“After about 10-15 minutes, I decided to fully close the door to the tank. A few minutes later I was seeing rainbows of colour swirl and stream past my body. I felt like I was slowly flying upward through the solar system. It was so real. I saw stars and planets, each direction I turned. I wasn’t sure where I ended and the rest began, but it made me realize that I am not my possessions, or my thoughts… I realized that I’ve gone my entire life without really letting go… I never let go… I’m always trying to hold on…”
This is the account, admittedly a rare one, of someone’s first session in a float tank. Responses to an hour and half in sensory restriction range from psychedelic, mystical and out-of-body experiences, such as the one described above, to the arousal of primal fear and general discomfort.
“I think I’m claustrophobic,” “It was a bit stuffy,” “Ah, not for me,” others will say.
In light of such contrasting experiences, you must be led to wonder (at least, I am) - what is the difference between those that reach cosmic depth and those that bob around in the shallows? Is it simply air quality and water temperature, or are there other factors exclusive to the individual? How can someone best approach the tank to increase the chances of having a profoundly positive experience?
The answer may lie in a simple phrase coined by Dr. Norman Zinberg, 20th century American Psychoanalyst and Psychiatrist, which came as a result of his extensive work and research into drug addiction:
“Set and Setting.”
Most are familiar with this term in the context of taking doses of LSD, psilocybin (or “magic mushrooms”), MDMA, Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and the like. It is well known amongst psychonauts that your mindset and the place where you choose to trip are the two most vital influences on the quality of your experience.
So, a deep thirst for control, paired with an aggressive and unfamiliar environment will spell the difference between a transformational, ecstatic celebration of the Universe and simply freaking the fuck out.
Involved in “Set” is your entire inner world. This includes the tone of your thoughts and emotions that day, your expectations and reservations of what is to come, and the overall structure of your personality and belief systems.
"Setting" is comprised of the details of the space that you’re in physically; the people you’re with, the trees or skyscrapers that surround you, and the presence or absence of candles and Pink Floyd.
“Wait a second. How do 'drugs' and floating in water relate to each other?” Good question. Although I disagree with your use of the label “drugs..” Let’s go a little further in drawing the parallels between floating and these entheogenic medicines to develop a crucial distinction which will allow a fuller concept and definition of floating, as well as what is possible with it.
The word ‘psychedelic’ originates from Ancient Greek. It is a combination of two words that essentially mean to make visible, or reveal, the mind.
It is a common misnomer to suggest any type of substance that produces a “trip,” hallucinations, or an altered state of consciousness. In actuality, these substances are a means to access the psychedelic state, where we are removed from our usual fixed vantage point and may see our minds, behaviour, and the mysteries of life with more penetrating clarity.
Allow Wikipedia to elaborate:
“A psychedelic experience is characterized by the striking perception of aspects of one's mind previously unknown…Psychedelic states are an array of experiences including changes of perception such as hallucinations, synesthesia, altered states of awareness or focused consciousness, variation in thought patterns, trance or hypnotic states, mystical states, and other mind alterations. These processes can lead some people to experience changes in mental operation defining their self-identity…different enough from their previous normal state that it can excite feelings of newly formed understanding such as revelation, enlightenment, confusion, and psychosis.”
These states of profound ecstasy, insight and revelation, can be induced by various means, such as controlled breathing, natural or synthetic substances, and - surprise! - sensory restriction.
At a float centre, the physical setting for the trip is largely taken care of for us. There is a clean space with soothing music and all the necessary amenities. Really, all we have to do is walk in the door and strip naked.
What we are responsible for is the Set.
How do we interact with that space, presently or absently? Are you in the zone before you arrive, or are you rushing in from a frenzy of appointments and only settling down an hour into the session? Have you set any coordinates for your mind during the session? It could be a relationship you want to focus on, or just a simple intention to relax and refresh.
The biggest distinction between those that have “shallow” and “deep” floats is in their concept of the tank itself, which is a reflection of how one views themselves. Are you a bag of meat hooked up to a car battery, or are you something much, much more?
There's a chasm of difference between looking at the float tank as a dark, salty bath, and as an instrument for personal growth; a telescope through which to explore the unknown mysteries of consciousness and our deeper psychological structure. Our expectations directly influence the outcome, especially in a game that exclusively involves our private mental world.
So, the tank is only potentially a potent psychedelic. You simply have to open yourself to it. Because unlike psilocybin, for example, no matter what kind of mental resistance or ego boundaries you have, ingesting a certain dose will unapologetically tear your reality apart - regardless of your opinion on the matter.
But like all psychedelics, these cannot be fully leveraged by a closed mind. If someone firmly identified with their ego system and only concerned with their comfort and psychological security shuts the hatch on the tank, they at the same time they shut out the unknown from leaking into their experience; an unnerving quality which constitutes the vast majority of the Universe. Of course, significant insight and spontaneous moments of "no-mind" may still occur, however much more infrequently.
Think of the galactic explorer in the opening paragraph. He had plenty of opportunities to shut that experience down. He could have shook his head, blinked his eyes and said, "Nope. Right, that is not real. But what an interesting random and momentary emergence of rogue cerebral electrical current and synaptic stimulation!"
He could have closed himself off in fear of losing his firm grip on the situation. Instead, he allowed himself not only to trust in the security of the tank, as well as his mind, and go with it, but above all else - to feel. What he experienced in return was profoundly significant.
Let’s part on a simple note to capture the essence of what we’re talking about here.
Think of the old Zen parable of the overflowing teacup.
A student seeking knowledge of Zen enters the house of a known Master and asks to learn what he knows. The student continues to tell the old man of all his past studies, credentials, and knowledge of Zen and the Buddha. The Master asks him to sit and offers him some tea.
He tilts the pot and begins to pour into the cup. It begins to overflow. The young man’s cries for him to stop go ignored as the tea pools and drips over the edge of the table.
Affirming his point, the Master says, “ Your mind is like the teacup, too full of ideas, spilling over, with no room to receive the new.”
Our lesson in the tank, and in life, is to release our tendency to judge; to stick too rigidly to preconception; to put new experiences in old boxes with familiar labels from the past. This is the paramount challenge of the “Set.”
When we relax the mind and our fears of losing control (which we never had), we create a space within, and without, which allows the fresh, vibrant and very uncomfortable to arise.
We may see behaviours and thought patterns that have been holding us back from moving forward and fully expressing ourselves.
We may see the ways our actions and words might be affecting those in our lives, for better or worse. We may really come to understand how much love we have for them and the fact that they are alive and with us.
Stepping into the tank is an opportunity to silence the big bad world outside, with all it’s ceaseless demands, and get in touch with what and who matters to you most. It’s a chance to remember the subtle pulse of your vitality that gets washed out in the wake of property taxes and evening news.
Remembering your truth, your aliveness, your Self – that is what the psychedelic experience is all about.