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Is Floating a Shortcut to Meditation?

05 October 2020, by i-sopod

We’ve come a long way in the west over the last decade or so from viewing meditation as a niche activity which most people thought ‘wasn’t for them’, to now widely seeking ways to incorporate mindfulness into our daily lives; with meditation apps, yoga and meditation classes and sound healing now commonplace for many of us.

The meditative qualities of floatation are being discovered and explored by more and more floaters, which makes us wonder whether floating can actually be a shortcut to meditation.

Withdrawal of the Senses

Floatation therapy, known as REST (reduced environmental stimulation therapy) reduces stimulatory input to the nervous system through floatation in a pool of water saturated with Epsom salts. The entire experience is calibrated to minimise any form of external stimulus; visual, auditory, thermal, gravitational – all forms of stimulation from the outside world are peacefully sealed out of the pod. In its essence, a float tank (aka sensory deprivation tank) is designed for a meditative experience. The mind is always looking for distraction to project emotions and thoughts onto. In a float tank, the lack of distraction gives us the perfect starting point for a meditation practice. Having no external stimuli, your senses are able to withdraw and your gaze turns inward.

The Physical Side of Meditation

Meditation can be difficult not only mentally, but also physically. Taking the traditional meditation position – or any seated position for a prolonged time – the aches and cramps that arise in the body become a source of pain and discomfort which lead to mental distraction. As soon as your mind wanders into wishing the aches and pains would stop, you’ve wandered away from the present moment. Whilst this is still a valuable part of meditation in itself (the lesson being to accept the physical discomfort without getting mentally consumed by it) the discomfort that comes with seated meditation definitely makes the practice a lot harder when you’re first starting out.
In a floatation tank the salts allow your body to transcend to a place of total relaxation. You can quite literally feel the tension leaving your body as you become completely weightless. This means, without the pain and tension, it’s a lot easier to calmly observe your thoughts from a place of presence and stillness, and for a longer period of time than you might manage initially in seated meditation.

Being with Yourself

If you’ve never floated before, and the idea kind of scares you, and if you’ve tried some more conventional mindfulness routes but with no luck, it might be worth digging a little deeper to understand that lingering resistance – as it could be exactly the reason why you would benefit from floatation.

These days we’re so dependent on external stimuli to keep us ticking (how many times do you check your phone a day?) that the daily bombardment of stimulation we live with actually becomes a way to numb ourselves to what’s really going on inside. That’s why many people find the idea of first entering a float tank daunting; ultimately, the idea of being shut off from all distractions and alone with yourself, and with your thoughts, can be an unnerving one. The anxiety at the prospect of being so intimate with your mental inner workings is very common, and yet often when we’re faced with fear or resistance before a new experience it’s an indication that it will actually be worthwhile – overcoming and facing fear is what allows us to grow.

Many first time floaters who go in with this niggling fear come out glowing. The float tank is a sanctuary of sorts, where you find yourself so relaxed that you’re able to deal with the thoughts as they surface from a more controlled and calm perspective.

Whether or not you are actively looking to meditate whilst you float, the pod offers a great opportunity to tune out from the world and check in with yourself. Solitude is an important aspect of a meditative practice; even if you’re meditating in a room full of people the aim is always to go inward and essentially be just with yourself. The concept of floatation is to create a space for peaceful solitude, and the isolation tank provides the ideal setting in which to just switch off and reconnect with yourself.

Meditation for Floaters – A Few Tips

Here are some simple meditation techniques you can incorporate into your next float, to enhance your experience and weave in some mindful qualities. If you’ve never tried meditation in a conventional setting, or you’re a beginner starting out, you might find these simple exercises are actually a lot easier than you would expect when practised in a float pod:

  • Breathing: Without any external noise to throw you off, it’s a lot easier to focus on your breathing whilst you float. Plus, wearing earplugs means you’re a lot more tuned into your internal sounds, like your breath and your heartbeat. Coming back to the breath is one of the fundamentals of mindfulness as it brings you back to the present moment almost effortlessly. Breathing through your nose, start by simply paying attention to your inhale and your exhale. You can then try inhaling slowly for a count of four, and exhaling for the same amount of time. Gradually you can increase the count, and observe the relaxing effect it has on your entire being.
  • Body: Once you feel more familiar with your breathing, you can start to observe your body along with your breath. Whilst you’re in the tank, you will become more aware of your body and areas of tension as they slowly loosen up in the salts. As you inhale, direct the breath to an area of your body where you feel tension, and as you exhale slowly, feel that part of the body gradually softening and the tension leaving. You can also observe how much lighter you feel with every exhale.
  • Visualisation: A very effective meditation tool which can help you access more inspiration and creativity, or even resolve problems. There are many different methods of visualisation, you can start with a positive affirmation, i.e something you could do with telling yourself more often; picture the words, picture the impact that affirmation is having on you and on your life. Another practice is to imagine that as you inhale you’re flooding your body with light, and as you exhale all stress and negativity is being released in clouds of dark smoke.

We’re not claiming that floatation is a fast track to nirvana; meditation is a practice, therefore not something we can ever achieve fully, and as such it will always be challenging, no matter how experienced you are. However, the environment of a floatation tank is the perfect setting in which to first try turning your gaze inwards.

It’s been proven that floating can actually put the brain into a temporary rest by inducing theta brainwaves, which cause a ‘slow activity’ theta state in the brain between the conscious and subconscious mind, which is known to be a deeply healing, relaxing, and focused mental state. A Zen Buddhist monk who meditated daily for 4-5 hours for many years once tried an hour in a float tank, and said that the experience was on par with the state he only entered after many hours of meditation. Traditional meditation practice can also induce a theta state in the brain, however it can take a lot more time and practice to get there.

Whilst floatation is no substitute for a meditation practice, it can definitely be a good way to complement it, and even a useful gateway to starting meditation.

Photos by Mike Labrum and Javardh on Unsplash