Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Heroic Dose and the Transcendental Other: How Terence McKenna Changed Psychedelic Culture


Terence McKenna was an American ethnobotanist, philosopher, and author who was known for his extensive work on psychedelics and their effects on human consciousness. He established the ‘heroic dose’ and his influence continues to be felt across the industry in the two decades since his passing.

Over the course of his life, Terence McKenna (1946-2000) developed a unique perspective on the role of psychedelic substances in human evolution and spirituality. Alongside other psychonauts of his generation, notably Timothy Leary, Albert Hoffmann, and McKenna’s own brother Dennis, McKenna’s work has had a profound impact on the way we think about the benefits and risks of using psychedelics including psilocybin, ayahuasca, and LSD.

McKenna grew up in a family of intellectuals, developing a curiosity about the world around him from a young age. McKenna attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied art history and shamanism, and he became fascinated with the use of psychedelic substances in spiritual and religious contexts.

“I discovered shamanism through an interest in Tibetan folk religion,” McKenna told High Times magazine in 1992. “Bon, the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, is a kind of shamanism. In going from the particular to the general with that concern, I studied shamanism as a general phenomenon. It all started out as an art historical interest in the pre-Buddhist iconography of thankas,” he said.

In the early 1970s, McKenna and his brother Dennis traveled to the Amazon rainforest to study shamanic traditions and the use of ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogenic brew made from a combination of plants containing the psychoactive DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine). Their experiences in the Amazon had a profound impact on McKenna, and he became convinced that psychedelics held a key to unlocking the mysteries of human consciousness.

McKenna held the theory that taking psychedelics was a critical human experience. Going through life without trying psychedelics is like going through life without having sex, he said.

Psychedelic research

After returning from the Amazon, McKenna began to study psychedelics in earnest. He traveled extensively throughout the world, studying the use of these substances in different cultures and contexts, and he developed a reputation as one of the foremost experts on the subject. He would later go on to co-create Botanical Dimensions, a 19-acre farm in Hawaii dedicated to propagating and protecting native plants from around the world and their folklore.

In the 1980s and 1990s, McKenna began to give public lectures and write books on the subject of psychedelics and their effects on human consciousness. He became known for his charismatic speaking style and his ability to articulate complex ideas in a way that was accessible to a wide audience.

Terence McKenna in the Amazon
Terence McKenna in the Amazon

One of McKenna’s most influential books was The Archaic Revival, published in 1991. In this book, McKenna argued that psychedelics could be used to help humanity overcome the crisis of modernity and reconnect with our spiritual and evolutionary roots. He believed that the use of psychedelics played a crucial role in the development of human consciousness throughout history and that they could be used to help us further navigate the challenges of the modern world.

McKenna also became known for his advocacy of the use of psychedelics in a controlled and responsible manner. He believed that these substances had the potential to help people overcome serious issues such as addiction, depression, and other mental health problems, but he also recognized that they could be dangerous if used improperly. He called for more research into the effects of psychedelics on the brain and advocated for the decriminalization of these substances so that they could be used for therapeutic purposes. It’s only in the last decade — more than a dozen years after his death — that his wish has come to widespread fruition.

The number of studies on psychedelics in the last decade has increased significantly; according to a 2020 review, there were 91 clinical trials investigating the therapeutic effects of psychedelic substances conducted between 2010 and 2020. These trials covered a range of substances, including psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, and ayahuasca, and investigated their potential for treating conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, and end-of-life distress. Harvard, NYU, and Johns Hopkins have all begun exploring their potential.

If the words ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ don’t include the right to experiment with your own consciousness, then the Declaration of Independence isn’t worth the hemp it was written on.

-Terence McKenna

There have also been a growing number of studies investigating the neurobiological effects of psychedelic substances, as well as their potential for enhancing creativity, spirituality, and personal growth.

The market value of psychedelic research and treatments is difficult to estimate as the field is still in its early stages and much of the research is being conducted by non-profit organizations and academic institutions rather than for-profit companies. But the global market for mental health treatment is projected to reach a value of around $240 billion by 2026, and it is likely that psychedelics will play an increasing role in this market.

According to findings published in JAMA Psychiatry last year, there are more than 50 publicly traded companies related to the development or administration of psychedelic-like drugs in the US, with at least three valued at more than $1 billion. “The market for psychedelic substances is projected to grow from $2 billion in 2020 to $10.75 billion by 2027, a growth rate that may even outpace the legal U.S. cannabis market,” the researchers noted.

Studies have also shown that psychedelics can lead to increased feelings of connectedness, spirituality, and empathy, as well as improved mood and reduced anxiety and depression — something McKenna was also convinced of and that anecdotal evidence also supports.

“I assume that anyone who has anything constructive to say about our relationship to chemical substances — natural or synthetic — is going to have a social role to play, because this drug issue is just going to loom larger and larger on the social agenda until we get some resolution of it,” McKenna told High Times. “By resolution I don’t mean suppression or just saying ‘no’,” he said. “I anticipate a new open-mindedness born of desperation on the part of the Establishment. Drugs are part of the human experience, and we have got to create a more sophisticated way of dealing with them.”

