Maud Essen is a frequent floater and a newly retired AT&T business analyst. She was generous with her time and sat down with us to chat about her floating practice. We had a wonderful chat, in which we bonded over love for cats and comfy socks.
Let’s get started!
How did you originally learn about floating?
I was aware of isolation tanks back in the 1970s and I remember seeing the William Hurt movie, Altered States. I knew that was a fantasy, but I was interested in the tanks because I was interested in finding ways to relax. And then one day I was coming down Locust, and I saw this pretty logo on this building, and somehow the idea of lying in a tank somewhere came to me, and I thought, “oh I think I can do that in St. Louis.” My work was so intense and I wasn’t able to find relaxation by use of my normal relaxation methods. So I thought it would that would be interesting to try floating.
Did anything specific motivate you to float for the first time?
Well I had an information-worker job. My job had made my body chair-shaped and my physical condition so poor that I it was fighting against my ability to relax or to become healthy in any way at all. So I was getting kind of desperate. And so I decided I would try it.
The way your website describes it, I thought it might be like a meditation, which was appealing to me because I’m not a good Buddhist, but I am one. And meditation was something I could relate to.
Can you tell me a little bit about your very first float?
I remember I was thinking “Am I doing this right? I don’t know if I’m doing this right.” One thing that stands out is that I couldn’t figure out what to do with my arms. My arms wouldn’t cooperate. It was like from the waist on down, my legs said ‘I will relax for you.’ But my arms were so used to being hunched over and contorted. So, my arms and me had quite a dialogue during my first float. I didn’t fully relax during my first float, but I knew that there was great potential for relaxation. So, I signed up for the Introductory 3-float package,
Do you remember what you first did with them?
I couldn’t figure out where they should go and what they wanted to do. I used the blue-floatie ring and put my hands on it to help hold my shoulders down. And then when I wanted to change positions, I would let go of the ring and let them go up like this. I would switch my position when my arms told me to.
What’s really cool about hearing you say that is I think a lot of people who float for the first time somehow don’t feel permission to do what their body is asking them to do. There’s this myth that you’re not supposed to move around. Or people will come out and say, “Oh I didn’t know I could move.” So its really cool to hear how tuned in you were to your body.
Well, we were tuned into each other. One of my practices is a chanting meditation. So, even though my body and I were arguing, my experience with chanting meditation helps me have the understanding that you can meditate and not be silent. So when I was having that argument, I was also continuing to understand that I could be relaxing even if I didn’t know what to do with my arms. So it was like two things were happening at once.
Yeah, you had that inner dialogue going on and at the same time, an overarching sense of permission that you’re allowed to have that activity going on, not a voice that’s saying, “oh, you should be silent.” Or “you shouldn’t have an active mind.”
But that’s exactly right. The mind was not willing to be inactive the first time. It really wasn’t. So, I practiced chanting as a way to help. This is something that a lot of people may not have in their own relaxation or mediation practices, but chanting really does help because even if you’re chanting silently, your body automatically assumes a regular pattern of breathing. You don’t have to force it. Even if you do not chant, one thing you can do to help yourself relax in the tank is to find a way to help your breathing become regular. Even if your mind doesn’t want to settle down, your breathing can be regular.
That’s a really good point because people will beat themselves up for not being able to quiet their minds. Maybe part of that is the irregular breathing or the breathing up in your chest keeps your mind revved up and spinning.
Right because Irregular breathing is a physical thing that can become automatic even when your mind is still kind of flailing around. That’s the problem we have as knowledge workers is we become so unaware of our physical selves. SO unaware. We don’t know what our body position in space is. We don’t know how we’re using our body. We don’t know our posture is. We don’t know anything about our physical environment because everything we are doing has to do with what is happening in our minds. Breathing is the doorway to the relaxation for the knowledge worker.
I’m curious about how you decided to make floating a consistent practice?
I remember that I had just seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Great movie, great direction, and cinematography. The whole package. And when I see a good movie, I like to analyze it. So, during my float, I helped my mind settle into analyzing the movie instead of just spinning around. It was something that interested me, but that did not have to do with my daily life. I noticed that my mind would think, and then I would drift away and it would be quiet. And then several times, I’ve gotten to the point where I get into the pod and then fall asleep. It was such a triumph when that happened because I realized that I could relax.
So, noticing that you were able to channel your active mind some times and sleep other times helped you know that floating would be a helpful practice for you?
Well, yes. But, there are a few other things. I don’t sleep well right now because I have a pinched nerve in my neck from a car accident. And I wake up with my hands numb and tingling. But this does not happen when I sleep in the float tank.
Another amazing thing has happened by consistently floating. This was a total surprise to me. I would never have expected this to have happened. When I first came here, I walked with a cane. Bc I have a damaged right knee from a hiking accident of 8-10 years ago, and a damaged Achilles tendon from physical therapy. Basically, I was walking on a shortened leg because my knee would not straiten out. And my hip was crooked because my body was contorting in order to compensate for the injury.
