Floatation Tank and Consciousness

Altered States: from Fiction to Fact:
Introducing the Alternate Waking States Induction Method

Richard Bonk M.Ed.

Although REST has been the subject of a multitude of research studies and has been shown to be useful in clinical applications, much of the public's awareness of the floatation experience stems from the movie Altered States. And, it is often in the hope of producing unique, stimulating and consciousness altering states that many people decide to float. For many individuals, floating becomes a "done that," once in a lifetime experience when they emerge from the Epsom salt waters relaxed though certainly not significantly "altered." However, many regular floaters do experience heightened states of awareness and unusual mental phenomena. In an effort to examine these unique states in a controlled setting it was important to develop a technique in which these ephemeral states could be reliably and regularly facilitated. Following then, is


an introduction to the Alternate Waking States Induction Method (AWSIM), a technique which has proven effective in the engendering of "altered" states of consciousness in individuals while floating,


a brief overview of significant phenomena observed with reference to categorization thereof,


implications and possible applications, and,


suggestions for further research.

I) Introduction

As a REST facilitator and investigator of over 17 years I can attest to the subjective, experiential reality of altered or alternate waking states. It seems more accurate to refer to these unique states of consciousness as alternate waking states because, rather than consciousness being "altered," a specific state, when certain conditions are met, changes naturally into another normal, yet alternate, albeit perhaps under-utilized state of consciousness. (Like going from the normal waking state, through the hypnogogic and into the sleep/dream cycle.) These states are waking states because the experiencer has partial or full waking awareness and access to cognitive functioning, even though the body may be "asleep" or otherwise immobilized. I have recorded dozens of spontaneous alternate waking states experiences which run the gamut from lucid dreams to precognitive visions to out-of-the-body experiences. Since the floatation experience has been a potent catalyst for me in the spontaneous production of alternate waking states, I have sought to develop methods to produce these states with a regularity and reliability which would facilitate structured investigations. In the following article I will introduce a technique christened the Alternate Waking States Induction Method (AWSIM) documenting the development of a technique which has proved effective in producing these ephemeral states of consciousness with a reliability allowing for laboratory study and practical application.

Tank Facilitated Lucid Dreaming and Beyond

In recent years there has been a rekindled interest in dream research, owing much to the pioneering studies being done with subjects who report "lucid" dreams, or dreams wherein the dreamer is aware that she/he is dreaming. Dr. Stephen LaBerge of the Stanford University Sleep Research Center, leads the pack, with many years of work training "oneironauts" or "dream sailors" to awaken within their dreams and carry out prearranged tasks, including signaling to the outside world. Dr. Laberge, having recorded hundreds of such dreams, has developed a method which he refers to as the Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams, or MILD, enabling willing subjects to experience lucid dreams with the regularity required for laboratory investigation. LaBerge believes that with enough motivation and practice, anyone can learn to dream lucidly and recommends following these steps:


As soon as you sense yourself waking up in the morning, try to keep your thoughts focused on the last dream you were having. Remember what the dream felt like, its texture and its setting, and memorize as many details as you can.


Spend the next 15 minutes reading, meditating, or doing any other activity that requires full wakefulness.


Then, while lying in bed, affirm to yourself, "the next time I dream, I want to remember to recognize that I'm dreaming."


Visualize yourself back in your last dream, with the difference that now you recognize that you're dreaming.


Repeat the affirmation and visualization until you feel that your intention is firm. Let yourself fall back asleep. If all goes well, you will soon find yourself in the midst of a lucid dream.

Having a keen interest in "altered" or, preferably, "alternate" states of consciousness, including dream and allied states, I eagerly attempted the above suggested method, experiencing moderate success until a modified version of the technique was developed, wherein results immediately increased in number and intensity. It was serendipitous to discover that a more mechanistic rather than mnemonic approach yielded results more consistently.

For one and a half years prior to this time, I had regular access (2-3 times weekly), to a floatation tank, where I spontaneously experienced "alternate waking states" (AWS). I experienced these unique states at a frequency of 2-3 per year. No pattern or prerequisite stimulus could be discerned, save the fact that it seemed necessary to lose consciousness, as if falling off to sleep, whereupon, I would "wake up" into an alternate space or reality. The states seemed to be characteristic of what the above dream researcher describes as lucid dreams, although the quality and intensity would vary, oftentimes seeming more akin to what is referred to as an "out-of-the-body experience" (OBE) as described in various parapsychology texts.

