The first sound I heard when I walked into the waiting room was the soothing sound of pumps grinding away. The room was dimly lit and one sign said "please, your shoes" and another, "Please speak quietly." After they got the tank ready, a woman about my age took me to the isolation tank room and told what to do. She had to open a door and turn off a pump that ran a swimming pool filter that was connected to the tank so I could use the tank.
The tank was a large horizontal version, but was not wired for sound, as some tanks are. Instead, they had ear plugs to reduce external sounds. She told me that if I had any cuts to put Vaseline on them so that the magnesium sulfate in the tank wouldn't irritate them. Then she showed me where the bathroom was and then left.
I used the bathroom, took a quick shower, climbed into the tank and closed the lid. Except for a translucent plug above my head where electrode wires are inserted for EEG measurements, the tank was totally dark. This light leak was no problem because the lights in the tank room had been turned down very low.
My breathing was so loud that I remembered that I had forgotten to put in the earplugs, so I opened the tank and did so. Back in the tank with lid closed, my breathing still sounded very loud, like the breathing in the movie 2001. This took some getting use to.
Another thing that was awkward at first was the act of floating on top of the water-magnesium sulfate solution. The 10 inch deep solution in the tank is maintained at 93.5 degrees (your external body temperature) and contains 150 gallons of water and 800 pounds of magnesium sulfate (MgSO4, commonly known as epsom salts) that increases the density of the water to the point where you can effortlessly float on top of it. John Lilly had used sea water, which does not have the density of the magnesium sulfate solution.
First, I tried the John Lilly method of floating by placing my hands on my neck with elbows pointing out. After about 10 minutes, I gave up on this method because hands against my Hippie Hair was robbing me of sensory deprivation in that area of my body. I found that I could relax much more effectively with hands to my sides and quickly learned that there was no danger of my head going under water. Becoming comfortable with the experience took me about the first 15 minutes of the experiment.
I noticed a sense of rotation of my body and realized that this was some kind of illusion because my feet never hit the side of the tank at this point. Later on, I bumped into a side or end of the tank several times but found it easy to re-center my body in the middle of the tank. What I needed was an anchor.
Every once in a while a drop of water would drip from the top of the tank and make a psychedelic sound when it hit the solution in the tank. Because of the ear plugs, I could hear very little noise outside the tank, except for an occasional pump starting or stopping and even this could barely be heard over the roar of my breathing. I concentrated on breathing more deeply and slowly, so I could hear other sounds my body was making.
Near the end of the experiment, I noticed I could hear my eyelids opening and closing. It was so dark in the tank that there was hardly any visual difference whether my eyes were open or closed. Any visions I was experiencing would continue in spite of opening my eyes. The sound of my eyelids operating surprised me since I had never heard them operating before.
Although I could hear my eyelids, I could not hear blood circulation noises, as others have reported. My breathing made such a racket that I could only concentrate on minute sounds between breaths. Because of the ear plugs, most of the sounds I heard came through conduction through the solution I was floating on. This was why the water drops sounded so loud.
Once gotten used to, the feeling of floating on the solution was extremely enjoyable. I lost all sense of gravity and felt like I could merely float anywhere I wanted to. There is a feeling of drifting along with the flow. It was such a gentle feeling and not an overwhelming one as some altered states of consciousness can be.
After an hour, I emerged from the tank. My first order of business was getting the magnesium sulfate out of my Hippie Hair which now felt like lead. Two shampoo-rinse cycles were necessary to remove all of it. After drying off and putting my clothes back on, I walked down the streets of the Pike street market feeling a high similar to emerging from an Indian sweat lodge. My body felt totally relaxed and my senses were much sharper. Although the isolation tank experiment was an unique experience for me, the end result was it took me to a higher level of consciousness that I had reached many times using other methods. The tank proved to be a safe and effective consciousness booster.
I'm surprised that no one has thought of the isolation tank as being a potential tool in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. I see it is the ultimate Freudian couch. Since the isolation tank can produce a similar state of consciousness as LSD and other psychedelic drugs, therapists can use it as a legal and safe way to induce the psychedelic state.
Although isolation tanks have been around since the late 50's, no one but scientists and their volunteer subjects have had access to them until recently. The old tanks were crude and less safe than the tanks of today. During the 80's, relaxation spas with isolation tanks started springing up everywhere and anyone can use them.
