Reading the fraternal autobiography, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, was for me both fascinating and moving, as I was and remain close friends with both the brothers, have shared stimulating conversations and psychedelic explorations with them, and was deeply saddened by Terence’s early death. Terence became known for his scintillating eloquence and Irish gift of the gab, like my old friend from an earlier generation Timothy Leary. His scintillating flights of the imagination, mixing far-out speculative science and arcane scholarship, delivered in his characteristic dead-pan nasally inflected voice – have astonished and delighted thousands – and remain in disembodied recordings circulating worldwide on the internet.
As his brother Dennis writes “Terence channeled the logos of the age. Silver-tongued and a riveting speaker, he articulated the concepts that his fans groped for but could not express, and did so in a witty, disarming way. He was the gnomic trickster and bard, an elfin comedian delivering the cosmic punch line, even as he assured us we were all in on the cosmic joke.” Especially, one might add, if you followed his advice and continued to take what he liked to call “heroic doses” of psychoactive mushrooms and DMT.
Dennis, who was close to and admired his eloquent and imaginative older brother, took on a different role in society, after the two intrepid explorers returned from the shamanic-alchemical-cosmic folie-a-deux described as “the experiment at La Chorerra,” in their joint autobiography The Invisible Landscape. Dennis went back to school, got a Ph.D. in plant biochemistry and embarked on a career as research scientist in botanical medicine. His writing, in this dual autobiography, is enormously engaging, brilliantly articulating complex issues of natural history, while dealing honestly and humbly with the personal, familial and professional challenges with which he was confronted.
Terence once commented to me in a conversation, that while he was known as the more eloquent speaker and captivating story-teller, his brother Dennis was, in his view, the more profound thinker and scientist. “His mind goes deep into matter,” he said with obvious admiration. Indeed, Dennis has carved out a significant career as a consultant in the development of new botanical medicines, with a slew of research publications to his credit. I’ve always loved listening to his lucid and articulate explanations of complex concepts in molecular biology and entheobotany.
One of the most exciting passages in Dennis’s book, to my mind, is in the chapter where he describes the research work he and two colleagues did on the chemistry and pharmacology of ayahuasca for the Brazilian UDV church – work that resulted in several scientific papers published in the botanical and pharmacological literature. He subsequently participated in a group session with ayahuasca (or hoasca as the church calls it) for several hundred participants – a ceremony I also attended. With the help of a concoction of the visionary vine, Dennis found himself identified as a sentient water molecule and was shown and actually subjectively experienced the entire process of photosynthesis, step by step. As a trained plant biochemist, he was able to identify and name the different processes he had come to understand objectively, as he was experiencing them subjectively, from the point of view of a single drop of water.
“I knew that I had been give an inestimable gift, a piece of gnosis and wisdom straight from the heart-mind of planetary intelligence, conveyed in visions and thought by an infinitely wise, incredibly ancient, and enormously compassionate ‘ambassador’ to the human community.”
This was perhaps a core vision of Dennis’ life as a scientist, presaging, like the work of Jeremy Narby, a time when the instrumental external observations of material and natural scientists will be supplemented by and compared with the interior observations of those same scientists in sensitized and expanded states of consciousness.
I find a comparable core vision statement of Terence’s life work in the introduction he wrote to the Magic Mushroom Growers Guide, which the two brothers published, under pseudonyms, in 1976. This guide itself is perhaps one of the most important contributions the two brothers made to the advancement of culture – describing a relatively simple process of growing the psilocybe mushrooms from spores in glass jars – thereby making these vision mushrooms accessible to millions and obviating the plundering invasions of the mountains of Oaxaca by fungophile hippies.
The experiment at La Chorera
In his fraternal autobiography Dennis is frank about the early unusual degree of closeness of the two brothers, triggered perhaps by the death of their mother when they were teens, and certainly fueled by the daily consumption of huge amounts of cannabis, as they made their early 1960s migration from small town Colorado to the West Coast hippie carnival. In 1971, the two brothers, young men in the twenties, ventured on a journey to Colombia, together with several friends, to search for ayahuasca, the legendary shamanic hallucinogen, then relatively unknown. What they found instead were large quantities of high potency psilocybe mushrooms, with which they began what they called “the experiment at La Chorera.” This was described in their co-authored 1975 book The Invisible Landscape.
Basically, the experiment consisted of both of them repeatedly ingesting rather large quantities of the mushrooms, listening to a kind of interior, alien-sounding, buzzing or humming sound, and then reproducing that sound vocally to induce a lasting expanded state of consciousness. They had a complex theory, which they were discussing and elaborating in intense daily speculative conversations, of how the psilocybin could activate endogenous tryptamines in the brain and create some kind of “holo-cybernetic unit of superconductive genetic material, activated via tryptamine harmonic interference.”
