It's been almost half a century since Dennis McKenna (ethnopharmacologist and research pharmacognosist) and his brother Terence (philosopher, ethnobotanist and shaman) set off on a journey that would make them legends. A deep, inevitable need to find the answers to basic questions lead them to the far corners of South America and even further - to the twisted corners of the human mind. Their quest demanded not only the courage to venture into the dark paths of unexplored lands of knowledge, but also the courage to undermine social, religious and scientific beliefs of that era. The SCREAMING ABYSS that they challenged was not only a vast emptiness in human expertise but also a huge gap in experience that Western culture had. As the following decades showed, Western culture needed something to fill this gap. One sign of this is the fact that a book by Dennis and Terence has sold over 100,000 copies since its release in 1976. And also the fact that it was published under nicknames. The title of the book was Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide and it described the first reliable method of home cultivation of mushrooms that can open the human mind. Well this is our greatness - we can reach the stars without leaving home.
This shows that Dennis McKenna is not a shaman who keeps his secret cognizance for himself, but willingly shares it with others. In his memoir, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, he shares his memories about his brother and their common quest. One of the architects of the mind revolution of the 60s also shares the beliefs at the foundation of OpenBooks.com and joined our eBook revolution. That’s why he decided to support our concept by publishing his newest book on our platform.
OpenBooks.com: The title of your book contains an intriguing secret. Why and how is the brotherhood connected to an abyss? And why is the abyss screaming?
Dennis McKenna: This title has multiple origins. Partly, it’s a reminder of an abyss that was important to me and my brother when we were children: the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument, which was near the town where we grow up - Paonia, Colorado. It’s the deepest gorge in Western US, much deeper than the Grand Canyon. My family used to go there all the time; we would drive over and take a picnic lunch, and spend the day looking into the abyss from all areas. It was more than 3000 feet deep in places. The cover of the book is a picture of my brother and me gazing into that abyss, a photo taken by our mother in 1957. And the frontispiece of part 1 is another picture, taken by me in 2011. The ‘screaming’ part of the abyss harkens back to a favorite sci-fi/horror author of ours, H. P. Lovecraft. His horror stories were often about ancient aliens from beyond the stars: ‘the unspeakable, gibbering horrors from the screaming abyss’, which always appealed to us as young teenagers obsessed with science fiction. So when it was time for us to travel to South America in search of the ‘Secret’, we called ourselves ‘the brotherhood of the screaming abyss’. It was tongue in cheek, making light of our quest which we actually took very seriously. But we were Irish, and had a twisted Irish sense of humor. So although we were seeking the Ultimate Secret, it was healthy to have a bit of humor about it. And then finally, on some unconscious level I think it also refers to the DMT experience. Taking DMT is kind of like stepping off into an abyss; and if you did that, you’d scream!
What (in the early 70s and later) distinguished your attitude to experiments with substances inducing altered states of consciousness from the typical hippy or New Age approach?
We were contemptuous of the counterculture’s approach to psychedelics. It seemed very superficial to us. Once we had discovered and experienced DMT, we realized that it was more astounding than any other drug we’d ever encountered; indeed, more astounding than any other thing we had encountered! And DMT was rare in those days, almost nobody was talking about it. And it was just clear to us that Timothy Leary, the only spokesman for psychedelics in the 60s, was as baffled and clueless about the true nature of psychedelics as everyone else. Then we discovered that psychedelics were quite ancient, nothing new, and that they figured prominently in many shamanic traditions, especially in South America. So we figured that if we wanted to understand psychedelics, we had to go talk to indigenous people who knew how to use them, had been doing so for thousands of years. That was partly why we decided to set out for South America in search of the ‘Secret’. We weren’t ‘joiners’ and we weren’t interested in joining a cult, which is what the Leary-inspired social phenomenon was becoming. So we rejected that. We wanted to find out for ourselves just what was going on.
Terrence McKenna in the Amazon, 1971 (photo by S. Hartley)
What was the goal of your quest? Finding out about the nature of the human brain, or consciousness, or maybe mankind?
The short answer is we were both driven by curiosity which is the human trait that drives all science, all discovery.
We wanted to understand these ultimate questions: the nature of existence and consciousness, the place of our species in nature and the destiny of our species. My brother and I had a very similar approach to finding out about these questions. The main difference between us was that Terence was more of a philosopher and speculator; my approach was more scientific. I was interested in the ‘nuts and bolts’ of how things worked, while he was more interested in the metaphysical and philosophical side of things. These two approaches overlapped and were very complementary in many ways. Neither one of us were interested in the pat, standard ‘answers’ handed out by religion. We rejected that early on. We were big believers in thinking for ourselves and not accepting belief systems designed mostly to make people stop being curious, stop asking questions.