These peculiar states held a special fascination for me, so much that I decided to find a method for inducing and maintaining these states, in order that further observations could be made. Thus, Dr. LaBerge's MILD technique invited personal experimentation.

I then proceeded to employ MILD in the manner prescribed, experiencing at most, fleeting moments of lucidity, and those seemingly related to pre-dream (hypnogogic), or between dream states. One morning, however, approximately 3 weeks into experimentation with MILD, an unusual set of circumstances, (meeting friends for breakfast at 5 AM), forced me to awaken 2-3 hours earlier than usual and function for an extended period of time with full waking consciousness. I returned to sleep later that morning- and experienced a "full-blown" lucid dream. It appeared that the missing and important factor, at least in my case, was the insurance of a longer period of full waking consciousness. A modified MILD had yielded its first success. It occurred to me that if MILD would work inducing AWS in bed, then perhaps a further modified MILD would induce similar states in the tank. (Perhaps this could be referred to as WILD, for "wet" induction of lucid dreams!)

On the second day after having successfully induced a lucid dream during sleep, I proceeded with the modified MILD, but instead of returning to bed, I showered and entered the tank. At first it seemed as if sleep wouldn't come, let alone any unusual experience. But, after an initially uncomfortable period, I found myself awakening into a strange "vibratory" state where it seemed "another body" was rising up and out of the physical body. Then I was aware that I could "see" the inside top of the tank (though in total darkness), which reinforced the uniqueness of this state. I recall mentally telling myself to remain calm because the energy of this state evoked an initially fearful response. But, by maintaining a "calm mental resolve," I was able to overcome fear, whereupon I sensed I was moving through a tunnel, then out through the walls of the tank and out into the next room. I found myself able to move within a perceived environment that seemed to be a composite reality ordered according to laws peculiar to that state and my conscious fancy. I had access to all mental/cognitive powers inherent in normal waking consciousness. For all practical purposes, it appeared as though I had woken up "somewhere else."

I have since had many similar experiences, apparently owing to the above technique. Approximately 80% of attempts successfully generate AWSs. Also, spontaneous AWS experiences, both during sleep and in the tank have risen in conjunction with the above success - from approximately 2-3 per year, to 1+ per month. I have noted that even when my mind-set invited failure, i.e., experiencing doubt, frustration, discomfort, etc., - the AWS experience has continued to replicate itself, indicating that (at least some of) the important variables may be mechanistic. In fact, it seems that as long as a certain small set of requirements are fulfilled, the AWS experience will occur regularly.

The following steps represent a modification of the MILD technique (further referred to for our purposes as the "Alternate Waking States Induction Method," or AWSIM), incorporating the use of the floatation tank, which I have found conducive in the induction and maintenance of AWSs:


Gently awaken oneself in the last 1/3 of your normal sleep cycle.


Assure a period of "relaxed wakefulness" (as in the MILD method #2) where you perform a task that requires full waking consciousness while carefully maintaining the relaxed post-sleep state. In this case, showering before tank immersion seems effective.


Allow for a gentle re-entry into the sleep cycle while in a "novel" environment. The floatation environment is particularly suited to this stage as it seems to encourage and maintain transitional or in-between, i.e., hypnogogic states for extended periods.


In some instances it may be helpful to use non-mechanistic, internal processes, i.e., your imagination, emotions, mind-sets, etc., to create an ambiance of relaxed desire/expectation to further facilitate the experience. In my experience, it doesn't seem necessary that mental reinforcement be done upon awakening or prior to entering the tank. However, pre-programming in whatever manner one is inclined, may be helpful if done during the previous day or night prior to sleep. In other words, create an open-expectancy state, where you anticipate a unique experience, and are open to any possibility. Try not to (mentally) create your experience beforehand, as your AWS experience may very different from your expectations.

