My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. II [the Tank]

Source: Wikipedia via Floatguru

This is the second installment in my series of posts examining experiences with altered states of consciousness. This month I visited a float tank, what would have at one point been called a “sensory deprivation chamber” or an “isolation tank,” but now days they are called by more soothing sounding names such as R.E.S.T. [for “restricted environmental sensory therapy”] chamber. I like “flotation tank” because it’s the most neutral term, but it doesn’t necessarily convey what this technology does — which is to place one in body temperature water loaded with Epsom salt (increasing buoyancy) and cut out as much light and sound as possible by enclosing one in an insulated pod.

[Before I proceed, those interested in reading the first installment of this series, describing my experience with psilocybin mushroom tea — and which lays out my plan for the year — can find that post here.]

Withdrawing from sensory stimulation has a long history here in India. In yoga, it’s called pratyahara, and it’s one of the eight limbs of yoga described by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras that date back to around 400 CE (that’s AD for the old school.) Of course, back in the day pratyahara was practiced in a cave or other isolated spot that cut one off from light, heat / cold, and sound as much as possible.

However, the technological approach is quite new in India. I visited 1000 Petals in Bangalore, which — as far as I know — is the first commercial float tank in India, and is — excepting the one at the company’s newer Mumbai (Bombay) location — among the only commercial tanks in the country as of now. [By “commercial” tanks, I mean only those that customers from the general public may visit. Who knows how may private tanks exist among India’s spice, coffee, and industrial barons? However, it’s an expensive piece of hardware for a private individual to own and maintain.]

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but had some basis for guesses. The general expectation is that with less stimulation, the brain both dials up awareness of the limited available input and may even start to create false signals. I’ve had experiences during meditation with under-stimulated sensory systems “acting up” in the face of reduced input — though this has primarily been during extended sessions of meditation. During the Vipassana 10-day meditation course, I frequently had morphing shapes play out scenes on the inside of my eyelids  — purple on a black background — and on occasion heard vivid music in my head (but which I knew was solely in my head.) Also, on a number of occasions during the Vipassana course, I had sensations that my body was stretching toward the ceiling.  I once even had an intense flowery scent that I’m not sure was an olfactory hallucination or a combination of the wind blowing just right to bring pollen into the meditation hall and my sensory attentiveness being dialed up to eleven due to under-stimulation. With possible exception of the flower smell, I never had any experience that would meet the common conception of a hallucination — i.e. sensory experience that I couldn’t tell whether was real or false. [Except in as much as I have only a vague notion of what being “real” means. An approximation suitable to getting through life in polite society.]

The question of the moment is whether the experience matched or defied my expectations? The general answer is, “both, in some measure.” Where it matched my expectations was in the fact that it was extremely relaxing. I spent much of the hour in a hypnogogic state (the state on the edge between wakefulness and sleep) and came out of the tank in the comfortably numb state that I associate with a good massage.  Unlike meditation, where one starts to have back aches and leg pains that detract from comfort, keep one awake, and eventually cause endorphins to surge through one’s system, the flotation tank makes one as comfortable as one can be from the outset. This doesn’t mean that the tank cuts one off from all tactile sensation. Just because the temperature matches one’s body and one is floating so as to not be in contact with anything but salty water, doesn’t mean one becomes completely numb. Sensations do arise, and, even though they might be so subtle that they ordinarily wouldn’t draw one’s attention, one becomes aware of them because one’s mind is so yearning for input.

The biggest way in which the flotation tank defied my expectation was the utter lack of response to the dearth of visual signal. At one point I realized I could get a little of that purple on black shape-shifting that I experienced in Vipassana, but only if I consciously turned my attention to the underside of my eyelids. It didn’t force its way to the center of my attention like it had during Vipassana. There are several factors I can imagine playing into this disparity. For one, the float tank session was just one hour, where as the Vipassana course days lasted about ten hours on the mat. For another, the float tank was pitch black or as near to it as my eyes were capable of discriminating, whereas the mediation hall had windows and was merely dim. A more personal possibility is that, having done a lot of meditation in the intervening time, my mind isn’t as distressed by a lack of sensory input as it once was.

I can’t say that my mind didn’t respond to the lack of sensory stimulation at all. It just didn’t seem to respond to the lack of visual input. I didn’t opt to wear ear plugs (which were available,) but the water went into my ears and — except for some initial sensation while settling in — there was very little to be heard. Mostly, I could hear my own breathing and occasionally hear / feel my pulse. [I found I could dully hear external sounds in the bass range such as construction workers pounding or a helicopter flying over, but not at a level that was distracting, and my mind didn’t  do anything with these stray sounds.]

