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The Book of Floating
Exploring the Private Sea
By Michael Hutchison
Gateways Books and Tapes Copyright © 2003 Michael Hutchison
All rights reserved.
LESS IS MORE — THE SENSORY RESTRICTION TRADITION
The Discovery of the Blind Pew Effect
I was about four when I had my first experience of the nature of sensory deprivation. My father was reading me Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. We'd reached the exciting chapter in which Jim Hawkins and the sea captain are seated in the Admiral Benbow Inn; suddenly Pew, a blind beggar, comes in, finding his way hesitantly, tapping a cane, until he reaches the captain, whereupon he gives him a message bearing the dreaded Black Spot and races out of the inn. "But wait", I said: "How can this blind man, who could barely find his way into the inn without tripping over chairs and tables, now race out of the tavern so easily?" My father explained that blind people, because they had to rely on senses other than sight, were able to develop those other senses to a very high degree. Blind Pew, he assured me, could certainly find his way out of any place he entered, because as he found his way in he was unconsciously visualizing the floor plan in his head. It is, he said, like a sixth sense.
I immediately decided I would keep my eyes shut and pretend I was blind until I could make use of that sixth sense. In the coming days I spent a lot of time stumbling into chairs, tripping over curbs, and sitting in the total darkness of an empty refrigerator box I'd discovered in the garbage, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn't seem to generate that elusive inner sense. Then, while sitting in the coal bin in the basement, I realized that I was anticipating the tuna casserole mother was making for dinner. Hold on — I hadn't even known what she was cooking! Then I understood that real knowledge had come to me unconsciously through my nose and ears. Excitedly I paid attention, heard my mother talking to herself upstairs, and every pot clanking, every floorboard squeaking, every odor took on meaning. I could visualize her every movement. I was the blind Pew of my coal cellar! I could hear the sounds, and from the sounds create an inner vision: of my friends playing stickball amid the traffic outside and flipping baseball cards on the front stoop, my sisters chattering as they put on their roller skates, the baseball game on the radio from across the street. The world was going on outside me, and without seeing it I could experience it inside me more clearly than I usually did with my eyes open ... and suddenly I opened my eyes.
There I was in the dim cellar sitting on a pile of hard coal. Somehow the sounds seemed to have been turned down; all the richness and timeless complexity of the noise of a whole neighborhood went away. But I was thrilled. I had an image of my mind as something like a balloon — if you squeezed it in one place it swelled up someplace else. I had made a discovery that must be one of the first every child makes, and one of the earliest realizations of our ancient ancestors: When one or more senses are restricted, the sensitivity of the other senses is expanded.
Such experiences are probably universal. Dr. Andrew Weil believes they flow from an innate human drive. As he wrote in The Natural Mind: "Human beings are born with a drive to experience modes of awareness other than the normal waking one; from very young ages, children experiment with techniques to change consciousness. Such experiences are normal."
But though this universal drive to alter consciousness is a source of great pleasure to children, it is not mere child's play. Weil sees it as "evolutionary," representing an "innate capacity of the nervous system," and concludes: "It is valuable to learn to enter other states deliberately and consciously because such experiences are doorways to fuller use of the nervous system, to the realization of untapped human potential, and to better function in the ordinary mode of consciousness."
This need to alter consciousness, then, is not some frivolous desire to escape, but rather one of the most fundamental of human characteristics — perhaps, in fact, the characteristic that has led to our development of culture and civilization. The point is at once so obvious, so important, and so easily forgotten: To be human is to explore and make use of altered states of consciousness.
Probably the most satisfactory and popular way of altering consciousness — a method that humans have developed over literally millions of years of testing and exploring — is to restrict the operation of one or more of their senses, that is, to put themselves into a state of sensory deprivation. One of the main assumptions of this book is that the floatation tank makes use of this sensory deprivation effect to bring about a gentle, pleasant, controllable, and temporary shift in consciousness in anyone who floats. Among the ideas proposed here is that this shift in consciousness is healthy, that it is educational, and that it can be manipulated, explored, and used in such a way as to cause changes in attitude, physiology, and behavior that persist even after one emerges from the tank.
