What if I told you…
you can see what it might be like to be dead?
you can go on a “trip” without taking drugs?
you can peEk into different realities and dimensions?
I bet you would think I was some crystal wearing, commune-going, essential-oil peddling, full-of-shit, new-age flake. Am I right? Close? Well, that’s what I’d think if you tried peddling that stuff on me.
That being said, I’m telling you that it could be true. It feels true to me, and I’m a 56 year old landscape guy. This article will tell you how I used isolation tanks over the past 35 years to form those opinions.
This article will communicate:
My history with isolation tanks.
My experiences in isolation tanks.
My tips, so that you can have some rad* experiences of your own
*( I used “rad” to work with the hippy/new-age imagery I set up earlier).
Disclaimer 1 : I’m not the person with the most isolation tank time in the word (that person might be John C. Lilly you decide) . I’m not an isolation tank “expert”. I’m not a scientist. I’m just a person who has done this a number of times, and now I feel like I have enough experiences, that it might be interesting and helpful to share.
I’ve been going to isolation tanks on and off since 1982. It started when as a high school senior, I watched the 1980 movie Altered States with William Hurt.
The movie was about a brilliant college professor, Eddie Jessup, looking for the meaning of life by using ancient psychedelic and mystic rituals in combination with the use of an isolation tank.
The voice over in the movie preview teased it as follows:
“When he heard his cry for help it wasn't human
In the basement of a university medical school Dr . Jessup floats naked in total darkness. The most terrifying experiment in the history of science is out of control... and the subject is himself”
Well, needless to say, complications arise and Dr. Jessup has a crazy Mr. Toad’s wild ride, that leaves the viewer with more questions than answers, but intrigued none the less.
It was nominated for two Academy Awards, btw.
This movie, coupled with my then discovery and curiosity of Carlos Castaneda, was enough to make me want to do the isolation tank even more.
Castaneda was an American author with a Ph.D. in anthropology. His 12 books have sold more than 28 million copies in 17 languages. I bought two of them:
Starting with The Teachings of Don Juan in 1968, Castaneda wrote a series of books that describe his training in shamanism, particularly with a group whose lineage descended from the Toltecs. The books, narrated in the first person, relate his experiences under the tutelage of a man that Castaneda claimed was a Yaqui "Man of Knowledge" named don Juan Matus. Critics have suggested that they are works of fiction; supporters claim the books are either true or at least valuable works of philosophy.
Castaneda wrote that don Juan recognized him as the new nagual, or leader of a party of seers of his lineage. Matus also used the term nagual to signify that part of perception which is in the realm of the unknown yet still reachable by man, implying that, for his own party of seers, Matus was a connection to that unknown. Castaneda often referred to this unknown realm as "nonordinary reality."
The term nagual has been used by anthropologists to mean a shaman or sorcerer who claims to be able to change into an animal form, or to metaphorically "shift" into another form through magic rituals, shamanism and experiences with psychoactive drugs (e.g. peyote and jimson weed).
Ok, so getting back to reality…
I don’t think there are wizards, sorcerers, or people changing into animal forms (although both Altered States and Castaneda go there in their offerings…so who knows). But what I do believe is that…
there is a lot we don’t know.
I think that claim could be supported by most scientists. I also believe…
there is a lot we don’t know about our own brains.
How they work, and their full potential. Again, I believe most scientists and Brain Surgeons would also support this premise. So what I was interested in accomplishing was learning as much as possible, without taking drugs and screwing up this critical part of my person.
This is why I decided the Isolation tank was the best route for me. There is nothing to this but you, some water, hundreds of lbs of epsom salts, darkness and your thoughts.
If I could get the mental exploration of the movies and books, without frying my brain or turning into a wild animal or pre-human, cave-beast… that sounded pretty good to me.
I had my first isolation tank experience by accident.
In 1983 I attended a fraternity banquet at a resort near the Poconos area of Pennsylvania. In between investigating the hot tub, weight room, sauna and other features of the resort, I stumbled upon what I thought was an isolation tank.
