Urban No-Mind: a phenomenological diary

 
 

Introduction

This essay exists because I needed to test some ideas in practice; ideas concerning the different ways one’s mind works in different circumstances, and particularly in extreme circumstances where it does not receive much if any external input. I need to test these ideas as part of a larger project, which in turn forms the cornerstone of my doctoral research.

For some years I have been exploring the ways in which certain kinds of synthetic (or “virtual”) worlds may be used for self-exploration and self-learning. When we “enter” a synthetic world we switch our attention from external reality to a carefully constructed pseudo-reality in which the ebb and flow of narrative obeys very different rules.

We may legitimately view many elements of this switch between areas of focus as similar to the “suspension of disbelief” that Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “poetic faith”, and believed took place whenever we enter the fictional world of a novel or poem. We may find nothing new, nothing specifically digital or electric about this, and conclude that when we say “synthetic world” we merely mean “video game” and wish to avoid saying so.

However, I believe that there are important differences, stemming from users’ abilities to weave their own narratives, on their own or in conjunction with others; and to become entangled within them. I am particularly interested in a question that follows from this: if we can use synthetic worlds to tell ourselves stories, and if, as Daniel C Dennett (1991) and others have suggested, “we are stories all the way down”, then can we harness synthetic worlds for purposes of self-learning and self-growth?

I chose to explore this by making two experimental visits to environments where we might reasonably expect to find ourselves switching into another mental state. I wanted to observe, in minute detail, if this happened and (if it did) how it happened.

I am aware that a sample of one has a limited statistical validity, and that we could argue about whether what follows constitutes participant observation or anecdotal evidence. However, I did not, and do not, intend building a theory upon my two experiences. Rather I intend to using my observations to propose some hypotheses that I believe might prove useful as the research progresses.

I therefore advise readers to treat this paper as experimental in every way.

Methodology

In many ways the methodology employed may be said to be that of a phenomenological epoché (or ‘bracketing’) of the kind advocated by Edmund Husserl in 1906. This “may be regarded as a radicalization of the methodological constraint, already to be found in Logical Investigations, that any phenomenological description proper is to be performed from a first person point of view, so as to ensure that the respective item is described exactly as is experienced, or intended, by the subject” (Beyer, 2011).

However, since my intention involved observing what happens when nothing to-be-observed presents itself, and when no way of recording one’s observations can be utilised, the process of bracketing has necessarily been modified by (and arguably as part of) the flow of events. I recorded my impressions as soon as I had concluded each experience relying on the assumption that what I remembered would have some significance from the very fact that I remembered it. This in turn means that in some of the entries below what I remember relates more to the ways in which the experience constituted itself than the specific elements that comprised it.

Meditation and the body

The word meditation entered the English language in the twelfth century, when it meant “a thinking over”. Although that sense still continues (in sentences like ”he meditated gloomily on his prospects of winning”) we use it more often today in a completely contrary sense: to describe a state in which thinking appears to cease altogether. Alan Watts (1970) described both the process and its lasting appeal by saying that we “are sick with fascination for the useful tools of names and numbers, of symbols, signs, conceptions and ideas. Meditation is therefore the art of suspending verbal and symbolic thinking for a time, somewhat as a courteous audience will stop talking when a concert is about to begin.”

Advocates say that meditation quietens the mind. Meditators find a place in which the mind becomes so quiet that for some time it appears to disappear altogether. Many make great claims for this, and suggest that we all would benefit from regular contact with the state of no-mind.

Traditionally meditative practices have required many years of devotion, and have often become entwined with an asceticism that positions the contemplative life as a polar opposite of worldly enjoyment, as a religious sacrifice that involves rejection of the social world. However, during the twentieth century psychologists and gurus have both suggested that this is a misunderstanding. While those wishing to achieve no-mind should conceive the process as one of lifelong learning, they should also recognise that they can incorporate it into a full and social life.

Once one accepts this, once one views meditation as a particular and perhaps peculiar learning process, then it seems reasonable to ask whether there might be tools that could aid this learning process. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation, suggested the use of what we might describe as contextual tools. He suggested meditating twice a day for twenty minutes at specific times, and marking those times as landmarks in one’s daily routine. He suggested arranging a comfortable chair in a specific place where one knows one can relax, and letting that become your place of meditation. These are tools, one temporal and one locational, and both are designed to assist in moving from active thought to mind-less meditation.

Thirty years ago, after reading the works of John C Lilly (1967, 1972, 1977) I undertook several lengthy sessions in a flotation tank. Lilly had used these, among other things, as meditation devices and, in the tank, it became clear why. Freed from all external input my mind created its own until, at certain points, it simply stopped.

