Tales From the Float Tank: Cannabis, Mushrooms, Sacred Tobacco & Wim Hof Breathing / Holotropic Breathwork
HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO HALLUCINATE WITH ALL THESE SWIRLING COLOURS DISTRACTING ME? - LISA SIMPSON.
Whenever I explain what a sensory deprivation tank is to someone that isn't entirely familiar with it, they almost always reference one of two things: some form of scary psychological torture, or the episode of The Simpsons where Homer and Lisa try out the Floatation pods.
Well, that episode is kinnnnd of what it’s like. After re-watching it just now, the journey Lisa goes on reminds me of entering a psychedelic induced altered state of consciousness, and to some extent, similarities arise spending time in a float tank. Swirling colours, morphing into various animals and experiencing their perspective, becoming a tree, having insights into our behaviour and the way we treat people around us, and much more.
Now although I haven't morphed into an animal, or solidified into a tree in a sensory deprivation tank, I have had some very interesting experiences and insights utilising cannabis, microdosing psilocybin magic mushrooms, smoking sacred shamanic tobacco called mapacho, practising various forms of holotropic breathing, and without any psychoactive chemicals or active consciousness alteration at all.
CAN’T I JUST FLOAT IN MY BATHTUB?
This response has come up surprisingly often! And the answer is - No, not really. The tanks are specifically created to allow for an incomparably unique experience. One that you won't find in a bathtub. They're designed with adequate space to lay down comfortably, a large amount of epsom salts fill the water, allowing you to become buoyant when laying down, the water is heated to body temperature so it becomes difficult to discern where your body ends and the water starts, there’s no sense of smell, a lack of sound, and it’s pitch black, so you can’t see.
Although there are different forms of sensory deprivation, the float tank is super unique, in that can eliminate external stimuli to such a high degree, in what feels like a zero gravity environment. People come to the experience of sensory deprivation tanks for a number of reasons, and a surprising amount of research has been conducted into the potential benefits and psycho-physiological effects of floating.
Some of these reasons include deep rest, relaxation, rejuvenation, meditation, creativity, and consciousness exploration. I’ve experienced many benefits myself, but it’s great to back up these claims with a little data. Research shows that:
- Floating is a useful stress management tool, having "positive effects on physiology (eg. lower levels of cortisol, lower blood pressure), well-being, and performance” 1
- It “enhances performance in a variety of athletic and musical tasks that require high levels of concentration and visual-motor coordination” 2
- “Volunteers’ visual cortexes become more active after less than an hour of visual deprivation” 3 (which explains some of the swirling colours I’ve seen)
- And “those suffering from intractable chronic pain particularly benefited from weekly REST (restricted environmental stimulation therapy) sessions: their level of perceived pain dropped, their sleep improved and they reported feeling happier and less anxious.” 4
For some reason though, there are people who find the thought of stepping into a tank to be quite disconcerting and anxiety inducing. Alone with my thoughts for an hour or more, with no distractions and nothing to do but be with my mind?! Sounds terrifying!
Regular quiet introspection is an activity that can provide serious beneficial change in one's life. I find it strange that spending time with one's self in a quiet environment without distraction, can be a foreign concept, and showcases a major flaw in our society and culture. I'm absolutely not the only one that has found sensory deprivation and floating to be amazing tool to supplement personal development, healing, and the exploration of consciousness.
If I’m only floating for an hour, I’m more inclined to go in without any ‘tools’ for my time in the tank. If I’m floating for longer than an hour, I’m more inclined to use certain tools that could allow for a deeper, more insightful and interesting experience.
There are times where I purely want to rejuvenate my body with the influx of magnesium from the epsom salts permeating my cells. There are times where I want to still my mind and reach deeper states of meditation than usual. There are times where I use my time in the tank to unravel thoughts and ideas, and find clarity and answers to certain questions. Then there are times where I want to explore my consciousness without the distraction of my physical senses, taking a journey to see what insights I might arrive at, and what the human experience is capable of through different internal and external environmental shifts.
PECULIAR YET AMAZING: MY FIRST EVER FLOAT.
The first float experience I ever had was many moons ago. A little confused, I drove up the driveway of a local golf resort, and was shortly nestled away in the back room of a day spa. Feeling pretty excited, I put my ear plugs in and entered the tank. I spent a couple of minutes bouncing off the walls of the tank, until eventually settling in and becoming still.