Floating in Artist's Garret, Polar Icecap, and Monk's Cell
The float tank is a valuable specific tool for cutting down the amount of external stimuli that reach our senses, probably the best sensory deprivation device ever created. But humans have been using tools and techniques of various sorts for exactly this purpose for thousands, probably millions of years. The following are just a few of the most common:
Preparation for the Hunt. In primitive societies, like those our own civilization has evolved from, men prepare themselves before going out on a hunt by withdrawing from normal activities and "purifying" themselves through fasting, silence, steam baths, and/or isolation, either within a small shelter or alone in some spot away from village life. They believe that this sensory restriction improves their hunting abilities; and recent tests, demonstrating that short periods of sensory deprivation increase acuity of smell, taste, sight, and hearing, show that the ancient hunters knew what they were doing.
Rites of Passage. In every premodern society an important ceremony marks the passage from childhood to acceptance into adult society. These rites of passage gain much of their power from the inclusion of more or less arduous sensory deprivation as part of the preparation. Some young people are confined for days or weeks to darkened huts, or undertake fasts. In many cultures the boys are expected to go out alone into the wilderness for long periods until they have experienced their spiritual coming of age, by confronting demons, ghosts, ancestral spirits, or dreams — the dream quest. Whatever the sensory deprivation technique used, it works in part by making the young people more open to new experience, new wisdom, new responsibility, by making them more sensitive and aware, so that the experiences they undergo will be intensified, momentous, unforgettable.
Spiritual Withdrawal. In every culture some sort of sensory deprivation experience has been considered essential in the training of spiritual leaders. Shamans, witch doctors, monks, priests, gurus, fakirs, yogis, priestesses, mediums, mystics, and other spiritual seekers endure frequent and often rigorous periods of total silence, fasting, retreat into small cells or caves or dark rooms, withdrawal to mountaintops or deserts or islands where isolation can be combined with restricted or monotonous sensory input. Like the desert anchorites or "withdrawers" mentioned by John Cassian in the quotation that opened this section, hermits, monks, and seekers of enlightenment have always found sensory restriction — either the actual isolation of desert, monastery, or cave; or the mental equivalent of such isolation, attained through concentrative/restrictive meditation and prayer techniques — an important part of all mystical, transcendental, or revelatory states.
Spiritual Practices. Similar restrictions of attention have been painstakingly recorded by medieval alchemists, in their endless repetitions of grinding and distillation of various chemical compounds. The record of their attempts to transform ordinary base materials by means of the philosophers' stone into alchemical gold is also, we now know, a symbolic description of their attempts to transform ordinary consciousness through various sensory deprivation techniques into the higher levels of awareness, symbolized by gold. You could make a sizable list of craftsmen and workers of all sorts who have used intense concentration on seemingly mundane tasks to restrict their senses for spiritual or pleasurable purposes — including craftsmen who carve long scriptural passages on tiny pieces of ivory, weavers, calligraphers, jewelers, silversmiths, tailors, and so on.
Creative Isolation. Numerous profound aesthetic experiences, and moments of creative illumination, insight, or revelation have occurred in circumstances in which sensory input has been reduced in some way. We all know stories of artists or scientists whose sudden creative intuitions or revelations have come to them in the confines of the "artist's garret" or while staring into the fireplace or walking on the beach with attention turned inward. In fact, one of the essential elements of all creative thought is concentration gained through some sort of restriction of sensory stimulation.
Involuntary Isolation. There are many fascinating accounts by people who have experienced involuntary sensory isolation, often for long periods — polar explorers lost for months in a white void, solitary sailors, shipwreck or aircrash survivors, prisoners confined to isolation cells, desert explorers. And virtually all of them speak of some enlightening transformation brought about by sensory deprivation.
Isolation on the Couch. One of the greatest values of traditional psychotherapy derives from its sensory deprivation effect: As the patient reclines in a relaxed position (with the analyst, usually silent, sitting behind) there is little visual or auditory stimulus to distract the patient from a free-associative, almost trancelike state.
Getting Away from It All. Modern urban dwellers place great value on having a place at the shore or a cabin in the mountains. Conspicuous consumption, someone might sniff, but these hideaways are looked on as near necessities: The sensory overload of city life requires recovery periods, and clinical studies of stress have now shown conclusively that temporary infusions of the peace, quiet, and solitude of mountain, forest, ocean, or country are essential for maintaining health and sanity.
This list of various forms of sensory isolation that mankind has found useful, essential, or pleasurable could be extended to include sleep, naps, hypnosis, games, reverie, daydreaming, deep involvement in reading or listening to music, repetitive exercise such as jogging, and so on. But it should be clear by now that the use of sensory isolation has a long and respectable history, and should not be viewed as mere escapism. Sensory restriction is an effective way of turning toward reality, of increasing our sensitivity to and awareness of the world as it is.
