Something Thom and I always wanted to do was to try a float tank*. A couple of weeks ago in honor of my birthday we literally took the plunge. One of the more interesting things about it was the reaction others gave us when we attempted to explain the experience. Most offered a perplexed look on their face while some reacted in barely disguised repulsion. Questions like, “It’s completely dark? You’re floating in water? Do they lock you in?” were common, including the surprise, “You’re in there for a whole hour?” Like so many situations, how a person reacts says more about them than the experience itself. So when I later read an article that reported many people prefer electric shocks to being alone with their own thoughts, I wasn’t at all surprised. But what’s really going on here? Are we so addicted to stimulation that we can’t stand the silence, or could it be that we are more afraid of who we might be and what we might find if we stop all the noise?
First a little background on float tanks. Technically called sensory deprivation chambers, I first heard about them back in the early 1980s in Colorado Springs, CO. Located in an old rundown spa in the old part of town, they advertised the experience as a way to take a drug free trip into yourself—although the drug free wasn’t actually required. We went to check it out, but the hippie-like facility and the black cast-iron tanks were a bit too rustic and rundown for us to feel compelled. Fast forward nearly 40 years and I found a new, modern and uber-clean facility in Southern California offering a similar experience for self-discovery.
Modern float tanks are filled with about a foot and a half of water at skin temperature with a heavy concentration of Epson salts to make you float. About the size of a walk in closet, a person enters the chamber after showering and putting in earplugs. Although the door is closed it is never locked. While the goal is darkness, a light switch is within easy reach. Piped music signals the start and the conclusion of your time. The rest is up to you.
What’s the point? Originally developed to test the brain without outside stimulus, they have evolved into a tool to aid meditation, relaxation and alternative medicine. Research has proven them to be effective to reduce stress, anxiety, pain, swelling and even jet lag. On the other hand, floating seems to benefit creativity and focus, while improving blood flow, nighttime sleep, and natural endorphins.
However, none of those benefits are important if a person can’t stand being alone with their own thoughts. In a series of studies done last year, Professor Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia found that on the average people did not enjoy the experience of sitting quietly for a mere 6 to 15 minutes by themselves. Regardless of age or location, the people tested mostly found it unpleasant. In fact, when given the choice to sit quietly with no distraction or to give themselves mild shocks with an electrical devise, many of them preferred the pain. Tests showed that 67% of the men and 25% of the women preferred the stimulation of a self-administered shock to being alone with their thoughts.
Study author Wilson said that when asked, most people stated they preferred watching television, socializing or reading, rather than spending time “relaxing or thinking.” And according to Wilson, instead of believing that people are addicted to the stimulation of technology like television, computers and iphones, perhaps those products were developed and widely accepted exactly because they provide the distraction most people crave.
As a person in FOMO Recovery (see the post here) I understand the craving to be distracted and to stay busy far too well. I’m well aware that if I keep my email program open or the ringer on my iphone on while I’m trying to write a blog post, I lose attention and it takes me twice as long to finish. It’s clear that if I check Facebook at all I’ll get sucked into reading posts and articles and lose 15 minutes here and 15 minutes there. And while I’m aware some of my distractions are just bad habits, there is likely a deeper reason they are so attractive. Perhaps I like staying busy and distracted so I don’t have to think clearly about what’s happening in my life, my body, my family or the world too deeply. I’ll bet I’m not alone.
Yesterday at the gym I couldn’t help but notice a television broadcasting in the waiting room before our tai chi session began. The volume was rather low and no one was watching it, but when I asked the other women around me if I could have it turn off, they looked surprised. One said, “Oh, it doesn’t really matter what’s on, I just like the noise in the background.” Another women admitted her TV was on in her home all the time, regardless of the time of day. Do many of us use such distractions as a way to feel less alone as well, or to not have to look at what our lives have become? What would we find if we turned off the television, the computer, the noise? And how would our lives change if we just took a deep breath and got quiet?
Am I there? Not hardly. But Thom and I started seriously meditating over four years ago each and every day. Doing that helps me to be very comfortable with my thoughts and where they might lead when there is absolutely no distraction available. That’s how I was able to rest in a float tank for an hour in the dark. What I’ve found after experiencing meditations of all sorts through the years is that certain kinds work best for certain people, and a float tank is no exception. Fortunately, what every experience of mindful meditation will do is help each of us discover who we are without all the noise and stuff that clutters up a person’s life. Perhaps the SMARTest solution isn’t to force ourselves to break habits of stimulation. Maybe instead it’s time to learn to love who we are no matter what’s going on, and to crave some quiet time alone.
*Video: Float Tank Experience Explained