Peace, Love, and Misunderstandings

Followers of the late John Lilly, the guru of higher consciousness, are squabbling over his legacy

The last two months haven't been easy for Faustin Bray. Bray is a self-proclaimed "profound seeker," and she's recently lost her guide.

For the past 20 years, Bray has been one of many Bay Area supporters and friends of Dr. John Cunningham Lilly, an infamous and often controversial researcher of drugs, dolphins, and what generally gets called "higher consciousness." On Sept. 30, he died of heart failure in Los Angeles, at 86. Until his death, he was arguably the last living high priest of '60s-style drug experimenting and contact with nonhuman intelligence. Though he never cut as familiar a figure as his friend Timothy Leary and his psychedelic travels weren't as well-known as those of the recently deceased Ken Kesey, Lilly had his moments: His dolphin-communication research inspired the film Day of the Dolphin, and his writings about his beloved isolation tanks provided fodder for the popular 1980 film Altered States. His books were once must-reading for the pop-psychology set in the '70s, even though interest in his work today has largely dissipated. But Bray, an earnest and soft-spoken woman who can go on for hours about Lilly's life, has striven to keep Lilly's legacy alive, even in his death.

In the Sacramento Street offices of her company, Sound Photosynthesis, she produces and sells hundreds of videotapes, books, CDs, and tapes related to Lilly's work. For $15.99, you can order a CD of Lilly talking about the Earth Coincidence Control Office, which he believed was the extraterrestrial controller of our everyday lives; 10 bucks gets you a cassette of Lilly talking about his affinity for the mind-altering drug ketamine; and for $455, you can get a complete recording of the "Gilding the Lilly" conference, a five-day marathon celebration of Lilly's life and work that was held in San Francisco last year. The emphasis of the conference was something Lilly called "Cetacean Nation," an idea that whales and dolphins are our key to extrahuman and extraterrestrial intelligence.

Dr. John Lilly, left, with friend Timothy Leary.
Dr. John Lilly, left, with friend Timothy Leary.
Dr. John Lilly, left, with friend Timothy Leary.
Dr. John Lilly, left, with friend Timothy Leary.

It all seems like so much '70s bong-hit philosophy now. But Lilly's ideas attracted a lot of followers, particularly in the Bay Area, and it's Bray's mission to make sure Lilly's name and legacy continue to get exposure. "I have autonomy over everything I've recorded or was given to me by him," Bray says firmly. She's had to explain this, firmly, to people. Bray, like many others who were close to Lilly, is angry about who gets what when it comes to Lilly. Since his death, it seems everybody wants to stake his claim to the high priest of peace and higher consciousness.

Nobody remembers John Lilly as much of a talker. On a Sound Photosynthesis videotape of images from Lilly's life (in his last years it seems as if he was constantly videotaped), he comes across as impassive and cryptic. At his birthday parties at his home in Maui over the past decade, he can usually be seen sitting quietly in a large recliner, smoking cigarettes, and smiling only slightly as friends pay their respects. "In the province of the mind, there are no limits," he uttered in one taped 1993 interview. "However, in the province of the body, there are many things that one should not transcend." And then, as if he didn't want to be bothered with further explanations, he leaned back in his chair and said, "Sayonara."

"If you asked him questions about his work, he would say, "Read the book,'" says Ed Ellsworth, a San Francisco member of the Burning Man staff who worked with Lilly on dolphin-communication research in Mountain View in the 1980s. "He wouldn't waste a lot of words. He couldn't come down and talk to you." But for all of Lilly's idiosyncrasies, he did have a reputation as a serious scholar in his early career; his research into the clicks and whistles made by bottlenose dolphins was published in Science in 1961, and is still taken seriously today. By the mid-'60s, however, he was experimenting with LSD, and much of his research took an unorthodox turn. Lilly was giving doses of LSD to dolphins and making vague arguments that it improved the bonds between dolphins and humans. Ellsworth recalls Lilly setting up an isolation tank fitted with microphones and speakers. Lilly would trip on LSD, listen to the dolphin calls, and call back.

"He did get some criticism for giving LSD to dolphins," Ellsworth recalls. "In terms of what he was trying to learn from that, I don't really know. He never really talked about it."

Through the years, a steady stream of followers came to be with him in Hawaii, some of whom he legally adopted, some of whom simply felt they best represented his interests. The result has been a tension between various factions in Lilly's life that seems only poised to grow after his death.

"I don't know what I want to say publicly, but friends seemed closer to him than his actual family," Ellsworth says. Indeed, Lilly died in Los Angeles and not Maui because he was in town to resolve an ongoing family dispute over ownership of property and a trust fund that Lilly was drawing money from. Even among his associates and adopted children, however, battle lines are starting to be drawn over how Lilly's work should be used now, and who has the right to use it. Lee and Glenn Perry, for example, are the current owners of the Samadhi Tank Co., a Grass Valley isolation-tank firm that Lilly helped found in 1972. Since then, they've sold "thousands upon thousands" of tanks all over the world; recently, they've been making trips to the Bay Area to better organize local tank owners since Lilly's death. They also say they have the right to republish all of Lilly's out-of-print books, and they intend to start doing so next year. "He did give us permission to publish all of the books; we have a little videotape of him saying that," Lee Perry says.

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