Updated: Sep 14, 2021
What is nothing? Nothing is the absence of a something. When you remove the entire universe and the laws that govern it. I’ve spent hundreds of hours experiencing absolute nothingness and it’s allowed me to embrace and better appreciate all of life’s something’s.
The truth about nothing, is that any observation, even the observation of nothing implies the existence of an observer – a something. ‘Nothing’ is a philosophical and scientific impossibility and has been the subject of many debates. Even in the dark emptiness of space there are atoms and electromagnetic forces, the fabric of space is not nothing, but rather a pretty big something.
Nothingness can’t exist without its contrast, something; something can’t exist without the starting point of nothing. This is the balance created by existence. To fully experience and appreciate all the magical something’s of life, it’s valuable to practice and appreciate the counterpart of nothing. This is what makes mindfulness practices so powerful.
This is what nothingness means to me, and why it’s so valuable to my overall health and wellbeing.
What is something? The only way we experience something is through our senses. We know things exist because we can observe, touch, smell, taste, and hear them. Our senses are what allow us to experience life and the world around us. Our sensory receptors receive data and send those 1’s and 0’s to our brain to interpret and take action, if required. This is the basis of our central nervous system.
If our senses are the determinators of every something, the creators of our reality, what happens when there is no information for your senses to process? This question is the basis of sensory deprivation research, and the reason float tanks came to exist.
Imagine what it would feel like if there was absolutely nothing touching you? No clothes, no shoes, no floor or seat under you. Imagine the temperature around you is completely neutral, so similar to your own body temperature that it feels like nothing at all. Your body isn’t working to regulate temperature by shivering or sweating. You simply exist, right here in this moment. Does it feel like you’re floating through space?
Let’s add another layer of nothing by removing all light sources. Imagine while you are floating weightlessly through space, you open your eyes as wide as you can, your pupils dilate desperately seeking information to process and find nothing. We rarely have an opportunity to experience complete darkness. Even during sleep your eyes continue to seek input. Your eye lids are thin enough that you actually see through them. We’ve all experienced this, when we’re fast asleep and someone turns on a light in the room.
Take a moment and close your eyes, take a deep breath, perk up your ears and listen. What do you hear? Traffic or outsides noises? The wind? Take another deep breath and narrow your focus even harder and listen deeper. What do you hear now? The buzzing of a light fixture? The hum of your fridge? Can you hear your heartbeat yet? Imagine how quiet your environment would need to be for you to hear yourself blink? That’s the level of quiet you can expect from a float tank.
The float tank maintains a neutral smell, the result of nearly 1,000lbs of Epsom salt dissolved into filtered water. Whatever you do, I beg of you, avoid exercising your sense of taste while in the float tank; trust me, you’ll regret it. This all adds up to an environment where your senses are permitted to take a huge break from the constant processing of information. What happens when your senses take a vacation? It turns out, some pretty amazing something’s come from a whole lot of nothing.
Nothing sounds boring. Maybe? Would that be so bad? I would rather feel bored than sad, angry, or frustrated; there are far worse feelings than bored. We live in a world that stigmatizes boredom as this horrible, yet entirely avoidable experience. We have these devices which all but eliminate boredom from our lives. Have 5 minutes waiting at the dentist office? Check your phone. Going for a poop? Check social media. Recent statistics claim the average person will spend over 3 hours a day on their phone. What could you do with 3 additional hours? Tech companies’ primary goal is to grab and keep your attention for as long as possible. They literally name ‘sleep’ as their competition. Is it worth your attention and energy just to avoid the dreaded boredom? Are you not worth your own attention?
We very rarely experience boredom and it’s making us, well… boring. It’s in those beautiful moments of boredom that we start to daydream, to imagine times gone, or set goals for the future. It’s when we are bored that we think of a more efficient way to do something or discover the missing link. If your brain is constantly absorbing new information, it never has a time to stop and evaluate it. We have limited cognitive resources and you decide how you want to spend them.
