The Deep Self: Consciousness Exploration in the Isolation Tank

The Deep Self: Consciousness Exploration in the Isolation Tank

by John C. Lilly


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First published more than 20 years ago and now with a new introduction by the author, this classic work presents the methods and conclusions of more than 25 years of experimentation with the isolation-tank meditative experience. Drawing on the personal testimony of many who tried it, including Burgess Meredith, Gregory Bateson, E. J. Gold, and Jerry Rubin, the evidence shows how, by eliminating the presence of shifting physical input patterns, the tank allows participants to dive deep into their subconscious and focus immediately on their inner perceptions. The different domains of reality and how various experiences with solitude affect different people are discussed along with practical details on the standards for isolation tank manufacture and use.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780895561169
Publisher: Gateways Books & Tapes
Publication date: 09/01/2007
Series: Consciousness Classics Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.84(d)

About the Author

John C. Lilly was the author of many books, including Man and Dolphin, Programming the Human Biocomputer, The Scientist, Simulations of God, and Tanks for the Memories. His research on human–dolphin communication and consciousness-expanding drugs were the inspiration for the films Altered States and Day of the Dolphin.

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The Deep Self

Consciousness Exploration in the Isolation Tank

By John C. Lilly

Gateways Books and Tapes/IDHHB, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 The Estate of John C. Lilly
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89556-116-9


Physical Isolation Experience in the Tank

In the original concept, the solitude, isolation and confinement tank was devised as a research instrument in 1954. In the ensuing twenty-three years of working with tanks, I have found various ways of making the apparatus simpler and safer.

In the original tanks, we were required to wear rather complicated head masks in order to breathe underwater. These have been eliminated completely.

In the latest models of tanks, we use a saturated solution of Epsom salts (MgSO4 7H2O) at a solution density of 1.30 grams per cubic centimeter. It was discovered that this density of solution allows one to float supine and have the whole body at or near the surface of the liquid. One's hands float, one's arms, legs, feet and, most important, one's head, float. We have found that even the thinnest person with the least amount of fat floats in this way in the tank.

With these simplifications of the technique it has turned out that we have devised a method of attaining the deepest rest that we have ever experienced. The research instrument has become a practical possibility for use by those untrained in research. We have records of over five hundred cases of persons who have used the tank for one or more hours and several cases of much more intensive use, up to several hundred hours. The safety of the method for use by the average person is demonstrated by the fact that these persons range from housewives, businessmen, scientists and mystics, to children.

Some preprogramming of many of our tank users has gone on because of my personal research using the tank and the publications of the work. Such preprograms generate expectations in various people's minds about what they will experience when they go into the tank.

It is not necessary for one to have any expectations upon entering the tank. One may go there for a rest, to get away from the busyness of one's life for an hour or two; one may have a problem in the middle of the night in which case the tank, rather than a bed, is more suited to relax one's muscles, provide the rest that one needs physically, and at the same time allow mental operations to continue toward solving the problem.

I have not made it clear in my previous publications that this "rest" is my primary personal use of the tank. Whenever possible I have furnished my environment with a tank, no matter where I was. I first had one at the National Institute of Mental Health (Bethesda, Maryland); I made one in the Virgin Islands (Saint Thomas, U.S.V.I.) and one in Miami in the dolphin laboratories. In our present location (Malibu, California), over the last two years, we have had as many as five tanks operating simultaneously.

I find it essential to be able to relax completely irrespective of anything that is going on in the environment at certain times. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that I want to work out, so rather than disturb my wife, I float in the tank and work out the idea at great length and in fine detail. I am then able to put it down on paper or to dictate it in the morning. For a businessperson, a scientist, a professional of any sort, this is a boon: to be able to think, free of physical fatigue of the body. The method allows one to become free within a few minutes.

In certain cases the gravitational-field-countergravity forces in the body cause pain because of arthritis, broken bones, or some sort of disease. The tank is specifically beneficial to these people in that it relieves these pains in a way that nothing else can.

Recently I had an accident with a bicycle and broke several bones. As soon as I returned home from the hospital I arranged to have the tank changed in such a way that even though still convalescing, I could get into it. I had not slept for a period of three nights in a row. As soon as I found that the pain disappeared while I floated at the surface of the Epsom salts solution, I slept soundly for an hour and a half, the deepest sleep that I have ever had. In this particular case I came out amazingly refreshed. (For sleeping in the tank we have a special float for people who need it, to feel safe: the head won't turn sidewise while they are asleep.)

