Omni magazine (January, 1983)
By Judith Hooper
Above the ranch-style dream houses and seafood restaurants along the Pacific Coast Highway the rugged oaks and desert sagebrush speak a supernal language. It is a landscape of the spirit more than of the body, and Dr. John C. Lilly, dolphin magus and scientist-turned-seeker, seems at home here--where the spectacular surf down at Zuma Beach is a mere rim of white foam on the edge of the world. If life imitates art, Dr. Lilly should live on just such a mountaintop.
It hadn't been easy to find him. When I asked scientist acquaintances about Lilly's whereabouts, most of them said something like, "Do you mean, what dimension?" Someone thought he worked with dolphins at Marine World, in Redwood City, just south of San Francisco, and, it turns out, he does. But when I phoned there, I talked to a succession of secretaries who had never heard of the remarkable Dr. Lilly. I finally left a message with "Charlie," a gate guard who told me that he sometimes, "sees him go in and out." No luck. When at last I called his house in Malibu, Lilly answered the telephone himself and gave me road directions that were accurate to the tenth of a mile.
Lilly's autobiography, The Scientist (1978), begins with the creation of the universe out of cosmic dust, but his own human chronicle starts in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1915. A scholarship whiz kid at the California Institute of Technology, Lilly graduated with a degree in biology and physics in 1938 and went on to earn his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Though he became a qualified psychoanalyst, his first love was brain "hardware." His mastery of neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, biophysics, electronics, and computer theory gave him something of the technical ingenuity of the genie in The Arabian Nights. From 1953 to 1958 he held two posts--one at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and one at the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness--both part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in Bethesda, Maryland. In his early years at the NIH he invented a technique that allowed scientists for the first time to take brainwave recordings from the cortex of unanesthetized animals. He also mapped the brain's pleasure and pain systems by direct electrical stimulation of its core regions. And in 1954, tackling the classic puzzle of what would happen to the brain if it were deprived of all external stimulation, he built the world's first isolation tank.
Floating in his dark, silent, saltwater void--the original version of which required that he wear a skindiver's mask--Lilly discovered that sensory deprivation did not put the brain to sleep, as many scientists had supposed. Furthermore, tanking led him far afield from the doctrine that the mind is fully contained within the physical brain. The tank, he declared, was a "black hole in psychophysical space, a psychological freefall," which could induce unusual sensations: reverie states, waking dreams, even a kind of out-of-the-body travel. (Today, of course, isolation tanks are so much a part of the culture that even strait-laced businessmen routinely spend their lunch hours--and upwards of $20--relaxing in health-spa tranquility tanks based on Lilly's original design.)
More and more enamored of the deep, womb-like peace he experienced in the tank, Lilly began to wonder what it would like to be buoyant all the time. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises sprang to mind, and the rest, of course, is history. By 1961, Lilly had resigned from the NIH to found and direct the Communications Research Institute, in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Miami, Florida, for the purpose of studying these big-brained, sea-dwelling mammals. Convinced that dolphins are not only smarter but more "humane" than Homo sapiens and that they communicate in a sophisticated sonar language--popularized, rather inaccurately, by the baby-talking dolphins of the film Day of the Dolphin--Lilly began a lifelong quest to "talk" to the Cetacea. Today he uses a "two-faced" computer system called JANUS--named after the two-faced Roman god--to work out a human/dolphin language.
While Lilly was experimenting with otherworldly states in the isolation tank, the halcyon days of hallucinogenic research were under way at the NIMH. (LSD was not to become a controlled and, therefore, sticky substance until 1966.) Lilly, however, did not try LSD until the early 1960s. Once he did, it became his high mass. Mixing LSD and isolation tanking for the first time in 1964, he entered what he described as "profound altered states"--transiting interstellar realms, conversing with supernatural beings, giving birth to himself, and, like Pascal, exploring infinities macroscopic and microscopic. "I travelled among cells, watched their functioning... and realized that within myself was a grand assemblage of living organisms, all of which added up to me," he would write of his illuminations in The Center of the Cyclone (1972). "I traveled through my brain, watching the neurons and their activities... I moved into smaller and smaller dimensions, down to the quantum levels, and watched the play of the atoms in their own vast universes, their wide empty spaces, and the fantastic forces involved in each of the distant nuclei with their orbital clouds of force field electrons... it was really frightening to see the tunneling effects and the other phenomena of the quantal level taking place."
By all accounts, Lilly has probably taken more psychedelic substances--notably LSD and "vitamin K," the superhallucinogen he prefers not to identify--than anyone else in the consciousness business. Since the lords and overseers of establishment science frown on using one's own brain and nervous system as an experimental laboratory, Lilly today reports his findings in popular books instead of in neurophysiology papers. He makes the scene at such New Age watering holes as Esalen, in California, and Oscar Ichazo's Arica training place, in Chile. He hasn't received a government grant since 1968. When asked about him, mainstream scientists tend to shake their heads sadly, as if recalling someone recently deceased.
"The trouble with Lilly is that he is in love with death," says one neuroscientist friend of his. "But, God, is he brilliant!" Yes, he is brilliant, and, yes, he does seem to have flirted quite flagrantly with death. Though LSD- or K-related accidents have almost killed him on at least three occasions, Lilly still keeps going back to the void, once tripping on K, he tells me, for 100 solid days and nights. It is also true that he has always returned to Earth, however constraining its boundaries, and that his wife, Toni, has had a good deal to do with that.
The moment I arrive at his house, having driven my rental car over zigzagging mountain roads, Lilly announces, "We have one rule in this house. No one can take drugs of any kind and drive back down that road." Five minutes later he seems to be offering me acid and K--or did I hallucinate that? Is he putting me on? What kind of game is he playing with the anonymous reporter who has come to call?
He tapes me with a matchbook-sized Japanese tape recorder while I tape him: The phone rings and Lilly answers it, his face as immobile as the wooden Indian that guards his entryway. "Who are you?" he demands. His side of the conversation is curt. "It was someone asking about the solid-state entities," he tells me. As our interview proceeds, I watch various expressions play across his patrician, chiseled-granite face--unexpected sweetness whenever he speaks of Toni, or of dolphins. (When talking about a dolphin, Lilly always uses the pronoun he, never it.) Sometimes his language is full-bodied, and poetic; sometimes it is a private blend of computerspeak and Esalenese, full of phrases like "Earth Coincidence Control Offices," "metaprogrammings," and "belief-system interlocks." My own questions echo in my head, and Lilly seems bored, on the verge of walking off abruptly into a zero-g universe of his own. Possibly to get rid of me for a while, he escorts me to his samadhi isolation tank.
In this warm, saline sea of isolation, where such luminaries as Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, anthropologist Gregory Bateson, psychologist Charles Tart, and est czar Werner Erhard have floated and had visions, I try to sort it all out. My visions are disconnected, rudimentary: I am a swamp plant trailing its leaves on the water; a fetus, a dolphin; a whirring brain in an inert shell. An hour and a half later (one loses track of time) I emerge and try to continue the interview. The problem is, in my state of tranquility, I have lost interest in asking reporter-like questions, and, besides, I feel Lilly retreating more and more into some remote, glacial space behind his eyes. From another room a manic laugh track from what sounds like an old I Love Lucy show floats out to us. Some time later Toni Lilly suddenly walks in, smiling and carrying bags of groceries. Her husband jumps up to help her unload the car, and I take my cue to depart back down the mountain.
Only later, at home in the Los Angeles lowlands, do I notice that I am altered--that for 24 hours after isolation-tanking, reality looks and feels quite different. Four weeks later I telephone Lilly, and we talk again. The following interview is the result of our afternoon together in his Malibu home and of that subsequent telephone conversation.
Hooper: You're probably best known as "Dr. John Lilly, the dolphin man." What is the aim of your current dolphin research?
Lilly: At Marine World, we're working with computers to develop a human/dolphin code, analogous to the Morse code used in telegraphy. The project is called JANUS--for Joint Analog Numerical Understanding System. Like the Roman god Janus, it has two "faces"--a dolphin side and a human side.
A human/dolphin language must contend with the fact that dolphins communicate at frequencies ten times above the human range. While our speech falls between three hundred and three thousand hertz, or cycles per second, dolphins talk to one another underwater at frequencies from three thousand to thirty thousand hertz. If you go into a pool with a dolphin and he starts whistling, you'll hear what sounds like very high-pitched squeaks. So the problem is to bring their frequency down into our sound window and ours up into theirs.
We're using a computer system to transmit sounds underwater to the dolphins. A computer is electrical energy oscillating at particular frequencies, which can vary, and we use a transducer to convert the electrical wave forms into acoustical energy. You could translate the waveforms into any kind of sound you like: human speech, dolphin-like clicks, whatever.
H: Do you type something out on the computer keyboard and have it transmitted to the dolphins as sound in their frequency range? And do they communicate back to the computer?
L: Yes, but we actually use two computers. An Apple II transmits sounds to the dolphins, via a transducer, from a keyboard operated by humans. Then there is another computer, made by Digital Equipment Corporation, that listens to the dolphins. A hydrophone, or underwater microphone, picks up any sounds the dolphins make, feeds them into a frequency analyzer, a sonic spectrum analyzer, and then into the computer. So the computer has an ear and a voice, and the dolphin has an ear and a voice. The system also displays visual information to the dolphins. On the human side it's rather ponderous, because we have to punch keys and see letters on a screen. People have tried to make dolphins punch keys, but I don't think dolphins should have to punch keys. They don't have these little fingers that we have. So we'd prefer to develop a sonic code as the basis of a dolphin computer language. If a group of dolphins can work with a computer that feeds back to them what they just said--names of objects and so forth--and if we can be the intercessors between them and the computer, I think we can eventually communicate. [See "Talking Computer for Dolphins," Continuum, August 1982.]
H: How long will it take to break through the interspecies communication barrier?
L: About five years. I think it may take about a year for the dolphins to learn the code, and then, in about five years, we'll have a human/dolphin dictionary. However, we need some very expensive equipment to deal with dolphins' underwater sonar. Since dolphins "see" with sound in three dimensions--in stereo--you have to make you words "stereophonic words."
H: You've said that dolphins also use "sonar beams" to look at the internal state of one another's body, or that of a human being, and that they can even gauge another's emotional state that way. How does that work?
L: They have a very high-frequency sonar that they can use to inspect something and look at its internal structure. Say you're immersed in water and a sound wave hits your body. If there's any gas in your body, it reflects back an incredible amount of sound. To the dolphin, it would appear as a bright spot in the acoustic picture.
H: Can we ever really tune in to the dolphin's "stereophonic" world view, or is it perhaps too alien to ours?
L: I want to. I just did a very primitive experiment--a Saturday afternoon-type experiment--at Marine World. I was floating in an isolation tank and had an underwater loudspeaker close to my head and an air microphone just above me. Both were connected through an amplifier to the dolphin tank, so that they could hear me and I could hear them. I started playing with sound--whistling and clicking and making other noises that dolphins like. Suddenly I felt as if a lightning bolt had hit me on the head. We have all this on tape, and it's just incredible. It was a dolphin whistle that went ssssshhhhheeeeeooooo in a falling frequency from about nine thousand to three thousand hertz, in my hearing range. It started at the top of my head, expanding as the frequency dropped, and showing me the inside of my skull, and went right down through my body. The dolphin gave me a three-dimensional feeling of the inside of my skull, describing my body by a single sound!
I want to know what the dolphin experiences. I want to go back and repeat the experiment in stereo, instead of with a single loudspeaker. Since I'm not equipped like a dolphin, I've got to use an isolation tank, electronics, and all this nonsense to pretend I'm a dolphin.
H: Human language isn't merely descriptive; it has also evolved abstractions--units symbolizing things that aren't physically real, that have no material composition. You've written that dolphins probably have "ancient vocal histories that their young must learn." Do you believe their language is a symbolic system?
L: Sure. If it weren't, they wouldn't exist. They have to know different kinds of fish and coral, the distinction between edible and inedible--that sort of thing. I suggest you don a dolphin suit and join them.
H: You've pointed out that the bottle-nosed dolphin's brain is forty percent larger than ours, and the orca [killer whale] has a brain four times larger. These big-brained dolphins and whales also have a larger association cortex, uncommitted to basic sensorimotor processing and, therefore, available for thinking. If cetaceans are smarter than we, why do we humans assume we're the crown of creation?
L: Because we can't talk to anyone else. The highest intelligence on the planet probably exists in a sperm whale, who has a ten-thousand-gram brain, six times larger than ours. I'm convinced that intelligence is a function of absolute brain size. Some years ago I solved the brain weight/body weight problem, demonstrating that a large brain cannot exist in a small body; it needs a massive body to protect it. A brain is very fragile, and if it is rotated very fast--by a blow to the jaw, for instance--it tears loose from its moorings and kills itself by intracranial bleeding. So, too, as a brain gets larger, the head surrounding it, and its moment of inertia, must increase to prevent dangerous rotation. Maybe the human brain can evolve further if we get control of our genetic code. But in what direction?
H: What has your intense acquaintance with cetaceans taught you about their character? What is their world like?
L: It's mostly sonic, as I've said, since they live in the water twenty-four hours a day and can't see at night. They have no sense of smell, but a very discriminating taste sense. And, of course, they're buoyant, as you are in an isolation tank. One day while I was floating in the tank at NIMH, I thought, "Gee, wouldn't it be great to do this twenty-four hours a day!" When I mentioned it to a friend, he said, "Well, try the dolphins." So that's how I started to work with dolphins.
Having voluntary respiration, dolphins are interdependent in ways in which we aren't, they have a group mind. If a dolphin passes out for any reason, his friends must wake him up. Otherwise he'll drown. So every dolphin is aware of where every other dolphin is, just in case he's needed. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is one of their rules, and, unlike us, they follow it twenty-four hours a day. They're also more spiritual, since they have more time to meditate. Try the isolation tank and you'll see what it's like.
