Natural States – an Interview with Christopher Messer

As a follow up to my last article on floatation tanks, I recently sat down to talk with Christopher Messer, one of the founders of a new floatation center, called  Float On in Portland, Oregon. A veteran of the floatation tank experience, Christopher believes the longer you experience sensory deprivation the deeper it goes. Since he has been floating and building his own tanks since 1977, he had a lot to say when I spoke with him on New Year’s Eve. Here are some highlights.

Does the law of diminishing returns apply to floating?

It’s an endurance thing. The longer you float the more you’re in Theta waves. And the more lucid you’re going to get. This is the same thing the Buddhist monks are trying to do. But this is it without falling asleep and getting the rap on the shoulder with a stick. When there is no external stimulation the internal mind has to take over. I’ve done a 13 hour float, and it just keeps going and going. Thought goes away, identity goes away. It’s about effortless doing.

I hate technique. The tank is all physiological. You’re autonomic nervous system takes control. 98% of everything you think about is repetitive anyway. You don’t need it. If you were on a deserted island for long enough thought would go away. The minute thought stops, presence takes over. The tank kills thought without effort, without technique. Our whole culture is based on technique.

So thought just becomes unnecessary, like flippers on land?

Thought knows that the minute it stops, presence takes over and thought dies. And thought will do anything to stop that. That’s why the tank is so perfect, you can’t directly get rid of thought. It has to leave without effort. It’s like a surrender, but don’t make it into a technique. Our whole culture is about becoming – you gotta get to the next level, “I got to get the degree, I got to get the house . . .”. Well good luck with that, cause it’s just made up anyway! The only time you’re truly happy is when you’re just being.

This much salt goes into one tank!

What would a culture look like where everybody floats?

That’s my dream. Our culture is about change from the outside-in. But you change it from the inside-out and it’s going to work. It’s funny, remember the Skylab in the 70’s, after the Apollo missions? They had these Americans out there floating in space, and they’d have Russians come out. But sometimes guys would be alone for weeks at a time. And mission control would call them and tell them to do stuff. Well, mission control found that they would do the tasks slower and slower. And then mission control would tell them to do stuff and they wouldn’t want to do stuff. And then mission control would call them and tell them to do stuff . . . and they would turn off the intercom!

You get space happy. It’s called break off point. Same with the U2 spy planes. They’d be up there on the edge of space. Close to zero gravity.  And they would just lose interest in earthly things. They would stop believing in nationalism and just say – oh, well there’s the planet.

The floatation tank is still a fairly new device. Do you think people are going to come along and try to attach different techniques and codified ideas to the experience?

Well, it started out very scientific. But it very quickly became a mystic experience.

So yeah, people have used different techniques with floating: cyber vision, listening to learning tapes, holosync stuff. You can add on things, but personally I don’t like that. There’s nothing better than nothing. It’s so simple.

For millions of years we were just hunters and gatherers. We are not built for all of this. Language and time and self. That’s all brand new phenomena. When thought first came in, people thought they were hearing voices. Language started as a way to warn people. “Hey! There is a mountain lion behind you!” This evolved into language, but somehow along the way identity got involved.

Once you have language you can create an external analog of everything.

Yeah ­– I’m separate from everything else. I’m better. Then you’re getting into counting, keeping track of stuff, counting what you own. And the rest is history. I think once we got into agriculture that’s when we took a wrong turn.

So it’s New Year’s Eve 2010. What’s the future of floating?

Consciousness just wants to become more consciousness. This is what the tank is doing. There are areas that were once unconscious, and consciousness is saying – I want to be here.

We used to be in the Information age. Now we are in the Communication age. Consciousness is expanding itself. And the float tank fits that perfectly. Floating is just a way to get back to your natural state.

Floating in Inner Space

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: ( see their list of places where you can float)

DIY Magic : Active Imagination

Active Imagination

Towards a Jungian model of the paranormal, part 2

Many poets and all mystics and occult writers, in all ages and countries, have declared that behind the visible are chains and chains of conscious beings who are not of heaven but are of earth, who have no inherent form, but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them.

– W.B. Yeats

The examples of UFO’s, ghosts, and whatnot that have been seen by the officials and authority figures is much too large to list here in this essay. In fact, cops and air force pilots seem to be UFO’s’ favorite targets! Jimmy Carter, the freaking president, saw a UFO. So what! It just illustrates that neither Authority nor a massive number of witnesses are not enough to convince the world at large.

