Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship
My senses have been stripped
My hands can’t feel to grip …

    -Bob Dylan, “Mr. Tambourine Man”

A Bob Dylan guru once told me the song “Mr. Tambourine Man” was inspired by Dylan’s first experiences with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in the mid-‘60s. This guru was a coworker of mine at a fine midwest establishment offering 90-minute “floats” in sensory deprivation tanks for the purpose of deep healing.

So last weekend, when I took two hits of primo LSD in a float tank and heard the song running through my head, I shouldn't have been surprised.

Before I dove into the exploratory experience, however, I reached out to a man by the name of Billy Dempsay who has a business card officially designating him a “Float Expert.” He’s done floats on LSD himself, and says his two-hit, three-hour floats are like “experiencing the absolute zero of being … a pair of eyeballs floating around in absolutely nothing.”

Even sober, floating provides an unmatched sensation of weightlessness; the body becomes buoyant in a bath of water infused with hundreds of pounds of magnesium sulfate. The pods you lay in are completely dark, to deprive sight, and soundproof, to deprive sound. It's as if you're not even there, but kind of are, if only mentally.

Yet adding in the psychedelics, according to Dempsay, helps “you check your egoic baggage at the door.” The combined approach is a recipe for deep confrontation with the self.

Seeing as I’d been feeling my ego was getting out of whack, I thought it was timely for me to delve into the alluring depths of psychedelics while depriving my senses of physical reality.

When I entered the float center’s warm, soothing lobby at 10 a.m., I first thought, “Whoa!” … because I realized I was tripping earlier than I'd hoped. The “threshold guardian,” as I then saw her as, exuded a nymph-like glow and handed me the proper paperwork. Through the soft hums of the overhead lightning, I heard her say to me, “Basically, these papers just ensure you aren’t under the influence of drugs.”

"Of course not," I tried to get out as I watched a familiar hand shaking as it signed my given name. She then led me to a room with a shower and a pod that looked like it was born in the mind of John C. Lilly, the mysterious scientist who sought to communicate with dolphins.

Where exactly was I again?

The nymph left me. I was there standing alone with the glowing pod.

So I stripped naked, showered, jammed in earplugs and entered the mildly-cool liquid. Instantly, my body was buoyant. I pressed a black button beside me. The glow ceased. Mechanical whirring stirred as the lid — which my mind wanted to call a "labium" — slowly descended from above until it concealed my entire world in its dark and silent womb.


Earlier Dempsay shared with me something, a story about how things can go terribly wrong while you’re high on LSD.

“… that first time you take a real dose, and you are confronted with the fact that everything you think you know is a lie, you are full of shit, and your perception of reality is nothing more than a bullshit story that you continually tell yourself,” he said. “That experience can be hard to handle.”

Before he said so, I hadn’t properly considered this perspective as something that could happen to me. These experiences ought not be taken lightly, he warned. If one isn't mentally or spiritually prepared to encounter what arises, things can get a bit dark.

Within seconds of the labium’s descent, I began to freak out. My imagination was enhanced. I envisioned total failure of systems. If the mechanism that contained me broke, I would be trapped, I thought, concealed in a soundproof chamber with only salt water to drink. I’d be left pounding and screaming for the nymph to save me.

"But what if she was behind the whole thing? She may lock the door forever! Shit!" My mind was racing.

Focusing on my breath seemed like the wise thing to do. I told myself these scenarios were highly unlikely and tried to calm my nerves. Encased in darkness, I tracked down the black button again. The lid rose. I lowered it again. The tenseness of my muscles relaxed each time I cycled through.

In the silence, I heard percussion. It lacked the rhythm of my heart, but it was equivalent in dissonance. It too frightened me. Yet through the percussion trickled those Dylan lyrics once again, and I realized I was receiving a personal invitation from the Tambourine Man.

Was this real? Was I imagining? Did it matter?

Then I heard a soothing voice whisper a simple mantra: Surrender.