Following the ingestion of an enormous overdose of nineteen psilocybe mushrooms (a “normal” dose being perhaps three to six), plus continuous smoking of cannabis and also some ayahuasca that Terence had brewed up, and experimenting with prolonged vocal ululations, Dennis developed a thought-hallucination, sympathetically supported by Terence, in which he felt they both were in touch with a “Teacher” of some kind. This “Teacher” would guide them to …
…generate a hologram, which would begin to broadcast the information stored in the DNA, making the data both comprehensible to thought and open to manipulation by thought. If the experiment worked, one of us in the near vicinity would be turned into a DNA radio, transmitting the collective knowledge of all earthly life, all the time. This was the information that was downloaded to me by the Teacher, a recipe for constructing a hyper-dimensional artifact that would bind four dimensions into three and thereby end history. An object made of mushrooms, bark (from ayahuasca) and my own DNA, welded together by the sound of my voice.
While Dennis was being flooded by these eschatological thought-hallucinations, and furiously scribbling notes about the information he was “downloading,” his brother Terence was playing the supportive role of maintaining contact and communication, refusing the urgings of their companions that Dennis be committed to a mental institution.
Dennis writes, in his 2012 autobiography,
“in retrospect, I see how our conceits embodied a paradox of psychedelic experience. ..on one level we understood that a molecule doesn’t contain the trip. Rather, the trip is an interaction between a living organism and molecule’s pharmacological properties. Those properties may be inherent to the drug, but the trip itself is not. .. We got that, sort of. But in our delusion, if that’s what it was, we also embraced a conflicting view: We believed an intelligent entity resided in the drug, or at least somehow communicated to us through it. Even as we theorized about the 4-D expression of the drug – that the trip could somehow be expressed on its exterior by rotation through the fourth dimension – we were assuming on another level that a being of some sort was directing the trip. We weren’t the first or the last to make that “mistake.” After all, this is very close to shamanistic views of psychedelic experience, in which the drug speaks through a skilled practitioner.”
Here, I believe, was a crucial turning point in the development of their shared delusion, due to the brothers’ inevitable conditioning and commitment to the materialist worldview, as children of their time and their place of origin. In the shamanistic worldview, the visions do not come from the drug, nor from the plant, nor even from the shaman guide who speaks or sings (whom the two brothers in any event did not have). The visions come from the spirits associated with the plants who communicate to the shamanic practitioner or explorer. The shaman usually has established relationships with specific plant and animal spirits through his or her practice and training, and is thus able to decode the messages and visions “coming through” (or “being downloaded”) and translate them into the locally appropriate action or teaching.
As a committed materialist in good standing with his profession, Dennis, in his autobiography, offers his support of the reductionist credo, though he clearly has some reservations:
“These substances did none of these things. The human mind-brain created these experiences. At La Chorrera, the psilocybin somehow triggered metabolic processes that caused a part of our brains to be experienced not as part of the self, but as the “other” – a separate, intelligent entity that seemed to be downloading a great many peculiar ideas into our consciousness. That’s the reductionist perspective. Is it true? I honestly can’t say, even today. If either is true, or is the alternative true, that there are actually entities in hyperspace that can communicate with us via something akin to telepathy when the brain is affected by large amount of tryptamine – that’s a hypothesis worth testing.”(p. 248)
Actually, from my perspective, having long ago abandoned the reductionist empiricism of modern science and become a “radical empiricist” in the sense of William James, I would say one needs to first simply describe the experiences – and later, separately, speculate about their meanings and implications for our existing worldview. Easier said than done, I agree, considering the irrepressible excitement of new discoveries. You have to hold the theoretical speculations in abeyance until the intensity of the experiential download diminishes somewhat, and you can calmly reflect on the experience.
Certainly, by now there are enough individuals in the psychedelic shamanic subculture who have had multiple experiences of intelligent communications with spirits, and who have learned, with practice, to decipher these communications and utilize them in their projects of healing or creative expression. However, our two young explorers from Colorado in the early 1960s were just beginning their life-long journeys as psychonauts.
Over the years, I have been around dozens of people (myself included) who, as a result of ill-prepared ingestion of high-dose psychedelics, got temporarily caught in a delusional thought-system – often including profound insights, but over-generalized as to their significance. Delusions of grandeur are mixed with genuine amazement at the bewildering grandeur and magnificence of the actual world of nature all around us. There are several examples of such delusional over-generalization in the text that Dennis wrote at the time he was setting himself up for the high-dose experiment.
