This feature appeared in the Summer, 2014, edition of 1972 magazine. It details my experiences with the isolation tanks at Float Culture, a flotation centre in Auckland, New Zealand, and took a different approach than much of my previous, sports-centered work. Author Steve Braunias awarded the piece the 2014 Wintec Press Club Sentence of the Year, and marked the beginning of an ongoing relationship with editor and writer Duncan Greive. It remains a personal favorite.
Alone in the dark I left my body. It was a directionless exit. More of an expansion in all directions. Perhaps influenced by having just read a copy of the Bhagavad Gita(forced upon me by a young Hare Krishna in downtown Hamilton), I recognized an immense, blue-skinned being which materialised before me as some hybrid Hindu deity, a kind of Shiva/Krishna mashup. As in the story of Krishna, the deity opened its mouth and revealed the contents as the entire universe. Some magnetism drew me closer. Like a leaf in a strong current I was carried onwards and inside the cosmic realm of the being’s mouth. Suddenly I burst through an invisible membrane and out into deep space, floating feet-first as if navigating a river of hydroslide. An infinite night of glimmering stars extended endlessly on all sides. Rolling waves of positivity washed over me. Gratitude filled my body. My spine cracked with a satisfying ‘pop’. I was halfway through my second experience in a flotation tank, and I was thoroughly impressed.
Anton Kuznetsov immigrated to New Zealand from Moscow in 2010, drawn like many Eastern Europeans to the idyllic locale and egalitarian society. Together with fellow expat Vasily Zaglyada, originally from Vladivostok, Anton owns and operates Float Culture, Auckland’s only floatation centre.
Established earlier last year, Float Culture’s two premium i-sopod tanks accommodate clients from right across the spectrum. Athletes looking for a mental edge float alongside self-anointed shaman’s who are probably far beyond it. Psychedelic implications aside, floating in zero gravity can be incredibly relaxing and the magnesium content of Epsom salts does wonders for the skin – so some of Float Culture’s clientele are there just to chill out.
I arrived early on the last morning of August for my first float. I was greeted at the door by Anton, who had a joyous air about him. Ushered inside I as introduced to Vasily. Like Anton, he glowed.” What’s up with these Russian dudes?” I thought.
Anton told me he uses the tank three or four times a week. “I’ve found that now when I walk to work I’m more mindful,” he said. “I noticed the look of the trees and maybe the smell of the rain. But it took me maybe 20 times before I had something that was like’ Wow. That was different.’”
“What do you mean by that?”
“A psychedelic experience. Light and sounds are visual hallucinations. You can hear music and it’s so familiar. You aren’t remembering it though, it’s just there.”
“It’s all very abstract.”
“What I’m saying is not important,” says Anton. “It’s what happens inside the tank that is interesting.”
He was right.
The tanks are futuristic white plastic pods filled with 1000 litres of water made buoyant by nearly 600 kilograms of Epsom salt, set in the middle of a room reminiscent of a Japanese bathhouse – they look like the first step of a hypersleep program. There’s an elegance to the tanks. Minimalist yet sexy, they could have been designed by Apple. This is clearly a place of relaxation. After a shower to remove any perfume, dirt or body odour, I walked naked to the tank, which was emitting a soft, blue glow. I stepped into the water, crouching down and pulling the lid with me.
The origins of the tank movement are deep in ‘60s exploratory excess. In his 1969 work The Laws of Form, polymath G. Spencer Brown wrote that a primary operation of the human psyche is making conscious and subconscious distinctions. The human biocomputer processes millions of bits of information every second but the brain can only handle so much before a point of diminishing returns. A nightclub would be a bad place to learn chess, for example. The fundamental goal of most meditation and other mindfulness practice is quieting the mind and reducing or tuning out the overwhelming distractions which endlessly compete for our attention. A barking dog, a lover’s spat, not to mention the inevitability of death and so on all serve to tug a concentration and presence, splintering the mind and taking one away from the self.
If these surface-level concerns can be addressed, the theory goes, one gains a clearer perspective on reality and one’s place in it. When the mind is quietened and sensory input fades out the incredible processing power of the brain is left free for meaningful insight.
It takes discipline and focus to quiet the chattering money-mind to a level in which truly uninhibited contemplation is possible. Social conditioning is strong and our attention spans have grown weak. It can take a lifetime of renunciation and solitude to truly gain mastery over the mind, cleaning the lens through which we perceive. But there is another way: you can remove sensory input altogether. That’s where the tank comes in.
“Alone with god, there are no alibies,” wrote Dr John C. Lilly in his book The Deep self: Profound Relaxation and the Isolation Tank Technique. Lilly is the Neil Armstrong of the inner-verse. In fact, he probably had more in common with the explorers of old, sailing over the horizons without map or certainty of return, than with any astronaut. A pioneer in the field of neuroscience, psychoanalysis and the use of psychedelics, Lilly dedicated his life to the exploration of reality and the mind’s place within it. More specifically, as asked in his early essay Truth – how can the mind render itself sufficiently objective to study itself?
Lilly was highly educated, graduating from the university of Pennsylvania with a medical degree in 1942 after several years studying physics and neurophysiology. He took a wholly scientific approach to his early research; a Trojan horse of sorts which shielded his studies from undue outside influence.
A leading problem in neuroscience during the ‘50s was whether or not the brain could function bereft of outside stimulus such as light or sound. In 1954, as a member of the National Institute for Mental Health, Lilly conceptualized a way to totally isolate his brain. He theorised that deprivation could be achieved if the body was submerged inside a dark, soundproof body of water.
