Finding Clarity Series #2: The Sensory Deprivation Flotation Tank Experience
What happens when you can’t see, hear, smell, taste, touch or even tell where your body parts are? You find your Self.
Bam! This experience was a money shot. I had surprising insights each time, all profound, all consciousness expanding for me. And it was so much fun. Floating is number 2 of 9 strategies over 9 weeks to see how effective they are in creating space for increased clarity. It was powerful, and I am hooked. I will definitely be incorporating floating into my life as a regular practice.
Like the rest, floating needed to meet my criteria for creating space. It had to be a stillness practice, with the ability to slow me down, be a gateway to presence and have the potential to reveal emotional blocks to my clarity. Floating delivered. It does so by diminishing the external sensory inputs of sight, sound, smell, touch and more, leaving your full attention on your inner world. From there, the experience is up to you.
Why I Chose Floating
Unless you have access to an anti-gravity chamber, I don’t think there is anything else that can give you the experience of floating free of gravity. Except actual space. Interestingly, this is exactly how I start my muscle relaxation process. I imagine I shoot up into space, I’m wrapped in vast emptiness, and I just feel the float. So to be able to do something like this in the flesh, well it was irresistible.
Floating facilities have been popping up all over the United States and Europe. While it may seem like something new, float tanks have been around since the 1950’s. Back then research on float tank/sensory deprivation effects focused on things like creativity, connection to others and concentration. I think we missed out on some important data all those decades.
The sensory deprivation chamber has been the most important tool that I’ve ever used for developing my mind.
Enthusiasts of the isolation float tank report an unbelievable array of mental, emotional, even spiritual/consciousness expanding benefits. Like enhancement of creativity, mental clarity, awareness and their personal meditative practices. They describe improvement in problem solving, concentration and focus. Most describe feelings of well-being, a sense of serenity and an increase in vibrancy and energy. Many report a sense of peace, connectedness to others, connectedness to the body and to their inner world. Some report the ability to have an experience more psychedelic in nature.
I can confidently say it [flotation] is one of the most powerful medicines I have worked with. It tells the same Truth as psychedemia, just perhaps in a whisper instead of a chorus.
Aubrey Marcus, Onnit
Physical enhancements reported include a decrease in the physical symptoms of stress, improved sleep cycles, improved healing after injury, an increase in athletic prowess and a boost in circulation.
Right alongside enthusiasts of the float tank are medical researchers that are contributing to a more recent and growing body of findings that suggests floating can help people with mental and physical ailments. It shows floatation is an effective, cost efficient, readily available and non-invasive way to treat stress-related illness. Stress-related illness is ‘code’ for most illnesses today.
Specific ailments shown to be responsive to flotation including anxiety (PTSD), depression, burnout, fatigue, pain relief (fibromyalgia, arthritis), insomnia, trouble concentrating (ADD, ADHD), addictions, migraines and hypertension. In addition to enhancing healing after injury, it has positive effects on the immune system.
The Brain on Zero External Input
The float tank promises to induce complete relaxation of the muscles all over the body, with the experience of weightlessness. This turns off the body’s ‘fight or flight’ stress response. The mind can quiet down and become (and stay) still in the distraction free environment.
Tank technology provides most of the sensory deprivation by cutting off sources of light and noise, controlling the water and air temperature (it’s the same as your body), eliminating odor in the air or water, eliminating touch (other than what you intentionally touch and occasional contact with the tank).
When suspended in the water and engulfed by total darkness, there is an almost immediate loss of another sense; proprioception. Spatial orientation and the sense of the relative positions of your body parts, or the body in space, doesn’t happen without external cues. This can be pretty disorienting to some, but the illusion subsides.
I decided to see if I could turn up the intensity of the experience by floating 3 times in 4 days. The facility in my community (Revival Wellness) is wonderful; the environment is attractive and it is clean and well maintained. It was clear after the first float how important cleanliness and quiet are to the experience.
I arrived early to fill out minimal paperwork, was escorted to float room #2 and received the simple directions;
1-Take a shower-that’s one way the tanks stay clean for everyone.
2-If you have long hair secure it, otherwise it will float around and cause some distraction if it touches you. This is also why you float naked so you aren’t distracted by feeling what you are wearing.
