The fall of 1970 was a difficult year for my brother and me. Our mother died on October 25th, at the young age of 57, after a long battle with cancer. My brother Terence had been hanging out in the jungles of Indonesia, for most of the previous year collecting butterflies, keeping a low profile and trying to avoid being noticed by Interpol. Following the hash bust in India in 1969, we assumed he was a wanted man. This may or may not have been true. Eventually he made his way to Tokyo for a stint teaching English, and thence to Victoria B.C., where I visited him that fall. It was as close as he could get to our mother, who was undergoing cancer treatment in Grand Junction, Colorado. We feared that if he tried to visit her, that he would probably have been intercepted as soon as he tried to cross the border, due to the supposed bounty on his head. It enormously complicated his attempts to see her in October. That misadventure is further described in my memoir, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss (2012).
For my part, I was living in Boulder at the time and was in the first semester of my sophomore year at the University of Colorado. I was busy studying botany and anthropology, enjoying hanging out with my girlfriend, one of the first serious loves of my life. In many ways it was a happy time for me, marred, of course, by our mother’s illness and the looming prospect of her imminent death. When it came in late October it was devastating, if not unexpected. It was traumatic for both Terence & me, made all the more so for Terence by the fact that he was unable to reach her in time.
THE CALL OF THE SECRET
Autumn of 1970 was thus a significant transitional time for both of us, and marked a change in trajectory that would determine the direction of the rest of our lives, though we did not realize it at the time. Terence and I had been exchanging correspondence over the previous two years, as regularly as possible given the limits of international mail and Terence’s ever-shifting addresses, to discuss our plans and share ideas about an expedition to South America. Like many of our contemporaries, we were both immersed in the counterculture. Psychedelics were one of our preoccupations; we felt that they must be significant in some way that went beyond the rather casual way they were being used and portrayed in the popular media of the day. Along with many of our contemporaries, our first psychedelic encounters were facilitated by LSD, in part because LSD was what was available; there was very little else. But several years prior, Terence had managed to work the Matrix to find DMT, very rare at the time, but available if you knew the right people. Our first encounters with DMT were revelations; LSD was interesting, but this… this was weirder by orders of magnitude; in fact this … DMT seemed to us to be more than ‘just another’ psychedelic. Anyone who has experienced DMT will confirm that the effects have a consistently ‘science-fictionish’ quality, replete with apparent encounters with non-human intelligences, strange machinery or other artifacts of uncertain purpose. The smoked DMT trip is like taking a fast ride on a neon-lit roller coaster through a hyperspatial cosmic carnival.
In fact, so strong was this impression that it seemed to us that it really did open a portal to some kind of transdimensional, alternate reality. Certainly at the most intense parts of the DMT experience one has the sense of being in a different place, and it’s not entirely clear that it exists only in the mind. At least that was our impression, and not being over-burdened with skepticism or reductionist preconceptions, we more or less accepted that as a working hypothesis, if ‘wild idea’ can be elevated to the status of a hypothesis.
It seemed real enough to us. And it became important to investigate this phenomenon, because if true, that a psychedelic drug could transport one to an alien dimension, it would easily be the greatest scientific discovery. It’s important to emphasize that we were quite comfortable with this notion; we were coming to psychedelics not through traditional shamanic or spiritual practices but viewed through conceptual lenses steeped in an eclectic stew of Jungian psychology, alchemy, ceremonial magic, Eastern mysticism and — most importantly — the themes and memes of science fiction. We had inherited the fondness for sci-fi from our father, long before we had ever heard of psychedelics, and it formed a sort of bedrock foundation in which these and many other conceptual constructs were loosely embedded. However loony or incomplete our understanding was at the time, the notion seemed plausible to us, and easily confirmed simply by taking DMT, which had a way of dissolving the skeptical defenses of even the most hide-bound materialist. The experience was so convincing; therefore it must be true.
that a psychedelic drug could transport one to an alien dimension, it would easily be the greatest scientific discovery.
By the time 1970 drew to a close, we had decided it was time to get serious about pursuing this investigation. Nothing else seemed more important. We were both dealing with the grief and trauma of our mother’s death, intermixed with a good dollop of guilt, as we irrationally felt that our thoughtlessness, selfishness, and insensitivity for our mother’s concerns for us had at least contributed to her early death if not caused it. And we struggled with that guilt in a way only good Catholic boys can do (even though by then we were barely Catholic, but one never escapes Catholic guilt; it is built into one’s soul).
