An excerpt from
A Different Oxford Journey
Further Purification of the Pilgrim
My ritual immersion as a pilgrim takes place at the Eau-de-Vie Flotation Centre at number 34 Cowley Road, near the beginning of the old road to Bartlemas. While the centre offers other therapies, “flotation” is the one they choose to flag up on their masthead, and I am intrigued to find out more. I learn from their leaflets that the float will take place in a tank filled with warm water heavily impregnated with Epsom salts, so that the body is supported in the manner experienced by bathers in the Dead Sea. I have always wondered what this feels like, and the opportunity to try it so near home, without travelling to a war zone to bathe surrounded by bobbing elderly tourists, is attractive. What interests me more is that the process takes place in a sealed tank, in silence and in darkness. “The only thing in touch with the millions of sensitive nerve endings that cover the skin is silky, skin-temperature water,” the literature promises. “Gravity creates 90% of the brain’s workload. It has to constantly calculate and compensate for the effects that gravity has on the body. The flotation tank alleviates this work, releasing the brain and triggering a natural chain reaction . . .” I have never understood quite what people meant by meditation, but I do know that emptying the mind of thoughts—or at least slowing down the constant chatter of internal dialogue—leads to a feeling of renewal and refreshment. I have experienced this both on my own in rare moments and at a Quaker meeting that I attended some years ago. To sit in silence by common consent with a group of people is a remarkable experience. Silence within, it seems obvious, may be easier achieved through silence without.
Composer and artist John Cage, best known to the general public as the creator of the piece 4.33 that comprises four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence, first became fascinated by the subject in the late 1940s. “I found out by experiment (I entered the anechoic chamber at Harvard University) that silence is not acoustic,” he writes. “It is a change of mind, a turning around. I devoted my music to it.” In another account of his experience, he tells us that he “discovered that silence was not the absence of sound but the unintended operation of my nervous system and the circulation of my blood. It was this experience and the white paintings of Rauschenberg that led me to compose 4.33. . . .” Cage’s words are on my mind as I arrive for my flotation session, carrying a towel in a rucksack as though on a trip to the beach and without having consumed my usual half pint of coffee at breakfast. The reception area is small; two women are seated behind a counter, one of whom, with short blonde hair and an open smile, I already know is the co-owner of the centre. Her colleague is refilling the perfumed oil in a candle-holder made of pottery. Candles burning in bright daylight, I find, are a sure-fire signal that you are entering an area that designates itself as alternative. A middle-aged man in a white cotton costume and bare feet, presumably one of the “highly trained and qualified practitioners” I have read about in the leaflet, enters and sits on a couch looking somewhat moodily out of the window, awaiting a client. Such environments make me uneasy, I have to confess. I know that my lifestyle would be off their scale in terms of stress, irony, and caffeine intake. Are they able to tell all this at a glance? Presumably so, if any of them are Reiki therapists, trained to detect movements of the “universal life force energy” in a “gentle yet powerful exchange . . . at a deep soul level.”
“Have you brought a towel?” I am asked brightly. The dark-haired woman takes my credit card and passes it to the owner, who runs it though the machine. She passes the slip back to the first woman, who passes it to me for signature. I sign and pass it back, and she passes it to the owner to place in the till. She smiles, looking up. “This overstaffing is ridiculous,” she says. “It makes you think of a joke,” I reply, a little nervously. “How many alternative therapists does it take to process a credit card?”
“Totally,” she replies, laughing. So that’s all right; humour is allowed within the temple. I am shown along a narrow corridor to the flotation room that lies behind a stripped pine door. The room contains a shower, pleasantly tiled in white and blue in vaguely Portuguese style. Half of the space is taken up by the flotation tank, a large blue plastic object that emits an aqueous gurgling sound. A pair of earplugs in a cellophane wrapper lies on a table. My guide lifts the lid of the tank. The space inside looks remarkably small for one over six foot long when floating, but perhaps this is an illusion. The water is churning.
“Oh no, we have never had a complaint from any one that it is too short,” I am reassured. “The water is being filtered at the moment. Once you have showered, you should climb in and close the lid. These two buttons here are for the internal light and for the alarm. There are earplugs here if you want to use them—we recommend that you put them in while you shower. You can have the light on or off as you choose. Don’t worry, if you press the alarm by mistake, you can just press it again to turn it off. After a little while, the filter will stop. The overhead light will dim. For the first ten minutes, you will hear music, then that will fade into silence. Ten minutes before the end of the session, the music will start again, to bring you back. The best thing to do is spread out like a starfish to get centred. Then you can put your hands behind your head like this”—she demonstrates, reaching her arms up into the air so that they hover above her head—“that’s very good for releasing the back if you have back problems. Try not to rub your eyes or touch your face too much when you are in the water. You have short hair, so you won’t be trying to get that out of your eyes” (she lifts up a tress of her own long brown hair, and I have a distracting image of it uncoiling in the water). “If you do have to, try and shake your hands first, like this.” She makes a quick, flicking movement of her fingers that I am sure I have seen elsewhere—perhaps in a documentary on spirit possession in South-East Asia? “Enjoy your float.”