As there was no smell to speak of and I could only taste the inside of my mouth if I turned my attention to it, this left tactile sensation as my primary source of stimulation. It’s funny, there is little to feel it would seem, but because one’s nervous system dials into what’s there, it begins to feel like one is laying in a perfectly form-fitting solid rather than on a liquid. And I became acutely aware of any sensations that came along. I didn’t have any strange “Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome-eque” sensations like stretching or melting that I’ve experienced to a limited degree in meditation (possibly because those experiences may have resulted from an endorphin dump.)  I did have a couple instances of leg twitch in the hypnogogic state, and I couldn’t feel the twitch at all because the leg wasn’t against anything solid, but I knew it happened from the ripples lapping up against my torso. 

So, long story short, my mind didn’t behave strangely when subjected to an hour of sensory reduction. It was very relaxing and brought about an extended hypnogogic state — oddly without the imagery that I usually associate with that state.

Looking ahead: Next month, I’m going to be in the more familiar territory of meditation. However, I’ll be looking to see if ramping up the intensity of my practice to at least one hour every single day, produces any interesting outcomes. In April, I’ll be attending an introductory level workshop of the Institute for Clinical Hypnosis and Related Sciences (ICHARS) to learn how to extend my familiarity with hypnotic trance induction from self-hypnosis to working with others.

2019: A Year Finding Out How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt I [The Mushroom]

For the past five years, since I moved to India, I’ve been studying what my mind is and what it’s capable of. I’ve used tried and true methods, including: yogic dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) techniques, Vipassana meditation,  dream yoga/ lucid dreaming [albeit, with limited success,] and the practice of self-hypnosis.

In 2019, while continuing the trend, I’m going to get into the weeds and see how strange the mind gets. I was originally going to entitle this “My Year of Exploring Varieties of Conscious Experience,” but that sounded punishingly boring. The current title may come off as frivolous, but I hope is more intriguing as well.

The year has begun, and so has my year of exploration. January was the month in which I first experienced psilocybe cubensis — what the kids call “magic mushroom” or “shrooms.” I should point out that — besides alcohol and caffeine — this was my first experience with any mind or mood altering substance. [With the exception of one afternoon thirty years ago when I was prescribed Tylenol with Codeine after having all four wisdom teeth pulled — an event that probably remains the most bizarre mental experience of my life.]

I’d like to be able to say that I’m the type who boldly tries out new things with derring-do, but those who know me know I’m the kind who reads hundreds of pages of research and commentary and then cautiously dips a toe into the waters. Among the extensive pre-experience reading I did was Michael Pollan’s excellent book, How to Change Your Mind and a study finding psilocybin mushrooms to be the safest of the mind and mood altering substances. (Yes, that includes being much safer than alcohol — a finding, the veracity of which, I have not a doubt. Those curious about this topic are encouraged to see Drugs without the Hot Air by David Nutt, which delves into how society’s approach to such substances can be absurd and without merit in logic. Nutt was famously fired from a government position in Britain for openly stating that alcohol and nicotine are both considerably more dangerous /damaging than a number of prohibited substances)

What was my experience like? Strange and fascinating. However, even at the time, I found myself wondering whether I was cursed with knowledge. How much did all that reading and research influence my experience for the good, the bad, or the indifferent? I don’t know, perhaps a lot, but maybe not at all. I’ll give some examples. One of the early and persistent effects was seeing the world overwritten in prismatic geometric forms. The closest I could describe this is to imagine the shapes seen in jaali — the latticed windows seen in Indo-Islamic architecture — but with a repeating “echo” of lines and a kind of rainbow prismatic effect.

Jaali

I suspect this is a neuro-chemical effect of the substance on one’s brain, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether my experience was trained by having read Aldous Huxley’s descriptions of “sacred geometries” during his own experience. (Of course, it also makes me wonder what Indo-Islamic craftsmen and architects might have been taking.)

As I mentioned, I could see where prior knowledge could have both positive and negative influences on the experience. I’ll start with an example of a possible positive effect of prior knowledge. One thing the reader needs to understand is that the physicist’s conception that things at rest will stay at rest and things in motion will stay in motion doesn’t hold in the mental world of psilocybin — everything goes into motion. It could be the breathing letters of a word on the page or the gentle writhing of a house plant, but not much just sits there. As I stared up at the ceiling, the staples that held the cable to the ceiling fan in place became blocky ants on the march, and soon any dot anywhere became an ant on the move. Now, I can imagine how this might stir in some people a “bad trip,” freaking out about the infestation. However, my mind always somehow recognized that the animation of those still objects was in my brain and not in the room. I was trained to think of these experiences as the effect of a serotonin mimic going hog-wild inside my brain, and I never thought that maybe I’d kicked open Huxley’s famed “Doors of Perception” and something real was now on display to me that I couldn’t ordinarily see. [Though I can’t eliminate that possibility.]

