True Conversations: An interview with Dennis McKenna> by Rak Razam



Dennis McKenna is one of the leading figures in the global psychedelic and scientific communities investigating plant entheogens and indigenous plant medicines. He was involved with the “Hoasca Project” studying ayahuasca usage by members of the Church de Vegetal and recently issued the manifesto “Ayahuasca and Human Destiny”. Along with his late brother Terence, Dennis co-wrote the book “The Invisible Landscape” which revealed their psychedelically influenced insights into the nature of reality and spacetime they received during “The experiment at La Cholerra” in South America in 1971 (later recounted in Terence’s book “True Hallucinations”). Here, he talks at length about what happened at La Cholerra and how that influenced his later work with ayahuasca.

Rak> Dennis you received your doctorate in 1984, so you’ve been studying plant entheogens for over twenty years now professionally. I’d like to backtrack just a bit to talk about how you got into the psychedelic and plant sacrament culture. In your brother Terence’s book “True Hallucinations” he details your adventures into Amazonian shamanism, could you tell us a bit about those times and how you and Terence began?

DENNIS> Right. [True Hallucinations] was Terence’s book but I was one of the main subjects in it. We wrote together a book in 1975 called “The Invisible Landscape” which we were co-authors on. That was an attempt to kind of lay out in scientific terms and make sense of our experiences at La Cholerra. But True Hallucinations was more like a novel version of that. The Invisible Landscape was like a pseudo-scientific screed in a way, and True Hallucinations was more like a travel novel of our adventures in the Amazon kind of thing.

Rak> I guess what interested me about all this is that you’ve become a leading scientist in this field but before that as the books reveal there was this thirst for adventure, this calling to know more about indigenous people and the plant medicines. Both The Invisible Landscape and True Hallucinations reveal some intense encounters with plant medicines, could you explain what happened there at La Cholerra?

DENNIS> Yes... What happened at La Cholerra... (laughs) What happened is a very long story. I guess the first thing to make clear about what happened at La Cholerra is that it didn’t occur in the context of any indigenous use of psychedelics, or ayahuasca, or any of these things. At the time we thought it did, but we were deluded in many ways. I was 20, [Terence] was 24. We were at that stage where you know everything (laughs).

And yes, we had a thirst for adventure but our adventure at La Cholerra really grew out of our preoccupation with DMT. We were both hippies in the 60s, in Berkeley and the Haight-Ashbury and all that. Like everybody at that time in that sort of countercultural movement we were interested in psychedelics. We took LSD and thought that was interesting and so on. But unlike a lot of people, for various reasons that I now view as fated, in a way, DMT came down the pike.

So we began to look into the ethnobotanical literature on this, and I don’t know what even lead us to ethnobotany... maybe it was Carlos Castenada or something like that. LSD and all those psychedelics were not used in the 60s in the context of any shamanic tradition, it was, if anything, it was in the Leary Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out kind of ideal. [But] through various routes we found out that DMT was the active ingredient in a lot of South American hallucinogens that were in use.

When we got to La Cholerra we were, if not exactly welcomed, at least not thrown out. And so we settled in, and at this scene, this mission, they had cleared maybe a couple of hundred acres or rainforest and they had brought in cows. So these cows were everywhere and as a result the pasture was literally dotted everywhere with psilocybin mushrooms. Everywhere you looked out of cowpies there were these huge clusters of psilocybin mushrooms growing. We had actually had a previous encounter with the mushrooms on the way in at Puerto Leguizamo, which was the first time either one of us had taken any mushrooms.

RAK> They weren’t big in the States at the time?

DENNIS> They weren’t big and they were unheard of in the States at the time.

RAK> They didn’t exist in the States or they just weren’t being used widely?

DENNIS> No. Not really. Psilocybin was a legendary substance that never really showed up on the streets. Things showed up on the streets that purported to be psilocybin, but they were LSD basically. Nobody knew how to grow mushrooms at that time. It wasn’t happening. What you got was frozen store bought mushrooms that had been sprayed with LSD. It was totally fake, nobody knew about it.

