May, 1964: The Virgin Islands

Dr. John C. Lilly floats on his back in 10 inches of seawater heated to 93.5 degrees fahrenheit. Outside the tank, the warm Caribbean air blows through the trees and open windows of his custom built beachfront island laboratory. Below him, a pair of bottlenose dolphins drift together in specially designed pools, floating like the scientist upstairs.

John has injected himself with 100 micrograms of LSD-25, courtesy of the United States government. No one has ever taken LSD in an environment like the sensory deprivation tank before. No sound, no light, no gravity, virtually no external sensations whatsoever. There is nothing for the mind to focus on but itself.

A wave of terror washes over him. It has occurred to him that he might die from this experiment, there is no one to help him should he lose control of his body and allow his face to sink below the surface of the pool. As the drug takes effect, the overwhelming fear coalesces into a brilliant blinding ball of light that suddenly explodes, propelling him like a rocket out of his body, out of the solar system, blasting him into another reality.

His consciousness is no longer that of Dr. John C. Lilly, scientist, inventor, human resident of planet earth. He has become something older, wiser, more powerful and as vast as the universe. He soars through infinite space and nebulous clouds of living energy radiating pure joy. He senses the presence of other beings like him. He has seen beings like them before – they watched over him throughout his childhood. This time he feels that he is one of them.

John C Lilly was a born scientist. At age 13, the boy nicknamed  “Einstein Jr.” already had a penchant  for experimentation. He had a habit of building bombs from household chemicals and detonating them in the wilderness outside his family home. He liked to stay late in the school science lab, mixing and measuring, hypothesizing and observing. Despite his father’s wishes for him to become a banker, he studied physics at CalTech, biology at Dartmouth, and Medicine at Penn State. He became a doctor of neurophysiology, a licensed psychotherapist, and an inventor of numerous medical instruments, technologies, and methodologies, many of which are still in use in the field today. He invented a device called the Bavatron which he used to become the first scientist to measure and record multiple bio-electrical impulses across the brain’s surface. His cetacean studies reintroduced to the west the knowledge that dolphins were creatures of extraordinary intelligence capable of forming close relationships with humans and even mimicking speech. But he is perhaps most famous for his experiments with psychoactive drugs and the isolation tank, which he invented at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland in 1954.

The dominant psychological paradigm of the day was behaviorism, which took all emphasis off of the subjective mental states and the study of the conscious and unconscious mind, focusing instead solely on observable behavior. Joseph B. Watson, one of the leading behaviorists of the early 20th century, summed up the basic tenets of the philosophy of behaviorism as follows:

“Behaviorism…holds that the subject matter of human psychology is the behavior of the human being. Behaviorism claims that consciousness is neither a definite nor a usable concept. The behaviorist, who has been trained always as an experimentalist, holds, further, that belief in the existence of consciousness goes back to the ancient days of superstition and magic.”

Lilly was never a believer of behaviorism – he had his own theories of mind and reality which he would for the most part keep to himself. Then as now, the fields of science and academia were hostile to radical ideas, or any ideas at all, that challenged the dogmatic assumptions of the dominant paradigm. If a scientist was to succeed, it was best to keep such ideas private, which Lilly did for many years until publishing some of them in a report for the NIMH which was later released as a book entitled Progamming and Metaprogamming in the Human Biocomputer in 1972.

According to the behaviorist model, the mind is basically an automatic stimulus and response mechanism – Pavlov rings a bell, the dog salivates. If all mental activity is merely a response to stimuli, then it would follow that absent any stimuli at all, mental activity would cease. To test this theory, Lilly created the sensory deprivation tank – an environment where the mind could be free of any and all external stimulation. Absent such stimuli, would the mind just turn off, like the behaviorist model suggested? 

It turned out, as Lilly already expected, that the behaviorist model was wrong. Instead of turning off, the mind stayed on and continued to have experiences independent of external sensory stimuli.

For Lilly, these experiences were incredibly vivid. He discovered entire worlds within his mind as rich in detail and as convincing as any dream or even waking life itself. After dozens of hours spent in the tank, Lilly developed the ability to consciously create any world he wanted within his mind, step into that world, and experience anything he wanted to experience.

