Can you be alone with your thoughts for one hour? What if there’s no sound to tune into, no floor supporting you, and no light to see the world through? There is nothing except you, floating in highly concentrated salt water, in blackness so dark you can’t see a difference if your eyes are opened or closed.
This is what happens when you go into a sensory deprivation tank, where you enter water that’s the same temperature of your outer skin, close yourself into a soundproof pod or cabin, and float in the silence of complete darkness. You’re essentially depriving most of your senses for one hour, in hopes of triggering your brain into a deep meditative state. You’re in no real danger, so why does the idea seem both exciting and nerve wracking?
I first heard about depriving one’s senses in the Netflix series, Stranger Things, where the character Eleven floats to enhance her powers. I was ecstatic to learn such tanks were real and accessible in the United States, and that various studies report many benefits these deprivation tanks have on the mind and body.
As reported on Harper Bazaar‘s website, “the high levels of magnesium in the Epsom salt help ease muscle, joint and lower back pain, increase circulation and lower blood pressure.” There’s also profound benefits on one’s mind; Time magazine wrote an article on a soldier who treated his PTSD using float therapy. As their website states, “By three floats, Harding says his anxiety and hyper-vigilance had subsided. By three months of floating, so had his night sweats. ‘After floating, I was really mellowed out,’ he says. ‘I’m not really sure how it does it, but I do know that floating has allowed me to feel in a more confident, comfortable headspace.'” Floating is one hour you are devoting to simply relax, breathe, and be, and neuropsychologists are interested in the effects this has on the brain.
Justin Feinstein is one such neuropsychologist, and he created the Float Clinic and Research Center at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in order to study the therapeutic benefits of floating. As explained in Time, Feinstein and his team are using an fMRI to scan the brains of healthy individuals before and after they float to see how this practice changes brain activity. As the magazine states, “studies reveal that ‘meditating activates parts of the brain associated with attention and decreases activation in the amygdala,’ the part of the brain that kicks off the fight-or-flight response to a real or perceived threat—though the changes are more pronounced in expert meditators than beginners.” Even the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states there’s evidence of meditation lowering blood pressure, easing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and helping those suffering from insomnia. Some people believe flotation tanks can be a shortcut for people to experience a deep meditative state faster than they would from regular practice, which could explain why people experience positive benefits after just a few floats.
More studies still need to be conducted, but in a fast-paced world filled with stress and distraction, floating in saltwater for an hour is, at the very least, a relaxing break that your mind deserves.
Today’s world is filled with distractions that can keep us from feeling bored, but can also prevent us from getting to know ourselves and our thought patterns. The idea of sitting alone with my thoughts for 10 minutes can feel intimidating, let alone floating with them for one hour without my senses to maintain my focus. In the hours leading up to my session, I worried that I would get bored, or I’d go mad and start hallucinating, or I would think of terrible things and there’d be no way to distract myself. Yet I knew that if I learned how to master my mind, I could master anything, because our experience in this world is always subjective to our perspective. So, casting my worries aside, I hopped into my flotation pod, closed the lid above me, and breathed. I enjoyed the experience more than I could have imagined.
In the beginning of my float, my mind was still active. The kind woman at the front desk had mentioned that I could put on meditation music, or switch on a light if I became too nervous to float in the dark, but I wanted to experience the full effect of sensory deprivation, so I kept those off. I began thinking of how I’d reflect on the session, if I would enjoy it, if anything weird would happen. Then I realized how often my mind lives in this reflective state– sometimes it feels as if my mind lives in the future, reflecting on my present moment before I’m finished experiencing it.
So I started to practice meditation in my little float pod, allowing my thoughts to flow through me as I remained a non-judgmental observer of my mind. I noticed stiff pain in my upper shoulders– where I always seem to hold tension– and I realized if I was going to do this, I needed to truly let go; I needed to let go of my desire to feel attached and in control of this life and instead trust the water to keep me afloat. So I continued breathing deeply, until my mind took me elsewhere. I imagined myself at the bottom of the sea, surrounded by peaceful stillness and beauty, until eventually my mind was filled with nothing at all– nothing except a calm, relaxed, joyful feeling flooded through me.
Have you ever allowed yourself to simply exist in a feeling? If you haven’t, I highly recommend you practice meditation. You may not experience anything profound the first day, or even the first couple months of practice, but once you experience that peaceful state of mind, there’s nothing in the world that can compete with it.
After what seemed to be 20 minutes, but was actually the full hour, a tranquil blue light and soothing voice came on to guide me out of my meditative state and back into the sensory world. I was filled with joy. Even though the weight of my muscles surprised me as I tried getting out of my flotation pod, the tension I carried had left my body. I took a shower, concentrating on the feeling of warm water droplets against my skin and the sweet aroma of body wash. I felt so light and mindful.
When I stepped outside, everything looked vibrant and beautiful. The clouds against the sky, the skyscrapers towering above me, the people walking along the sidewalk. I spent the rest of the day in this relaxed, grateful state, and experienced a deep sleep later that night.
This all happened yesterday, but my muscles and mind still feel more relaxed than usual. Even my skin feels rejuvenated and softer. I don’t think one visit to a flotation tank will cure your problems, or send you into some kind of nirvana, but I do think treating yourself to this practice at least a few times a year, along with practicing meditation daily, will have ethereal effects on your mind and body as you learn how to let go of your judgements, worries, thoughts, and just be.
Cummings, Faith. “Five Reasons to Float In a Sensory Deprivation Tank.” Harper’s BAZAAR, Harper’s BAZAAR, 15 July 2017, http://www.harpersbazaar.com/beauty/health/a13474/what-its-like-to-float-in-a-sensory-deprivation-tank/.
Oaklander, Mandy. “Mental Health Treatment: How Float Clinics Treat Anxiety.” Time, Time, 16 July 2016, time.com/floating/.
“Meditation: In Depth.” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 17 Mar. 2017, nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm.