By Alexander Lee
My floats tend to be very visual in nature. Sometimes I am overcome with waves of emotions, other times I am able to enter into a lucid dreamstate and explore the vastness of my mindscape and sometimes my mind just rants, raves and yells at itself.
I've been obsessed with sensory deprivation tanks for about a decade now. Throughout my time in university, I was lucky enough to have amazing professors who allowed me to research them as my theses, which greatly added to my theoretical knowledge of floating.
Until Float House Vancouver opened, I was only able to float sporadically, once or twice a year and more often than not, I would enhance this experience with psychedelic substances, going for extended lengths of time, inducing intense and personalized Sacred Ecstatic Experiences full of religious imagery. Now that I float on a more regular basis, I have learned how to include it as a constant practice and have seen how it has changed many aspects of my life.
I finally understand what Richard Alpert meant when he said that the use of psychedelics can be a great tool in opening the doors of perception, but that the next step is learning how to continually open those doors without the use of any substance. It is through the act of meditation and relaxation techniques that one can learn to achieve similar states of mind.
Floating and Meditation
I have been practicing various meditation techniques on and off for the last five years. One of the first things I noticed is that the methods that I would use sitting at home simply didn’t work as well in the tank. I realized that I had to refine my process for the float. This to me is a very personal thing and what works really well for me might not work at all for you. Individual differences can play a large factor in what form of meditation you want to use. I recommend checking out “Alan Watts Teaches the Art of Meditation” for a great introduction to a variety of ways one can meditate.
Over time I have found that every time I am in the tank, my meditation method can reliably facilitate a systematic progression through all of the stages of closed-eye hallucinations. I highly recommend reading the linked wiki article on this phenomena as it is wonderfully written. I cannot paraphrase such an excellent summary of the work done by John C. Lilly, Trumball Ladd and Stephan LaBerge.
While I am in the tank progressing through the visual stages, I have learned how to turn the transition from stage four to stage five into a vivid lucid dream state, which has surpassed any and all of my previous psychedelic experiences. They have been much more personalized, less impacted by external distracters and allowed me to clearly explore my own psyche.
My Pre-float Habits
I begin my float by showering, putting in my ear plugs, brushing my beard and moustache hairs down, entering the tank quickly and gently and laying down as slowly as possible. I brush my facial hair because I have found that after a shower, as it dries, the Scottish genes in me causes them to curl up, tickling the inside of my nose, which has, on occasion, induced a nose full of salt water as I involuntarily scratch it. The reason I lay down slowly after I have closed the door is to avoid the formation of salt trails on the chest as the water evaporates, which can begin to itch and become another physical distraction.
The first thing for me that needed improving in the tank was my breathwork. When I first learned to meditate, it was drilled into me to take embracing breaths from deep within my diaphragm. I am a large man, with a large belly and I tended to always hold my gut in, therefore restricting the amount of air my lungs could hold. (I am a heavy smoker too, but that subject and the use of the float tank to quit is for another post.) Within the tank, whenever I used this deep breathing pattern, my stomach and chest would rise considerably and cause me to drift erratically around and bump into the sides of the tank.
I found that by slowing down my rate of breath and being completely still, I am able to enter into my void space more effectively. I now use a form of Anuloma Pranayama and mix it up with various ratios. But there is a catch. I suck at this technique and can't use my hands since I am laying down in the tank and I end up having to use a lot of my attention to succeed at this technique. After 15 to 20 minutes of doing this I end up naturally breathing slowly and my heart beat is dramatically lowered. I'd say seven out of 10 breaths are successfully isolated between nostrils, but the key thing, is that all of those attentional resources needed to maintain control over my breath allow a large part of my cognitive mind to relax and diverge away from the internal chatter.
Using a Mantra
The next thing that I had to change was starting to use a different mantra to help keep the verbal part of my mind in check, in order to achieve that state of "no mind." I went through many different mantras before I finally found one that just seemed to click. I tried choruses to my favourite songs, my favourite movie quotes and monologues, hell I even tried the Rosary. Then I tried the Mentat Mantra from the movie Dune and I found my words.
“It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, the stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.”
In my experience, the mental chatter that can occur in the isolation of the tank can sometimes become quite overwhelming. By applying the use of an active mantra and repeating it within my mind, very fast at first and then slowing it down alongside my rate of breath, those random thoughts about my life, the ones that always appear to lead you astray, are easier to dismiss and clear out. The fast paced mantra minimizes the internal chatter and I focus my attention then to expanding my breathwork and waiting for closed eye hallucinations to occur.