Altered states of consciousness have been found to share a number of general characteristics, among them alterations in thinking, changes in the sense of time, changes in body image, a sense of the ineffable, feelings of rejuvenation, hypersuggestibility, change in emotional expression, and temporary release from ego control. These are also cardinal characteristics of the float experience, as we shall see later. But for now let us just divide the tank experience into two parts: what happens to you while you're in the tank, and what happens afterward.
In the Tank
Simply stated, when we shut out or restrict environmental stimuli, we become more aware of those things that are still available to us. In this case, after we have shut out light, sound, tactile sensations, gravity, other people, and movement, what is left is our Self: the physical reality of our skeletal muscles, our internal systems, our brains; and the non-physical reality of our thoughts, emotions, intuitions, mental images. Our awareness of these realities is of a subtlety and intensity simply not possible when our senses are directed outward, responding to external events.
This intensified awareness is not some contentless or other-worldly state, of little use in the "real world." Scientists from many disciplines have accumulated overwhelming evidence that by becoming more acutely cognizant of their inner processes, humans can actually exercise conscious control over them. For example, experiments show that simply by focusing awareness inward in a certain way, a person can actually strengthen his or her immune system, lower blood pressure, slow the heartbeat, release or inhibit the release of hormones, alleviate pain, cause parts of the body to grow or shrink, and alter the activity of the heart, muscles, brain, and mind.
The discovery that humans can control their own bodies through alertness to subtle internal signals was made largely by researchers using biofeedback techniques, and is certainly one of the most astounding scientific developments of the last fifteen years. However, it is really nothing very new. Using sensory deprivation techniques, yogis, monks, and fakirs have been performing these "miracles" of self-regulation for thousands of years, in blithe ignorance of our Western scientists who said such things could not be done. We need think only of Hindu fire walkers; of Tibetan monks who, through meditative techniques, raise their body temperature so that they can sit, in subzero snow, and dry scores of wet, icy blankets wrapped around them; of Yogis who are buried alive for days in airtight boxes; of healers and mystics who can puncture themselves with knitting needles yet experience no pain and whose bodies heal almost instantly.
Few of us have much desire to puncture ourselves with knitting needles, and I have rarely felt an urgent need to dry forty ice-water-soaked sheets upon my naked body while sitting in a snowbank, but the "secret" of these and other forms of seemingly miraculous self-regulation is increased awareness of internal processes. That it can be quite a useful secret is attested to by all those sufferers who have learned to alleviate crippling migraine headaches by consciously increasing the blood flow to their hands, and by "terminal" cancer patients who, using techniques based on sensory deprivation, have learned to become aware of their internal states and to visualize their bodies eradicating the disease, resulting in complete recovery.
At the heart of what happens in the tank, then, is a paradox: By restricting sensory input, we increase sensory awareness; by becoming blind, we learn to see in a new and more powerful way; by giving up, letting go, we gain greater control and power over ourselves and, ultimately, over the external world.
Out of the Tank
If merely being in the tank can increase your awareness of even the most minute internal processes, the increase in awareness that occurs after you get out of the tank is no less profound. People who emerge from the tank are often delighted to find that the world seems to have changed while they were away. They speak of seeing things anew, and describe the world as fresh, glowing, illuminated, bright, intensified, more vivid, luminous, and so on. The Blind Pew Effect comes into play full force: When you cut down on the input to your senses by going into the tank, your senses seem to respond by expanding, becoming more sensitive. William Blake described the process as "cleansing the doors of perception." Zen masters talk about seeing the world with a "beginner's mind." Jesus spoke of the need to see with the fresh perceptions of a child. Psychologists have called it "deautomatization."
Whatever the terminology, after floating we seem to perceive the world with startling directness, richness, and clarity. And whatever the spiritual value of this kind of perception, we know immediately that it is worth having simply because it feels so good. Ultimately, whatever other virtues we may find in the float tanks this is the one we will come back to again and again: It is a rapid, easily mastered, reliable, safe tool to make you feel very good.
Excerpted from The Book of Floating by Michael Hutchison. Copyright © 2003 Michael Hutchison. Excerpted by permission of Gateways Books and Tapes.
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