Common steps and sub-activities
There is some overlap in this description with the method of Flotation therapy, whose objective is to heal people. Similar tanks are often used, but the objective of Isolation tanks is not to heal, it is to so sensorily deprive yourself that you have visions or out of body experiences.
Isolation tanks provide almost total sensory deprivation, as such they would appear to be ideal as a method for obtaining spiritual experience, as they should help to reduce threats. But, as you will see from the description, some people perceive the effects as a hugely increased threat, which is why I think this is a 'Type A' [strong ego] technique. It fills 'Type Bs' [low ego] with abject fear.
The intention is not to provoke fear, but to effectively block out any sensory input, the actual effects may be the opposite.
In its original form the flotation tanks used – pioneered by Dr John Lilly - were called sensory deprivation chambers. When the additional therapeutic benefits of these chambers were realised, the name was changed to Flotation Therapy.
Isolation tanks are still used, though the conditions under which they are used have improved since those first experiments. The tanks now are still lightless [there may be a small red light in some] and soundproof and the person floats in water at body temperature.
In the original tanks, people were required to wear complicated head-masks in order to breathe underwater, however, the mask detracted from the isolation experience, because they were uncomfortable and noisy – which rather defeated the object. The constant hissing of the air valves and bubbling of exhaust air out of the mask, prevented the possibility of silence.
Epsom salt is added to the water in the tank to raise the density of the water above the density of the human body, so that the subject floats with his or her face above the water.
The water is not chlorinated, so there is no smell.
As the water is heated, it circulates and rises up the outside edges of the pool, travels towards the center, and then sinks under the tank user. This very slow water convection flow helps to keep the user centered in the middle of the pool, without them floating to the side and bumping into the walls of the tank.
The overall effect therefore is as close to sensory deprivation as can be managed.
These days, flotation tanks are even installed in health clubs.
These sorts of tank measure around 8ft long by 4ft wide. The flotation takes place in complete darkness. There may be a two way microphone so you may talk to a practitioner.
Inside the tank you float on the surface of a 10" deep pool of buoyant salt solution, kept at natural body skin-temperature.
It says “Most floaters prefer to float in the nude so that the only thing in contact with the millions of sensitive nerve-endings, which cover the skin, is smooth feeling, skin-temperature fluid”.
During the flotation experience, there is no sense of separation between the body and its surroundings.
It depends on the tank, but the description above shows that you don’t actually do anything. Just float.
In order to get a more 'exciting' spiritual experience, you will need to stay in the tank far longer than is recommended for pain relief purposes. Two to three hours may be needed – at least.
Do not under any circumstances use these techniques frequently – once a week is probably ample, simply because, as we will see, the effects can be addictive.
The blurb on them says “Floaters, once relaxed, enter a deep meditative state and are fully conscious during this time. The sessions may be accompanied by vivid memories, free association, sudden insights, creative inspiration, and a feeling of serenity”. As it said on one site advertising the tanks “You will be amazed how relaxed and recharged you feel after your floating experience.”
So spiritual experience. But it may be provoked by the deep relaxation in the advertising brochure or it may be acute fear.
It can go two ways as Lilly found. All the effects described by the advertising literature can be obtained, by a robust person, but for a nervous timid person, the experience can actually be one of total terror – LET ME OUT, I’m frightened.
It was the huge threat isolation caused to Lilly, that gave him his experiences, his poor Will was working in overload mode, until it eventually gave up, and he got appalling hallucinations.
In 2003, clinical researchers reported that the use of a float tank triggers the production of Endorphins. [Kjellgren A, Sundequist U, et al. "Effects of flotation-REST on muscle tension pain". Pain Research and Management 6 (4): 181-9 ]
Now this has some quite profound implications since it makes these techniques capable of providing some very intense spiritual experiences and indeed this is exactly what John Lilly found in his experiments way back in the 1950s. But endorphins are usually released in response to fear. They are a pain response.
So in an odd way, float tanks and isolation rooms are like opium in their effects, with the same pluses and minuses.
Although I have tried to be honest about the mechanisms by which this works, citing the positive and the negative, it should be borne in mind that for those able to take it, the effects can be very positive, for those in pain you get healing input.
Note that when used as a form of therapy, it has great potential. Research undertaken at the Human Performance Laboratory at Karlstad University by Sven-Åke Bood and his team, found that regular floatation tank sessions can provide:
- significant relief for chronic stress related ailments
- relief from insomnia - “after only twelve sessions, substantially improves sleep patterns”
- relief from depression and anxiety - 24 percent became less depressed or got rid of their depression altogether
What researchers found particularly gratifying was that the positive effects were still in evidence 4 months after the floating treatment ended.
Used in therapy to treat pain and other chronic illnesses, float tanks probably act by restoring balance to an unbalanced system. As such you are not over dosing on endorphins, you are kick starting them to help you get better. But to get a spiritual experience of the sort John Lilly had, you do, in a sense, have to over dose – spend longer in the tank than you would for healing and pain relief.
John Lilly himself found that very frequent use tended to dull the experiences, but it also seemed to create a craving in him for more and he started to use LSD to boost the effects.
Endorphin is a drug. It is a naturally produced drug, but it is a drug nevertheless and furthermore it is an opioid. It is a drug that produces, as a side effect, dopamine.
Repeated frequent use is likely to produce a chemically altered state that is exactly the same as opioid and dopamine addiction. It will produce cravings and withdrawal symptoms equal to those induced by opium.
And they will be truly terrible.
Use only with great care and infrequently.
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