So we started taking these mushrooms and having lively conversations all the time fuelled by mushrooms and fuelled by liberal ingestion of cannabis at all times of the day and night. Cannabis was virtually legal in Colombia at that time. We brought in a pound and a half of the best native bud we could lay out hands on.

... And one of the aspects of taking the mushrooms was this sound that we could hear at high doses. You could hear a sound at the edge of detection that seemed to be a kind of high-pitched, electronic buzzing and popping sound. It’s the sound you can hear very strongly when you smoke DMT. The sound of ripping cellophane, people describe it that way, or crumpling cellophane or things like that.

We developed this idea that if you could listen to this sound, and not only listen but imitate the sound, you could sing it, it was something that you could imitate and if you tried to imitate it you reached a point where it sort of locked on to this internal resonance. Initially it sounds stupid, y’know, you’re trying to follow a tune along and you’re not getting it very well, but at some point you would lock on to this, and then it would just pour out of you. You couldn’t even stop it.

What we were doing was not science - it was magic    . We thought we were doing science but we didn’t know anything about science at the time. We set up what we called an experiment, but what we should have really called a ritual. Honestly it was a ritual but we had the idea that if we took a large dose of mushrooms, along with ayahuasca and heard this sound, that we could generate this standing wave form and that we could actually transfer that into the body of a mushroom in a stable way so that it would be outside the body and it would be sustained by it’s own superconducting circuitry, and you would be able to see it and be it at the same time. It would be, in a sense, an artifact from beyond that you generate out of your own head. It would be a super, transbiological artifact, translinguistic matter that would be meaning itself fixed into a biological matrix.

RAK> And do you think it succeeded, the experiment?

DENNIS> (hesitates)... No... (laughs) No, not exactly… What we were trying to do, essentially, if I can harken back to the basis of this in myth and history, I mean the closest analogy to it is the Philosopher’s Stone. We were trying to recreate the Philosopher’s Stone, which in some ways is the ultimate artifact. That thing that exists and is both mind and matter and responds to thought and is you and can do anything you can imagine, literally, anything you can imagine.

And so we performed the experiment and what we postulated was going to happen – didn’t happen, obviously. How could it happen? It didn’t happen that the mushroom would explode on a cloud of super-condensed glowing crystals and leave a glowing violet disk in front of us, no. That’s not what happened, y’know. That was the whole for result. That we’d just be able to get in the saucer and fly away. And end History in the process.

RAK> It’s a very grand ideal there, and I guess the immediate result was that your MAO inhibitors were mixed up for a while there?

Totally fucked up for a while, that’s one theory. I was completely out of it for two weeks.

RAK> But were you in that zone, that completely hallucinogenic DMT zone inside your head for two weeks?

DENNIS> No, no, what happened was... Well one theory is the MAO permanent disruption of MAO brain chemistry for weeks, and that’s one possibility. I’m now not so sure that that’s true. Because other people take mushrooms and ayahuasca or they synergize mushrooms with beta-carbolines and things like that any they don’t go crazy. Invariably they don’t go crazy.

I had this feeling that I had been literally smeared over creation by this experiment that we’d done. I was literally a space cadet. What was happening to me was I was experiencing this slow collapse over each 24 hour period from the edges of the universe to a concentration. So that over each period, like the first time, the first 24 period I was in the whole cosmos. And then the second one it was like the galactic cluster...

And I’ve thought about it, of course. I’ve thought about it a lot since then, and really the only model that really fits is not a biochemical model or a pharmacological model. The only model that fits is a shamanistic initiation. That’s what happened to me.

I didn’t ask for it. I wasn’t prepared for it. But that’s what happened. Because in shamanic traditions in all cultures all over the world, there is this notion of being literally torn apart and put back together - in a better way than you were before. And I feel -- and I’m not a shaman, I’m not claiming to be a shaman, I didn’t ask to be a shaman -- but I got the initiation and I do feel that ultimately it was a very integrative thing. It was a healing thing that happened to me.