He realized, in creating and experiencing these inner worlds, that the only thing limiting these experiences was the mind of John Lilly himself. Wandering these mental landscapes, he realized that everything that happened was what he expected to happen, and that nothing could happen without him first expecting it. He saw that his own beliefs were preventing him from experiencing a larger set of possible realities. He described this discovery in his most famous aphorism:

“In the province of the mind what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits. These limits are to be found experimentally and experientially. When so found these limits turn out to be further beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind there are no limits.”

While Lilly was conducting these experiments, he also monitored with fascination the rise of a world changing technology that would play a crucial role in the formulation of his theories: computers. He began to think of the body as hardware and the mind as software, or sets of programmable instructions determining how the information flowing through the system, the human biocomputer,  is to be processed resulting in experiences of thought and emotion. There are innumerable programs operating in the biocomputer simultaneously that define our experience, such as biases, prejudices, associations, desires, and so on. There are also metaprograms –  programs that create other programs. Lilly thought that beliefs, often held unconsciously and rooted in forgotten childhood traumas, were the core programming structures of the mind. If you could alter these deeply held beliefs, you could reprogram the mind.

One popular method of doing this was through psychotherapy, which Dr. Lilly underwent on a regular basis and became licensed to practice. But a much more dramatic, fast acting, and exotic tool for mental reprogramming had recently been discovered that caught Lilly’s attention. It was a chemical substance called lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, that when ingested or injected, had a profound effect on the functioning of the human biocomputer.

When John was a young child, he had several intense, visionary experiences of a mystical nature that would stick with him for the rest of his life – experiences which were impossible to forget, yet equally impossible to explain satisfactorily under the prevailing scientific and psychological paradigms of the time period.

Perhaps the most notable feature of these “visions” are the repeat appearances of what the young John C. Lilly, who had been raised Catholic, described as his “holy guardian angels.” He saw them as radiant beings whose presence filled him with a sense of love and safety. They first visited him as a child of three to tell him not to scold his dog who had just pulled him back from the edge of a cliff. They informed him that they had sent the dog to save his life and that he shouldn’t be angry. At seven, he had his tonsils removed, and while under the influence of ether he suddenly found himself somewhere else, enveloped in the comforting wings of two angels. Later that year, while kneeling in prayer at a Catholic mass, he watched the interior of the church melt away to reveal God surrounded by choirs of heavenly hosts, radiating love and light, while two angels held the little boy up by the arms, letting the light wash over him.  It happened again at age ten. John was deathly ill with tuberculosis suffering from an acute fever – a being came to him, and asked John if he wanted to go away with him. John said he wanted to stay and play with the other boys and grow up. The being said that was good, but one day he would have to leave with the being, and that he and the other beings would watch over John and take care of him until then.

These events would stick in the back of John’s mind throughout his life. In the years of John’s youth and early career, if someone claimed they talked to angels or had seen God, they were likely to be forcibly institutionalized. Visions of the sort that John had experienced were considered symptoms of insanity.

John wasn’t insane, he was a brilliant scientist. As a scientist, he had to admit the possibility that all these experiences were the products of his own mind, having no independent existence outside of his imagination. He maintained this explanation as a possibility throughout his life, sometimes expressing it as a caveat for those too eager to accept what he said at face value without considering multiple alternative possibilities. He knew, especially from his work in the isolation tank, that the mind was capable of generating any sort of reality it wanted, and susceptible to all kinds of programming and reprogramming. Could the beings be a type of program? Regardless of what he told people for the sake of scientific consistency (and to  keep himself out of a straightjacket), the experiences had felt real, perhaps even more real than what he came to think of as “the earthside trip.”


Allen Ginsberg, Tim Leary, and John Lilly

When he entered the isolation tank under the influence of LSD-25  that day in 1964, when he left the planet and was reintroduced once again to his childhood friends, that experience felt real as well. In the following years he would do 25 more experiments with LSD and the isolation tank. The results of these experiments were documented in a report to the NIMH which was later published as Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer. The book became a sensation amongst the hippy and New Age intelligentsia of the time, with Timothy Leary proclaiming it to be “one of the three most important ideas of the 20th century.”

