As a meditation practitioner who is rooted in traditional techniques, but also open to experimenting with technology that can aid meditation, I’m always receptive to try new inventions that are supposed to facilitate the practice. In this spirit, and because two of my coaching clients are fans of float therapy, I decided to give float tanks a try.
Floatation tanks – also called sensory deprivation tanks and isolation tanks – were created by neurophysicist Dr. John C. Lilly in the 1950’s, while he was doing research on brain waves and altered states of consciousness.
A floatation tank is a fiberglass pod, big enough to get inside and stretch your arms and legs out without touching the sides. The tank is filled with a few inches of a super-saturated epsom-salt solution, with 1,000 liters of water warmed to your body temperature.Before you get inside, you put in earplugs so that when you close the door you completely shut out the outside world.
Inside the pod, you hear nothing but your own breathing, see nothing but darkness, feel nothing but your heartbeat. Due to the dense epsom-salt solution, your body naturally floats without you needing to make any effort. After a few minutes, you are so relaxed that you lose track of where your body ends and the water begins. It’s as if you are back in your mother’s womb, or as if floating in a zero-gravity field in outer space.
As a result of the effortless floating and the lack of any stimuli for the five senses, all you are left with is your own mind.
According to Sydney Float Centre (the place I went to):
Floatation therapy has been academically studied in the USA and in Sweden with published results showing reduction of both pain and stress. At the moment there have been 80+ studies done on the benefits of floating. It is recommended to float three to five times to initially understand the process of floatation and begin to reap its long-term advantages. The benefits are cumulative, which explains why floatation devotees incorporate this therapy into their everyday lives.
Can Float Tanks Replace Meditation?
The short answer is No. Just like medicine cannot replace the need for you to lead a healthy lifestyle and look after yourself, float tanks give you a taste of some of the benefits of meditation practice but don’t teach you how to arrive there on your own.
Let me expand on that. I’ll start by describing my personal experience during and after the floating session.
My Experience in the Float Tank
Within five to ten minutes of entering the pod, my body got into a state of deep relaxation, and my mind was quiet – and even a couple of hours after the session, I could barely feel my body. That was great, and very enjoyable. (It is amazing to notice how much cognitive load and tension are required to simply live in the world, and process all the information we are exposed to!)
As I practice hours of meditation every day, and also often give myself space to reflect and contemplate, there was nothing that I needed to “process” while in the tank. So, after the relaxation state got stabilized, I wanted to see if I could meditate better in that condition. Since there were no distractions from either the body or the environment, I thought it would be a huge aid.
To my surprise, unlike my daily practice, I was unable to really focus while in the tank. The reasons for this, I suspect, were two:
- The body position (lying down) is not conducive to meditation, but to sleep. (It would be interesting to try a float tank where you are sitting instead, but I don’t know if there is such a thing.)
- The relaxation was so deep that the mind was a bit lethargic. It was unwilling to focus on anything.
Having said that, I suspect that the floatation tank environment can potentially be conducive to meditation, depending on the technique you use. I tried doing mantra meditation, chakra meditation, and trataka on darkness, and the conditions for all of them were harder than usual. But I do believe that the following meditation practices could actually go deeper while in the pod:
- Body-based meditations (like Yoga Nidra and breathing-based practices)
- Nada Yoga
- Open awareness practices
- Surrender practices
I guess I’d have to go to more sessions and try those too.
A Similar State to Deep Meditation?
It depends on what you mean by deep meditation, and what you are seeking from your practice.
In my experience, the state I was guided into felt more like a conscious sleep rather than deep meditation. In this sense, it is similar to the state you arrived at through the practice of Yoga Nidra, open awareness practices, and surrender practices.
Actually, the only elements in common with meditation were the state of ease and relaxation and the absence of distractions from the external world (which, granted, takes quite a bit of practice to achieve through meditation, while in the float tank it’s automatic). Because of these similarities, I suspect that float therapy shares some of the benefits of meditation practice.
The main missing element was the focus of awareness. And that is what likely produces many of the unique benefits of meditation – like greater self-awareness, concentration, resilience, self-control, willpower, increased gray matter concentration in the brain, etc.
