AOH :: FLOATANK.TXT|
Flotation and the Nature of Change
FROM MEGABRAIN REPORT VOL. 2 NO. 1
Edited by Michael Hutchison
FLOTATION AND THE NATURE OF CHANGE
A Therapist's Observations
Walter E. Jessen, Ph.D.
Since change is the crucial component of successful therapy, most
psychotherapists, especially brief therapists, have been keenly
interested in the process of change, and committed to learning how
change comes about with their clients. Their concern about
meaningful and relevant change has led them to explore tailor made
approaches. These in turn have germinated a wide range of
techniques specifically designed to facilitate rapid change.
Paradoxes, for example, were designed to direct and utilize
"problematic" behavior to produce change. Interesting homework
assignments, designed to extend therapy outside of the professional
office, accelerated change by empowering the client on a daily
basis. Hypnosis was used to connect the client to "hidden
resources" that mobilized change in surprising ways. The client's
symptomatology was seen not as simply a problem to be eliminated,
but as a gateway into change. Behavior modification, Eye-Movement
Desensitization Response, strategic therapy approaches,
NeuroLinguistic Programming and physical release methods (such as
Rolfing, Focusing, and the Sedona or Release Technique), to name
just a few, are outgrowths of this explosion of new techniques and
concepts for dealing with problems by facilitating change.
Most of these techniques are based on the concept of "producing"
change by providing 1) a safe "environment" for change, 2) a
corrective stimulus to change, and 3) support for the new (changed)
behavior. In each technique, the therapist is seen as actively
engineering the coordination and juxtaposition of these events.
Although none of these schools of thought claim that they have the
corner on knowing how change comes about, they all hold that change
is stimulated by some external agent, as though understanding and
controlling change has a lot to do with comprehending and
controlling the agent of change.
However, the experiences of change that people report after having
spent time in a flotation tank present a challenge to this way of
thinking. In the tank, floaters discover, change comes
spontaneously without an external agent. Change, they report, is
a process of releasing or permitting rather than actively
engineering or controlling.
Flotation tanks are totally enclosed containers (8' x 4' x 4')
where the person floats effortlessly in a high density saline
solution (epsom salts). Normally there is no light and no auditory
stimulation. Gone, in the float tank, are the usual "corrective
stimulus" and therapeutic binds engineered by the therapist. Gone
are the interpersonal dynamics between therapist and client that
provide the support, safety and nurturance for change and new life.
Gone are the boundaries between self and environment (self and
water), mind and body, past and present, present and future--the
boundaries that normally govern our daily lives. In their absence,
report people who have floated to explore themselves, change simply
These reports of spontaneous change and subsequent behavioral and
attitudinal growth give one pause--and a new perspective--in
thinking about change. It appears that without the usual trappings
of therapy, therapeutic change occurs anyway. Is this what is
called spontaneous remission, where the person suffering from a
problem is now returned without therapy to his pre-problem
condition? Or does this change have little to do with problems,
or coping, or pre-problem state? Does this change have to do not
with returning to a prior state but with movement beyond? One
thing that has been missing thus far from discussions of
therapeutic change has been an exploration of the nature of the
change that takes place in the flotation tank. How does floating
serve as a gateway into experiencing change? Why is it that the
change experienced while floating is therapeutic and growth
FLOTATION AND AWARENESS
The experience of flotation is one of heightened awareneness of
mental, emotional and physical processes. The floater experiences
an intensified consciousness of the body. Not only is there a
heightened perception of tension, patterns of tension, and the
release and change of these patterns, there can be an awareness of
feelings and memories associated with these tensions. There is an
acute mental awareness. Imagery is naturally enhanced during the
float and may automatically come into play with released memories
as the body finds a deep sense of support in the warm water.
Thoughts come and go. The awareness of subtle involuntary movement
in the body intimately connects the floater with physical signs of
what might be considered unconscious processes.
In addition, the natural tendency to regress as well as feel more
flexibility in time, and to go into trance without induction; the
greatly increased ability to visualize; the natural reduction of
stress, decrease in breathing rate, decrease of blood pressure,
decrease of stressful hormones (cortisol) and increase of beta
endorphins--all converge to create a positive experience for the
floater. Clinically, many mental/emotional/physical symptoms
disappear while the person floats. Some symptoms "dissolve" for
long periods, while some totally disappear after the float.
The presence of boundaries changes as the floater loses the sense
of where his body ends and the warm supportive tank water begins.
Fear is, at best, a momentary issue, as most floaters quickly
increase their sense of trust and yield to the comfort. There is
a profound awareness of what little energy is required to be
yourself, a sense that being yourself is a product of awareness
rather than effort.
Just as the boundaries between the body and the water disappear,
distinctions of internal-external, mental-physical become more
vague, to be replaced by a greater sense of openness and awareness
of being-in-process. The re-experiencing of memories, be they
traumatic or not, is done from a deep sense of comfort, warmth and
positiveness. Whether or not the floater uses a therapist to guide
him more efficiently through this process using the abundance of
available resources to help achieve the floater's stated goals,
(Jessen, 1990) it is clear that where the person is, is of primary
importance. That place is a flotation tank.
Assessing the experience of change that floaters report in the
tank, one is struck by the therapeutic aspects indigenous to this
observed process. Without a therapist trying to shape or
manipulate events, the floater spontaneously experiences aspects
of change that alter his functioning. Two key aspects of change
are the link between change and creativity, and the relationship
between disappearance and change.
Normally, the body is barraged by stimulation from the environment
that impinges upon the senses. Well worn voluntary and involuntary
muscular patterns, learned behaviors and habits, neural and
hormonal responses and more are activated to assist the person in
making sense of the environment and in taking effective action.
Normally, that is, the brain-mind responds to externally created
processes. While the person floats, in lieu of external
stimulation, an internal process is actively creating a wide range
of stimulation. In other words, without external stimulation, the
brain-mind stays quite active.
Plasticity. This creative process has several characteristics.
First, it takes place in a timeless or time-free environement. Not
only is the sense of clock time altered, the floater has the
ability to mentally travel backwards into childhood as well as
project himself into anticipated futures. He can re-live
experiences or create new ones. Regression manifests new options.
The floater can think magically like a child and alter experience.
Information can be processed in child-like ways that enable the
floater to resolve old problems more satisfactorily.
In addition to the plasticity of time, one's body image may also
become more plastic, less defined and open to being altered in
positive ways. The impact of generalization at regressed levels
with positive emotional learnings can greatly alter the person's
adjustment in adult life.
Changes in Self-Definition. Second, since the environment is not
impinging on the floater in its normal manner, the self is less
automatic in its responses, and therefore in how it chooses to
define itself. Self reference is now perceived in the context of
a greater flow of information, changes in experienced body
boundaries, emotional trust of the body and the environment (no
longer experienced as separate), enhanced relaxation, and more
positive feelings. The self is experienced not as something rigid,
but as a process that tends to evolve, expand, include new
information, ask new questions. In short, the floater becomes
directly aware that the self continues to actively create itself.
That is, freed of boundaries, new and old information may shift
from its normal ways of being organized and reveal that the self
not only seeks to expand itself in the flow of information, it is
an active process of construction. What we know of the self is
not determined as a child, it continues to organize and re-organize
based on new information. It is dynamic. These notions are
similar to Maturana (1988) and other constructivists who view
people as active participants in creating their own experiences:
their own ways of knowing and becoming are based on their own
variant self organizing properties, and that knowing and learning
is a total mind-body phenomena.
Enhancement of Intentionality. Third, floaters frequently enter
the tank with an intention--a problem they need to solve or
decision that needs to be made. Of course it tends to be the case
that the clearer the formulation, the more obvious the solution
that is created. For instance, well framed questions tend to
attract information both relevant and apparently irrelevant that
challenges and sometimes bombards the floater's consciousness.
Memories, thoughts and images are magnetically drawn to the issue,
pushing the person not only to re-experience and re-think the
problem, but also to become open to unusual solutions that he would
normally be less likely to think about. This experience harkens
back to Jung's (1936) notion of "complex"--a nucleus that attracts
a constellation of feelings, thoughts, perceptions and memories.
