Moving Out

I’m sorry, but we need to stop meeting like this.

Seriously, let’s start meeting somewhere else. How about at my new newsletter?

As of today I’ll be posting no more blogs on this website. All of the old ones will stay put, but I’m switching over to a subscription newsletter. The subscription is absolutely free; just send an email SUBSCRIBE to silvisrandall@gmail.com and I will add you to the list. The first newsletter will go out within a week (or so) and will include a short blog, some useful links, a short piece of my fiction or creative nonfiction, and anything else I decide to add. Maybe my recipe for gumbo or Tuscan chicken vegetable soup. Maybe a photo. Maybe a movie review. Depends upon how the spirit moves me.

I hope you will make the move with me, and will continue to send me your comments and questions. And please forgive me if I can’t respond to every one of them. I still teach writing fulltime at one university and part-time at another, have a novel to promote, another novel to polish, and a co-authored novel to keeping adding words to. You know what it’s like, I’m sure. Social media is a tremendous drain on a writer’s time, so I’m hoping the newsletter will allow me to focus my time in fewer places.

Thanks so much for following my blog. I apologize for being so inconsistent. Although you have to admit: my inconsistency has been extremely consistent. I plan to do much better with the newsletter. At least a little better. :)

So, instead of saying goodbye, let’s just say, “See you later. Just not here.”

Randall

PS: And don’t forget to drop by at The Writers’ Hangout from time to time!

Floating, part 4

Today I wrap up my four-part blog about my first float in a sensory deprivation tank. With a little luck I will soon be floating again, and sinking ever deeper into the vast dark sea of enhanced creativity and consciousness.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Floating, part 4

A Postscript

               With more reverence for all of life, with more awe in the face of the inside unknown and the outside unknown, with deeper experiences with other human beings from the far side of the planet, maybe the bombs would never have been needed and hence not made or planned.  John C. Lilly

It has now been a week since my initial float experience, and every time I think about it I am eager to go into the tank again. I do want the visionary and out-of-body experiences recounted by so many others who float frequently, but even if those experiences never come, the serenity alone will be satisfying too. And I don’t mean serenity the way we so often think of it these days, as a physical place free of noise and clamor and worry, the way a museum or library or forest can seem serene. I mean the serenity intended by the Latin word serenus, an inner clarity, and the calm that clarity provides.

When I search back through the years of my life, moments of serenus are rare. Invariably, they were generated by deep feelings of love, most notably and frequently my love for my sons. It is a love so total and profound that without it, I suspect, most of who I am would cease to exist.

There were also times when my love for a woman produced moments of serenus, and though I have learned to cherish my solitude I do miss the human contact of a woman’s body against my own, a hand reaching out to touch me in the darkness, taking comfort from my presence, and giving comfort in return.

But the love of one’s children is of a whole different order than romantic love, eros. It is greater than just storge, familial love, because it is also agape, a selfless, unconditional love. And the serenity I felt in the float tank, deprived of all external stimulation, came close to approximating the serenity that comes over me when I look at my sons’ photos above the fireplace, or when I see one of their names appear on my cell phone’s screen, or when I simply remember what it was like to hold one of their tiny sleeping bodies warm and softly breathing against my chest.

Words can only suggest the true depth of such feelings. Purpose. Meaning. Completeness. Perfection.

It seems odd to say I felt a similar kind of love in the float tank, but I did.

In The Book of Embraces, Eduardo Galeano presents a word invented by fishermen along the Columbian coast, sentipensante, to describe language that speaks the truth through a kind of thinking that derives from feeling rather than from logic or intellect. Lawrence Durrell, in one of his wonderful essays about travel, uses the word rapport to suggest what to me sounds an awful lot like sentipensante, which in turn sounds like what I mean by the word serenity:

“The great thing is to try and travel with the eyes of the spirit wide open,” Durrell wrote, “and not too much factual information…. It is to be had for the feeling, this mysterious sense of rapport, of identity with the ground…. If you just get as still as a needle you’ll be there.”

