John Lilly's Sensory Deprivation Flotation Tank


June 15, 1975


I have known John for several years, without having entered the White Whale (in tank terms). With the yucca in blossom all over the canyon sides it was time. Steve checked me out on the hardware. That morning two pieces of writing were on my ready-access cerebral display: Gold's Sacrifices, very amusing; and Work­ing Basis, being a transcript of teachings by Kalu Rinpoche. Also there was discussion at breakfast (with Steve, Will, Suzie) about Cold's tank report, although I did not read it, nor any other reports, so as to preclude bias of a sort in this writing. The third chakra preprogram, digesting, principally a chilipepper omlette, plus coffee and smoke (tobacco in honor of whipoorwill). T'ai chi chuan.


Initial orientation: head west. Later the idea of being a compass needle occurred to describe this first state, but at the time musing on the sense of "orientation." Kalu Rinpoche on meditation ("Don't meditate") and having no orientation, simpli­fying the conceptual activity toward making NO distinctions. Remembered Suzie talking about "pushing off" when she bumped against the side of the tank, and others discussing "orientation" with respect to the tank wall. Hearing heartbeat and the high-frequency sound tapestry; breathing more regular & deep. Upper back and shoulder muscles (VW driving and playing on the rings & trapeeze) relaxing. The distinction between wet and dry, warmer (water) and cooler (air inside the tank) begins to fade, yet there is a strong conscious association with being in the hori­zontal plane. This 90-degree rotation from the usual "meditation" posture opens a set of considerations: relation of the organism to earth's polarity, gravity, and more generally to the algebraic 3-axis coordinate system, illustrated by abstract models (Sung, Symbols of the Yi King written in the '30s, and the recent article "Throw Away your Karnaugh maps,  introducing a new algebraic notation—this article, I think in the IEEE publication by Siu (?), and traditionally the "cube of space" referred to in Paul Foster Case, The Tarot. The tank afforded me the freedom to imagine moving gimbelwise with respect to the x, y, z planes, so that the abstract conceptual models were sensed as manifest, realized in my body. 3-D fluidity. Associations with Chinese philosophical attachments to water, flow theories, the Taoist floating and flying. Also Greek: Menoetius, the fourth Titan brother, associated with water, said to be dead, i.e. returned to the Form--water being the element from which life emerged (Prometheus = fire, Epimetheus = air,  Atlas = earth); these map to mathematical quadrature: plus and minus on one axis, real and imaginary on the other-which can be indicated using powers of i as tokens.

Letting go to float, not bothering about pushing off, with a sense of caressing the tank itself with whatever part of my body happened to float up to it. As breathing and heartbeat became more regular, noticing the interior swarm of bees lowers the Om level. Spontaneously I hum, just a note, at medium low frequency; surprising myself -- the first sound I have made -- but I do not continue to hum, no do I make any further sounds voluntarily. Very quiet. My right little toe seems to have attached itself to the tank wall—magnetism with plastic? I fantasize. There is a realization of a shift in values and expectations—about wanting to be in the middle of the tank with no orientation as an ideal, and then accepting the reality of being in the tank and floating to touch it as it happens, without making any special effort to cruise about, yaw, pitch or whatever. Thinking about what factors would account for the slow changes of position, doubting that one would remain moored to one spot along the side of the tank for very long anyway, with the subtle waves created by the rhythm of breathing, and the occasional readjustment of the body as some muscles relax, then other deeper ones.

The first really noteworthy event reminding me of my situation was a drop of water from the roof of the tank, which landed high up on my right thigh. Surprise, then very funny. The old Zen slapstick. My inclination was to establish a strong z-axis relation to what I imagined to be the path of the falling drop of conden­sation. Some time later another, second drop fell, landing in virtually the same spot on my thigh, suggesting that I had not floated about much, if at all. There emerged a program of expectations about the anticipated third drop, and a reflection that upon entering, Steve had scraped away water from the edges of the door, having mentioned the dripping phenomenon. Now accepting it as an element of the general revelation. Imaging, while chortling, others in the tank being concerned with getting dripped on, bumping the tank sides, etc. as parameters of distraction. The third drop did fall, but much lower on my leg, confirming drift. Altogether I counted eleven drops, which gave some unique mode of measuring time and order. All but one hit my body--most of them around my lower right leg and foot. The notion of counting as a thread of maintaining consciousness (which John notes, and Brown avoids making explicit), the sense of translating "tantra" as continuity. Continuity of consciousness in the Bardo state, analogous to tankmind. The day before, at Esalen, seeing and buying the recently published translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, by Francesca Freemantle & ChogyamTrungpa, Rinpoche.

The first exterior sound was a low frequency rumbling from what I supposed to be a car driving up. One of the eleven drops did not hit me but splashed into the water, which, of course, I heard. A hair, or maybe also a drop of perspiration distracted me--it was around the bridge of my nose--so I raised my left hand out of the water to brush my face. Silly, I got a drop of water on my nose-bridge and closed my eye against the sting. Thereafter I kept them closed, thinking to wait until the water had evaporated before opening, as there was nothing handy to wipe the eye with, and getting in and out would be a rather inordinate response to a minor irritation. With eyes closed there was no distracting light-leak games. My senses mainly were in the realm of sound -- the internal gag-rich soundtrack to my private TV screen, and space (gravity/levity). Very amusing monologues, fantasy skits, watchin' em flow by, and every now and then getting into 6th chakra zap, thinking, which I find delightful, particularly with the free time up ahead, so to speak--the relaxed but intense mind focus, feeling like Newton, that one may take the next twenty years to contemplate an aspect of reality before calling for action. I fell asleep.

Left: An early generation flotation tank based on John Lilly's design shown at the top of the page. Right:   John C. Lilly   during the 1970s.

Left: An early generation flotation tank based on John Lilly's design shown at the top of the page.
Right: John C. Lilly during the 1970s.