Many years ago, in a parallel universe not far from here, I worked for a small dot com Internet company.
One day, the boss walked in and proudly announced: ‘Right - I’ve bought everyone three sessions at the London Float Centre’. I thanked him but told him I wasn’t interested and he could give my three sessions away to a more needy case but he was insistent and he was the boss.
So, on a Thursday lunchtime, I found myself nervously walking down to the mysteriously named ‘London Float Centre’ located not in sunny San Francisco but in grey, cold, dreary Clapham Common. As I nervously walked into reception, my preconceptions and prejudices were instantly reinforced when a young lady wearing a colourful, long dress with braids in her hair greeted me.
I looked around at the arty artwork on the walls and nervously mumbled: ‘Err, this is, err, my first time. How does this all work ?’ She replied: ‘You just go to your cubicle, get undressed and enter the flotation chamber for 40 minutes. A quiet bell sounds to indicate the end of your session.’
‘Undressed’ - did she just say ‘undressed’ ? My reluctance and lack of commitment to this ludicrous idea was being severely tested already. I had packed my Hawaiian swimming trunks specially for the occasion. No-one back at the office ever mentioned getting ‘undressed’. The young lady must have sensed my unease or maybe she saw my brightly coloured swim wear in my carrier bag I was holding (like Mark. E. Smith but without the broken hip). ‘Of course, you don’t have to get undressed. You can wear swimming trunks. It’s entirely up to you.’
I was about to depart for cubicle 3, wondering what the hell I was doing here and cursing my boss when the young girl bamboozled me with a surprise, trick question: ‘Do you want the music on or off ?’ If I hadn’t been so nervous, I would have answered ‘Yes please. I’ll have ‘Bend Sinister’ followed by ‘The Sky’s Gone Out’ but instead I hesitated, looked blankly and replied: ‘Music - how do you mean - exactly ?’
‘Well - some people find the sensory experience is heightened by music playing during the session. If you don’t like it, just press the button to your left to turn it off.’
‘Ah OK then - yeah I’ll have music. That will be nice. Thanks.’ while thinking inwardly to myself ‘…nice to ease the boredom of being immersed in a salt water solution in a darkened room for 40 minutes.’
I made my way to cubicle 3 and assured myself that the dimensions of the flotation tanks meant they were single user only and the cubicle could be locked to ensure stray people could not wander in and mistakenly stake a claim for immersion chamber No. 3. Finally, reluctantly, I decided to embrace the full hippie, flower power, free love experience by casting aside my shorts. Plus the wife would be pleased - they wouldn’t need washing.
Feeling like an idiot, I laid down in a small-ish, rectangular tank of warm water. Gradually, the concentrated salt solution managed to float my enormous bulk and I just laid there floating - in silence - with the light on - staring at the cream roof. Now what ?
I remembered the girl had told me to press another button to turn the lights off which I did.
Now I was lying bollock naked, floating around in a tank of luke warm water, staring up at nothing - in pitch black. It was dark, completely dark. I waited 40 seconds for my eyes to adjust so I could make out the reassuring lines of the walls and the ceiling but my eyes didn’t readjust. It was still pitch black.
I was floating around aimlessly. I nearly had a heart attack when my shoulder bumped the side wall. I thought someone, possibly the not unattractive hippie girl with dreadlocks, had somehow unlocked the door to cubicle 3 and silently crept in unnoticed to lie alongside me.
I tried to calm myself down, to be open minded and lighten up - for 30 seconds at least - and to actually try enjoy the whole experience. I managed to master floating while remaining perfectly still. I gradually felt calmer and actually started to enjoy the silence. No longer was I looking for the solace of the walls or the ceiling or worrying whether my wallet was safe.
Then, like a bolt from the blue, like a shot to the heart, from nowhere , soft music started playing. Very quietly, very gently - whale like music. This was just like having a water birth at home - except I was a middle aged man in a flotation chamber in Clapham Common. Obviously, they didn’t have anything by The Fall or Bauhaus - I must put that on the feedback form.
I laid back again and listened - nothing - apart from the strangely reassuring and apt sound of dolphins talking to each other. I strained my eyes - nothing. Again, I relaxed and forgot all about my stupid, small, minuscule, trivial worries at work. I forgot about everything. I even forgot about the prospect of falling asleep, drowning in 8 inches of water and winning third place in the 2001 Darwin Awards.
I laid back, floating. My mind became strangely blank. Completely blank. It was glorious. A glorious nothing-ness. A glorious emptiness. A glorious void. I just laid there; doing nothing, thinking of nothing.
This state of mind continued for another 25 minutes. Not once did I think of the time. Not once did I think of work. Not once did I think of United’s chances of lifting the title. Not once did I think of online media recovery of an Oracle layout: post comments: true database when some of the archived redo logs were in deep in secure storage offsite and we only had a daily collection from Iron Mountain. Not once did I think of the appraisals of the four people reporting to me.
After a beautiful period of more nothing-ness, a gentle noise told me the session was now over. I lay there for a little longer and finally pressed the light switch.
The lights came on. I was back in the real world. I could see the walls. I could see the ceiling. I could see how small the flotation tank was. I could see a third button next to ‘Music’ and ‘Lights’ called ‘Emergency Assistance’. Good job I hadn’t noticed that earlier. The whale music CD abruptly ended as if killed by a blood soaked harpoon.
I got dressed, checked the contents of my wallet and packed away my dry swimming trunks for my summer holidays in Crete.
I walked back into reception: ‘Now - how was it ?’ ‘Yeah - it was great. Thanks.’ ‘Oh good - we’ve had a lot of people from your company. They all seem to enjoy their sessions here.’
‘Would you like a cup of tea ?’ I was about to reply ‘No - really I’ve got to be getting ba-’ but I caught myself just in time. ‘Yeah - that would be great. Thanks.’
So I sat down with some blackcurrant, herbal tea chatting with the receptionist about the science behind flotation chambers or isolation tanks.
Then I returned to the office. Now this is where is gets really weird.
I couldn’t concentrate. I felt like I was still floating up high, looking down on everyone. I felt like I’d done some drugs. I couldn’t type or read my email - well that’s not true - I could type letters and read words but they didn’t seem to make sense. Nothing seemed important. Nothing seemed to matter. As The Chameleons sang in ‘Second Skin’, I felt like ‘I was floating on air’.
At 4 o’clock, I capitulated, politely made my excuses and decided to go home early.
Years later, whenever I recount this story, my wife says: ‘Yeah - it was weird. When he walked in, he looked like a complete zombie. I thought he’d been made redundant or someone had died at work. Either that or someone in the office had given him space cake for a laugh.’