So I wrote a fairly lengthy post last week on my first experience in a float tank, and I felt I got enough out of it to warrant a second visit, and so this past Saturday afternoon I drove into Syracuse for Round 2. As I put it on a Facebook post afterwards, it was like going from a big wheel to ten-speed.
Having gone through the process before I was able to “lock-in” almost immediately once I climbed into the tank. My first time in the tank I spend a lot of the time in a sort of exploratory mode, unused to the sensations of the air and water being the same temperature as the skin, of the muffled sound of my breath, and the total darkness inside the tank. This time I found a position that I was comfortable in and tried to remain still. Even without anything to see I tried to focus my eyes in the middle distance, and started to pay attention to my breath.
Inhale… exhale… inhale… exhale…
I noticed the way the lungs filled up in my chest, the flow of the air in my nostrils. The sort of shrinking of the chest on the exhale, the sense of a release of pressure…
Inhale… exhale… inhale… exhale…
Then I began to see… purple. It was faint at first. But then it seemed to slowly rotate and become more vibrant. It wasn’t like seeing a light (at least not exactly)… More like the essence of color. As it became more vibrant I also began to see green. Again, not green light, but the color green, mixing with the purple in a kaleidoscopic twirl. My eyes felt like they were open, but how could I be sure I wasn’t dreaming, having fallen asleep in the tank, and this was part of a dream? If I blink then I know I’m awake.
I blinked. When I did I felt my eyelashes flutter, felt the part of my face around my eyes crinkle a bit in the humid salty air. I was definitely awake, and the colors were still there. I tried to focus on them but it seemed as though when I did they floated away. So I decided to just relax my gaze and enjoy them, slowly turning. At some point I felt as though I was slowly being tipped up, like someone pushed my body 90 degrees so that instead of floating on my back I was floating upright, sort of like I was standing (though I was still definitely floating). I felt incredibly relaxed and just unbelievably lucky to be having this experience.
Eventually I noticed that I was still breathing (a weird thing to notice). I returned paying attention to the breath and the colors receded back into the darkness. Inhale… exhale…
And then I began to hear the classical music that signaled the end of the float session.
No way had an hour and a half gone by. I just got in! I sat up in the tank, suddenly no longer floating. I took my right earplug out and sure enough, there was the music. I opened the tank door and stepped out, back into the world. When I turned my phone back one, 90 minutes had indeed passed. Unbelievable.
This was obviously a very different experience not only from my first time in the tank, but from many (if not all) of my previous meditation sessions. Normally when I meditate I do so “on the cushion” in the parlance of the meditation community, sitting on a pillow or cushion in a quiet part of my house. I assume a cross legged position (not quite full lotus) and try to keep my back straight and my head up. I usually start with a body-scan (as Joseph Goldstein is fond of saying, “sit, and know you are sitting”) where I start with my noticing how my toes, feet, legs, stomach, hands, arms, chest, shoulders, and neck feel before I begin to pay attention to my breath with the sensation of inhalation at the end of my nose and in my nostrils.
Then I focus on the breath until I notice the mind wandering. I notice the wandering thought, try to observe it nonjudgmentally, and return my attention to the breath.
I can usually do this for about fifteen minutes before I can feel a pain or discomfort, sometimes in my leg, sometimes in my back, or even in my neck, as a result of how I’m sitting. I try and observe the sensation of the discomfort. Making pain the object of meditation can help diffuse it. Sometimes around twenty minutes I can feel my head getting heavy, and my chin dropping down as I begin to feel drowsy. Goldstein has a guided meditation on the 10% Happier app that instructs you to make the sensations of feeling tired the object of meditation. I’ve been working on this, but progress has been slow. After twenty or twenty five minutes either the timer I’ve set for myself goes off or the discomfort or drowsiness force be to break the meditation. Very rarely am I able to meditate for half an hour on the cushion.
Yet, in the tank the time seemed to fly by and the experience was unbelievably moving and pleasant. Am I just a bad meditator on the cushion or is the float tank really that good?
I have a few thoughts. First, to remind myself that I am not in fact a bad meditator. That’s a self-judgment without a basis in reality. I am a meditator who is still relatively early in my practice, and I know I am actually getting better in the sense that the ability to sit for fifteen or twenty minutes is longer than I could sit early in my practice, where I was sitting for five or ten minutes at a time. I’m also committed to learning- when I hit the wall I used the coaching tool on the 10% Happier app to ask for help and what to do about falling asleep or feeling discomfort. That was how I knew Joseph Goldstein had the guided meditation on drowsiness in the first place. So if I’m not a bad meditator on the cushion, is there really something that makes the float tank a better venue for meditation?
Maybe… when you’re in the tank floating your body is more relaxed, so holding a position isn’t as much of a concern or a challenge. That means that you’re less likely to feel pain or discomfort as a result of holding a position. There’s also far less sensory input to feed the wandering mind. Even in a quiet part of the house when I meditate you can still feel the floor, the cushion, any drafts or temperature variations that make you warm or cold, and you can hear the furnace switch on, or a car horn outside, or birds, or the wind. So on the cushion there’s just more coming at you to draw your attention away from the breath. In that way, the float tank seems like a much better venue for meditation.
Of course, floating meditation requires a float tank, and accessing one isn’t necessarily convenient or affordable. I’m already over $100 into it, and I’ve only gone twice. I’m lucky to have a place to go near my office, but due to supply and demand, I needed to book my appointments a few days ahead of time. I can practice some form of “on the cushion” meditation anywhere, anytime, at zero cost. There’s a lot to be said for that.
So maybe I keep doing my daily practice, working to get from twenty minutes to twenty five to thirty. After all, it’s meditation practice. But maybe every couple of weeks I splurge a bit and spend 90 minutes in the tank. Isn’t one of the points of having a practice to also have the experience of the benefits?
Have you struggled with meditation? Have you tried a floatation tank? What works for you? What are your challenges and tricks? Share in the comments!