Aug 272015

Yesterday I floated in a tank of water infused with enormous amounts of epsom salt at a place in Seattle called Float Seattle. I had long wondered what this experience was like, as somewhere along the line I’d “heard” that people might experience meditative states while floating.

We arrived shortly before the flotation session was scheduled to start, to have time to receive a short orientation. There were four tanks at this facility, each behind a sturdy wooden door with a handle that locked on the inside. I chose a physically larger tank, as I imagined a greater amount of “fresh air” above me while floating and perhaps a slightly less claustrophobic experience. Inside the room behind the door was a shower, and we were asked to shower before entering the tank. Inside my tank was a button that actuated a small blue light, which was useful for seeing what to grab and where to put one’s feet during entry and egress. Ear plugs are worn to keep the hypertonic solution out of one’s ears, which would otherwise leave a nasty residue inside.

I took all all my clothes off, showered, and entered the tank. The session was booked for an hour. The tank was fairly shallow, and one could easily sit up or touch the bottom. I was told that if I kept my hands above my head my spine would be more relaxed than if I kept my hands at my sides. At points during the float I tried keeping my hands at my sides, but I didn’t notice any change to the feeling in my spine or back. Mostly I kept my hands clasped at the top of my head.

I was hoping, and frankly expecting, to be able to enter a meditative state. Sadly, this didn’t occur for me. Because a variety of somatic sensations which would otherwise be present were not, I was essentially forced to concentrate on my breathing. One might expect this to be conducive to initiating meditation, but it never happened. I suspect this was because the heat and humidity of the air above me that I was breathing was so strong.

I must have drifted off into an early stage of sleep at about 10 or 15 minutes into the session, as I was startled awake by the dream, or vivid imagination, that I was Patterson or Gimlin, and that I had come upon “Patty” the Sasquatch at close range. Though Patty had her back turned to me, I found this frightening in that moment, and I experienced the only moments of anxiety during the session. Startled awake, I began to concentrate on my breathing again, and the mild anxiety quickly subsided. After about a half an hour I resigned myself to probably not experiencing a meditative state. Frankly I indulged in the productions of my own stream of consciousness with the explicit goal of recalling as much about the session as I could, with the goal of writing it up for this blog!

I realized that a flotation tank can be thought of as the closest one might get to experiencing the micro gravity of space. It’s the ultimate sort of mattress pad, or the ultimate pillow, in the sense that one’s body is being perfectly supported, rather than supported irregularly at multiple points. I began to realize my lower spine, the sacral area, was “dog tilted” as they say in yoga, more than it would be even with a “memory foam” mattress pad. Whether that’s a result of my own beginner-level yoga practice, or that’s a reaction that is common to many I can’t say.

I let my hands stop supporting the top of my head, and allowed my head to fully recline. It’s weirdly counter-intuitive to do this, as it’s a liquid medium after all. But there is so much epsom salt in the water that it will support one’s head without any muscular tension at all! Again, a flotation tank becomes the “ultimate pillow.” My guess is that this would be a wonderful relief for those who experience chronic back or neck pain. A drug free form of relief, albeit if only for an hour.

I’d “heard” that some people hallucinate during flotation sessions. I did not, though I saw a mind’s eye reddish afterimage blob rather vividly at one point. As with being in a bathtub for an extended time, one’s enjoyment of even fundamental somatic pleasure begins to wane. At about 45 minutes into the session I began to divert my attention, simply by moving my hands and legs into novel positions, just for something to do.

Though it might sound like I’m being dismissive of the value of this experience, I remain open minded that individuals might learn to enjoy it more profoundly through repeated use. Imagine dismissing meditation the first time you tried it simply because you didn’t achieve an altered state of consciousness. I’ll probably try it again, at least one more time.

 Posted by on 08/27/2015 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Flotation Tank Experience
Aug 052015

Learning about a subject is often trivially easy, but changing one’s mind is sometimes more complex, and can make an interesting story. This is the story of how I came to consider the subject of male circumcision.

Back in the stone age of the late 80’s, before the World Wide Web, getting information on unusual topics was often difficult. Shortly after I moved to Seattle in 1987 I met Tim Cridland, who published a fanzine called Off the Deep End. It was a compilation of really far out subjects, including coverage of esoterica such as the musings of Richard Shaver. Tim did the hard work of writing letters to people who had real familiarity with these subjects, and maintained a large archive of exotic literature. It was Tim who introduced me to a wonderful book entitled High Weirdness by Mail. It was a catalog of unusual individuals and organizations, with the underlying premise being that one could send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to them with the payoff being the receipt of “weird” literature. It seemed such an easy and inexpensive action, though with today’s internet one which is grievously quaint.

