your body can drop whatever quirks of posture and physical stress it usually hangs on to; the difficult thing is convincing yourself that you can let that stuff go and you’re not going to fall over or drown or spontaneously die or anything.
After spending a few minutes with my head at the door end, I sat up and swooshed around to lie the other way, and for some reason this was more comfortable. Meditation tactics kept presenting themselves in my mind and I started focusing on my breath in the way I usually do when starting to meditate. And then I had a thought. What if the whole world ended while I was in here? What if I open the door in an hour and everything is gone?
This might sound like a terrifying existential crisis, but I assure you it’s not — I’ve had thoughts like this my whole life. Even in childhood I would often idly wonder what would happen if I opened the door to exit my elementary school bathroom and found that not only the rest of the school but my whole neighborhood had disappeared. It’s not a frightening thought, nor is it a reassuring one. It’s just a thing I think sometimes, and in adulthood it’s evolved as part of my efforts toward mindfulness. Okay, so I’m not actually sure this is 100% in keeping with the traditional mindfulness approach, but it works for me as an occasional reminder that circumstances will always change, I won’t always be able to control that, and everything is temporary. In meditation, if my face itches or my back gets tired, I try to focus on noticing that feeling without necessarily doing anything about it. In the float tank, if your face itches you are explicitly deterred from responding because doing so might put salt in your eyes, which would suck. And as the employee who gave me the walkthrough explained, “Usually the itch will stop in a minute on its own.” Everything is temporary.
Stuffing myself in a space designed to be without distractions, I had expected all of my current sources of anxiety to come flooding in on me in great worrying waves. And some of them did. Many of them did. But like my reaction to What if the world ended while I was in here?, I thought, Yes, well, that could happen, and I would accept it, adapt to it, and keep moving forward. I’m currently in a tank, and Great Anxiety #647 is a vague and distant possibility, so I’m not going to give it too much thought now. My habit, as a person who deals with intrusive anxiety in a few forms, is to worry forcefully about events that have yet to come to pass, and over which I have zero control even if they did. In short, I worry too much over stuff I cannot change, and I worry so ferociously that it occasionally makes my life complicated and difficult. And there is no payoff here. Me worrying, even me worrying with the full strength of my entire mental capacity, does not act as a protective talisman to prevent bad things from happening. As good as I am at being anxious, my anxiety skills cannot control the uncontrollable.
There’s a particular scene in the 2003 Pixar film Finding Nemo: The two main characters, who happen to be cartoon fish, are in a terrifying situation, the outcome of which is utterly unknowable and must be taken on trust. Dory, the sunny optimist, wants Marlin, the always-anxious half of the pair, to take a chance on a scary action. Time is short, but Marlin is still fighting this choice, which is the only choice. Finally, he yells to her in a panic, demanding she explain her easy acceptance of life’s many unexpected detours, “How do you know? How do you know something bad isn’t gonna happen?”
Dory thinks for an instant and says, as though it should be obvious, “I don’t!”
The first time I saw this I was shocked to recognize the two warring internal monologues I hear pretty much all day long rendered as talking animated sea life. But there they were. How do you know something bad isn’t going to happen? I don’t. I just keep swimming.
With my litany of routine anxieties quieted — for the moment — I refocused on relaxing, damn it. In the silence of the tank, my hearing further blocked by the ear plugs, the most distant noises stood out. A tiny whirr, probably from some kind of pump system, rose and fell. One of my ear plugs was evidently not totally secure, as I heard a string of minute bubbles escaping; I sat up and adjusted and laid back again. Relax. Relaaaaaaax. I tried turning off the tank’s soft, relaxing lighting.
WELL. That tank was dark as fuck. Let me tell you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so dark. I had no concept of anything. I laid there for maybe five minutes before turning the light back on because I realized it was harder to breathe in that darkness, which I realize makes no logical sense. Still, I experimented with lights on and off and I assure you, the air was worse in the dark. Fine. Lights it is. This is why I chose this tank, after all: so I’d have the option.
I floated still. I shifted and bobbed. I repositioned my legs. I put my arms under my head, then above my head, then by my sides, then rested my hands on my stomach. I closed my eyes and relaaaaxed. I heard a distinct but very clear woman’s voice humming in my left ear. I sat the fuck up.
So, hallucinations are a thing that can happen in a sensory deprivation environment. For some people, that’s the whole draw. I kind of expected I would avoid them by not going the complete-darkness route, but it turns out the deprivation doesn’t need to be complete for hallucinations to occur:
…[I]nvestigations have demonstrated that deprivation of even one form of sensory input can have hallucinatory effects. And while there is very little research done today that examines sensory deprivation at the level that it’s experienced in an isolation tank, a study conducted in 2009 showed that just 15 minutes of near-total sensory deprivation was enough to trigger vivid hallucinations in many of its test subjects.
All right, so an auditory hallucination of an unseen lady humming at you is hardly terrifying, but in the extreme silence, it rang out like a bell. I settled back down into my float posture and just drifted for a bit. And then, through half-lidded eyes, I looked up and saw my arms raised out of the water entirely, reaching out above my face, crossed at the wrists. There was only one problem with this. My actual arms were still in the water at my sides. And yet I could see my arms, pale and round and glowing in the dim water-diffused tank light, raised in the air above me.
I sat up again and the extra arms vanished. This is not relaxing, I thought. The air felt stuffy so I cracked open the door. I had remembered to turn off the light in the outer changing room beforehand, as instructed, so it didn’t really let any light in, but did bring in some fresh air, aside from having the positive psychological effect of diluting any “TRAPPED!” feelings.
I leaned back into my float again. I stared at the ceiling. What if this doesn’t work? I worried. I wonder what time it is. I wonder if people ever leave early. I tried to focus on my breathing. Maybe I should just turn my phone back on. No, I was here and I was paying for this and I was going to give it every chance. I closed my eyes and soon I couldn’t even feel the water supporting me. And then
I know I thought about a million things, ideas, images, stories, but I don’t actually remember any of them. Suddenly I heard the soft music begin to come up on the underwater speaker; in my silent blissed-out state it startled me, not least because I couldn’t believe it had been ninety minutes already. Is that a mistake? Fuck, I didn’t even get to properly meditate yet!
I left the comfortable womb of the tank (I mean let’s be honest here, that’s what it is) and half-assedly rinsed off the salt in the shower before getting dressed (don’t half-ass this, or you will be finding salt on yourself ALL THE LIVELONG DAY). The float center had a tiny sitting area outside the tank rooms for post-float chillouts and back-to-life preparation, complete with mandala coloring books. There was also tea. Out of the tank, though, now I felt oddly claustrophobic (or exposed?) in the small hallway of the center and just kind of wanted to leave. I know, it makes no sense; maybe it was having to make eye contact with other humans again so abruptly. So I headed out.
Once outside, I realized how disoriented I was. What time is it? What the fuck day is it? I genuinely wasn’t sure, and had to spend a few minutes convincing myself it was in fact Monday. My concept of time in general was a mess; in the tank, time neither dragged nor flew, it just kind of failed to exist, or more accurately, I ceased to be aware of its passage. On the street afterward, I peered intensely at the clock on my restarted phone’s lock screen and struggled to assign meaning to it. 5pm. What happens at 5pm. How do I usually think about 5pm?
I walked back to my car (aka my other isolation tank) and waited to come back to reality. It was then that I realized that of the 800 pounds of Epsom salts dissolved in the float tank, I had smuggled probably fifty out in my hair, which I had failed to rinse thoroughly and was drying into the most epic beach waves of my life, and which would have been fantastic if the drying salt weren’t also flying off my head in big dusty salt-clouds every time I moved.
I enjoyed my floating experience a lot. I will certainly do it again, although more for stress management than for creative inspiration, as I’m not sure how useful it was for the latter considering I can’t remember any of the ideas I came up with (or if they were even good ideas in the first place). The value for me may not be lighting a fire under my creative impulse, but having the opportunity to think about everything and nothing, to really go mental-discipline-free for awhile.
When I was leaving, I remarked to the woman at the front desk that it didn’t feel like ninety minutes had gone by. She nodded and said, “Sometimes you feel every minute, sometimes it just flies by. Every float is different.” I wanted to make a joke, but didn’t. How different could floating in ten inches of water in an enclosed space possibly be from one experience to the next? Are there times where you’re more or less wet? But I know what she meant. What is anything but how we think about it and experience it? I had gone into this with only vague expectations; at the worst I thought I could use it for an hour and a half of hardcore meditation time. But there’s more to it than that; the silence, the lack of things to see, and most of all the actual freaking floating itself all combine to create an experience that is unique and almost impossible to pin down.
On the drive home, I noticed my perspective had shifted slightly. I wasn’t in a hurry to get embroiled in rush hour traffic. And when the traffic happened, it didn’t bother me. At one point I saw a dude in front of me experience a total paroxysm of road rage at another driver, flipping him off, shouting through his open window, and literally veering from lane to lane to prevent the other driver from passing him. Normally, this would freak me out, or make me angry, but I felt myself observing from a detached lack of judgment. I was sad for both drivers, the raged and the raging, because I realized this meant at least one of their human interactions today would be negative and alienating. Normally I would try to guess what the one driver had done to make the other so angry; but in my weird post-float state, it didn’t matter. Unhappy people were making each other unhappy. I sound like a fucking hippie, but that’s real.
On the other hand, I was also told that I’d have a beautiful night’s sleep post-float. In truth I had a mediocre night’s sleep, but that’s a significant improvement on my norm, given that I haven’t slept “well” in probably a year.
I will float again, and maybe next time I’ll forego the swimsuit and turn off the lights the whole time and spend less time in there thinking about what is supposed to happen or what I am supposed to do, in favor of just letting things unfold. Or maybe I won’t. I kept thinking about that line from Hamlet, when Hamlet at one point addresses his home as a prison, and Rosencrantz challenges this assessment, he replies, “Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Or, as Marcus Aurelius put it first, in true Stoic fashion: “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” Y’know. Because everything is temporary.