Poor sleep hygiene and a smartphone combine for interesting late-night acquisitions. The next morning begins with a head-scratching awareness of email receipts from digital purchases. I recently awoke to realize I had booked a 60-minute session of sensory deprivation inside an enclosed pod: “float therapy.”
The realization that one is paying an agent or company to do nothing is both unsettling and acknowledges my privileged position in life. The most anxiety-provoking period of the float therapy experience was an attempt to find a parking spot in the downtown area where the center is located. These float experiences appear to be more prevalent in U.S. metro spots. Float tanks are increasingly sprouting amidst the urban sprawl of millennial progressive atmospheres offering new-age healing, technology sectors, and liberal ideology.
The Pitch for Relaxation
“Float therapy” is swiftly becoming a service positioned as a beginner’s introduction to the effects of meditation. The literature provided by the company offered reasons one should float. According to this ad copy, your brain starts to produce “theta waves” after 30 to 45 minutes in the deprivation tank. These therapeutic states are indicated in the brief window between being fully awake and sleeping. According to the company I visited, this meditative state enables the mind to establish “deep learning, healing, and growth.”
The weightlessness of the inactivity is recommended for stress relief, recovery from physical injury, as well as to conquer addictive behaviors and to eliminate chronic pain. Research involving a limited number of participants utilizing “restricted environmental stimulation therapy” (REST) has shown modest benefits related to decreased heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and self-reported reductions in stress. Additional claims suggest after a dozen or so floats, one’s sleep, levels of anxiety, and mood improve along with increased body comfort (i.e., increased overall relaxation). However, like psychedelics, roller-coasters, golf, or gardening, one’s experience depends on their disposition and expectation of the setting.
There are statements in the handouts that remind me of the early 20th century biochemical movement for psychotropic medication (i.e., antidepressants such as Prozac): “Floating naturally increases your dopamine and endorphin levels, boosting your mood and leaving you with a pleasant afterglow that can last for days afterward.”
In the Tank
After a detailed orientation that included instructions on music and lighting for the pod, placement of earplugs, showering instructions (before and after the float), as well as the potential for “deep meditative states,” I entered the pod-like chamber. The water was an embryonic 94.5 degrees (referred to as “skin-receptor neutral” in the brochure) and the air in the room reminded me of a recently used sauna.
The Falsity of “Mind-Body”
When the lights went out and the pod hatch was shut, the black darkness was the same whether my eyes were open or closed. The duality of concepts such as inner and outer, day or night, and awake or asleep disappeared within the zero-gravity chamber. The 900 pounds of pharmaceutical-grade Epsom salts holds your body effortlessly as you lie flat on your back with the water level resting just above the ears.
My ears were stuffed with a molded plug and I chose to go without music or lighting. The breath had an increased audibility amid the void of stimulation and because the room was insulated from noise. There is nothing to feel in terms of a body, and there are no senses to orient one’s mind to a boundary unless a shift induces a wave in the water. This stillness is a nice metaphor for cognitive disruptions and mind. Suzuki Roshi spoke to this decades ago: “Many sensations come, many thoughts or images arise, but they are just waves of your own mind. […] Usually we think of our mind as receiving impressions and experiences from outside, but that is not a true understanding of our mind.”
You are as vast as outer space or smaller than an isolated closet. This analysis is interrupted with the slightest movement. My body would shift and I would occasionally bump up against the border of the pod. It was impossible to discern whether thinking about spinning or spinning the body was at all different. Time was irrelevant without a background or object to orient oneself to.
Mindless behavior and sedentary, non-sunlit office dwellings have become our modern ecosystems. Float therapy defies this cultural norm and is presented as an antidote, but it does so within a capitalistic system generating the need for this antidote.
Why is doing a singular task so intolerable? Are we born with this aversion? I wondered in the tank. I can remember growing up as a young child and helping my father with his real estate business. He would often go door-to-door sending out flyers or other mailings to potential home buyers or sellers. My father would elicit my assistance in the redundant labeling of advertisements with personal address labels. Similarly, I would package hundreds of handouts into individual little baggies to be dropped onto doorsteps. This type of repetitive task is ripe for automation. I would sit down in front of the television with a tray and a stack of these rudimentary assignments.
The mindless work had to be met with some form of stimulation, or so my semi-formed prefrontal cortex had me believe at the time. I could not handle being alone with my thoughts without the distraction of another activity. If the TV was not available, I would cover my ears with the traditional soft-padded, over-the-entire-ear headphones. The classic Discman accessory was used as an attempt to drown out mental activity with sound. As an adolescent, I had no idea I was training myself to become exceptionally talented at performing more than one thing at a time. Consequently, however, it made my ability to do one thing at a time less effective. Reading comprehension was especially challenging for me because my attention would constantly wander. You may be thinking the same thought I routinely had: what did I just read? My mind wanted to be fed a juicy fantasy or a 32-bit Nintendo game rather than stale words on a page.
Out of the Tank
I literally came to my senses when the blue ultraviolet light illuminated the inside the pod. The subtle visual stimulation was a blinding shock to the system. I felt like a squinting infant awakening from a long nap. An automated, digitized female voice announced the conclusion of the session over the speakers. The self-cleaning process would begin in three minutes.
Many from One
If the 20th century was consumed by the acceptance of tobacco smoke, then the beginning of the 21st century will become known historically for our willingness to juggle multiple competing stimuli. Multitasking has become a new kind of cancerous addiction. The myth we are telling ourselves is that “to manage the chaos of daily life” one needs to do many activities at once in order to be more efficient. Smartphones enable us to listen to music while texting a friend and mindlessly observing a Facebook notification, sitting on the couch having a drink, watching an episode of HGTV. Splitting our attention merely erodes our ability to focus on a single activity because the mind demands more stimulation.
Western culture explicitly promotes multitasking (e.g., commerce, forms of technological innovation) and then prescribes passive consumer goods and services to relieve us from the stress of the culture. David Foster Wallace neurotically chronicled his conscious inner world after a week on a luxury mega-cruise ship in the Caribbean, an experience that was anything but fun for him. He contemplated when he previously had been innumerably pampered and could literally do nothing:
I know how long it’s been since I had every need met choicelessly from someplace outside me, without my having to ask. And that time I was floating, too, and the fluid was warm and salty, and if I was in any way conscious I’m sure I was dreadless, and was having a really good time, and would have sent postcards to everyone wishing they were here.
Mindless behavior and sedentary, non-sunlit office dwellings have become our modern ecosystems. Float therapy defies this cultural norm and is presented as an antidote, but it does so within a capitalistic system generating the need for this antidote. If relaxing in a void of emptiness must be scheduled and paid for, then I might not ever do it again.
- Bood, Å.S., Sundequist, U., Kjellgren, A., Nordström, G., & Norlander, T. (2007). Effects of flotation REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique) on Stress Related Muscle Pain: Are 33 flotation sessions more effective than 12 sessions? Karlstad University, Sweden. Social Behavior and Personality, 35(2): 143-15.
- Suzuki, S., Dixon, T., Smith, H., & Baker, R. (1999). Zen mind, beginner’s mind. New York: Weatherhill.
- van Dierendonck, D., & Te Nijenhuis, J. (2005). Flotation restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST) as a stress-management tool: A meta-analysis. Psychology & Health, 20(3): 405-412.
- Wallace, D. F. (1997). A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. New York: Little, Brown.
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