3- Put your earplugs in to both enhance the quiet and keep salt water out of your ears. This is optional, but highly recommended.
4- There is a small bottle of fresh water and a dry face cloth in case you inadvertently (by touching your own face or splashing yourself) get the saltwater in your eyes. It will sting.
5-Once you are in the water and close the tank door, you can turn the light off if you wish, or leave it on.
6-When your hour is up the light will come back on, and a low voice will tell you your float time is over.
7-Shower again to rinse off the salt. Which by the way, leaves your skin feeling soft.
8- When you are dressed, leave your room quietly to respect the experience of others.
That’s it. Anything that happens in the tank is your experience. There is no right or wrong way to do it, no two experiences are the same. And, it’s not possible to drown, even if you fall asleep.
“When I first tried a sensory deprivation tank, people thought I had lost my mind. In fact, I had found it.”
Tuesday’s Float Experience and Insights
My first float was a little awkward. My mind was looking for reasons to create concern. I tried the light off then had to turn it back on for a minute. After a few minutes of floating, I began to think I couldn’t breathe because of perceived mugginess. “Maybe the air vent isn’t working’. I knew it wasn’t true, but I was distracted nonetheless. ‘Maybe I should leave the tank door open for air?’ I regrouped and dropped all of that.
Another few minutes and the thought came, ‘can I do this for a whole hour?’ I concentrated on releasing each muscle, letting go of everything that felt tight, until I couldn’t perceive anymore tension.
It was completely dark. Perceptually, I couldn’t tell the difference between my eyes open or closed. It was completely quiet except for my occasional movements. There was no tactile sensation other than the waterline that framed the part of my face above water. It was hard to distinguish where the waterline was most places on my body. Once in a while, a foot would make contact with the tub, but then gently move away.
Thought chatter occurred about earlier events of the day, then about the rest of the day. That soon began to die down. I reminded myself of my intention for the float, inviting the space for clarity by whatever means that took. So I concentrated on even deeper relaxation of my muscles.
The mind creates its own activity in the absence of external stimuli. As in sleep, the unconscious began sorting through recent snippets of experience it deemed valuable, weaving old and new ‘pieces of stuff’ together, making new, conscious connections. Only I was awake and watching this take place.
Then a visualization of ‘me’ appeared, in the future. And all at once I experienced a ‘me’ that was new. And powerful. In this visualization I felt complately free of inhibitions, I felt it throughout my body. I had the experience of old restricting beliefs no longer present. I watched myself easily do things I would not normally feel free to do, feeling spontaneous and unencumbered. Where did this come from? I became aware of the broad smile on my face.
My body felt glorious, as if every inch inside and out was perfect and thriving. I felt completely connected to its ‘nature,’ to the unencumbered, stress and inhibition-free way that it naturally is. So this is what the body feels like without the oppressive load of the mind.
Without the mind piling inhibitions on the body, there was a sense of greater connection to it and appreciation of it. The body was enjoyable to inhabit, easy and friendly, loving and appreciating. I was in complete enjoyment, utter stillness and awash with satisfaction. This seemed to last a very long time.
Then I noticed a sensation, a pressure that felt like my head, shoulders and butt were in contact with the bottom of the tank. ‘How could that be?’ I had to run my hand beneath me to be sure that in fact I was still afloat. I concluded that my mind was interpreting residual muscle tension as pressure, and I was interested to see if it persisted in tomorrow’s float. Since it wasn’t going away, I played with tiny twisting movements that enhanced the sensation of floating. This felt just like in my imaginings of floating in outer space.
Wednesday’s Float Experience and Insights
The process felt like ‘old hat’ today, excitement to get in and enjoy every last one of my 60 minutes. Relaxing of the body happened much quicker, as if it knew what to do on cue. I had none of the hesitant thoughts of yesterday, none of the pressure on my backside.
I soon noticed my heartbeat throughout my entire torso, including places I’d never felt it before. The mind’s eye took me on a little voyage inside my heart in an exploratory way. Like in that 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage where this tiny nano-ship travels through the body and encounters all kinds of giant, scary, amazing structures and activity.
