All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability
to sit quietly in a room alone.
The addict or anyone in a cycle of obsession and craving who is seeking relief may be ready to try anything, everything. From aversion medication to a spiritual awakening, the goal is the same, to end the spiral of addiction. The conditions must change to continue to live but the question resounds, how? How can I do this? Can I do this? Can it be done at all? How fast can this cycle be broken?
Community and service are the pillar of the Twelve Step program. The fact is that inside this way of life there is a call for selfless service. When fully engaged in thinking about the other, the inner voice is quieted. It is the center of meditation, the calming of brain waves, the escape from a mind run amuck. Fortunately, today we have the added ability to assess that mind, to document actual relief which means we can test what is happening and what truly works. It is not a science but a beneficiary of science. Speed, accuracy, individualized treatments are all measurable.
While addiction is generally treated medically, many alternative therapies are gaining popularity. Some alternative therapies offer relief of symptoms that are mental and often spiritual. Many prefer alternative therapies in addiction treatment because they do not want to become dependent on another substance during withdrawal. Common alternative therapies include meditation, creative visualization, breathing exercises, brain mapping with neurofeedback and yoga. Floatation is another alternative therapy that can assist in treating opiate addiction.
One of the treatments for addiction that is being used the Floatation Sensory Deprivation Tank. Invented by John Lilly in the1950’s,
“The idea is to separate yourself from society through solitude and confinement of a scientifically-controlled tank. There should only be 10 inches (25cm) of water, heated to 93F (33.8C) – just right for maintaining the proper brain temperature, with enough Epsom salts so your hands, feet and head all float.”
Carol Stuart, owner of Bondi Junction Massage & Floatation Centre, one of the first floatation clinics in Sydney, says it has to do with the solution in which you’re floating; water with huge amounts of Epsom salt which relaxes the muscles, relieves stress and improves circulation.
“They discovered that this solution, with its high volume of magnesium, could make you float effortlessly. You’re not fighting gravity when you’re in there so you can just let go. After a while of floating, a chemical effect happens in your body because you’re not using any muscles; all the physical processes slow down, and you start to release endorphins to balance everything out. It affects your neurotransmitters so you stop being anxious and fearful.”
The measurable result of this of this therapy is known as REST, Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy. There are two basic methods of experiencing sensory deprivation: REST chambers and the sensory deprivation floatation tank.
In the REST chamber, people lie on a bed in a dark, sound-proof room. They are instructed to be still but they are not restrained. They have a bathroom, food and water in the room which is not restricted. They may stay in the room for up to twenty-four hours, but are able to leave at any time.
The second method of REST is floatation. In this method, participants enter a tank or pool, which has been filled with water and Epsom salts and is at body temperature. The concentration of the salt in the water allows participants to float on their backs easily and even fall asleep, as it requires considerable effort to actually turn over. Float sessions typically last an hour but some choose to stay up to four hours.
Floatation REST has become very popular. It is used in Spas, resorts, athletic clubs, therapy and is available in a home version. It has proven to be effective in eliminating pain and stress. The Epsom salts is used for muscle relaxation as well. Weightlessness, while not experienced in chamber REST, is experienced in floatation REST, adding greatly to the sensory deprivation.
Floatation tanks are gaining popularity in therapy and treatment. They are a natural and holistic alternative to medications. Users of the tanks state that the sessions inside of the tanks induce a sense of complete calmness, improved sleep, peace and relaxing. Research states that this sensory deprivation addiction treatment stimulates right/left brain patterns by lowering brain wave frequency from beta to alpha. This can give a person an increase in mental clarity, problem solving, objectivity, alertness, heighten awareness and accelerate learning. Sensory deprivation tank addiction treatment has shown to lower depression, bring up motivation, lower fear or anxiety about problems, phobias and addictions.
There is a science to the reasoning behind the effects of floatation tank addiction treatment. Due to the setup of the tank, it is designed to deprive users in the tank of all their senses creating a very reflexive experience. The water, at human body temperature, with the salt, keeps you afloat. Half the body above and below, sound, touch and sight are all released.
When people suffer from Depression, Anxiety, PTSD or emotional pain your thoughts create a physical ailment called cortisol, which is released due to stress from your thoughts which induces all of your symptoms. Inside the Float Room your cortisol levels are reduced significantly due to the natural release of dopamine (feel good hormone) which is release involuntarily. You can think about all those horrible things that cause you stress and you are able to deal with them logically as you won’t be feeling the fight or flight response due to the release of dopamine. After leaving the Float Room and thinking about those stressors, you are able to deal with them and understand them in a lighter way.