For those who do meditation, it is also a definite aid. It turns out that the tank and its isolated environment do for one what one must do inside one's own mind-body when meditating in the usual environment. While meditating, sitting cross-legged or on a chair, or lying in a bed, one examines the environment, the sounds coming from the environment and whatever light patterns are shifting around in that environment. Slowly but surely during the meditation, one can inhibit the responses of these patterns of stimulation and get deep down inside one's mind.

The tank eliminates the presence of these shifting physical input patterns and their changes and reduces the intensity of stimulation down to the most minimum level possible; this "reduced" environment allows one to start the meditation at the point only achievable outside the tank after some inhibitory work and some time spent doing that work. In the tank one need not do that work. Undistracted, one starts concentrating immediately upon one's inner perceptions and dives deep into one's mind (when one is trained on how to do this transform).

Some people come to a tank expecting certain things to happen. All we can say to these people is — nothing will happen that you don't already know about; nothing can happen that you will not allow to happen, i.e.: "What is forbidden is not allowed." Some people expect to be able to program "visual displays" (hallucinations), acoustic displays, various kinds of bodily sensations or movement into spaces other than the accustomed ones within their body-mind. All we can tell these persons is that one must develop the discipline in order to do what one wants to do. Self-metaprogramming is exactly that, a discipline. It is not a given set in a particular biocomputer. It is part of the metabelief operator.

The metabelief operator is a system of beliefs that applies and controls sets of one's beliefs, i.e., beliefs about beliefs. One such metabelief operator that we have found in our own work in the tank is as follows:

"In the province of the mind, in the inside reality, what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits. These limits are to be discovered experientially and experimentally. When so determined these limits are found to be further beliefs to be transcended."

To this particular metabelief operator that controls the expansion of one's belief systems, we always add the caution: "The body imposes definite limits." We are not sure that the bodily limits can be transcended; however, one may have beliefs about one's bodily limits that can be transcended in the tank in a safe environment, leaving the body, as it were, to do its own thing.

The tank is designed to take care of the bodily limits. The temperature is held at between 93° and 94°F. We have found that certain people prefer 93° and others prefer 94°. Once the temperature is set, however, it is held within a tenth of a degree Fahrenheit. The air that one breathes is renewed over the water of the tank by a very small and quiet pump. When no one is in the tank, the water is pumped through a filter to clear it of whatever the previous subjects have left in the tank. The water and the Epsom salts are renewed after several tens of hours of use.

The tank is an asset to anyone who leads a very busy life. It allows one to attain rest faster than one can in a bed in a darkened room. It allows one to experiment with states that one could not otherwise experiment with safely: states of being, states of consciousness. For example, one can ask the question: "If I am fatigued from a long day's work, what can the tank do for me?"

Floating in the tank after a busy day's work brings a great relief. Suddenly all of the stimulation of holding one upright against gravity disappears. One realizes that a good deal of the fatigue accumulated during the day is caused by keeping one's body upright in a gravitational field. From a neurophysiological standpoint, one has immediately freed up very large masses of neurons from the necessity of constant computations (as to the direction of gravity, the programming by visual and acoustic inputs, by temperature changes, etcetera). For example, one's cerebellum is now freed for uses other than balancing the body.

In summary, then, the tank experience is a very refreshing one, a resting one. If one wants to push further than this, one can do so to the limits of one's mental discipline and to the limits of one's imagination.


The Application of the Sciences to Floatation and Physical Isolation

The system of physical isolation (water tank) being used has been described briefly in two of my previous publications (The Human Biocomputer and The Center of the Cyclone). This is a system devised in 1954 to free the body from the necessities of the external reality programming and metaprogramming. First let us describe how we eliminate (or attenuate) each kind of stimulation that is present in everyday life.

1. Other persons

The most active, attaching, and demanding source(s) of stimulation for a given person is another person or a group of persons. To free one from this source one goes into solitude.

