Floating Toward Mindfulness

Floating Toward Mindfulness

Photo courtesy of Float Sixty

Finding tranquility in a salt water tank

Mindfulness. The practice of living in the moment, of acknowledging and accepting thoughts as they come in rather than judging and stressing over them. Touted by Buddhist monks and psychologists alike as one of the keys to a healthy life, mindfulness remains, for many of us, an elusive state. Meditation, the path to mindfulness, seems a daunting task in lives so utterly consumed by distractions and stimuli.

But what if there were a shortcut?

At spa-like float centers in Chicago, such as SpaceTime Tanks, The Chicago Stress and Relief Center and Float Sixty, customers pay $60 to $90 for an hour in a small, enclosed tank. The tanks are soundproof and lightproof. On the floor of the tank is 10 inches of dense salt water. Individuals float effortlessly, thanks to more than 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt. Their bodies barely register the water, which is heated perfectly to skin temperature.

There are many purported benefits to a session in a float tank—from pain management to sports injury prevention to addiction treatment—but most of the floaters are just there to relax.

The concept behind float tanks is called Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST). It’s based on the idea that when the brain has nothing to outwardly focus on, it focuses inward, eliciting a state of openness and tranquility.

“In the floatation tank, nothing is going on around us, so we have a chance to concentrate on what’s going on inside us,” says Peter Suedfeld, PhD, psychology professor emeritus at The University of British Columbia and a pioneer of REST research.

Suedfeld tells the story of a Zen master who once came to float in a tank at his lab. “He said that all of his adult life he had done Zen meditation for several hours every day, and the depth of the meditative state that he reached in the tank was of a depth that he encountered in his meditations [only] a couple of times a year,” Suedfeld says.

Science hasn’t been able to track the exact processes taking place in the brain during REST, due in part to the difficulties of creating a scan that can withstand the salt water, but electroencephalograms (EEGs) have given researchers some important data.

“REST puts a person on the fast track to theta,” says Howard Weissman, PsyD, founder and clinical director of The Chicago Stress Relief Center. Theta waves, which can be measured with an EEG scan, occur when the frequency of neural activity reaches 4–7 Hz. They’re associated with relaxation, meditation and calmness.

“Everyone generates theta waves at least twice per day,” Weissman says, “in those fleeting instants when we drift from conscious drowsiness into sleep, and again when we awaken from sleep to consciousness.”

In the floatation tank, nothing is going on around us, so we have a chance to concentrate on what’s going on inside us”

Depriving the brain of sensory data, at least to the degree that a float tank does, eases your brain into theta waves. “It’s a process of letting go, but it happens without your willing it,” Suedfeld says.

There are many benefits to spending quality time in the theta state, including increased creativity and focus, therapeuticrelief and—perhaps best of all—an effortless entry into the present moment. Floatation therapy, Weissman says, acts as a catalyst into present-time consciousness, leaving floaters more open to joy, pleasure and gratitude—the very things we also hope to gain from deep meditation.

Weissman uses floatation with his patients, many of whom are recovering from severe traumas. He explains, “During floating, the limbic brain is active, but the arousal is muted to such a degree that one is able to process traumatic or stressful moments to an adaptive resolution.” He has found that his patients are able to access and process events without having to relive them emotionally, a method that has been profoundly effective in helping them overcome long-lasting issues.

A lot of what a person gets out of a float has to do with the expectations and goals going into it. My own experience with the tanks affirmed the peaceful possibilities that I had heard so much about. As I floated, my initial overwhelming worry of accidentally hitting the sides of the tank (humorously referred to as “ping-ponging”) was slowly but smoothly overtaken by an immense sense of calm.
I am not a meditator, nor even a person who can sit distraction free for a full hour, but in the dark, soundless chamber of the float tank, I found my Zen.

Originally published in the Fall 2016 print edition