H: Tell me the circumstances that led you to invent the first isolation tank.
L: There was a problem in neurophysiology at the time: Is brain activity self-contained or not? One school of thought said the brain needed external stimulation or it would go to sleep--become unconscious--while the other school said, "No, there are automatic oscillators in the brain that keep it awake." So I decided to try a sensory-isolation experiment, building a tank to reduce external stimuli--auditory, visual, tactile, temperature--almost to nil. The tank is lightproof and soundproof. The water in the tank is kept at ninety-three to ninety-four degrees. So you can't tell where the water ends and your body begins, and it's neither hot nor cold. If the water were exactly body temperature, it couldn't absorb your body's heat loss, your body temperature would rise above one hundred six degrees, and you might die.
I discovered that the oscillator school of thought was right, that the brain does not go unconscious in the absence of sensory input. I'd sleep in the tank if I hadn't had any sleep for a couple of nights, but more interesting things happen if you're awake. You can have waking dreams, study your dreams, and, with the help of LSD-25 or a chemical agent I call vitamin K, you can experience alternate realities. You're safe in the tank because you're not walking around and falling down, or mutating your perception of external "reality."
H: At the time you invented the tank weren't you doing brain research at the National Institute of Mental Health?
L: Yes. I invented a technique called an electrocorticograph, or ECG, for implanting multiple electrode arrays onto the surface of the brain itself without injuring brain tissue as much as previous methods did. It was the first method for taking electrical recordings from the brains of unanesthetized animals--or even of humans. On a kind of television monitor, you could watch the brain waves moving across the cerebral cortex in two dimensions. Basically, you pound a short length of hypodermic needle tubing through the scalp, adjusting it to the depth of the bone so that the scalp closes over it. Then you can come back and put electrodes down through that little channel.
H: Was this the same technique you used to map the brain's pain and pleasure systems with direct electrical stimulation?
L: No, that requires putting electrodes below the cortex, into the brain's deep motivational systems. The electrodes were the same; we just pushed them in deeper. At McGill University, in Montreal, James Olds and Peter Milner had discovered the positive-reinforcing systems in rats' brains. [In these famous studies, conducted in the early Fifties, rats learned to self-stimulate by activating electrodes in their brains' pleasure centers.] And H.E. Rosvold, of Yale University, had uncovered the negative-reinforcing system in cats. I was the man who mapped both sides, positive and negative, and I went to a higher animal, the macaque monkey.
When I did the experiments again in the dolphin, I found he could inhibit his angry, aggressive responses when I stimulated the negative systems. That was fascinating: With his large, eighteen-hundred-gram brain, he had enough cerebral cortex to veto messages from the lower centers. Men can do that, too, as scientists such as [Tulane University medical researcher] Robert Heath have shown. Once, when Heath was stimulating a patient's negative system, the patient said, "You stimulate that point again and I'll pull the electrodes out."
H: Then would you say intelligence is a function of inhibition?
L: Yes. You need a cerebral cortex of a critical size, with fine fiber connections running in both directions to the lower systems. That's where the middle self ("I-me") lives, up in that cortex--not in the lower centers. The lower centers (our lower self) prod us from below, as it were, with love or hate or fear. I think that the superself controls from somewhere "above the brain," in the spiritual domains.
H: What structures are involved in the brain's pain and pleasure pathways?
L: Well, the preoptic nucleus in the anterior hypothalamus, at the base of the brain, is very negative. It's our main survival nucleus: If the temperature is too hot or too cold, this nucleus freaks out the rest of the brain. If there's too much sodium in the blood, it freaks out the brain. It's an area for total fear. Then, moving downward toward the spinal cord, you hit a part of the hypothalamus that stimulates extreme pain all over the body. If you move sideways in either direction in that area of the brain, however, stimulation becomes incredibly positive. Around the preoptic nucleus, you run into the sexual system, which in males, controls erection, orgasm, and ejaculation--each in a separate place--while farther back, in the mesencephalon, the three are integrated and fired off in sequence.
The brain has other pleasure systems, too--systems that stimulate nonsexual pleasure all over the body and systems that set off emotional pleasure. That is a kind of continuous pleasure that doesn't peak--a satori of mind. Satori and samadhi [terms for enlightened-bliss states in Zen Buddhism and Hinduism, respectively] and the Christian "states of grace" seem to involve a constant influx of pleasure and no orgasmic climax--like tantric sex. Spiritual states use these brain systems in their service. Many philosophers, including Patanjali, the second-century B.C. author of the Yoga Sutras, have said that jnana yoga--the yoga of the mind--is the highest form of yoga. In this self-transcendence one can experience bliss while performing God's work; only recently have I achieved this for days at a time.
H: In your book The Scientist you wrote, "If we can each experience at least the lower levels of satori, there is hope that we won't blow up the planet or otherwise eliminate life as we know it." Are altered states necessary to our survival?
L: Yes, the experience of higher states of consciousness, or alternate realities--I don't like the term altered states--is the only way to escape our brains' destructive programming, fed to us as children by a disgruntled karmic history. Newborns are connected to the divine; war is the result of our programmed disconnection from divine sources. I am writing a book about alternate realities called From Here to Alternity: A Manual on Ways of Amusing God. On vitamin K, I have experienced states in which I can contact the creators of the universe, as well as the local creative controllers--the Earth Coincidence Control Office, or ECCO. They're the guys who run the earth and who program us, though we're not aware of it. I asked them, "What's your major program?" They answered, "To make you guys evolve to the next levels, to teach you, to kick you in the pants when necessary." Because our consensus reality programs us in certain destructive directions, we must experience other realities in order to know we have choices. That's what I call Alternity. On K, I can look across the border into other realities. I can open my eyes in this reality and dimly see the alternate reality, then close my eyes, and the alternate reality picks up. On K, you can tune your internal eyes. They are not what is called the "third eye," which is centrally located, but are stereo, like the merging of our two eyes' images. Perhaps someday, if we learn about the type of radiation coming through those eyes, we can simulate the experience with a hallucinatory movie camera--an alternate-reality camera.
H: What is so special about vitamin K?
L: It's a lot more fun than LSD or any of the other agents, because it induces a short trip and you can train yourself to the state. Pretty soon you can take ten times as much and still walk around and talk to people, coherently, in spite of the fact that reality is vibrating. I can run my computer, ski, or do just about anything on K. I've been on it as much as a hundred days straight. You don't really sleep, you don't really dream, because you don't need to. And on K, I can experience the quantum reality; I can see [eminent University of Texas physicist] John Wheeler's hyperspace from within.
H: Can you explain what you mean by experiencing hyperspace from within?
L: Wheeler's hyperspace also is known as a "non-local reality." Each of a pair of photons coming from an atom knows immediately what the other is doing, no matter how far away from each other they are. You can assume the existence of tachyons--faster-than-light particles, carrying messages--but I prefer Bell's theorem's solution to the Einstein-Podolski-Rosen experiment [which illustrated a seemingly impossible connectedness between particles in two different places]. According to [John] Bell's theorem, hyperspace would be a region of hidden variables in which all realities are represented at a single point and in which there is no need for messages to travel. The "hyperspace" with which I've been working is one in which I can jump from one universe to another--from this reality to an alternate reality--while maintaining human structure, size, concepts, and memories. My center of consciousness is here, and I can know immediately what's going on anywhere in the universe. It's a domain I now call Alternity, where all choices are possible.
H: What first inspired you to use psychotropic drugs?
L: I never use the word drug, because it leads into a legalistic morass. The Food and Drug Administration has been putting out bulletins lately about K, which is now listed as a possible "abused" drug. Because abuse means literally "away from use," I prefer the term hyperuse, or "too much use." So I don't want to call it by its chemical name, and I think of it as vitamin K anyway, because it gives me spiritual energy. I've never proselytized, never advocated wholesale use of psychedelics. They are not for everyone. When Timothy Leary said, "Turn on, tune in, drop out," only a self-selecting group ever tried LSD. I did not agree with him; my use was carefully controlled investigation, not "recreational use."
There were a lot of "LSD pushers" around our LSD research at the NIMH when I was there in the Fifties, but I didn't take LSD then. After about ten years in the tank I decided there was something new to be learned. So I came out here to California, where a lady I knew who had access to pure Sandoz LSD-25 gave me the LSD for my first two trips. On my first trip I went through all the usual stuff: seeing my face change in the mirror, tripping out to music. During the first two movements of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, I was kneeling in heaven, worshiping God and His angels, just as I had in church when I was seven years old. On that trip I did everything I'd read in the psychedelic literature so as to save time and get out of the literature the next time. During my third trip, in the isolation tank in St. Thomas in 1964, I left my body and went into infinite distances--dimensions that are inhuman.
H: The Ken Russell/Paddy Chayefsky film Altered States closely resembles your life. What did you think of it?
L: I think they did a good job. The hallucination scenes are much better then anything ever produced before. I understand that some of the crew, the actors, and the producers were trained on K. The tank scenes were fine--except that in reality there are no vertical tanks, only horizontal ones--and the film implied that use of the tank itself would cause those out-of-the-body trips, which it doesn't.
