When is the last time you did absolutely nothing for two hours? I'm not talking about lolling on the couch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I'm talking about doing nothing - minimising distractions to the degree that all you are left with is your own mind.
This can be achieved through “Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy" (REST) – in short, what happens when you immerse yourself in a flotation tank.
In a previous post I spoke about how technology can get in the way of mindfulness. But what if technology might also offer us a quicker and more direct experience of it too? In order to find out I booked myself a two session float package (£90) at Floatworks.
Peter Bell, the Manager of Floatworks, extols the benefits of floating and REST. The key, he tells me, is that by limiting all external stimulation you become totally focused on your mind. The buoyant water, warmed to the temperature of your skin, creates a space-like situation where you lose track of your proprioception, the sensation that tells you how your body is aligned in relation to its environment. It's as close as you'll get to Sandra Bullock in Gravity within the M25.
“It's like you experience yourself as just a point of consciousness in empty space" explained Peter, “unlike when you are meditating at home, there are no aches or cramps, no rogue noises – just your mind in a sea of nothingness."
Meditating in the best circumstances on a cushion can be trying. Usually it is intensive awareness of the state of the body (the aching foot or the sore back) alongside one's non-ideal surroundings that makes it so difficult. Floatation tanks bypass all those distractions by allowing one to really get to the business of mindfulness by way of non-distraction.
I arrive to find the tank, which is called an “i-sopod", and proceed to immerse myself in the salt water to find that I am immediately buoyed up, Dead Sea style, and transported into an experience akin to weightlessness. Once settled, I pull down the sound-proofed lid and turn out the light.
A short burst of new-age music accompanies my first five minutes, before leaving me to total rest. By the time the music ceases, I become aware that there is no pressure anywhere on my body – it's as if it doesn't even exist, and just as Peter said, I observe my consciousness as a single (albeit noisy) point in a sea of nothingness – all I can hear is my breathing and, when the water bypassed my earplugs, the sound of my heartbeat. The sensation is utterly unique as the stimulation really is reduced to near zero. This gives me the direct opportunity to observe my mind.
If I learned anything from my float, it is just how unquiet my mind actually is. This was particularly noticeable in the second two-hour float. Despite my attempts to bring myself back to awareness, my mind wondered an awful lot. Between those wonderings, however, I noticed longer and longer periods of continued mindful awareness, of coming back to my breath, and patiently sitting with my experience. Two hours is a long time, and I imagine I managed to keep mindful of my breath for a total of about 15 minutes throughout.
The benefits of the float continued long after emerging from the tank. Upon leaving Floatworks, I walked through Borough Market and the Southbank feeling as if I were on a Valium drip. I felt totally chilled out yet hyper-aware of my surroundings at the same time. I noticed the stimulation of the sun on my skin, the smell of frying food, and the sparkly quality of the surface of the Thames. After my float where the most exciting sensation had been a bead of sweat dripping from my forehead into my ear (a headline act when every other stimulation is reduced) the full hubbub of London was rather exceptional. This feeling of engaged serenity lasted the rest of the day and is a commonly reported experience after floating.
In the end, I learned that while floating is no express journey to mindfulness, it does offer the opportunity to profoundly see the nature of your mind when left with minimal stimulation to distract it. I am reminded that there is no quick fix. Mindfulness is achieved by sheer practice, generally in the real world full of stimulation and distraction. However, one can experience a splendid “time out" – and floatation may just offer that solution