After that delicious first plunge into fresh water, one of the great pleasures of a swimming lake is floating on your back, buoyant, relaxed, warmed by the sun on one side of your body and cooled by the water on the other.
Over the past several years, I have spent much time floating on my back, mostly to watch the clouds. I float pretty well but am always aware of my legs sinking and my neck straining a bit. And the locations of the few fishing boats, canoes, and other swimmers. And the happy voices of people swimming and cavorting around the lake. Floating is deeply relaxing and meditative but it is not a ‘sensory-deprivation’ experience. I’ve always been curious about sensory-deprivation tanks and what would happen to “me” when deprived of all distraction and sensory input. So I signed up for a 90-minute float at Oly Float near my home in Olympia.
Oly Float does not use the words “sensory deprivation” or “tank” (which sounds more like torture than pleasure). They call it “flotation therapy” and “sensory relief therapy.” Their website extols the benefits of floating: relief from pain, increased natural production of endorphins and other “happy” chemicals in our bodies, improved sleep, greater athletic performance, deepened self-awareness. This time of year, everyone could use a mood bounce and I’m always trying to get a better night’s sleep but I was simply curious to experience the beautiful feeling of total weightlessness and buoyancy in the water without the distractions of a popular outdoor recreational lake.
So in I went into a surprisingly large private room with a shower, changing area, towels, and a surprisingly small wooden door leading into a surprisingly small “tank.” It was not a tank but an 8’x 5’ space. That space was blue and warm and inviting. That space included the 8’ x 5’ pool of water and a ceiling that was 7 feet above it. I showered, put in ear plugs, and held the grab bar as stepped in. I expected to step down a few steps like I was entering a hot tub, but the water came up to the middle of my calf. What? How was I going to float in 10 inches of water? There was 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) in there, that’s how. I wasn’t aware of a briny smell or any salty stinging on my leg so I moved into the floating position I hope to assume for the next 90 minutes. I turned off the blue light and closed my eyes.
It took me longer than I thought to find the best position for floating. My lower body relaxed quickly and my legs all but disappeared. It was my neck, where I seem to hold all my tension, that would not relax. As the rest of my body relaxed into oblivion, all I was was my neck. I tucked a foam pillow under my head. I changed the position of my arms a few times. I put the pillow aside. I held my arms above my head and because but I was pretty sure they were going to float out and touch the sides of the pool (sensation!). I took a lesson from the sea otters who wrap rooted giant kelp fronts around themselves to stay anchored while sleeping at night. I wrapped my shoulder-length hair around my fingers in a coil. There. Anchored.
And then my small space became as large as the universe and I was floating in a galaxy of stars. This was not a galaxy of my own invention. It was the galaxy of stars in which the young Ludwig von Beethoven imagined himself floating in the final scene of the film, “Immortal Beloved.” It is a stunning scene—the older, now near totally deaf composer is listening to a public performance of his Symphony No. 9 and, during the “Ode to Joy,” he goes into a reverie that takes him back to his childhood. The scene is at night and the young Beethoven is at the edge of a lake. He wades into the water, gets on his back and is floating there in the dark water. Thanks to some simple special effects, the viewer is given a bird’s-eye-view of the scene, with Beethoven’s pale body outstretched like a star in the middle of dark water that becomes a star-studded dark sky.
While my body was floating in relatively tiny artificial space, my being was in the middle of the Milky Way with one of the most beautiful pieces of choral music ever written. I have never learned the words to this ode, which is a good thing as I might have spent my 90 minutes singing them in my head. Luckily, the music didn’t float through my head either. It was just me and the pure experience of floating in a universe of joy.
After my luxurious float, I found the scene from “Immortal Beloved,” which I had last watched perhaps 10 years ago. The scene in the lake captured the sensation I had experienced. Was it Life imitating Art? Art imitating Life? Or just Life?
I have friend who, no matter what you are talking about, manages to work in the refrain “We are all stardust.” I know it’s true in the grand scheme of things and a existentially depressing given that I usually hear “We are all dust in the wind” (remember this sad 1977 hit song from the band Kansas?). But somehow that 90-minute float turned this all around and now I feel grateful to the stars (and the Epsom salt) for the once-and-future moment when I’ll be back among them.
Here is a 7-minute clip of Immortal Beloved. The first part is unhappy memories from his childhood, but then you just might end up happily floating in your own salty tears.