RAK> Do you think that then has influenced your future career as a scientist, which is the Western shaman, in a way.

DENNIS> Oh, totally. Totally influenced my future career.

RAK> Could you then tell us a bit about the “Hoasca Project” and some of the other scientific explorations you’ve done with ayahuasca? What were the results, that the receptors of the brain were improved? The serotonin receptors?

DENNIS> In 1991 [I was] invited to a conference… that the UDV [Unaio de Vegetal, a legal ayahuasca church] had organized. And the UDV had a medical studies section at the time. Although they’re quick to deny that ayahuasca is a drug but they still had a medical health section. They were under scrutiny from the Brazilian government who was looking at their practice and wondering should they allow this? Or should we prohibit it? And what’s going on, is this harmful of not? So they wanted to do an actual biomedical study, and they wanted foreign researchers to do it.

I came away from that field trip with that idea, that we could develop a bio-medical study [that eventually showed that] the receptors of the brain were improved. Maybe we thought they would have an improved immune function, we didn’t really have any idea what it might be .

RAK> There seems to be a growing influence by science in general and Big Pharma – big pharmacological companies to engage in ‘bio-piracy’.

DENNIS> Uh, yeah, yeah. There has always been some degree of interest from Big Pharma to look into Amazonian plants for potential sources of new medicines. At one time I wanted to develop a standardized preparation of ayahuasca and file an IND in the United States and do a clinical study to look at it’s potential for the treatment of alcoholism... But then I had an epiphany a while back. The FDA is never going to approve and IND, that is, an Investigational New Drug application for a plant that, for a medicine that not only is a plant, but a plant that contains a controlled substance.

I’m still curious about ayahuasca and I still think science can tell us a lot about ayahuasca. But I have given up my pharmaceutical ambitions to turn it into a drug, or a drug that can be used clinically. I’ve gotten a strong message that… ayahuasca is a sacred thing and I don’t want the pharmaceutical industry to co-opt it. I think that those who need to find ayahuasca will find it. I think ayahuasca will find those it needs to find.

RAK> How much of you as a scientist believes that the chemical structure [of ayahuasca] can be replicated versus how much of it is the spirit of the plant, the shaman or the practioner administering the plant that is involved in the outcome?

DENNIS> Well... Um... I think that in the practice of ayahuasca a lot of it has to do with the shamanic practice and the spirit of the thing.

RAK> Apart from the science, how do you feel about the countercultural interest in ayahuasca and indigenous medicines that’s really booming at the moment globally?

DENNIS> I’m not sure how I feel about it. I think that it’s sort of inevitable. I think that in the global culture, in the world culture a great many people are spiritually bereft. I think that the conventional religious institutions and other type of institutions that have normally sustained society are now seen to be simply empty, and without meaning, or actually inimical to the survival of our species.

And I think there’s a great deal of anxiety, whether it’s expressed or not, about the global crisis that we’re in. And I think the people are turning to indigenous traditions in search of something, something more meaningful.

RAK> You wrote the recent document from 2005, “Ayahuasca and Human Destiny”, and I guess for me reading that it seemed a bit of a positive manifesto of the potentials of ayahuasca for Westerners.

DENNIS> Absolutely. I don’t think you can arrest this. I think it is a positive manifesto. The agenda that’s been manifested is not our agenda -- it’s ayahuasca’s agenda. And it works in a co-evolutionary way. I don’t believe that you can fence indigenous people in and protect them from the outside world, that’s not the right message. It’s not even possible because people are going to inevitably come down to places like this [Iquitos] and look for whatever it is they can’t find in their own traditions. There’s always been this cross-cultural fertilization. I mean, shamans have websites now, and things like that. And that’s okay, I’m okay with that.