THE SCIENCE of Floatation and Addiction
The reason that floatation helps with withdrawal symptoms is because it helps the body maintain internal homeostasis. This produces endorphins in your body to reduce pain. In a sense, floatation partially treats addiction because it produces natural opiates in your body, relieving symptoms of withdrawal. Floatation helps your body to relax and produce natural chemicals because it takes pressure off of your joints and muscles. This provides you with a natural relief that improves your physical and mental state without leading to further addictions. Floatation also helps you to positively motivate yourself toward specific goals. Floatation deprives you of external stimuli, which helps you become more focused and deeply relaxed. In turn, this will motivate you toward recovery. Floatation helps to heal your body both mentally and physically from addiction.
by M M Owen, PhD candidate, University of British Columbia in Vancouver
It is June 2015 when I arrive for my 16th float. I am used to the process: check in with the cheery staff, quick trip to the toilet, then head for my float room. Select a lighting color and lock the door. Strip down. The tank dominates the space, a huge white oblong resembling the pods sci-fi characters enter before being cryogenically frozen. Prop the door open. Shower with the unscented body wash provided. Cleaned and dry, bury silicone plugs in my ears. Perhaps some light stretching, a final glance in the mirror. And then in I go, feet first into the gloom, as with the waterslides of my pre-adolescence.
I lie back, the door directly above my face. Pull it shut. Utter darkness, a night sky stripped of stars. The water is a welcoming temperature – 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit), to match the skin – and so saturated with Epsom salts (850lbs!) that it feels like liquid silk. Sixty years’ refinement of Lilly’s earliest experiments have produced a near-perfect setting. I bob, like flotsam and jetsam (what is the difference between them, I wonder, my mind already alighting desperately on things with which to occupy itself). The silence is deafening; usually I break it with a few grand exhales. And so begins the next 90 minutes.
If you try to describe floating to people, many look bemused. And with good reason: floating is strange. Virtually everywhere else in modern life, opportunities to expend one’s leisure time are based on the explicit promise of sensory stimulation. The majority of people’s spare time and money goes towards experiencing the precise opposite of nothing: tastes, sounds, smells, sights. My float center, for example, sits next to an ice-cream parlor. More than once, alone in the blackness, I have thought of their salted caramel offering.
The freedom afforded by capitalism is nothing if not the freedom to excite our senses when and how we please. Such freedom is what many see as the pinnacle of our day and age; hence we deny it to those we imprison. We want bigger, louder, more vivid things. IMAX cinemas, clubs with four floors, 10-bird roast dinners – sheer sensual load, a ‘hedonic treadmill’ that correlates directly with value. We crave it with our evolved biology, the same way we crave sugar even as it makes us obese. The hollow utopia of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is one in which this tendency is taken to its logical conclusion; in which a citizenry has willingly sacrificed all worldly freedom in return for the ‘imbecile happiness’ of unceasing sensory indulgence.
‘The truth,’ wrote Samuel Johnson in his apologue Rasselas (1759), ‘is that no mind is much employed upon the present: recollection and anticipation fill up almost all our moments.’ The first thing you learn during a float is the same thing you learn when you meditate: Johnson was right – conscious, inward-directed thought is a stormy business. During the first phase of every float, a sort of frantic summary of the immediate conditions of my life intermingles with random, angst ruminations. The personal blends with the general, the trivial with the profound.
Deprive the senses, and you have nothing to pay attention to but yourself. In the naked blackness of the tank, beautiful memories and the faces of loved ones bubble up – but so do neuroses, worries, and guilt. With nothing to distract you, you become the distraction, and often an unpalatable one. ‘The most terrifying thing’, said the Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung, ‘is to accept oneself completely.’ But the tank demands this acceptance. No escape. Your heartbeat your only companion. One must bear witness. Avec moi, le déluge.
Floaters were not the first to suspect that the ever-preoccupied, sensually-obsessed mind might be distracting us from something better. In the Judaeo-Christian conception of life, the senses continually distance us from God. ‘The mind governed by the flesh is death,’ implores St Paul, in Romans 8:6. During the 10th book of his Confessions, St Augustine rails against ‘concupiscence in eating and drinking’, ‘the allurements of smells’, and, of course, sexual lust. Among many Native American tribes, the vision quest – in which a person spends an extended amount of time alone in a natural setting, often forgoing sleep and sustenance – was long regarded as a vital rite of passage into adulthood.