In summary, I have found that a modified version of lucid dream researcher Dr. Stephen LaBerge's MILD techniques, when used in conjunction with the floatation REST system, yields sometimes intense alternate waking states experience with regularity. I have noted that, although the effectiveness of mental programming in inducing such experiences can not be denied, a more "mechanistic" method works at least as well. The 2 major variables according to this view seem to be


the necessity of gentle interruption of the subject's sleep cycle, and


the subsequent immersion of the subject into the floatation REST environment. If one begins to re-cycle into sleep, one seems to, in more cases than not, experience an alternate waking state, similar to normal waking in that one has access to normal conscious faculties, yet unique in the phenomena experienced.

Since my initial personal investigations, I have introduced the AWSIM technique to others who have experienced similar results. Interestingly, and supportive of my hypothesis, is the fact that the AWS experience will occur in individuals across the board, regardless of their personal experiences or beliefs, as long as certain mechanistic variables are met.

II) AWS Phenomena Observed

Useful Parameters

To effectively describe AWSs I have found it helpful to utilize three subjective parameters:


self/ego awareness, or how intact/stable one's sense of self is,


intensity, a spectral measurement/assessment regarding how "real" the AWS experience seems in comparison to normal waking consciousness, and,


perceptual/psychomotor/cognitive functioning, that is how effectively an individual's sensory, psychomotor and reasoning abilities can be consciously utilized. Psychomotor functioning is considered here not in a physiological context, rather with respect to the degree an individual senses she/he is able to move through perceived space and manipulate objects within it

Though these parameters have been measured via subjective reports, there are indications that they may be objectively measured and quantified, i.e., intensity may be reflected in a change of EEG recorded brainwaves, or other changes in physiology indicating a heightened state of inner arousal. Levels of cognitive functioning may be ascertained via a subject's ability to respond to stimuli presented or to carry out specific, predetermined tasks, i.e., to move the eyes as in lucid dream research where dreamers signal to investigators when they awaken in a dream.

AWS Induction and Establishment Phenomena

A certain set of phenomena seem to consistently accompany transition from normal waking consciousness into AWSs. It seems necessary to enter into the sleep state and momentarily lose consciousness then subsequently reawaken gently and slowly, maintaining deep relaxation, where the body remains still, in a state of sleep paralysis. At this point, one can chose to rouse the body or continue to maintain mental and physical calm. In order to further the experience it is imperative to gently maintain a non-aroused, yet observant state. One needs to be simultaneously alert and relaxed.

If this state is maintained, certain phenomena begin to present themselves rapidly and in specific sequence. Usually the first phenomenological marker is an expansion of the auditory sense. One can "hear" clearly what is going on in the nearby environment (adjacent rooms, etc.). Often there is an unusual sound similar to that of clear bells or chimes and or a crackling, tearing or rushing sound. These sounds are usually prerequisite to a "vibratory" sensation felt as if in the physical body. Typically a sense of acceleration is experienced wherein the vibrations exponetionally intensify engendering a sense that one is about to energetically expand, explode or project out of one's physical body. Initially this dramatic sensation can evoke a fear response and a subsequent aborting of the experience. However, it was noted that if one retains a calm mental resolve, one will immediately continue to the next phase.

At this point, if one remains calm, there is a sensation that the vibratory energy, experienced as another body as it seems to be a locus and vehicle for self consciousness, feels as though it exits out of the physical body. It may then feel as if one is "floating" in the space above the physical body. If this stage is achieved, there arises a new sense of calm and freedom of mobility. Self and environmental awareness are heightened and clearer. The individual can move within the perceived environment according to inner mental directives.

The visual sense seems to remain intact albeit in a manner that enables one to "see" even in the total darkness of the tank, almost as if one were sensitive to infrared or other electromagnetic stimuli. In a better lit environment vision is comparable to normal vision, though clarity often varies. Auditory sensations at this stage are typically weaker, or less noticeable, though occasional loud or low frequency sounds are heard. There are no recollections of smell or taste occurrences.