There was the awareness that the heart doesn’t beat day in and day out in the way we think it does. That there is quite a bit of precise variation, adjusting and responding to its environment. I felt amazement for the intelligence of that. There was a sense of gratitude for the heart and the body that it drives. How at once it is incredibly powerful and resilient, yet fragile and temporary. ‘Mine will die one day’ I thought, ‘could be any day.’ And floating in that tank, that was perfectly ok.
After noticing some trivial thought dialogue continuing in the background, I directed my attention toward my intention; opening space for clarity. Almost immediately I got images; a movie in my mind. Ok, I see now that in the float, my communication with myself is in images. This is the domain of the imagination, not the intellect. Then I saw the images are actually always active, always communicating, I just don’t notice them.
Oh. ‘This personality’ has a preference for thought and thinking. And that thinking obscures this internal communication that’s always available. And then the insight; ‘this personality’ all too often interprets information from the physical senses as factual. ‘I’ know my physical senses are the least reliable source of information, yet I see I still unconsciously believe and trust what they tell me, by default. And this preference for externally generated data would over time, displace my trust in my own internal ‘intuition’, my inner clarity. This feels like what’s inspiring me… it’s clarity from the inside I want as my primary driver. I really DO need to question everything, particularly my physical senses.
Friday’s Float Experience and Insights
Heading into my third float in 4 days, I’m very relaxed and wide open. Nothing has bothered me for days. I get in the tank and relax all my musculature almost immediately. The ‘wind-down chatter’ happens briefly, then turns into a contemplation of feelings of well-being, connection and lightness that take its place. I drop deeply into my internal world.
I contemplate the Self I’ve spent time with in the float. That Self is completely open minded and open hearted. That Self is unencumbered by the physical body and the personality forged by a lifetime of conditioning. That Self is free and curious and light and adventurous, delighted to be having this human experience. I am that Self. I am not the body, I am not the personality or its identity. That is a role I’m playing, dressed in this human suit. The game is to see through all that, through the ‘story line’ playing out in the world of form. This is another drive for this broader clarity. To be unencumbered by what obscures and stay connected to the truth. There is that pull again. Unencumbered.
This inner contemplation abruptly ended and I felt once again fully immersed in the aliveness of body and emotion. I felt awake to the complexity and genius of it all. And now the experience was more intense, even sensual!
I was feeling emotion as if it were a recreational drug; specifically the emotion of love and appreciation for being in my body. I had the thought that ‘for most of my life I have had a love-hate relationship with my body.’ The kind that is a result of a culture that creates fictitious standards and then has only judgement for anything or anyone that doesn’t meet them. I thought about how I, like countless others, turned that judgement on me and beat myself with it for years. Yet in that moment, I couldn’t feel what that self judgement felt like. It was as if that was someone else’s story. The real truth is, my body is powerful and beautiful and was my first ‘proof of abundance’ in this life. Now there was only a deep sense of belonging in my body and the truth of its intelligence and innocence. I understood I have the choice and the power stay in this truth.
When the float was over there was a sense of being clean and fresh, well beyond the salt bath and 2 showers. I had also washed away what was no longer serving me.
“People don’t realize how much everything is a distraction,”
If I tried to sum up the value of my float experiences, it would be the ability of that environment to show me the experience of ‘being’ that I am shooting for. In the tank I can feel what it is to be unblocked, light and free on many levels. And it happens fast.
In the short time since I began this journey, to ‘get very, very good’ at finding personal clarity, I have come to appreciate what a vigorous and progressive dynamic has started within me. I definitely feel on a mission, and all of me is on board.
I know the discovery and releasing of blocks to clarity can happen while participating in any one of these exercises or experiences. But more importantly, each one can be just the beginning if you so choose. If you continue to feed finding clarity. You see, it’s like an unfolding flower that keeps blooming even after you stop watching it. It doesn’t know time. It interrupts your day by waltzing into your thoughts, or wakes you up in the middle of the night, intent on showing you that the bloom is still opening. Be ready for it. Like I said, bam!
I can’t wait for my next experience. I haven’t decided yet if it will be Ecstatic Dance or using the Muse during meditation. Yet I am understanding that it really doesn’t matter. I’m in communication with my Self. And I’m doing all the listening.
For more in this series: