BOOK REVIEW : Giving New Meaning to the Term ‘Far Out’

John Lilly, So Far ... by Francis Jeffrey and John C. Lilly (Jeremy P. Tarcher: $19.95; 304 pages).

The only downside to living in California is that many people elsewhere assume you’re a nut, given to belief in New Age cures, the karmic Zeitgeist , out-of-body experiences and similar tomfoolery.

There is, of course, no shortage of people we have to thank for this bum rap, but high on the list during recent decades has been John C. Lilly, promoter of isolation tanks, dolphin intelligence, ESP, the dyadic cyclone (whatever that is), extraterrestrial reality and just about every other harebrained fad to come down the pike.

Now we are treated to a biography of Lilly, “John Lilly, So Far . . . ,” written by one of his disciples, Francis Jeffrey, and the guru himself. Lilly is like Nixon: No matter what happens, he keeps coming back.


Lilly, you will recall, is the guy who invented the isolation tank, where you float around and experience sensory deprivation, which is supposed to make you hallucinate. In the 1960s, he did pioneering work on dolphin intelligence and communication, still a subject of considerable controversy, though you wouldn’t know it from this book.

Lilly’s work has inspired two movies, “Day of the Dolphin” in 1973 and “Altered States” in 1980. He has gone to many places seeking spiritual insight.

In 1964, Lilly began taking LSD, the first of many mind-expanding experiences, and after that he went off the deep end, where he still is. Don’t take my word for it. Here are some episodes from the book:

During one experiment with the drug ketamine at his home in Malibu, Lilly nearly drowned in his hot tub. By coincidence, a friend showed up just at that time and rescued him. This experience gave Lilly “further confirmation that his life was guarded by higher powers in the extraterrestrial reality, a hierarchy of entities operating through the control of coincidences on a global scale.

“During this period he came to call that network ECCO--Italian for ‘This is it!'--also an acronym for Earth Coincidence Control Office. . . . He became convinced that ECCO had recruited him in the manner of a spy agency and was training him to carry out its missions on earth. By arranging fortuitous coincidences or ruthless painful mishaps, ECCO could reward or punish John and thus steer him on the course they had chosen for him.”

On another occasion, Lilly was capturing two young dolphins from the ocean. “With mixed feelings, John helps the crew scoop these two from the sea. . . . Silently, he makes a promise to the dolphins: After they have helped the humans learn to communicate, he will return them to their home in the sea. Five years, max, he adds. Silently, the dolphins confirm the pact.”

Subsequently, he claims to have made extraordinary discoveries with these two dolphins, including teaching them versions of 50 English words and the syntax with which to put them together. Alas, “the data has never been sufficiently analyzed to be eligible for publication in a scientific journal.”

Nonetheless, we are told flatly, “John’s bold position on dolphin intelligence was throughly validated. . . . Many of his conjectures about dolphin language capacity, including their ability to learn human-created languages, have been confirmed in the ensuing years.”

That’s not all. During the Sylmar earthquake of 1971, Lilly was in a house in Hollywood and was thrown “out of bed and into Alternity. Alternity is the place, state or domain where all possibilities stand open to the self. What one sees is a very wide array of discrete possibilities--potential realities selected from an infinity of dimensions--each of them an entire future life. Alternity ‘just happens’ to people sometimes, and then, without fully understanding what is going on, they fall back into a single future, and continue to live within its narrow confines.”

Nowadays, “John has added the terms outsanity and insanity to his technical vocabulary in an original and idiosyncratic way. By ‘insanity’ he means not mental illness but rather sanity on the inside, in the internal reality. By ‘outsanity’ he means sanity on the outside, in the organization of the external reality. When one of these ‘sanities’ isn’t working well, John calls it ‘unsanity.’ ”

Now, I’m as open to new ideas as the next guy. But all ideas are not equal. Some make little or no sense, and Lilly has a lock on those that don’t.

Please don’t write me letters that say, “How do you know that he’s not communicating silently with dolphins? Can you be sure that ECCO from outer space isn’t controlling his mind? You are too narrow-minded to understand the truth of Alternity. Lilly is one of the great minds of our age, and it’s nogoodniks like you who refuse to see the truth.”

There is a difference between having an open mind and having holes in your head.