On the political front, we were disillusioned. The late 60s and early 70s were turbulent times on a scale similar to what is happening in our own troubled era today. It seemed like politics would never yield any sort of viable solution to the challenges of the times. And although we identified with the counterculture, we never really fully bought into it; many of its memes seemed superficial and anti-intellectual and we thought of ourselves as intellectuals. These were complex times; and we were complex people, desperately seeking answers, while not really knowing what the questions were. So these were the circumstances that motivated us to drop whatever we had been doing and make preparations to leave for South America in pursuit of what we had come to call “The Secret.”
WE DEPART FOR LA CHORRERA
What The Secret was, exactly, was a murky concept. What did seem clear at the time, was that it had to do with DMT, and its potential power to force open a portal on an alien dimension at least as real as what we called ordinary reality. In any case, the vision was compelling enough that at the end of January 1971, we (along with three companions equally in thrall to the vision or delusion) found ourselves on a barge making its way down the Rio Putumayo, the first leg of our journey to La Chorrera. The events that transpired on that journey and the people and situations we encountered have been thoroughly unpacked in my book, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, and Terence’s earlier book True Hallucinations. Suffice to say that we finally reached La Chorrera, our imagined Amazonian Shangri-La, after a grueling trip, the last leg of which involved an overland trek along an old trail that had been carved through deep jungle by native slaves during the early days of the Amazonian rubber boom.
What had brought us to La Chorrera was the fact that it was the ancestral home of the Witoto people; and the Witoto shamans were using an interesting psychedelic called oo-koo-hey. Oo-koo-hey was an orally active DMT based preparation derived from a species of Virola, a genus of trees in the nutmeg family. The sap of Virola species is rich in DMT and other tryptamines and several species are utilized as snuff by various Amazonian tribes, most notably the Yanomami. There are good reasons to prepare it as a snuff, because DMT and related compounds are not orally active. Oral preparations require mixing with a monoamine oxidase inhibitor to inactivate the enzymes in the gut that degrade DMT and prevent it from being absorbed in an active form. Indeed, this is the basis of ayahuasca’s pharmacology; the ß-carboline alkaloids in Banisteriopsis are potent MAO inhibitors that protect the DMT in the brew that provides its psychedelic kick. In 1971, none of this was known, as the importance of the DMT admixtures in ayahuasca had not been fully elucidated. So when we stumbled on a paper by Richard Schultes in the Harvard Botanical Museum Leaflets, titled ‘Virola as an orally administered hallucinogen1 ,’ we were quite excited. As profound as the effects of DMT were in our bioassays using smoked DMT, one drawback was that the duration was disappointingly short, only about 20-30 minutes. So we naively thought that an oral form would metabolize more slowly and enable us to spend more time conducting a more thorough survey of this postulated other dimension. At that point we were definitely conceiving it as another dimension, not just another drug. That is what led us to make the trip to La Chorrera in search of this exotic, orally active DMT preparation, which we thought of as The Secret.
At that point we were definitely conceiving it as another dimension, not just another drug.
1 Schultes, R.E. (1969) Virola as an orally-administered hallucinogen. Harvard Botanical Museum Leaflets 22,229-240.
THE MUSHROOM TEACHER
On arrival at La Chorrera, we settled into our guest hut, kindly provided by the padre of the mission, prepared to chill out for a while while making discreet inquiries about oo-koo-hey but without attracting undue attention. And we were sorely in need of a chill after our trek through the jungle. We had been strongly admonished by an anthropologist that we encountered on the way not to alarm the locals by inquiring about oo-koo-hey; it was, after all, considered their greatest and most secret magic, so the anthropologist told us.
As it turned out, oo-koo-hey was not the Secret we had imagined we had come for. What turned out to be the real Secret quickly made itself known, in the form of an abundance of Psilocybe cubensis, the pan-tropical psychedelic mushroom. In the warm seasonal rains, robust clusters of P. cubensis sprouted from nearly every cow pie in the pastures that had been cleared around the mission. We knew what the mushrooms were because we had done our homework; but our experience of their effects was almost nil, so we had no idea of their potency or the beautiful, deep psychedelic experiences that they unlocked. At first we approached the mushrooms as a welcome distraction, something to be enjoyed recreationally while we waited for the oo-koo-hey to show up. We began consuming the mushrooms on a regular basis and often in rather high doses. They seemed friendly and non-threatening, completely non-toxic and yet potently psychedelic. The mushrooms soon made it clear that they were the real Secret, and quickly reorganized our priorities. High doses of mushrooms seemed to provide exactly the kind of access to the tryptamine dimension that we had come to explore. The oo-koo-hey that had originally called us to La Chorrera became all but forgotten as we were sucked into the bizarre, alienesque worlds revealed by what we came to call the Mushroom Teacher. (Much later, and in a different country and decade, when we finally did find oo-koo-hey,2; it proved to be disappointing. It was an interesting ethnobotanical oddity but it never managed to send us spiralling into cosmic screaming abysses as the mushrooms reliably did.)