“In the final Stone the tryptamines act as a superconductive antenna to pick up on all cosmic energy in space and time.”
Not just picking up some cosmic energy, but all.
Or, “It will constitute the 4-D holographic memory of the device, and will contain and explicate the genetic history of all species.”
As if picking up the genetic history of one species or even one individual wouldn’t be enough.
Over-generalization is part of the delusions of grandeur – perhaps a special feature of high-dose psychedelic drug experiences. I recall many times at our communal experiment in Millbrook, NY, and afterwards, being cornered by a wild-eyed hippie wanting to impart the ultimate cosmic secret he had just been granted on his trip, that he was sure everyone would appreciate for its earth-shattering profundity.
Receiving such visions does seem of overwhelming importance and it is – at least to the individual concerned. Others, like family members or professionals, may not appreciate the cosmic significance of the vision/hallucination and are more likely to be alarmed by the tenuous nature of the individual’s connections to ordinary reality. Visionaries are notorious for appearing to others like madmen.
As a psychologist, I do not believe that what the brothers experienced was schizophrenia of either variety. The latter is characterized by fragmented ideation and inability to think rationally. What the McKenna brothers experienced was a glimpse into what shamans would call the “spirit world”, and what they call “hyperspace.” There is an inexhaustible vastness of other dimensions of our universe that are always there but only accessible in special states of consciousness and/or through shamanic or yogic practice, or through special instrumentation.
And yes, their glimpse was fragmentary and yes they were unprepared, and yes they had no ready-made language to describe what they found – explorers never do. These non-ordinary reality visions can only be communicated if one has access to a worldview and a consensual language to describe them. The brothers McKenna did not have either at the time of their “experiment” though they have both contributed significantly since then to creating an expanded worldview – Terence through his imaginative and inspiring speculations, Dennis through his solid scientific investigations into ethnobotanical medicines and their neurochemical effects.
Reflecting on his experiences of forty years ago, the sixty-year old Dennis writes poignantly about the wild mis-adventure of his twenty-year old former self.
“The ravings of a madman, I’ll grant you that. And yet, there is also poetry here, and beauty, and a longing for redemption. What I expressed is not that different from the vision articulated by the most compassionate and beautiful of the world’s religions: the universe will not achieve perfection until all beings have achieved enlightenment. Isn’t that what I’m saying? No doubt there is messianic delusion here; indeed, in passages a bit further on in that text I discuss my role as cosmic Antichrist. But there is also a deep wish for healing, not only of myself but of the universe. Our mother had been dead less than six months. I have to believe that much of what happened to us at La Chorrera was linked to that tragic event. So overwhelmed were we by the sense of loss, and of guilt, we were ready to tear space and time apart in order to reverse that cosmic injustice.” (p. 257).
Over the next couple of weeks Dennis put his fragmented identity-programs back into a functional order, while his brother Terence was obsessively starting to construct his own metaphysical system that later become known as Time Wave Zero. The brothers’ companions could see only psychosis and wanted to bring Dennis to a psychiatric facility – no small task considering they were in the Amazon jungle. Dennis writes he is “grateful to Terence for resisting the pressure to leave La Chorrera. He insisted that whatever was happening to us be allowed to unfold in its own time and on its own terms – there was no need for intervention beyond making sure that I didn’t wander off or hurt myself.”
Terence’s intuitive understanding of the need to let the fragmented self-system of his brother find its own way back to center and to wholeness was consonant with the teachings of psychiatrists like Ronald Laing, Stanislav Grof, John Perry and others who have championed the idea that some forms of so-called “psychosis” can be understood as the psyche’s own natural healing journey – that is best supported by others, and not cut short by psychiatric medications.
The aftermath of La Chorera and returning to mainstream reality
After returning to the US, the two brothers, more convinced than ever of the value of psilocybin mushrooms, wrote and published, under pseudonyms and with the collaboration of Kathleen Harrison as illustrator, the first Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide which gave easy instructions for indoor cultivation and made the mushroom experience accessible to thousands. The brothers eventually took different career paths. Dennis went on to pursue graduate, doctoral and post-doctoral studies in plant chemistry and pharmacology, published research in the pharmacology of Amazonian psychoactive plants, and worked (still does) as a research consultant for the pharmaceutical and herbal industry. Terence, more of an auto-didact, devoted himself to ethnobotanical research and writing and became a much sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit.
