The Float Tank, Altered States, and What is Important, Really?

man_with_circulatory_system_flatI went to the float tank today. Here’s my disclaimer: Talking about my own brain seems kind of masturbatory to me to begin with, so it’s several feet outside my comfort zone to talk about what my brain is doing while my body is lying naked in a shallow pool of warm water.  Inquiring minds want to know,  so I want to share, but I’ll try to stick to the facts. P.S. I just read through this again, and I’m not sure I succeeded.

I don’t consider myself a spiritual person, but I am curious about different kinds of consciousness and things.  In case that already sounds like new age noodling, I’ll rephrase it and say: I’m not religious, but I did used to enjoy experimenting with drugs. Better? Yes, that’s much more clear.

I turn 43 tomorrow. I learned to meditate as a teenager and have practiced it on and off (mostly off) as a stress-relief, problem-solving, parlor-trick sort of tool ever since then. Then about five years ago, I had this weird experience.

There was this record series in the ’70s called environments that was meant to take you (in an audio sense, anyway) to another place. A typical environments record might have the sounds of a thunderstorm on one side and the sounds of a mountain stream on the other. I had a few of them, and they were pretty cool. Then I got this one with a side called “Induced Meditation” that was supposed to shove your brain right into a meditative state.

Well, I turned off the lights and crossed my legs and put this record on, and it worked amazingly well. It worked so well that I reached a point in my meditation where I felt my body and my brain fall into a deep sleep and I was still somehow there watching it happen. The only thing I can think of to compare it to is the way TV stations would go off the air in the old days – “This station concludes its broadcast day,” and then there would just be static. Basically, I sat there for a couple of minutes watching the static at the end of my own broadcast day, and it was seriously profound. Like for really real, no-kidding nirvana. I would tell you that it looked like an endless, and endlessly moving plate of fluorescent spaghetti under a blacklight, but that really sounds like bullshit.

Anyway, when I came out of this, maybe two or three minutes later,  I felt amazing. My basic primordial urges to eat and to love felt satiated, and I was totally refreshed, just all the way all good, peace-on- earth-goodwill-to-men in a way that I’d maybe never felt before.

I tried for a couple of weeks to get back there – I played that record a lot of times, but I never quite made it. Then I started to feel like I was pushing for it too much, and I thought I might give myself a seizure, so I gave up.

So then a month or two ago someone posted a link online and I found out about this new thing with float tanks. Float tank is a more publicly palatable term for an isolation tank, or a sensory-deprivation tank, which have been around since the ’50s. The basic idea is that it’s dark, you’ve got earplugs in, and you’re in body-temperature water with hundreds of pounds of salt dissolved in it so that you float like a cork. And then you don’t see or hear anything, and you’re just floating there, and then, it’s great. Presumably, you sort of meditate and trip out and explore your mind or something.

Of course, as a child of the ’70s, everything I know about sensory-deprivation tanks comes from the movie “Altered States,” about a guy who takes a lot of drugs and floats in a tank and eventually regresses into a prehistoric ape-man. I’ve always loved that movie, and I’ve got some experience with meditation or whatever, so when I found  out there was a place that offered the service that was reasonably close by, I decided I needed to give it a try.

So this morning my wife & daughter & I hoofed it down (about an hour) to the floating center, and gave them a hundred bucks for my hour in the tank. It seems expensive, and it is, but like I said, my birthday’s tomorrow, and I really wanted to check it out.

First they had me watch a video on a tablet that told me a lot of stuff I’d already learned from online vids, like “you gotta shower before and after the tank” and “don’t get that salty water in your eyes.” They would play music when my time was up, and yes, they promised it would be loud enough that I could hear it even with the earplugs in.

The dude leads me to my room and leaves me there. There’s a changing area with places to put your stuff, then to one side is the shower room (mine had these crazy lenticular-looking tiles) and to the other side is the tank. They give you an extra seven minutes to shower before your actual float time begins, which seems fair.  I don’t think I took the whole seven minutes, though –  I was really excited to get in.  Oh boy, it’s almost time. Get the earplugs in, open the door, step into the tank, close the door, turn off the light and…

Yup, nothing. It’s called a sensory-deprivation tank because  you can’t see or hear anything. The water feels good and you float in it, but what do you actually do? Nothing. Flotation is not what you’d call an “active sport.” It’s more like a disc defragmenter for your brain. I spent the first few minutes floating there,  getting comfortable,  and then I stretched out as far as I could. And then I floated there some more. Tried to follow the little spots in front of my eyes, that was fun for a while. I’m feeling fine, relaxed, floating, stretching.

I know I could have, even should have, prepared myself better for this experience, bringing ideas I wanted to think about into the tank with me, but while I was actually in there, I didn’t feel I spent much time thinking about anything.

The only preparation I did was to come up with a general philosophical question. This was poorly-thought out and poorly-phrased,  but somehow I figured it might spin me off in some crazy direction and make it so I could say that this single hour had impacted my life more than any other. The question was “What is important?” That’s what I decided to ask myself and concentrate on during my float – “What is important?” When I remembered the question, maybe ten minutes in, my brain immediately spat back the answer, “Important is a word.” Which I guess could be kind of profound, if you think about it, but it’s kind of glib, too. Mostly, it felt like my brain was trying to shut me up so it could do its own thing.

I’m stretching periodically through the whole float. While it feels good, and I’m perfectly relaxed, I can’t help imagining that if I had any sort of exercise regimen, or if I’d done some meditation recently, or if I felt more comfortable in this comfortable new environment even though it was new, that I’d be even more relaxed, and enjoying my tank time even more.

I try my standard tricks to get into the meditative state, and they work, but I don’t stay there for long. Being completely alone is too novel for my brain, I guess, and it wants me to stay aware for the whole thing.

I’m surprised when I hear the music – it’s over already? I get out and shower again, then get some tea and hang out with my wife & daughter in the recovery room thing. There are a bunch of books in the room, including a bunch by isolation tank inventor John C. Lilly, and multiple copies of all the Carlos Castaneda books. There’s also a human head made out of glass, and some mini-pumpkins, for the holidays.  Interestingly enough, this room is the last stop on my tour, and the first place that any kind of new-agey stuff  rears its head.

My daughter is four. She makes faces at herself in the mirror, and has to be shushed (with a smile) multiple times. When we get outside, I feel good. There’s a footbridge that leads out through some reeds to a view of the river. The sun is out, and everything seems more intense and wonderful than usual.

On the way home (my wife’s driving, I’m still a little fuzzy) I think about how I didn’t come anywhere near that crazy meditation experience I had before with the environments record. But I feel really okay with that. I mean, of course reaching nirvana again and exploring the deepest recesses of my mind is important to me. But on the other hand – important?  That’s just a word.

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4 Responses to The Float Tank, Altered States, and What is Important, Really?

  1. Lee Hudgins says:

    Excellent! I’ve always wondered wht sensory experience was like. Your brain proved that your sense of humor is intact!! I loved reading about your adventure. And have a wonderful birthday tomorrow. I loved that you had a trusty driver ( your wife) and a cheerleading squad (your daughter) along. And you saved me from shelling out the hundred bucks to find out what its all about.

  2. Jon says:

    Cool story. I’m glad you did that. I had always wondered about sensory deprivation. I figured it would either be really enlightening or really terrifying.

    • says:

      I felt the slightest tinge of “what am I getting myself into?” when I stepped into the tank, but it wasn’t scary at all.

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