Excitedly, I asked the staff, if it was, what I thought it was. The woman confirmed my suspicion. She said it got real popular when Altered States first came out, but it’s popularity had dwindled in the past year or so. And that waining popularity meant that within an hour, I was scheduled for my first experience. Altered reality and new perceptions of life…here I come!
Disclaimer 2 : I was in college and this was a banquet, so there was already drinking involved. I would advise against such a beginning; but let’s proceed. It is, what it is.
Woodlands Inn & Resort
1st experience (60 min)
Get Warm & clean - The spa recommended a few minutes in the sauna first, to get you warmed up, relaxed and ready to go. That’s not a bad idea, so I did it. Most places have at least a shower for this purpose, and to get you clean. Remember, this is a public thing, to be shared with other people. You want to be clean, and you want to think that everyone who used it before you was at least equally clean. Don’t obsess on this thought, or you will get nerotic about it. Go with it. The water is filtered, cleaned and changed periodically, even though you might notice a unique odor when first trying a tank. You will get used to that, and it will fade away.
Get naked - The staff provides vaseline and warns you to put it on any cuts you might have on your body. The tank is filled with hundreds of pounds of salts. It will make you immediately aware of any open cuts. I covered one, and was ready to roll. Little did I know, it will also make you very aware of any place you just shaved close. That stinging took some getting used to.
Get comfortable - This is hard to do. I knew a little exercise that is usually used to go to sleep. You start on your toes, and concentrate on relaxing each toe. When that is done to your satisfaction, you concentrate on the ball of your foot. When that is relaxed, you move to the heel. After that, the ankle, then the thigh, then the knee, etc. You work your way up, piece by piece, making each part as relaxed as possible. Fingers, palm, wrist, forearm, elbow… This worked well until I got to the head and neck. These parts are especially difficult to relax in this situation for very natural reasons. I’ll talk more about that fact in the TIPS section below. But for this section, let’s just say I got them sufficiently relaxed.
Get into it - The first thing that started to happen, was I started to think. First thought, “This is stupid. I’m laying naked in a dark box in water.” This is true, and it’s a thought that never totally leaves your mind, no matter how many times you do it. But you get passed it. You acknowledge it, and move on. Constantly trying to keep your head clear of the thoughts that will increasingly race in and try to fill the void opened by your efforts.
First pretty cool experience - After a while, I got my head clear, and body comfortable. Not long after, I got a strange sensation of moving. I knew the water was still, but I would have sworn I was moving. Like floating on a slow river current. I think at some point, I reached out my hand to feel for the wall, and there it was. So my brain both knew I was still, but also would have sworn I was moving.
Cool experience #2 - The movement sensations continued, and I kind of liked it. It became enjoyable. My body started to feel like it was on different angles. Kind of floating in space. Now again, I know I was still in the tank, but my mind would swear I was tilted and moving.
Cool experience #3 - Then, as I went with those sensations, I started wondering if I had fallen asleep? Was I dreaming of moving? Was I dreaming of being tilted? Did I dream of reaching out to check for the wall? Did I dream of touching it? I opened my eyes. Pitch black and silent. No change from when they were closed. So did I really open my eyes…or did I dream I opened my eyes? The line between consciousness and subconsciousness is destroyed.
Get out - This was pretty much how it went for the first attempt. Me trying to feel comfortable, followed by sensations of movement, followed by me questioning what was really happening…then it was over. A light comes on, and you feel jarred back into something that feels harsh and hollow. It was hard going back to the fraternity banquet after that experience. I was filled with ideas of what had happened, hadn’t happened, and could have happened. My mind was racing. My date said I was “weird” afterward…and she was right. I couldn’t wait until my next experience.
Woodlands Inn & Resort
1984 & 1986
2nd & 3rd Experiences (both 60 min)
My next two isolation tank experiences were similar to the first, so I’m lumping them together. I did them within a few years of the first, at the same place as the first. I would travel to that resort after I graduated college with my then girlfriend (now wife) and friends for certain celebrations and holidays like New Years Eve. Again, most of these were social occassions, so there was various levels of spirits and merriment included. I was still in my 20’s and had the life experiences of a typical person of that age. Factor this into your conclusions.
