Early Isolation Tank Psychonautics: 1970s Trip Reports
Excerpt from The Deep Self: Consciousness Exploration in the Isolation Tank by John C. Lilly, 1977 (selected reports between pgs. 186 and 247).
Richard Feynman, male, 56 years, 160 lbs., 5′ 11”: summary of 35 hours done in 12 weeks, 1974.
Having done a number of introspective experiments on influencing my own dreams (and been objectively conscious and observing while I was dreaming), I became very curious about hallucinations and welcomed the opportunity to use Dr. Lilly’s sensory isolation tanks, for they were reputed to produce hallucinations, safely. I have spent at least a dozen sessions, each of over two hours, in the tank. The experience was very pleasant and rewarding. Although nothing happened for the first two sessions (except idle thinking as when one is going to sleep), hallucinations were experienced nearly every time thereafter. After some brief period after entering the tank, they would continue for hours. I was always aware that I was hallucinating and part of my mind was nearly always making observations. There were the usual out-of-body, or out-of-the-right-time hallucinations. For example, in one case I could see my hands on my head as if I were standing in back, and when I moved my hands (actually in the water) I would see them move and sky appear between the fingers, etcetera. I have later had imaginary flights over scenery, etcetera. In both of these cases the fact that others get this type of hallucination had been discussed beforehand.
On one occasion I had been thinking (in studies of artificial intelligence) about how the masses of memory materials might be organized in storage in the human memory. That week my hallucination consisted of vivid recalling, or reliving, nearly, image after image from far in the past (in no case were there any new details that I didn’t think I could have remembered if asked). But I was delighted to discover that the memories were stored according to locale — you thought of one scene occurring at some particular place and all the other things that occurred at that placed tumbled out. It took a full hour after I was out of the tank until I realized I had discovered nothing real, that that itself was an hallucination.
I am convinced of Dr. Lilly’s dictum that you can think of anything that you want to — that the hallucinations are a delightful and entrancing union of spontaneity of detail with a pattern or set which you have made or can make about their overall character. Thus if you have discussed a great deal about the blue spheres that you will see, you may see blue spheres but have the illusion they come not from you but from somewhere else — even though you know that the only one in the tank is you. The usual test of scientific reality is that many people see the same thing. In this case coincidence of experience lies not in the reality of the thing experienced but from a coincidence of influencing conversations and ideas about what you will imagine, and an illusion that the “image comes to you.” The same phenomena may explain some success in dream interpretations through dreaming certain symbols whose character or interpretation has been previously discussed.
I should like to thank Dr. Lilly, his wife, and associates for many pleasant experiences both in and outside of his tanks.
2 January 1974
Joan Grof, female, 31 yrs., 120 lbs., 5′: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
I entered the tank with the anticipation of several things happening: claustrophobic panic or delineated stages of experience, i.e. sleepfulness, and then visions. Neither set occurred. Instead, I was totally at ease, feeling as though this place (i.e. total quiet, darkness, and fluidity) was what I wanted. I lost body boundaries and time sense, immediately disappeared and I experienced total peace and a feeling of unity. Experience did not modulate and I did not play with it. Just was very passive and let “it” do it itself. What I experienced was a continuous void that was not boring, yet empty, not engaging, yet full.
Stan Grof, male, 42 yrs.: no time recorded.
After about five minutes, enormous slowing down of time. Increasing stability, tranquility, a certain “inorganic quality of consciousness”–moving away from its biological characteristics. Atmosphere of ancient Egypt, becoming aware of her religion, philosophy and art. Insights into the process of mummification, becoming a mummy and experiencing the consciousness typical for it. Understanding it as an interspace vehicle (organic -> inorganic).
Matter -> spirit.
Moving into the initiation in the pyramids, feeling a parallel between a mummy and an adept in the sarcophagus. Awareness of granite, becoming the consciousness of granite. Understanding that the preoccupation with granite in Egypt was based on the appreciation of the state of consciousness associated with it. Changes occur on a scale of thousands of millions of years (as compared to seconds and minutes for biological forms). Return of an old insight: Granite statues are the deities, not the images thereof.
Moving into absolute void (experienced as consciousness of the interstellar space). Timelessness. No difference between minutes and millions of years.
Ending up the experience with feelings of regeneration, purification, refreshment, rejuvenation, clarity.
2 November 1973
Alejandro Jodorowsky, male, 44 yrs.: 1 hour.