Columbian fishermen obviously feel that profound sense of identity with the sea and the shore. Durrell felt it on the island of Corfu and elsewhere. I feel it when I think of my sons, and when I remember love. I felt it too in the blind silence of the isolation tank, when I lay as still as a needle. I felt that rapport not for the tank or from the tank. But for everything, from everywhere.

 ***

            Thank you for reading Floating. These blogs will be included in my nonfiction book-in-progress, Two Wheels, No Map: One Man’s Ride into the Deep Why. The book will be a chronicle of my search, through various activities such as floating, past life regression, shamanic healing, and so forth, to explore the nature of non-ordinary states of reality. If Two Wheels, No Map sounds like a book you might want to read some day, or if you have any suggestions for activities and places that should be considered for inclusion in the book, I would love to hear from you. Here you can find a short video pitch for the book (with my apologies for the wind noise): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6ZpqB1vetc

Other useful links related to floating:

Capristo Wellness Spa and Salon in Shadyside PA: www.capristosalon.com

Pittsburgh Float: pittsburghfloat@gmail.com

Floating, part 3

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!

Floating

Part Three

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?

***

Floating, part 2

Last week I started a four-part blog about my first float in a sensory deprivation tank. Today I continue with part 2:

Floating

Part Two

“In the province of the mind, there are no limits.”  John C. Lilly

The contemporary culture of float tank aficionados owes its passion to John C. Lilly, a pioneer not only of sensory deprivation studies, but also of interspecies communication (between humans, dolphins, and whales), electronic and drug-induced brain stimulation, and consciousness studies in general. In short, Lilly devoted his life to the exploration of inner and outer realities, and particularly to that nebulous, numinous interface between them.

Until Lilly began to test the effects of sensory deprivation on the brain in the early fifties, it was commonly believed that a brain deprived of all external stimuli would go to sleep. Many did, and still do. Many go to sleep in the midst of stimuli.

John Lilly, however, did not go to sleep. Neither did his friend, the noted physicist Richard Feynman. Nor did Timothy Leary, John Lennon, and thousands of others who became devotees of the float experience.

What Lilly discovered through experiments on himself and others is that the mind has the ability, when deprived of external stimulation, to dive inward. Or to slide laterally. Or to go hopscotching into that Mobius strip somewhere that exists beyond both our physical reality and our interior thoughts.

That’s the place I’ve been searching for. The place I hoped to at least glimpse during my first float tank experience.

Let me preface this by saying that I have had numerous previous glimpses of this place. None were drug induced. All occurred spontaneously but for a handful courted through meditation. So I embarked on my first float tank experience with the hope of finding a relatively safe and reliable doorway into that place.

In this regard, but only there, my float was a disappointment. I did not leave my body, I did not go stumbling into Carlos Castenada’s separate reality, I did not fall down the rabbit hole. What I did experience was a wholly interesting, wholly pleasant, wholly restful and rejuvenating hour of weightlessness. I felt like George Clooney in Gravity—except that instead of plumping up as the moisture in my body turned to vapor, then having my skin acquire a lovely tint of cyanotic blue as I breathed my final breath of bottled air, I lifted open the tank door, climbed out, and took a long hot shower.

But of course that wasn’t all that happened. There were hints, if I can call them that, of what might be possible with additional soaks. The literature on floating agrees that the deeper experiences come later. But I’ve had a lot of experience with meditation, and I know when I am descending deeper into an inner awareness. All my life I have felt imprisoned by my body, and strongly suspected that if only I could transcend it, I could tap into something that, ages past, most of mankind forgot. My time in the float tank affirmed that suspicion.

To misquote Fox Mulder, “The truth is in there.”

***

 (Part three will follow within a week.)

Floating

Once again, the months have rolled past. We’ve endured a hard winter, and now, finally, spring is peeking through the dirty snow. Soon our beautiful planet will be shining again.