RAK> Do you think that the West is perhaps getting what it needs? In the last 50 years or so of Western history there’s been the beatniks and marijuana, acid and the hippies in the 60s, rave culture and ecstasy in the 80s and 90s, and now in the 00’s ayahuasca is coming in? It seems that every successive generation needs to reconnect via some drug, and now it’s going back to an indigenous way?

DENNIS> In some degree I think by increments we’re learning maybe how to do it better. I think that the thing that maybe distinguishes the global interest in ayahuasca from these other movements is that they lacked a context. They lacked a tradition. The reason so many people got into trouble with psychedelics in the 60s was that there was no context. It just sort of appeared on the scene and the chief spokesman for the whole thing was Timothy Leary. And he was in some ways hardly an admirable figure. He had his own agenda, which was fame and recognition, and he’s kind of a trickster figure. But there was no context. The same with rave culture in a sense.

RAK> Your late brother Terence was quite a prominent figure in the 90s representing psychedelics in the rave scene, and he had a very positive agenda as well.

I think ultimately he had a positive agenda. I think even Timothy Leary had a positive agenda. But I think the rave culture... there was a Spanish [doco maker] here before and he said it’s really cut loose in Spain... And people go to these venues and they dance all weekend and they’re totally loaded on ecstasy all the time and it means nothing. They get nothing out of it.

RAK> The West is actually bereft of elders in an indigenous sense and we hunger for them. It doesn’t have that structural history and people like Terence became an elder of the global tribe...

DENNIS> Yeah, and really urging people, I think, to rediscover the sacred. His whole notion of the Archaic Revival was right on, in a sense. And I think that’s what you’re seeing with ayahuasca, it’s not just the substances that you have to rediscover, it’s the sacredness and the context of their use, the traditions. And so I think the interest in ayahuasca is encouraging in that people are waking up to the fact that you have to rediscover not only the substances but the context for their use and are looking to these archaic traditions where people have developed over millennia ways to relate to these plants and these substances.

RAK> It seems like a lot of the indigenous cultures are chasing the Western dream of materialism at the moment, yet at the same time in the West people are chasing the indigenous dream, so maybe it’s balancing out.

DENNIS> That’s right. And then there’s the whole other aspect of the global culture, what I call the Corporatist Fascists who basically want to control everything and want to suppress both of these things because they think that they should own the world. And that the rest of the world, that their job is to be consumers and workers and shut up and not cause trouble.

RAK> You call ayahuasca in your manifesto, “Ayahuasca and Human Destiny”, a “Holy Grail for our species”, or a potential Holy Grail for our species. Do you think it can heal the world?

DENNIS> (pauses)... I hope so, because something needs to (laughs)... I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean I think it has the potential to. But I’m a worried optimist in a sense. I think the world is in serious need of healing and in serious need of waking up. I think there are a lot of trends happening at the same time...

Some very positive trends like the global ayahuasca movement and the rediscovery of the Archaic. I think this is an encouraging thing but there are a lot of bad things happening, too, in the world. The destruction of the environment, the changes we’re making to the global climate, the unwillingness of the powers that be to even acknowledge that this is going on, let alone do something about it. The implementation of the global police state, the implementation of a state of perpetual war. I mean terrorism, c’mon! This is a smokescreen.

RAK> It’s Dominator Culture having it’s last wrestle trying to control the steering wheel.

DENNIS> Exactly. And they’re very powerful, very dangerous and very ruthless.

RAK> Does it seem sort of ironic and yet balanced again that while Dominator Culture’s trying to wrest control, the spirit of the earth or of nature is actually seeding all these things and going out again to try and regulate the human monkey out of control?

DENNIS> Yeah, well, totally. I couldn’t have said it better myself. This is exactly what it’s doing.




This has been an excerpt from a larger interview from the forthcoming "Ayahuasca Sessions" anthology featuring conversations with curanderos, shamans and Western plantworkers. It was first published in this format by High Times magazine July 2007.

Dr Dennis Mckenna will be in Australia in November speaking at the Entheogenesis Australia 2007 conference.