However, I also must wonder whether I might have had a grand breakthrough or experience of enlightenment (probably little-e) — as many claim to have had — if my experience wasn’t so grounded. I scribbled about seven and a half pages while I was “tripping,” and I was very curious about whether it would be gibberish or pure illumination. It was neither. About half my sentences broke off about 2/3rds of the way through, but those that I could make out were not wide the mark of my day-to-day philosophy. It reflected the diminished self and euphoria of the experience (which I’ve  also experienced in meditation), but wasn’t otherworldly. I will say, my psilocybin self was a wee bit bolder, realizing that — like a dog chasing its tail — if I ever captured the understanding I seek, the fun would be blanched from life. The closest thing to a revelation was that I needed to embrace my ignorance — a conclusion my sober self had already come to acceptance of in its bolder moments.

What are my recommendations if you plan to partake of a cup of mushroom tea? Make sure your environment is not overstimulating. Make sure there is nothing fear or anxiety inducing in the area (perhaps including knowing the legal status where you are.) Have a calm state of mind. Realize that for about 30 for 45 minutes you will think the tea had no effect upon you and the strangeness will come on gradually. Some people say you should have someone around. I don’t know that I’d say it’s necessary, (unless you have anxiety issues and then you might not want to partake without seeking medical advice)  but if you do make sure it’s not someone who gets on your nerves.

So what is next? February will be the month in which I try out a sensory deprivation float tank. In yoga, one of the legs of practice is pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses.) I’m fascinated to see what effect the body temperature Epsom salt water has — if any — over and above closed-eye meditation in a dim room.

My tentative schedule is:

January  —  Mushroom — check

February — Sensory Deprivation Float Tank

March — 30 days of hour-long meditations

April — Hypnosis (attending an intensive workshop)

May — EEG feedback meditation

June — Tummo / Wim Hof Method / Holotropic Breathwork

July — extensive Yogic dharana  and dhyana practice

August —  resumption of dream yoga / lucid dreaming practices

September — periodic fasting (and, maybe, controlled sleep deprivation)

October — Biofeedback pranayama (breathing exercises)

November — Poetry of the Subconscious Mind

December  — mixed practices, putting it all together

I plan to keep up documentation of my practice, and hope you’ll follow along when I post something. I’m also interested to hear about the experiences of others regarding these and other consciousness related practices. I don’t know how strange it’ll get, but things might get pretty weird.

5 Books About the Mental Side of Yoga


5.) Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi: This book, which is presented in Q&A format, explores Sri Ramana’s approach to Jñāna yoga, and explains atma-vichara, the exercise of self-enquiry that Ramana proposed was the key to self-realization.

 

4.) Supernormal by Dean Radin: Okay, this is an unconventional choice for the list but bear with me. (I mostly included it because I like to have an under-the-radar entry in these lists, and this seems like one that could have been missed readers of works on yoga.) Radin is a paranormal researcher who, in this case, has investigated the topic of siddhi, which are the controversial powers that Patanjali discusses in the third section of The Yoga Sutras, but which many deny are real.

 

3.) Sure Ways to Self-Realization by Swami Satyananda Saraswati: This is the Bihar School of Yoga guide to meditation, and it covers both yogic meditation methods and those from other disciplines (e.g. Buddhism, Taoism, Western / scientific [e.g. biofeedback], etc.) By “meditation,” here I mean more than dhyana. This book uses the word in a broader and more colloquial sense that includes some practices that are normally considered pratyahara (withdrawal of senses) or dharana (concentration.)

 

2.) Yoga Nidra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati:  Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep) is a sustained hypnogogic state — i.e. the state of mind on the edge between wakefulness and falling into sleep. It is used both as an intense relaxation exercise as well as to access the subconscious to plant seeds therein.

 

1.) Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: (Sutras by Patanjali with commentary by B.K.S. Iyengar): This isn’t — strictly speaking — only about the mental side of yoga, but, in the Sutras, Patanjali makes clear that yoga is a tool to advance mental calm and clarity. There are many translations and commentaries available. Commentaries are useful because the 196 sutras are extremely sparse. Iyengar’s book is probably one of the most approachable translation / commentaries for a modern reader.

POEM: Pratyahara


Silence
Ears ring
Inventing a monotonous tone
to thwart
Silence

on inner eyelids
a dragon dance plays out
in purple & black

a flower scent
too faint for a human nose
swells to a garland market
and becomes
the taste
of
rosewater on the tongue

as the mind wonders,
was it a real
flower
or a
phantosmia?