I’ve no idea how long I’ve been lying here. It could be half an hour, it could be several weeks. I open my eyes. All I can see is the dark infinity of space and a deep, expansive sea of stars. I feel at ease, completely relaxed, my awareness no longer confined to the constraints of my physical body. I’m floating, somewhere, far, far away.
Actually I’m in Chiswick, west London, in a floatation tank. From my east London abode this is indeed somewhere far, far away. I’m floating, essentially weightless, in 10 inches of Epsom salt water in a pitch-black chamber. I make the sojourn west roughly once a month. In the midst of my hectic life it’s about the closest I get to genuine unbridled relaxation, and for that reason alone I suggest anyone try it. But there is so much more to it than that…
Floatation tanks—sometimes also referred to as isolation tanks or sensory deprivation tanks—owe their existence to the determined innovation of an American scientist-mystic named John C Lilly. His is a fascinating story, retold in his autobiography ‘The Scientist’.
John Lilly had glimpses of apparently transcendent realms in his childhood. This led to an interest in the big questions around meaning, identity and the ultimate nature of existence that were to later manifest in his work. He studied hard and eventually became a respected scientific researcher, sometimes participating in particular research projects in order to fulfill his ulterior motives of learning more about the brain and consciousness, and acquiring the necessary knowledge for advancing his ability to perfect the construction of a sensory deprivation tank. He even undertook much of his personal research in secret for fear of being discredited or disqualified by his more orthodox colleagues.
His designs went through various stages of evolution, and were the precursors of the sort of tanks that are commercially available today. They’ve gone from being one man’s private obsession to an evermore popular and widely available way of attaining supreme relaxation and exploring consciousness.
It wasn’t only the material aspects of the tank he was interested in perfecting, such as how to minimise sensory input of all types. Lilly was obsessed with exploring the farthest recesses of his mind and he started utilising consciousness altering substances during isolation tank sessions, trying LSD—”I took LSD for the first time, in the tank, with three dolphins under it in a sea pool. I was scared shitless.”—but settling with introvenously and intramuscularly administered ketamine as his floatation tank and general mind-tweaker of choice, and later addiction.
Perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone who has tried ketamine outside of a floatation tank, Lilly experienced extraordinary results ingesting it inside. I chuckle when I read the guidelines at floatation tank centres prohibiting floating on illegal substances, knowing that’s exactly what the inventor of these tanks had in mind!
But what can an hour in a floatation tank do for you? Well the fact that feeling so genuinely and completely relaxed is so difficult to achieve these days strikes me as a good reason to go just on its own. In addition, floating is like extreme meditation, facilitating insights into how your mind generates thoughts and providing ideal conditions to practice letting go of mental activity.
Let’s face it, at first it’s kinda weird to lie naked in a completely enclosed miniature Dead Sea for an hour or two, and as with meditation, there can be periods of slight discomfort; the mind may not be quite able to settle or relax, or to understand the experience. The unusual environment can sometimes trigger disorientation and momentary confusion. Where am I? Who am I? …the play of the the mental realm. But these tricky moments often take place against the backdrop of a pristine and unblemished field of awareness. Like a lone cloud in an otherwise unbroken blue sky, they offer a glimpse of the temporal and illusory nature of our thoughts.
It’s an opportunity to learn about what is real and what is not. We may observe that our thoughts are not us; they manifest in our awareness, stay for a while, and then leave. This provides training in mindfulness and empowers us to choose how to respond to the contents of our mind in other situations.
Likewise, just being able to relax to the degree that a floatation tank allows strengthens the body-mind’s ability to recall that state whenever that response might be useful. Physically it works wonders too and sometimes I can literally feel my tight muscles ping as they release tension and lengthen.
Another fascinating aspect of floating is the experience of depriving your mind-body of most of the sensations and stimulation it is normally accustomed to. It’s a chance to see what the mind gets up to when it’s not preoccupied with all that other stuff, to experience a more fundamental level of mind even. You might experience a widening of your sense of self to far beyond your physical boundaries, deep inner peace, feelings of ecstasy and sensations like being enveloped in nurturing amniotic life energy. Or you may not. It’s different every time. What ever happens, it’s fascinating.
But the most compelling reason to go for most people, whether you’re a hippie or not, is simply the fact that afterwards you will feel incredible. Colours are more pronounced, visual details more intricate, the mind elated, the body relaxed. My favourite time to go is Sunday night — it’s the perfect end to a weekend and incredibly I wake up on Monday morning feeling refreshed and happy. I have a spring in my step and even going to work feels good.
Anything that makes Mondays enjoyable has to be the good stuff. I salute you, oh pioneer of consciousness exploration, Dr John C Lilly.