A bit of news for those of you in western PA and eastern Ohio: On April 3rd I will be giving a reading at Edinboro University. It begins at 6:30 PM in the Pogue Cinema. Please come by and say hello.

Today I’m introducing a four-part blog about my first experience in a sensory deprivation tank. This series will form the first half of the first chapter of my nonfiction book, Two Wheels, No Map, a project that will have me riding around the country on my Yamaha Cruiser in search of experiences that purport to bring about a non-ordinary state of consciousness. I would love to hear your thoughts on such a book. Here, if the subject interests you, is a short video pitch for the book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6ZpqB1vetc.

A few other links before I get to the blog post: My friend John Fortunato, winner of this year’s Tony Hillerman Prize for a First Novel, and I have started a podcast series called The Writers’ Hangout. Every week or so we sit around and talk about all aspects of writing and the writing life. Please drop by and join us at www.thewritershangout.com.

Here you can listen to a couple of my audio essays, no charge for admission: https://soundcloud.com/search?q=Randall%20Silvis.

After fourteen books, I have grown very weary of the long delays inherent to traditional print publishing. I might be an infrequent blogger, but I’m actually a very prolific writer. So I have embarked on an experiment to determine if electronic publishing is a viable alternative for me. I hope you will participate in the experiment by clicking on the following link and nominating my novel: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/1LT74RU63U2MN. If the book is selected, free copies go out to      the first hundred or so nominators.

And finally, with my apologies for the very long post , here is installment #1 of Floating:

Floating

Part One

Our current knowledge is a very thin closed shell surrounding our minds with vast unknowns inside it and outside it.                John C. Lilly

Recently I fulfilled a long-standing desire. This desire first budded more than forty years ago, when, through the books of Carlos Castenada, I learned there are worlds beyond the strip-mined ridges and valleys of Clarion County, Pennsylvania, and that they offer to curious, open-minded individuals the possibility of knowledge no paper-wrapped leaf or bottle of Bud can provide.

That was when I first started courting non-ordinary states of consciousness. The third of Castenada’s books, Journey to Ixtlan, assured me that such states can be accessed without the aid of artificial inducements, such as the peyote and “Devil’s Weed” the brujo Don Juan employed to trick Castenada out of his rigid preconceptions: “My perception of the world through the effects of those psychotropics had been so bizarre and impressive that I was forced to assume that such states were the only avenue to communicating and learning what Don Juan was attempting to teach me. That assumption was erroneous.”

From that point on I taught myself to meditate. I studied the mood-changing capacities of certain musical harmonies. I pushed my body to extremes of exertion and deprivation. I wrung every ounce of information available from ritual and religion, sex and music, movement and stillness. All with the goal of getting outside the prison of my body and into the deeper mystery of life itself.

I had moments of startling awareness.

And moments of dispiriting failure.

In 1980 I first heard about sensory deprivation tanks, which are also called isolation tanks or flotation tanks. In the film Altered States, successive floats in a sensory deprivation tank cause Professor Jessup to devolve into a primordial blob. I wasn’t keen on becoming more blob-like myself, but I was fascinated by the mind-altering possibilities of floating, and I have craved the experience ever since.

Last year I began planning a nonfiction book that will have me riding around the country on my Yamaha Roadstar in search of any and all experiences that, like floating in a sensory deprivation tank, purport to produce a non-ordinary state of consciousness. The working title for my book is Two Wheels, No Map: One Man’s Ride into the Deep Why. I hope to begin it in earnest later this spring.

But first: Here in the dead of an especially brutal winter, I was presented with an opportunity to try out a flotation tank in Pittsburgh. Housed at the Capristo Wellness Spa and Salon in Shadyside (www.capristosalon.com, a pair of flotation tanks are presided over by Luke Raymer (pittsburghfloat@gmail.com), a former bodybuilder and Strongman competitor who now trains as a performance gymnast. Before closing myself up in a lightless, soundless, fully enclosed tank whose water is heated to near-body temperature and made buoyant by eight hundred pounds of Epsom salts, I spent a fascinating hour with Luke as he told me about his own experiences in the tank, as well as those of his friends and clients, who float just to relax and cleanse themselves of the day’s stress, or who seek relief from pain, or who float in search of a deeper, mystical experience.

