I learned to swim easily enough. My memories of lessons begin when I was 4, in the grand, echoey pool of the middle school that I was years away from attending. Through much cajoling by the amicable teenage instructors, I had overcome my initial fears and could jump into the pool unassisted, provided that someone was waiting to catch me. Soon I had graduated from arm floats and could splash my way from edge to edge with confidence, the aquatic tiles flying beneath me. I liked swimming because it rewarded dumb action: the more movement, the better. If you can flail, you can doggy paddle.
But learning to float required a stillness I didn’t have. Even in the shallow end, with hands supporting my sacrum, I struggled to let my body go limp. Suddenly, the instruction went from “go!” to “relax,” something preschoolers do not do well. Face up and staring at the faraway ceiling, I tried to keep still, but I was too busy worrying about my inner ear, which I feared was slowly filling with pool water.
Unable to do nothing, I tried everything. I inflated my belly like a balloon, sucking in air for ballast. I arched my back skyward, willing myself to levitate. But for every action, as the law goes, there was an equal and opposite reaction — in this case, sinking. Looking around the pool, I saw the water’s surface dotted with the other kids, lying effortlessly on their backs in a state of absolute calm. I, meanwhile, was trapped in a cycle of anxiety and thrashing that had me whipping up water like a marine Tasmanian devil.
“Rather than trying to quiet my brain in order to float, I could use floating to achieve a sort of Zen stillness.”
The primal human connection between flotation and relaxation is the principle behind one of the most inventive tools of 20th-century neuroscience: the isolation or sensory-deprivation tank. Devised in the 1950s by Dr. John C. Lilly, these dark saltwater tanks were used to isolate the brain from stimuli — light and sound, but also, to an extent, gravity — to get a clearer read of the brain at rest.
Floating, Lilly realized, helped to peel back the brain’s learned layers to its elemental core and reprogram it. “Suddenly all of the stimulation of holding one upright against gravity disappears,” he wrote. “One’s cerebellum is now freed for uses other than balancing the body.” It seems I had my cause and effect reversed: Rather than trying to quiet my brain in order to float, I could use floating to achieve a sort of Zen stillness. Inner peace, divined by salt water.
After childhood, I gave little thought to floating until last year, while on a trip to Israel. My 87-year-old Saba Meir — saba is Hebrew for grandfather — surprised me with a request to visit the Dead Sea. It was on the opposite side of the country, and he hadn’t floated in its famously salty water for 30 years.
Over our four-hour drive to the Dead Sea, I thought about all that he was losing to age and Parkinson’s disease. Since the last trip, he had deteriorated visibly; I went to Israel only every two years or so, which meant my mental image of his aging felt accelerated, like a time-lapse video. At home in his apartment, he could get through the day without help. But in unfamiliar places, he suddenly appeared frail and confused, and my partner and I fell into chaperone mode. In the visitors’ center bathroom, after an arm-in-arm walk down the corridor, he hesitated at the urinal before asking me for help with his belt buckle. I felt a rush of parental protectiveness when a middle-aged man walked in on us.
In the hurry to get to the beach before closing, stress signals caromed through my brain, refusing to coalesce into coherent thoughts. Down at the water, some older sunbathers had dragged in the resort’s plastic lawn chairs so they could sit waist-deep, and we followed their lead. Saba, my partner and I waded in, the current tugging on our flip-flops, me holding Saba’s arm, him gripping the chair. With great negotiation, we got him situated, his feet floating upward as he stiffly tried to recline.
My own floating technique was no better now than it was when I was a child. My mind reeled more than ever, hot with anxiety from a day of caregiving. My eyes darted from Saba to the water; I was too preoccupied with his safety to appreciate the seascape.
But in water this salty, the body will float, no matter how tense. My legs rose alongside my grandfather’s as my head tipped back. The sea was bath-water warm and virtually still. Finally weightless, I had the strength to reflect. The trip had been grueling, and I was angry at my grandfather — at his helplessness. I hadn’t signed up for the bathroom aid, for helping him dress, for helping him shower. But he hadn’t signed up for needing it.
My self-pitying turned to self-loathing, and then a dull, exhausted quiet. He was aging. I was aging. We had reversed our roles of charge and guardian, and it blindsided me. Eventually, I would accept it, plant my feet in the seabed and wrap my arm around his as we began our walk back to shore.