As a tool the flotation tank offers an indirect confirmation of the programme put forward by Fritz Perls (1951), the founder of Gestalt Therapy, and others such as Ida Rolf, who founded Structural Integration. They both argued that the body or the mind were inextricably integrated and that a programme of growth or healing could begin at either end and move in either direction. As Rolf put it, “when the body gets working appropriately, the force of gravity can flow through. Then, spontaneously, the body heals itself.” (Rolf, 1977)

Concerned now about the possible uses of certain very specific types of synthetic worlds as tools for wellness, I decided to revisit my flotation tank experiences. Prior to this, I elected to undergo a ten day Ayurvedic treatment in Kerala, south India, to see if this traditional process of treating the body with vigorous massage and manipulation would produce any similar effects.

I documented both experiments in the form of a daily diary. In both cases I wrote the entries within two or three hours of each sessions. I intended the diary entries to provide a contemporary account of each session, as it had happened, and with no clear knowledge of what might prove interesting or useful later. I have remained faithful to this and (with the exception of a few spelling mistakes caused by writing on the keyboard of an iPad) I have not altered or edited the diaries at all.

Both the Ayurvedic treatment and the sessions in the flotation tank took place in the morning. I made a point of not reading back over the previous days’ entries as I wrote in the diary each afternoon. If I have repeated myself from time to time we can therefore assume that the events discussed had an importance for me each time I mention them.

The next sections contain the complete diaries for each experiment, and conclude with a final section in which I generalise from the experiences, and relate them to a theoretical background. Finally I propose some hypthotheses that I believe will assist me as my research develops.

Diary: thirty hours of Ayurvedic treatment

On the third day that we were in Kerala the question of massage came up. I had aches and pains in my neck, back and shoulders which were either caused, or exacerbated, by the hard bed. We discussed this with Uday, the caretaker who lives a few houses up the road, and in the afternoon he took us to the Ananda Ayurveda Panchakarma Centre, which is a house in Temple Road.

Three of us had a hour-long special relaxation massage, and Irma had the foot massage. The foot massage turned out be be done by feet, not to them as Irma had expected. The relaxing massage used oils and a variety of pressures from the palm and fingertips.

I slept through the night for the first time and woke the next day with no aches at all. I arranged to have a seven-day treatment.

Tuesday, December 27

On the first morning I went at 10:00 to see the doctor, Abdul Khadar, about a seven day Ayurvedic treatment. He asked a series of questions and I explained my state of health. He made notes, filling a three page form. He also felt my wrist to check my heartbeat, and took my blood pressure with the standard equipment. At the end we had agreed that my neck, shoulders and back needed some work, and that my eyes would benefit from attention. He wrote out a seven day programme, and off we went.

Each day of the programme will be in two stages. I had the same masseur as previously, whose name is Lhati. I began with udwarthanam, a full body massage with powder. This was followed by a joint massage that addressed the neck, back and shoulders and used a herbal oil. Together they took about ninety minutes.

I had almost the same experience as during the first massage. It is impossible to think while being attended to continuously. Instead thoughts bubble up to disappear in a similar way to the first stages of meditation. I found myself flitting from feeling my body, feeling Lhati’s hands manipulating it, the sounds and smells in and outside the room, and fragments of ideas.

All three massages used different techniques. The massage with powder used pinching movements that are close to what I imagine a cornish pasty feels when its pastry is being pressed closed. This alternated with movements that felt like a hamster exercising on my arms and legs. The back and neck massage used spider-like movements that employed all the fingertips of one hand simultaneously.

Wednesday, December 28

The next morning at 9:30 I had the second session. This started with a lengthier and more vigorous full-body relaxation massage, and concluded with elakizhi which is, to quote from the leaflet, a massage “using special bolus made from sliced medicinal leaves processed in oils, on the whole body or on any affected body part by dipping it in suitable oil”.

During the first stage I noticed that I was experiencing longer thought chains than previously, although it would be more accurate to describe them as emotional stories than thoughts. They resembled the semi-lucid dreams that occur shortly before and during waking. They faded in and out as bird sounds, voices and traffic caught my attention which also become more or less focused on whact was happening to my body.

It became clear that the muscles in both my calves are upset by the massage. Movements that are pleasant and invigorating when done to my arms and thighs cause my calves sudden intense pain. It is also clear that my neck and shoulder muscles need more exercise. Laying on my stomach soon becomes uncomfortable, and my right shoulder in particular starts to become painful.

