Altered states with sensory deprivation

THOUSANDS OF Americans are renting isolation tanks and taking a dive into their own psyches with all the enthusiasm of the Nestea Plunge. Spending $20 an hour (and up) to enjoy introspection should definitely qualify as enthusiasm, especially in a culture in which being too introspective has often been considered a social disease. I’ve long suspected that people hire psychoanalysts because the job of looking into the soul is just too disgusting for the moderns. But that luxury is becoming less common; inflation has driven Americans to performing the sordid task of analysis themselves.

I have always lived within a mind possessed of a vivid mental freedom. Guilt is what interrupts the imagination; in this respect artists and criminals share similar audacity. For me, the isolation tank is merely an ideal environment for the kind of free mental interplay that has always been characteristic of my universe as an artist.

The isolation tank is designed to limit the intake of the five senses. The box – resembling a steam cabinet with a child’s swimming pool in the bottom – contains a dark, soundproof space in which you float in 15 inches of concentrated saltwater, which provides buoyancy. You lie down, supine, devoid of any visual intake, with little aural vibration and very limited awareness of the areas of touch and feel (since the water is approximately the same temperature as the skin). A clean, medicinal odor from the salt soon numbs the senses of taste and smell.

The first sensation is the purely optical impression of being bodiless in outer space. But that soon wanes and is replaced by a sensation that is really not a sensation at all, but some new, if not greater, sense of reality. The mind becomes aware – quite nonvisually and nonverbally – that the five sensations share a common nerve ending called the brain. When the senses aren’t piping information into it, the human mind has a rather spectacular way of keeping itself occupied.

My own first awareness was that some of the saltwater was in my eye. (The nerves in the eye have the ability to generate light without the actual presence of light itself.) The salt activated the neurochemical sensations called “phonemes” in such a profusion that the pseudolight resembled a storm during a cloudy night. For the first few minutes I watched lightning throb from behind the dense, dark clouds, then the salt was finally washed away by tears, and darkness prevailed again. This began a sequence of nonverbal energy. Information I’d obtained from all my senses seemed to be intermingled in my subconscious the way architectural schematics in Braille would appear after being shuffled without the artist’s knowledge.

People’s faces, fragments of conversations, impressions of smells and the lingering sensation of remote places intermingled and connected in a manner too complex to explain, but nevertheless palpable. I felt very positive about the conclusions my mind was approaching, apparently on its own momentum, like electrons in a magnet lining up in concert with mutual fields of force. Or perhaps more appropriately, it was as though a society that existed only in my mind had lost all civilized constraints, and its citizens began doing everything they pleased -even their most subliminal and subconscious wishes – without regard for morality or law. I could feel a sense of resolution approaching as the scenarios became less ordinary and more surreal. (I’m told we are all criminals on a subconscious level and that some of us resist and adjudicate these universal drives in more socially acceptable ways.) I saw things going on while I was in the tank that were not lawful or realistic, and nobody was there in the tank except me. In that sense I lapsed into an amoral, perhaps criminal, state of mind.

Logically, in a feeling related to my deepest mental structure, I sensed without any senses that this acting out of compulsion on the subterranean side was releasing pressure from my mind. It was easy to revisit past events; the slightest motion in the direction of memory recalled any number of scenes. Yet it was not accurate memory. Many scenes were resolved in a more satisfying manner. I felt that sexuality was somehow inside my body (which was now only a mind and not a part of my senses at all). As the scenes replayed in this multileveled nonverbal surrealism, my sexual urges received full expression, changing many of the scenes -like a playwright falsifying documents he’d written with his actions, but doing it in an impulsive and mercurially spontaneous manner. I did things mentally that would have startled a conservative mind, as well as the people who had been involved in the events. It was as close to full-participation movies as anything can be.

I’m told that if I’d stayed in the tank longer than the one hour, bright colors and sounds and spontaneous music eventually would have come out of the dark. I can’t describe what did go on in there without violating the moral code of this publication, but I can describe a future project I have in mind for tank time. By mixing events with frustrating memories and scenes that resulted in satisfying recollections, I think 1 can revisit my past and liberate my emotions from bottlenecks I’m sure have been built out of disappointment and regre

For example, the dance contest. In reality, my partner walked out on me minutes before the finals. When I mentally replay the event in the tank, once the music starts for the final dance I’ll switch to a time in my life when I was with a partner who danced with me in the kind of inspired, exalted way appropriate for the finals of a dance contest. Henry James said, “Memory is the diary that chronicles things that never have happened and couldn’t possibly have happened,” so it’s not proper that memory should limit our response to the future. The reassessment of memory is the essence of magnanimity, the most powerful healing force.

But satisfaction heals, too. When I came out of the tank, I was in a rare kind of reverie. The world seemed strangely calm; but it was not the peaceful sleep one falls into after work or after sex. The calm held a clarity in which I had spontaneous and mild impulsions of joy -unwarranted and without obvious reason. Some of the feelings had not come to me in several years. I felt genuinely renewed until the purely cerebral misgivings about life were slowly reintroduced to my mind by the five senses.

