A conversation with ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna and interviewer Una Meistere: “This is the end of the world as we know it, and that is not something we should fear; it is something we should celebrate. This is a necessary transformation that we have to go through, and it’s going to be rough. First, we must wake up to what is happening. And then we must ‘wise up’. That is, we must become wise and express that wisdom in creating a new paradigm, a new understanding of our relationship to Nature and to ourselves, a relationship grounded in compassion and symbiosis, rather than competition and dominance.”
I’d like to start with the McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy, which you launched last year, and the recent “Ripples of Change: Symbiosis Symposium”, which is already the second major event you’ve organised. The first was dedicated to your late brother, Terence. It’s interesting that the core idea is that this will be a mystery school – the first psychedelic mystery school to exist in the Western world since Eleusis in Ancient Greece, which was destroyed in AD 396. Why is the idea of a mystery school important to you, and why do you think this is the right time for it?
Because there’s a need for it. In these transitional times, as we’re bringing all these different threads together, education becomes very important. It’s just an idea, really. My orientation is toward academics. I’ve been in academics for a long time, and I just recently severed my relationship with the University of Minnesota, where I taught for many years, when I moved to Canada. I just like the idea of creating a psychedelically oriented academy that’s focused on natural philosophy and, in part, psychedelics, but that’s not the whole picture.
I think psychedelics are important tools for helping us re-establish our connection to nature. That’s what’s been lost, and that’s why we’re in so much trouble – because we’ve been estranged from nature. We no longer function as a partner of nature; we approach it as though we’re the owners of nature, and we’re seeing the consequences of that. That doesn’t work, so we have to relearn how to relate with nature in a harmonious and symbiotic way.
I tend toward symbiosis because I believe in it – it’s the only thing that’s going to work. I think that the psychedelic medicines, particularly the natural ones like ayahuasca and mushrooms – sometimes I call them “ambassadors from Gaia” – are plants that are bringing an important message to our species from the entire community of sentient species on the planet.
You’ve said many times that Christianity discourages the value of nature, and now we’re seeing the consequences of that. But more often, we blame capitalism and exponential growth for our current situation and the current crisis. You say that the roots of the problem go much deeper. Do you see any way out of this? What could be the role of the academy in this process?
I don’t know, honestly. Sometimes I have optimistic days, and sometimes I don’t. As a species, we need to wake up. And we’ve known that for a long time. But we need to wake up quickly in order to make the changes. There needs to be a global transformation of consciousness and a reorientation to this enormous task that we face in terms of trying to mitigate some of the effects of climate change, which are accelerating tremendously.
Today I was reading an article in The Guardian on the release of methane from the Arctic Ocean. The methane hydrates in the Arctic Ocean are melting, releasing gigatonnes of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. People have known that this is coming as the permafrost melts – as the oceans in the Arctic heat up, they release methane. This is a very serious problem, and almost no one is talking about it except for the geophysicists, geologists and others who are studying it. It’s called “the methane time bomb”, and it could make a significant contribution to global warming over a short period of time.
There are all these things happening, but we can still step up and try to take what measures we can to slow it down, even reverse it. But none of that is going to happen until we wake up. And that’s where the catalyst of psychedelics comes in. We have to wake up to what’s happening, and not just those few people who are devoted to psychedelics.
We need a global awakening, a transformation of consciousness on a global scale and as a species – something that’s larger and more inclusive than all these geopolitical divisions. As a species, we have to take steps to re-establish this partnership with nature and to work with nature in order to heal it, because it’s badly damaged.
The feedback loops that keep the global ecosystem in balance are all strained to the max. At a certain point, the feedback loops that maintain equilibrium will be broken, and it will be impossible for them to re-establish. You reach a tipping point where feedback loops flip over from balance to reinforcing the processes that are leading to the destabilisation. I’m not a planetary scientist, but I know enough about how this is going to realise the danger.
We can make a significant difference, but we have to wake up as a species. Right now we’re so bogged down in geopolitical rivalries and nationalism… This is a challenge that we have to approach as earthlings – as inhabitants of Earth. Sometimes I analogise it with us being on a ship, on Spaceship Earth, which is sinking. It’s also on fire at the same time. And it’s being run by madmen who’ve escaped from the asylum; they’re running the show, and they don’t even know or think that anything is going on. There’s plenty of reason to be fairly pessimistic about all this, and I am.
I don’t worry too much about the survival of life on Earth. I think the biosphere is incredibly resilient, although the post-Anthropocene biosphere may look very different. Life will survive in one way or another. We, on the other hand, may not survive. And maybe that’s a good thing in the larger scheme of things. Maybe we’re like a virus on the planet, a pathogen. It seems like we’ve almost come to that space.
Today we talk a lot about the necessity for dialogue between indigenous communities and modern science. You know both sides very well. Do you think that Western science is changing and becoming more open to this kind of dialogue, or not yet?
I think in the area of psychedelics they’re opening up to it. That psychedelics are being accepted is one of the hopeful signs. They’re not stigmatised as they were before. People are recognising that psychedelics are healing medicines, that they can help a lot of people. Medicine – biomedicine, if you will, which is a very rigidified institution – is beginning to slowly, slowly open up to this idea that psychedelics do have a place in medicine. That’s a hopeful sign, but the question is: will it acknowledge its debt to the indigenous people and take steps to include them, to bring them into the conversation? Indigenous people need to be in the conversation; they’ve been the stewards of these plants and this knowledge for so long.
Historically, the pattern has been that Western science comes along, industrial capitalism comes along, and just takes these things, develops them, profits from them, and very rarely gives anything back. However, indigenous people are beginning to wake up to this, too, and they’re saying wait a minute, this is our knowledge, our secrets, our medicine. And although the world needs them more than ever, indigenous people are also empowered to say that they want to be acknowledged, they want to be recognised and participate in the process and not just be the victims, which has always been the case up to now, with rare exceptions.
I’m encouraged by some of these start-up companies that want to bring psychedelics – psilocybin seems to be at the focus – into medicine. They’re very good at giving lip service, saying they’re going to benefit indigenous people and bring them to the table. We’ll see. I think many of the people involved have good intentions. It’s not that they’re bad people, but they’re caught in this mindset of capitalism, corporatism, profits and all that, and they need to come to terms with that and realise that that’s not the most important thing. It’s an aspect of it, but it’s not the most important thing.
I’m not one of those people who say that if we all took psychedelics, then everybody would wake up and be fine. That’s simplistic. I think that psychedelics are a tool, a catalyst for many people. Psychedelics are a good catalyst for the wake-up part of it; they can wake up many people. But then the next step is the wise-up part. We need to wake up and we need to wise up. What that means is we need to become wise, and we need to do it quickly. We need to become wise in the decisions we make going forward and which might be informed by our psychedelic revelations – what we learn in the wake-up process.
Then comes the hard work. How do you take those insights and implement them in practical ways that really impact the way people live and how we envision and plan our future? That’s the difficult part, because it involves some hard decisions. People are going to have to change their lives very profoundly and very fast – just because of the fact that we’ve been ignoring this for so long and now the window is closing. It’s time for action.
Regarding Covid-19, the virus is also a living organism and therefore a part of Gaia. When the first wave hit, the indigenous communities in Brazil and Peru were very heavily affected. There were worries that the elders and their ancient knowledge would die out. But I’ve heard from my indigenous friends that they’ve figured out ways to deal with the virus – they communicate with Gaia about it. Could modern science learn anything from them instead of just rushing to be the first to create a vaccine?
Covid-19 doesn’t have any favourites. It attacks everybody, including indigenous people, who are already under all sorts of pressure from many different directions. This is just another blow to them. Hopefully some of their plant knowledge will help them to deal with it, and that may be all they have, because help is certainly not going to come from public health agencies. Especially in Brazil, which has a policy of ecocide and genocide. Under Bolsonaro, indigenous people are not regarded as human – he thinks they’re subhuman and that it’s completely OK to exterminate them.
I don’t have any delusions that what I do has much of an impact at all, but you do what you can do. I think that those of us in the psychedelic community understand that psychedelics are, in a certain way, medicines for the soul – medicines not only to heal individuals, but to heal cultures and the collective. Medicines to maybe heal the Earth itself, if enough people wake up to it. They work on the collective level and the individual level. In that sense, they’re our most valuable medicines. It’s only in the past five years or so that these things have been accepted into medicine. Even now, they’re technically prohibited in most places, although that’s changing – not fast enough, but it’s changing.
You’ve devoted the greatest part of your career to scientific ayahuasca research and have been taking it yourself for more than forty years. Have you come to understand how ayahuasca works – in all its aspects?
[Laughs] No, I don’t think so. Do I fully understand how it works? Not really. On the pharmacological level, yes. But I think that ayahuasca still has a lot to teach us, as do all of the psychedelics. These things are co-evolutionary partners; they really are symbiotic partners, and they’ve been with our species for thousands of years, potentially millions. You can make a pretty strong case that we’ve had a co-evolutionary relationship with mushrooms that goes back a couple of million years in the environment where hominids evolved. They actually played a role in the development of pre-human hominids into human beings. They were teachers; they taught us how to use our minds. They helped us create language and this sort of thing. They’re still teaching us.