I’ve heard people say spending time alone doing nothing sounds boring and I’ve heard just as many say their brain is too busy, they wouldn’t be able to relax. Honestly neither is right and both people could benefit from tank time. Spending time alone is a precious opportunity to learn about your inner self and the workings of your vessel. I acknowledge that it can take practice to feel really comfortable but I promise you it becomes easier with every float. I can’t say I’ve ever had a boring float; there is always something to learn. Time in the tank allows me to connect to myself in a deep meaningful way, and knowing my true self is how I make decisions on a day-to-day basis that align with my values and priorities. When my brain is racing and I have a million things to think about, the most effective way to calm my mind is a float. Sure, those nagging thoughts might tap at my brain, but you know what? They are knocking for a reason. Hear them out, we will wait. Think about every possible solution, outcome, and from other people’s perspectives. Think that thought as hard as you can and I am confident it will subside after your float. When I emerge from a float, I feel like I’ve closed browser tabs and opened up brain bandwidth.
How much nothing? Our bodies experience a natural resting/active cycle of about 90 minutes. Many systems, including pain, hunger, and attention span are activated in 90 minute cycles. This cycle is most evident in our sleep patterns. While you sleep your brain waves cycle through various levels of activity. Most of the night your brain is calm and uneventful, but then about every 90 minutes sections of your brain spark to life and become active and alert, even though your body stays motionless, this is your REM [Rapid Eye Movement] sleep cycle. Scenarios derived from memories play out in your mind and your brain experiences them as if they were truly happening. Over a full night’s sleep, you’ll experience 5-6 cycles of REM sleep, and each time you reach the blissful theta state your brain activity becomes stronger and lasts longer.
But in order to experience this beautifully creative dream like state, it seems your mind needs 90 minutes of down time first. Without the 90 minutes of nothing your brain can’t create the magic lucid movies we know as dreams. This is the brain creating a bunch of something out of nothing, and why I personally feel 90 minutes makes for an amazing duration of nothingness.
A float session is a recharge, a reset, the valuable nothing that allows the brain to spark to life and create. This is why those lovely eureka moments or ideas of creative expression don’t only happen in the tank, but often hours after you’ve left the private salty waters.
Why a float tank? A float session is clinically shown to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, blood pressure, balance your nervous system and increase heart rate variability, anti-inflammation markers, and your sense of serenity and overall wellbeing, but there are so many benefits that science has yet to catch up to.
Floating has drastically improved my quality of life and given me the perspective and purpose to enjoy all my human experiences, even the difficult or sometimes the *gasp* boring ones. After a float I like to engage with my senses, I’ll crank my favorite song, enjoy a delicious meal, or feel someone’s skin against mine. It seems that post float, after your senses have been given the opportunity to truly rest, they kick back into action with vigor, taking in all the information your environment provides in great detail. The goal of a float practice is for you to take these moments of blissful contentment derived from the nothingness and draw upon them when life gets crazy. Like when you are stuck in traffic, or your boss is being a jerk.
Floating is a mindfulness practice in the same realm as meditation. Floating is meditation. What floating has to offer that you can’t find on a meditation cushion is the absence of physical sensations. From novice to experienced meditator, it can be difficult to block out the distractions of our environment and get comfortable enough to sit motionless for any stretch of time. The float tank removes all the distractions and offers an incredibly comfortable pillow of dense solution allowing you to lay back and relax comfortably for hours.
When your computer or internet stops working the first thing you do is unplug it, give it a period of nothing, and plug is back in again. Why wouldn’t that same practice work on your own body and mind? The brain is a complex switch board of electrical messages transmitting data and information, the same as a computer. Taking a pause, a dedicated nothing break should be the first step in solving any problem.
In today’s world it seems we’re always looking for the next best thing, but perhaps the next best thing is nothing at all? Nothingness doesn’t have to be in the form of a float tank, although it is the most nothing you can find anywhere on this planet. You can incorporate a little bit of nothing in the form of a meditation practice, a digital detox, fasting, or spending time in the nude and/or in nature. Allow yourself to spend time doing ‘nothing’ completely guilt free. Nothing has no rules.
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