Like a 20-some year old, I thought the experience might be cool with music. I brought a tape to my next experience with songs like Pink Floyd The Wall and Tubular Bells. The Resort had the capacity to play the music in the room. It was a mistake. The music was more distracting than helpful, and that was the last time I attempted music. Silence is far better in my opinion.
Both experiences gave me the feelings of movement, and floating in black space. One time, I felt like I might be spinning slowly. Both allowed for clear moments of focused thought. Both were relaxing, to the point that I’m sure I fell asleep for at least portions of each float. But again, it’s kind of impossible to tell, so who knows for sure?
After each, I’d feel prolonged periods of thoughtfulness after the sessions. I’d estimate that clarity feeling would last about a month. After that, your standard patterns of thinking and doing things become overwelmingly strong, and you go back to comfortable, predictable, familiar patterns of thought and action.
I always found the sessions amazing. Friends always thought they made me weird. The tank helped me realize that it didn’t matter what they thought. Their trip is disconnected entirely from mine. It’s fun to entertain their comments: but not meaningful. People mock what they don’t understand, and fear. Those are the people who will hold you back.
NOTE - the Woodlands apparently no longer offers isolation tank experiences. I looked over their website, but found no information. Perhaps, if you go there, you can go exploring (like I did) and find it for yourself in some closet or basement storage room. That would be even more amazing!
Then 30 years happens…
I get married, run businesses, have two kids, raise kids, sell buinesses, move, people dear to us die…life happens. You are so busy in this period of your life with responsibility and distraction, that you don’t have time, energy or money to think about things like floating naked in a dark tank of water.
But I still talked about my past tank experiences from time to time. And my wife noticed those discussions. And for Christmas one year, she got me a gift certificate at the newly opened float place in the neighboring town. I was really excited!
Art of Floating
1st Experience (60 min)
So, after meeting the staff and taking the tour we jumped right in… literally!
Things pretty much picked up where we left off. Even with a 30 year hiatus, the process of getting relaxed and getting “into the zone” was familiar and like riding a bicycle.
As this experience progressed, I noticed the same feelings of motion, but more pronounced this time. There were times when I would have told you I was floating upside down. Like if I was in space, my head would have been pointing towards the earth.
This was also the first time that I started to notice “Images”. In other words, you know it’s all dark in your tank. And you know your eyes are closed. But you also start to notice that your mind is showing you images of things you are thinking about. If you let it, your mind will make those images more and more apparent, until it’s almost like you are watching a movie. A movie of whatever your mind decides to include.
Again, was I asleep when this happened? Maybe. Impossible to tell. Was it a dream? Maybe, but if so, it was so interspersed with thoughts from “real life” that the two start to cross seamlessly between what is consciousness, and what is subconsciousness.
It was only an hour, so this experience didn’t last long before the lights started to flash and the session was over. But I was very happy. I was on to something new.
Art of Floating
2nd Experience (90 min)
This was my best float to date. It was sublime. I didn’t prepare for it in any special way, but the one thing I did do differently was to up my time to 90 minutes. This significantly decreased the pressure I put on myself to efficiently use my time. I’ll talk about that more in the TIPS section. You can get into the zone more easily, with a backdrop of knowing that you have more time. It doesn’t feel like every minute is crucial, so you actually use your time better. Wonder if that is a life lesson unto itself?
This float got really interesting with a really rapid fire series of images coming at me like a hurricane. Images of all kinds of things, each lasting about a hundreth of a second each. Even thought the images came fast, each one was clear, and that amount of time seemed adequate to absorb the image and it’s meaning. This continued for some time, with colors changing throughout the experience.