Although my body was motionless, after some time I could feel the sensation of bending side to side, as if I was being contorted like a tube of rubber. I found this to be extremely peculiar. Was I actually moving, or did it just feel like it? I bent my finger back and forth to experience the sensation of moving a body part and concluded that my body was indeed motionless.
My sense of time became muddled to the point where I had absolutely no idea how long I was in the tank for. Had 15 minutes passed, or was the hour almost up? I noticed some purples colours begin to form in the darkness of the tank, swirling gently before fading out of existence. Gentle relaxation music began to play, signalling the end of the session.
That was it. My first float. I walked out of that hour long session feeling relaxed, albeit a little spaced out and heavy in my body. Looking around outside as I walked to my car, it seemed like I was viewing everything from a strange perspective outside of my own sense of self.
I was struck by how peculiar the experience was and how amazing I felt afterwards. I was hooked. Now, this experience was well before I’d made the pilgrimage to the Amazon Jungle. Initially I was going into the tank without any teacher tools, but after a few months I started utilising cannabis, low dose mushrooms, certain breathing exercises, and later on - mapacho, sacred tobacco I brought back from the Amazon.
CANNABIS, MUSHROOMS, MAPACHO & BREATHWORK IN THE TANK.
Removing as many distractions and sensory inputs as possible to enter deep states of contemplation about my life, has been one of the biggest gifts I’ve received from floating. Some of the most profound insights have been the deep contemplation of my own behaviours, feelings, thoughts and beliefs, even including the acknowledgement of my own mortality and death; exploring the concepts and ideas around the ending of life for myself, all my loved ones, and essentially all life as we know it.
On a two hour float session with cannabis, I experienced my own internal conflict surrounding different perspectives between both the significance and insignificance of my own existence, and their relationship to philosophies on consciousness and death. Being in an environment that allowed for such deep meditation on this subject, allowed for those thoughts to permeate my daily contemplation.
I pondered these thoughts for quite some time, which lead to realisations on a deep level about creating a life worth living, bettering myself as much as possible, making health and wellness a priority, and trying to live a meaningful life full of purpose. I still acknowledge and really feel into my own mortality on an almost daily basis. Not to be morbid, but as a reminder to live a rich and meaningful life.
On other sessions in the tank with cannabis, I would dis-identify with body and mind, able to observe my thoughts as if I was a witness to them; as if they weren’t really my thoughts, but a stream of words, sentences, and ideas passing by like leaves floating past in the breeze.
I’ve had some really cool situations where I’ve tapped into an awareness of the endless amount of biochemical physiological processes happening inside my body. The comprehension that as I lay still in the tank, feeling my paralyzed body as though it had gone to sleep, there were nerve endings twitching, muscles spasming, healing and repair work going on in various parts of my body, chemicals being created and released, signals being sent between my brain and my organs, and essentially being the host for trillions of bacteria inside me, as they live out their own lives and interact with everything within.
Easy enough to conceptualize and intellectualize, but to really feel into it in such a deep state of relaxation and an altered consciousness is quite a profound experience.
Psilocybin Magic Mushrooms.
Microdosing on psilocybin magic mushrooms has given me mixed experiences. In a couple of my sessions, I’ve experienced terrible states of anxiety and claustrophobia in the tank. Dosing 50mg proved on occasion to be a little too intense.
Breathing through the intensity and not becoming attached to the feelings that arose proved to be challenging work in the tank. With no external stimulation or distractions, I’d be faced with having no choice but ride out the uncomfortable experience of such a low dose of mushrooms. Some of these experiences were the catalyst in realising that I had repressed feelings of loneliness that I’d never looked into.
I’d always found distractions to keep me from experiencing these feelings and coming to terms with the perceived absence of a loving support network of close friends and family. In this sense, using float tanks really allowed me to start illuminating aspects of my shadow, which I would continue to uncover through my work with various plant medicines, self development exploration and continued floating.
Microdosing in the tank proved to be useful when it came to creative exploration too. On smaller doses of 20mg, the investigation of ideas and questions would often lead to lateral thinking and I’d come up with answers (and generally a lot more questions!) that I wasn’t necessarily finding in day to day living
One of my stranger experiences was a day or two AFTER a large dose of Psilocybin mushrooms. I strategically planned this two hour session to help process and integrate what was a beautiful experience on 3.5 grams of mushrooms, which I had taken in preparation before my first pilgrimage to the Amazon. It was my first large dose since my terrifying experience several years in the past.
