For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of submerging myself in a sensory deprivation tank.
As a kid, I was mesmerized by Ken Russell’s 1980 sci-fi film Altered States, in which William Hurt plays an abnormal psychologist who repeatedly enters an isolation tank with increasingly drastic and surreal results, eventually emerging as some regressed form of Neanderthal man and then, finally, a big ball of protoplasmic consciousness swirling on the event horizon of galactic nothingness.
I understand the manic urge that drives a person inward on a spiritual search for awakening, and I’ve made my own stumbling lunges at inwardness and enlightenment: philosophy, meditation, sex, the derangement of drugs — lots of drugs. There were moments of revelation and oneness, to be sure, but for the most part my self-facilitated attempts at higher consciousness were misguided, a kind of greedy spiritual materialism that sought release in exactly what was imprisoning me.
Avatars like Buddha and Jesus had a hard enough time convincing people, way back when, to turn away from trivial earthly distraction and instead seek a meaningful personal connection to the eternal spin of the cosmos. These days, everything is stimulus and response: an endless noisy barrage of input that buttresses a culture of narcissism and pathological distraction. We have lost the ability to be still, silent, unbusy.
So what happens when you remove all stimuli? I don’t mean simply putting on your sweats, turning off the television and sitting in your living room with the lights out. In an isolation tank, everything is removed: the water is kept at a skin-neutral 93.5 degrees and loaded with enough salt that you float weightlessly, and all light and sound are absent. In a sense, all that’s left is your consciousness, your mind.
And there you are, in the void.
Ankush Vimawala founded Float Om Healing Center & Tranquility Tanks in Eugene four years ago. Having studied computer engineering in India before receiving his master’s degree in computer science from Oregon State University, a job in software engineering brought Vimawala to Eugene.
After nearly a decade in an office, Vimawala started to burn out. “Gradually, over time, the corporate culture began to make less sense to me,” he says. “Being stuck in a cubicle behind a computer screen all day was also starting to feel draining. In 2012, I finally couldn’t take it any longer and left.”
A student of Theravada Buddhism, Vimawala first heard about isolation tanks during a course in Vipassana meditation. He did his first float at Float On in Portland and was “blown away.” After this first experience, he says, “I felt like I would on day three of a 10-day silent meditation retreat.”
Like so many consciousness-expanding devices — hello Albert Hoffman and LSD! — the creation and development of isolation tanks had nothing to do with altered states and everything to do with scientific research.
The first tank was developed in 1954 by neuropsychiatrist John Lilly, who wanted to investigate the effects of sensory deprivation on the human mind. (Interestingly, Lilly eventually floated on LSD and wrote about it.)
Since then, floatation tanks have grown in popularity as a form of alternative health care. They are promoted as aiding in the achievement of meditative states as well as a means of relaxation and healing, both physically and mentally. Pro athletes like Olympic runner Carl Lewis and NBA sharpshooter Stephen Curry reportedly use float tanks to help them in visualization techniques.
Float Om has two floatation tanks, one a small pod that looks like a space capsule and a larger shallow pool enclosed in a small room. Vimawala describes his tanks as “light-proof and sound-proof enclosures with about 10 inches of water, with about a thousand pounds of Epsom salt dissolved. The salt water holds you up, like the Dead Sea. People go into the tank and float in darkness and silence for about 90 minutes.”
It’s suggested that folks prepare for a float by taking it easy on caffeine and cigarettes, and avoid eating anything heavy beforehand; the more calm and meditative you are when you enter, the better.
“When people ask me how best to prepare mentally and emotionally for their float, that is one thing I always say: Let go of any expectations and trust that what is to be revealed will be in exactly the way that it is supposed to be.”
Heading to my first-ever float at Float Om, I was nervous and excited. My greatest fear was that, removed from all external stimulation and left utterly to my own devices, I would discover that I am indeed just an empty shell of a man, incapable of conjuring a single meaningful thought without the echo of an audience.
I was also afraid I’d be cold the whole time.
Vimawala ushered me into the small room, pointed out the earplugs and the shower, showed me how to open and close the door on the tank, and then left. I stripped down nude, showered, put the waxy mold in my ears and stepped into the pod. I shut the door.
The water felt warmish and slick, almost slimy, but not in a distracting or gross way; in fact, I quickly forgot about issues of cold vs. warm, so it was indeed skin-neutral in effect. The darkness was complete — more complete than when you merely shut your eyes at night. Total blackness, and total silence, which brought out a slight ringing in my ears, the tinnitus of modern life.
The effect of zero gravity felt fantastic on my body. I’d opted for the floaty neck pillow, because Vimawala explained that many people experience strain in their shoulders when floating unaided. I spent a while adjusting to my environment: thinking about it, where I was, what was supposed to be happening, trying to clear my mind, forcing it a bit.
My first stage of experience involved a feeling of free-floating anxiety, a sort of amorphous sense that I’d forgotten something important and that unspecified things happening in the outside world might require my immediate attention. My mind flipped like a blurry Rolodex through a series of cloudy disasters that were currently occurring, none of them holding still long enough to even define themselves.
You know that feeling of having left the burner on the stove going? Raise that to an abstraction, give it a little amphetamine nudge of panic, and that was my initial response to the float. It quickly dissipated.
