The outside world is noisy. I have waited years for this silence.
I have been anxiously waiting for access to an isolation tank (float tank) but the only one I could find was across town through always horrendous traffic – either around the DC Beltway or through the city. Not ideal for a relaxing, meditative float session. This one is within 15 minutes from both work and home and I booked my session as soon as I heard it was open.
Beta brain: I hurry out of the office in a frazzled state, as is more and more common lately. Agitated, tense and hyper-vigilant, time ticks away as I realize the location is farther from work than I had originally thought. Om Float, which just recently opened, has a tank waiting for me and I desperately want my full 90 minutes.
Alpha brain: I arrive on time despite the internal chatter that convinced me otherwise. Early, in fact. The waiting area is quiet and I am calmer already. Brooks and Amy, the owners, walk me through the orientation. Brooks explains that he once “floated” for over five hours. I immediately consider doing a three-hour session next time but I don’t even know if I can last 90 minutes. Brooks tells me how they visited 15+ “float tank” operations before designing theirs. Four of them were in Portland Oregon. Another customer who looks a bit like Fred Armisen emerges from the back where the tanks are located, and sits in the waiting area to join our conversation. Wait, is it really Fred Armisen? No, it couldn’t be. And if it was, so what? I’m here to decompress not to think about things like celebrity. Am I in an episode of Portlandia? Is this silly? Are they making fun of float tanks? Okay, shut up, Alpha brain. Time to shut you down for a while.
Brooks and Amy walk me to my private room, equipped with a shower, shampoo, soap, flip flops, towels, robe, a bench and of course the tank. The tank stares ominously, daring me to enter and explore the depths it has to offer. I close and lock the door to the room, get undressed, shower the stress of the day off of me and stare back at the closed door of the tank. I stand there for more than a minute. I have mild claustrophobia in parking garages, elevators and caves. Float tanks? I’m not sure. I’m not doing this to face a fear of claustrophobia. I’m here to cut the noise. Having regularly practiced meditation and yoga for 15+ years, I’m here to amplify the meditative experience. Deep breath. Let’s do this.
I insert bright orange plugs into my ears and then I insert myself into the tank. And I shut the door. It is pitch black. Total cave darkness. Cave! No. I have to tell myself I’m not in a cave. My ears are under water but there is so much Epsom salt in the water that I float effortlessly.
There is also so much Epsom salt that I feel an intense burning sensation anywhere on my body that has a small knick or cut. That place on my lower calf where I cut myself shaving, the cat scratch from this morning, and a spot on my back where I have no idea what happened. It stops eventually but I’m aggravated that it cut into my meditation time.
My top lip itches now. My left eyelid itches. My hands have been in the salt water so I can’t scratch these itches or I will spend the next 90 minutes with concentrated salt water in my eye and mouth.
And now I can’t determine what to do with my arms. They are floating in a way that makes my shoulders ache. How can I be in here 90 minutes with this pain? It will probably only worsen with time. I obsess about this for what feels like a long time, and then I obsess about how much time I’ve spent obsessing. I relax my arms back over my head and the ache disappears. Problem solved. For now.
Soft music plays for a while and gradually fades to silence. My mind is still full of chatter followed by self-criticism, “I paid for this. I need to relax NOW and take advantage of this time.” Okay, just a normal “monkey mind” meditation experience. I call upon a technique of systematically tightening and then relaxing each muscle group, which is a bit challenging to do while floating.
Now my neck aches. What the hell? Is this entire 90 minutes going to be spent TRYING to relax? Frustrated, it takes a few minutes to realize I don’t fully trust the water to hold me up. Trust it. Let my head drop. Okay, I’m fully relaxed now. The water is body temperature. After a while the boundaries between my body and the water fade away.
Theta brain: I don’t know what just happened but I think an hour must have gone by. I don’t even think my eyes were closed the whole time because there is absolutely no difference between having them open or closed. I recall monumental realizations that I knew I HAD to remember for later. It’s later now. I have no conscious idea what those realizations were. Something tells me they are still there under the surface. Something I can draw upon later. I let go of my need to know.
At some point I lose myself completely. Not sleep (no Delta brain). Just loss of “self” as a separate entity. I have no sense of my body at all. This jolts me back to full consciousness at which point I panic. I told Chris I would text him when I was done to confirm I hadn’t died from a claustrophobic panic attack. But surely it must be morning by now. Has he called the police? Am I locked in the building? Am I locked in the tank?!
I talk myself down from opening the tank door. Brooks and Amy told me that bells would chime and lights would come on at the end of the session. Trust it. Okay I trust it.
Now I have to relax all over again. I can hear my heartbeat. I need to stretch. I hear my joints cracking. I hear my eye lids blinking, my digestion, my breathing. And that’s all I hear. That and my ears ringing. A rude reminder that I suffer from fairly extreme tinnitus.
Next round. I’m more conscious this time. I can feel the water ever-so-slightly changing temperature, becoming a bit warmer. Could my body temperature have dropped? I’m floating through space and time. Slight panic kicks in when I think about the movie “Gravity.” I feel like I’m spinning head over heels. I am safe. I can allow this to happen. I see colors like those of a sunset. I have no mass.
This is it. This is what I’ve been waiting for. And as soon as I realize that, I’m jolted back to Alpha brain again.
The bells chime and the lights come on. I could have stayed inside longer but I was getting tired of hearing the sound of my own breath. I’ll be back for sure but 90 minutes is just fine for now.
The transition from tank to shower to clothes to car is a strange one. I imagine if I could remember being born it would feel like this. I’m excited to be back in reality (or is this the dream?) but I still long for what I leave behind. Can I merge these worlds? While in the tank, I experienced a day, or a month, or a year go by. But now it seems sadly short.
Driving home, the sunset reminds me of the colors I saw inside. Everything seems brighter, more intense, clearer than before I went in. Everything except my sense of direction, that is. Driving on the Dulles Greenway I don’t recognize the names of the exits. Oh, I’m going the wrong way. Well maybe I am meant to see the sunset. It is almost as impressive as the colors I experienced during my float. Almost.
I turn around to head east when it hits me: for the first time in a long time I don’t feel the tightness and heat of anxiety in my chest. I don’t even care how long this lasts. Right now is the only moment that matters.
My internal world is noisy. I have waited years for this silence. It is here.
Note: No cell phones were harmed during the making of this post.