Yesterday I floated in a tank of water infused with enormous amounts of epsom salt at a place in Seattle called Float Seattle. I had long wondered what this experience was like, as somewhere along the line I’d “heard” that people might experience meditative states while floating.
We arrived shortly before the flotation session was scheduled to start, to have time to receive a short orientation. There were four tanks at this facility, each behind a sturdy wooden door with a handle that locked on the inside. I chose a physically larger tank, as I imagined a greater amount of “fresh air” above me while floating and perhaps a slightly less claustrophobic experience. Inside the room behind the door was a shower, and we were asked to shower before entering the tank. Inside my tank was a button that actuated a small blue light, which was useful for seeing what to grab and where to put one’s feet during entry and egress. Ear plugs are worn to keep the hypertonic solution out of one’s ears, which would otherwise leave a nasty residue inside.
I took all all my clothes off, showered, and entered the tank. The session was booked for an hour. The tank was fairly shallow, and one could easily sit up or touch the bottom. I was told that if I kept my hands above my head my spine would be more relaxed than if I kept my hands at my sides. At points during the float I tried keeping my hands at my sides, but I didn’t notice any change to the feeling in my spine or back. Mostly I kept my hands clasped at the top of my head.
I was hoping, and frankly expecting, to be able to enter a meditative state. Sadly, this didn’t occur for me. Because a variety of somatic sensations which would otherwise be present were not, I was essentially forced to concentrate on my breathing. One might expect this to be conducive to initiating meditation, but it never happened. I suspect this was because the heat and humidity of the air above me that I was breathing was so strong.
I must have drifted off into an early stage of sleep at about 10 or 15 minutes into the session, as I was startled awake by the dream, or vivid imagination, that I was Patterson or Gimlin, and that I had come upon “Patty” the Sasquatch at close range. Though Patty had her back turned to me, I found this frightening in that moment, and I experienced the only moments of anxiety during the session. Startled awake, I began to concentrate on my breathing again, and the mild anxiety quickly subsided. After about a half an hour I resigned myself to probably not experiencing a meditative state. Frankly I indulged in the productions of my own stream of consciousness with the explicit goal of recalling as much about the session as I could, with the goal of writing it up for this blog!
I realized that a flotation tank can be thought of as the closest one might get to experiencing the micro gravity of space. It’s the ultimate sort of mattress pad, or the ultimate pillow, in the sense that one’s body is being perfectly supported, rather than supported irregularly at multiple points. I began to realize my lower spine, the sacral area, was “dog tilted” as they say in yoga, more than it would be even with a “memory foam” mattress pad. Whether that’s a result of my own beginner-level yoga practice, or that’s a reaction that is common to many I can’t say.
I let my hands stop supporting the top of my head, and allowed my head to fully recline. It’s weirdly counter-intuitive to do this, as it’s a liquid medium after all. But there is so much epsom salt in the water that it will support one’s head without any muscular tension at all! Again, a flotation tank becomes the “ultimate pillow.” My guess is that this would be a wonderful relief for those who experience chronic back or neck pain. A drug free form of relief, albeit if only for an hour.
I’d “heard” that some people hallucinate during flotation sessions. I did not, though I saw a mind’s eye reddish afterimage blob rather vividly at one point. As with being in a bathtub for an extended time, one’s enjoyment of even fundamental somatic pleasure begins to wane. At about 45 minutes into the session I began to divert my attention, simply by moving my hands and legs into novel positions, just for something to do.
Though it might sound like I’m being dismissive of the value of this experience, I remain open minded that individuals might learn to enjoy it more profoundly through repeated use. Imagine dismissing meditation the first time you tried it simply because you didn’t achieve an altered state of consciousness. I’ll probably try it again, at least one more time.