Floating in a sensory deprivation tank can be a profound meditative experience, says Ryan N. Fitzpatrick. He explains why Buddhists might find this plunge into darkness illuminating.
I close the heavy hatch on the tank and lay naked in the shallow water, bathed in dim azure light. I click off the light and plunge into total darkness, total silence. The temperature of the water is the same as my body and packed with dissolved salts, so I feel nothing and float effortlessly. Five minutes pass. Ten. Or is it thirty seconds? I measure time in exhalations, lose track, start over, and give up.
“What am I doing here?” I chastise myself wordlessly. “What am I trying to prove? To whom? Who do I really think I am?”
Ninety minutes later, I emerge refreshed and balanced, my mind aglow with inner peace and equanimity. I shower the salt off of my body and make an appointment for next month.
Float therapy, or “floating,” has taken off in popularity in recent years. Spas and athletic centers have installed the sleek pods, large enough for an adult to lie down and stretch out inside. The promise is deep relaxation. Inside the pod, there are no distractions. People typically spend 60 or 90 minutes in the tank, sleeping, thinking, relaxing, or — in my case — meditating.
I first learned about floating through my cousin, who raved about his experiences at his float center in Boston, exploring the furthest reaches of his consciousness. It instantly appealed to me. I’ve meditated daily for nearly a decade, and so the prospect of a long meditation free from obstacles — except the running script of thoughts bubbling up in my mind — was tantalizing. My first meditation center shared a wall with the strip club next door, and I practiced meditating on my breath while trying to ignore Axl Rose’s piercing wail on “Sweet Child O’ Mine” coming through the wall. I live in Washington, DC, and it’s rare that a meditation goes by in which I don’t notice the hum of traffic and planes, the scream of sirens or the thunder of helicopters. These obstacles have strengthened my training in concentration. But, at the same time, I was excited at the opportunity to meditate deeply without those interferences.
Since my first float, in 2017, I’ve used my 90–minute sessions in the pod to have some of the most powerful meditations of my life. I go about once a month, and I find that floating builds my everyday capacity to comprehend impermanence, attachment, and emptiness.
When you arrive at your flotation center, an attendant shows you to a private room, with a shower and float pod, and gives you brief instructions. Then, you’re left on your own. You completely undress (even rings and bracelets), put in earplugs to keep out water, and shower. Then you open the pod, turn off the room lights, climb in, close the pod door, and lay back in the warm water. The inside of the pod is illuminated with a soft light that you can turn off when you’re ready.
I’ve always struggled to keep my head above the waves, floating in the ocean, so I was skeptical that I’d be able to relax in a flotation tank. I was wrong. You float effortlessly. A thousand pounds of Epsom salts dissolved in the water make floating natural, and gravity quickly loses its hold on your mind.
After an indeterminate amount of time, my meditation inevitably leads me into an ethereal world of smoke and light.
You can’t feel the water, so, when you turn off the lights, you lie in complete darkness without the distraction of sight, sound, or touch. Just your thoughts for company.
When I float, I begin with the same series of prayers that I recite before every meditation: going for refuge to Buddha, dharma, and sangha; generating a mind of bodhicitta (universal compassion); wishing for the happiness and equanimity of all living beings; and visualizing the Buddha and bodhisattvas. This routine helps me focus my intentions for the meditation. Then, I usually contemplate a particular dharma concept from the book I’m studying at the time.
Aside from these prayers and contemplations, breath meditation is a good practice while floating. When your mind wanders, simply return your focus to your breath and begin again. One of the special aspects of floating is that the length of time is fixed. Until it’s over, there is nowhere else to be, so there’s no temptation to end your meditation early.
Nonetheless, not a single session goes by in which I don’t find myself questioning myself. At some point, my mind begins to doubt itself. Come on, Ryan, you’re really going to lay here for 90 minutes, meditating? Isn’t there something else you should be doing? By this point, I’ve had dozens of floats. Still, self-doubt creeps in every single time. Nothing is going to happen, my thoughts say. You’re just wasting your day. But once I’m in the pod, I’m not going anywhere, and eventually the thoughts disappear.
After an indeterminate amount of time, my meditation inevitably leads me into an ethereal world of smoke and light — purples and greens and yellows, images of the Buddha arising and falling, mind and body deeply relaxed. It’s pleasant, and I feel at peace, focusing my awareness not on individual hallucinations but on their appearance and disappearance. In one of my sessions, the phrase form is emptiness, emptiness is form became a mantra, repeating itself without effort. My awareness dropped below the level of my ego, and my breathing sounded a great distance away — far above me. I abided in what felt like total selflessness.
Other times, I find myself stuck, trying and failing to recreate the profound experiences of prior floats. In those sessions, I end up learning about the obstacle of attachment. Eventually, I resign myself to focusing on my breathing and relaxing, recognizing that even clinging to positive experiences causes frustrations. Sometimes, following those failed attempts to recreate past experiences, I manage to let go of expectations and then find myself abiding completely in the present moment, where time is meaningless, feeling completely at peace.
Want to try floating? Many flotation centers offer beginner discounts and package deals. When I first started, I bought my first few floats through a deal on Groupon. Once I found a center I liked, I started buying packages of floats to use throughout the year.
Float therapy can be a powerful setting for meditation because of the isolation and fixed time period. However, training the mind to work with internal and external distractions is an essential part of Buddhist practice, and attachment to the conditions of the float pod — just like attachments to a secluded monastery or a quiet forest — will ultimately hinder your practice. I find that floating is helpful as a complement to daily practice and as a door to finding new ways to explore my mind. I think it can be an incredible tool for attaining deeper realizations and learning to abide with your own inner peace.