Flashback Friday: Isolation Tanks

Are isolation tanks a shortcut to enlightenment?
Flashback Friday: Isolation Tanks
Artwork by Mark Kaplan

From the March, 1976 issue of High Times comes David Rensin’s story about voluntary sensory deprivation.

“Life is pretty dull if we have no surprises.” —Dr. John C. Lilly

“Me? I love tanks.” —General George Patton

The mouth of the tank lay open before me. Naked and expectant, I stepped into the warm salty water. I stretched out as the lid was fixed behind me, and began to float and familiarize myself with the surroundings. First, there was total darkness—and then a silence so complete that my breathing and heartbeat became deafening. Still, I could not relax. It was hot and damp, and the salt stung cuts on my hands and in my ears. I imagined suffocating, and, though I fought back my fear, I knew I wanted to escape.

Suddenly I realized that, for a few moments, all awareness of my body, my breathing, my environment and even the salty sweat on my eyelids had been momentarily suspended. A wave of exhilaration swept me and quickly turned to curiosity. How much time had passed? My restlessness returned, and I longed again for a cool breeze when there was an insistent pounding on the lid. I emerged. Physically drained of energy, slightly dizzy, and most of all confused about my experiences, I entered the bathroom and stepped into the shower.

So went my first experience inside an isolation tank. I had come to it virtually ignorant. Its history had no meaning for me at all, and the only isolation tank I’d ever seen was in the TV pilot for Hawaii Five-0, where it was used to crack U.S. agents—McGarrett, of course, survived the rubber-suit-and-vertical-immersion trial.

My ignorance was convenient. Lee Leibner, who with her partner Glenn Perry owns the Samadhi Tank Company in Los Angeles, insisted that I log my first hour of tank time immediately upon arrival and without benefit of hype. This, she explained in tankese, would avoid a situation of preprograming and developing expectations. She suggested that I’d need at least five separate sessions in the tank before making any final evaluations. However, she would be willing to listen to whatever impressions I might care to share after each immersion. (Not immersion in the Baptist sense: one’s face is always above the water line.)

As it was, I had enough of my own questions regarding the unknown tank: Would it induce a spiritual revelation? A state of cosmic bliss? A miracle? Or would I drown?

None of these things happened. As I rediscovered later, one cannot be the experience and chase after it at the same time. While the tank can facilitate “getting high’’ and/or altering one’s state of consciousness, there is no chemical alteration, as with marijuana or LSD. This trip is self-propelled.

Alone in the shower. I reviewed my experience. The “trip” had not been particularly pleasant. I felt stranded between conflicting feelings and perceptions: apprehension and eagerness, fear and wonder. boredom and intrigue. Were I given to cynical wit, this piece might be titled, “Thanks. But No Tanks.”

An experience need not be comfortable to be profitable, however, so I let that thought wash away with the brine that soaked my body. The episode justified another try. After all, discomfort or negative reactions might merely be barriers to be transcended. There could be something on the other side.

Dr. John C. Lilly created the physical-isolation unit during his tenure at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1954. He states my crude ethic more succinctly in his autobiographical book, The Center of the Cyclone (Bantam. 1973). He offers a generalization based on his own tank experiences over a ten-year period: “Within the province of the mind, what I believe to be true is true or becomes true (in the mind), within limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits.”

Lilly’s message allowed me to proceed into the second immersion with a positive attitude. Lee still declined to program me, but I’d confided to her that I had taken “est” training, so she suggested I try going into my “space” (a form of meditation/concentration) while in the tank.

Everything was different. The salt sting came and went. The heat was somehow tolerable. Within minutes I moved through all my most accessible “spaces” and saw an infinity stretching ahead. I was no longer threatened or claustrophobic. I lay perfectly still. Almost at once perceptions and spectral colors flooded my mind’s eye. I realized things about home, family, work and personal relationships that I could not center on individually without being distracted. I radiated warmth through a mental smile. My remaining time in isolation was spent lost in isolated body sensations and a semiconscious reverie. I actually resented the interruption of this tranquility at the hour’s end. I reentered a world of aching color, singing birds and sunshine with astonishing calm. I liked the way it had felt.

Glenn Perry was a computer-program writer at Xerox in 1972 when he attended one of John Lilly’s workshops. Soon after that, he started the Samadhi Tank Company. Samadhi, roughly translated, means “where the meditator becomes the object of meditation.”

