In my eighth grade English class, when we had finished our daily assignment, we were allowed to read until the bell rang. To facilitate this bonus learning opportunity, our teacher kept a small display of paperback books at the back of the room.
The books were provided (for free, I assume) by a publishing company with the goal of selling books to kids. There was a small order form on the cardboard stand that you could use to order books from the display, request a mail-order catalog, etc. I don’t remember who the publisher was, but I’ve gotta give them mad respect for boldness.
This is because one of the books on the stand was Center of the Cyclone, by Dr. John C. Lilly.
Or perhaps it wasn’t publishing moxie; maybe it was just some low-level administrative flunkee at the publishing house who thought it would be hilarious to send a book about LSD experimentation and new-age mysticism to middle-schoolers.
Regardless, with some time to kill in class one day, I picked up Lilly’s book and was immediately captivated. In the book, neuroscientist Dr. Lilly describes his exploration of the boundaries of human consciousness through a fascinating array of experiments, including sensory deprivation, mindfulness meditation, cognitive mental programming, electrode brain stimulation, communication with dolphins and, as I mentioned, experimentation with LSD.
Before you dismiss him as a fringe hippie psychonaut, take note that much of Lilly’s groundbreaking work took place in the 1950s-60s, well before science had taken an interest in things like the mind-brain connection, neural plasticity and consciousness research. And his initial work with LSD was actually done shortly after the drug was discovered and before it was classified as illegal in the United States.
In his quest for discovering what human consciousness really is, Lilly not only proved he was generations ahead of his time, he also invented the sensory deprivation tank along the way – or as we now know it, the floatation tank. Today’s float tanks are lightless, soundproof pods filled with water that’s carefully kept at skin temperature. Huge quantities of Epsom salt keep you afloat.
When Lilly began his experiments with isolation tanks in 1954, he theorized that if all external sensory stimuli were removed, the mind could be free to pursue its true nature. What he discovered was that our minds are actually capable of achieving countless states of consciousness – it’s just that it’s nearly impossible to do so when we’re continuously caught up in daily sensory experience. Given our human addiction to external stimuli and physical pleasure, most of us are never even aware that it’s possible to go deeper into ourselves. Lilly’s work, strange as it must have seemed to his contemporaries, proved that it’s possible.
So it was with this latent knowledge of Lilly’s work that, 30+ years later, I ran across an ad for a new floatation center in the Dallas area. I decided it was time to try it for myself.
Here’s what I learned…
It’s more than just relaxation
My first float took place at The Float Spot in Frisco, Texas. When I booked the appointment, I had no idea what to expect, but stepping into the modern lobby it was obvious they were aiming for a spa feel. I checked in and was given a robe, slippers and earplugs, then escorted back to my float room. After a brief first-timer orientation, I was told to shower and put some Vaseline on any skin abrasions (because the massive amount of salt will quickly make you aware of skin scratches you didn’t even know you had).
Lying down in the pod, I pulled the lid closed. I’m sometimes claustrophobic, but the tank was large enough that it didn’t feel like I had just sealed my own coffin. Built-in speakers played relaxing ocean sounds for a few minutes before going silent and the interior LED lights turned off at the same time. I quickly adjusted to the water, because it really does feel like a comfortable bath. At first I found myself automatically listening for sounds, but that stopped when my brain accepted there was nothing to hear. And eyes open or closed, it didn’t matter, because there was no light. At first my arms wanted to move around just to sense how close I was to the walls, but that instinct soon settled down as well.
At that point, my mind was on its own.
The first thing I noticed was that time is fluid. One moment I would feel time passing quickly and the next it didn’t seem to move at all. Then I began to notice that my mind is a lot like a two-year-old child. It has no ability to focus, no sense of purpose and demands constant entertainment. It proceeded to jump from one random thought to another, looking for something to latch onto. First it would be a memory of yesterday’s work schedule, then a thought about needing gas for the car, then a visualization of my girlfriend’s cat.
The third thing I noticed was that (not counting the cat), nearly all my thoughts had some anxiety or worry attached to them. I now understand why the Buddhists call this “monkey mind.”
After maybe 45 minutes, my mind finally settled down a bit and I reached a state of real relaxation. Thoughts continued to come and go, but I was more able to ignore them and take a curious look at what my mind was doing without its normal physical input.
It’s like a massage, but different
While Lilly’s goal was to explore inner consciousness, today’s float centers market themselves as centers for relaxation and wellness. They push rejuvenation, not meditation.
Leaving the building after my first float, I did feel very relaxed, sort of similar to having just had a massage but without the muscular sensations. But it was more than that. It was more a feeling of overall stillness, which included both body and mind.
While my body felt relaxed, I noticed my thoughts had also slowed down and I felt more centered. Even though I had to go straight to a stressful meeting after the float, I was able to navigate the meeting without my normal level of anxiety.
