A Conversation with Dennis McKenna, Ph.D.
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Dennis McKenna, Ph.D.
Shamanic Medicines & Eco-Consciousness:
A Conversation with Dennis McKenna, Ph.D.
By David Jay Brown
Ethnopharmacologist Dennis Mckenna, Ph.D. is one of the world’s experts in tryptamine hallucinogens. He received his doctorate in Botanical Science in 1984 from the University of British Columbia, and was a primary organizer and key scientific collaborator for the Hoasca Project, an international biomedical study of ayahuasca. McKenna has conducted extensive ethnobotanical fieldwork in the Peruvian, Colombian, and Brazilian Amazon, has helped to develop natural products into medicines, and is the author of more than 35 scientific papers. McKenna also coauthored The Invisible Landscape with his brother Terence. To follow are excerpts from a recent interview that I did with Dennis about ecology and psychedelics, followed by an excerpt from his essay “Ayahuasca and Human Destiny.” The complete interview that I did with Dennis will appear in my forthcoming book, Renaissance of the Mind, and his complete essay, along with references, is available at:www.maps.org/news-letters –DJB
David: I’m curious about what type of relationship you see between psychedelics and ecology. Do you see psychedelics playing a role to help increase ecological awareness?
Dennis: I do. I talk about this in my essay “Ayahuasca and Human Destiny.” I think that this is probably what’s going on, and it’s not just with ayahuasca–it’s with all of these psychedelic plants that are used in shamanic traditions. Rather than use the term “entheogen,” which has one kind of connotation, or “psychedelic,” which has another connotation, I prefer the term “shamanic medicine.” The term hallucinogen doesn’t fully describe these plants either, and, in fact, it kind of misdescribes what they’re about. But I like the term “shamanic medicines.”
In a sense, these are plants that are at the core of a set of indigenous practices, having to do with deliberately inducing altered states of consciousness, in such a way that one can learn from those altered states. Whether, in fact, this actually involves supernatural realms, or some sort of super-consciousness, I don’t know, but that is really what shamanism is about. And I think that what we’re seeing in the millennia-old association between shamanic medicines, or psychedelic plants, and humans is essentially a symbiosis, a form of co-evolution.
This is nothing really that unusual in the plant kingdom. Plants and fungi make a large variety of so-called secondary molecules. There’s an enormous chemical diversity of these secondary compounds, and they’re not essential for life because they don’t occur in all species. But in the species that do make them, they serve a function–and the function that they serve is basically a messenger function. In a sense, the secondary compounds are a language for the plants. It’s the way that plants communicate with other organisms in their environments and maintain their relationships. In some cases the communication is quite simple. It can be something like a repellent, or a defensive compound. But when you’re interacting with organisms that have complex nervous systems, it gets a little more interesting, a little more complicated, and I think that bottom line on the evolutionary scale is that these plants are teachers.
This isn’t really a scientific theory. It’s more a personal belief, I suppose–but it’s one that is verifiable to an extent. These plants are trying to teach our species about nature, and about how we fit into that. In some ways, you could say it’s essentially a conduit to a community of species’ mind. Or, if you subscribe to the idea that all of the species on the planet are organized into something like a conscious being, like Gaia, then these are the tools that let us communicate directly with Gaia, directly with that consciousness. This is done for all sorts of reasons, but partly, I think, to understand both nature, and the processes that go on within it.
For example, shamans use psychedelic plants all the time to understand the properties of other plants that they may use for curing or other types of activities. So there is a library of information out there, and psychedelic plants are kind of like the operating system that lets you access that and understand it. So I think that’s part of the purpose of these things.
I think that the other part of the message–at least in my own personal experiences with psychedelics, and in many other people’s–is that Gaia, if you will, through these plants, through these substances that seem so close to our neural chemistry, is trying to tell us to wake up, to realize the context in which we inhabit this ecology, and reorder our thinking accordingly. The message is that we’re part of nature, and that we have to nurture nature. We have to be humble, and, as a species, we’re not particularly humble. And we have to understand that we don’t own nature, and nature is not there for us to exploit, deplete, and destroy. We have to rediscover a different attitude toward nature, a different way of looking at nature, and living in nature.
And I think that in indigenous cultures, where psychedelic shamanism plays a role, they don’t really have a problem with this. This is why their cultures can be sustainable, and they can live in natural ecologies for long periods of time without really depleting their resources or spoiling their habitats. I think that the message, in some ways, has gotten more desperate. Or maybe it’s our perception that it’s more desperate, as Western culture has become more estranged from nature. And a lot of very peculiar attitudes have cropped up in Western culture, that have now been propagated globally, which I think are very unhealthy and very threatening to the stability of the planet.
So if there is an intelligence resident in nature, that communicates to us through psychedelics, it’s getting a little hysterical. It’s like, hey pick up the phone and listen! There’s important information that you need to hear. So I think that’s where the connection comes with ecology, in connecting with this planetary consciousness, for a number of reasons. One of the things that psychedelics do–and this has been well elucidated through neurophysiology and neuroscience–is they activate (or perhaps in some way they suppress) those parts of the limbic system, those parts of the brain, that are involved with defining the boundaries between the self and the world. They dissolve those boundaries, and we invest a lot of time in defining who we are and what separates us from everything else out there–when, in fact, this is an illusion.
We know that we are all part of a continuum, and a model that’s closer to reality is to realize that we are all one. It’s not simply a cliché. In some ways, that’s a more accurate understanding of how we are and how we fit in the world than the idea that we’re just individual particles separated by barriers from everything else. And I think one thing that psychedelics teach, as many other spiritual traditions do, is that we’re all one, and that it’s an important lesson to learn–especially at this stage. We’re not going to save the planet, we’re not going to fundamentally change the way that we relate to nature, until we take that lesson, understand it, take it to heart, and try to express it in the way that we live and the way that we think. Psychedelics teach many lessons, but at this historical juncture I think that this may be the most important one for our culture, and for our society.
I think that back at the end of the 60s, two things did more to change our perspective as a race, as a species–of who we are and what our place in the universe is–than probably anything else previously. One of them was psychedelics. The other one was going to the moon–or, more specifically, that first photograph of the Earth from space. I think that the first time that we were able to look at ourselves, in a sense, from out there and realize what a small planet we are–what a small part of the totality our supposedly very important affairs are–was a very humbling experience. That helped to put us into perspective, or, at least, in sum they did. I really think that those two things were what sparked, or initiated, what we might call eco-consciousness.