The scene in which the scientist becomes cosmic energy and his wife grabs him and brings him back to human form is straight out of my Dyadic Cyclone (1976). Toni did that for me. As for the scientist's regression into an ape-like being, the late Dr. Craig Enright, who started me on K while taking a trip with me here by the isolation tank, suddenly "became" a chimp, jumping up and down and hollering for twenty-five minutes. Watching him, I was frightened. I asked him later, "Where the hell were you?" He said, "I became a prehominid, and I was in a tree. A leopard was trying to get me. So I was trying to scare him away." I said, "If you do that again, I'll kick you in the ass." He laughed.
H: Can substances like K take one to lower, as well as to higher, states? Could one get stuck in a lower state, and is that a possible explanation for psychosis?
L: You can get into lower states--rock consciousness, solid-state consciousness, whatever. If people do get stuck there, we would never hear from them, would we? As for so-called psychosis, it's just an insistence on staying in altered states, in spite of everyone else. Psychotics hang around and play games with everyone around them; it can be rather cruel. Anyone who has worked with them knows there's a wise and healthy essence back there, and what you have to do is contact it. Of course everyone's different. Some schizophrenics feel pain; others pretend pain so that they'll be taken care of.
H: Did Chayefsky interview you for either the book or the screenplay version of the film Altered States?
L: No. The manuscript of The Scientist was in the hands of Bantam, the publishers. The head of Bantam called and said, "Paddy Chayefsky would like to read your manuscript. Will you give him your permission? I said, "Only if he calls me and asks permission." He didn't call. But he probably read the manuscript.
H: UCLA psychologist and drug authority Ronald Siegel maintains that the chemical you call K can simulate the near-death experience, proving that the near-death experience is hallucination rather than a foretaste of things on the "other side." What is your view?
L: Ron and I totally disagree, though I like him. He is theorizing on the side of the law. With his belief system--that these experiences are all wastebasket stuff--he doesn't know alternate realities.
My experiences have convinced me that Eastern yoga philosophy is right: that
there is a purusha or atman [soul] for each person--one for the planet, one for
the galaxy, and so on. As mathematician/philosopher Franklin Merrell-Wolff says
in his book The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object, consciousness was
first--before void even. When consciousness got bored and turned in upon itself,
becoming conscious of itself, creation began. He/she/it created time, space,
energy, matter, male, female--the whole tableau. It all got so complicated that
sneaky things may go on beyond its ken.
H: Some of your critics have made much of the fact that intense experimentation with LSD and K has brought you to the brink of death at least three times. While giving yourself an antibiotic injection during your early days of LSD experimentation, you once used a hypodermic containing detergent foam residue, which sent you into a coma. Then, during a period of prolonged K use, you nearly drowned, and later you seriously injured yourself in a bicycle accident. Were these accidents quasi-suicides--collisions with your brain's "self-destruct programs"?
L: The whole issue of suicide is a very complex program. I've never tried to commit suicide, though I've been close to death. The near-death accidents resulted from taking something and acting in a certain way so that I ended up in great danger and so I've hypothesized that the brain contains lethal programs--self-destruct programs--below the level of awareness, which LSD or K can release or strengthen. My accidents were near-death learning experiences. There's nothing like them. They train you faster than anything I know.
The year leading up to my bicycle accident in 1974, I spent in satori, or a state of grace. I was having a ball, mostly living in alternate realities and sometimes falling flat on my face. In The Autobiography of Ramakrishna [1836-1886, a famous Indian saint], there's a story about Ramakrishna getting ready to board a river steamer. Two of his disciples began to fight, and so Ramakrishna went into samadhi. Since he was out of his body, his disciples had to stop fighting and carry him aboard. Well, that was the sort of state I was in, and Toni was the disciple who had to "carry me around."
H: In your reflections in The Dyadic Cyclone, you seem to consider your accident as a way of paying for that year of bliss.
L: It terminated that year. In our workshops we have a saying: "If you pass the cosmic speed limit, the cosmic cops will bust you." I got "busted." I had taken forty-two milligrams of PCP [angel dust]. I'd been out there too long and hadn't paid enough attention to my planetside trip; so the Earth Coincidence Control Office called me back by throwing a bike accident at me while I was on PCP. I appreciate what the Control Office did. They are not cruel; they're in a state of high indifference.
While my body was in the hospital and in a coma for five days and nights, I was in alternate universes, where the guides instructed me about various planetary catastrophes. I can't make up my mind whether that was an experience of genuine realities or just a projection of the damage to my body. In any case, I begged the guides to let me go back. I had to say, "I want to go back to Toni." At one point I clung to Toni for six solid hours so I could stay with her. It was very frightening. The guides told me, "You can stay here, in which case your body dies, or you can go back." I chose to go back to Toni, as I have chosen to go back every time.
H: Toni has obviously been a crucial counterpoint to what you once described as the "stainless-steel computer" part of yourself. In your recent books you've stressed the importance of what you call the "male-female dyad." Will you please explain this idea.
