If you’re to have any chance of success tomorrow, you need to de-stress and recharge your creative batteries fast. Ideally, you'd like the creative benefits of several days of meditation compressed into a single evening: a kind of microwave meditation. It sounds too good to be true, but it's possible, thanks to the extraordinary effect of the floatation tank.
A modern flotation tank. Looks relaxing, right?
A floatation tank is a fiber-glass pod (above), big enough to get inside and stretch your arms and legs out without touching the sides. The tank is filled with a few inches of a super-saturated, epsom-salt solution. Before you get inside, you put in earplugs, so that when you close the door you are cocooned from the outside world. Then you turn off the light and lie back in the darkness.
The salt makes the water dense, so that when you lie down, you float. The water lifts and supports you, like the most comfortable bed in the world. And because it’s at body temperature, after a few minutes you don’t sense it any more. Not only that, gravity has disappeared. It’s like floating in space.
With no external stimuli, you become very aware of your breathing. All the instructions from meditation and yoga classes about “mindfulness of your breath” start to make sense—with no distractions, it becomes super-easy to focus on your breathing and feel it lulling you into a deeply relaxed state.
It takes a little while to settle into the float: to begin, you may notice your mind-chatter, with thought after thought flitting through your awareness. Occasionally your toes or fingers bump gently against the side of the tank. But gradually you find yourself easing deeper into the experience.
You become aware of tension in different parts of your body, then the delightful feeling as the muscles relax. A few minutes later, you are surprised to discover tension in muscles you didn’t realize you had—and new levels of relaxation as these muscles let go in turn.
As you float, you may experience moments of clarity, of insight into a current problem you are facing. Or this may be one of those days when you find yourself switching off completely, letting go of all thoughts.
At some point you drift off, to be nudged awake by soft music playing, as if from very far away. It’s the signal that your float will end in a few minutes, so it’s time to rouse yourself, before you leave the tank, shower, and head for to the “chillout room” that acts as a buffer between the serenity of the tank and the rush of the outside world.
Everyone has their own experience of the floatation tank. Some people fall asleep, others find themselves experiencing flashes of insight, or thinking through problems in a lucid creative state. Others have profound experiences that have a big impact on their personal development.
Actor and comedian Joe Rogan is an enthusiastic advocate of the tank, describing it as "the most important tool that I’ve ever used for developing my mind, for thinking, for evolving." In this video (below) he describes his experience of floating, and the creative, emotional and physical benefits it gives him.
Musician Peter Gabriel had a tank installed in his home during the eighties. "It was quite useful," he said in an interview. "In the sense that you could get into a dream state, and I think that did allow...different thoughts and pictures to come through. And I tend to write a lot of times from, from pictures, and it is an area I'm very interested in."
If you’re a busy creative, working under pressure, with a mind addled by smartphones and social media, floating is a great way to find the creative downtime that is essential to great work. Over the years it has helped me prepare for big presentations, de-stress after difficult weeks, solve creative problems, reconnect with myself, and generally feel more human.
There’s no substitute for daily meditation practice, but floating is a great way to complement it.
The float itself is a wonderful experience, but to me the after-effect is at least as important. Whenever I emerge from the tank and sink into a chair in the chillout space, I am in a completely different state of mind than when I arrived. The chatter in my mind has died down. I see and hear things around me very clearly. I have no urge to touch my iPhone. I often sit there for half an hour or more, without reading or talking, in no hurry to leave.
I've experienced a similar state of mind after the first couple of days of a silent meditation retreat. But the effect is much more dramatic, as I’ve only spent an hour in the tank. Which is why I call it microwave meditation.
And if you're a beginner to meditation, floating can be a great way to help you learn to focus. To quote Nick Dunin, Founder of the Beyond Rest float center in Perth, “The floatation tank is like training wheels for meditation, it gives you an experience of what it’s like to switch off and be present, which makes it easier for you to do the same when you’re sitting in meditation, or practicing mindfulness in your daily life.”
These days most large cities have float centers where you can spend an hour in the tank for less than the cost of a massage. And many have membership programs that give you the cumulative benefits of floating regularly, while reducing the cost per float.
Have you ever floated?
Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach. He is the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, and the free course for creative professionals, The Creative Pathfinder.