By now the first two or three podcasts of The Writers Hangout should be up. In this podcast series, my friend and fellow writer John Fortunato, winner of this year’s Tony Hillerman Prize for his first novel, and I talk about a different aspect of the writing art and the writing business every week. Check us out. And feel free to leave a comment on the site to let us know how we’re doing, and if there are any other writing subjects we should discuss. You can listen to the Hangout at www.thewritershangout.com.
In the meantime, here is part three of my four-part series about my inaugural float in a sensory deprivation tank. The first two parts are available too. Part four will appear in a week or so. Senses awake!
At the National Institute for Mental Health, I devised the isolation tank. I made so many discoveries that I didn’t dare tell the psychiatric group about it at all because they would’ve said I was psychotic. I found the isolation tank was a hole in the universe. I gradually began to see through to another reality. It scared me. I didn’t know about alternate realities at that time, but I was experiencing them right and left without any LSD. John C. Lilly
The itinerary of my virgin float began with a sensation of floating like none I have ever experienced. I expected it to feel similar to the sensation experienced while scuba diving, but it did not. The respirator, the tanks, the weight belt, all the gear one wears while scuba diving impinges on the otherwise pleasant experience not of total weightlessness but of decreased weight. I have stood on white sand with sixty feet of blue water and a barracuda above me, but there was no sense of weightlessness. The mask restricts peripheral vision, the rasp of every breath through the respirator interrupts the silence, and ten fathoms of water exert their pressure upon the body.
In the float tank, after experimenting for a several minutes with the position of my arms, trying to alleviate the tension in my neck accrued from driving through Pittsburgh noontime traffic, I settled in. Eventually the water stilled. And in that silent pitch blackness, with my ears filled with salt-thickened water, my body slowly turned, rotating as if in a circle. This in itself was intriguing, because the tank is not large enough for any such maneuver. Yet I felt myself slowly turning in the stillness.
Then came the images inside my brain.
Frequently as I fall asleep each night, in that hypnagogic transitional state between wakefulness and sleeping, faces and other images will float through my mind’s eye, and sometimes they will be accompanied by soft voices. I have seldom been able to identify more than random words or phrases from these voices. And the images come and fade in brisk procession, none lingering very long, as if my brain is dumping out the day’s detritus. But in the float tank, this changed. The images lasted longer and were more sustained, as in a thirty-second fragment of a dream. A man and a woman, both middle-aged, husband and wife, stood at a kitchen counter, doing some work with their hands I couldn’t see. I recognized neither of them, but when I saw the man I thought, He looks like Mel Torme. Same round face and jowly cheeks, tortoise-shell eye glasses, and a pale blond head of hair that made me think of a Donald Trump-like hairpiece. I heard full sentences of their conversation, most from the woman, who was as short and round and frumpy as her husband. But their conversation was desultory, not at all meaningful to me, so I soon lost interest in them and looked back into the darkness.
What held my attention throughout the rest of the float were the sporadic electrical buzzes inside my head. They sounded similar to the buzz a bug-zapper makes when it fries a moth. I saw them as fuzzy gray patches on the darkness. And by the third one I was craving the next, and the next, and the next, because each time it happened, my consciousness seemed to drop deeper, and into a momentary state of bliss in which I longed to remain.
But I could not. And to try was to end those pleasant dips altogether. They occurred only when my mind was empty. And, because of the uniqueness of my situation, I was having a hard time finding emptiness.
So I returned to considering the womblike experience itself. Is this how an infant in utero feels? Ensconced in a warm liquid, every sensation contingent upon the movement of that liquid? I tried to imagine myself as that infant.
Am I, as the infant, self-aware? I have no words, so what thoughts might be passing through my head? Images? Colors? Without words, what meaning do they have? Do I have memories? If so, are they a product of my DNA, long-stored images of a middle-aged man and woman conversing at a kitchen counter, or are they images from another place, non-physical, the residue from a past existence, from a thousand past existences? Or do they fill my consciousness from outside my own developing brain, like music piped in from another room?
Is this, I wondered, this float in silent darkness, is this how the Prime Consciousness felt when it was alone in the void? Without form and empty, and darkness on the surface of the deep…. A consciousness so keenly aware of itself, and of its aloneness, with no physical form, no limbs and head and neck to distract its thoughts. A mind floating on a sea of darkness… thinking what?
To be aware of one’s self, and of one’s all-encompassing solitude…or even to wonder if one is truly the only something in the nothingness…. Imagine that fear. Imagine that grief. Imagine the questions, the uncertainty, and the infinite ache of loneliness.
To be filled with all that, but empty of past. There is only the no-thing. Only I in the no-thing. Only I am that I am.
In that loneliness, perhaps, it all began.
Let be light…and was light.
The after-effects of my inaugural float session lasted all the rest of that day and night. After stepping out of the tank, my body felt incredibly loose and relaxed, and a very pleasant sense of buoyancy stayed with me for the next several hours. Even the slow-motion madness of rush-hour traffic on the Liberty Bridge didn’t agitate the way it usually would.
And that night I enjoyed the soundest sleep I’d experienced in a very long time. I slept for over five hours without ever once waking, a rarity for me.
If all I ever get out of a float is a good night’s sleep and a renewed sense of calm, it will be worth repeating. But I know that deeper experiences await. And I look forward to several more journeys into the tank, and into that place John Lilly called the Quiet Center:
“Within each one of us is a central low pressure place—a Quiet Center—in which we can learn to live eternally. Just outside of this Quiet Center is a cyclone, the rotating storm of your ego, competing with other egos in a furious high-velocity circular dance.”
At this URL you can watch a very informative and entertaining five-minute video in which radio and TV host Joe Rogan recounts his own experiences with floating (in R-rated language), plus a longer video featuring John C. Lilly himself (don’t let the coonskin cap fool you): http://io9.com/5829343/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-sensory-deprivation-tanks.
But before you watch them, bear this in mind:
John Lilly’s inner visions also led him to predict an inevitable showdown pitting what he called Solid State Intelligence (autonomous lifeforms we now refer to as AI, or Artificial Intelligence) against we puny biological lifeforms—if we humans don’t learn how to harness the innate power of our minds and transcend our many shortcomings.
Care to guess who will emerge victorious from that confrontation?