On less well formulated instructions the floater becomes more
easily distracted and concurrently may notice changes in attitude,
sensation and feelings that may be the precursors to behavioral
Creating the future. Fourth, the floater experiences his body not
only as a repository of images about its past, but as a resource
for creating experiences that alter the future. That is, change
(in this case change of the body) unlocks creativity. As the body
becomes more relaxed, specific patterns of tension demand more
attention and frequently "release" memories (mostly in visual
form), accompanied by much of the appropriate affect. Whether the
memories are pleasant or unpleasant, the floater experiences them
in a positive way and manages to create an optimal distance between
himself and the images. The memory is manageable and able to be
integrated into consciousness.
There are reports from floaters who carry compelling parts of their
float into their everyday world. Some floaters report seeing "a
white light" in the tank that "communicates" to them that they can
take responsibility for their problems. They re-experience this
light outside of the tank and change their behavior to effectively
cope with problems. Others have reported feeling a comforting
presence in the tank, while other have described their feet being
cradled by a pair of strong, gentle caring hands, resulting in an
increased sense of benevolent support in the world.
In an environment where there is minimum external stimulation,
there comes a time for most floaters when they experience an inner
stillness. Body functions are at rest. The mind is more peaceful,
and emotional symptoms begin to unravel or dissolve. The body does
not need to maintain its usual mind-body tension. Habitual
patterns relax into a sense of flow and ease; what was "stuck" has
now become process. Fears, obsessions, anxieties, depression are
now transmuted into a flow of images and thoughts that "float by"
for the person's consideration and re-evaluation. The "glue" that
has held these symptoms now seems to have melted and "they" are
free to re-enter the person's mainstream of consciousness where
information can be more fully updated and re-evaluated as to its
current usefulness. Although this does not mean that all symptoms
have disappeared after the person exits the tank, it does mean that
they reconstitute in a different way and are more flexible in their
emotional demands on the person.
Another aspect of disappearance comes about when the floater
experiences a sense of serenity. All thought disappears, all
images are stilled. All's well with "the world." There is a quiet
sense of emotional freedom. Feelings of happiness and warm
joyfulness can be mixed with other feelings. It all feels just
fine. Frequently there is a sense of heartfulness, appreciation
of the other, feelings of connectedness along with a comfortable
sense of one's aloneness.
Paradoxically, in this disappearance of the small self, we
experience fullness and abundance. There is a sense of comfort,
and change is embraced. New thoughts and insights may appear, to
surprise and delight the floater. This is all experienced as a
sense of flow and it can comfortably end at any moment, to be
re-visited in the future.
The nature of change as experienced in a flotation tank is a
creative process in the fullest sense, one that actively touches
all parts of our mental, physical and emotional selves. In the
changing of the self, we are provided a new vantage point from
which to see that emotional and mental symptoms don't really exist
beyond our own creativity. Nor are symptoms created once and just
left at that. They are selectively updated in ways to sustain
their life. Disappearance yields a break in the connection between
thoughts, images and feelings, that alters their automaticity. It
allows problems to unravel or dissolve. The parade of thoughts
temporarily ends and now a sense of joyful emptiness becomes the
gateway for new thoughts and insights. In disappearance, we
experience the appearance of something new. Change as experienced
in the tank is inherently positive and growth oriented whether the
floater uses a therapist or not.
This work has implications for the development of identity. It is
clear that the development of one's identity is a creative process,
and is subject to radical change. The experience of disappearance
suggests that old patterns of thinking may not need to be actively
"attacked" but may simply dissolve, and that this disappearing of
the "emotional crust" may result in a more joyful, compassionate
Dr. Walt Jessen is a licensed clinical psychologist in private
prqactice in Lost Gatos, CO. He thought that when he grew up he
would be either a comic, an artist, a detective, monk or
psychotherapist. He never guessed that he would be all of them.
P.S. He's still growing up. His address is 200 S. Santa Cruz Ave,
Suite 201, Los Gatos, CA 95030.
Jessen, W.E. In-tank flotation therapy in Turner, J.W. and Fine,
T.H. (eds) Restricted Environmental Stimulation; Research and
Commentary. IRIS Publ., Toledo, OH, 1990.
Maturana, H.R. The Tree of Knowledge. New Science Library, Boston
and London, 1988.
Jung, C.G. The psychology of dementia praecox. Nervous and Mental
Disease Monograph, No 3, 1936.
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