“In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits” —The Center of the Cyclone, John C. Lilly, M.D.
Isolation tanks, or float tanks, are increasingly popular these days and can now be found in large cities throughout the US West. Celebrity Joe Rogan deserves some credit for spreading the word as he often raves on his podcast about the benefits he enjoys from owning a tank and floating regularly in his home. However, the person who deserves the most credit is a scientist named Dr John C. Lilly who invented the concept during the 1950s.
You may have heard of Lilly if you ever listened to The Joe Rogan Experience, and you can usually find one of Lilly’s books for sale at a float studio. Lilly did much more than pioneer this meditative therapy; he took the concept further than any of us can imagine. Lilly was fascinated with exploring the human mind, and unlike most scientists today he was willing to experiment with his own mind rather than the minds of his test subjects. One such experiment involved taking LSD and then entering his isolation tank on multiple occasions to learn more about human consciousness.
Since I was interested in having a similar experience, I decided to read his book The Center of the Cyclone prior to my first journey. The book is a personal account of his LSD-influenced isolation tank experiences along with other stories of mind exploration. Lilly seemed to be writing the book not only to document his pioneering efforts, but also to provide assistance and warnings to others who might follow his path.
Before I describe my journey consider that I make a distinction between recreational versus medicinal use of psychedelics. I advocate for the legal use of psychedelic substances taken safely and responsibly for therapeutic reasons (psychedelic therapy). As a distinguished scientist Lilly lived during a time when he was actually allowed to legally study the effects of LSD, a situation that quickly changed and is nearly impossibly today due to LSD being a classified schedule 1 substance. Schedule 1 substances are defined as drugs that have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
I choose to explore my consciousness despite the current legal status because I firmly believe the government has no moral right to decide how I medicate myself. Meanwhile alcohol and other mind numbing and dangerous pharmaceuticals are deemed legal while several healing and mind expanding substances are not.
I went on this journey with a trip partner, which allowed one person to be available in case the other was having a difficult time. Obviously the most important piece of this experience is to have access to a tank for a long period of time. Unless you happen to own a tank as Joe Rogan does then you either need to know a friend who owns a tank, or you need to reserve a long float at your neighborhood studio.
In my case, I was fortunate to know an owner, which I believe is preferable to reserving a session at a commercial studio for multiple reasons. First, we had absolute privacy which is important in an altered state of mind. Second, it allowed us to move at our own pace since we were not paying by the hour. Third, we did not need to explain to a studio manager why two people needed to enter the room together for such a long time.
We decided to stagger the doses so that we could each peak inside the tank. She began by taking an average sized dose of high quality LSD, then we waited together about 90 minutes for the onset of her peak before she went into the tank. We each decided to float for 60 minutes, so as she entered the tank I took an equal dose and stood by ready to assist while listening to music and doing yoga poses. After 60 minutes passed without incident I gently opened the tank door and asked if she was ready to get out, and she was. By the time we each showered the onset of my peak was near and it was my turn to enter the slightly intimidating unknown of the dark void.
I should mention that I had floated completely sober about 5 times previously and believe this was absolutely necessary before attempting such an experience. I also had many psychedelic experiences previously, including with this exact batch of LSD. Despite my prior experience I had no idea what to expect other than the wild rides Lilly described in The Center of the Cyclone.
“His tank is isolating, in his mind he’s elevating, all the things that mean the world to Dr. John C. Lilly” –Lyrics from the song “Oz is Ever Floating,” performed by Oysterhead.
I could never have imagined what happened next. I braced myself for the scary demons and bright beautiful patterns that I was about to witness, but instead I saw… nothing. In fact it was very similar to my normal float experiences where I start with 10-30 minutes of thoughts running through my active mind and then following about 10-30 minutes of focused breathing the thoughts slowly fade away until I reach a dream like state for the last 10-30 minutes. There were no glowing green dragons, it was just me in there, or as my trip partner said, it’s like going on a very intimate date with yourself.
After I climbed out of the tank and showered again we sat down together to share stories. Suddenly I noticed that I felt… sober, as odd as that may sound. Not exactly the description you would expect to hear from somebody who just did what I did, yet sober was the best word I could think of. How could this be? I didn’t visit the cellular level within my body or distant galaxies as Lilly did, though he probably took 2-5 times larger doses than me. Lilly does state that during his first experiment he spent most of the time in a completely dark space, and did not visit anyplace or witness anything until the following trips. Still, I expected to see something strange in there, or at least have a life altering realization, but instead I felt sober. Could it be that all the trips I’ve taken leading up to this moment had been like training, and the line between my sober and psychedelic mind was blurring? As if the illusion of the mainstream world had been washed away and I now permanently view life through psychedelic glasses.
I think beginners often have dramatic experiences because they are so shocked to see the world from that altered state. Many veterans of psychedelic experiences often report that the altered mind sees life as it truly is, free of the delusions that cloud our vision during our daily routine. Or perhaps LSD acts as an amplifier that simply enhances any situation you are in, so if you go to an intense concert then you have an intense experience, or if you float in a tank then you find peace.
For the next week my partner and I felt incredibly peaceful, which can also happen if you float without LSD, yet this time it seems like the effects went deeper. It seems as if the experience made an imprint on me that will stay for months to come, or as I like to say, I downloaded a new program for my operating system called “Float Tank”. Lilly also spoke in the digital language to describe the harmful patterns of behaviors that we all have; he would refer to them as programs being run within the human biocomputer, and he spoke of the need to delete destructive programs that prevent personal growth. I like to think of floating as similar to running a virus scan that can help you detect and remove the destructive programs, allowing your biocomputer to run more efficiently.
For the record, the center of the cyclone is a term describing the surprisingly calm place in the center of a devastating storm. It just so happened that the day of our experiment there was beautiful weather and we felt deep peace, while the day prior there was a historic summer wind storm, and the day after there were very heavy rains. As you can imagine we were very pleased to notice the timing of the weather perfectly honoring the theme of Lilly’s book.