In the introduction to the Mushroom Grower’s Guide booklet, Terence described a vision he received, perhaps the core and guiding vision of his life, of the interstellar origin of the mycelial nets, the true body of the mushrooms, which he believed maintain a “vast historical archive of the career of evolving intelligence on many worlds.” The mycelial networks seek habitable planets, he was told, where they can enter into symbiotic communication and exchange with intelligent species, providing that species with access to the “community of galactic intelligence.” The notion of the true form of the mushroom being the mycelial nets and the emphasis on symbiotic interactions of fungi with other species are points consistent with current scientific understanding of fungal evolution, as formulated in the work of Paul Stamets and Lynn Margulis. The idea of extra-terrestrial origin is uniquely and provocatively Terence McKenna, emissary from the world of entheogenic fungi.
In a later essay published in his book The Archaic Revival, Terence McKenna returns to elaborate on this theory, or rather the vision that he received and first recorded in the introduction to The Mushroom Growers Guide.
The mushroom was a species that did not evolve on Earth. Within the mushroom trance I was informed that once a culture has complete understanding of its genetic information, it reengineers itself for survival. The Stropharia cubensis mushroom’s version of reengineering is a mycelial network strategy when in contact with planetary surfaces and spore-dispersion strategy as a means of radiating throughout the galaxy…The other side does seem to in possession of a huge body of information drawn from the history of the galaxy…The Stropharia cubensis mushroom, if one can believe what it says in one of its moods, is a symbiote, and it desires ever deeper symbiosis with the human species. It achieved symbiosis with human society early by associating itself with domesticated cattle and through them human nomads.
He cheerfully goes on to argue against his own thesis of extra-terrestrial origin though, when he goes on to say: “I’ve recently come to suspect that the human soul is so alienated from our present culture that we treat it as an extraterrestrial. To us the most alien thing in the cosmos is the human soul.”
I personally find the thesis that extra-terrestrial sources of vast intelligence might be communicating to the human species via entheogenic plants and mushrooms quite plausible and worthy of further investigation. It is consistent with the fact that interest in UFOs and extra-terrestrial culture and contact has been growing tremendously in the second half of he 20th century, in tandem with other movements of consciousness expansion, such as psychedelics, shamanism, spiritual practices and higher states of consciousness. Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, who had made an intensive study of the UFO abduction experience, has shown, in his most recent book, Passport to the Cosmos, that reported contact and communication with alien intelligences is widespread and almost taken for granted in societies with living shamanic traditions. The notion that experiences with Amazonian hallucinogenic vines and mushrooms could facilitate or induce visions of extra-terrestrial visitors and space-ships, is also supported by the art of Pablo Amaringo, a Peruvian ayahuasquero who painted hundreds of visionary experiences, including many encounters with extra-terrestrial craft.
Terence McKenna’s thesis on the symbiotic role of entheogenic fungi was further extended in his major work, The Food of the Gods, in which he proposed that the discovery of consciousness-expanding mushrooms by our proto-hominid ancestors might have led to the development of language, higher intelligence and culture. While this thesis has been generally treated with disdain, or else ignored, by the academic establishment, it is interesting that there isn’t really a good alternative theory of the development of language or higher intelligence. Furthermore, establishment academics are likely to be unfamiliar with the nature of psychedelic experience, and therefore hardly in a position to evaluate McKenna’s hypothesis objectively. As we know, those scientists who had not looked through a microscope or a telescope were not really qualified to evaluate the observations of those who had. The history of science is rife with similar examples.
In favor of the idea that mind-expanding plants may have played some role (if not the only one) in the evolution of language are: (1) laboratory evidence that psilocybin and other psychedelics lower sensory thresholds, i.e. heighten acuity of sense perception, which would confer a direct adaptive advantage; (2) studies of brain areas activated during psilocybin states that show major activity in the frontal cortex, the area most involved in processing complex perceptions and thoughts; (3) evidence from subjective experience accounts that psychedelic mushrooms heighten cognitive awareness and linguistic fluidity – as, for example, in the chants of the Mexican Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina; and (4) heightened problem-solving ability, with adaptive advantages, is also suggested by the effective use of psychedelic drugs in psychotherapy and shamanic divination. Terence McKenna’s Food of the Gods ranges far and wide through history, anthropology and around the globe in his review of sacred mind-expanding substances. He re-examines R.G. Wasson’s hypothesis that soma, a mysterious substance deified in the Vedas, was basically the fly agaric mushroom cult, imported from Central Asia. Though historian of religion Mircea Eliade, who had written a masterful overview of shamanism, considered the use of psychoactive plants a degenerate form of religious practice, Wasson, on the basis of his experiences in Mexico with the psilocybe mushroom and his beliefs about soma, took the opposite view. Wasson held that all religious experience was originally induced by psychoactive plants and that the practices of yoga developed in India were substitute methods, created when the mushroom was no longer available to the ecstatic visionaries. McKenna comes down on the side of Wasson, but thinks soma was the psilocybe mushroom, not the fly agaric, for the main reason that the latter is only mildly and ambiguously psychedelic; however, apart from some ambiguous mushroom-shaped stones, no evidence has been found for either mushroom species existing in India.