Our definition of solitude includes all of the preprogramming and postprogramming of contacts with other people, individuals and/or groups. In a sense, there is no way to achieve the full effects of solitude without allowing sufficient time to pass (in solitude) between one's last contact with a person or persons and one's current aloneness in a solitudinous situation. The leftover programming from contacts with others can be considered as a continuing invasion of one's solitude. This can easily be seen by going into solitude for an extended period of time.

In the accounts by various people who have been in solitude in the Arctic or on small boats sailing across the ocean (see Chapter Nine, The Deep Self), one finds that there is a period of many days in which the effects of the contacts with humans still persist and gradually die out. In a sense, one must devise programs or metaprograms to help attenuate these effects (the leftover programming and metaprogramming of other persons).

There is also a preprogramming or "expectation" effect. If one sets a definite time for leaving the tank or desert or cave, or one makes an arrangement with another person who is expected to come and interrupt exposure to the solitude situation (whether tank, desert or cave), one tends to be programmed into expecting that person to make that interruption. For the expectant interval of time, this will determine to some extent the phenomena that one experiences under these conditions.

Therefore it is recommended that one go into solitude with a freely floating program, a freely floating schedule, and avoid overscheduling, either in terms of immersion or emersion into and from the alone situation.

2. Light and patterns of light stimulation

We are sighted animals. A very large fraction of our cerebral cortex is given over to visual processing, in terms of perception, central data processing and outputs from this region. Our memory and our language are closely allied to our visual experience.

We say, for example, "I visualize your face when you are not here." We do not say, "I hear your face when you are not here." (A dolphin might communicate, "I hear your face," but a human says, "I visualize your face.") We also use words such as "I picture," "I see," which have to do with visual operations and their analogues in thinking processes.

We are not restricting our analysis of light and light patterns to the immediate psychophysical perception here and now. We are also including all of those activities having to do with visualization itself as a central activity of our biocomputer. In this region we call such activities "visual displays" to be created by the Self-metaprogrammer (in line with the information set out in The Human Biocomputer).

To be free of all light stimulation, including nonpatterned light stimulation, one goes into a completely blacked-out space, a dark room, in which there are no sources of light whatsoever. When one does this, the isolation of the observer from the "light" is not complete. There are persisting central process visual activities: all one has to do is open one's eyes in the dark and look. Immediately one sees peculiar cloudlike phenomena, or one may see points of light, flashes of lightning, etcetera, depending upon one's present state. One can see that the visual system, isolated, maintains its activity in a "visual display" manner.

These visual displays are not necessarily those produced directly by the Self-metaprogrammer. One can see that levels of the biocomputer below one's level of awareness generate visual displays, some of which are random in appearance or "noisy" and some of which are well organized.

In special states of being, when in a completely black room, one can begin to see light levels comparable to a well-lighted room. This is commonly called "hallucination." Here we do not use such terms, we continue to use the more useful and operational term "visual display."

For certain neurophysiological and philosophic reasons, one can see that visual displays are what one actually sees when in a well-lighted room; one is not used to one's biocomputer producing visual displays in a black room, even though it is a very natural process for that biocomputer to do so. We can dream, for instance, in full Technicolor in complete darkness with eyes closed. It has been found in the previous isolation work that one can, as it were, have "waking dreams" in the dark and see fully lighted threedimensional colored objects without benefit of light. These are visual displays presumably produced from the storage mechanisms of the human biocomputer.

Light is one of the easiest of the stimulation modes of energy for one to eliminate from the environment; sound is not so easily eliminated.

3. Sound

Sound is transmitted through solids, through liquids, and through gases. One can eliminate (or attenuate) airborne sounds most easily by interposing a solid or liquid barrier between the ears and the sound sources. The mass per unit area and the sound velocity in the material interposed between the sound source and the ears determine how effectively the barrier will attenuate sound.

An air-water interface is excellent for turning most of the sound around and not allowing it to penetrate into the water from the air. The acoustic mismatch here is 5000:1 (this is a better barrier than, say, a steel plate underwater, which is only 500:1). If one is immersed in water, airborne sounds hitting the water will be reflected in the ratio of 5000:1. Only 1 part in 5000 of the energy of the sound that hits the water will be transmitted to the water.

