“You can have the experience without ‘believing’ in it…”
Dennis McKenna is one of the most important contemporary researchers in the area of ethnopharmacology, a branch of science that studies the relationship between ethnicity and medicinal plants. Best known for his books written with his late-brother Terrance McKenna, Dennis is an insightful and “sober” thinker about psychedelics.
PB: Do you think the use of psychedelics should only be pursued within some kind of traditional framework?
DM: Not necessarily. I think the traditions are changing anyway because of globalization. The important thing is the direct experience. I think direct experience happens in a traditional context, or a contemporary context, or a neo-shamanic context. Whatever the specific context might be is less important than that there is a context. Setting is a big part of it, kind of a conceptual context for what is going on but I don’t think a person experiencing these psychedelics outside a shamanic context is invalid. I think the value of the experience is between the individual and the plant. It’s a direct experience, and how that is contextualized is less important. Some people may be more attracted to a shamanic ritual, and others may not want to have that kind of a context. The importance is to create a context in which these experiences can happen, but the shaman is only, in a way, the intermediary. The real teacher is the plant, or the mushroom or whatever. It’s an individual experience. People can interpret it however they want in whatever context they find satisfying.
Huston Smith warns that while these substances can occasion religious experiences they don’t necessarily provide an ultimate motivation toward ethics or some more long-term transformation.
With an experience that actually ruptures the plain of ordinary reality or normality there is a natural tendency to try, in some ways, to own that experience or create a context around it, and then get other people to buy into that context. This is a way religions get started. Experiences like this are so difficult to integrate into normal everyday life we want to, in some ways, suppress the mystery, to own it, and separate people from it. You can have a profound religious or mystical experience with psychedelics, and that alone won’t make you a saint, or a wise person. It’s what you do with the information that determines that.
Yet, religions also provide myth, ritual, and symbols, which help to contextualize spiritual experiences.
I do think these things are useful, as it’s important to have a context, but it’s less important what the specific context is. I think people spontaneously develop their own context around these things. These are not recreational experiences; they’re powerful experiences that need to be, in some ways, contained. That’s what religions tried to do, but then the interaction between the individual and the experience is somehow discouraged. You have to go through the priest because they’re the ones qualified to interpret this or you have to go to this shaman. To a certain degree I think that is important and necessary, but it’s the individual’s responsibility and ability to have experiences and have their own conclusion. I sometimes say, religion is always, or very often places a great deal of emphasis on faith; you have to have faith that it’s real, and psychedelics kind of undermine all that. You can have the experience without ‘believing’ in it, you can have the experience and can make of it what you will.
Can these substances be used for other kind of investigation other than spiritual?
I think so. They are tools to explore consciousness. They can be tools for problem solving, tools for gaining insight into the nature of the world or exploring the realm of conscious experience. They do not have to be specifically spiritual, or religious, although I do think they catalyze what we tend to call mystical experiences, some transcendent Other that the self is intimately related to, and then that becomes subject to all sorts of interpretations.
Is that why an interest in psychedelics often coincides with an emphasis on divination, magic, healing, and 2012 ideologies in such a way that it turns those things into a kind of religion?
I think this is an example of what I’m talking about. Psychedelics can trigger numinous experiences that appear to be fraught with meaning; whether they are actually meaningful is another question, but they are to the extent that we feel them to be. As a species we want to claim ownership of experiences like that, and control them; it’s a kind of reflexive cult-like behavior. People with common interests seek to find others that have these interests as well that they can share with and it does encourage a kind of cult mentality and kind of demagoguery. I suppose I am criticizing to a certain extent, but I’m not saying these are bad people, I’m just saying that’s their mindset. Maybe it’s because of my catholic background, but I’ve tended to rebel against that whole idea of control. I’ve become paradoxically even more rational in some ways, I’m kind of a rationalist, I’m really all about thinking for yourself, and I think cults invite you not to do that. And for every person in a cult who is intelligent or articulate or who is able to articulate the message, people tend to be attracted to that and say this guy, this gal or whatever, is saying what we feel. But most people are not able to express that. So they become followers.
I think the real lesson of psychedelics is, don’t be a follower – think for yourself. You can have direct experience of the transcendence. You do not have to accept what Timothy Leary or Daniel Pinchbeck or Terence McKenna or Dennis McKenna or anybody else says about these things, and the most valid approach to it is, what do you think about these things? And that’s really where I come down, the idea that the real teacher is the shamanic plants and the experiences that they make available.
With or without the shaman?