Advanced Closed Eye Hallucinations
I've learned a few visual tricks that can enhance the visual experience within the tank. Since our visual cortex is constantly craving stimulation, when you are in the tank after a certain amount of time it will start to make things up in order to keep itself occupied. Through the use of visual search patterns, I've been able to manipulate the forms and directions that my hallucinations take. Similar to the experience of putting pressure on your optic nerve when you rub your eyes and you are left with that afterimage, you can use that concept by actively searching your visual field.
When you look far enough in any direction you will notice a slight pressure felt within your eye. When this is done within the tank during stages one to four, the visual hallucinations respond to this pressure and can either overcome what is being seen, or enhance it. It works really well for me in stage three, especially if the patterns are simulating cellular biology or astrophysical phenomena.
Another trick I found, is closing your right eye and visually searching with your left eye like your life depends on it also has an interesting effect. The lateralization of the brain is a glorious thing. This leads to a cognitive process of visual induction that I like to call "camera one, camera two."
For me though, as fun as it is to be playing around with the visuals through the first four stages, it is the transition between four into five that I have had the most rewarding experiences.
Entering My Void Space and Lucid Dreaming
Once I have reached that state of "no mind," I have noticed that I can then start to actively enter into a more controlled lucid dream state. It normally starts off with sorting through my mental clutter and as each concept is visualized, a different thought or emotion emerges. I try to then feed these into the flame of a small single candle that I conjure up. This is a technique called The Flame and the Void that I learned while reading Robert Jordan's “Wheel Of Time” series. Since the first time I tried it I have found it to be extremely useful when practicing any visualization techniques within my void space.
Afterwards I came across the concept of Dream Yoga and was amazed at the similarities with my own technique. This again reinforced the idea that individual differences play a role in what works for some and may not work for others. Almost all the literature on lucid dreaming talks about a trigger action that allows you to identify that you are in a dream and that you are in control. Two popular ones are: looking at your hands and opening and closing them to form fists, or turning a light switch on and off. Being a long time gamer, I never seem to have a body that I can see or feel at first, and am basically a free floating camera. I tend to instead look directly down at the ground and then change its color. If it is green grass I make it bright red, if it is grey concrete I make it pure black. This act of physical control reinforces that you have control over all of your surroundings in the dream state. Once I've done this change I slowly look up at my surroundings and start to manipulate it.
Similar to the five stages of visual hallucinations, there are stages to the level of control you have within a lucid dream state. With practice, one can begin transforming whatever is encountered and can do whatever it occurs to them to do. On a good day I am now able to fully explore the depths of my psyche and traverse its mindscape.
I'll end the post with an example of one of my first lucid dreams within the tank. It started with a birds-eye view of an ancient Roman battlefield somewhere in the Middle Eastern desert (I had been playing a lot of Total War Rome 2 that week).
I could see two massive armies gathering for war. I focused upon the larger mass of men and was transported into becoming a Parthian Calvary archer. I was riding on the back of my horse and firing arrows into a square of legionnaires and quickly did a turnabout and retreated, while continuing to fire backwards. I could feel the sweat of the horse splashing off its mane. The sounds and screams were deafening, but at the same time my mind was clear and focused on finding my targets and releasing my arrows.
This attack/retreat manoeuvre occurred three times before the legionnaires fell to our flanking infantry in a clash of metal. Afterwards, I returned to my camp and was overwhelmed with exhaustion and the smell of iron from all the blood. I proceeded to drown my woes on terrible tasting wine and slept with a whore in our camp.
This experience was very blurred and was presented to me in flashes of images, as if trying to recollect what happened after a rough night of partying. The next day I awoke on the cold ground and we formed up for a second day of battle. Our unit was held in reserve to start.
Finally, we were commanded to attack the outermost legion’s left flank and as I charged in and got closer to the heat of the battle, I heard a loud smash and...I died. Everything went black. No heroic ending. No answers to who won or lost the battle. The story was over. I was wide awake in the tank, staring into the darkness. I gathered myself together and relaxed a bit, slowly lowering my heart rate and breathing before I got out. Upon reflection and reviewing my post-float notes, I have to assume it was one of the soaring boulders from the Roman catapults that got me.