Do Float Tanks Help Meditation?
In general terms, meditation practice involves two things:
- Relaxation —> calming down the body, mind and breath; releasing tensions; being at ease in the present moment.
- Attention —> focusing your awareness moment after moment, either by concentrating it on an object (like the breath or a mantra), or by being aware of your experience here and now.
Using floatation tanks definitely gives you an amazing relaxation experience. So, if the inability to relax and “shut down” is where you are stuck at in your practice, then floatation tanks can definitely help you – especially if you meditate soon after your floating session.
On the other hand, if you already know how to relax when you sit for meditation, then my impression is that float therapy will not do much for your practice (though it can still have other benefits in your life). It seems that too much relaxation, especially in the lying down position, doesn’t create the ideal mood in the mind for meditation.
Interestingly, I’ve had the same experience when doing pranayama breathing practices for long periods of time (20 minutes or more). The mind enters into a state of sense withdrawal (called pratyahara in Yoga) and stillness that is deep and pleasant, but doesn’t facilitate further meditation. For most types of meditation, too much relaxation is not helpful; what we are looking for is a good balance between relaxation and effort.
This is my experience with it. You can see different opinions from other meditators in this thread on Reddit. Some people actually find that it was helpful for their practice, or that it presents the optimal meditation environment; others had similar conclusions to mine.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
The Problems of Technology Induced Meditation
If exercise was sold in the pill form, it would be the number one pill sold throughout the world because the benefits are endless. – René Dumont
Like physical exercise, meditation takes effort and dedication, but the payout is huge (1, 2, 3). And just like there are many products promising you the benefits of exercise without the sweat – the “lose weight while sleeping” type of thing – the same seems to be happening in the world of meditation. There are endless business opportunities to be explored by cashing out on the mindfulness wave through the pill approach.
Float tanks, although helpful for other purposes, are often marketed in this way.
You’ll also find products out there that attempt to induce meditation:
- through sound (binaural beats);
- through electromagnetic pulses that stimulate the brain (like Thync); and
- through lucid dreaming (products like this).
Even though from the point of view of self-transformation and of developing a meditation practice these products do have their merits, they still are all based on the promise of the state without the effort. Like growing muscles without lifting weights – at the end they may look big, but you won’t really be stronger.
So I’m skeptical about these approaches – though I’m keeping an eye on them, and I’m keen to try them all. Just in case there indeed exists a magic pill for meditation…
The reason why I’m skeptical is not because I believe that the state of meditation cannot be induced by external means. Although we are not there yet, in terms of science, I think it is possible.
I’m skeptical because, even if that were possible, the benefits would not be the same as if you actually develop the ability to reach these states by yourself, independently. And only when you do that is when meditation becomes a natural part of who you are – something you can use anytime, anywhere, without plugging in headphones or entering into a floatation pod.
Technology might be able to give you some of the effects of meditation, without effort on your part. And it can also facilitate the process of learning meditation (like Muse does). But it can’t give you the mind training itself. It can’t meditate for you.
Arriving at a state of stillness through actual meditation will develop your muscles of willpower, self-awareness and self-regulation, among other things. We need those muscles for our daily lives just as much as we need the stillness. We don’t live in a floatation tank.
There is a lot of enthusiasm about floatation tanks or sensory deprivation tanks. They provide you a great relaxation experience, and a space to be only with yourself. There is also scientific research showing several mental and physical benefits, some of which overlap with the benefits of meditation.
They are not, however, a replacement for meditation. And in most cases, they won’t help you make true progress in your practice either.
If what you seek from meditation is relaxation, time off, and some mental calmness, then you might find that floatation tanks give you what you want without any effort on your part. On the other hand, if you are seeking to master your mind, cultivate personal strengths, know yourself and grow, then there is no substitute for daily meditation.
As for me, I’ll use float tanks once in a while, whenever I’m in the mood for a deeper relaxation. But not in the hopes of it improving my meditation.
Have you been to a float tank? I’m keen to read about your experience – so please leave a comment!