Likewise, it does not matter how many people see the UFO or the blood-weeping Mary, or the Missing Link. It doesn’t matter if it is hundreds of folks day after day, or even thousands. It will be swallowed by time. (Perhaps this is simply because these experiences are always ephemeral – mysticism and the supernatural cannot readily be harnessed by capitalism to turn a profit; therefore it is unimportant to the point that it does not exist.) For example: In 1917 thousands of people witnessed UFO activity; at one point 70,000 people gathered to wait and watch at one location in Portugal after three children reported the Virgin Mary appearing there. The huge crowd, and indeed everyone within a 30 mile radius, reported seeing a swirling UFO appear.  As one eyewitness described :

“It was seen by seventy thousand persons, among whom were pious individuals and atheists, clergymen and reporters from a socialist newspaper. As promised, it happened on October 13 at noon. Among the crowd was Professor Almeida Garrett, of Coimbra University, a scientist, who described the phenomena in the following terms: ‘It was raining hard, and the rain trickled down everyone’s clothes. Suddenly, the sun shone through the dense cloud which covered it: everybody looked in its direction. It looked like a disc, of a very definite contour. It was not dazzling. I don’t think that it could be compared to a dull silver disk, as someone said later in Fatima. No. It rather possessed a clear, changing brightness, which one could compare to a pearl. It looked like a polished wheel. This is not poetry. My eyes have seen it. This clear-shaped disk suddenly began turning. It rotated with increasing speed. Suddenly, the crowd began crying with anguish. The sun, revolving all the time, began falling toward the earth, reddish and bloody, threatening to crush everyone underneath.”

The website where I found the above description argues that this purportedly religious experience was, in fact, definitely a UFO. It goes on to argue that another similar case where children saw angels: “he appeared to be about nine years old, was dressed in a long, seamless blue robe, had a small face with black eyes, and fine hands and short fingernails,” was obviously not an angel but an alien.

How beside the point!

They are on the right path in realizing that the alien and the angel are perhaps the same thing, but to think that it must be only one or the other is as blind and foolish as the men in our earlier parable of the elephant.
Continue reading

DIY Magic: towards a Jungian model of the Supernatural, part one

Towards a Jungian Model of the Supernatural, part one

Let’s talk about paranormal activity. I want to take a look at some well documented phenomena, ranging from UFOs and Bigfoot to Ghosts and fairy tales; the idea here is to look for commonalities. We are going to take a very brief survey of the history of the paranormal this month, and pay attention to the common threads. From this I hope to weave a tapestry using Jungian psychology as a working model from which to consider the occult. My idea is that within the proper framework, many of these seemingly different kinds of phenomena are actually different facets or paradigms of the same thing.

There is an old fable that goes something like this: three blind men encounter something in the jungle, and they are trying to figure out what it is. The first man goes up to it and feels its legs, which are huge, and he says, “Well, what we have here are a couple of really big trees.” The second blind dude feels the tail of the large creature and proclaims, “You’re crazy, what we have here is a simple paint brush.” The third blind man reaches out and, touching the nose of the creature, declares, “Both of you must be loco! Even a blind man could tell you this is a boa constrictor.”

I would like to suggest that part of why the accounts of the paranormal appear so mysterious (and as we shall see baffling to the point of appearing silly) is because when considered just on their own, for example a specific account of Bigfoot or a UFO encounter, often smacks of  strange, whimsical, and ridiculous details. Continue reading

D.I.Y. MAGIC – Counting Coup, Part Two: ill odor

Counting Coup, Part Two : A chat with Ill Odor about life on the road, doing time, Bigfoot, cops & roadkill. Read Part One here.

Once upon a time, personal power was tested against the backdrop of the wilderness. In this age whatever environment you find yourself in will do. I don’t want you to think urban exploration is the only way to go – so I want to mention Bill Soder (aka Ill Odor), a fellow I met on a recent bicycle tour while camping in the Redwoods. At the age when many people retire & buy an R.V.  he has been pitting himself against the adventures of the road and the wild continuously FOR EIGHT STRAIGHT YEARS – bicycling from state to state, carrying everything he owns, and camping night after night. Before he started he was terribly overweight and sickly, and suffering from regular seizures. One of those cases where the doctor pronounces, “the end is near.” One day while watching TV he was seized with the inspiration to ride his bike into town for a cup of coffee. He told his son he was going to bike into town and his son scoffed, “C’mon Dad, you’re too lazy and fat to make it into town.”

Whereupon he vowed, “I’ll make it to the coffee shop – not only that, I’m gonna bike to the original Starbucks in Seattle . . . and get a fucking cappuccino!”

Since he had never done any bike touring before, and he lived in Boston, this statement was an intention of Counting Coup. Thousands of miles later he called his son from the Starbucks in Seattle and had the barista confirm his location and order. Since that day he has lost a ton of weight, and is feeling in better health than he has his entire life, and he says he is also happier now than he has ever been. He has cycled coast to coast a few times, and been up and down the Pacific innumerable times, and has (in his sixties) explored the deserts of New Mexico and the snowy mountain peaks of the Cascades, all of which his doctors would have pronounced impossible for a man with his conditions. Castaneda’s Don Juan would have said he has grown in personal power.

Here is a short audio interview conducted with Bill Soder about some of his adventures. The interview was conducted at Standish-Hickey Park, California by the author as well as two road companions who can also be heard asking questions during the interview—and who incidentally went down into the tunnel described in Part One.

Ill Odor Interview – STREAM :

[audio:|titles=(short) ILL Odor interview]