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Mind-wandering, mindfulness and awareness

I tried a floatation tank for the first time the other day. For anyone who’s not used one before, it’s quite the experience.

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The tank is filled with skin-temperature water with loads of salt dissolved in it. The effect of the salt is to make you float effortlessly, a bit like the Dead Sea. When you close the door on the tank, it’s pitch black and there’s no sound, except your heartbeat and your breathing. You can’t feel the water unless you splash in it, and so there’s very little sensory stimulation at all. After a while, once you’ve gotten used to the fact that there’s no difference between your eyes being open or closed, and the occasional gentle bump as you drift into the side of the tank, you sort of lose yourself.

The conditions benefitting from floatation, as claimed by floatation establishments are broad:

  • Stress
  • Muscular pain
  • Rheumatism
  • Chronic pain
  • Fatigue
  • Fertility
  • High blood pressure
  • Migraine headache
  • Jet lag
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Back pain
  • Depression
  • Pre-menstrual tension
  • Post-natal depression

I couldn’t find a huge amount of scientific literature on a cursory search, but what I did find was positive. In this paper, floating was associated with increases in creativity and vigor, as well as a decrease in anxiety/tension, depression, hostility, and fatigue. And this paper suggested reduced blood pressure and increased subjective relaxation. Before trying it myself, I was very intrigued as to whether it would be a good mindfulness tool. When you’re in the tank, you really only have two things to focus on: your breath or your thoughts. There isn’t anything else! So I had hoped that it would be easier to be mindful. Interestingly, I actually found it more difficult. Compared to my normal practice, there was nothing to jog me out of when I got lost in thought. I hadn’t appreciated it before, but the myriad stimuli present in the world actually act like little elbows in the ribs. Normally, I’d be caught up in a train of thought, but then I’d hear a bus go past my window, and the interruption to my train of thought would remind me that I was meant to be focussing on my breath. Or I’d be practicing walking mindfully on my way in to work, again, lost in thought, and the near miss with a cyclist would bring me, literally, back to my senses. But when none of these things were present, I spent much more time lost in thought before I noticed and returned my attention to the breath. I guess, in the end, this actually constitutes better practice – nothing but your own awareness brings you out of thought – but it wasn’t the easy fix I was expecting it to be. Either way, I’d recommend giving floatation a go some time – it was very, very relaxing!

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