L: That's the way the universe is constructed. Do you know about the Eleventh Commandment? It says, "Thou shalt not bore God, or He will destroy your universe." The first step in not boring God is to set up two opposing intellects, male and female, so that neither can tell what the other is thinking. If you totally fused with your mate, it might be a very dull trip.
I love female intelligences. Every single cell in your body has two x chromosomes. Every cell in my body has one x chromosome and a crippled x chromosome, an x chromosome with an arm missing, called a y chromosome. You women are so well balanced with your two x's. You can be grounded, and do the gardening, and take care of the kids and give them nurture, but we males have got to go out and explore the universe, banging our heads together and shooting one another.
H: Was it really necessary for you to have the near-death experiences you've recounted?
L: It was for me. It was necessary to frighten the hell out of me, but many other people are just born right and don't have to struggle as I did. I had a Catholic background, a traumatic childhood--the whole business.
H: What was it about a Catholic background that you had to "unlearn"?
L: The whole construct. I'd been taught by Irish Jesuits, who are very clever. They made up multiple layers of rationality for the whole Catholic structure. The nice thing about Catholicism, however, is that it teaches you what to believe. So when you throw it over, you know exactly what you're throwing over. You can say, "I don't believe in the Father Almighty," and continue right through the Apostles' Creed, the Confiteor, and the rest of it, tossing out one tenet at a time.
I believe in God, but not in the "Catholic God," who is vengeful. There's the whole business about guilt, "impure thoughts," going to hell if you don't do what the church commands. One way this was solved for me, intellectually if not emotionally, was by reading the "Grand Inquisitor" chapter of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, in which Christ comes back to Earth. The Grand Inquisitor tells him, "When we saw those miracles in the street, we knew you were back. But this time we're not giving you any publicity. We're keeping you in this cell. We know how to run these people now." That just knocked the church right out of me, and by the time I was finished with Caltech, medical school, and psychoanalysis, that belief system was pretty well cleaned out of me.
H: What about psychoanalysis as religion? Both use the confessional, an elaborate rational system for structuring the irrational, transference, and so on.
L: Well, I didn't get into the religious aspects, as I was fortunate in having an analyst, Robert Waelder, who was free of the dogma. He had been trained by Anna Freud in Vienna, had a Ph.D. in physics, and was an analyst's analyst. I took psychoanalytic training under him for eight years, and he would go anywhere with me. Right off, practically in our first session, I told him I wanted to get a divorce [from his first of three wives] but that I thought I couldn't if I was in analysis. "Where did you learn that?" he asked. I said, "In the Freudian literature." He said, "Dr. Lilly, we are not here to analyze Freud, psychoanalytic literature, or other people's rules for your behavior. We are here to analyze you."
H: How is it that, trained for eight years in psychoanalysis, you decided to devote yourself to brain hardware instead?
L: I'd already had enough neurophysiological training to know there were a lot of mysteries in the brain. As Waelder said, psychoanalytic theory accounts for about one tenth of one percent of what goes on in psychoanalysis. I had to go further than that to find something more satisfying, and I found it in the concept of metaprogramming the human biocomputer.
A human being is a biorobot with a biocomputer in it, the brain. But we are not that brain, and we are not that body. A soul essence inhabits us, and, under acid, under K, under anesthesia, you'll find that the essence isn't tied to brain activity at all. Brain activity can be virtually flat, and you can be conscious--off somewhere in another realm. You just can't communicate with people in consensus reality.
H: In your experience, does the brain possess "trapdoors" into the domain of the soul? For example, neuroscientist Arnold Mandell, of the University of California at San Diego, has said that chemicals such as LSD can be "pharmacologic bridges" to transcendence.
L: I agree with Mandell. Acid--and, better, vitamin K--set up the chemical configuration of your brain so as to loosen the connection between the brain/body and the soul essence. Then the essence can move into alternate realities. I call this phenomenon the "leaky-mind hypothesis," or the "escaping-self hypothesis." There are a lot of ideas about the soul's location in the body, of course. In Spanish, when you're scared out of your wits, you say your soul is in your mouth--you have el alma en la boca. But the junction between the biocomputer and the essence is not localized in the brain; it's throughout the body. If you get out of your body, you can assume a fake body, an astral body, which can walk through walls. Your essence is represented in every cell in your body.
H: Orthodox scientists accuse you of unscientific practices, and some even suggest that your consciousness-altering experiments and near-death accidents have impaired your judgement. How would you reply to them?
L: Well, I'd just throw my credentials at them, and I'd ask them to sit down and read my papers. Only narrow-minded people criticize me, anyway; the broad-band people, who can move easily across boundaries and disciplines, love my work. Down in Mexico, for instance, people have been educated to respect the superscience of the next century that their brujos and curanderos [sorcerers or witches and healers] are capable of calling up. My son John Lilly, Jr., who has lived for sixteen years among the Huichol Indians, has a wonderful movie about these matters. Our orthodoxy, on the other hand, is very Germanic, very European: If you can't see it, touch it, taste it, it doesn't exist.
