I'm pretty sure that wins at relaxing.
Unfortunately, I didn't astrally sleuth around a parallel upside-down dimension, but I can tell you after trying it for the first time that sensory deprivation is no joke. After an hour of floating in a tub of more magnesium sulfate than water, I found that floating therapy, or "doing a float" as the more-than-casual dabbler might call it, is the kind of therapy that may cause even an introvert to balk. There's "leave me alone" and then there's "I am suspended in a universe of nihilism, but that's fine, it's fine, I swear everything's fine."
A primer on floatation therapy: Originally a mid-20th-century science experiment to suss out the physiological effects of sensory deprivation and explore the origins of the brain's energy source, floating has been recognized for having a bunch of physical and mental benefits — namely calming your brain the fuck down by imposing a literally irresistible meditative environment. A ton of epsom salt is involved to make body-temp water denser than a human body so you float to the point of feeling like you're literally suspended in space. When there's no external stimulation, your brain is left alone to do whatever weird things it wants to do in its room.
Yes, there are many physical benefits of an epsom salt bath, generally having to do with pain relief as well as lowering blood pressure and increasing blood circulation and endorphins (aka happy chemicals) amongst other things. But I wasn't there for a sports injury, per se. I was there to force my brain to switch off in the most hardcore way possible. I'm looking at a screen 90% of my day, to the point where my short-term memory is noticeably shittier than it was just five years ago. I have trouble concentrating on one task without being distracted by doing another task (I have 10 tabs open on my browser as I'm writing this), making my time management skills pretty piss-poor (but I'm never not entertained!) and making simple decisions has become a mental exercise. I love technology but at what cost? At what cost?!?!?
Back to floation. The actual process? Weird at first but positively otherworldly after getting settled in. I visited Floating Lotus, located in the penthouse of a building tucked away in midtown, arguably the most annoyingly hustly-bustly neighborhood of Manhattan. It's a small spa that also offers acupuncture and has a greenhouse-looking rooftop yoga studio. The floating therapy is done in a private bathroom-type room with a vanity, a shower, and the floating tub in it's own closet-type room attached to the shower for easy procedural access.
I signed a form that said I didn't have any oozing sores or contagious health conditions, and that if I peed, pooped or excreted any bodily fluids in the tub I'd be subject to a $2000 cleaning fee (because that much salt is expensive, I suppose).
You're instructed to shower before and after to wash off respective grime from getting in the water as well as the salty residue from the water. There are earplugs and an inflatable neck pillow for floating neophytes like me who need assistance fighting the instinct to not drown (even though it's literally a foot deep).
Getting settled in the pool was like sleeping in a new bed. You have to fluff the pillows a dozen times and toss and turn to find a comfortable position before you're like, Alright, I'm good. Let's do this.
For starters, the feeling of extreme buoyancy is such a uniquely bizarre sensation. I could not sink if I wanted to. Since the water is regulated to be as close to body temperature as possible, it really does feel like being naked in zero gravity.
I used the neck pillow because I'm a baby who wants a neck pillow. Also, I got a drop of super-salt-water in my eye and good gourd, there is no way I was going to risk an accidental facial submergence! But once I got comfy, my brain was like, Wait where did everything go? Hello? Are you guys playing a prank on me? What gives? OK, I guess I'll just do... whatever...
On the sound counsel to "just be," I focused on breathing as I starfished out, eyes closed and ears plugged and submerged for ultimate blind soundlessness. I eventually fell asleep — which is kind of the goal, to be so relaxed and calm that you can doze. I've always been a pretty good sleeper as long as I'm in a "safe" space.
But the sleep was weird. It was a half-sleep, perhaps because my animal instincts of not falling asleep in a bathtub or die by drowning were called into work like some kind of Navy Reserves. Imagine a perpetual mood of that knee-jerk falling sensation you get right before dozing off. Now that kind of state is really strange because while physically I felt a peaceful cocoon of nothingness, my brain was vibing on some strange magic. It was basically a state of lucid dreaming. I don't particularly remember the plot of the dream days later, but I do remember that it was definitely a lucid dream because there were "dream people" — you know, those characters who show up in dreams who you've never seen or met before but there you are, interacting with these invented strangers who you suddenly have some sort of relationship and context.
The coolest part though was leaving the dream. I was playing along but still aware that I wasn't really in whatever dream-invented environment (I loosely remember it was a house I'd never been to before) and saying politely that I had to go and then waking myself up. How! Freaking! Cool! Nothing about my brain has done as baller a move as that. I am harnessing the power of my brain! It makes me confident that should any Nightmare On Elm Street shenanigans ever happen, I'd just be like "Peace, Freddie!" Thwarted.
The hour-long float session honestly felt like half a day. I guess you lose sense of time when napping in zero gravity. I left feeling rather fatigued, like I'd had A Day.
Joel Granik, the co-founder of Floating Lotus, informed me that reaching a deeply calm meditative state causes your brain to pump out theta waves, which are the slower ones which happen during REM sleep, hypnosis or lucid dreaming (bingo!). You can get there via meditation, too, which is a thing I keep telling myself I'm going to do but never do.
Re-immersing myself back in the jarring, overstimulating reality that is midtown right before rush hour was probably a poor choice in a relatively fragile mental state. The treatment literature says that you'll leave the spa with a "laser focus," feeling rejuvenated, but I think my mind was feeling a bit vulnerable. After all, when you remove the detritus of popup-ad-like preoccupations, what is left underneath but your raw emotional landscape?
What actually happened: I literally took mere steps from the building, plugged in my earphones, and wept like a little lost child on 56th street. This incidentally was also the day of that dude scaling Trump Tower so the street was bursting with tourists pointing their phones upwards, the police having closed off that block of 5th Avenue, making me doubly embarrassed that all these tourists were seeing me weep in public. Listening to rather emotive music perhaps contributed (def contributed).
I've always considered myself a very rational and judicious person but one who feels things deeply even if that depth is rarely explored in favor of processing events as non-personal matters (Cancer/Capricorn-risin, here). It helps to think of things outside my own ego so not every little thing gets taken personally, hurting my squishy feelings. I was a super-sensitive cry-baby growing up and this has proven to be a sound method for navigating the contradictory and oft confusing behaviors and expectations of being a grown-up. It's probably why I majored in theater in college, to access that as a strength, but those lessons are rusty and this hyper-meditation that I just did brought everything up to the surface that, to be honest, is always simmering closely underneath. I am very good at crying, though I will be the first person to shout, "No YOU'RE crying for no reason at the Pixar animated short that played before Finding Dory!"
Real talk: I can't afford to do floatation therapy on the regs, and I rent, so I can't exactly build one in my home (though that's a thing you can totally do!). But if nothing else, this has encouraged me to really actually practice mediation more frequently and regularly. Everyday things like work, social life, relationships, and general adult stuff can feel so mundane but secretly can compound to being quite stressful, and I always prioritize taking care of business before taking care of my sensitive baby heart partially because it makes me feel good to get things done. But it's also a form of displaced productivity in which I can put off dealing with impactful things that are difficult to control, like feelings.
Like with many people, emotional care is a low priority when there are bills to pay, ladders to climb and expectations to fulfill. After chugging along for long enough, you can forget to check in with yourself and lose touch with your gut. And your gut is so important! It's the thing that steers you where you know you ought to be and away from things that you know you should stay away from. So meditation, here I come!
- Do people really "ommmm" in earnest while meditating?
- Any meditation tips y'all got? I did the Headspace trial and I'm on the fence about it but I like the cute animations.
- It's National Relaxation Day, so what would be your ideal way to relax?