What circumstances, influences and predispositions shaped your attitude?
I would say just that: curiosity. It’s what drives most honest scientific inquiry. That, and DMT; it presented us with a real mystery. It seemed to be the ultimate mystery, and it was worth going after. A deep early influence from science fiction helped too. Also Jungian psychology and alchemy; both of these disciplines gave us a framework within which to understand the mysteries we were investigating.
Since that era, opinion about psychedelic substances has evolved within Western societies. What’s your opinion about the current state of the common mind?
After a long hiatus following the prohibition of most psychedelics at the end of the 60s, the door to scientific investigations and research is opening again. The potential for therapeutic uses of these substances is being recognized again. In the not very distant past, if you wanted to devote your life to researching psychedelics, your colleagues regarded you as crazy! And it was a sure way to destroy your career. The system was not set up to allow this. Now, it’s almost respectable. You no longer have to hide your head in shame if you want to work in this area. Even now there are a number of FDA approved clinical trials underway with psilocybin, to study existential anxiety in terminal patients, depression, alcoholism, even nicotine addiction. These clinical studies are showing remarkable results. Another substance, MDMA, is showing great promise for treating PTSD, especially in military veterans. There is a great need for such treatments because there are so many veterans who suffer from this, having been traumatized in combat. Many other kinds of trauma as well, such as sexual trauma. And there are no good treatments or medications that help people confront these experiences and heal from them.
Here’s a link to a recent article that gives a good description of current work with psilocybin.
Are things going in a similar way in South American countries, like Brazil or Peru?
I suppose similar things are going on in Brazil, but there most of the interest is in ayahuasca. There are several syncretic religions such as the UDV and Santo Daime that use ayahuasca in religious practices, and this has been permitted for decades. But many members of these churches are also scientists and clinicians, and are beginning to investigate its possible clinical uses.
Of course outside the context of research, in South America, especially Peru, ayahuasca is getting very popular! There is now an ‘ayahuasca tourism’ industry, where North Americans and Europeans are flocking to retreat centers in Peru in search of a traditional shamanic ayahuasca ceremony. While this has created some problems (occasional abuse of women by unscrupulous practitioners for example), all in all, this tourism is probably a healthy thing, though of course it will change the traditional practice. But young people, and many others, are disillusioned with our religious institutions and long to have a genuine, spiritually satisfying religious experience. They often don’t find it in established religious institutions; in fact, many of those religions seem very concerned with preventing that kind of experience from ever happening! So people are motivated to seek these experiences outside the context of established religion. I think this is important, and legitimate. Our Western, consumerist lifestyles are bereft of spiritual meaning; there is a huge vacuum. People go to South America to find ayahuasca to try to fill that vacuum.
Dennis and Terence McKenna
March 4, 2015, was the 44th anniversary of the “Experiment at La Chorrera”… What significant things do you know now that you didn’t know back then?
A lot can happen in 44 years, and hopefully one of these things is that we grow a little wiser. I am somewhat more cynical than I was as a young man of 20 setting out in search of the ‘Secret’. What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that one never really finds the ‘Secret’! The real secret is the quest itself; there is no final answer, only more questions. And I’m fine with that. That’s as it should be. I’m as curious and astonished by the universe in all its beauty and mystery as an old man of 64 as I was as a young man; maybe even more.
Another thing I’ve learned, if I’ve learned anything, is how little I know! How little anyone knows, really. So it’s important to bear that in mind and not get too arrogant about how much we know. The realm of the unknown will always be infinitely greater than the small realm that we do know (or think we know). Psychedelic experiences are good for that; they always remind me of how little we know. I still regard these medicines as the greatest gift of my life, still take them, and still learn from them.
I’ve also learned in 64 years that time is the most important thing we ‘have’; it’s much more valuable than money. And the paradox is that we don’t really have it; the more we grasp at it, the faster it slips away it seems. More than anything else, I’d like to have a time machine, but that is by definition impossible. The time machine, or something like it, is what we were trying to create at La Chorrera, and we demonstrated that that approach, at least, is impossible!
If you had the opportunity to change something in your past, would you? And what would it be?
Basically I’m grateful to have lived in such a marvelous universe, in such interesting times, and I don’t regret any of it. I wish that my beloved brother had lived long enough to see 2012, and to still be here to share with me the wonder and curiosity that we shared back in the day. He’s still very much with me, and with a lot of people apparently, judging by his ubiquity on the Net. He’s achieved an odd kind of immortality; he still haunts the Net, and his many talks and lectures are still as timely and interesting today as they were 20, 30, 40 years ago. If I could change anything, I would change that: his untimely passing in the prime of his life.