So last Friday night after work I made my way from the office to an unremarkable commercial building on a busy divided commercial street, tucked between sports bar and a Red Lobster. The primary tenant of the building, and the one with the storefront, is an H & R Block. I pulled the car into one of the spots along the side of the building where the entrance to my destination, a place where I was going in order to undertake a unique spiritual experience. Suffice to say the surroundings did dampen the anticipation just a touch. This was not a mountain-top monastery or a secluded retreat center, but a strip mall in Syracuse, New York.
I was at Bodymind Float Center, where you can book a 90-minute session in a float tank (sometimes more dramatically referred to as a sensory deprivation chamber) which is designed to provide an atmosphere with “reduced sensory stimulation” where you float in a warm (body temperature) saltwater solution in total darkness. I was there because I’ve heard enough about float tanks to be curious from places like Joe Rogan’s podcast, where he’s discussed his meditative experiences floating with guests like Dan Harris (see this post for more of their discussion). You also hear of athletes that use float tanks, they’ve been featured on shows like The Simpsons, to more dramatic portrayals in movies like Altered States. As readers of this blog know I’ve been practicing meditation for some time, and my practice has recently become regular enough and I sit for long enough intervals that I have a base of practice but I want to try more. So I turned to Google to see if there was anywhere around locally I could try it, which was how I found Bodymind, just a mile and half from my office.
Before I even got into the lobby the attendant who greeted me asked me to remove my shoes in the vestibule, and when I stepped into the lobby in my socked feet there was a environment somewhere between a doctor’s office waiting room and a spa. I checked in at the desk, and because I was a bit early I took in the room. A seating area with adult coloring books. A counter near the coat closet with a variety of herbal teas. A book case and display with organic soaps, aromatherapy oils, and books on floating and meditation. I took a seat in the waiting area and there was a float journal- a notebook full of people’s testimonials about their float experiences, all written in colored pencil, making for a vibrant range of entries, everything from “very relaxing, thanks!” to poetry and interpretive drawings of what seem like acid trips. I’m a skeptic when it comes to a lot of new age juju, and while my bullshit antennae was up, I was making every attempt to keep an open mind.
I didn’t actually have to wait too long before being led back through a well lit clean corridor that could have been in any kind of contemporary office to Room 2, where I’d have my float. It was a small room where the actual tank took up easily a quarter of the space. There was a small stall shower, a teak bench, and few hooks to hang up clothes. The very nice attendant explained that you need to take a shower before getting in the tank (makes sense) and how to turn the light in the tank on/off, getting in and out, etc. I had 90 minutes before music would begin playing in the room, which would give me about 15 minutes to get out the tank, take another shower to rinse off the saltwater, and get dressed. Straightforward enough, so with that, she left and told me to enjoy the float
I’m not particularly claustrophobic, but after stepping into the tank and getting seating in the water, there was a slight apprehension as I reached up to pull the door closed over me, a flash of “what happens if I can’t get out?” Once the door was closed I decided to turn off the light and settle into a floating position on my back. I was instantly enveloped in darkness and slid down. The water isn’t more that ten inches deep, and starting with my hands down, I lifted up my legs and lower back (butt), and allowed my head and shoulders to drop into the water, before lifting my hands off the bottom of the tank. I was floating in total blackness.
So what was the initial experience? I couldn’t see anything. The water, the air and my skin were all the same temperature. Whenever I’ve been in a lake, a pool, a tub, the ocean, etc. there’s always a disparity between the three that’s existed, and temperature is the primary sensation I was used to- the lake is cold, the tub is warm, etc. It was bizarre in that sense to experience the physical difference in the state of air and liquid. Obviously when you moved the water offered more resistance than the air in the tank (which was very humid) but if you remained still it became difficult to distinguish where the water ended and the air began. Perfect stillness is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve for more than a few seconds as you hold your breath and concentrate on the sensation of feeling (or not feeling) the water.
Your hearing is also impacted by being in the tank. Before getting in I put in foam ear plugs, and once I was laying in the water my head was such that my ears were below the surface. Anyone who’s been swimming knows that sounds can be muffled underwater, and between the earplugs and trying my best not to move, the only sounds became my own heartbeat and breathing. Despite the total darkness I was determined to keep my eyes open. At one point I held my hand out in front of me but couldn’t see it. I moved it closer. Nothing. I waved it. Nada. Eventually I would see (or rather imagine seeing) colors, or points of light, but anytime I tried to focus my vision on them they’d evaporate. So I’d give up and sort of let these things play out in my peripheral.
I found that rather than depriving you of your senses the tank changes the way you experience the senses. (The caveats being smell and taste. In order to maintain a clean solution to float in there is a tiny bit of chlorine and other disinfectants in the solution so that it kind of smells like pool water. I didn’t actually taste the water, but there’s enough salt dissolved in it that it’s probably some combo of sea water and pool water). You can still hear (though there’s almost nothing to hear other than your body’s natural rhythms), you can still feel (though the more still you remain the harder it is to distinguish what exactly you’re feeling, and… well… I guess you really can’t see. Or you sort of can? Are they hallucinations?
They say on the Bodymind website that it takes approximately 30 minutes to settle into the float, and I’d say that’s probably as good of a guess as any. I know that the first part of my float I spent trying to process the sensory input (or lack thereof) and make sense of it. Then I began meditating.