And she is gone. The room is oppressively warm and humid, and my clothes stick to my skin. Swiftly I lock the door and undress. I am, I note, anxious to begin my relaxation—a classic conflict. After all, every two minutes is costing me a pound—not a sensation, I imagine, experienced by the anchorite in their cell or the yogi in their Himalayan cave. I consider the earplugs and decide against them; I have always found them an overly distracting presence. I am a little concerned by the mention of music; in an ideal world, the music one hears should be a matter of personal choice. When it arrives through a neighbour’s wall in the middle of the night or over a garden fence on a sunny afternoon, it is almost always an intrusion. The thought of having music prescribed for one and piped into an enclosed space, from which there is no escape, is alarming. However, I am not the expert here on flotation, or indeed on relaxation, and I put these worries aside. I shower quickly, although I am already clean; this part of the ritual must be for the benefit of those with whom I will be sharing the dense, heavily salted water. Presumably the filters cannot remove traces of perfume, deodorant, hair gel, and the other chemicals with which we anoint our bodies, like modern-day Pharaohs ready for the tomb.
I lift the lid and climb into my cell. The water is warm; the body temperature of an athlete that just ran 1,000 metres. The filters are still pumping it around the confined space. As I sink back into its embrace, the skin of my face stings viciously—shaving before a float is clearly not a good idea. I turn off the internal light. The sensation of buoyancy is extraordinary; I feel like a balloon on the end of a string. While the filters remain on, this is not exactly relaxing, as the movement of the water gently bounces my suddenly light body off the vinyl walls. Gradually the turbulence subsides. Then the music starts. It is exactly what I feared: generic, new age relaxation music. A synthesised wash is punctuated by an occasional, ponderous, bell-like “bong” in the same key. After what seems an eternity, another note a minor third above is introduced. The composition is immediately and completely predictable. With flesh-crawling dread, I anticipate the shift to a major key, an indictable crime in a piece like this, at the same time wondering, with the reflex jealously of the ex-musician, what somebody got paid to write this tosh. It seems to be designed to penetrate water, a kind of moronic sonar. For stupid dolphins, perhaps? I put up with it as long as I can—possibly two minutes, but time stretches like gum stuck to the sole of my shoe—then decide to use the earplugs after all. I leave my isolation chamber, to which I had been getting accustomed, and get back in the shower. I try inserting the earplugs, but soon realise that if I do, I will be conscious of their presence the whole time I am in the tank. I am very aware of my precious, expensive relaxation time gurgling down the drain with the shower water, and this, I realise, is making me stressed. I decide to return and face the music, just as it begins to fade. The overhead light, visible through little portholes in the roof of the tank, also begins to dim, like the lights at a cinema before the beginning of a movie. The water is still, oily. I make like a starfish, as instructed.
Like Cage, I am impressed by the noises made by my own body. At first I notice the hammering of a pulse behind my ears. Then the heart, labouring away in my chest, which is riding bizarrely high above the surface of the artificially supportive water. Surely I can calm that down. I breathe slowly and deeply, as the literature I was handed as a first-time floater had advised. This is more like it. I push away from one wall as gently as I can, trying to find a space where I can float without being aware of the limits of my confinement.
From somewhere I hear a persistent knocking and a voice calling: it sounds like “The power is off.” That’s not very peaceful, I think to myself. It must be coming from next door. If there has been a power cut, I won’t know about it until the water cools down. I resolve to ignore the intrusion. After about half a minute, the banging ceases. A little later I notice that my heart has quietened, although I am not sure that it has slowed down. Is this possible? The pulse behind my ears has gone, replaced by a rushing sound, like water. I wait twelve beats between each breath and concentrate on trying to empty my head of the thoughts that continue to flicker across my internal screen. This isn’t so easy; I haven’t tried anything like it for years. Even then I didn’t try it very much. I switch my attention to relaxing my body, working my way up from the toes. Soon I feel relaxed all over, apart from my left shoulder, which starts to ache. This is the shoulder that I hunch unconsciously when I concentrate, type, drive a car, or play the guitar. OK, that’s a result, I think. All my stress seems to manifest itself in one physical location, surely an easy target for a highly qualified and trained practitioner. I bob there quite happily with my aching shoulder, the short-wave static of my thoughts ever more fitful and inconsequential. I even smile when the underwater orchestra emits its first “bong.”
On leaving the tank, I realise with acute embarrassment that in my hurry to get back in after my failed attempt with the earplugs, I had forgotten to turn the shower off. This was the cause of the muffled shouts I had heard through the door, and the sound like rushing water. How could I have done this? Perhaps I have drained the centre’s hot-water tank, condemning their clients to chilly therapy sessions? Is massage oil removable from the hands with cold water? The room is even more humid than it was before. My clothes feel clammy and insufferably hot. I can’t help feeling that the smiles in the reception area seem a little forced as I emerge, mumbling an apology, but they are generous in their forgiveness. “Don’t worry about it,” the owner tells me. “It must have been like floating near a waterfall in the jungle.” I step out into the cool air. “You leave your float session with a sense of clarity, focus and both physical and mental renewal,” the leaflet has promised. I wander into the Boucherie Chatar, where I stand contemplating a remarkable offer on tins of chick-peas, without the will to come to a purchasing decision. It is as if I am still floating, adrift in the shallows of the Cowley Road. It is there, by chance, that I meet my wife. We go into Joe’s café; I decline a coffee, which has the appeal at that moment of a free jump-start from a defibrillator, and drink a yoghurt and fruit concoction called a berry cola. I notice as we talk together that I am laughing easily, at the smallest thing. The conversation of my four-year-old son is suddenly fascinating. I am, in fact, uncharacteristically relaxed. It is my wife who looks nervous.