There’s plenty we can learn from these things. It’s obvious from what’s happening that we haven’t internalised the lesson very well. We still have a lot to learn from these plants, even as we move to prohibit them in some places and destroy the habitats where they’re found. As you destroy the habitats, you destroy not only the plants but also where the people live. It’s a multi-pronged kind of suppression that has impacts on the societal level, the cultural level and the biological level.
We know that ayahuasca can help people, but it’s difficult to do placebo-controlled clinical trials with it. In your opinion, what are the ways in which the Western world could work with it? You mentioned in another interview that you see ayahuasca as a synthesis between psychotherapy and shamanic therapy.
I think that’s the only way they can be effectively used in medicine. Psychotherapy is essentially an older model, and I think it needs to borrow or learn from the shamanic approach without actually imitating it. I don’t think imitation works, but it can borrow certain elements from the traditional ceremonial context.
As you know, psychedelics are all about setting. I think that the traditional, clinical psychotherapeutic approach is not adequate for these substances. They require a context, and it’s important how you orchestrate the setting. Indigenous people have been doing this for thousands of years; they know how to do it. We should listen to them, we should learn from them how to use it effectively. Maybe psychotherapy has things to contribute as well…
I don’t know what to say beyond that. There’s a chance here to create a synthesis. The way psychiatry and mental health care works right now doesn’t fit into the economic model. If a person wants treatment for a mental health issue, if they’re lucky, they get to talk to a therapist for ten minutes or so. They leave the office with a prescription, usually for some SSRI that doesn’t really solve the problem. They’re expected to take it forever, or at least for a long period, and these drugs basically just paper over the problem – they don’t really cure anything.
That model doesn’t work for psychedelics. In order to effectively use psychedelics, the therapist has to spend a lot of time with the patient. And time is money in the current biomedical model. Therapists have to help them get ready for the experience, they have to be there for them while the experience or series of experiences is happening, and then they have to help them integrate what they’ve learned. That takes more than a few minutes – it takes days or months of time during which the therapist is very heavily involved with the patient. How do you make that work? How do you pay for that? The way insurance companies are structured, they’re not going to want to pay for that.
We create a situation in which, if you’re wealthy, you can afford this kind of therapy. If you’re not, you can go to more traditional venues or a retreat centre. Whether or not they’re in a foreign country, most of these retreat centres are certainly operating on the edge of the law. It’s not clear if they’re even legal. I’d like to see these centres get to a place where they can operate in the open and be available to people in the community, where they’re community-orientated.
I visualise a time when every little settlement will have a wellness centre, essentially. A lot of them already do, except they’re underground. If they could operate out in the open, you could have a wellness centre where psychedelic therapy is among the options offered and is based on natural psychedelics – mushrooms or ayahuasca or other things – not the synthetic pharmaceutical psychedelics. People who want the pharmaceuticals and can afford them, fine. But I don’t want to see people who prefer to use natural psychedelics in a more traditional setting being prosecuted while the people who want to go the other direction are permitted to do so. That’s just wrong.
One of the changes that needs to happen, and is already happening, is this decriminalisation movement that’s going on – certainly in the United States and in Canada, probably in Europe, too. None of these plants should be prohibited. We don’t have the moral authority to do that, although we have done it. We’ve assumed that authority, but that’s completely wrong. We need to say that no plant or organism is illegal. If you need regulations, the law should be about how they’re used and who uses them. Once that happens, I think a lot of these wellness centres could come into the open and start operating openly.
It’s interesting that serotonin is widely found in plants, where it functions as a defensive compound – such as in the leaves of nettles. And it’s also a major neurotransmitter in our central nervous system. Psychoactive tryptamines are potentially present in 4850 higher plant species. In some ways, this confirms the intelligence of nature, or, as you’ve often been quoted as saying, that “nature is a designer”.
Serotonin and other neurotransmitters are widely distributed in plants, as are psychedelic derivatives of these things, such as DMT. What you’re looking at are the effects of co-evolution. Because plants have photosynthesis, they create a vast variety of organic compounds; these are basically the language of plants. It’s what plants use to communicate with everything in their environment – insects, fungi, bacteria, other plants, herbivores and, of course, also us.