As I lay in the tank, completely sober, I had the sensation of drifting off… a complete disconnection of consciousness from mind and body followed. I was having an outer body experience. My awareness lay not in my body, nor somewhere in mind. It was drifting in the vast spaciousness of black nothingness. It only lasted a very short while.
It was only when my mind turned back on and started questioning what was happening, that my reaction turned to panic! I wasn't expecting something like that to happen, so it threw me completely off guard. My immediate impulse was to sit up, but I calmed myself with a mantra and deep breathing, once again relaxing into the weightlessness of the tank. It’s the only time I’ve experienced this without any active consciousness alteration in the float tank, but I'd like to think I’d be much more calm if the phenomena ever happened again.
Holotropic Breathwork / Wim Hof Breathing.
Firstly, I want to state that just because I talk and write about my experiences, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m encouraging others to do the same. Second, doing any kind of hyperventilation and breath holding in water could turn out to be extremely dangerous.
As always, I promote the safe and responsible use of psychedelics and entering altered states of consciousness, which includes doing your own extensive research to gain understanding and competency, and not just taking everything I say as gospel.
With that being said, practising holotropic breathwork / Wim Hof breathing in the tank has been incredible! Doing 4+ rounds of rapid deep breathing, also known as hyperventilation, (30-60 breaths per round) while floating has provided similar sensations to the times I’ve practised various types of breathwork on retreat, and at home by myself. As each round progresses, the tingling and warmth in various parts of my body increases, until it eventually escalates into strong bodily vibrations.
The furthest I’ve gotten with this has resulted in the experience of feeling like a ball of vibrating awareness, suspended in the deep expansiveness of space. There have been times where I have completely lost touch with who I am, with this accompanying sound that is really hard for me to try and explain. Kind of like white noise mixed with the loud, continuous, whirring, buzzing and pinging of some kind of alien technological computer system. Quite an intense altered state of consciousness; similar to those when taking psychedelics, without the mind-bending visuals.
It also seems easier to direct the flow of energy to various parts of my body during these breathwork sessions in the tank. In my experience, it makes sense that with the heightened capacity of awareness when in these deep states of relaxation in the tank, it does indeed become easier to focus on particular sensations throughout the body. Where awareness goes, energy flows. Practicing this type of breathing both with cannabis, and without any substances, generally leads to experiencing similar results.
Mapacho - Sacred Tobacco.
If you’ve worked with mapacho before, you know how grounding it can be. An almost immediate dropping into the body, feeling centred, calm and peaceful. Using mapacho has really allowed me to reach deep states of tranquility in meditation, both outside and inside the tank. While I haven’t had any extraordinary experiences or insights thus far, an hour or two in the tank with mapacho shifts a lot of my awareness from my head, down into my heart.
Less thinking, more feeling
The ability to create spaciousness between our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, is a powerful skill to cultivate. Non-reactivity. Equanimity. Having the capacity to surrender to uncomfortable, painful or challenging situations; maintaining an internal environment of presence and composure. Not unconsciously automatically reacting to situations, but choosing to consciously respond. This is a state of being that mapacho and floating (amongst many other tools) continue to deepen and develop within myself.
HIGH DOSE PSYCHEDELICS IN THE TANK?
While being enclosed in a floatation tank doesn’t make me feel anxious or apprehensive, the use of larger doses of psychedelics in a floatation tank does. I become apprehensive enough as it is gearing up to go on a psychedelic journey in the safety of a ceremonial context, and that’s with those who are more experienced, having extensively charted their own internal territory, who can hold space for myself and others to work with psychedelics in a safe and responsible manner. While I would very much like to experience high dose psychedelics in the float tank, I don’t think I’m quite at the stage where I’m ready to take that step just yet.
One of my more recent experiences was in an open float room. No pod lid, just open space. Even though it was pitch black in the room when the lights went out, it was if my senses could tell that I wasn't contained within a tank with a lid right in front of me, and it actually felt like I was enveloped by and floating in an even deeper expansiveness of space. Super cool. Perhaps this would be an environment in which I’d feel more comfortable taking larger doses of psychedelics for healing and exploration, sometime in the future.
Of course, none of the float tanks I have ever been to endorse the use of illegal substances, and neither do I. (Ha.)
So, although I DON’T endorse illegal activity, if you DO choose to experiment with non-ordinary states of consciousness in a floatation tank, be safe, be prepared for some interesting insights, and be prepared for some potentially challenging experiences.
LINKS & REFERENCES
The Simpsons episode (Homer and Lisa try floating): https://vimeo.com/42916032