The second stage was interesting. The ‘warm’ in the leaflet was more nearly ‘burning hot’. ‘Rubbed’ was more nearly ‘thwacked’. Before each round the bolus was dipped in a pan of sizzling liquid. (The pan was on a gas stove.) It was then used to punch me in a series of moves up and down my back or limbs. The effect was very powerful.

Finally I had the bolus treatment applied to the back of my neck and shoulders for five minutes. The punches were not light and the effect was marked. I felt mildly disorientated as I put my clothes back on and walked home.

Thursday, December 29

On Day 3 I had a variation on yesterday: a vigorous full-body relaxation massage, followed by thirty minutes of njavarakizhi.

This began with a head massage, which I have had previously but forgotten completely by the time the experience was over. This was lengthier than previously, and covered the scalp, the sides of the head, and the shoulders. It finished with a minute or two of punches with the heels of the hands. The ones aimed at where the neck joins the back of the head were especially effective.

On previous occasions the back of my calves had been in considerable pain when they were massaged. I had never mentioned this (I hardly say anything) but today Lhati concentrated on them and, to my surprise, the pain was almost gone. He probed more deeply than he had before and even then the pain was only slight.

Today I found that I was making phrases in time to the movement of my body as it was massaged, without ever ‘deciding’ to do so. ‘Tiny jamawana’ was one phrase that appeared unexpectedly several times.

More thoughts appeared than on previous days but they were still event-based rather than logical arguments. They took various forms of ‘what-if’ or ‘when-I’ and lasted no more than three or four steps in what, in other circumstances, might have been a lengthy chain. This made me wonder afterwards about how often these kinds of thought-chains occur for me and what purpose they serve.

When I got home I showered and Irma suggested that I should use some moisturiser. I did and my face felt like it was on fire. I complained and Irma said that my face was covered on a rash and swelling. I looked in the mirror and it was. I soaked my face in cold water and fiftenen minutes later I applied some Himalaya Herbals ayurvedic face cream. Thirty minutes later my face was almost back to normal. The swelling had gone but some traces of the radh remained.

There is, of course, no way of demonstrating a causal relationship between sny of these events. I merely note them, and note that the Himalaya Herbals cream had a markedly different effect from the one we brought from Helsinki.

Friday, December 30

On Day 4, I had the same treatment as yesterday. This time I did have coherent thoughts that I was able to hold onto and remember. I made some plans for Pixelversity, and some decisions about the first year’s social media week at Arcada. The massage seemed to be happening in the background.

I became very aware of my body when my legs were massaged though. The pain in my calves was almost gone. They were both totally relaxed when they were being kneaded.

When I left, and all the way home, I felt completely stoned. I was vaguely disoriented and was not walking in straight lines. I felt as
though I could not actually be bothered to walk at all. I was giggling when I stopped to buy milk, and Irma noticed that I was, in her words, wobbling around. I showered and then sat down gor thirty minutes, after which I simply felt tired. I had slept soundly for almost ten hours the previous night.

Saturday, December 31

This was the fourth day of the same treatment and, for the first time, it felt routine. I felt the way that I imagine a professional footballer feels when he gets a massage after training. I knew what to do and when to do it. I was thinking about how to write the treatment up when I lay down and I carried on thinking about it as the massage began. I was half-noticing what was happening to my body in the background while making plans in the foreground.

It is not strictly true to say that the last four massages have been the same, because they have had very different emphases. Today he paid a lot of attention to my shoulders and calves. My attention focused on my body, though, when he started doing my calves. The pains that had been fairly intense on previous days were simply not there at all. Yesterday I could feel where they had hurt. Today I felt nothing.

I had gone an hour earlier today, because we were going to Trivandrum at 11:00, and for some reason the fact that we had a definite stopping time that we were working towards added to the feeling that this was routine work.

Sunday, January 1

Last night I celebrated New Year by eating a very hot and exceedingly large tandoori snapper. As a result I drank two beers and about three litres of icy water, and then lay awake for some time in the night with a grumbling stomach.

In the morning my stomach was tight and seemed to be equipped with unpredictable indigestion. I decided that I should tell Lhati about this before he pummelled my stomach and I vomited. He laughed and massaged my stomach for ten minutes, after which I urinated and suddenly and genuinely felt fine.

We began with udwarthanam, a massage “done in reverse direction with specially formulted warm herbal powder”. Like yesterday this seemed to concentrate on my shoulders and calves with additional emphasis on my spine. The massage technique is noticeably different, pressing deeper to manipulate the muscles. My calves sailed through with only a couple of twinges in the right calf.