The heroic dose

McKenna talked often about what he called “the heroic dose,” which, in layman’s terms, is taking a whole lot of psilocybin. He recommended taking five grams of psilocybin mushrooms and lying in darkness and silence. He said this environment is conducive to the realization that “every man can be a Magellan in his own mind.”

A number of people have taken his advice and “the heroic dose” has become a benchmark for psychonauts. (Ethos, however, can not give you such advice, and if you are considering taking psychedelics, you should discuss it with your primary care physician first. Anyone considering taking a “heroic dose” or any psychedelic substances should do so with caution and under the guidance of a trained professional.)

best psychedelic retreats
Psilocybin mushrooms Courtesy Mushroom Tao

McKenna believed that a “heroic dose” of psilocybin could allow individuals to break through their usual patterns of thinking and experience a state of heightened consciousness that he called the “transcendental object at the end of time.” He believed that this state of consciousness was beyond language and that it could only be experienced through direct personal experience.

McKenna also believed that the “heroic dose” could be used as a tool for personal growth and transformation, allowing individuals to confront and work through deep-seated psychological issues and to gain insights into their own personality and behavior.

‘The Transcendental Other’ and human consciousness

McKenna also became well-known for his theories on extraterrestrials and their connection to mushrooms. He posited that human evolution was influenced by the use of psychedelic plants and mushrooms, which he believed allowed our ancestors to develop language, culture, and spirituality. He proposed that these plants were deliberately placed on Earth by extraterrestrial beings, whom he called the “Transcendental Other.”

According to McKenna, these extraterrestrial beings communicated with humans through the use of psilocybin mushrooms, and through these experiences, humans were able to gain knowledge and insights that were beyond the realm of normal human experience. He believed that this contact with extraterrestrial intelligence was ongoing and that it was leading humanity toward an evolutionary transition.

A young Terence McKenna
A young Terence McKenna

McKenna also proposed that the universe was a kind of “intelligent organism” that was actively evolving and that the appearance of extraterrestrial beings was a natural part of this process. He believed that the ultimate goal of this process was the creation of a “hyperdimensional realm” that would allow for the exploration of higher states of consciousness.

“Whether the mushrooms came from outer space or not, the presence of psychedelic substances in the diet of early human beings created a number of changes in our evolutionary situation,” McKenna told High Times. “When a person takes small amounts of psilocybin their visual acuity improves. They can actually see slightly better, and this means that animals allowing psilocybin into their food chain would have increased hunting success, which means increased food supply, which means increased reproductive success, which is the name of the game in evolution. It is the organism that manages to propagate itself numerically that is successful. The presence of psilocybin in the diet of early pack-hunting primates caused the individuals that were ingesting the psilocybin to have increased visual acuity. At slightly higher doses of psilocybin there is sexual arousal, erection, and everything that goes under the term arousal of the central nervous system. Again, a factor which would increase reproductive success is reinforced.”

As far as the role of the psilocybin mushroom, or its relationship to us and to intelligence, “this is something that we need to consider,” he said. “It really isn’t important that I claim that it’s an extraterrestrial, what we need is a body of people claiming this, or a body of people denying it, because what we’re talking about is the experience of the mushroom. Few people are in a position to judge its extraterrestrial potential, because few people in the orthodox sciences have ever experienced the full spectrum of psychedelic effects that are unleashed. One cannot find out whether or not there’s an extraterrestrial intelligence inside the mushroom unless one is willing to take the mushroom.”

McKenna’s influence on modern psychedelic research and treatment is visible in the widening cultural and philosophical discourse around psychedelic substances. But his theories were also controversial and were highly criticized for lacking scientific evidence. Nonetheless, as a pioneer in the category, his influence has undoubtedly contributed to the growing interest in psychedelics as well as their decriminalization and deregulation.

Terence McKenna before he died in 2000.
Terence McKenna before he died in 2000.

Conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, and treatment-resistant depression (where two or more pharmaceuticals fail to provide relief) are prime targets for psychedelic treatments.

A growing roster of elebrities have spoken openly about their relationship with psychedelics in recent years. Former NHL player Daniel Carcillo is working to treat traumatic brain injuries through his Wesana platform after his own health improved following relief found in psilocybin. NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, comedians Bill Burr, Chelsea Handler, Joe Rogan, Miley Cyrus, Harry Styles, and even Prince Harry have all been open about their psychedelic use.

The heroic death

McKenna’s influence wasn’t just related to psychedelics, they were woven into his overarching interest in consciousness as a whole.

McKenna, who died of a brain tumor in 2000, confronted his own mortality with much of the approach he applied to psychedelics.

“The psychedelics, the near-death experience, the lucid dreaming, the meditational reveries…all of these things are pieces of a puzzle about how to create a new cultural dimension that we can all live in a little more sanely than we’re living in these dimensions,” he told High Times.

“You must not be bound by the habits of history if you want to learn from your experience,” he said. “It was Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the inventor of general systems theory, who made the famous statement that ‘people are not machines, but in all situations where they are given the opportunity, they will act like machines,’ so you have to keep disturbing them, ’cause they always settle down into a routine. So, historical patterns are largely cyclical, but not entirely, there is ultimately a highest level of the pattern, which does not repeat, and that’s the part which is responsible for the advance into true novelty.”

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