“John introduced me to the isolation tank as an integral tool to further self-exploration,” Glenn explained. “Being naive, I thought that with just a little extra work I could also make them for other people.” Samadhi is presently the only tank manufacturer in the world, so Glenn’s “extra work” may be playing a large part in the writing of tank history—aside from Lilly’s own experiments.

Lilly and Perry spent many hours designing tanks. It was Glenn’s idea to make them “compact for shipping, easily assembled and relocatable, safe, simply maintained and economical.” The first result was a rectangular wooden affair that sold for $900 in kit form. Twenty kits were made. The materials for a second design—constructed from fiberglas and plastic—became prohibitively expensive during the “energy crisis.” Only one working model exists. Dr. Lilly uses it at his Human Software, Inc., research facility in the Santa Monica mountains.

In the summer of 1974, Glenn and Lee met and decided to make a living together. Soon, design of the rigid foam model began, and Samadhi required Perry’s full-time attention. He left Xerox in November 1974. Lee, a teacher of emotionally disturbed children, pitched in when her school term ended. By September 1975, the first foam model became available for $650, and the company will introduce a heavy-duty tank soon. Samadhi will sell both models to mental growth centers, university psychology departments/-research facilities and private users. Glenn and Lee are compiling all available data on tank use and research in order to keep themselves and other tankers up to date on trade data, in addition to developing info for do-it-yourself tank builders.

Almost thankfully, I sank into the water and soon felt I had come home again. I lay still and began the process of placing my consciousness in various parts of my body—shoulders, ribs, groin, ankles. I felt relaxed. Suddenly I sat up, opened the lid and wiped my face on a convenient towel. Time had passed, but I didn’t know how much. I guessed at 70 minutes, but I didn’t know what I’d been doing—only that I hadn’t slept.

I couldn’t concentrate after replacing the lid. Twenty minutes later Lee knocked. My bioclock had been accurate. We spoke into the night. I was supercharged.

After my fourth immersion. I was getting restless and my ears were holding water. Another tank session would be too painful until the situation cleared up. However, I was convinced that the tank had indeed enhanced the meditative process by eliminating some environmental noise, thereby helping consciousness to focus attention on inner “realities.”

The original purpose of the tank during Lilly’s 1954 experiments (he immersed vertically and had to wear breathing apparatus) was to ascertain if the brain would sleep when external input was eliminated. Or would it provide its own “input”? It does, but tank experiences—like drug experiences—are different for everyone, and prior programing is desirable. Overall uses for the tank seem to include: removal of mental garbage, problem solving (Glenn designs tanks in the tank), rest and relaxation, meditation, therapy for body injuries and exploring perceptual processes. Like sex, isolation can be experienced with or without the benefit of drugs. John Lilly himself often used LSD-25 along with isolation but warned that one should first be comfortable with the tank before adding drug use. Lilly also advises that the isolee avoid seduction by the drug-euphoria, so as not to deviate from the original purpose of isolation: self-analysis to Lilly.

Tank experiences change from one session to another, but the tank appears to be an improvement over more classical methods of meditation, since it removes external stimuli more thoroughly and with practice, more swiftly. This may account for sensations in novice users of claustrophobia, fear of darkness, fear of drowning, fear of suffocation and the like. Ultimately, your expectations are entirely your own. In-tank discoveries can be an accessory to everyday consensus reality, but again, the answer depends on the person, and the discovery. One cosmetic discovery is the need for showering before and after tank use. MgS04 (Epsom salts) makes your hair stiff.

John Lilly, the man who pioneered isolation tank research, spent 12 years investigating human-dolphin relationships, was associated with Esalen for two years; studied with Oscar Ichazo in Arica, Chile; worked extensively in biophysics, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, electronics, computer theory and medicine; scientifically documented various spiritual realities and expanded states of consciousness, and is currently delving into areas for which verbal equivalents are reportedly hard to find. I find him to be fascinating and enlightening—an explorer of the first order.

It is in Lilly’s work that one finds the most complete documentation of tank development as well as its most critical evaluations, arising from the constant review of old and new data over years of continuing use. Even today, after 20 years, Lilly takes to his tank for inner experience of an elevated sort. This is indicative of a severe psychological dependence, the continued employment of a valuable tool—or both.

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