The second stage was shirodhara, a process “in which herbal oils…are allowed to fall from a pot through a wick in a stream over the forehead in a special rhythm”. I was blindfolded and lay on my back will the hot oil drummed gently onto my forehead while the pot was swung in different motions.

This provided an immediate link to my previous work in isolation tanks. I became intensely aware of keeping still, and aware that my throat needed clearing – and that I could not do this without moving my head. I lay there and let the feeling pass and return and pass until I finally forgot it. I was able to think or drift at will. Although I was close to the edge of sleep/dreaming in the later stages I was never actually asleep.

Monday, January 2

Today began with shirodhara, and I was blindfolded and lay on my back. Yesterday’s session was not in my mind at all (I had been, and was, thinking about the introduction to my thesis for which I had a newly formulated beginning) yet I rapidly developed the same problem. This time I was unable fully to get out of it.

I kept returning to the feeling that I could not swallow properly and was about to drown in my own mucus. I could rationalise it away and then focus on something else, but a change in the patterns of oil on my forehead would inevitably return me to an awareness of my body which would, in tirn, make me wonder if I could swallow. It would then transpire that my effort felt less than satisfactory and a repeated effort even less so. Then the panic would set in. Eventually I felt as though I had a steel ring tightened across my stomach and, claiming I had something in my throat, I asked if we could stop for a moment and sat up.

When I lay down again this had stopped it for a time. I kept it at bay, although there was nothing pleasant about the rest of the session. I had looked at the clock when we started and the treatment had lasted forty minutes.

The second stage was a foot massage which was “a unique deep healing massage of Kerala done by specialised technicians with foot”. My technician was Shadi.

This was extraordinary and I left in a state of elation.

It was indeed a deep massage. Shadi found tensed muscles that had escaped the previous sessions undiscovered. After the week I could feel the difference and I could recognise that he was correct. He spent a lot of time, unbidden, with my shoulders which he announced were not working properly. Since he also placed his hand at the base of my spine at the exact point where the disc had powdered and announced that I had had a painful problem there that eas almost cured, I was inclined to believe his diagnoses.

Tuesday, January 3

I decided to try an experiment to help determine the cause of my unexpected problems yesterday. Irma had also had a session of shirodhara, and she said that she had found it “weirdly relaxing ” but entirely unproblematic. She said that her felt her “thoughts turn upside down”.

I wanted to know if the dripping oil was the cause, or whether it was the position I was lying in. If it was the latter I wanted to know if it was physiological or psychological in origin.

We determined that if I lay across the bed with the base of my skull on the edge and my head hanging over I would be in approximately the same position. I decided that I would spend forty minutes in that position to see what happened.

I blew my nose, coughed and spat out, had a drink of water, and cleared my throat again. Then I put on a blindfold and got in position. Almost immediately I had the same problem. I felt as though the back of my throat was starting to fill with liquid. I swallowed and coughed but could not shift the feeling. I tried focusing on something else but found myself rapidly returning to an awareness that I was in danger of choking or drowning. It resembled the feeling I had as a child if I was trying to lie still and ignore an itch.

Deciding that I had proved my point I sat up. Irma judged my time on my back to be four minutes long. Given that we were using only the minutes on a digital clock this means somewhere between just over three minutes and just less than five minutes.

I then tried a second experiment. I repeated the nose blowing, coughing and drinking routine and lay blindfolded on my back on the bed with my head on a (soft) pillow.

In this position I also soon felt that liquid was dripping into my throat. However I was successfully able to eliminate the problem by coughing and swallowing. I was able to focus elsewhere and after a (subjectively) short time I stopped noticing it and entered a reverie somewhere between a lucid dream and a fantasy. In this experiment I lasted the planned forty minutes and could quite clearly have lasted considerably longer.

My conclusion was that the effect was created by the particular position of my head and throat. Given that lying on my back in both positions caused the effect in different degrees of severity I am inclined to think it has a physiological basis. This inclination raises more questions than it answers though.

Diary: ten hours in a flotation tank

Thirty years ago I undertook a series of flotation tank experiments in which I remained in the tank for periods of up to five hours. This took place in a now defunct centre in Notting Hill, where I was taking an opportunity, for my own interest, to try in practice what I had previously read in the books of John C Lilly.

The results had stayed with me and now seemed peculiarly relevant to my experiments with pocket worlds. In different ways both involve reducing external sensory input in order to force the brain to produce or recycle its own. (The primary difference is that in isolation tank work the aim is to achieve this by floating in nothingness whereas in pocket world work the aim is to achieve this thought the use of a strictly controlled and limited external environment that guides the brain down specific pathways.)

