When a friend told me, over brunch recently, that she had an appointment to float in a sensory deprivation chamber later that day, I was both intrigued and confused. When she asked if I’d like to come along and float in a chamber too, I was both excited and nervous.

My only two reference points for flotation tanks were The Simpsons and the Ricky Gervais Show…

Neither of which gave me much inspiration for getting in a tank. But my friend was insistent, that not only was the tank good for the body, it was good for the mind too. I knew almost nothing about flotation tanks, but I was curious enough to go along.

Presence and the flotation tank

Coincidentally, one of my goals this year is to practice presence. I often found myself deep in thought, time travelling to the future, or reliving the past and with the help of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, I have been bringing myself into the present as frequently as possible. Presence means being in the now all the time. It means noticing the leaves on the trees, the smell of the rain on the footpath and the sound of the cars on the road. It means dealing with responsibilities, but not worrying about them. It means treating issues as challenges rather than turning them into problems. Basically, it means enjoying the present moment because that’s all we ever have.

Much like meditation, presence has proved to be no mean feat. As I walk along the road trying to notice the cars, the smells and leaves on the trees, I frequently find that I’m thinking about work, or what I want to do on the weekend, or I notice that I’ve left Melbourne entirely and I’ve time travelled to a country I want to live in the future, or worse, I’m reliving a moment that happened years ago.

Hoping the tank might intensify my presence practice, I agreed and went along with an open mind. Having explained to the receptionist that I had, in her words, “never floated before,” I was asked to sign a form, which basically prevented me from suing them in the case of a bad reaction, injury and probably death.

I didn’t mention my fear of drowning.

My friend and I were then lead down a dark hallway to two separate rooms, both with a shower and large flotation chamber in each. The chambers were filled with water and epsom salts, giving them the look of bath water and the buoyancy of the Dead Sea. I was given instructions for tank usage, which essentially consisted of undressing, taking a shower, getting inside, turning off the light and then closing the chamber door. I’m not claustrophobic, nor afraid of the dark, but I still found this particularly unnatural.

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I immediately panicked and turned the light back on inside the chamber. I sat up and opened the lid a little. The salty water from my hair began dripping in my eyes. They stung like nettles on a bare arse. I reached around for a conveniently placed fresh water bottle and sprayed myself in the eyes, which I imagine were turning red, repetitively.

I didn’t feel relaxed, but at least my suffering had forced me to become particularly present.

Having washed my eyes, and re-closed the chamber door, I settled myself, took a few deep breaths and turned off the light again. It was pitch black. Not the kind of pitch black that your eyes adjust to. I mean genuine darkness. There was no visual difference between having my eyes open or closed. Convinced I was going blind I turned on the light again just to be sure.

I wasn’t blind and I reluctantly turned off the light.

I was back in darkness, but my vision wasn’t the only strange sensation– my body felt different. I became distinctly aware of any tensions and actually noticed my muscles spontaneously relaxing. My body was naturally supported in the tank with little effort, and I became aware of how much effort it takes to just hold my body up in normal sitting and standing stances.

Having recognised my relaxed body, my mind soon turned on itself. I was left with nothing but thought. There was nothing but me and my mind and much like the tensions in my body, the thoughts weren’t really necessary. I became aware that the voices in my head were much like noisy children on a merry-go-round. These children were so noisy that I felt like going up to each and everyone of them and saying “Shhh!”

But instead of yelling at the children going around and around the carousel, I let them be. Their voices didn’t go away, but they grew quieter and then something strange happened. I wasn’t really in the tank anymore and I wasn’t listening to the obnoxious children either. I was watching myself. I watched myself walk home from work, I watched myself make dinner in my apartment, I watched myself wander around Melbourne. Essentially I became an observer of my physical world.

My physical world, as observed in my mind, seemed so minuscule compared compared to what lay within. It took me a few weeks to understand what happened and I’m still trying to understand it, but essentially, I had the chance to separate myself from myself, my mind from my body and that to me seems like a great starting point for presence.

It got me thinking, (which isn’t really the whole point of this exercise, but I’m still learning) taking a step back and looking at the big picture isn’t something that our world invites us to do. We’re constantly being dragged in one direction or another through social media, cell phones, work obligations, our reliance on food, drugs and alcohol and pressure to improve ourselves.

The world asks us to be better people, better travelled, better looking and better parents. The world asks us to get better jobs, more money, buy bigger houses and flasher cars. The world never stops to ask “what kind of person are you?” Instead it asks “what do you do, what have you achieved and what do you own?”

When I came out of the tank, I felt as though I had just been born. I had no fear, regret, worry, annoyance, nor sense of time or obligation.

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Presence since floating in the tank, has been easier to reach than before, but not without effort. I still find myself time travelling, I am, like most, still addicted to thinking. But if there’s one thing I do know… thanks to the flotation tank, I’ve come closer to presence, than ever before. Now it’s just the tricky task of applying that experience in the real world.

Want to try floating? This is where I floated in Melbourne.