2 McKenna DJ, Towers GHN, Abbott FS, 1984. “Monoamine oxidase inhibitors in South American hallucinogenic plants Pt. II: Constituents of orally active Myristicaceous hallucinogens.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 12:179-211.
The Mushroom Teacher was the keeper of the Secret, and it was eager to share it with us. It began downloading information, mostly channeled through me, about an experiment we could perform, a psychobiological alchemical transformation using sound that would result in a fusion of mind and matter, eventually resulting in the creation of an object, both internal and external to the body, that would function as a kind of biological Philosopher’s Stone. The instructions were basic: by imitating a sound that we could detect inside our heads on high doses of mushrooms, we could affect a resonance with our DNA, which was intercalating the tryptamines and ß-carbolines circulating within us, it would shift the DNA into a superconducting state, creating a stable standing wave that was able to access all of the individual and phylogenetic information stored in our DNA (or the DNA of the human species). Or something like that.
The Mushroom Teacher was the keeper of the Secret, and it was eager to share it with us.
The details were murky even then, and 50 years on, they are even more so. It doesn’t really matter because although we were enthralled by these seductive ideas, they were mostly nonsense. While there were elements that had some uncanny connections to biophysics and molecular biology that came to light later, by this stage we were way beyond pretending to be objective, skeptical scientists. The instructions the Mushroom Teacher imparted to us were laid down with oracular authority and were not meant to be questioned, only to be followed. And what instructions they were! Basically they were a blueprint for transforming our own bodies into an artifact composed of both matter and mind, and that would respond to telepathic commands and was capable of doing literally anything that could be imagined. This psycho-biological artifact — which we came to call the Eschaton — had much in common with other conceptions of super technologies that have long haunted the human collective imagination, such as UFOs, Time Machines, and in earlier centuries the Philosopher’s Stone or Magic Mirrors. The Eschaton was to be all of that, and much more. It was to be the ultimate technological artifact that would transcend all technologies, while ending time and history in the process. Our aspirations were as inflated as our manic delusions.
So those were our expectations, fresh from our consult with the Mushroom Teacher, as we settled into our hammocks in the early evening of March 4, 1971. We had brought in a big cluster of mushrooms from the pasture, still growing out of their cow pie; we had carefully laid out about 17 large carpophores for each of us to consume, and had prepared a decoction of Banisteriopsis vine to provide the essential additive, the ß-carbolines, the ‘secret sauce’ required to complete the reaction.
THE EXPERIMENT AND ITS AFTERMATH
What transpired during the ‘Experiment’, has been thoroughly described in both True Hallucinations and The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, so I won’t repeat it here.3; We performed the Experiment. It did not have the expected outcome, because what we had projected would happen could not possibly happen. Yet we had gone into the experiment unfazed by this inconvenient fact; in some ways the whole point of the experiment was to destabilize the structure of the continuum, so the fact of its impossibility was viewed as a minor inconvenience to be overcome. . Besides, we were by then convinced that the apparent exponential manifestation of anomalous phenomena that we were experiencing as the moment to initiate the experiment approached was evidence of a temporal shockwave, leakage from the future generated by the Experiment itself, which had not yet happened. We took this as confirmation that just ‘up ahead’ a few hours from the present, we had conducted the Experiment, and it had succeeded.
3 Those who may wish to review those descriptions can consult True Hallucinations chapter 11, the Experiment at La Chorrera, and/or Chapter 31, also called The Experiment at La Chorrera, in The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss.
So we had backed ourselves into an uncomfortable epistemological corner: the outcome we had predicted for the Experiment could not possibly happen; yet, we had ‘proof’ in the form of this echo from the future, that it had happened. Something had to give; but reality displayed a stubborn resilience in the face of our attempts to disrupt it, and what ‘gave’ was our already tenuous grasp on consensus reality. Instead of witnessing the Stone (as we were calling it then, in analogy to the Philosophers Stone) materialize dramatically as a glowing, violet disk out of a cloud of ice crystals as it plunged to absolute zero, the actual conclusion of the experiment was considerably more anticlimactic, and left us confused and questioning. And yet there were transient phenomena, such as when an image of the Earth, as seen from high orbit, appeared to form for a few seconds in the cap of the largest mushroom in front of us. Grasping at straws perhaps, we took this as a sign that something had happened, just not what we had predicted. The oracular voice of the Mushroom Teacher, which had been narrating the events all along, kept assuring us that in fact we had succeeded in condensing the Stone, but that this condensation would take place over time, not instantaneously as we had postulated.