I therefore went to London to Floatworks to spend three consecutive days having three hour sessions in an i-sopod flotation-tank.

I last read any of Lilly’s books about five years ago and I deliberately refrained from reading these, or any similar books, before undertaking the experiments. I was acutely aware that reading about what the effects of the experience might be could well determine the effects of the experience.

Wednesday, January 26

Every tank at Floatworks is in its own private room, equipped with a shower. The tanks have doors or lids that push open and pull closed very smoothly and easily using air pressure. These are important because I could remember the issues of trust commonly arise as one loses confidence in one’s sense of time passing. The question “have I been abandoned?” can arise.

When I first lay in the tank and closed the door I went through a lengthy period of itching. My attention focused on different parts of my body and was immediately drawn to any minute sensation. The slightest itch would become a magnet for attention.

I then made a conscious attempt to stop this by focusing on silently chanting the mantra I was given forty years ago while being trained in Transcendental Meditation. This worked insofar as I stopped concentrating on my skin, but My attention also kept slipping away from the mantra. I began to have fleeting thoughts that passed rapidly in and out of view. They sped up in a way that felt increasingly uncomfortable until I switched my focus completely and was simply lying in a warm bath.

I found that I could readily switch from one mode or level,of experience to another. I could be a boy in a bath, experiencing floating in a liquid that made sinking impossible. In this mode I looked around and felt like a child at bathtime. I could switch to being intensely aware of surface activity and monitor my skin and hair. I could sink into reveries of fleeting thought. I could drift as though on the edge of sleep. I could switch between these almost at will. More accurately, perhaps, I found that whenever I became bored or uncomfortable I did switch levels, although there were times when I became aware that I was deciding whether to stay with what I was experiencing or switch.

There were three or four points today when I felt that I had had enough. I remember feeling that surely three hours must have passed by now. This was accompanied by some seemingly sensible part of me demanding to get out and get on with something more ‘important’. Is seemed brought on by my failure to have coherent trains of thought of any length. I was unable to concentrate on tasks like thinking through the structure and phrasing of the introduction to my thesis. Completely irrelevant thoughts would rapidly rise up and then trigger further thoughts that were irrelevant to them. At times, when I was making a deliberate effort to concentrate on one topic, this proved frustrating.

I then realised that the process of ‘thinking’ in the tank was more nearly an emotional process of association rAther than logic. That at least was what I had experienced so far.

I resigned myself to this and, in what I assume was the ,last hour, three unexpected and useful ideas popped into my head without warning. They came and went but I was able to remember them later. They felt as though they rose to the surface and then slowly sank again.

The end of the session was signalled by natural sounds (waves and birdsong) being piped into the tank at a slowly increasing volume. At the beginning I could not tell if I was imagining it or not.

When I opened the tank and stood up I felt very unsteady in a pleasant way. I felt as though I was “coming round”, a feeling I remember waking up from having my gall-bladder removed. I certainly felt no stress as I wobbled towards the shower. Afterwards I felt wonderfully serene.

Thursday, January 27

This morning began in a similar way to yesterday, in that I went through a period of itching and found myself scratching my ears and knees and back. There was an immediate difference though because I knew how yesterday ended. I knew that, by the end, the three hours had felt worth it, and that I had had changing experiences throughout the time. I found myself reflecting on this, in a scattered daydreaming way, shortly after closing the lid.

Now that I had experienced one way of what it could be like the question “what will it be like?” no longer applied and a meditation around this idea became the subject of a lengthy conversation. Yesterday I had found it impossible to construct lengthy chains of abstract rational thought: to plan the structure of my thesis, for example, or to draw up a detailed task list for the experiments I have planned for the spring. Today I found that it was possible to have lengthy conversations provided that the conversations were allowed to move from topic to topic and back again. I also realised that this is how yesterdays ideas had originated.

I experimented with starting imaginary conversations with people I know and just seeing where they went; and, importantly, not being concerned one way or the other whether they were profound or trivial. This felt close to the dreaming or fantasising that occurs as you drift into or drift out of sleep. At those times I often have dreams in which I am aware that I am dreaming and aware that I can control the direction of the dream events if I will myself too; and aware that this might end the dream.

At one point I was having an argument with a friend about the consequences of Dennett’s multiple draft theory of consciousness, and losing, when the argument faded and an insight bubbled to the surface, and I realised that I had misunderstood something and that I knew both what I had misunderstood and the (beneficial) consequences of understanding it properly. In other words, a completely coherent set of interlocking ideas (ideas that drew together a newly understood passage of Dennett’s with other aspects of my reading, thinking and doing) had sneaked into my mind by a side door and presented themselves unasked.