Then, I had something happen to me that I’ve never fully had before: I had an out-of-body experience. It’s not like I was floating above myself, but instead, my thoughts were an entity unto themselves. My thoughts left my body. I was “me”, but just detached. They were very well formed thoughts and energy, but they were no longer connected to what I kept feeling was a “chunk of meat” that was my body. For the first time ever, I felt like my body was an anchor. Until that moment, I thought of my body as the vehicle to move my mind and self around this planet. At that moment, I recognized it as an achor. Having to feed it. Having to clean it. Having it limited to just a thin skin of atmosphere around this one planet. Having to obey the laws of gravity, and space and time…WHAT A WASTE! This new version of me was pure thought energy. Clear and crisp and able to go anywhere, anytime, without any concern for past considerations of time and space. It (I) was free! A freedom like I didn’t know was possible.
The thought crossed my mind, “What if I’m dead in the tank?” What if this is me leaving the earthly plain? I considered it, and quickly realized that if that were true, it was totally OK with me. This seemed like the destination. This seemed like how our energy had always been designed to be situated. The “meat chunk” seemed like something prehistoric and barbaric. Like a penalty someone who didn’t like you would place on your thoughts and desires. A thought jail of sorts. I didn’t want to go back…but the session ended…and back I indeed went. But this time, my perspective on life itself had changed. I no longer had fear for death, in fact, I’m kind of looking forward to it.
Art of Floating
3rd Experience (90 min)
After the 2018 experience, you can imagine how excited I was for my next session. What great mystery of the universe would be revealled to me this time? In what profound ways will I be changed for the better? Will I become enlightened today, like a legendary Buddha of history and legend? Will I actually turn into the spirit animals and creatures of Castaneda and Altered States? I could hardly wait!
Here is where the tank teaches yet another lesson. A lesson best stated by the Rolling Stones, when they declared, “You can’t always get what you want.”
No, even though I did everything almost exactly like the last session: this session was it’s own thing. It did include some moments of clarity, feelings of weightlessness and motion, but they were fleeting. It had moments of hot colors like reds and yellows emerging out of darkness, as I thought about certain subjects, but it never got fully rolling like the last session. Or maybe, I just couldn’t see it.
I had a lot of trouble focusing this time. Less intensity. I kept going into, but then quickly slipping out of “the zone” where cool things happen. Thoughts of “real world” things kept overpowering my attempts to clear my mind.
And this can happen. It’s always a bit of a struggle to maintain complete openess, but this session was more difficult than some others.
And that’s fine. A lesson in itself. Although it might be true that, “you can’t always get what you want.” It is also true that, “Sometimes…you get what you need.”
I left feeliing peaceful, relaxed, clear-headed, and looking forward to my next session. And this leads nicely into the next section on tips for how to have a great tank session for yourself.
Art of Floating
4th Experience (90 min)
Did everything I could (read followed my own tips below) to get ready for a good float. Was pretty relaxed. I had scheduled an easy Friday for myself. And as is always the case, it’s a crapshoot when you get in the tank. This time I shot a couple of short videos before and after the experience. So how about you hear about it in my own words this time?
Basically, I had short sensations of many of the things I have had previously. The only big difference this time was a period of the float in which I seemed to totally lose track of where I was, what was going on, and time itself. When I realized this fact, I had to take a few moments to reorient myself. That might be why I seem a little “punchy” in the debrief video.
There are a ton of “nuts and bolts” kinds of “tips” you can find on the internet about the very basic, kinds of ways to get ready for a session.
Don’t drink too much coffee or tea
Don’t shave, wax or get a tattoo right before
Push the button below for a nice list from a tank location called Blissful Waters:
For the purposes of this article, I’m not going to spend any time on the “nuts and bolts” items. I think the service providers can provide that service. What I want to provide are tips to get your brain where you want it to be to have the most outstanding experience. The kind of experiences that I talked about early in this article, and in my own experiences.
Getting your head right
Although I learned most of these by trial and error over the years, I think some time and effort might be saved by a little coaching. Relaying to you, what I learned over time might help. That being said, what works for me, might very well not work for you. This is a PURELY INDIVIDUAL experience, and I truly believe; you get out of it, what you put in.