The recent appearance of the relaxation spas may be a sign of the times. The 80's have brought us close to the point of sensory overload, with all sorts of new gadgets to bombard our senses. Cable TV, VCRs, home computers, video games, compact disks and fax machines are only a few examples. With all this stimulus competing for our attention, one can only think how nice it would be to climb into a nice dark tank and get away from it for a while.
1. Read The Center of the Cyclone by John Lilly for ideas of what you can get out of the experience. Also, since the tanks have been known to induce out of body experiences, you should read up on this condition, so it won't scare the hell out of you if it should happen. One book on the subject is Journeys Out of the Body by Robert Monroe. The more prepared your are, the more possibilities you will have. Do your homework first.
2. Try to avoid yuppie-type "brain salons" like the plague. These tend to be expensive as well as being a complete bring-down. The whole idea of isolation is to strip your senses of stimulation from the outside world. This cannot happen in a tank equipped with television monitors, stereo systems, telephones and fax machines. Always visit a spa first to make sure it has an atmosphere comfortable to you.
3. Check university psychology departments to see if they have a tank. It's a long shot, but maybe someone is conducting new isolation research and needs volunteers.
4. Avoid eating a heavy meal before using the tank. Also remember to use the bathroom before climbing in. Having to interrupt your experience halfway through your session to make a trip to the bathroom is very disrupting.
5. If the tank you use is equipped for audio, be careful how you use it. Avoid music (new age or otherwise) and other similar stimulation. Chanting tapes and meditation tapes that help you concentrate on your breathing are usually useful. The best use of tapes is for preparation when you first get into the tank and should suggest getting your body in a comfortable position and concentrate on your breathing.
6. If there are any breaks in your skin, you should allow them to heal before using the tank, or at least coat them with Vaseline. The magnesium sulfate in the tank acts like salt in your wounds.
7. While in the tank, don't lose sight of why you are there. If you are thinking about important meetings, job problems, troubles with a lover or the kids, or other such trivia, you rob yourself of benefiting from the experience. Concentrate on leaving all such thoughts outside the tank as you climb in. You can always deal with these issues later, and they will simply get in the way of your experience.
8. Avoid using the tank immediately before any commitment. You need "re-entry" time after the experience to allow it to settle in undisturbed by heavy intellectual activity, just as you would after an LSD session. John Lilly stresses the importance of this in his book. His failure to heed this advise almost cost him his life. It also caused me trouble the first time I took LSD.
9. Keep a log of your experiences in the tank. Details can slip away quickly and having a written record can come in handy. Share your experiences with others. Someone else may have an idea you hadn't thought of.
10. Don't get in a hurry. Breakthroughs come in their own sweet time and don't like to be rushed. Remember to let the experience happen, don't try to force it.
11. Don't take yourself so seriously. Use a little humor. Don't blame yourself when things go wrong. You are exploring new areas of consciousness that differ greatly from the serious physical world. So laugh a little and allow yourself to have a good time.
12. Take care when climbing out of the tank and don't get in a hurry. Climbing out of the tank is similar to being expelled from the womb when you are born. You are ejected from one consciousness level into another. Remember that the floor is wet and slippery and you could have a nasty fall if you are not extremely careful. Take your time and maintain your balance. Don't make any sudden movements. Make sure you are completely grounded in your normal waking state before attempting driving or any other activity that requires your full concentration.
The mind machines are all the gadgets that attempt to synch up your brain to a lower frequency than it normally operates at in an attempt to trigger an altered state of consciousness. Some do this with light, sound, magnetic fields and some even shoot electricity through your brain, just like they do in the Shock Shop at the Cuckoo's Nest. Actually, they use a much lower voltage at a much lower frequency, so you don't have to worry about shooting out of the treatment room on a Gurney, still smoking.
You can get catalogs chock full of all these gadgets that every loony bin would just love to have to torture the patients with, but that they can't afford. You can probably find them on the web and some of these outfits sell isolation tanks for about 5-10 grand, depending on how much yuppie stuff you want on it, but as I said before, all the yuppie stuff defeats the whole purpose of the tank, which is isolation. As far as plans for building a tank goes, the book The Deep Self by John Lilly has two sets of plans. This book is out of print, so you'll have to try a library or used book store.