After not very long, I found that floating helped my body straiten my knee. My hip was no longer highly painful and I was limping so much less that I no longer needed to use my cane. I’m not going to say it’s 100% gone or perfect. But, for me, it’s astonishing.
I believe that floating allows my body to align itself naturally through gravity. I’m not trying to imply to you that this is some medical miracle. But, it’s the only thing that has helped me and not hurt me. So, to me, it’s a miracle.
That really is amazing. It’s really amazing for us to hear stories like this. I mean, we’re not medical doctors or anything. But, we do notice that floating seems to help people will structural issues and chronic pain type of issues. I’m so happy that it’s helped you in this way.
It just makes me want to be a lot healthier than I am. Now that I’m not so crooked and limping and not in such bad physical shape, it makes me want to be in good physical shape, Because now I can. In fact, tomorrow there’s an open house at a YMCA and I’m going to go and join. I had had to quit them because my knee and heel thing had gotten so bad that I was to limited. Now it makes more sense for me to go back there so I can get in a good physical position again.
It sounds like floating has helped you mentally and physically.
You know, there is one thing that we haven’t talked about, and that is exposure to magnesium..
Yes, that’s right. Thank you. Can you say something more about that?
The skin is the largest organ of our body and I’ve very conscious of this because I have autoimmune disorders. I have lupus and chograns. And so, I feel like exposing myself to magnesium every week is really healthy for me.
Have you noticed anything specific?
I feel like I’m not so stupid! (laughs). But really, I feel like some of my brain fog has receded. That’s part of the reason why I retired. I feel sharper now and it became clear to me that I needed to do that for myself.
And I’m not saying that a giant switch on the wall was turned on. But, my thinking feels more clear. And that’s a good thing. Part of being under stress all the time is you struggle to think clearly because your adrenaline is flowing all the time and you’re sort of in a hyper panicky mode.
Do you like the room or pod?
Originally, I started in the room because I was scared that I would get claustrophobic in the pod. One night, I was telling this floater about my fear, and he said that even when put your hand up while you are lying back, you can’t touch the ceiling of the pod. And something about that helped me feel less afraid. The pod isn’t scary because the lid is curved, so you don’t feel like you’re in a box. Plus, there’s no latch, so you don’t have a sense of something locking. My whole fear of of claustrophobia was based on the idea that I had not yet tried the pod. One reason I use the pod is because I like when you guys turn on the red light. I used to be a photographer, and it reminds me of the dark room, so it’s very comforting to me.
Right, I think that’s really common for people to fear the pod because of claustrophobia and then end up loving it after they try it. Next Question, do u ever float w the light on the whole time?
No. I close my eyes the whole time.
Have you ever floated with the music on the entire time?
Yes, once. It was an accident. But I didn’t like it because I’m a creature of habit. I’m like a cat in that way. I like the silence.
Earplugs or none?
I always use the earplugs.
Morning or night.
I have never floated in the morning. One of the things I enjoy so much is coming home after I’ve floated, being so totally relaxed that I basically just float home. What I’ve learned is that you shouldn’t plan to do anything after you float. It’s just time to go home.
As a last question, is there anything you say to people when they ask you about floating?
Well, I just tell them that I love it and I do it every week because it’s helped me in so many ways. And then I tell them what I’ve told you
I try to help them understand that it’s more than one thing. For me, it’s been physical, it’s been stress reduction, and it’s been very compatible with my own personal spiritual practice. I don’t emphasize the last part to people who don’t share that practice because I know it will be something different and positive for them
I also tell people to have proper expectations!
I know that last question was going to be my last question, but can you say a little more about what you mean by proper expectations?
Yes. You have to go into it with the understanding that it’s not going to immediately un-do every part of you that feels tense or stressed in some way. I just think you have to think of it as a part of your journey towards relaxation. And, it’s going to be different every time you do it. Like, this week, I didn’t fall asleep, but I wasn’t mad at myself that I didn’t fall asleep. So, think of it as one piece of your journey, and don’t come in expecting that every occasion is going to be the same!
I really like how you re-frame relaxation as a journey. It seems really human and self-compassionate to me. You know, instead of coming from perfectionism and thinking, “I should be able to relax, I should be able to do this one thing.” When you reframe it as a journey, you give yourself permission to be where you are.
Yes. I have like 45 years of not living in a healthy manner to undo. So, I ask myself, “Am I going to undo it in 90 minutes?” I-don’t-think-so! It’s going to be one piece of my puzzle. I want to acknowledge that it is an important piece of my puzzle, and I believe that it will lead to other important pieces of the puzzle, but it’s not the whole puzzle. Overall, I just remember that floating more helps me feel healthier, happier, and more relaxed over all.
Thank you, Maud, for offering so much about your floating experience. It’s been such a pleasure to spend this time talking to you and to get to know you better. We love to see you, spend time with you, and chat with you before and after your floats. We hope you continue to enjoy your well-deserved retirement!