Image: Illustrations to Robert Blair's The Grave, The Soul Hovering over the Body. Wikimedia Commons.
In the absolute dark, I am suddenly aware of a message entering my mind, telepathically: WHERE ARE YOU. It's my best friend Rachel. I think she's worried about me, because I'm not in my body.In the Netflix series Stranger Things, a child appears to have psychic powers thanks to shadowy experimental procedures done to her inside a forbidding facility. This is a popular conceit in fiction especially because it has its roots in the truth: The CIA's gruesome and notorious "MKUltra" program from the 1950s.
The MKUltra program involved experiments on hospital patients and vulnerable populations— often conducted without their consent—using isolation, sensory deprivation, audio loops and drugs, especially LSD, often in doses that caused permanent damage. Although MKUltra is often associated with "mind control", psychic powers, Manchurian Candidates and other concepts sensationalized in fiction, most now believe it was basically an illegal torture program, especially gruesome with the ink barely dry on the Nuremburg Code. Most documentation of MKUltra was destroyed, so we may never know more.
But we do know that sensory deprivation may lead to altered states; just as Stranger Things' Eleven needs a flotation tank to project her consciousness into "the Upside Down," many self-reported accounts suggest that floating in a soundless chamber in the dark leads to visualizations, hallucinations, phantom sensations, and even out of body experiences like astral travel.I decided to try it for myself: If I used a flotation tank, could I perform astral projection? Could I enter "the Upside Down?"I researched astral projection and travel and learned it generally takes committed practice to achieve the frequently-reported experience of looking down on one's own body. I knew I probably couldn't expect to do it on a first attempt, but I thought I'd try to learn as much as I could. Stories, advice, and practices vary widely, but it seems generally agreed that deep relaxation, then full-body vibrations, precede the state of being ready to leave the physical form. I kept coming across something called the "rope technique", where you visualize a rope anchored to your belly and reach for it, climbing hand over hand out of yourself. You then look down on yourself from above.
I memorized the details of the technique and set out to find a flotation tank—in Stranger Things the characters improvise one out of a plastic swimming pool and bags of Epsom salt, but luckily I didn't need to go that far.Inside one of many numbered geometric buildings in an orderly lot near Canary Wharf is London Flotation Centre, a small but impeccably clean and quiet facility. The owner, Katerina Shabalina, said she was moved to start the business after noticing flotation greatly improved her back pain. Other positive effects can include stress reduction, mindfulness, improved concentration, muscle relaxation, and better sleep. Each flotation tank includes a remarkable half ton of salt—a higher concentration than the Dead Sea—and the water is churned through a rigorous filtration system after each client.
I worried slightly about sounding unhinged when I asked her about astral travel, but she responded readily: "Yes, a couple clients come to improve their imagination and see hallucinations. I on my own saw a hallucination a year ago, at the end of a session."What did you see, I asked her."I saw myself from above," she replied.I was ready to try. Katerina showed me to a small room with a shower, a chair, and an enormous, smooth white fiberglass space egg dominating the space. When she lifted it to open soundlessly, I gasped—I had not expected it to be beautiful, swimming pool water glittering blue and violet under soft light. Ocean sound is sighing from somewhere inside it. Katerina explains the white noise plays for about ten minutes to help the user relax and adjust, and that then it will be silent.
Inside the luminous pool are two buttons: The one on the left controls the light, the one on the right is a call button I can use if I need help. Being entirely sealed in the dark, in water, is frightening. It is comforting to know that I cannot get stuck in and be forgotten. What if I can't get back into my body, though? How will I press the button? I decide to set this thought aside.Once alone I undress and shower. There are earplugs in a tiny package, but I overthink them and decide not to use them. Finally I climb inside the spacious egg, where the water is no deeper than a children's pool, and pull the smooth lid shut over me. When I float, the high-density salt water carries me effortlessly. I reach for the button on my left and shut off the light.At first I was too excited to relax, too eager to see what would happen. With my eyes closed I was still aware of my body drifting around inside the egg, and every time my fingers or toes gently bumped the impeccable surface it interrupted my determination to experience nothingness. Although normally I'm pretty good at meditation, my mind kept returning to the task of storing details of the experience, planning words for the article, wondering how it was all going to turn out, and then worrying that I might fail to relax. Just try to relax as soon as possible, Katerina had advised me. I was wasting time.I began to focus on the sound of my heartbeat through the water. It wasn't that it was especially loud, more like if I tuned in, I could hear a new kind of nuance to the sound, like the swish of blood through my ecosystem, or the snapping of valves open and shut. It was both fascinating and terrible, and as I listened and breathed and let my limbs go limp, I started to feel my body moving. At first I thought I was just drifting around the tank again, but it was different than that, somehow, like I was tilting on a new axis. If I thought hard about it, I could imagine that I was hanging vertically in space, rather than lying down.
Although I still felt far from a sense of my "astral body", I began to relax slowly. Sometimes I opened my eyes and watched colored blooms form interesting shapes as my eyes searched the dark. Occasionally I felt fascinating phantom sensations, like my hand twisting the cap off a bottle when in fact it had not moved, or the certainty that my arms were resting on surfaces that did not exist. Parts of my back that had felt tense now felt invisible, dissolved. I found that I could focus on that sense of dissolving; I stopped thinking about wanting to get out of my body, and set the intention to forget that I had one.
It's not that I fell asleep, exactly, although I was in a deeply relaxed state. It was more like lucid dreaming, like taking my hands off the wheel of my own mind and letting it drive itself. I started to feel something strange, like one part of me beginning to… lift? A space opening up in my mind where one part of it was separating from another, and into that space I felt, suddenly and with clarity, a message from my friend Rachel. It was like she'd texted my phone, only I was the phone. WHERE ARE YOU.I felt calmly at the time that it made sense. I was starting to go somewhere, after all. Or I was nowhere, in a liminal space, and she was worried. I wanted to answer her, and that was when I saw it: A white, luminous chat window hovering right above my face. It was vague-looking, as if seen through whorled glass, but I knew I could use my mind to type in it.I'm in a flotation tank, I typed, or I endeavored to type it. It felt like lifting a very heavy weight, requiring immense concentration, one letter at a time materializing. I got as far as f-l-o-t before I tired. I could not sustain the vision of the window, and it drifted away.The white noise soon resumed, signalling the session was nearly at an end. When the light of the larger room came in again I emerged from the egg slick with salt and feeling dazed and serene. The tension had been dissolved from my muscles and as I left the center, the day itself felt fresh-washed, quieter somehow. I had an utterly clear and present mind. Sounds and people came and went around me; I noticed them gently.I told Rachel about my experience of her "message"; of course she hadn't actually sent me anything. She had no unusual experience. Clearly I failed to perform telepathy just as I failed to perform astral projection. This time. Obviously I'm going back again.