Most of the known techniques of altering and focusing human consciousness/awareness are thousands of years old. It is exceedingly rare that a new tool is discovered. And when one is, it takes a while for people to figure out how to use it. John C. Lily pioneered the floatation tank in 1954. The idea is simple. You lie down in a dark tub of warm water loaded with enough salt so that you just float there. With the body no longer sending sensory signals of any kind to the brain, the mind is freed to turn inwards. This revolutionary technique has not been widely investigated; not much has come from it other than the unfortunate 1980’s movie Altered States.
We should not be too quick to dismiss the floatation tank’s potential. The microscope was invented in 1590, but nobody really knew what to do with the darn thing. It was over 80 years before Antoni van Leeuwenhoek thought to use it on organic matter, thus discovering micro-organisms and revolutionizing biology and medicine. Currently floatation tanks are recommended to achieve perfect states of relaxation, but I suspect they may be capable of much more.
I got the chance to try one at Common Ground, a holistic wellness center in Portland. They have one of the older tanks on the West Coast, originally purchased in 1984 for 10,000 dollars. I spoke with Talina, the Spa manager at Common Ground, about who uses the floatation tank and why. She said, “Some people, mostly young guys, come in expecting to trip out when they try it, but that’s not really likely.” Her regular users report it’s great for a variety of ailments, from back pain to arthritis. She also described it as “training wheels for meditation . . . 1 and half hours in the floatation tank is equal to 5 hours of REM sleep.” Talina instructed me to be careful not to get any of the salt water in my eyes and to fully relax and let the water support my weight.
When I first entered the tank, the sensation of floating on my back effortlessly in the warm water was so startling that it was impossible to resist the temptation to play and wiggle around like a fish, enjoying the new sense of buoyancy (I have been trying with mixed results to teach myself how to swim in regular water for the past several months). In the salt water, it’s as easy as lying down on the couch. The water (with 800 pounds of salt) keeps your arms, legs, and torso floating up out of the water, which is shockingly only 10 inches deep! Even my head, when fully relaxed, was supported upright enough so that I didn’t have to worry about water getting in my eyes or nose. After splashing around for a bit I quieted down and settled in to the experience.
The tank was tall and wide enough so that I could fully stretch out my toes and arms and just barely touch the ends of the tub. The water is kept at a skin-receptor-neutral 93.5 degrees. The tub is lined with a plastic or rubber sheet like an above-ground swimming pool. Reaching down behind me, I found the bottom of the tank to be crunchy with salt. The air also had a sharp tang to it from the salt, it irritated my nostrils for the first few minutes but then I got used to it. Once I settled down and just let myself float there, I began to get the uncanny feeling that I was spinning, as though my head were suddenly veering off to the left or the right, like my whole body was beginning to whirl around. It wasn’t a violent sensation at all, but more like a gentle suggestion that seemed to fade when I paid attention to it. From time to time I would bob up against one of the sides of the tank and then, with a gentle push, float off in the other direction very slowly.
I was wearing ear plugs to keep the water out and it helped with sound reduction. It was pitch dark, which I have always found interesting to be not black but a very dark grey. The brain gray, or eigengrau, that is still perceived by the brain even in total absence of light. But the total absence of sound and vision is not something wholly unusual; most of us experience something as close to this as possible every night when we go to bed. It was the absence of weight and tactile information that was stunning. The idea of course behind all of this is that your body isn’t taking in any sensory information, that atention is free to go elsewhere. Think of the analogy of an overloaded computer that suddenly has shut down half of its programs, it’s bound to sudennly run a whole lot smoother. (Indeed you might extend that analogy and say that the point of practices such as meditation or floatation is to reboot the hard drive.)
At first I felt the bodily sensation of, well, having a body was greatly increased. This was strange, I had been told people have used the tanks for research into out-of-body experiences. (If you have had an out of body experience you can attest that they are often preceded by the spins.) If anything, I was more aware of the sensation of the physicality of my limbs and chest. I could hear my heartbeat and breathing louder than anything in the world.
Gradually however I adapted to the feeling of floating, and my arms, leg, neck and body seemed to melt away. I have a fleeting memory of the sort of images that linger from a half-forgotten dream: a river, a boat, lights, polar bears? And then I was startled from my trance by soft music indicating my session was over. An hour and a half had gone by as swiftly as a good night’s rest. Had I completely zonked out? If so, I was quite comfortable levitating on a bed of water, but the state seemed to me more akin to the strange trance-like fugue that I experience whenever I get acupuncture. A refreshing, revitalizing state resembling sleep, but one that is more conscious and more aware than sleep. I left the session with a definite feeling of lightness and nonchalance. In a word – high.
Floatation tanks are still a novelty; they are rare and the costs are prohibitive for most people. However, if you get the chance, the experience is definitely worth seeking out. The fact that nothing revolutionary had been found so far didn’t stop Antoni van Leeuwenhoek.
For more information, or to see if there is a floatation tank near you, check out these resources:
www.floatation.com ( see their list of places where you can float)