With or without. Ultimately, the experience is yours. The best shamans are simply there to provide the safe environment, hold the space – if you get into trouble, if you need a little hand holding or some healing, they can provide that, but the bottom line is you’re there to confront the experience on your own terms and on its own terms. A good psychotherapist or simply an empathetic and knowledgeable friend can supply much of that. That’s why the human relationship with these plants goes beyond any cultural context, whether it’s shamanic or whether it’s contemporary. On some level I think what we’re living out here is a co-evolutionary relationship with these plants, and this takes place over much longer time scale than any particular cultural context and is a reflection of our evolutionary journey through time. These plants have always been there to be a catalyst to indicate the next threshold in understanding. I’m not even sure we understand what’s going on or that anyone does, it just seems to be something that’s unfolded, at least for the last 100,000 years. In some ways our interactions with these things is a lot of what has made us human. And it’s an ongoing process. The plant teachers are not yet done with us!
Do you really believe that it’s really possible to have an experience that is not in some ways governed by some cultural context?
No, because we’re all immersed in some cultural context, sometimes more than one. Remember, set and setting are the key determinants of the quality of the experience. The setting is wherever you do it, the immediate environment, the circumstances; the set is your cultural condition, your previous knowledge, your expectations, who you are, your religious background – everything you bring to it is part of the set, and that is going to effect your experience. Yet, the experiences are what they are, they exist outside of any framework. but no sooner are they over that you find yourself immediately trying to interpret it, make sense of it, trying to stuff it into some kind of a box, because it’s just too much. And that box usually includes or is part of some cultural context, because hoiw could it not be? We’re all immersed in culture, like fish in water.
Have you thought over the years that despite the power of these things, it might be just a really exotic way to get stoned?
Sure. Again, this is what people will make of it, and for some people, it’s just seen as yet another exotic experience, and to other people it’s seen as the ultimate mystical experience, and other people may say, this is just a psychotic experience with no value at all. If you’re a complete rationalist or a hard bound atheist, these experiences may be as threatening as if you’re from of a religious tradition that doesn’t really recognize the value of direct mystical experience. The important thing is that the experience shatters categories in some ways. It does not ‘devalue’ the experience to say it’s just an exotic way to get stoned; for some, maybe it is. There’s nothing wrong with that. Even recreational use can be valuable, even therapeutic. Deconstruct the word: ‘recreation’ means ‘re-creation,’ implying renewal. We ‘recreate’ to recharge our batteries. If psychedelics can serve that purpose, that alone has value.
Many times I get asked, “So what have you learned from psychedelics?” Paradoxically what I learned is how little I know, that all my assumptions are open to question, all I thought I knew I have to make provisional. It makes you realize there are limitations in human knowledge, and we shouldn’t assume that we know very much, because we don’t. In some ways that’s very liberating. My training is in science, and in science it’s aright to suspend your judgment. To say, we don’t really know enough to make a statement about something until we have more data opens you up to the possibility of learning. I really think that’s one of the main benefits of it.
But because these experiences are so powerful they can easily lead to dogmatic thinking or thinking that might not be actually be able to withstand the scientific method.
Right, I think if the experience moves you to dogmatism I think you’re missing the point, you know? Psychedelic and other ‘transcendent’ experiences should, if anything, inoculate you against dogmatism. Unfortunately they don’t always do that because we have this reflexive tendency to seize control of it, defuse its numinous potency by stuffing it into some kind of conceptual or religious box. You have to have an attitude of humility and be able to say, I don’t know what the fuck is going on but it sure is interesting, you know? With respect to a lot of the research that’ going on I fully support it and I think it’s great that it can be used to to treat people with terminal cancer and things like that. A lot of the research emphasizes potential medical use, and partly that’s because that’s what can be legitimately done with the FDA.
But it often wavers from one extreme to the other; tightly controlled FDA research on the one hand and in the underground it’s often conspiracy theories where any idea or thought is permitted and critical investigation of those ideas is frowned upon.
I think that’s the other thing you have to kind of guard against when you come to the realization that we really don’t know very much. There’s a tendency to abandon your ability for critical thinking and critical evaluation of ideas. I think it’s important to keep your critical faculties open, I think skepticism is always a good place to start and at the same time be willing to acknowledge something that might come down the pipe that completely overturns your theories.
Yet, once you open up that door and go into the world of secret societies it’s very hard to contain. It’s amazing how uncontained ideas can become strangely dogmatic ideas.
Exactly. The thing is, look at the models, but not necessarily buy into them. They can be useful as interpretative tools, conceptual frameworks. But none of them are ‘true’ in any absolute sense. Even the scientific models are incomplete. And scientists who study this, if they are honest, will be the first to admit this.
Take what you need and leave the rest.
For more of my conversation with Dennis McKenna, pick up a copy of Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood
Or ask for it at your local independent bookstore