For the significant attenuation of sound, immersion with the water loading the eardrums is very effective. The loaded eardrum has a sharply reduced (by 30 to 40 decibels) sensitivity to airborne sound. If, in addition, surrounding the water, one has dense walls, one can further attenuate the sound that can be transmitted into the water. (Lead or steel or some metal in air is extremely effective in reflecting sound, as are concrete, rock, and similar heavy materials.) For maximum reflection away from the isolated person, "sound mirrors" rather than sound absorbers are used.

In lieu of sound mirrors one can use absorber "sound-black" materials such as acoustic tile and similar materials. These operate in a very different way and are less effective. They operate by setting up interference patterns among the sound waves so that they destroy one another when the sound enters into the fibrous structure. The friction of the sound traveling within very narrow passageways absorbs the energy. This absorption process is never complete and the transmittedcomponent of the residual reflected component can be considerably higher than the reflected component itself. There is a saying in physics: "an open window absorbs 100 percent of the sound"— this is used as the standard of absorption, i.e., it is an instance where there is no reflected component; the sound escapes rather than being merely partially absorbed.

Other sources of sound are those coming through the solids and the liquids, i.e., through rigid piping (if any) that leads into a tank. These sources can be extremely powerful within the tank. Liquid or solid conducted sound is difficult to attenuate before it gets into the tank. In general, we use flexible tubing in the water or air supplies leading to tanks so that the tubing will not transmit much sound through its solid structure. Using baffling and absorbing materials in the acoustic pathways can also attenuate sound from the liquid and air sources.

Other sound transmitted from outside sources to the tank through, say, a concrete floor, has to be attenuated also. This can be done by suspending the tank on the top of materials that give an acoustic mismatch between the tank and the floor. In other words, if the tank is built of plywood and it rests directly on a concrete floor, there will be almost 100 percent sound transmission. To attenuate these sounds, one inserts an acoustic filter between tank bottom and the floor. One puts a steel plate on top of a thick rubber sheet, and then rubber on top of that and the tank on top of the rubber sheet. One other way of attenuating these floor-borne sounds is to use a garden hose and wind it back and forth in a spiral or a sine-wave fashion and support the tank on this. This arrangement has the advantage of giving thermal as well as acoustic insulation, and can be used as a heat source (or sink) for warming (or cooling) the tank when necessary by passing hot (or cold) water through the hose.


Excerpted from The Deep Self by John C. Lilly. Copyright © 2007 The Estate of John C. Lilly. Excerpted by permission of Gateways Books and Tapes/IDHHB, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Preface to the Consciousness Classics Edition of The Deep Self,
Prologue to the Gateways edition by John C. Lilly,
CHAPTER ONE - Physical Isolation Experience in the Tank,
CHAPTER TWO - The Application of the Sciences to Floatation and Physical Isolation,
CHAPTER THREE - Peace in Physical Isolation vs "Sensory Deprivation",
CHAPTER FOUR - The Search for Reality,
CHAPTER FIVE - The Self as the Isolated Observer–Agent–Operator,
CHAPTER SIX - The Domains of Reality: The Metabelief Operator,
CHAPTER SEVEN - The Mind Contained in the Brain: A Cybernetic Belief System,
CHAPTER EIGHT - The Mind Unlimited: The Deep Self Uncontained,
CHAPTER NINE - Mental Effects of Reduction of Ordinary Levels of Physical Stimuli on Intact, Healthy Persons,
CHAPTER TEN - Experiments in Solitude, in Maximum Achievable Physical Isolation with Water Suspension, of Intact Healthy Persons,
CHAPTER ELEVEN - Standards for Isolation Tank Manufacture and Use,
CHAPTER TWELVE - Tank Logs: Experiences,
CHAPTER THIRTEEN - Excerpts of Published Personal Observations of the Author,
APPENDIX I - The Development of the "Contained Mind" Hypothesis,
APPENDIX II - The Contained Mind Metabelief: Definition of Elements,
APPENDIX III - C.N.S. Energy Sources for Simulations and Observer/Operator with e.r. Present,
APPENDIX IV - Hyperstability and Physical Isolation,
APPENDIX V - Forcible Indoctrination (Coercive Persuasion) and Physical Isolation,
APPENDIX VI - A Useful Metabelief about the Internal Reality (i.r.) Program and Simulation Domain and Its Uses: Psub.0,
References for Chapter Nine,
References for Chapter Ten,

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