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Saturday
Apr132013

Drop And Give Me Zen Part 2 - The Sensory Deprivation Tank

When you first take a stroll in the bullshit-strewn field of spiritual enlightenment, you’ll find before you a smorgasbord of options, from the truly out-there to the relatively mundane. I decided to start simple and work my way to the weirder end of the spectrum. My gateway drug was the flotation tank.

You probably have a vague notion of these things: Lie in a tank, suspended in salt-water in total silence and total darkness. With no sensory input, unloaded by gravity and drifting in blackness you can supposedly put the meditative process on steroids. Instant zen. Floatworks near London Bridge is the premiere venue so I booked a course and was on my way.


The tank originated in the fifties, a golden age of psychological and behavioral research. Timothy Leary and his cohorts at Harvard were bringing a scientific legitimacy to the field of psychedelics, and John C Lilly was busy loading students up on LSD and locking them in the tank for up to ten hours at a time. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Altered States” with William Hurt you get the idea. Hurt plays a Lilly-esque professor exploring the outer psychic reaches through the LSD/tank combo. The upshot? He devolves into a prehistoric ape-man and slashes a hole in the fabric of reality (a sequence which inspired the music video for Take On Me by Aha, fact fans.) I’ve never experimented with psychedelics in my life and on a list of places to try them a silent, black, watery coffin is not even in my top ten. So I chose to forego the LSD and combine simple meditation with sensory deprivation.


At Floatworks, before I get anywhere near the tank, the mood is set. A book of artwork inspired by sensory deprivation lies on a coffee table. The imagery is typical new age stuff - sleeping bodies drifting in tranquility through Sergeant Pepper landscapes. I’m handed a booklet that quickly answers any questions I have about the session - How do you know when the session is over? (Relaxing music plays for the last five minutes) How do you get out of the tank? (You push it open.) An aquarium bubbles away serenely in the background. All in all, everything that can possibly be done to assuage my anxieties and enhance the experience is done.

I meet Peter, the manager, who astutely notes the contradictory position I’m in: Writing an article about altered states, constructing a narrative even as I’m having the experience, is not exactly conducive to the kind of “in-the-moment” mindfulness required to actually have it. He tells me to just focus on my breathing, have no expectations, and relax.  

The tank itself is beautiful - far from the welded, clanking death box of the William Hurt movie, more like the stasis pods from the film Alien if Steve Jobs had designed them. It’s bigger than I’d imagined with plenty of room to drift without bonking the sides, which would tend to harsh your mellow. I have a quick shower, pop in some ear-plugs, climb in and close the lid.


It’s dark, obviously, and silent except for my own blood pumping around my head. The water temperature is so perfectly matched to my own body that the divide between air and water is barely perceptible. I lie back and float, and wait.

Many people are put off by meditation because they have a mistaken impression of the goal, which is not the absence of thought. A truly blank mind is unattainable for all but the most devout BNP member, and trying to achieve it is as futile as trying really hard not to think about a polar bear. The more you try the more you think of the polar bear.


We go in and out of meditative states throughout the day without noticing. If you just detach from what’s around you, allow thoughts to come and go rather than holding onto them, and then redirect your attention to something simple like your breathing, you are meditating. And the benefits are myriad and profound. People who meditate regularly have larger and thicker grey matter in the areas that deal with attention and processing sensory input; your brain literally grows, just like a muscle in response to exercise. When we consider that these areas of the brain usually degrade and thin as we grow older, this amounts to anti-aging.

Time in the tank moves differently. Without a frame of reference I quickly lose the ability to estimate how long I’ve been floating. The physical barrier of the walls helps with detaching from the world outside and I find it easy to forget about emails and obligations.

Over the next hour I lapse into long moments of non-thought, a sort of mental passivity, until my conscious mind notices and butts in with “hey look! I’m thinking about nothing” - at which point the spell is broken and I am of course thinking again. This happens repeatedly but in sum I am, if not quite transported to bodiless blissful oblivion, enormously relaxed.

But the most profound effects occur after I leave the tank.

Until I say it, it’s unlikely you’re currently aware that your shoes are full of feet. In other words, we tune out the constant sensory awareness that we have a body with weight and mass and skin rubbing against clothes. When I get out of the tank I feel, for the first time in my life, the physical weight of the biological machine I live in. It’s so striking I need to sit down for about twenty minutes, pupils dilated, gulping water and testing the weight of my arms. (Floatworks has an entire post-tank “chill out” area for this so it’s clearly a common effect.) Even hours after I’ve left, a shopkeeper appears to be speaking in fast-forward. That night’s sleep is like returning to the womb and I awake calm and refreshed.

Try the tank; you’ll like it, and I’ll definitely be booking more sessions. It probably helps if you’ve done some meditation in the past, but I think anyone will benefit from just slowing down for an hour and doing something solely for their own mental wellbeing.

That said, it’s not quite the shortcut to higher consciousness I’m looking for. I know I need to try different, maybe more extreme methods. I’ve got some travel coming up where I’ll take this experiment further. Also, chatting to Peter prior to my session he’d reminded me of something called the God Helmet.

It should be an interesting summer.

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