I was brought up to divide science into theory and experiment, each guiding the other. The pure experimentalists who attack me lack good theory, but the theorists haven't done the experiments. There are really three departments to science: experiment, theory, and experience. Experience is the part that doesn't get into the scientific journals.
H: How would you answer the charge that your self-experimentation is subjective and, therefore, unverifiable?
L: Subjectivity is nonsense. Neither subjectivity nor objectivity exists in nature. That's the mind-contained-in-the-brain belief of some psychiatrists and other scientists. The subject is an object is a subject. In a cybernetic system, you go around in a circle, and subject and object have no reality. The only way to isolate subject and object is to cut off the feedback and destroy the system. It's a false dichotomy.
H: Do you believe that neuroscientists are on the verge of explaining the mind by mapping brain chemicals and so forth?
L: I haven't yet seen any breakthroughs that are worth talking about. Neurochemistry is interesting but not specific enough yet. I suspect we'll find there are a million different compounds operating in the nervous system--specific compounds for specific regions and specific neurons. Caltech neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Roger Sperry's regeneration experiments [in which he rotated a salamander's eye and the severed nerve fibers somehow reconstructed their original connections to the optic tectum in the brain, as if they "knew" where to go] show that there are chemotropic substances that are specific to each fiber. I don't read neuroscience journals anymore; I depend on my friends to tell me what's going on.
You know, [Kurt] G del's theory, translated, says that a computer of a given size can model only a smaller computer; it cannot model itself. If it modeled a computer of its own size and complexity, the model would fill it entirely and it couldn't do anything. So I don't think we can understand our own brains fully.
H: Is it an extension of G del's theorem, which states that some propositions can be neither proved nor disproved within a logical system?
L: It's the same thing. If you have a closed system, the closed system can't account for itself. A set of sets that contains itself is a set that cannot possibly replicate itself. We are biological computers, and what G del said is that you cannot conceive in full a computer the size of your own, for it would take up all the space you live in.
A sperm whale, with a brain six times the size of ours, could model a human and do a pretty good job of it. Since the model would take up only one sixth of his software brain, he could use the remaining five sixths to manipulate the model, predict its actions, and so on. The trouble is that this big computer is caught in a body that humans can kill.
H: Could you elaborate on your concept of programming and "metaprogramming" the biocomputer?
L: Have you seen the movie Tron? You must, because Tron is us. In it, the computer grabs the character played by Jeff Bridges and takes him inside, making him a program in the computer. The Master Control Program revolts, takes over the computer, and defies the users. So the users send in Tron, which is a program to destroy the Master Control program that is preaching disbelief in the users.
Tron shows you things that are very, very spiritual. You can think of yourself as a biocomputer, or an intelligent terminal, run by a cosmic computer in the Earth Coincidence Control Office. The biocomputer contains certain wired-in survival programs dealing with eating, reproduction, and so on, which lower animals also possess. But when the biocomputer reaches a certain threshold of complexity, there are higher-level programs in the association cortex that permit such things as making models, learning to learn, choice, and so forth. We have short-term choices, but God help you if you go against the Master Control Program. A terminal cannot understand itself because it lacks sufficient space, but a replica of itself is in the cosmic computer, which can understand it. At the highest level, your true self (the "user" in Tron) is a cosmic game player, with access to an infinite computer--the ECCO computer. That is metaprogramming, self-metaprogramming.
H: How does one contact God?
L: In many cases, I didn't know whether I was taken on a trip by God or by one of His business officers in the outer galaxy. Guides at each level above ours pretend to be God as long as you believe them. When you finally get to know the guide, he says, "Well, God is really the next level up." God keeps retreating into infinity. I've thought that I was in the mind of God--seeing rotating universes, yin and yang, male and female--but perhaps God himself is beyond that. Have I told you about the "Dust-bowl God"?
H: No. What is the "Dust-bowl God"?
L: In my new book I have a theory called the Dust-bowl God. God got bored with this universe and the distribution of intelligence in it. So He made a dust bowl out beyond the galaxies. In this dust cloud, every particle is intelligent; on the atomic level, each particle is as intelligent as a human being. The dust particles made themselves into stars and planets and animals and humans, and everybody knew everybody; everything was totally aware of everything around it.
Now the problem is, if every particle is equally intelligent, and greater assemblages are even more intelligent, what are the traffic rules for relations between, say, humans and elephants? It would be nice to see such a universe, wouldn't it--the Dust-bowl Universe?
H: How would it differ from ours?
L: Right. How would it?