we had ‘proof’ in the form of this echo from the future, that it had happened. Something had to give; but reality displayed a stubborn resilience
As it has turned out, the Mushroom Teacher got this part exactly right. This assurance that it would ‘take time’ proved to be, not just a few hours or days or weeks or months for the Stone to condense, but stretched over years, then decades, as we went ahead and lived our lives in the shadow of La Chorrera. The E@LC, as I’ve come to call it, was certainly a pivotal event in both of our lives. In fact, I am certain that for many years, due in part to his work on the Time Wave — the conceptual seeds of which were ‘gifted’ to Terence at LC and formed the foundation of the TW — Terence remained convinced that we had, in fact, succeeded, and that the Stone would surely manifest at anytime, but when? Terence’s manipulations of the Time Wave was an attempt to hone in on this postulated end date. After many iterations the ‘definitive’ date of December 21, 2012 was proclaimed as the date of long-anticipated condensation of the Eschaton. Conveniently enough it happened to coincide with the end of a major cycle in the Long Count Mayan Calendar. In the end, when the time came, Dec 21st 2012 came and went, and apart from the interesting planetary alignments which were built into celestial mechanics, not much else went on, despite a surfeit of wild and not so wild expectations. But on the criterion that Terence had set for the TW, it failed to deliver. No Eschaton, not even a ripple on a billion cosmic dials. Sadly, Terence had been gone for 12 years when the proof, or disproof, came in.
While the TW was and remains an interesting, quasi-mathematical construction, I doubt that it describes the underlying structure of time. What it does do, perhaps, is provide a lens or template of sorts through which various expanses of time can be viewed, and since the TW is based on resonances, could be helpful in divining the qualia, the subjective experiences of those resonances.
THE MUSHROOM’S GIFT
The other ‘gift’ that we received from the Mushroom Teacher was the most valuable of all, and it was nothing supernatural at all. It was the spores of the mushrooms, which we carefully collected and brought home with us. After a couple years of fiddling around without much success, we finally stumbled on a simple, elegant method for growing small amounts of mushrooms on sterilized rye grain in mason jars. Terence & I were both delighted at this discovery! For one thing, the violet doorway to the psilocybin hyperspace had just shimmered open. It was good to reconnect with the MT after our long abstinence since La Chorrera. We made a number of forays into the luminous realms since we had mushrooms in abundance! But we also wanted to share the knowledge of this simple technique with the world. We wanted other people to explore these dimensions (as we still thought of them) and confirm, or not, the mind-boggling things we had experienced in the bemushroomed state.
As it turned out, those familiar with the territory will confirm, there are definite similarities to our experiences at LC and later. In 1975 we published a little book, a pamphlet really, Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide, originally published by And/Or Press in Berkeley. It seemed to be just what people were waiting for. The book took off, and over time fell into the hands of many an amateur mycologist. As a result, mushrooms became much more accessible and affordable for many people, and — particularly in the post-internet era — created opportunities for people to share memes, stories, art, and effectively create a ‘psilocybin mycoculture’ a modern day mushroom cult that drew on traditional shamanic practices but also incorporated themes from science fiction, techno pop, etc.
Wider implications of our renewed co-evolutionary alliance with the mushrooms remains to be seen. Certainly it is impacting the culture, and finally is no longer exiled from medicine. The list of therapeutic benefits of psilocybin is large, well-documented, and growing. But the future is hopeful if only biomedicine can accept the changes that it will have to make to integrate psychedelic healing. The pitfalls are many, starting with corporate greed and over zealousness to cash in, and a failure to understand that effective therapeutic use of psychedelics will require a complete restructuring of therapeutic support protocols. But if those ‘minor’ hurdles can be overcome, psilocybin, especially, may be the psychedelic that opens the door on a more human, more humane, and more compassionate medicine. In the end, this may be the most profound of the Mushroom Teacher’s message to our species. If we can but do this, which amounts to nothing more than treating everyone and all beings with respect and compassion, then we will enter into a new era of human maturity and wisdom. Helping each other should become what we ‘do’. If we can apply that lesson alone, our species and the planetary community of species, and indeed our beautiful but wounded planet, will not only survive, but will thrive and flourish.
treating everyone and all beings with respect and compassion, then we will enter into a new era of human maturity and wisdom.
Join Dennis McKenna with Graham St. John, reflecting on this ineffable psychedelic landmark-event.