A Supposedly Fun Thing…

Readers, a confession. I’ve dropped the ball twice recently. First, I am blogging about May when we’re already a week into June. (Tsk, tsk.)  Second, and the bigger ball drop: I couldn’t get my act together enough in May to do the “new thing” I wanted to do, so I found a hasty, one-and-done replacement.

Karma: my lack of commitment to my Year of 40 would not go unnoticed by the universe.  “I know,” said the universe. “I’ll give her a second month in a row of disliking something that everyone else seems to like.” And so, a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.¹

Namely: floating. Thanks, Universe.

When I first heard of floating a year or two ago, I immediately put it on my bucket list. Here is the gist of it: water is made so salty that we become completely buoyant. You float in this water in total darkness and quiet, and the combination of the weightlessness and sensory deprivation is supposed to be magical, otherworldly.

Sounds cool, right? Who wouldn’t want to do that?

So it was that I cross-referenced floating on Yelp and Groupon, ultimately deciding to book a one-hour session at “Float Matrix.”  I headed there after work one day, ready for some relaxation. Would it be like meditating? Like a massage? Like a hot tub?

I walked into an understated doorway in Nob Hill and down the stairs to the basement. Dingy carpeting led me to a young man behind a desk. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get his name, and his only distinguishing characteristic was that he was young- 18 perhaps?- so I’ll just refer to him as YM.) I checked in and was led to the bathroom, where I was to wash off thoroughly and don a robe and slippers. YM then led me behind a curtain, then another, to a “room” (can you call it that when only curtains divide the space up?) in which there was nothing other than a tank and a bathmat. Float Matrix: D- for ambiance.

float tank
Float tank. Zero ambiance.

The tank was about eight feet long by three feet wide. YM explained that I open the door and back in, so that my head is farthest from the tank door. His introduction to floating was brief and puzzling. He said he had a few analogies for me: it would be like floating in the Mediterranean, because “it’s the same density.”² Next, he said it would be like floating in my mother’s womb.³ He told me that they use 4,000 pounds of Epsom salt.4 Finally, it’s okay if I fall asleep, because “it happens all the time, and it will probably be the best rest” I’ve ever had. When the time is up, he will knock on the outside of the tank, and I can knock back to let him know that I’ve heard him.

Once YM had left, I stripped off my robe and slippers, put in the ear plugs (highly recommended so that you don’t get salt water in your ears) and backed into the tank. The water was surprisingly shallow (18″ or so). I closed the tank door and laid back.  The water and the air were both heated to the same temperature, 94 degrees, so that “you can’t tell the difference between the water and the air.” I waited for this to be the case, and every so often I asked myself, “Jill, do you know where the water stops and the air begins?” The answer was always a definitive “yes.”

So, what did it feel like? To use my own, non-Float Matrix-approved analogies, there were two predominant sensations. First, it felt a lot like “the spins”: when you lie down after drinking too much, and the room seems to be spinning, and you have a hard time focusing on anything. This is a cool sensation for about, say, five minutes. And then you just want the world to stop spinning.

My next analogy is that of a neglected pool toy: sitting lightly on the water, drifting occasionally to one side of the pool or the other. (My foot would suddenly touch one side of the tank, and I would gently push myself off; then another part of me would touch another side of the tank. Was there a breeze in my float tank?)

I did not fall asleep; I did not have “the best rest I’ve ever had.” I did turn off my brain halfway, but not nearly as much as I had expected. The only thing I could hear was the sound of my breath, which seemed as loud as a white noise machine. I tried opening my eyes, which felt about the same as having my eyes closed, but I didn’t want the salt water to bother them, so I ultimately kept them closed.

And here, no pun intended, is the rub: the salt water. This is why floating is not like going into space, or nesting in a mother’s womb. Salt is an irritant. And after a bit, I was irritated (both physically & spiritually). The salt was starting to bother my skin, and I had a funny taste in my mouth, in addition to being parched. What was the point of enduring this any longer? Feeling a bit sheepish, I climbed out of the tank, re-robed, and found my way to YM.

He was surprised to see me. “You still have 15 more minutes!” he exclaimed. I said, “I’ve had enough. Is it okay if I bail?” “Sure,” he said, his disappointment unmasked. I had failed him. Was I the first to have done so?

In the shower, I noticed that I had lines of salt running down my chest. The shower water felt as soft as a blanket, and after I emerged, my skin was as smooth as my ten-month-old’s cheeks. So this is why spas use salt scrubs. (Ah, but do they use 4,000 pounds of salt? Time to up your game, spas everywhere.)

So I left, feeling like this was not something I would need to do again, nor would I evangelize my experience to friends or family. In the end, the otherworldly sensory-deprivation float tank was really just like being drunk and thirsty in a warm, salty, meditative bathtub. Which, upon reflection, is probably how textbooks describe the experience of being in a mother’s womb.

* * * * *

¹One of the best essays of all time, found in the book of the same name.

²Surely he meant the Dead Sea.

³This is just plain weird. Is the implication that we’re supposed to remember what that feels like? And that we yearn for that feeling? Who is the scientist behind this claim? Does Float Matrix encourage the use of this analogy, or did YM go off-script?

4Per float? Per year? Am I supposed to be impressed by this statistic, even though it makes no sense?