I use the word “quickly,” but time in a float tank becomes as fluid and changeable as the darkness enveloping you. So when I speak of the second stage of my experience, I offer no ticking off of minutes. All I know is that it happened.
The next phase, then, involved a bit of decompression and self-reckoning. Basically, I was trying so hard to have a profound spiritual experience that I scuttled myself with frustration. Nothing brings you up short on greatness like striving for greatness as an end in itself. I was strangling the process in the hopes of achieving ultimate nirvana, and until I realized this, I was a stuck.
At some point, I sort of unclenched and let go: I gave up the ghost, in a sense. If I was just going to be an overcomplicated under-stimulated American lunkhead floating like a corpse in a lightless tank of warm saltwater, then so be it. I quit worrying about whether reaching down to scratch my balls would prevent me from achieving satori. Loosen up, dude.
I’m a bit hesitant to mention what happened in the tank after this, not because I’m embarrassed, or think you won’t believe me, or worry that you might consider me whacked or whatever. I don’t really care about all that.
My concern is that the experience was so profound and personal and spiritual that even the act of describing it reduces it, by creating a second-hand account that merely mimes the eternal now of all experience.
In the pitch black, I raised my hands and meshed my fingers together so my palms were open before my blind eyes. In total darkness, there is no focal point, and yet there are infinite focal points, and as I stared outward like a mole, the places where my fingers were — or, perhaps, might have been — clasped together began to burn with an orangey glow. It looked like a burbling, smoldering orange brain was expanding in my field of vision, fusing my fingers and then both my hands in a nova of brilliant light.
From that point on, everything lit up like a Christmas tree. I crooked my head forward and beheld the outlines of my body glowing with a beautiful celestial blue, while a surge of pure white light expanded in stuttering stop-motion from my crotch, neither serpent nor tree but a little of both. Tilting my head back, I let my vision stretch ever outward as red, veiny, pulsating membranes descended and passed over and through me, bursting me forth into succeeding dimensions of an infinite starry night.
None of this was scary, though at certain points I would sense a presence, less malevolent than urgent, lunging at my periphery; I welcomed it forth. For a long, long time I simply stared at a Gothic wall of deep red brick that was angled at 45 degrees, towering over me into the dark beyond, oozing and pulsing with a vivid flesh-like vitality, until suddenly I was watching myself watching the wall.
I am aware of the claims of subjectivity, of firefly-like neurons buzzing and zipping across the brain and conjured images from the repository of memory being projected onto the optical cortex, of how hallucinations are locked in the skull. I find them compelling but incomplete. If what I saw and experienced in that tank was simply the perchance-to-dream of me, then I am still a mystery worthy of exploration.
We are the cosmos. At the level of primordial soup, all we are is a wide-open eye staring in childlike awe, and all our talking about it is just the mausoleum upon which civilization is built. There is nothing more profound in this than saying there is only now, forever now, and in the float tank I touched this truth, if only fleetingly. No present and no past. Just now.
When the music came on signaling the end of my float, I was amazed. Time flies when you’re having a moment.
I emerged feeling completely alert, sharp of thought, buoyant. My body felt great, almost euphoric.
My second float in the bigger tank, a week later, was a different beast altogether. I’d been fighting a cold, and inevitably I had expectations. Expectations be damned. I came up face to face with myself in a different way, and I went to war. It was less fantastic, or rather less phantasmal, but no less valuable.
And I must have gone deep, because this time it felt like it was over in a blink. That’s all I really want to say about it, not because it was disturbing, per se, but because the places it took me were so personal it would take a novel to set the context. I folded inward, my thought shuffling and dissolving like so much rice paper. And despite the difference between the two floats, I felt the same after both: refreshed, clear, at peace.
“Yes, everyone’s experience does differ to an extent,” Vimawala says. “Even for the same person, each float is somewhat different. It depends on what they’ve been going through the past couple of days and a variety of other things. Most people have profound experiences and come out of the tank with their minds blown.”
That said, Vimawala says he’s never met anyone who regrets floating, though it does indeed happen that folks fall asleep. “Most people go through some period of sleep during the 90 minutes in the tank … As the mind quiets down and eases into the more natural flow of things, the body is able to access its own intelligence, and knows what is needed to heal and come into an optimal state of being.”
There was a time in my life when this would have sounded to me like new-age crap, a con and a put-on, because perspective is everything, and my perspective was full of fear and anxiety. Life seemed like a dark, dastardly game with no exit. I was terrified of death. I believe our consumer society runs primarily on a fear of death, which leads us to pursue with overweening anxiety an empty therapeutic release in the materialism that’s foisted on us. We don’t live; we compete. We don’t awaken; we put ourselves to sleep, over and over again.
The immaterialism of floating strikes me as an appropriate palliative to the dictates of today’s rat race. “Western capitalist culture seems to idealize super-sizing things,” Vimawala says.
“There is an underlying unease, a need to upgrade,” he continues. “If one just stops for a moment and maybe takes a float or two, it might help snap one out of the modern-day hypnosis induced and maintained by a constant bombardment of sensory input and the perceived need to grasp for gratification from outside oneself.”
Float Om Healing Center & Tranquility Tanks is at 111 E. 16th Ave.; call 541-632-3231 or visit float-om.com. Inner Health Center at 2757 Chad Dr. also offers sensory deprivation and float tank therapy; call 541-684-036