I’ve been doing a bit of work for a deals website called Living Social recently. Generally, what they do is offer cheap options for eating out or having extremely cheap cosmetic treatments in various cities, but occasionally they come up with something genuinely interesting. I still have a little bit of that spiritually experimental side of me sitting untapped of my travels and experiences with Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism in India, Nepal, Korea and Thailand, and when an opportunity like ‘the flotation tank’ comes up, I find it hard to resist.
The principle is simple: almost complete sensory isolation. I had little idea of what to expect when I arrived at the tiny little alternative medicine centre in South Dublin; they led me through to a room a little bit like an oversized bathroom, where a sealed container full of excessively salty water sat in one corner and a set of instructions on how to operate it in the other. I showered, got in, and closed the door.
Once you turn off the light, the flotation tank is completely pitch black, at the level where it really makes absolutely no difference if you have your eyes open or closed. You lie back in the salty water, gently nudge yourself away from the edges of the tank, and lie back, ears under the water, in total silence, just floating. It takes a while to feel like anything’s happening. For a while, the silence just seems overwhelming, then you start to hear your own body noises: breathing seems incredibly loud, and the heartbeat seems to break down into the constituent parts, with the valves audibly opening and closing, and a sense that the blood pumping through is just on the edge of the audible hearing range.
The longer you’re in there, the more the isolation dominates. Time seems a lost concept: after about 45 minutes, I’m so convinced that I’ve overstayed by hours session by at least double that I clamber out and stick salt to my mobile phone screen to check the time. It’s peaceful, yet at times intimidating – the extent of the darkness when your eyes are open leads you to question if you’ve gone completely blind, while other moments feel odd to the point of what I can imagine is kind of embryonic. I had so little idea of what part of the tank I was in that a part of my body colliding extremely gently with the edges seemed jarringly abrupt and made me jump several times.
The last few minutes went a little wrong. In a brief moment of full consciousness, I decided to experiment with the properties of the water. Thinking of the famous images of people floating and reading newspapers in the Dead Sea, I started to lift my hands above my head and move around to see just how much buoyancy the tank offers. The answer is an incredible amount, but it also has such a high level of salt that a single drop from falling from the hands into the eyes is enough to cause pretty extreme pain. The relaxing element was long gone.
When you get out of the tank, you find the water’s so saturated that it’s oily. You can almost wipe the thick glean off your stomach, and when you stand up it seems to stick to the body until you get some soap off it to break down the bonds. My ears were filled with little crystals for several days afterwards – despite wearing earplugs, they just seem to creep in. The experience, though, is truly bizarre. How often do we spend even an hour in true silence, totally isolated from almost every outside sense in just warm, damp silence? It’s slightly overwhelming and completely disorienting, in terms of both time and direction. If only it wasn’t normally so expensive!