First published on AOL Asylum.co.uk (September 5th 2011) //
Everyone from Olympic athletes to stressed bankers to Cheryl Cole have slowly cottoned on to the insular world of floatation tanks; an established therapy of mind and body gigglingly known as ‘floating.’ Touted as one of the ultimate relaxation techniques where your brain ratchets down to its most receptive and creative rhythms, it promises well-preserved, saline silence. But does it actually work?
Heading out of London Bridge station on the heavily-manned walk to Floatworks, one of the few floatation centres in London, I see the Borough market fat with tourists. A man twitches through the crowds like a baffled insect. A woman actually slips on a peeled banana. They are all, by now, visibly quite stressed.
Any of these people could be willing participants in the relaxation experiment that is ‘floating’ (straight face). Whether they are willing to enter a darkened vessel containing a volume of water mixed with buoyant Epsom salts for a solitary hour, is a different matter.
But more and more people are coming around to the idea, which arrived in the 1950s from the brain of Dr. John C. Lilly. An all-round psychonaut supreme, he perfected the isolation tank in the 1970s, before it gained some notoriety following the release of the film ‘Altered States’. Since then, Ashley Cole found it an appropriate gift and/or expensive joke for a probably unimpressed ex-wife.
Nevertheless, I prepare myself for my own altered state, arriving ten minutes early for my session where I wait on a sofa before being given a briefing. I am then taken to the floatation room and left alone.
In one corner is a shower. In another is a white plastic chair with a small table beside. In between these things is a large sci-fi prop, a bubbling white pod with an open lid. I remove my glasses and step into the shower, never taking my blurry eyes off the machine, partly anxious I won’t ‘get it’ and that the whole experience will be more like torture than relief.
The lights begin to fade. I am still in the shower. The room has no light switch, all is controlled from the reception. I panic. Fumbling to find my glasses with the aid of the tiny spotlight under the water in the pod, my feet slip occasionally on the tiles.
As I scuttle to get my towel and the earplugs, which I have knocked onto the ground and cannot find, I become conscious that time is dripping and I’m not in it. I search blindly along the tiles for the earplugs again. There are two different sizes and the first plug I find doesn’t match the next. They will do. By now, I’ve realised it’s not going well; I am naked and frustrated, and already feel as if I’m not ‘getting it’.
I step into the pod backwards and sit into the mini-Dead Sea, closing the lid above me. I turn out the inner spotlight. I lay back and quickly begin to feel morbidly comfortable in the sweaty darkness. Half-expecting to hear screams from distant pods, I start to control my breathing and ignore the unfortunate start, trying to forget about everything else outside the room. My heart is still pounding, the soft music still playing. The relaxing sounds begin to fade out, signalling the beginning of the 50 minutes of self, with only the occasional sound of splashing water.
For just under an hour, I am the giant baby from 2001: A Space Odyssey flipping backwards through space into blankets overlapping each other in the black. My brain is split open into made-up apophenia; pretend things painted up there in silver and wiped away with a salty blink.
I fall asleep, I awaken, my brain clicks and slides in between. It feels delightful. When the music swims back in I sit up. Racking up a sodium intake worthy of a headache, the Epsom salt solution runs into my mouth and I am a salt and vinegar fish. It trickles into my eyes and burns. Inside the pod somewhere, probably miles away, there is a spray of fresh water for the eyes; I find the bottle, directing the nozzle face-wise manically, and it provides temporary relief.
But that relief continues. I shower the grit from my lazy skin and find that the glow of satisfaction is in the post-experience. I sit chatting; my face dripping off the bone. The sleep will be good, I am told. I’m borderline catatonic until I’m out the door and reach the High Street.
“The sleep will be good,” I hear again — words from Tim, the Floatworks owner, flowing back through my brain. Then my foot slips and I’m sliding on the same mashed banana. I barely notice. I just go home and sleep.