The Floating Self
Melissa came up with the great idea of trying a new experience as part of our one-year anniversary last weekend. We spent the weekend in Wisconsin, hiking at Devil’s Lake, spending some time in Madison, hanging out at a friend’s yearly get-together, floating in a big, dark tank of saltwater… wait, what?!
Yeah, we Floated. If you haven’t heard of Floating yet, it’s essentially the ultimate method of inner connection by way of total disconnection. All external stimuli are reduced to near zero by putting in some ear plugs, crawling into a soundproof chamber full of super salty, body-temperature water (they use 1000 lbs. of epsom salt per tank!), and then floating effortlessly in complete darkness.
Sensory deprivation, which is an accurate description, kind of sounds like a more legally acceptable way of saying “torture.” I’m guessing that’s why it’s called Floating nowadays. But, whatever you call it, it’s wonderful.
As a person that is abnormally sensitive to sound (or, noise, as I like to call it) I was very excited to try this. I figured it would be a kind of extreme meditation, one where I would be spared the usual efforts at ignoring sensory distractions and be able to get right down to the real work of observing, quieting, guiding and molding my own thoughts.
The reality of it was a bit different than the expectation for me. Not in a bad way, but in a way that hinted at a need for repeat visits. The greatest benefits of floating, like most things, are realized through practice and progress. But, with that being said, it was a great experience that I can’t wait to repeat and build upon. In case you’re interested in trying it and want a bit more information, here’s how it all unfolded for me...
The experience was similar to getting a massage, but with more information and less touching. As with getting a massage, the environment at Float Madison was tailored to relaxation, with a quiet waiting room full of books, tea, mind games, calm lighting and comfy seating.
After an information-packed orientation, you are left alone to insert a pair of wax earplugs and then shower, thoroughly removing all oils, makeup, residues, etc. Then you step into the float chamber and slowly assume the float position, being careful not to get the super salty water on your face. After eventually relaxing into the water and trusting it to support you without sinking (which wasn’t easy for me, I was tense for a few minutes at least), you notice that the calming music and lighting fades away and you are left with only the sound of your own breathing to keep you company.
I can easily see how this would be a bit unsettling for some people… but not for me. Personally, I’m easily overwhelmed by the stimulation of daily life and I truly crave this kind of insularity. So, I immediately initiated my usual meditation techniques: focusing on my breath, observing my thoughts, loosening my muscles from head to toe, and calming my heart rate.
But, strangely, I had a harder time of it than usual, which is the opposite of what I expected. I guess in retrospect it kind of makes sense, but at the time it felt a bit frustrating, like I was messing it up and wasting this opportunity to experience a deeper meditative state.
The novelty of the situation is what made things harder than I expected: new sensations, unfamiliar positioning, fears of being stuck in the chamber, not being able to touch my face when I felt an itch (super salty water in the eyes or nose is very unpleasant), the relatively loud volume of my breathing and most disconcerting of all, the fears of things happening outside without my awareness…
“Was there a thief holding the owner at gunpoint?” “Was there some deviant employee taking advantage of Melissa in the other chamber?” “What if a fire broke out and the owners couldn’t get to us in time?”...
All of those thoughts had to be brought under control before I could begin to enjoy myself. I had to trust that everything would be okay, which is MUCH easier to do when you can see and hear what’s going on around you.
But, eventually, I was able to get to where I wanted to be. And one of the most wonderful sensations was when I became aware of how my heartbeat was causing teeny tiny ripples in the water to radiate out from my chest and slide down my arms, neck and trunk. Couple that with the way your mind begins to lose the context it needs to build a sense of place and personal relationship to the space around you, and you can see why many people will have a very spiritual experience in one of these chambers.
Normally you can very easily and instinctively sense your body and how it relates to the space around you; for instance, you immediately know without thinking about it that you can reach the coffee cup in front of you with just a slight bend in your elbow; in fact, you can usually do it without even looking.
But sometimes the portions of your brain that deal with such things begin to lose their connections to the world and things start going all “Alice in Wonderland” on you. Your head feels like it fills the room... the farthest wall is crushingly close while simultaneously being so insubstantial that you feel you could reach right through it…. In a word, it’s weird, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to experience this unnerving distortion of your spacial awareness on your first float (to be fair, this sensation happens in all sorts of contexts but I felt like the floating enhanced it a bit).
Now, I doubt everyone will have the same experience I did, but I am sure that this kind of thing is progressive and gets more interesting with practice. That’s why you can bet I’ll be doing this again and again. If you’re in the Madison, WI area, check out Float Madison and meet the owner, Greg Griffin. He’s a great guy to talk to before or after if you have the time, and don’t forget to share your experience in the comments section. I’d love to hear how different it is for everyone!