It's 11:00 am on Saturday morning. I'm reclining in a "therapy chair" sitting in the (almost) dark amongst three other strangers. New-age music plays softly as we await instruction, watching an image of the earth slowly spinning inside an ever-changing series of fractals projected on the wall.
"Is this how Scientology begins," I find myself wondering.
But none of us are here to explore alternative ideologies. We're the 11:30 session of "floaters," and we're here to float our way into another dimension of relaxation. (Apparently float spas tend to shy away from using the term "sensory deprivation" these days, as it packs a negative connotation. Thanks a lot, Stranger Things.)
I first learned about floating from Rhett and Link. The premise is about as simple as it gets. Roughly a thousand pounds of epsom salts are dissolved into approximately 11 inches of water in a float tank. The tank looks like some sort of futuristic pod (with a slight hint of water coffin). Thanks to the concentrated salinity, the tank water is event more buoyant than The Dead Sea. Which is to say, the human body (any human body) will naturally and effortlessly float. The water inside the pod is heated to skin temperature, so within a few minutes you begin to lose awareness of your body. It sort of just melts away. In addition, the pod is completely dark, scentless (hopefully) and soundproof. In essence, the experience will strip away every possible distraction until you're just a floating brain.
As newbies, we've been asked to arrive 30 minutes early to experience the relaxation video and a brief "Floating 101" video. I'm getting into the fractal zone when two girls loudly enter the room bringing with them a jarring energy. One declares, "Wake me when this is over." The guy next to me is in his twenties. He's frantically texting someone instead of watching the video. In between the chatter of the two cynical hens, all I hear is the BZZZZ BZZZ BZZZ of his vibrating phone.
I find myself wanting to reprimand him immediately. "Can't you disconnect for one hour? Get off your damn phone! And get off my damn lawn while you're at it, ya pesky kid."
My soul, it seems, is a 65-year-old neighborhood curmudgeon.
I say nothing.
Focus on the fractals. Focus on the fractals.
A few minutes later the floating 101 video begins. It walks us through a series of suggestions for making the most of our floats. Everything from getting in slowly to avoid splashing water in our eyes to counting our breaths to 300 if we find our minds can't quiet down. At one point, the video flashes to a still of the man who conceptualized floating way back when. He appears to be wearing a red leather suit and a raccoon skin hat.
The video concludes with a question that will haunt me: "If you are bored by you, what does that say about you?"
Wait. What if I do get bored. What does that say about me? WHAT DOES THAT SAY ABOUT ME?
There are no answers.
After the introductory video, we are given a tour of the spa and shown to our private rooms to shower off and begin our floats. Earplugs in, I slowly sit in the pod and close the lid. (And no, you do not wear a swimsuit.) The water immediately buoys me to the surface. The sensation of floating with zero effort is so new it takes a couple minutes for my body to relax and stop fighting it. Music plays softly inside the tank for the first several minutes of the float. I hit the lighting button, toggling between a series of colors before shutting it off and slipping into the black. The experience is not at all claustrophobic as I had feared, but there is something undeniably jarring about the first few moments of floating in total silence and darkness.
I am alone and I am uncertain if that is concerning or comforting.
As the music fades away, my mind ramps up. Not unlike every encounter I've ever had with yoga, my inner voice attempts to fill the silence by cycling through a series of thoughts, questions and ponderings:
That sound speaker is partially submerged in the water. Is that safe? I didn't even know waterproof speakers existed. Oops. I just hit the side of the tank with my arm. Am I flailing? The video said not to flail. Hmm. I'm tall, but not crazy tall. I feel like I might be almost too tall for this tank. I wonder if they have an exceptionally tall tank for exceptionally tall people? Am I exceptionally tall? What even qualifies as exceptionally tall? I wonder how many bodies have been in here? And how often they change the water? Wow. You really can't hear anything in here. I wonder what happens if a fire breaks out while people are floating? Do they have some sort of protocol to save us? Will I hear the fire alarm? I mean, I'm suspended in water, so I'd probably be okay. It would be so strange to emerge after 60 minutes and find the entire building had burned down around me. Raccoon hats are weird. I wonder if they carry any sort of rabies risk? Speaking of which, what's the disease people get from hot tubs? Shigella? No. Guillian-Barre? No. Legionnaires. That's it. Why does that word always make think of dancing soldiers in The Nutcracker? Oooh. Christmas. I can't wait for Christmas!
Eventually my thoughts slow to a stop. And this is when the float experience really begins. I've decided not to share this part of the story, as I don't want to taint anyone else's float experience. But I will say I have heard floating compared to everything from "better than LSD" to "a very expensive nap." I found it to be something in between the two extremes. (Not that I have a point of reference for the former.) I also suspect that there is a significant degree of self-fulfilling prophecy in floating. You'll get from it what you expect from it. It's an experience worth trying. Be open to it.
An hour later, the soft music fades back in, alerting me that my float has come to an end. I lift the tank lid and re-emerge into the real world. The moment is surreal. It feels a little bit like being reborn after a journey to another dimension. I congratulate myself on not getting salt water in my eyes and step into the shower. After an hour without sensory stimulation everything feels...somehow brighter. I'm more aware of the temperature and cadence of the falling water. The coolness of the tile beneath my feet. The golden glow of the light. Although the spa is completely quiet, I'm realizing the difference between what we call silent -- and actual silence. Even in our most quiet times "above the surface," there's an ever-present hum and murmur of life happening.
After dressing, I make my way to the relaxation room. A spa employee hands me a glass of lemon-cucumber water and hooks me up to a series of bubbling tanks at the oxygen bar. I toggle between a few different scents to create a custom cocktail. (Mostly unscented with a hint of mint.) When the bubbling stops, I make my way to a table stacked with an experience journal and an adult coloring book. The experience journal is filled with notes from past floaters. It reads like a series of postcards from time travelers. The handwriting is happy, the words are a message of transformation.
I grab a handful of colored pencils and add my own creation to the mix. A few words that have become my personal mantra. They feel especially fitting in the moment:
Relax. Nothing is under control. (And it's all okay.)
It's 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Time for me to rejoin the real world.