It is one experience I would repeat every day, not to obtain, but to lose, like to go to the bathroom. In the first second, I was afraid of being afraid. “It” controls itself saying “It is only afraid to suffocate.” But he (Lilly) must control oxygen, because what will he do with my corpse? This matter of giving [up] my body, and to die to my self-conception. Ok, I will die. After two or three minutes, floating, marvelous comfort, you are at home, nice security, nice silence, nice temperature, and nice relaxation. No body, no sex, no emotions, no thoughts, no problems, no past, but absolutely no past, not plans for future. Little man into the water being the seed fish, without expecting to be a tree with scales. There in the only time, the no-time, there in the only center, the no-center. Sometimes relating with the maternal womb, but escaping of this image. It didn’t want to play with the fetal-paradise and then, it put out like excrement the problem of practical relaxation. Now we are ready. With a great breath of fire the burning of the oxygen like a simple star and a great general beating of heart. Nothing but nothing, and in the middle of the nothingness it was there like a stone–the conscience–Realize what I know, what I live in every moment. I am not so much but still I am something even if I didn’t want it to be active, even if it wanted to be the tongue like a cup without will with all his being made to receive. It tried to be liberated from the little stone when the middle of nothingness became the whole universe. It prepared itself to jump. But Mr. Lilly come, the hour is past. I regret. Was infinite but too short and this body got out of the baptismal desiring a lot of emersions. Anyway, I think, say the little body, I can live in this society in a very polite way in a very communicative way, being immersed all the time in the tank without having a tank.
16 October 1973
Jan Metzner, no data given: no time recorded.
Became aware immediately of tension areas and moved in to relax and give myself to the experience. I was surprised at the nonexistence of fear reactions to closeness/darkness in tank, which I had expected. Being trained as I am in moving in consciousness with the techniques of Light-Fire, I found I went comfortably within and worked with a technique, but found focusing more difficult. My head felt very heavy and had to support it with my hands. Felt salt irritating to the skin. The overall effect was very relaxing, and there are other areas in consciousness I would like to spend time exploring.
16 October 1973
Ralph Metzner, no data given: no time recorded.
I found it a very relaxing and enjoyable experience, marred only by the slight discomfort due to the fact that my head had a tendency to sink down.
I went into the energy-yoga technique I am currently working with and found that I got some unusual perspectives on the innerbody spaces that would be otherwise hard to get to.
Without the restraints of gravity, the moving into and throughout the body and, to an extent, out of it, was much easier–as if the structures had been slightly greased and made more slippery.
2 July 1975
Francisco Varela, male, 28 yrs., 155 lbs.: actual time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.
Closed space, heavy breathing, oppression from suppression. A wave of buoyancy, oily-saltry relaxation, surprise at fitting into water and staying. Letting go, feet are fine, trunk is fine, head is fine.
Beginning to stay–be.
Body goes out, inner sound takes over. Wild ride on heartbeat — inner music. Roller coaster.
Carved into inner sounds: sudden flashes of perception: dogs barking, old tunes on a junky radio, laughter and people’s noise. Startle. Experiment with closed and open eyes. No difference. Stay with eyes open. Visual-acoustic flashes now: scattered, fragmented. Too real. Strong recall of transit stages. I have been here. At a moment: I belong here.
Wilder/surrealist images interface with periods of sleep. In and out with no chance of distinction between dream and tank-reality. Am I there?
Banging. Voice to take me out. Voice is John. Get out. Seems I’ve been in thirty to forty minutes. Long lag in coming back.
Louis Jolyon West, male, 40 yrs., 220 lbs., 6′ 3”: 1 hour.
(N.B.: Previous experience, fresh-water tank, Oklahoma City.)
Buoyancy definitely an advantage over the old method. Also, much better without need for mask.
Lost awareness of surroundings much faster in this situation. Very rapid access to “preconscious stream” (Kubie), with complete immersion therein until termination. No subclassification of mental state during that period would be accurate; my experience was of a smoothly unbroken flow of both digital and analog information. Had planned to meditate (TM) but never got around to it. My personal experience was that a state of “pure consciousness” (more or less) was reached in the tank without utilizing the mental echo of a mantra, but I wouldn’t emphasize this impression without a series of experimental and control sessions. Emerged refreshed with a sense that far less than an hour’s time had passed. A wholly pleasant experience.
10 April 1975
Robert A. Wilson, male, 32 yrs., 170 lbs., 5′ 10”: 2 hours.
Small red light room housing two dumpster-like sensory deprivation tanks. Climbing in the darker, older-looking tank I flash that perhaps it is deeper than the floor level would indicate, but not only ten to fourteen inches of warm water in this giant battery casing. Perhaps there’s not enough water. Sitting, then lying back, the buoyancy is surprising–suddenly I’m floating. Slight contact with tank sides, then my breathing is focus of my attention. Breathing, floating, thinking. Mind floats through myriad of subjects, tension generated within is soon apparent. Return to focus on breath. Thoughts return. After an hour little tastes of terror manifest. Each wave of fear though powerful seeming necessitates reevaluation of tension state, breathing again, floating, adjusting to a deeper relaxation state. Perhaps this is where I’ll sleep tonight. After two hours eyes begin burning, keeping them shut tonight… keeping them shut against the salt becomes a labor, then a drop of salt down my nasal passage–that does it. Sitting up pushing the tank lid open. Fun trip, I feel very relaxed, reborn in a way. Sounds seem much more audible, crickets in the night. Nice to be back.