However, the sensory/tactile sense remains and is noteworthy as one can "feel" the surface of objects as well as experience the unique sensation of a particular substance/material if one chooses to put a part or the entire body into or move through a surface such as the tank or room walls, windows, etc. It is as if one feels the material in question at the point where the body is "cross-sectioned" as it intersects that surface. Also, it was noted that on some occasions that a physical sensation and actual physical response could be produced by willing it in consciousness. For example, a sexual orgasm could be produced by willfully initiating and intensifying sensations of arousal even though the voluntary nervous system of the body is in a state of sleep paralysis. Implications in this regard may be profound, indicating that at least some autonomic physiological response patterns may be directly and effectively activated and modified by a willful mental process while in a certain AWS.

Cognitive abilities seem to remain and function with a rough equivalence to normal waking consciousness. The sense of self is comparable as well. Typically there is a strong feeling of curiosity and wonder at the uniqueness of circumstances and often a state of excitation which must be managed to prevent an excitement threshold which would abort the experience.

The AWS Spectral Environment

Although entry phenomena are often similar, there are notable variants in AWS environments. The AWS environment can be plotted along a spectrum, with one end favoring the lucid dream classification, the other, out-of-body-experiences. In lucid dreaming, the individual is aware of oneself and that she/he is dreaming. The perceived environment and objects within it seems to be more associative, that is, produced and maintained by the individual's unconscious, according to that individual's unique life experiences and the meaning she/he assigns to them. In this environment it is difficult to focus on a selected object without it changing in some fashion, or without the individual's awareness shifting or disintegrating.

Out-of-body experiences, however, differ in that the AWS perceived environment seems to represent the actual environment as it is perceptually experienced in normal waking consciousness. It remains relatively stable, allowing the experiencer to focus on particular objects with minimal or no changes or distortions. Awareness usually remains clear and integrated, even heightened.

In both "worlds," the environments seem to be ordered according to certain "laws" (perhaps comparable to laws of physics in our normal waking stated perceived universe) yet are somewhat malleable to consciousness. Moreover an individual seems to be bound by the rules of that environment only as long as she/he "agrees" to abide by them. For example, when one decides to move out of, or beyond a certain environment, it often fades or disappears, revealing a subsequently more discreet environment, increasingly dissimilar to our normal waking environment in terms of objects populating and laws structuring it.


Perhaps the most obvious implication, though not novel in context of Eastern and Western Esoteric philosophical systems and parapsychological research, is that consciousness may not be contained (wholly or in part) in or produced by the body and its brain. Also, implied is that there are other realities, comparable to our physical universe, that can be perceived and experienced in certain states of consciousness. This raises questions of far reaching order, however these are beyond the scope of the present paper. As of present, however, the author has not discovered any definitive evidence to support the idea that any of the phenomena experienced is indicative of a separate world and not a product of consciousness, but then, even our experience of our familiar physical world is dependent on our peculiar psycho-biological perceptions and cognitions.

It is clear, however, that there are other states of consciousness which are equivalent in intensity and complexity, which are as "real," as our normal waking consciousness. And, the average individual can learn to access and utilize these states for personal investigation and possible significant psychological, energetic and even physical change.

An Invitation to Further Research

Although the phenomenon and environments perceived and experienced in AWSs are, at this point difficult to substantiate, the states of consciousness with which they are associated hold the promise of objective analysis. Current EEG biofeedback and REM measuring instrumentation provide an opportunity to objectively monitor and record these unique subjective states. Research protocols, coupled with the richness of an AWS explorer's subjective reports could serve to map out a previously elusive, ephemeral and often questionable areas of human consciousness.

In conclusion, the REST induced and maintained AWS experience presents a unique opportunity for consciousness explorers and researchers alike. AWSIM provides a technique which consistently produces AWSs with a regularity allowing for structured laboratory investigations. It also allows interested individuals to expand and explore heretofore difficult to engender and maintain discrete states of consciousness. It is in the hope that this brief overview will stimulate an interest in the use of AWSIM for personal and research investigations, that this paper has been presented.



LaBerge, Stephen, (1986) Lucid Dreaming. New York, N.Y.: Ballentine Books Inc.


Monroe, Robert A., (1977) Journeys Out of the Body. Garden City, N. Y.:
Anchor Press/Doubleday and Co. Inc.


Hutchinson, Michael, (1984) The Book of Floating. New York, NY.: William Morrow and Co.


Lilly, John C., (1977) The Deep Self. New York, N.Y.: Warner Books, Inc.