Below are some ideas for before, during and after, to make your experiences as rewarding as possible.
Don’t plan much after
Like if you are a doctor, don’t plan brain surgery after a float session. Not that you couldn’t do it…you could…and likely you would perform amazingly with your clear, relaxed head. But why put something really important like that, right after you need to have a clear mind? How much easier would it be to clear your mind if your brain isn’t jumping back into that heavy reality every fraction of a second while you try to get to the zone?
Practice “zoning out” at home
Whether it’s on the toilet (like me) or any time or anywhere that it possible: work at simply going blank. Some use meditation techniques. If you have that skill, that would work well. I’ve never found the traditional things like “concentrate on your breathing” working for me…but that works on a great many. Maybe I just need to up my game and practice. But, however you do it, take a few minutes to learn how to quiet your mind. Literally, think about nothing. Sounds easy, but it’s really hard. But like with anything, the more you practice, the better you will become at this task. Having a working ability of how to make this happen for you, will pay great dividends in the tank, as you won’t waste as much time “getting in the zone”.
Do an hour to start
Any less and you won’t get the hang of it at all. Any more, and you might get weirded-out or bored. The first few times, an hour is enough to get familiar, get your head clear, and get some benefits. Be patient. Like with most things, if you stay with it, the larger benefits come with time.
“Am I going to freak out?”
“Am I going to hallucinate?”
Although I guess both of those things are possible, it’s far more likely that you are simply going to fall asleep in a dark box, while you float naked in salt water…like a nerd. And when you are finish, you will either feel like it was worth doing, or you will feel like you wasted your time and money. Like I keep saying; everyone is different, and I’m sure this isn’t for everyone.
That being said, if you can manage to just get comfortable in the tank, and clear your head of all those fears, anxieties and expectations, I believe you are well on the road to your best possible experience.
Get comfortable -
Easy to say, more difficult to do.
It’s weird. You are naked in a tank of water and salt floating in the pitch black and silence. Let’s just be honest, and call it what it is…WEIRD!
And like Ricky Bobby in Talledega Nights, there will be times when you feel like this >>>
Your hands will feel weird at first. They will float around, and gravitate towards your naked groin area, and that might make you uncomfortable…but let it go… literally.
The hardest part of your body to get comfortable is your head and neck. Your body/brain just doesn’t want to believe that it will float. And since there is water all around, you brain is going to activate your neck muscles to keep you head forward. As you try to relax, you will feel your neck is tight. Let it go. Some places will offer you neck rings that enhance your neck and heads floatation. This might be a good option if you are really struggling here. You will consciencely need to work on relaxing your neck. It won’t go easily, but with time… you will get it to trust that it will float, and you can relax.
After a few sessions, go longer
90 minutes is a good amount of time. Most experienced people say they go at least this long. I’d like to go even longer, as I think time is your friend in these experiences. Getting relaxed mentally and physically is the challenge, and the longer you have, the more likely you will have time to get into the full “zone” area where you want to be.
This might be the most important tip I can give you: but also the most difficult to execute. I need to use some analogies to help explain.
Analogy 1. - 3D holograms
Like holographic 3D images, isolation tank sessions are all about knowing how to look at them. When you get it right, new worlds open to you. Worlds you can’t believe are there. Going on all the time, without anyone really seeing them. Is it possible that these aren’t the only two examples of unseen things in life, that need some coaching and expertise to be able to see?
This happens A LOT. Again, just like the Holograms, you will have moments of complete focus and clarity…and then it will go. I’m yet to be able to maintain focus for very long. You will be right in the middle of something cool…and a thought will jump in your head. I’m not sure you can stop it.
Something about the real world,
or thought about time,
or what would happen if I peed right now?
It happens, and I think that’s the nature of our mind, and especially an untrained, restless mind.
So, you just take it for what it is. You don’t get upset. You just roll with it. Get that random thought where you need it, and try to get back to “seeing” the stuff you want to see again. You refocus.