You can think of them as messenger molecules. Plants substitute biosynthesis for behaviour; they respond to their environment and optimise their relationships through biosynthesis, through chemistry. This is not too surprising when you realise that they’ve been using these neurotransmitter-like compounds on an ecosystemic level.
As complex nervous systems evolved, such as mammalian nervous systems, a lot of these compounds became internalised, that is, they took on an internal signal transduction function, which is basically what neurotransmitters are. They’re signal transducing molecules within the brain. That’s why it’s not too surprising that some of these plant compounds fit into the receptors that we have for serotonin and other neurotransmitters. That’s because at some point we all came from a universal common ancestor. We have a similarity in biochemistry, from the most primitive to the most advanced of organisms. And that’s basically what that’s about.
What is this place where psychedelics take us, be it ayahuasca, mushrooms, the San Pedro cactus, etc.? Where is it, exactly?
I don’t know [laughs]. One really can’t know. I don’t think it’s another place, exactly, in the sense of another dimension or whatever, although one may have that impression. I think it reveals aspects of our external reality and internal reality that are normally obscure to us, closed to us, because we live in a bubble. That bubble is called the default-mode network. I sometimes call it the “reality hallucination” – a model of reality that our brains construct in order to make the world comprehensible. It’s characterised as much by what it excludes as by what it lets in. What we dwell in most of the time is this impoverished model of reality. It’s not reality itself. We can’t really directly perceive that reality because our sensory filters and all these other filters are interposed between us and the direct apprehension of reality.
Psychedelics temporarily disable that; they can temporarily disable that default-mode network. You can then see aspects of our relationship to the external world and the internal world that are normally suppressed because they’re not relevant to immediate survival. It’s useful to have that, and the default-mode network has a tendency to persist. It re-establishes itself as the drug wears off. It falls back together, but it often does so in a way that’s more functional.
I like to analogise it to rebuilding your computer. Your computer occasionally gets to the point where there’s nothing left to do but restart it. There’s so much “sludge” from the system… I don’t know what that is from a computer standpoint, but the same thing happens with biological systems.
That’s why you get into these weird behavioural modes that you can’t get out of. They’re based on habitual but maladaptive behaviours that manifest as things like addiction, depression, trauma, etc. That’s why the psychedelics are useful for treating those sorts of things – they let you step away from all that, they let you step out of that framework temporarily. And then you can look at it dispassionately; you can see what’s wrong and what you need to change.
If you then integrate properly… meaning, what you do with the information in these revelatory states. But it’s after the trip, or after the retreat, that the real work starts. It depends on what you do with what you’ve learned. You can go on and ignore it and just have a memory of a very interesting experience that didn’t really impact your life, or you also have the choice to say you learned something very valuable here. You need to acknowledge that and change going forward. It may involve major changes, or simply more of an adjustment in thinking or outlook – a change in perspective.
I think psychedelics are valuable because they tell you that we’re all looking out on the world from some point of view, but you can change that point of view. You can make it more compatible with happiness and functionality. In that sense, these things are often called “plant teachers”. I’ve been criticised for using that term because these things are not like human teachers, but they’re elements of nature from which we learn, and that’s a teacher of a certain kind.
I like how at the end of the conference you quoted Socrates, “Wisdom begins in wonder,” and that we have to encourage wonder. Could it be said that this is the essence of your life – as well as that of your brother, Terence – in the sense that you’re continuing on the same path?
Yes, I would say so. Wonder is a good thing to cultivate, because if you look at the world, it’s wonderful and marvellous and mysterious and beautiful. It’s more than we know we can ever comprehend, but we know it’s amazing. Amidst all the darkness, worry and concern, we shouldn’t forget to be astonished and curious. Curiosity is what drives science.
The most brilliant and best scientists (and I’m not saying I’m one them; I’m just a mediocre scientist), and even the best people, are people who approach their apprehension of reality like a child. Science and trying to understand the world should be like play, it should be fun. It’s work, but you do it with joy. The scientists who do that, the scientists I admire, are the best ones. People such as Einstein approached the world in that frame of mind. Don’t be afraid to be astonished. The world is astonishing and incredible. I guess that’s my message.
Dennis McKenna is an American ethnopharmacologist, research pharmacognosist, thinker, lecturer, author and the founder of the McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy. For more than forty years, his professional research, interests and activities have focused on hallucinogenic plants as well as the quest for synergy between Western science and ancient indigenous knowledge, between science and mysticism. McKenna is convinced that the future of humanity is only possible in symbiosis with nature.
This is an abridged version of the article first appearing in @Arterritory and is used with permission.