The move from an imaginary conversation to a feeling of lying there being given ideas felt like a shift in the current level or mode of experience. I began to explore this deliberately. I got myself into the mode I described yesterday as like being a boy in a bathtub. I lay there acknowledging that I was in three square meters of saline solution in the dark. I wiggled my legs and felt little waves. I stretched my arms out until I could feel the sides of the tank. This caused me to drift in the water and for several minutes I shifted position involuntarily bumping first my head and then my feet on the sides. I tried to ascertain whether or not I could feel myself moving. I felt as though I could, but I couldn’t be certain. In the end I decided that I could feel movement but that the direction was difficult to determine accurately. I could guess correctly whether I was or was not stationary, but not which limb would next touch the side.

After some time I experimented with sight. Clearly what I was seeing was not undifferentiated blackness. If I opened my eyes I seemed to be travelling slowly along a man-made cave, something like the Tunnel of Love in an old-fashioned fairground. I could make out the rocky surface of the roof moving slowly by although it was appeared blurred and just out of focus as it might in normal peripheral vision. I closed my eyes and the illusion continued for a while and then faded as my thoughts drifted.

I repeated this several times with the same result. I finally decided that it was most likely that I was thinking of the effect the wrong way round. It did not fade when I closed my eyes, it persisted when I kept them open, because keeping them open was part of a process of focusing on what I could ‘see’, and focusing on the process held it in attention. I also noticed that while my attention was focused on the cave I was travelling through I was unaware of any itches or minor discomforts, but when I closed my eyes not only did the images fade but I would soon feel a need to move an arm or leg, or scratch an itch.

There were at least five modes of being within the tank, then:

1) self-consciouness: consciousness of one’s own body, with a focus on small and transient discomforts and irritations;
2) the boy in the bathtub, playing with, and focusing on, the physical aspects of floating in a tank of saline solution;
3) a visual focus in which attempts to see if there is anything to see inevitably turns up something (unpredictable and uncontrollable) to look at;
4) a story-telling mode involving imaginary dialogue that appears able to achieve a large measure of independence;
5) a meditative mode, often in my case arising from a period of dialogue, in which ideas and insights arise unbidden.

I went through all of these today and in the final hour or so I experienced again something I had felt yesterday and forgotten to note down. Towards the end of both sessions my attention was drawn to a feeling in my back and legs. I felt exactly as though I was laying on a hard wooden table. The feeling was especially intense in my calves. I lay there and the feeling remained, and felt completely convincing. Yesterday I ended it by moving my legs whereupon it dissolved immediately. Today I held the feeling for a long time, trying to find a phenomenological flaw in it. I could not: it felt absolutely real.

Once again, when the music came on and I opened the door to step out of the tank, I felt unsteady, as though slightly intoxicated. I noticed that, after I had showered and dress, and left Floatworks, I still felt relxed and distanced. I felt as though I was watching the London streets without being a part of them; as though the streets were being projected.

Friday, January 28

On my way to Floatworks this morning I decided that I no longer had any particular expectations of the experience. What had happened so far was both more and less than I had expected. I had not had any cosmic hallucinations and yet nor had I been disappointed. Yesterday the feeling of benign drifing had continued well into the late afternoon or evening.

As I got into the tank I knew that I was now habituated. I felt as though the situation was completely normal and I was about to embark upon another morning’s work. When I lay down and closed the lid I was thinking about this, and that led into a chain of thoughts about writing the experiences up, and then combining the writing with the diary from the Ayurvedic treatment in Kerala. At a point I noticed that I was having a coherent chain of thought, and the process of noticing seemed to end the chain. I wondered if I could maintain a coherent thought pattern about other topics and, perhaps inevitably, this lead to a stream of fragmented ideas about what those topics might be, until I found myself “watching” as a constant flow of different but interested thought fragments bumped into each other as they passed by.

I repeated some experiments from yesterday. I held my hand up to see if I could see it. After a time my eyes could quite clearly make out the outline of my arm and hand, which were a darker dark than the surrounding area. I moved my arm slowly and the outline moved too. I spent some time doing this while trying to work out how I could tell whether the effect was genuine or not.