This is when it began to dawn on me that my mind needed some work, not just my body.
We constantly distract ourselves from the present moment
Our brains have evolved to be really good at processing incoming information to make sense of our world. This goes on all the time without us even consciously thinking about it. In addition (at least in Western culture), we’re trained to believe that pleasure and happiness come primarily through outside stimuli (parties, television, sex, alcohol, shopping, etc.).
But when you take all these things away, what does the mind do with itself?
Turning off all external stimuli and floating in a tank, it becomes instantly clear that your mind will do whatever it possibly can to avoid the present moment. Rather than just relaxing and enjoying the pleasant feeling of floatation, your mind instantly takes you on a chaotic mental journey of past memories and future plans. Even though these pointless thoughts only distract you from the present, the mind just goes on doing it anyway. It’s a nonstop treadmill to nowhere.
That’s what mindfulness and meditation practice are all about. If we wish to live in the now, we literally have to train our brains to become aware of the current moment and rest in it. Little by little, with practice, we can learn to appreciate what’s happening now, rather than following arbitrary thoughts on a train to nowhere. Among other things, this leads to less anxiety and more contentment, and that equals more happiness.
For me, the floating experience made it abundantly clear that my mind needed some focus and training to stop generating constant anxious thoughts. It wasn’t long after my first few floating experiences that I started my meditation practice.
Our minds have more potential than we give them credit for
My first couple of floats took place before I had started a formal meditation practice. Back then I didn’t yet have an understanding of the basics of meditation and mindfulness, so it was kind surprising to observe my frantic “monkey mind” doing its thing. Now that I’ve had some experience with meditation, it makes perfect sense.
Consciousness, whatever it is, is an amazing thing. Our human minds, limited as they are, have the ability to create beautiful art, solve scientific mysteries and expand humanity’s potential. We also have the ability to give and receive love.
The problem most of us have is that we can’t step out of the endless thought stream long enough to allow the mind to focus on these positive things. Our hectic, random thoughts end up controlling our lives to the point we only get relief when we distract ourselves with outside stimuli.
The good news is that it’s possible, with practice, to help our minds become more focused and less chaotic. We can learn to observe and be entertained by the constant flow of thoughts and emotions without getting carried away with them.
For me, stepping into a float tank for the first time was also a big step toward understanding the need for more mindfulness in my life.
It’s not cheap (and beware of deals)
The pricing at most float centers is about on par with what you’d pay for a good massage. An hour-long float is around $65-75, a 90-minute session is $90-100, etc. Not cheap, and it certainly would be a luxury purchase for most people.
The cost is primarily why I didn’t do it again after the first few times. But about a year after my first floats, I ran across a Groupon deal for a new Dallas float center. “Oh yeah, floating,” I thought. “I should do that again and try meditating this time.” So I signed up for three floats, looking forward to seeing how meditating might make the experience different.
Yeah…you get what you pay for. The place was still under construction and there was dust everywhere. The shower was so gross that I came out feeling dirtier than going in. In the float room, instead of finding a sleek, futuristic pod, I discovered a homemade, open-air contraption consisting of metal pipes, vinyl and paint that didn’t seem to have dried yet. I briefly considered walking out but figured, OK, I’m here. Might as well try it.
Surprisingly, it was still a relaxing experience and adding meditation to the process made me forget the grimy surroundings. At least for a little bit. But I won’t be going back for the other two floats I paid for.
Real floatation pods, like the one pictured above, cost around $15,000, so it’s obvious why float centers charge what they do. Hopefully competition will increase and prices will drop a bit to make floating more accessible to more people.
So unless you have a friend with a pod in their garage, it’s probably not something you’ll do often. But I still recommend you try it, at least once. Just be sure to check out the place before providing them with your credit card number.
Lilly was right: Exploring inner space can lead to growth
When Dr. Lilly climbed into the first sensory deprivation chamber more than 60 years ago, he was hoping to find the key to consciousness itself. Today’s floaters are much less ambitious, but the fact is that there is much to explore inside yourself.
In one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons, Lisa and Homer each try floating. Before climbing in, Lisa is upset with her dad for his crudeness and for not relating to her interests. But during her float, she suddenly “becomes” Homer and sees things from his perspective. She then understands that he often does things he hates, like taking her to the ballet, simply because he loves her and wants to spend time with her. “Gee, I should cut Dad some slack,” she realizes.
Insights like this are possible when you cut out the sensory input and focus inward. For me, one of the biggest revelations was that I was spending too much time reacting to my thoughts and too little time learning from them. And even though I only floated a few times, the experience became an important step in my own journey of self-exploration.
If you can possibly swing it, go do a float. You might find your inner world to be even more entertaining than your outer world.