When I decided to try “floating,” I first imagined a tiny pod, trapped in a tank like a wet tanning bed. The actual flotation room was way more spacious. A normal height room, about the size of a double bed, like a shiny white molded shower with a tub about 18 inches high, filled with about a foot of water completely saturated with Epsom salts. Serene. Pristine. Slippery.
I had never heard of floating before that week. I was in Vancouver for work and had dinner with my friend J. We were talking about my relatively new meditation practice, how I have started to see it as an essential part of fitness. (There is increasing evidence that meditation changes the brain and the body ). J and I are both fairly high strung people and she said that she had tried to do it, but had never figured out what you actually DO when you meditate.
I was trying to explain my meditation practice, such as it is — that it’s not about relaxation or enlightenment or “emptying the mind,” but about learning to be present, to experience everything that happens “inside our heads” and bodies without instantly responding to it. For me, meditation is about being with discomfort and hard emotions — fear, anger, sadness, loneliness — without being “pushed around” by them. Creating that buffer between stimulus and response. A buffer that I seem to need more and more as my work gets more intense and as I trek through the insomniac, moody jungle of peri-menopause. An essential buffer for sleeping, stress, anxiety, the motivation to move my body when I feel overwhelmed and just want to lie on the couch and eat potato chips.
Janice asked me if I’d tried floating. “Everyone I know who meditates does it.” (I thought maybe it was a Vancouver thing, but apparently floating is a hot activity in a lot of places).
So I did some research online, and on a mild rainy February Vancouver Sunday morning, I found myself being oriented to my little pod room by a cute bearded guy named Christian. The email had told me to have a light meal and no coffee, and I could feel the headache thud of caffeine withdrawal.
The little shower area outside my Ocean Float room glowed red, like I was already inside my own eyelids. A sealable door like a ship’s hatch was off to the left, the actual flotation room.
Christian had a lot of instructions for what was essentially a salty floaty bath. “Turn your phone off so you don’t hear buzzing. You might want to put the earplugs in first, because they won’t stay in when your ears are wet. If you have a cut or scrape here’s some vaseline, but honestly, that doesn’t work very well and it will sting a bit for about a minute. Have a shower first, and then when you leave the shower room, the lights will turn off. I’ll play music from the front for about 10 minutes and then turn it off — that’s the best, total darkness and silence. But you can always turn the music or lights back on — there are buttons inside the room beside the door. You may swirl around so if you reach up and can’t find the door, don’t panic, just run your hand along the wall. If you use this head rest, just rinse it off.”
When he left, I felt self-conscious, like I was stripping naked in a coffee shop. I showered, grabbed the blue foam head rest, and surrendered myself. The pink lights went off behind me, and I awkwardly plunged into the water. Slightly warmer than my body temperature, but not much.
I felt floppy, like a seal on the shore, as I tried to find a position. Tinkly bell-y drum-y flute-y music flowed around me. I tried to settle, hit the darkness button. Absolute pitch black. I stuck my head in the head thingy, and then thought I was maybe doing it wrong, so pulled away the head thing and rested my head in the water. With it, it was like my head was on a flat pillow. Without it, I was completely floating, but the water half covered my ears. I didn’t trust I wasn’t going to sink without the support. I didn’t like it. My ear tickled, I scratched it and the earplug popped out. I pulled the other one out in annoyance and fished around for the little head float. Sighed impatiently.
I was not relaxing.
I laid back again, tried to start my meditation practice. Breathed deeply, floated. It was surprisingly hard to centre without feeling my body, with no visual difference between eyes open and eyes closed. I fidgeted with different positions, arms sprawled, hands on my belly. Breathing. The music went off and relaxing got harder. My inner dialogue got louder and louder. It wasn’t scary, but it wasn’t restful. Then I bumped against something, and a surge of claustrophobia flooded over me. It’s just the wall, there’s a light, you can get out any time. Same kind of inner reassurance as scuba diving. The flicker subsided and I felt my way around the wall, found the light button. Wondered what the hell I was doing paying $39 to unsettle myself when refugee families need warm coats. Turned the music back on. Breathed again.
I floated, found a few moments of serenity, then I was suddenly, fiercely restless. I fumbled awkwardly to spin myself around and find the light button, open the door, and padded naked into the red-lit shower room to find my phone and check the time. I’d been in there about 20 minutes. What the hell is wrong with you? Relax dammit!
I took a deep breath, centred myself, went back in, turned the music on, turned out the light. Clasped my hands over my spleen and focused on breathing.
And then, briefly, I found stillness. Something about reminding myself that this is the point of meditation, just breathing through agitation, discomfort, restlessness. I’ve never been the kind of person who easily loosens, lets go. Another reminder — I have to scaffold it, actively claim it. For a brief time, then, in this tank, I claimed it. Completely still, finally, without having to work at it or brace myself into stillness. Just floating, occasionally gently hitting the side of the tank. Momentarily quieting the internal arguments, letting different emotions lap at my edges without holding onto them.
And then, suddenly, I grabbed the door handle, turned the light on. Surveyed the earplugs floating, the blue head thingy, how awkward my naked body felt in the saline slosh. All at once, I was just done, like waking up.
As soon as I dressed, my caffeine headache came back. I didn’t want to hang out in the beautiful upstairs lounge with the rain drizzling poetically down the windows, drinking tea. I wanted a coffee, time with my notebook and a pen and an unleashing of ideas that floated to the surface.