I decided that if I could genuinely see my hand I should also be able to see the silver handles on either side of the tank. (The flotation tank has two handles on either side that you can use to steady yourself while opening and closing it. The one on the left has a spray bottle of clean water hanging from it, that you can use to clean your eyes if they get salt in them.) I moved my head and looked carefully until I could make out the outline of the handle on the right hand side. It appeared to gleam very slightly, and I began to suspect that some light must be leaking into the tank. I reached out to touch the handle, to confirm that I could actually see it, and my hand touched nothing at all except the side of the tank. I felt on either side and then up and down until I found the handle in the dark, nowhere near where I had “seen” it.

Laying back and looking at the ceiling for several minutes, I was again able to see a clear pattern above me. I was floating in a tunnel made of gothic arches with a stone surface that had not been smoothed. I watched this for some time and, after a while, it felt as though I was travelling slowly down the tunnel, with the roof passing over me. I closed my eyes and, unlike previous times, the tunnel disappeared. I opened them again and it was there. Thjis surprised me greatly because I had not intentionally willed this to happen, and I was not able to prevent it happening. When I opened my eyes I was moving slowly down a tunnel. When I closed them I saw patterns of faintly coloured dots.

For a long time I was able to continue in this way: tunnels with my eyes open and faint dots with them closed. Finally something made me switch into being the boy in the bath, and I became aware that I was lying in a tub and that my feet were making little ripples. In that mode I wondered what the time was and how long I had been in the tank.

For here I slipped easily into a series of imaginary conversations, without choosing who to talk to. I found myself talking with someone whom I had not seen for at least twenty or thirty years, explaining what I was doing and why I was doing it. He reminded me of some books that we used to talk about (which, consciously at least, I had completely forgotten about) and made several helpful suggestions as to how I should proceed with my research.

Later I relived three episodes from different periods of my life. One, when I was three or four, involved me tumbling down several flights of stairs, on my way down to greet my father. One involved me racing down in hill with Luke in his buggy, until one wheel broke off and we hit a wall. The final one involved me climbing fifteen metres up the outside of a lighting rig at a theatre performance, to get over my fear of heights. These were not traumatic or frightening or emotionally draining in any way. They seemed pleasantly distant, in the way that albums of old holiday photographs miht seem faded and distant.

I was surprised by these and, having a conversation with myself, I wondered what the three had in common, since they came one after another like short films at a cartoon festival. I decided that they all had something to do with potential danger that didn’t materialise. I saw George Formby (who I had not thought about since I was a child) saying “Turned out nice again, didn’t it?”, the phrase he used at least once in every film he made.

This phrase acted like a mantra in that I found it going through my head, making me smile for a long time, with images of George Formby, on a motorcycle or in a haystack, wearing a stupid hat, popped in and out of my view. I was suddenly aware that my back and legs believed that I was lying on a hard surface again. I kept in position for some time, feeling how it felt, until I decided to try moving just one leg slowly. My right leg felt as though I had moved it off the edge of the table, and I was able successfully to “put it back on”, with the illusion seamlessly maintained.

I lay still thinking about this, and then tried again. This time I accidentally moved my back slightly and the illusion vanished. I was unable to get it back, even though I tried to “not get it back” in order to see if it would then return. It didn’t.

When I got out of the tank I looked at my watch and realised that my three hours had been almost four. I had got into the tank at 9:50 and it was now 13:45. I had a shower and sat still for five minutes before dressing and leaving the room. Again I felt very light. Physically I felt like I was walking on a bed of air. Mentally I felt light headed. I sat for an hour in a cafe, with a sandwich and a glass of apple juice, looking out of the window.

Generalising from the experiences

I am writing this section several weeks after completing the second experiment, because I wish (as far as possible) to treat both sets of writing as equivalent historical data.

The primary question that I want to raise can be answered simply. In my remembered experience, which is confirmed by rereading my diaries, the two experiments did result in comparable sensations. I did not feel precisely the same feelings, or have precisely the same sensations, but the two experiences had certain similarities that both distinguished them from everyday reality and bound them together in an identifiable category of experience.

There therefore seems to be a legitimate basis for generalising from the two experiments.

The noticeable similarities included the fact that, in both cases, it proved difficult to maintain lengthy strings of rational thought, and to combine these together in ways that might lead to logical conclusions. Instead thought ‘floated’, drifting in and out of my attention without any conclusion or punchline. Although this process might be described as dream-like the content that floated in and out of attention did not display dream-like qualities. Rather, I felt as though the elements were held together by a non-linear narrative; that they acted as shifting elements in a serialised story that I sent and received simultaneously.