In Buddhist philosophy, number one of the Five Hindrances to enlightenment is kāmacchanda, sensual craving. Today, the Buddhist concept of sati has been secularized as the practice of mindfulness – the therapeutic and sometimes transformative practice defined by the Buddhist scholar B Alan Wallace as ‘the moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness of whatever arises in the present moment’. Though the goals of mindfulness are less transcendent than those of the ancient mystics, there is a common thread: we must resist the temptation to flood our consciousness via our senses. Opt for the relative boredom of a meditation cushion, and the reward is psychic control.
I’m better at being in the tank than I was. Having a (inconsistent) meditation practice helps. Amid the din of helpless thinking, I do my best to simply observe, to not chase any thought too far down a mental rabbit hole. It’s difficult: my mind is like a fireworks display in a hall of mirrors. Breathe, observe, and breathe. Those who sniff at self-help talk of being in the moment should try it first. It isn’t easy. Our minds would rather be anywhere else.
And then, after an amount of time that is impossible to calculate, my body begins to relax. This too is more complex than it sounds. Unconsciously, we knot our shoulders, stiffen our toes, and furrow our brows. I spent the first 20 minutes of my debut float beset by a mysterious creaking sound. After a while, I realized it was my jaw, struggling to go from imperceptibly tense to fully slack. My yoga teacher says we worry too much about developing strong muscles, and not enough about learning how to let them soften. I hadn’t the faintest idea what she meant until I floated.
Alongside this physical relaxation, something happens inside the skull. In tandem with the fibers of the flesh, consciousness softens. Without my noticing, a quiet has crept in. The thoughts are less like hailstones, more like gentle rain. I am really in the blackness now. Something of me has evaporated, something else remains. Eventually – sometimes only in patches – the body submits to weightlessness. All gone, bar the breath. This is the heart of the float now, if it’s a good one. Hard to believe there is a whole world out there, a human race.
It is in the depths of a good float that you brush up against whatever humans down the ages have believed can be found beyond the senses. The silky void is a deeply personal portal. Float centers might stress the objective benefits which attend floating – but the comments books occupying pride of place in their lounges are replete poetic, mystical flights of language. Turn to any random page, and what you will find is that in attempting to explain the experience of floating, no one is mentioning dopamine, or stress hormones. They are talking about the self, the cosmos, the void, even God.
One of the most tangible effects of regular floating I have discovered is described in an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa and her father Homer try it. Before getting in the tank, Lisa is irritated at Homer’s boorishness, his lack of cultural refinement. In the tank, she occupies his consciousness, and witnesses via his senses and thoughts how he really does do his best, suffering ballet purely because he loves her. Post-float, Lisa muses: ‘Gee, I should cut Dad some slack.’ I have experienced similar leaps of viewpoint in the tank, commandeered other pairs of eyes and felt deeply that I should judge a little less harshly. Scientists would probably call this ‘increased empathy’, but it’s deeper than that – it’s the chance to jump, albeit briefly, across the thin membranes between minds.
“When you come back from a deep tank session,” wrote Lilly, “there’s always this extraterrestrial feeling. You have to read the directions in the glove compartment so you can run the human vehicle once more.”
I know what he means. After a good float, I feel genuinely overhauled, reborn. The moments immediately after a deep session can be almost unbearably vivid. At the end of my first one, I recall gingerly opening the door and leaning my torso out. My vision found the beads of tank water falling from the tips of my hair to the purple-lit tiles of the floor below. For a while I hung there, utterly captivated by the gravity of each droplet’s descent, the way the water spread out in a little soundless explosion, refracting petals of light.
THE GOOD NEWS, THE BEST NEWS
Somewhere between the stress, the mayhem, the alcohol, the drugs, the chaos and even the joys of life, there is the infinite driver. It is the one that knows the long game, the light down the road, the one who gets all the jokes and shoots you to the top of the pool before you run out of breath. It is the infinite you, the Witness. It is the director of your life who is neither an addict/alcoholic or worrier. It is the Observer, who seems to be wearing your clothes, and is stone sober, patiently waiting for the inner chatter to vanish.
In the tank, controlling brain waves, sitting in meditation, you look within and see as never before. Across the river of life, the chaos of it all, is someone waving and smiling at you. It is the pure Mind. It is the one that the mindfulness movement keeps pointing to, inventing newer ways to guarantee an appointment. That who enables self-intervention, self-de-escalation, self-care for the recovering addict/alcoholic. Always there, will never abandon you, loves you more that science can ever measure. It is YOU.