Luke frequently uses the float tank to maintain physical well-being, especially after an especially demanding workout. “I do a lot of training every day. It’s pretty intensive, and I often get quite sore. Going into the tank is the best solution for me. I feel completely rejuvenated afterward; the soreness is usually cut by 80% or more.”

When I asked Luke about his own deep consciousness excursions in the tank, he was reluctant to discuss them because they might influence my own expectations. Better to enter the tank with no expectations, he said. Be open to whatever might happen. “My brother, however, tells me often that when he floats, he has especially deep sleep that night, and that his dreams are typically quite vivid after floating. And I did have a client who tried the tank, and when he came out he told me some pretty wild stuff. But most people don’t go that deep their first time.”

The literature on floating, dating bank to John C. Lilly, a pioneer of sensory deprivation studies, recounts a wide range of benefits from floating, ranging from relaxation and increased physical and mental health to enhanced creativity and visionary connections with other levels of reality. At a conference in 2014 for float tank owners, distributors, and devotees of the experience, Luke heard several stories of non-ordinary states of consciousness achieved in a float tank, but, again, he was reluctant to pass those stories on to me.

Luke’s warm and mellow vibe was, in and of itself, a fine advertisement for the float tank, especially after a stressful midday drive along a grid-locked Forbes Avenue. As he led me through the comfortable luxury of the Capristo Spa’s many rooms—I have never before seen so many beautiful people in a single place—I was enticed deeper and deeper into the experience. By the time I finally stood beside the tank itself, I was more than ready to strip naked and get wet.

I entered the tank with Luke’s parting words in my mind:

“It’s such an amazing tool. If everybody did it, this world would definitely be a better place.”

***

Please come back  in a week or so for the second installment. :)

Shivering in August

What a strange summer this has been in western Pennsylvania. Days are cool and nights are cooler. The sky is always heavy with gray-bottomed clouds. A low, barely audible rumble seems to emanate from the earth. The sun, I’m told, is rising a few degrees closer to north, the moon looks odd, and the stars are not where they used to be. Plus, my hair is thinning at an alarming rate. Something weird is afoot with the universe.

How is one to respond to these mysteries?

I’ll keep typing, I guess, even though that previously simple task has also taken a devilish turn. Lines jump out of place before I finish them and imbed themselves elsewhere in the text, so that I have to search to find them again. Meantime, birds stare at me from the telephone line. Socks disappear from the dryer, leaving no clue to their whereabouts, no note, not even a trail of lint.

Recently my agent suggested that I consider storing all of my documents in the Cloud. I suspect that’s where my hair and my socks have gone. It’s comforting to think that they are somewhere. But the thought of entrusting my life’s work to the netherland of cyberspace produces in me another shivering fit. I do not trust the Cloud. What if the Cloud is a huge, invisible spy satellite? What if the Cloud gets hacked? What if it springs a leak? What if all of that accumulated information and creativity begins to think of itself as the mind of God and realizes how outmoded and irrelevant we flesh machines are?

Maybe it’s best not to contemplate such matters. If only I could stop wondering about my socks….

Meanwhile, I find order where I can. The work continues. I recently added three collections of personal essays to my list of available books. You can find them on Amazon under these titles: Chasing the Boo, True Stories & Reflections from the Writer’s Life; What I Know, More True Stories & Reflections from the Writer’s Life; 10 Easy Steps to Becoming A Writer, True Stories & Reflections on the Writing Life.

I’m also busy squaring up the corners on two more books of fiction. I’ll tell you about them and about a nonfiction project-in-progress when I feel confident that the Cloud isn’t listening.

Until next time….