The most noticeable difference between the two seemed to revolve around a perceived sense of freedom, or lack of freedom; and the consequences that seemed to flow from this. I had a recurring feeling that I might choke in the Ayurvedic massage which occurred only briefly, and only once, in the flotation tank. In the tank I cured it (permanently) by moving my head until I was happy that I had a workable strategy for avoiding choking. In the massage I unintentionally exacerbated the feeling by realising (or deciding) that I shouldn’t move because moving would cause problems with the treatment.

Trying to will myself out of the position I felt myself in served to increased its severity, while moving physically simply ended it. This can be related directly to Eric Berne’s views concerning the difference between resolutions and projects.

He says that “a resolution an ‘act of willpower’, and imposition of the Parent on the Child,…[is]…announced before the fact.” He regards this kind of manoeuvre as an attempt to set up a game in which success becomes either unlikely or actually unwanted. He contrasts this kind of activity to projects that people announce sometime after they find themselves already carrying them out; something that he regards as characteristic of Adult behaviour, and a necessary forerunner to awareness and autonomy.

Concluding hypotheses

I began these experiments with an intuition that the results would be relevant to my research into the possible uses of synthetic worlds as eidetic tools for self-growth. I shall now end with some suggestions as to why my experiences might indeed have significant relevance, and how they might suggest directions for further research.

I shall do this by linking together a set of hypotheses.

  1. Free-floating thought has, or sometimes seems to have, a narrative-like structure.
  2. This structure cannot reasonably be described as random, and nor can it be said to be hallucinatory. It may be viewed as a network within which thoughts can be experienced organising themselves.
  3. This structure appears as playful and allusive, and can be controlled or experienced according to the level of the user’s settings.
  4. It can thus be utilised for exploratory purposes.
  5. Free-floating thought forms one of a number of options that can be entered into in some circumstances. These circumstances seem to require a withdrawal from the usual array of sensory stimulation.
  6. This should not surprise us since almost all meditation practices involve such a withdrawal.
  7. The question of how many different ways this withdrawal can be facilitated remains to be explored.
  8. Meditative withdrawal may involve focusing our thoughts on a constant yet subtly changing trigger stimulus: a sight such as the flame of a burning candle, or a repetitive but internalised sound such as a mantra.
  9. Both of these techniques replace the everyday world with something that acts as a relaxant; and that relaxant in turn acts as a bridge between the everyday internal chatter of thought and a period of no-mind.
  10. Under certain circumstances immersive worlds may also provide such a bridge by placing the user in a calming environment freed from consequences which acts as a trigger stimulus.
  11. To devise such a world we must first map the ways in which historically successful triggers such as meditation and massage, and more recent innovations such as flotation, actually work.

I realise that the chain of hypotheses above does not address the fundamental questions of why one would want an immersive world to act in this way, or what benefits one would gain from successfully constructing such a world. Those questions form an important part of my research but are outside the scope of this paper.

My concerns here have simply been to document my experience, and to establish that research in the area of sensory withdrawal has, or can have, important implications for research in at least one area of virtuality. The diaries therefore form the heart of the paper. The concluding sections merely seek to suggest ways in which I may be able to use what I have learned.

I shall write in much more detail about the nature of these links elsewhere, where I shall also essay an answer to what I have termed the fundamental questions.

Note on language

I wrote this paper using E-Prime. According to an article in Wikipedia, “D. David Bourland, Jr. (1928–2000) proposed E-Prime as an addition to Alfred Korzybski’s general semantics some years after Korzybski’s death in 1950″.

I am attempting to use e-prime for everything that I write in connection with my doctoral research, since questions of agency, the relationships between agents and actions, and the relationships between agency and language lie at the heart of my research question; and Bourland developed e-prime as a tool to confront these linguistically.

(The diary entries themselves are not written in E-Prime, and neither is this sentence.)

Note on licensing

Creative Commons License
Urban No-Mind by Owen Kelly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

References

Eric Berne, 1964. Games People Play. New York: Simon & Schuster
Christian Beyer, “Edmund Husserl”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2011/entries/husserl/
Daniel C Dennett, 1991. Consciousness Explained. New York: Little, Brown & Co
John C Lilly, 1967 The Human Biocomputer. London: Sphere Books
John C Lilly, 1972 Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer. New York: The Julian Press
John C Lilly, 1977. The Deep Self. New York: Simon & Schuster
Fritz Perls & Paul Goodman, 1951. Gestalt Therapy. New York: The Julian Press
Ida Rolf, 1977. Rolfing – Reestablishing the Natural Alignment and Structural Integration of the Human Body for Vitality and Well-Being. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press
Alan W Watts, 1970. Does It Matter: essays on man’s relation to materiality. New York: Pantheon Books

 
 
This essay was first published on February 18, 2012