I’ve only had a few opportunities to be wide awake while simultaneously unable to see my hands. Once, in 5th grade, I went on a field trip to the Moaning Caverns in Northern California, an enormous cavern that has as its centerpiece a cavity deep enough to fit the Statue of Liberty. I was reading Harry Potter at the time, and felt that our tour guide resembled a wizard. His booming voice echoed against the walls. He instructed us to turn off our flashlights, everything went dark, and he said, “Wave your hands.” I did. There was nothing, and it was as if I’d been made invisible. Since then, I sometimes pull the bed sheets completely over my head in an attempt to reassemble the parts of myself, scrambled and faded, that have been exposed too long in the world.
Now I’m in Oakland, California at Float: The Flotation Center & Art Gallery. I’m 27, and this is my third time in a flotation tank, though I haven’t been to this particular one. My skin is slimy, my ears are plugged with wax, and I wave my slender fingers over my face. I can’t see them, but I feel the sensation of water dripping onto my stomach. There’s a tightness somewhere in my leg, and I stretch my feet and hands to the warm metal walls, then release, and my spine, like stiff rubber, realigns into a natural position that feels as if I’m in a zero gravity chamber. It feels more natural than at a desk — where I usually am — sitting curled and flattened not unlike the number 5.
I wish I’d read John C. Lilly before my appointment. In 1954, while working as a research neurophysiologist for the National Institute of Mental Health, Lilly invented the isolation tank. Later, like other academics who became interested in LSD (i.e. the Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Ram Dass), he went rogue. He started his own research facilities, where he studied dolphin brains and attempted interspecies communication between humans and dolphins (with and without LSD). His autobiography reads like that of a mad scientist’s: matter-of-fact, academic, but with leaps of logic, and with words like ‘inperience’ and ‘metaprogramming.’ And much of his most far out observations come from experimenting with high doses of Ketamine, hourly, and for weeks at a time.
Lilly initially set out to test the hypothesis that outside stimuli are needed in order for the mind to stay active. And that, if removed from all external stimuli, basic waking-state consciousness would turn off, and the human body (and mind) would fall asleep. The other school of thought, Lilly writes, maintained that “the activities of the brain were inherently autorhythmic; in other words, within the brain substance itself were cells that tended to continue their oscillations without the necessity of any external stimuli.” This is the theory he found to be true, though it may appear obvious.
The “apparatus” has also been called a sensory deprivation tank, REST (restrictive environmental stimulation therapy), sensory attenuation tank and flotation tank (its current form). In his book Isolation Tanks: The Deep Self, Lilly writes that ‘Sensory Deprivation’ was a misnomer given by later research that mistook isolation as an overall unpleasant experience.
But “isolation,” for Lilly, describes the experience best. He writes, “In a series of over three hundred subjects we have found no such states of ‘deprivation,’ nor the predicated ‘stress’ of physical isolation.” He continues, “The complete comfort of the isothermal supportive bath in the dark and the silence afford a complete physical/mental/spiritual resting place, which can contain a great peace for those ready for it.”
The tank, I think, looks like a single occupancy space capsule or rescue pod, and is filled with the maximum saturation of Epsom salts in water (which can be upwards of 800 pounds), heated to skin temperature, and circulated with oxygen. This is how I’d imagine the dead sea feels, you lay supine and suspended with your head and chest above water.
On a leather couch in the lobby of The Flotation Center & Art Gallery, Craig, a hospitable host who asks me what kind of tea I’d like after the float, welcomes me in, remarks on the weather (it’s been raining), gives me a pair of slippers and walks me back to the tank that I’ll be floating in. I’ve driven past this building on interstate 880 since I was a kid; there’s a loft window with the red glowing neon letters L-O-V-E. Across the highway, there is the cannabis dispensary Harborside, and North along the bay is where tens of thousands of occupiers shut down the Port of Oakland in 2011. Craig shows me where I can shower, relieve myself (or ‘exterminate,’ the word Lilly uses), and apply liquid bandage to small scrapes or cuts.
In the tank, my thoughts flicker and turn inward, zoom out, then return, and I try to do what I’ve learned in meditation: focus on my breath, ‘observe,’ focus on my breath. I feel a milky warmth radiate from my chest. I see a few strange images flash above me, then nothing, then there’s a brief few minutes where I begin to feel emotional, and my nervous system starts to buzz like I’ve had a cup of coffee. The first two floats I didn’t get any of that. It’s an experience that rewards repeated revisits, like learning anything new; you can get “better” at it. Also, this time, I don’t feel the need to get out. The first couple times I floated, for some reason, I hallucinated the sounds of a building crashing down, and thought there was an earthquake (it was in San Francisco). If you wanted to, though, it’s easy to get out; there’s no lock on the door, and it’s fairly light.
Later tonight, in John C. Lilly’s autobiography, I’ll read about his extraterrestrial contact in the flotation tank, when he’s on large doses of ketamine. It’s pretty fascinating to read because he’s sincerely recounting what he saw without embellishment, it seems. In his conversations with them, the “beings” talk like extraterrestrial bureaucrats. They tell Lilly that they’re agents of the Earth Coincidence Control Office. They’ve been orchestrating his life by way of coincidences on Earth: his wife saved him from drowning, and he narrowly survived a bike accident. Here’s a link to one such communication.
In my own Isolation Tank experience, I didn’t gain access to the Earth Coincidence Control Office, unfortunately. You might need years of practice, or a nudge from Lilly’s friend ketamine. But in all earnestness, even if you don’t like space travel or extra dimensional beings, I encourage you to give it a try. Most of all, for me, it has been a rejuvenating experience.
Here’s a rousing quote from John C. Lilly’s Deep Self:
“This place or places is called by different names: the Isolation Tank, Flotation Tank, the Solitude Tank, the Womb-to-Tomb Wet Box, the Place one can rent for Money to Seek Nothingness, etc. In 1954 when I was floating in the silence, darkness, wetness, alone, after the 1st ten hours, I called it the Isolation-Solitude-
“I suggest that if you would like to find out what happened, read the books, The Center of The Cyclone, Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, and The Scientist. Of course if you do this you are no longer free the way I was: free to be unusually happy, unusually frightened and quite free to be anything I wanted or the suprahuman intelligences wanted at unexpected times. If you disbelieve me, try it your own way: it’s a vast universe and I am only a human being as I write this for you, another human being on the planet Earth. Have fun. I do and did. Good luck.”