Sunday, March 23, 2014
Floating in a saltwater sensory-deprivation tank in Philly. Oh. My. God….
"Who doesn't want to disappear, at some point in a day, in a year, to just step off the map and float?"
-- Nick Flynn (from "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City"**)
If you traverse these parts often, or even a little, you'll notice that I have a bit of a thing for the mind-body connection. My brain is my best asset, and, occasionally -- and that seems to be at 3 a.m. if at all -- my worst enemy. And that's neither hubris nor craziness. It's likely true for you too. Your brain controls your own surfboard on the waves of life, but as the Internet meme goes, "I got 99 problems, and 86 of them are complete bullshit that I made up in my own head." Let the balancing act begin….
When the mind takes a hard right turn for the dark places, the body usually follows. A little anxiety about an upcoming whatever, and I get a little stomach pain, a little lost sleep, maybe even the dreaded 3 a.m. worry-wakeup. And, conversely, when the head is soaring, well, that's when I have days like this.
I vote for more days like that.
(And I'll sidetrack for a moment to say that my anxiety is always (ALWAYS!) about the future. I have no hangups about the past. My particular superpower is to be able to Crush All Bad Shit that has ever happened to me. I learn from it, and move on -- a good thing. But, whatever bonus mental-outlook points I get for that particular sparkling attitude can get lost sometimes amidst the "what ifs" of the future. They can bog me down if I don't keep them in perspective. So I try….)
There's a float tank in this story, I swear.
Anyway…. another thing you might recall is that I get past the bad spots with meditation. The brain-emptying Zen smash of a regular meditation routine is, for me, unmatched. It keeps me calm. It makes me prioritize and compartmentalize what needs to be dealt with. It flushes anxiety away.
I've even gone on here about why I think open-eyes/in-the-moment Zen meditation has an edge on almost any other stress-relief technique. Spacing out/chilling out is awesome in its proper time and place. But it's not the same as emptying your present moment and letting that emptiness floss the bad bits out of your brain.
So what the hell am I doing in a space-out saltwater sensory-deprivation flotation tank at Halcyon Floats at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning in Philadelphia?
Chilling way out.
Remember, I didn't tell you there was no value in relaxation. In fact, I told you relaxation is amazing. It's just not the same as open-eyes meditation.
A couple months back I noticed that Skylee Robinson was tweeting frequently about the wonders of floating. I asked her if she would like to do a guest post here about it. She did, and it was great. The post received tons of hits, and, better yet, she got me interested in floating.
Just as I can ask you when the last time your mind was truly empty as a way to entice you to try a month or so of daily meditation, let me ask you this: when is the last time you just stopped? With no input but the thoughts in your head? For 90 minutes? That dead stop is what floating does. Or at least it's part of it.
The basics of a floatation-tank experience are pretty simple.
The water in the tank is about 12 inches deep, and contains 800 pounds of epsom salts. It's saltier than the Dead Sea. Anyone will float in it. The water is also close to body temperature. The tank itself is soundproofed and pitch-black (in theory anyway… more on that in a moment). The idea is that, once floating, you lose the edges, blurring the defining points between where the body ends and the water begins. The chill is, according to the hype, extreme.
So, I arrived at Halcyon Floats for my 10 a.m. appointment a few minutes early. After a quick briefing on the tank, and a quick shower, I plunged in.
Tell someone you are going to a float-tank place and you get interesting reactions like:
-- "Oh my god, I'd freak out."
-- "I don't know if I could calm down enough to enjoy it."
-- "I'm not sure I like myself enough to be alone with me for that long."
And so on….
Having a pretty strong base in meditation, I wasn't worried about any of that. In fact, I wasn't worried about anything. I was raring to go.
So, about ten minutes in, once I had fully taken in the initial warm dip into the water, laid my head back on one of those inflatable neck pillows that you see on airplanes, and gotten my eyes accustomed to the dark, and my ears to the quiet, I was having a few thoughts. None of them were the pleasant buzz i had anticipated:
--"What the hell is that noise?"
--"No, really, what the hell is that noise?"
-- "You know, it's really not pitch-black in here. There is a tiny bit of light bleeding in from the crack in the door and from down near the pipes near my feet."
I closed my eyes. Light "problems" disappeared. But the noise was still distracting. I'm still not clear what it was -- an almost imperceptible static-y buzz that came and went. But good god, once I heard it, and it went on and off for another ten minutes or so, it was killing me. It was not constant, and not rhythmic. I began to wonder if it was the newly installed sound system buzzing. But it wasn't *that* loud. Whatever it was, it was the opposite of relaxing.
I opened my eyes. The light that was ever-so-slightly coming in through the cracks began pissing me off too.
Then I remembered what I was told in the orientation: "You probably are going to want to turn the ceiling lights off before you get in the tank. There's a little night-light over here that will still be on in the room, but this way it won't be so bright when you get out."
Oh, right…. Shit, I left the (big! bright!) lights on.
I popped the hatch. All the light in the universe blinded me for a moment, and then I killed the light switch. Darkness! The weird buzzing noise stopped too (I guess it was the lights?).
I shut the hatch.
I headed for Awesome.
The difference between the next hour or so and what had preceded it was the same as the comparison between, say, London Calling and Cut the Crap. Between Rust Never Sleeps and Landing on Water. Between "Gimme Shelter" and "Emotional Rescue."
You get the idea.
The minor annoyances of the first 20 minutes disappeared into a very deep haze.
I simultaneously disappeared into a very deep trance. It was truly unlike anything I have ever experienced. That whole "loss of the edges of the body" thing? Yeah. In spades. I felt my pulse slow down to endurance-athlete levels. My breathing was a sound that joined me in the tank, but seemed oddly disconnected from anything going on in my own body. I drifted, in every sense of the word.
When gentle music finally came on to signify that my time was up, I felt more relaxed than, well, ever.
And it's still not the same (for me, anyway) as meditation. But wow, is it ever worthwhile.
I showered the salty slime away, had a cup of tea and a nice conversation with the woman who had been in the float tank in the other room during the same time, and headed out into a day that had a special glow to it, all day long.
Wow. I'll be back.
But there are a few things I will do differently next time:
-- obviously (duh) heed the suggestion to kill the big lights before heading into the tank.
-- ditch the inflatable pillow and use the earplugs that are offered (to keep out water more than sound). The only parts of my body that never really floated "away" completely were my head and neck. The pillow was a constant reminder of an "attachment" that I could do without next time.
-- opt out of the cooling fan that was offered for the tank. The water ended up ever so slightly cooler than body temp as a result. I accepted the fan because I tend to run hot, but overheating wasn't an issue at all. If anything, the water temp was just slightly cooler than optimal.
But those are all just "tweaks" to an otherwise wonderful experience.
Another positive that I didn't necessarily expect -- beyond the deep and abiding chill: when I went into Halcyon, my knees were aching from this week's CrossFit adventures. 90 minutes of Epsom-salt soaking later? 51-year-old dude is in no pain. Boom.
Really, if any of this experience sounds at all vaguely attractive to you, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. I can't promise that you will love floating as much as I did. But with the potential for such a deep, relaxing, transformative impact on you, isn't it worth one visit, at least?
Me? I'll be back very soon. And regularly.
**a.k.a. the best damn book you have never read. It rides the thin razor's edge between "harrowing" and "amazing" like nothing else I have run across in a long time. The author is working in a homeless shelter full of the mentally ill. In walks Dad, as a client. Yes, really. Read it. Now.