I started off trying to pay attention to the breath, my everyday practice. But it was hard- even the sensation of breathing in and out was different than what I’m used to. One way to pay attention to the breath is to feel the sensation of the air at the end of your nose as you breathe in and out. When the air is the same temperature as your body that becomes a challenge. So I tried to focus on the rising and falling of my chest. When I did that I was apparently taking deeper breaths, and as a result I was moving, even if only slightly, within the tank that I was becoming distracted and taken out of the moment. So I moved on, taking slow, shallow breaths and paying attention to the sound of my breath underwater.
I’m certain that in my previous posts on meditation I’ve relayed that the object of mindfulness meditation is not perfect concentration or clearing of the mind, but to notice when the mind wanders, observe thoughts non-judgmentally as they arise, and then return attention to the subject of meditation, in this case the breath. And then thoughts will arise, the mind will wander, and you begin again. Repeat as necessary. Dan Harris has described the act of noticing the mind wandering and returning to the breath as “a bicep curl for your brain.” The more that you’re able to pay attention in this way and observe thoughts when they arise, the better you will become at recognizing that these thoughts do not necessarily represent reality, that they sometimes push you towards certain behaviors that may be unproductive or harmful, and you can let go and refuse to identify with the thoughts. It can be frustrating, because it seems like a counter-intuitive definition of success.
Your mind is going to wander. The question is whether you can notice when it does and not beat yourself up over it.
The challenge I was having meditating in the float tank was finding the object to come back to when I did notice a thought arising. I started focusing on my heartbeat rather than my breath. In the tank it seemed easier to observe- the thump thump thump at regular intervals. In a moment of meta-cognition I realized I was driving myself crazy over finding the breath or the heartbeat, of switching back and forth between shallow breaths, deeper breaths, etc. The thoughts that were arising were thoughts about how I was failing in the practice. And yet, by noticing that, I was succeeding. Again, counter-intuitive, I know. And I returned to the heartbeat.
As my mind continued to wander I would sometimes think about how much time was left, about whether I would hear the music for the fifteen minute warning or whether an attendant would need to break down the door to the room and throw the tank door open as I floated naked and oblivious (Naked and Oblivious is a good band name). When I noticed these thoughts, I’d go back to the heartbeat. Mind wanders… back to the heartbeat… mind wanders… back to the heartbeat…
At one point, either through moving or maybe just condensation from the top of the tank (again, very humid in there) some water got into my eye. As you can imagine, given the composition of the solution in the tank, this hurt like a son of a bitch. I’m sure I winced and swore (not particularly conducive to mindful behavior) over how it stung. I contemplated exiting the tank and rinsing my eyes out in the shower but then I remembered Robert Wright in Why Buddhism Is True writing about his experience meditating on pain by paying attention to the sensations. In his case he was meditating on the pain of an abscessed tooth which hurt every time he took a drink of water. So what did he do? Take a swig of water and then pay attention to the sensations (if you really want to go to an extreme listen to his interview with Prof. Judson Brewer, a researcher and practiced meditator who had a root canal without Novocaine so he could meditate on how it felt). So I decided to meditate on the sensation of my stinging eye. Trying to remain still, I focused my attention on the eye. Stinging. What is stinging? It feels… cold… tingling… very cold… like the way an Upstate New York January wind can sting your eyes… It’s like a cold wind… That’s not bad… And then the pain was gone. By observing it, naming it, and not “giving in” to the sensation I robbed it of it’s power. While it was not a pleasant experience, it wasn’t as bad as I probably could have made it.
A thought occurs… we sometimes make our suffering worse than it needs to be. If I had gotten out of the tank to rinse my eyes I would have interrupted my session. Maybe I’d look at my phone while I was out, see I only had ten minutes before the session was up, and decide “eh, that’s enough.” Maybe later I would feel guilty for “giving up.” And my eye still would have stung. There was no way to undo the fact that saltwater with some chlorine got in there. My suffering could have been much worse. As it was, I managed to pay attention to the reality that the sensations I was feeling weren’t as bad as they seemed. Again, it’s not a pleasurable sensation, but it’s a sensation I can bear with. And it passes. Maybe this is very insightful. Maybe it isn’t. Moving on…
When I heard the music at the end of the session I was worried that it was in my own head. It was faint, and muffled by the water and the earplugs. I tried to pin it down, but eventually had to sit up in the tank and remove one of the plugs to confirm that I was actually hearing the music. It didn’t seem like it was possible that an hour and a half had gone by, so I checked my phone to be sure. So I showered, rinsing the salty solution out of my hair and vigorously scrubbing it with the shampoo/body wash provided. I dried off, got dressed and was leaving the room when the tank’s filter came on loudly, a reminder that the very spiritual experience I had came in a glorified bathtub in an office building. I paid for the session and slipped my shoes back on in the vestibule before heading out into the cold Syracuse winter night.
I want to do it again. I think it provides a unique environment for meditation and as I continue to grow in my practice I’m eager for more opportunities to have insights like the ones I did. I didn’t have any kind of acid-trip wild hallucinatory experience like some people describe and as relaxing as it was, I didn’t drift off to sleep like many people apparently do. I was fully awake and lucid for the whole thing, exploring the different sensations, finding what worked and what didn’t for my meditation practice, and contemplating the pain I experienced and whether it was as bad as it first appeared.
If you’re in the Syracuse or Rochester area and are interested in the float tank experience, check Bodymind out (they have locations in both cities). It was $65 for a 90 minute session. If you aren’t in this area just Google “float tank” and I’m sure you’ll find something nearby if you’re interested in trying it out. I’m also interested to hear from anyone else who has tried a float tank about their experience… Same? Different? How so?
As always, thanks for reading.