Shrine in the Mind: Tokyo Isolation Tank
By Greg Beck
Last week I went into an isolation tank for an hour. This week, I went again.
What is an isolation tank?
Isolation tanks were invented by John Lilly, an American scientist who experimented heavily in the 1960s with altered states of mind. What he came up with in his quest to isolate the mind from the body, is a light-proof, sound-proof tank with about eight inches of water made super-buoyant by magnesium salt. Both the water and the air inside the tank are kept at around 93 degrees Fahrenheit (the same temperature as your skin) and you float in this empty, weightless, silent darkness, alone with only your mind and the thought “How long is an hour, really?”
I first heard about isolation tanks over a year ago from stand-up comedian and UFC commentator Joe Rogan on his blog. Apparently he is such a fan of them that not only did he get one for his home, but when he moved to a new house, he bought a newer, updated version and gave his old one away in a contest so that others could enjoy it. Since that time, I have continued to read his blogs and watch his podcasts, and every time the subject came up I got more and more interested. He described it as being similar to doing hallucinogens, but without any drugs, side-effects, or hang-overs; a silent time for self-reflection and insight. Recently, he mentioned being able to search online for places all over the world where you could pay to use an isolation tank. As soon as I heard that I hit up Google and, sure enough, found one in Tokyo.
This was only four days before I was going to go to Tokyo to meet the new ALTs coming for Group A’s Tokyo Orientation, and after dreaming of trying it out price was no object. I just hoped I could get an appointment. Kazuo Miyabe, the owner the isolation tank, operates a very stylish website with more info and the option of making online reservations: http://www.eccoproject.com/ (Japanese language only). When I made a reservation he got back to me immediately and told me that my first choice for an appointment time was fine. Awesome.
So, three days later I was walking through Shirokane-Takanawa, near Meguro in Tokyo, looking for the tiny back street to his first floor apartment, which he has converted into his “office.” From the outside, it looks like your average, aging Japanese apartment. Inside, though, as you walk through the kitchen and into the waiting room, you soon start to notice that this is no one’s living space.
Kazuo is a very relaxed guy who gives off the vibe of a spiritual guru. He spoke to me in Japanese the entire time, but mentioned that in his nine years of doing this he has also had many foreigners visit and has no problem communicating in English. As it was my first time, he gave me a verbal tutorial about what to expect, possible anxiety I might experience, and how to get over it and get back in the tank. The most interesting part of his talk was how some peoples’ bodies will try to play tricks on them. The feeling of letting go you get from being inside the tank, while ultimately relaxing and amazing, can also be unnerving to some, he said. Their minds try to blame their anxiety on the tank, convince them it is broken, and that they should get out. The reason for this, apparently, comes from being conditioned from the time we are small, that everything in life is external, from our problems to our means of finding happiness. So, when we are put in an environment that isolates us from the external, our mind feels exposed and unable to project its problems elsewhere.
This all sounded very serious and heavy, and even someone like me, who thrives on new experiences and taking myself out of my comfort zone, started to wonder if I would experience any of these problems. I did not. In fact, walking back to the Metro line from Kazuo’s place, I wondered if I hadn’t wasted my first hour being caught up in the novelty of such a uniquely new state of being. I will get back to what happened chronologically in a moment, but I want to say first that I had so much fun my first time, from the moment I stepped in to showering off afterward, that the level of elation was euphoric. I felt so free and uninhibited. Looking at my picture of the tank, I’m sure some of you would think of claustrophobia, but it is exactly the opposite. Once you close the door to the tank, you instantly lose any and all perception of direction and boundaries.
