How I went floating in an attempt to calm the racing mind

Graduate school is (chose all that apply):

  1. sleepless  2. stressful   3. demanding   4. hectic

I was handed a similar test in a dream a couple of weeks ago.  If dreams are indeed a reflection of one’s reality, I have a lot of thinking to do. On top of all the thinking we, as graduate students, are doing already.


Graduate school stress comes with a pinch of anxiety, a tablespoon of guilt and a couple of new gray hairs every so often. It is not news to anybody who has survived at least one year in university. What happens in the third year, is that this nerve-burning cocktail loses its novelty and slowly simmers somewhere on the back burners of your mind. This is what my friends call “dealing with stress” meaning you just learn to ignore it and think about writing instead. 

October was a month of craziness for me. I was writing my comprehensive exams, teaching, editing a newsletter and coordinating next year’s TESOL Doctoral Research Forum. Needless to say, the stress levels were high. So I decided to lower them through radical methods of intense relaxation. Go big or go home…

First, I went to float in a sense deprivation tank.  

Pico Iyer’s talk The art of stillness inspired me to search for a space where I could stay still, free of guilt that I am not writing or producing anything. This is how I found floating.

This is what I heard about floating before I tried it: it relives pain, reduces stress, alleviates anxiety and helps with insomnia. The website also promised that 90 minutes in sense deprivation tank  might  boost my creativity and, since I was struggling to come up with a fabulous conference proposal title, I went to float the very next day after buying a promotional voucher. 

To start a sense deprivation session, you need to get naked and into a tank that is filled with a water solution of 300 kilos of Epsom salts. This solution is thick enough to hold your body on the surface, thus creating something similar to zero-gravity sensation. The lights are turned off, it is pitch black and you have ear plugs to protect you from any sounds. The water is warm, there are no scents. Just you alone with your thoughts. Usually sessions vary from 60 to 90 minutes and fist timers are encouraged to listen to tenor bodies and time their sessions accordingly. 

I got into the tank with a full intention to let go and drift away into the depths of my subconscious, but instead I couldn’t calm down my racing mind. I just kept thinking, and then thinking about how I am not supposed to be thinking and then getting angry at myself for not being able to stop thinking. Then I thought how I am trained to think for a living, so I should forgive myself and in general be kinder to myself. Be kinder to the world. Forgive my students for not reading the syllabus… Then I panicked about life for a while

  • What if this door gets jammed?
  • What if the oxygen suddenly runs out?
  • How many graduates get a tenure-track jobs?
  • Have to call mom.
  • Need a haircut. Can I give myself a haircut? Ask roommate to give me a haircut? 
  • How long has it been since I started floating? Must’ve been at least 30 minutes.

The first time I got out of the tank was 10 minutes since the beginning of the session. I checked my email, answered some questions, forwarded a funny cat video to my friends and got back in. The following 15 minutes in the tank I pretended to be a mermaid floating through the deep ocean, followed by 5 minute mental debate with myself on the topic whether sharks ever sleep (they don’t). I got out again, this time to take a shower and head home. To write. 

So, nor did I last in the flotation sense deprivation tank for the whole 90 minutes neither did I get to calm my thoughts. If anything, I got more stuff to think about and more things to check off my to-do list. Still, I think it was an interesting experiment and not entirely waste of my time and money. Maybe I will try floating again, but not very soon. 

The next thing I did in search of stillness was going to a salt cave. That’s the topic of the next post. 

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