I had a vision of myself as a pathetic body of flesh clinging desperately to an embedded illusion of self. I saw a narrow field of vision. I saw the pod, the ship, become an organism whose tentacles wrapped my throat and grinned maliciously saying, "Now what, little man?" I saw myself surrounded by rotting demons vomiting bile in a mutilated biosphere of filth and contamination with no way out. I considered fleeing. I saw myself flailing. I fought, desperate to maintain grip …

My hands can’t feel to grip …

(The song began sounding like The Byrds version of it, so soothing.)

“Maintain grip on what, exactly?” I thought to myself.

What was I so certain this experience would be? Dazzling lights and swirling designs? A kaleidoscopic sea of bliss? No. I was in this reality, right now: a magic ship swirling through fears I perpetually carry deep inside.

I could feel the notions of identity melting. "Who was I?" I asked myself. "This body? This mind? Or something beyond anything familiar?"

I realized a singular fear: I am still terrified of death.

But I still lay in the pod. I was comfortable and safe.

I listened to the mantra in my head more. Surrender. I relaxed my grip.

I’m ready to go anywhere,
I’m ready for to fade Into my own parade …

Bidding my ego farewell, I felt my consciousness ascend out of my body and toward the song; finally I succumbed to the magic trip.

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time …

This is nonfiction. Simultaneously, it’s figurative, because what I experienced was something language can never grip: how my mind could experience an abstract region of reality in a tank full of water.

In "Tanks for the Memories," John C. Lilly likened the float apparatus to the Tibetan Buddhist ‘Bardo’ — an intermediary, or “transit,” state where the soul or mind leaves the body and moves between universes.

By removing sensory input and thus the demands on the nervous system, a float tank simulates this transit realm, granting the mind access to an “essential state” where it might experience out-of-body sensations. After all, the experience comes via theta brain waves, which also transition us into dreams. Psychonauts know of chemical connections between dreams and death — the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) is filled with such interconnections.

As in dreams, the Bardo reveals ourselves to ourselves in ambiguous forms arisen from personal experiences.

As an example, if something like the little girls from The Shining frighten you, they could very well haunt your Bardo experience, preventing you from moving on. But you can always face the forms, even if they seem bad-trip terrifying. In essence, Bardo forms are mirrors to our unconscious delusions and attachments. And since float tanks don’t actually kill you, they open the opportunity to alter suboptimal cognitive patterns newly revealed.

Face your fears, and all of that.

The experience carried me through thoughts of mortality into a place of unfathomable bliss — that "absolute zero of being" Dempsay described. I saw my beautiful girlfriend hovering above me and smiling, reminding me that all is well at the base of things, that we coexist in a world of infinite love.

I felt at home in a place I’d forgotten.

Gentle energy guided my arms overhead — I was neither initiator nor mover — I saw my chakras shining bright. In total darkness, I was delighted by the reality of color, the spectrum!

How often one can forget the uncountable blessings of each daily moment.

Admittedly, my mind often becomes muddled with noise pollution, shitty politics and myriad existential demands of being a functional human in 2017. Before jumping in the tank, I had forgotten about the gift of breath, the gift of movement, the gift of intimacy and love.

The energy reminded me it had always been present, and so it shall remain well beyond the moment my pale ass ceases to function. I realized my identity, wherever it may reside, was far closer to the connection of others than it was to this hairy monkey lying in a salty puddle.

As I finished, I heard a calming laughter, echoing in the room before realizing it was my own.

Without warning, the dim glow of the room returned. The “labium” — as I had called it — rose, and the room’s cool air reactivated my senses. The images I’d just experienced receded into memory, and a gentle voice from within whispered, "Time to reenter the world of appearances, love."

I stood there, naked. Changed? Reborn? Not yet. The real work had only opened before me; I had been granted the gift of seeing how the silly issues to which my ego clings wrap me in a ball of stress that feeds itself with its silly self, all while eclipsing notions of realities beyond.

I had been opened to the jingle-jangle morning, the purity far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow — where the Tambourine Man remains to guide to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, inviting all who hear his storied song to follow.

[originally published December 11, 2017]