So, tutorial over, Kazuo took me into the room with the isolation tank for the first time. He had many Shinto bells and paraphernalia, towels laid out ready on the tank, a toilet, and a shower. He showed me how the air and water temperature inside the tank were monitored and maintained, and explained that speakers inside the tank would play music when my hour was up. He showed me the inside of the tank, how to open and close it, and then, most surprisingly, he started to discuss Shinto. Paraphrasing (and translating), he said “I want you to think of the inside of this tank like a shrine. Shinto shrines are a place to reflect on yourself and are purified with what? Salt and water. This is no different. It is a place for meditation and to remove yourself from ego.” He asked that before I got in the tank I used the toilet and showered off any sweat, smells, gel, and anything else that might distract me from the experience. He also asked that I draw an “X” across the four corners of the entrance into the tank to “seal” it. Finally, before any of that, he asked me to face a corner where I would listen to him use Shinto and Buddhist bells in order to align my brainwaves with a more meditative level. The whole thing felt like a religious ceremony, but it was brief and pleasant.
Bells and items used in preparation for entering the isolation tank.
After that, he left the room and I did the other things I was instructed to do before sliding into the tank and floating toward infinity. Inside the tank, I tried many different poses, trying to figure out which was the most comfortable. Ultimately, lying back with my fingers laced behind my head was the easiest to sustain for long periods, but even when I tried to stretch out I was happy to find I had plenty of room to do so. Every so often my elbow, toe, or head would bump up against the wall and with the most delicate of nudges, I would float away. Indeed, the first sensation I had was floating down a calm river, despite the fact that I was hardly moving at all. Even my second time in the tank, when I was much more calm and relaxed, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that after closing my eyes, then opening them, it still “looked” like my eyes were closed. And those patterns of faint light you sometimes see when you press your hands over your eyes continue with them wide open.
Since having both experiences I have talked to many people about how wonderful it was, and I wrote this because most people seemed genuinely interested in knowing more about it. Most people want to know how it feels, but that is of course the hardest thing to put into words. I have described it as having just your mind, floating in a starless space, but that is not accurate because your body is still there, under your control. Actually, one of the most interesting parts of the experience is hearing your breath and heartbeat from inside your own body. Most recently, I told a friend that it’s like instantly falling asleep, but staying lucid the whole time. When the hour is up, as promised, some gentle bells thumped out a melody which got progressively louder to wake you in case you were asleep.
Best of all, I never felt bored or tired at any point, either time. I get bored easily, too. I fall asleep on massage chairs, buses, trains, cars, boats, whatever. This situation is so unique, and liberating, though, that I think you would have to be immensely exhausted, either physically or mentally, in order to fall asleep. And if that is the case, then sleep is what you need. For me, though, both my first and second hour went by smoothly and felt like some of the wisest investments I had ever made with my time.
After showering the salty water off and helping myself to Kazuo’s awesome citrus body wash and herbal shampoo and conditioner, I got dressed and joined him back in the waiting room for some cold mugi-cha and to discuss the experience and talk about life in general. He also took me to the second floor of his apartment to try his Merkaba. Essentially, the Merkaba was a water bed and a strobe light, combined with relaxing sounds and some scented oils or something. I basically fell asleep soon after lying down and then woke up just before the half-hour ended and the music (actually, sounds from the Amazon rain forest) stopped. I went back downstairs and Kazuo was talking with two other customers. One got in the tank and the other stayed to chat. He told me he had been coming for awhile and that day was about his 100th time in the tank. They said the older gentleman who had already gone to shower was a regular and came in almost every day!
With the tank all the way up in Tokyo I won’t have many chances to get there, but Kazuo also mentioned helping a psychiatric clinic a short walk from Okayama Station in Okayama City, set up a newer, but slightly different tank, and that it is available to the public on Saturdays. The name of the place is Hikari Clinic, and because he helped set up the tank, you can receive a member’s discount there as well. This is great news, because membership is 10,000 yen. That may sound pricey, but after becoming a member, an hour in the isolation tank is only 4,200 yen. And both, I firmly believe, are wise investments.
Just as important as my experience in the isolation tank was how I felt when I got out. I felt lighter, happier, and generally more carefree. I didn’t feel like I learned any one profound thing about life during either time that I could share with you. For me personally, I focused more on letting go and taking whatever came to me with open arms. Afterward, I felt more positive and, in fact, I still do. I can’t wait for another hour in the tank, and I doubt three times will be “enough” either.