A few years later at the Esalen institute in Big Sur California, John was introduced to a substance called ketamine, which allowed him to achieve the same altered states he had on LSD but with greater consistency. By increasing or decreasing his dosage through an IV drip, he was able to return again and again to the same internal landscapes. He attempted to map the terrain as it were, to try to understand the physics and ecology of the strange realities through which he travelled.

The beings communicated telepathically. Everything in this universe was linked through a network of connected minds. He called it “hyperspace.” His “guardian angels” were wise, powerful, and  benevolent beings whose job it was to help guide the evolution of life and the unfoldment of consciousness on earth. He called them the Earth Coincidence Control Office, or ECCO for short.

As the frequency of John’s ketamine trips increased to a degree that caused concern among his family and friends, his life reached a new apex of strangeness. The boundaries between hyperspace and the earthside trip blurred. John came to believe that the entities were responsible for many of the lucky and sometimes life-saving coincidences that occurred frequently throughout his life. In one such instance, having just emerged from the isolation tank while still under the influence of a dissociative drug, he climbed into a hot tub, realizing too late that the water temperature was dangerously high. As he tried to climb out he experienced a sudden drop in  blood pressure, the strength left his muscles, his face slipped under the surface of the water, and his mind drifted into hyperspace. John was going to die. It was the exact situation that had terrified him all those years ago in the Virgin Islands

At just the right moment, a friend of Lilly’s named Phil Halecki felt a sudden urgent need to speak with him and called the house. John’s wife Toni answered, went looking for him at Halecki’s insistence, found him and pulled him out of the tub. She resuscitated him with mouth to mouth, a technique she acquired a mere three days before the incident, when she came across an article about it in National Enquirer magazine.

Rather than take this brush with death as a cautionary lesson, as his friends and family suggested, John saw it as a sign that ECCO was watching out for him and would protect him under any circumstances.  He upped his Ketamine injections to nearly once an hour. He was in constant telepathic communication with ECCO and began acting as their agent on earth. He became convinced that the world was on the verge of annihilation, and rushed to Washington to warn the government. He barely escaped being committed to a psychiatric hospital.

A turning point finally came in the form of a drug-induced, bone shattering bicycle accident. While lying in the hospital bed with a punctured lung, broken ribs, and a bruised and swollen brain, Lilly was visited again by his guardian angels. They told him him he could either leave with them for good or he could return to his body under the condition that he take better care of himself and focus on earthly affairs. John chose to return to his body.

After a long painful recovery, John honored his agreement with the beings and committed himself more fully to his writing, lecturing, workshops, and above all his wife Toni. He continued to live an extraordinary life of high strangeness for another 3 decades until heart failure finally brought Dr. Lilly’s earthside trip to an end in Los Angeles, in the September of 2001.

It is unfortunate but unsurprising that few people have heard of Dr. John C. Lilly today. Unsurprising, because a man like Lilly is perhaps too difficult for mainstream America to get a handle on. He’s complicated, he can’t be easily categorized, and he’s still far too radical for the less open minded. Despite his unquestionable historical significance, he’s glossed over by academia, probably as a matter of convenience. No one wants to open a can of worms.

But outside of the mainstream, Lilly is making a comeback. He is capturing the imagination of a new generation of internet savvy alternatives and conscious hipsters – a younger crowd who are enthusiastically embracing the work and do-it-yourself ethic of eccentric 20th century notables such as Nikola Tesla, Buckminster Fuller, Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Phillip K. Dick, Alan Watts, Ram Dass and Terrence McKenna.

On May 15th,  Coincidence Control Publishing, a newly formed company based out of Portland, OR run by a group of rambunctious 20 and 30 something year old float enthusiasts (including this author) released a brand new edition of  Dr. John C. Lilly’s first major work, Programming and Meta-Programming in the Human Biocomputer. It will be the first unabridged printing in over 25 years.

 Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory via Creative Commons license.