Look closely (related to “ask questions” above) -
My isolation tank experiences in a lot of ways remind me of my experiences with scuba diving, and the coral reef.
Analogy 2. - Coral Reef
From a distance -
The coral reef looks kind of brown. The first time I looked at one, as I swam towards one, I was kind of disappointed and didn’t get all the hype.
Up close -
The coral reef yields it’s beauty. You need to get right up on it, and look real close, before you see all the detail, and color and variety that it has to offer.
This is the same with the isolation tank.
If you don’t look closely, or get discouraged because you aren’t getting what you think you should get…you will miss it. You never know when your moment to really see something significant will happen, but if you keep with it, and improve on your ability to be in the moment, and relax, and see…you will see. And that will be amazing!
I try to think about what just happened while I get dressed. The place I go to has a room where you can sit and have a cup of tea. I do that. Sometimes the staff will ask you about your experience: I talk to them about it. Sometimes, talking about it can make you remember things.
As much as I stress above to “clear your mind”, I need to be honest and admit to wearing my watch in the tank. As much as I’m trying to be “in the moment”, I’m also trying to not be embarrassed or a bad guest. My worst fear during a float is completely losing track of time, and overstaying my session. I start to envision the staff breaking down the door and entering the tank to see my naked 56 year old, asleep man body, jolted back into consciousness. Jerkily trying to cover my bits, and stand up at the same time. Hitting my head on the tank, and slipping and falling out of the tank to squirm around on the tile floor like a hagfish in a car accident. It’s not a pretty mental picture… so I wear a watch to try to avoid it.
So then you leave, and you get back to life. For me, there is a peacefulness, that is also a bit depressing if I’m truthful. A realization of keeping ourselves busy with tasks all day, every day…until we die. What a waste. But this is if I allow my thoughts to go that direction.
I could also change my thoughts to be thankful for the ability to do all those things, until I get a chance to do my next mind-expanding activity. I can choose gratitude, or nihilistic thinking. Both valid, but one far more positive and prudent than the other.
You might be asking yourself, “this dude started doing this in the 80’s. It wasn’t exactly hard for a college student to get drugs in those years. Why didn’t he just get hiimself some acid, and do his exploration the way most people experiment?” And that would be a valid question. Truth is, I was/am a bit of a “drug nerd”. I didn’t like the idea of using something that has the potential for “flashback” or something that I might actually like too much. I didn’t want to get into all the problems that come with liking drugs too much. So for me; drugs weren’t an option. But, that didn’t mean that I wasn’t into trying to learn more about myself and the human mind. That topic had always fascinated me, and I felt there was so much unknown. It seemed to be an almost unexplored area, and one that needed exploring so badly. Most of the unanswered questions of life originated and died in your mind. Seemed to me, the answers might be there as well.
Why would a person want to do this? Why would you use your hard earned money and free time to lay in a dark tank of heavy water for significant chunks of time?
For me, this is a valid question, but one easily answered.
Besides all the reasons given above. Besides my young man fascination with science-fiction and mind altering experimentation. I look around the world today, and each day I’m more convinced that we won’t find answers looking outward at the world. We won’t find answers projecting our thought and ideas on others.
I believe the solutions we seek are inward. Reflection over Projection.
Today we use social media to debate, critique, judge and commentate on how we live, and how we think others should live. We use our chance to vote, in an attempt to force our ideas of morality, economics, and civility on others. We yell into the abyss, how we think things SHOULD BE.
Instead, I think that time would be more usefully spent looking inward, into how I SHOULD BE.
This is not meant in a selfish or narcissistic way, as “how I should be” likely contains a good portion of empathy for others, and community oriented thoughts and actions. I believe looking inward will produce the kind of outward changes we want in the world most naturally. I believe looking inward can produce those outward changes without trying to force your neighbor via legislation, or convince your buddy on Facebook.
Simply put: looking inward allows us to best lead by example.
And if isolation tank time is a good tool to best look inward, I think that might be the best use of time possible.