From the viewpoint of the Eastern mystic, the shutting off of the five senses has always been the equivalent of the opening of the eyes. Fasting and mortification of the flesh are experienced for the purpose of numbing the body. But America is the culture of overstimulation, so it seems odd that we would be peeking, fearfully though it may be, beyond the veil of the epicure. Still, in the isolation of these tanks, Americans are discovering, one by one, that to shed one’s body for a time is to slough off quite a bit of anxiety, and that it is a way to promote and expedite the natural healing forces of the spirit.

When the input from the senses is constricted, the flow of awareness is somehow accelerated in another mode. Or maybe the personality is a prudent dictator, the inhibitions are his fears and the senses are the only way he can know how and when to coerce the body into carrying out his wishes. When the senses are no longer present as a body of censors, the mind begins to relax, unwind, realign and heal. It seems natural to wonder if frightening hallucinations aren’t just the product of a mind in trouble. But when you are in the isolation tank, there is the explicit belief that these visions, whether visual or ineffable, are just the sparks given off by the healing process of the mind. Once rid of its dictator and his system of alarms (the senses), the human mind begins to relax into a more natural and healthy manner.

Blindness and the 40-day fast are the most commonly known instances in which awareness is heightened by the shutting off of sensory intake. When Dr. John C. Lilly first began experimenting with his isolation tank in the early Sixties, he must have been intrigued by the possibility of having a sightless person’s extraordinary level of touch extended across all five senses. During that decade we also learned that the body responds to a deluge of sensations in much the same way. When flooded by light and sound, the mind will automatically reach a point of overload and shut the intrusion out. Some of the same effects of sensory deprivation have been found in devices designed to bombard and overextend the five senses, but Lilly’s tank seems to be more suited to the temperament of the Eighties. The new proselyte of enlightenment is encouraged to think he can scrutinize his trek across the arduous road of Sisyphus, yet still sit by the pool. Or more accurately, still sit in the pool.

The same turn-on and tune-in theme of the Sixties seems to underlie this new trend, except that now you drop out for an hour or two in the tank. Or maybe this is what they meant by the Age of Aquarius, the water sign. In the Sixties, people returned from their “trips” with the idea that hallucinating was somehow progressive and healthy, even though the trip to the oracle seemed like a self-destructive binge. But it was not widely known in those days that Lilly, one of the original experimenters in the LSD genesis, was working with the sensory-deprivation tank when he decided to accelerate the process with hallucinogens. Perhaps we are revisiting a point where a very positive movement toward self-knowledge went awry.

The generation of the Sixties seemed ready to take off its clothes as an exploration of the self, but the searchers of the Eighties are going into isolation tanks and taking off their entire bodies. After widespread reports of the wondrous visions available to those who had merely peered into their own thoughts, the new trend seems to be returning us to the mind as a facility for entertainment. After a decade that kept up the appetite for movies, yet denied us any self-realization that could be had vicariously, the isolation tank offers us the chance to find self-knowledge and watch the show, too.

In the tank we discover our mind’s natural capacity to exude spontaneous artistically worthy images. And we find that the quality of these images is determined to a large degree by what we have put into our heads. In the isolation tank, a person is much closer to discovering that every sensation is a creative act.

It’s common for a novice writer to remark about how intimidating a white page appears. With no medium to immediately constrict the freedom of imagination, the isolation tank offers safe, risk-free access to the most engaging kind of art. There is reason to believe that the core of the sensory-deprivation experience is where art, self-expression and the human subconscious response to its predicament are all the same. In fact, it seems easy to conclude that death, always a primary question in these areas, is a kind of sensory deprivation. This is not to say you’ll climb into a sensory-deprivation tank and experience what it’s like to die. But you’re more likely to discover what it might be like to somehow lose your body and continue existing with only your brain and its contents as a universe in which to start your new life.

If memories were firewood and you were freezing to death, the recollections you saved until the very last moment would be the ones you loved most. While metaphorically freezing in a state of sensory deprivation the most powerful forces involved in forming this inventory of love take over. Inhibitions are somehow physical in origin. Beyond the senses exists a very volatile world of combinations forming and reforming, based on the principles of need and love that are most active in the subconscious. It is this force of personality, combined with memory, that will become the experience when unframed by the incoming data of the five senses. If during that experience something attempts to resist change or expedite what is happening, it will only be the purest self and will in the mind.

It will also be psychoanalysis without a middleman, a resolve to go it alone, to go into the mind with a pair of asbestos barbecue mittens and fix the hot pipes ourselves. The cost of tank rental is as low as $20 an hour. A good shrink is a moment-to-moment fortune.

The sensory-deprivation experience is as private as a religious experience can be, and few people seem to communicate their experiences well. It’s probable that many don’t divulge their fantasy voyages either. But the advantage of being able to hover in that creative mode that occurs just before rapid eye movement in sleep could be applied to quite a few problems.

The shocking hallucinations can remain more vivid than actual memories, but so can concepts that have been vividly understood.

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