Lilly’s design required the subject (himself) to squeeze into a constrictive neoprene suit complete with a full-face rubber mask like something straight out of a BDSM dungeon before being vertically submerged into a pitch-black tank of water. Unsurprisingly, initial reports found it was difficult to relax. A revamp was needed. The system was simplified, and several incarnations later culminated in the Samadhi, a rectangular tank akin to an enlarged, enclosed bath filled with a buoyant medium of salt skin temperature water. The high concentration of Epsom salts allowed the user to float without effort and thick walls and a tight lid prevented light and sound penetration. Occasional claustrophobia aside, it worked.
Suspended weightless, adrift in the cosmos with nowhere to look but inwards, Lilly made an incredible discovery. He found that not only can the human brain function independently of input, but, unhindered by the overwhelming onslaught of endless sensory stimulation, all manner of incredible things are possible. “In the province of the mind,” Lilly would famously state, “there are no limits.”
The tank proved alluring to Lilly’s particular methodology and quickly became central to his research to the point where he would forgo sleep, choosing to float instead. Lilly began to experiment with potent psychedelics in combination with long periods of sensory deprivation. After extensive tank use, and perhaps influenced by his infamous predilection for ketamine (Lilly once self-administered the drug intramuscularly 24 times a day for several consecutive month), Lilly’s reports became increasingly esoteric. In the Dyadic Cyclone: The Autobiography of a couplehe described encounters with a group of groovy, somewhat-benevolent cosmic entities called the Earth Coincidence Control Office (ECCO). According to Lilly, the ECCO exists inside of the Solar System Control Unit which is a part of a substation of the Cosmic Coincidence Control.
Far out, right?
Naturally when I learned flotation tanks were coming to Auckland, I had to check it out.
Stretching out inside the pod I appreciated the ample room and considered the horrific devices Lilly managed to journey through the cosmic in. “If he can get it done in one of those…” I thought. As if to ramp up the new-age woo factor, ambient music began to play through the water. Anton had warned me of this. “It helps some people to relax,” he said. Once the light went out, I understood why. Isolation tanks are very dark and very quiet. Deprived of visual and sensory input for the first time in the two decades since birth, my brain became desperate for something, anything, to focus on besides itself. For a while it clung to the soundscape like some kind of buoy, but soon the music faded away and I was alone. What transpired in the next 90 minutes was a far cry from my future brush with divinity. However that is not to diminish the intensity of the experience. My notes from shortly after the session read: “Sorted through some shit, man”.
Flotation felt a little like self-psychoanalysis, a chat between the various layer of my conscious and subconscious mind without ‘Don the Ego’ getting involved and distorting the dialogue. My motivations and anxieties were laid out on the table for discussion. Nothing was veiled with embarrassment. Everything was warm and peaceful and juicy. Time ceased to exist. When soft music signalling the end of the session brought me gently back to reality I felt reborn. Truly, it felt like leaving the womb but without the blood, sterile lighting or general trauma.
The room, softly lit just as when I entered the tank, practically gleaming. I found myself laughing at the sound the water made as it left the shower head and bounced off the floor. An apothecary of scented lotions lined the wall and each calendula-scented, lime-infused, orange-based potion inspired another giggle. I moisturised my hands, neck and face three times because it felt so damn good. “What the hell was in the water?” I thought briefly. When I returned to the lobby, Anton and Vasily were waiting with sympathetic grins on their faces. They knew.
“How was your float?”
“Would you like some green tea?”
I sat on a lime green couch while Anton poured my tea from a white porcelain teapot. I attempted an interview. It was futile. I shook my head over and over with an idiotic smile while Anton laughed quietly. He knew. “We’re going to have to do this another time,” I told him.
It was several weeks before I returned to Float Culture but barely a day went by without the tank entering my mind. One night I dreamed I bought an i-sopod tank and installed it in my parent’s basement. If only. I arrived on a Tuesday evening for an after-dark float. Vasily asked me if I would like the ambient music again to help me relax.
Third eye open, I entered the tank with considerably less apprehension than last time. I was ready to get to work. Anton had recommended something similar to John Lilly’s dolphin breathing technique. “Basically you are hyperventilating inside the tank,” he said. “Once you feel like you cannot do it anymore, stop and your breathing will settle. You will get in the float state much faster this way. “
He was right.
Breath control is an integral part of many yogic traditions and it’s no secret that manipulating your body’s oxygen content can alter your consciousness. Inside the tank this effect is magnified. As the skin temperature water dissolved my body-environment boundary and my breathing slowed, I approached a significantly altered state.
Direction ceased to have meaning. I felt as though I was lying face down over an infinite precipice held up by some inverted gravitational force, or perhaps I was hanging from my feet in zero gravity. Arcs of light swirled and pulsed before my eyes. A feeling of peace enveloped my disembodied being. I went deep. Another therapeutic session of psychoanalysis was interrupted by the materialisation of a blue-skinned deity which consumed my body and spat me out in to deep space. Or maybe I just fell asleep. Who knows?
Whatever the case, whether I encountered some ancient archetypal being or just tricked my brain into producing a spectacular dream or hallucination, it was incredibly intense and a feeling of calm, peaceful acceptance lingered for several days.
In the time since my last float, it's been constantly on my mind. There are no float centers where I'm based, so the feasibility of one day owning or constructing my own tank has been thoroughly mulled over. In the meantime, the evolution of the isolation tank continues and a unique Kickstarter venture is about to begin producing 'float tents' for the home user. Set to ship in December for around US$1700, the float tent could be an economical alternative to the pricier more complicated versions.
Whether the experience could truly match the total relaxation offered by the luxurious tanks at Float Culture is up for debate. However if John Lilly can encounter cosmic entities wearing a gimp mask in a water closet, perhaps it’s not totally out of the question. Whatever the case, flotation is on the rise. Go get your hair wet.