Sensory Deprivation Tanks, Entering A New Dimension
When was the last time you thought and felt nothing and I really mean absolutely nothing at all? Go ahead and try, I’ll wait. Didn’t work so well, did it? Most of us probably don’t even know what exactly that means but please don’t feel offended, it’s kind of impossible unless you are a top notch monk, floated naked through space and the universe or have previous experience with sensory deprivation tanks. It’s time to talk about one of my favourite topics and activities, “floating”. Can you even call it an activity? I’m not sure because you don’t really do anything while actually doing something. Sounds confusing? I’m sure it does but please hear me out.
I first heard about floating around 2014 while listening to the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. If you have never heard of it please stop what you are doing (after reading this article of course) and go have a listen to one of many interesting episodes, it’s worth it. Just like many of you with me right now, I had no idea what the heck he was talking about, which was mostly due to the fact that I was listening with half an ear only since I mostly listen to podcasts while working, dropping in and out of the conversation during edits. Perfect conditions to become a master of bro science. However, I did a quick google search the following night sense the topic stuck with me and quickly got introduced to the world of sensory deprivation tanks, also known as isolation or floatation tanks.
These tanks were first designed in 1954 by American physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, psychonaut, philosopher and writer John Cunningham Lilly (6th January 1915 – 30th September 2001). He first used them for intensive study of human consciousness when deprived of as much external stimulus as possible and were less developed and looked much different, in a bad way, then the newer and more stylish looking Float Pods today. Back then you were suspended in a bunch of water with your whole body submerged, accept for your head, and a “black-out” mask that looked like straight out of a horror movie, providing air and blocking any light from your eyes. Luckily floating is a much less scary looking experience now a days.
Basically what an isolation tank is, is a pitch-black, light and soundproof environment, with a few inches of water including enough Epsom salt to make you float on the surface. Sounds like a great place to relax, doesn’t it? Additionally, to eliminate as many of the external senses as possible, the water and the air is heated to the same temperature as your body (37 degrees Celsius). This allows your mind and body to neither see, hear or feel anything and if you can’t see, hear or feel anything, what else is there? Right, thoughts! Just you and your thoughts and thanks to the isolated environment you are in, it is much different from being alone in your bed at night for example where the brain still takes in all kinds of information subconsciously from small sounds all the way to actually feeling your mattress and bed sheet on your skin. Our brain is constantly working and distracted without us paying any attention to it most of the time, even when we are a sleep. Also, dark or black is not necessary pitch-black which I realized during my early days as a photographer, assisting a friend of mine for a Red Bull shoot in a salt mine, two hundred meter below earth. Talk about pitch-black, but that’s a different story for a different day.
Now even though this might sound as a perfect place to have a nap, Lilly was much more obsessed with mind travel and exploring alternate realities. It’s worth bearing in mind he often conducted experiments with mind-altering drugs such as ketamine and LSD. After all, he was a researcher of the nature of consciousness. Using LSD himself in an isolation tank he once described the experience as traveling through his brain, “watching the neurons and their activities”. With that being said please note that this is an extreme example of exploring the usage of a floatation tank and in no means necessary. Personally I prefer to float sober or with a little joint ahead of my session, each one to their own preferences.
The trick is, when floating for the first time, to book at least three different sessions, each session being either sixty or ninety minutes long. Again, everybody has different preferences, some people take less time to calm down then others. The reason for those three sessions is simple as you don’t know what to expect (or have to high expectations after somebody told you about floating) during your first float, adjust and learn on the second and flow on the third and happily ever after. In my opinion this is the golden rule in order to prevent jumping to false conclusions to quick. I think three sessions won’t steal to much of your time in life in case it’s not for you, at least you gave it a proper chance. During my first session I was so busy trying to figure out how to handle my thoughts and to be completely still in an environment like this that it didn’t even come close to what those guys on the podcast were talking about a few days earlier. I’m glad I got the three session advice by the owner of the tank in advance.
By the time I learned about floating I was also dealing with major back pain (due to often carrying heavy equipment) and even though the weightless state gave my body the opportunity to heal properly by itself, it has to be mentioned there are no officially proven beneficial health effects (yet) of floating, which doesn’t mean they do not exist. While it helped me personally to get rid of my back problems I also know (and of) many professional athletes and public figures using these tanks as a regular recovery tool. Additionally it is a great way to reset and to gain personal growth as well as exploring altered states of consciousness which does sound beneficial to me, at least I experience it as such in my life.
Another trick to float “successfully” is to find your balance between two different worlds and by that, entering a new dimension of just “being”. Are you talking about the hypnagogic state of your brain you might wonder? Yes, I am. That’s exactly what I am talking about, at least I’m trying to, so for safety reasons I have to repeat, once again, the possibility of bro science here so please double check and conduct your own research to get one hundred percent legit information and knowledge, even though I think I’m pretty close haha. I’m a photographer, not a scientist, just keep that in mind.
When you are getting comfortable in a floatation tank there are a few things that will happen to your body and mind. One of them being, and probably the most difficult one, to calm down your mind. Relax, breath in … breath out, now repeat. Think of a distant memory like your tenth birthday for example. Did you get presents? What was your favourite one? Do you remember what you were wearing that day? Yes? No? Why? Due to the isolation of external information to your brain, keeping focus feels differently already, doesn’t it? Much easier without any what so ever distractions. Now go a little deeper, a little more and a little more after that. What’s the tiniest detail you can remember from that day? Zoom in a little. Take your thoughts and memories on a journey without being afraid of getting lost, because that’s exactly what you are trying to accomplish, to go deeper in thoughts, layer by layer, until you are lost. That’s when you arrive at the transitional state from being awake to sleep: the hypnagogic state of consciousness (the opposite transitional state from sleep into wakefulness is described as hypnopompic). It actually feels like watching your brain and you can see where Lilly was coming from when talking about watching his neurons, it’s a weird feeling. It feels like walking down a hall way of thoughts, getting more tight with every thought until you can only squeeze as much as you can to make it through the final door while the walls are closing in. Finally, when you think you can’t squeeze any more and the focus of only that specific detail seems to crush you, boom! … there it is, you popped through to the other side, entering a new dimension while watching yourself exploring it. Things seem to change in this dimension, your thought process changes radically from when you are awake. You are loosening your boundaries of ego and are more open to things and ideas that might be perceived and judged completely different in wakefulness. It’s an ordinary place to be in if you can make it here without falling to sleep. It’s like a short cut from meditating.
Lilly’s work and research on the human consciousness in combination with floatation tanks has allowed millions of people to calm body and mind, to bring positive change to many lives, including mine. He died due to natural causes at the age of 86 in Los Angeles. On his website, johnclilly.com, maintained by the John C. Lilly Institute, it reads, “In the province of the mind, there are no limits.”