It may be impossible to ever settle this question in the history of religion completely. But that some psychedelic plants may have played a role in the origins of some religious traditions, as well as some aspects of language (for example, bardic poetry) seems to me both probable and plausible.
Central to the argument McKenna makes for a role of psilocybe mushrooms are the facts that Stropharia cubensis grows in cow dung and that cattle were the main source of wealth and livelihood in early Neolithic cultures in Asia and Africa. When McKenna came upon the cave paintings on the Tassili plateau in the Sahara Desert of southern Algeria, he found the most impressive piece of evidence for a mushroom cult in the Neolithic period, dating from the 9th to the 7th millennium BCE. Judging from cave paintings of giant female beings, these people worshipped the Great Goddess, as did other cultures during the Neolithic period in Old Europe and Anatolia. The people of the Tassili Plateau are described as the “Round Head” culture, because of cave paintings that show figures with rounded heads that could obviously be mushrooms. Among the surviving images there are running figures clutching fistfuls of mushrooms and a magnificent image of a giant anthropoid bee-faced goddess (the bee was also associated with the Goddess in Old Europe). The image is holding clusters of mushrooms in each hand and smaller mushrooms sprout from her arms, legs and trunk. Unmistakably, these people held mushrooms in very high regard. Terence McKenna writes,
“The contention here is that the rise of language, partnership society, and complex religious ideas may have occurred not far from the area where humans emerged – the game-filled, mushroom-dotted grasslands and savannahs of tropical and subtropical Africa. There the partnership society arose and flourished; there hunter-gatherer culture slowly gave way to domestication of animals and plants. In this milieu the psilocybin-containing mushrooms were encountered, consumed and deified. Language, poetry, ritual, and thought emerged from the darkness of the hominid mind.”
Re-reading and revisiting the works of the McKenna brothers brought to my mind an intriguing comparison with the life and times of another pair of pioneering scientist-scholar brothers from the early 19th century – Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Alexander von Humboldt was a naturalist and explorer who traveled extensively in Latin America, exploring and describing for the first time, in over 20 illustrated volumes, the biogeography, flora and fauna of the region. Wilhelm von Humboldt was a diplomat, educator and linguist, who made important contributions to the philosophy of language and the theory and practice of education in Prussia, their country of origin.
The McKenna brothers also have made significant contributions to expanding our scientific knowledge of mind-assisting plants, fungi and substances, to the flora and fauna of inner space geography, and to the new languages and concepts inevitably needed if we wish to understand the bewildering and fascinating world of psychoactive substances.
McKenna, Dennis, 2012. The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss – My Life with Terence McKenna. St. Cloud, MN: North Star Press.
McKenna, Terence and Dennis McKenna, 1975. The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching. NY: Seabury Press.
Oss, O.T. and Oeric, O.N., 1976. Psilocybin, Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide. Berkeley, CA: And/Or Press.
McKenna, Terence, 1992. The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History. New York: HarperCollins.
McKenna, Terence, 1992. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge: A Radical History of Plants, Drugs and Human Evolution. New York: Bantam Books.
Filed under: Alchemy, Ancient History, Ayahuasca – Sacred Vine of Spirits, Consciousness, Divination, Ecology, Green Psychology, Psychedelics, Science, Shamanism, Spirituality, The Sixties, UFO/ET | Tagged: Alexander von Humboldt, ayahuasca, Brazilian UDV church, Dennis McKenna, DMT, DNA hologram, entheobotany, ethnobotanical, fungophile hippies, Jeremy Narby, John Mack, John Perry, Kathleen Harrison, La Chorera, Lynn Margulis, Magic Mushroom Growers Guide, Maria Sabina, Millbrook, Mircea Eliade, neurochemical, NY, Pablo Amaringo, Passport to the Cosmos, Paul Stamets, psilocybin, psychoactive mushrooms, psychonauts, R.G. Wasson, Ronald Laing, schizophrenia, Stanislav Grof, Stropharia cubensis, Tassili Plateau, Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, The Food of the Gods, The Invisible Landscape, Timothy Leary, tryptamines, Wilhelm von Humboldt, William James |