I recall sending out a number of letters, simply asking for information. One topic that caught my eye was an anti-circumcision crusader, a preacher located somewhere in the Midwest. Of the numerous inquires I sent out, this individual was unique. I began to receive overstuffed #10 envelopes every few weeks or so. He would photocopy any article in a newspaper or magazine about the subject of circumcision, and pass it along. I suspected this is why Ivan Stang, the author of High Weirdness by Mail, chose to include him, namely his fanatical interest in the subject.

Despite his fanaticism, I took at least a cursory interest in his message. Before he sent me his material, I hardly gave the subject of male circumcision a second thought. I knew in a round about way that Jews were traditionally circumcised, but really didn’t wonder why most American men, including myself, were circumcised. Frankly I dismissed the issue as one too trivial to be worth of debate.

The epiphany in my thinking on the subject was simply learning about the history of American circumcision, namely the insanity of John Harvey Kellogg. Unbelievably, he promoted circumcision as a way to prevent or inhibit masturbation. Realizing this was not only to realize how wrong in practice this was, as virtually all circumcised men masturbate anyway, but how pathologically anti-sex his mindset was. This fact alone was enough to instantly persuade me that male circumcision was complete and total bullshit. Most people’s minds change slowly, especially on deeply held subjects. Perhaps because I had an open mind on this issue, namely that I was genuinely ignorant of its history, that I had no preconceived ideas to overcome. The more I learned about the dangers of circumcision, and the utility of the foreskin in human sexuality, the more galling the practice seemed to me. I found it shocking that such a barbaric practice could persist in a supposedly medically enlightened society like 20th century America. Like religion itself, a great deal of intellectual and behavioral inertia kept it rolling forth, despite its harms and irrationality.

The Midwest preacher must have sent me material for several years, until he eventually stopped. At one point in his mailings he included a bumper sticker, which was a line drawing of an infant held down during a circumcision. The baby’s genitals were covered with the surgeon’s hand so there was no nudity. The caption read “Circumcision: The unkindest cut of all.” I decided to put it on my 1987 Dodge Daytona. The results were mixed. In hindsight, I really didn’t understand what an emotionally charged, polarized, hot-button topic this was. On more than one occasion I had people pull beside me and gesture to me approval, and in one case a man ran up to the driver’s side window to applaud me. Because I didn’t expect these reactions, I found them startling and unwanted, even though they were positive. With hindsight, I would only ever put bumper stickers on my car of the most benign nature.

One day I took my Dodge Daytona into a shop to have a tune-up. I told the employees that I would wait next door in a sandwich shop. While sitting inside the sandwich shop waiting, one of the automotive technicians came inside. He needed to tell me that since my car was fuel injected, their shop could not do the job, and that I would need to take my car somewhere else. But of note was how he addressed me, as he needed to determine I was the owner of the Daytona. As he entered the sandwich shop he said “Are you the owner of the car with the gross bumper sticker” in an aggressive manner. Much taken aback, I responded in the affirmative. As a parting comment he added, “I had my son circumcised.”

To this day, I remain somewhat dumbfounded as to how any individual with any sort of reason and moral sense wouldn’t agree that circumcision is a bad idea after learning the simple facts about it, including its pathological history. I suspect it’s a often a testament to the behavioral inertia of tradition, in which certain human behaviors are continued, again and again, regardless of whether or not they are intrinsically rational or good. I wear dry socks not because of tradition, but because it’s intrinsically valuable to do so. Contrast this with wedding traditions, which memetically propagate themselves, year after year, simply because people are unwilling to buck tradition.

Because routine circumcision is still practiced in the 21st century, advocates for reason must continue to oppose it. I was gratified to learn that my friend Spoony Quine’s extensive essay on the topic had gone viral. It represents a detailed and minute analysis of the many problems with male circumcision. Part of the recalcitrance of people to stop advocating circumcision, in my opinion, is simply that they may have already had their boys circumcised, and to denounce circumcision afterwards is to admit that they made a significant mistake. Perhaps the most fertile minds to convince are those that have NOT had children, who can avoid making an irrevocable decision that affects the entire life of their boy.

I suspect, but do not know, that the internet itself is a force for reason in this matter. No longer do the facts about circumcision have to stay buried in history and medical texts. I believe that others like me are out there, ready to be convinced simply by moral revulsion to the beliefs and actions of John Harvey Kellogg.

 Posted by on 08/05/2015 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Learning About Circumcision