Trying to make sense out of these strange times? Dennis McKenna calls this global planetary transition a time of metamorphosis, and how COVID, climate change and sacred plant medicines are messengers from Gaia inspiring us to wake up.
In this conversation Dennis McKenna explores how the growing interest in psychedelics and sacred plant medicines is a highly complex double edge sword with lots of pros and cons.
In this conversation Dennis McKenna touches on:
Our symbiotic relationship with plants
How plant medicines shift our perceptual view of reality
How ayahuasca acts as a natural anti-depressant
What he’s learned from ayahuasca
The difference between ayahuasca and psilocybin
His take on the complex issue of cultural appropriation
Episode #3 of the Psychedelic Leadership Podcast Featuring Dennis McKenna on Metamorphosis, Symbiosis and the Anti-Depressant Effects of Ayahuasca
Laura Dawn: Okay. So, without any further ado, here is my intriguing conversation with Dennis McKenna. Dr. Dennis McKenna, I cannot begin to describe what an honor it is to be dropping in with you today. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Dennis McKenna: Oh, thank you Laura for inviting me.
Laura Dawn: Dennis, you have such a brilliant mind, and these are such interesting and strange times, and there’s a lot of people who are really struggling to make sense of this, what some are calling a planetary transition that we’re moving through right now. So, I just wanted to start by asking you what’s at the forefront of your mind these days? What are you tracking? What are you paying attention to? What do you think more people should be paying attention to? How are you making sense of these very strange times that we’re living in, just from a sort of larger macro perspective?
Dennis McKenna: Well, you know, I wish that I could apply this brilliant mind, as you say. First of all, it’s not as brilliant as you might think, but I’m as confused as everybody, you know, in a way I think we’re all in the same boat in a certain sense as a species of this individuals. I mean, obviously these times are very troubling. These are definitely transitional times. I mean, sometimes some people I’m just a curious monkey and just like the rest of us, I’m as confused as everybody. Maybe that’s not what people want to hear from my so-called change maker or an elder or a wise person, but I think that wisdom in part derives from having the wisdom to say, basically, I don’t know what’s going on any more than everyone else.
I have intuitions about it. I think that we’re in very critical time, historically, politically, possibly evolutionarily. I sort of fall back on one of my principle and that I live by in a certain way, and then I urge everyone else to consider, which is very simple. Anybody tells you that they haven’t figured out run the other way, but because I don’t think anyone has the answers and anyone who does claim to have the answers is probably diluted the fulfills and can propagate that delusion. I think we see a lot of that going on in the political arena and so on. I think we have to get very real with ourselves and realize that this year 2020 is a pivotal year, and in some ways it’s the year that the world, as we know it ended.
You know, my brother was always talking about the end of the world. Well, he got it wrong by about eight years, but I sometimes wonder what he would think if he were alive today. In a way I think he would be not surprised because we’ve always had this intuition that we’re coming up against a major transitional point, and it seems that the sender is falling out or maybe the right metaphor is metamorphosis. We have to go through a period of chaos and out of that, something completely different and more beautiful could emerge. You know, that’s the way life works, that’s the way evolution works, and we’re going through one of these cycles, whether we want to or not.
I think in some ways we’d all be more happy if things were normal, whatever that means, you know, and things haven’t been normal for a long time. It’s only in the last few years that it’s become clear to anyone who is honest enough to look at what’s happening and to listen to their own inner voice, that things are seriously out of kilter on many levels, on the environmental level, on the geopolitical level, you know, on a personal level, it’s just a time of chaos and transition. First of all, don’t panic. I think you have to have trust that this is a process. Secondly, we’re not in control. This is the thing I think more and more people are realizing in fact, we are not in control, but nature has been telling us for a long time.
You monkeys only think you’re running the show, and you don’t, and I think that nature, which I believe that nature is a sentient being, I’m a believer in the Gaia idea that the community of life on the planet is an intelligent, super organism. When this is not just woo-woo, New Age stuff. This is actually grounded in science, you know, there’s plenty of reasons to think that nature has been sending this message for a long time, that we’re approaching a tipping point, but we’re not listening very well. Nature is sending us more and more blunt messages to try to get us to wake up because we’re not very good at waking up. You know, so the messages are getting more and more strident. I mean, so now we have COVID.
I mean that one’s hard to ignore because everybody is involved in that, but we also have all these environmental disasters that are going on, which are clearly related to climate change. Climate change affects parameters, the expression of climate change, which is a long-term process is reflected in weather, which is a short-term process, you know, but the parameters that have contributed to these mega hurricanes, that we’re seeing. These unbelievable forest fires, the West coast, all of that, they always happen, but never with the frequency and severity that they’ve happened in the last few years and this is because of climate change. Climate change has created the situation to make all of these things much more dangerous, much more destructive.
So that’s a kind of message in a way I’m very dismayed that anyone with an objective view should be able to look at this and say, yes, there’s a real problem. To the extent that we’re able, we should try to mitigate the problem. I mean, maybe we’re not in control, but there are things we can do to help nature, and we’re so out of sync with nature that we don’t even accept that anymore, and there are people on the right side of the political spectrum and other sides that says, oh, there’s nothing happening. There’s nothing to see here, climate changes. Yeah, climate changes, it’s never changed like this, not in historical memory and really not in evolutionary memory. We have to wake up, we have to acknowledge what’s happening and do what we can, and this is also where the plant medicines come in.
I mean on the positive side, more and more people are rediscovering the plant medicines and the message that they bring to our species, which again is very simple, wake up. Wise up and recognize, first of all, that you’re not running the show and that we have to listen to the message being transmitted, which is basically that wake up and wise up much of what the challenge that we faced as a species has to do that we have become completely estranged from nature. We are separate from nature and that’s a dangerous perception to have because it’s not true. We’re part of nature, whether we want to be, or not. Nature doesn’t exist to be exploited; we don’t own it.
It doesn’t exist for our benefit, and so we have to re-understand how to partner with nature rather than separately away from it, how to reintegrate into nature and how to do what we can to help it survive because even though we are going through this tremendous period of change, you know, there are things we can do. More importantly, there are a lot of things that we cannot do that will make the situation better. So, in that sense, I see COVID, that’s a kind of a blessing. It’s forcing us to slow down. It’s forcing us to reflect on just what really is important and how do we fit in because our culture was overheating. It was going top speed, you know, with all the adverse environmental effects that, that entails. So, I think that COVID is another Gaian messenger, a messenger from Gaia, just like the plant medicine.
I think of the plant medicines as essentially ambassadors from Gaia. I think they’ve always been around, they’ve been under the stewardship and guardianship of indigenous peoples for thousands of years, but those people and those plants have always been kind of marginalized as colonialist capitalist societies took over declared that they were the owners of nature and that nature was there to dominate and subjugate, and the indigenous people are just like, well, no, but you know, who listens to us? Then all of a sudden, you know, within the last 20 years, maybe a little longer than that, these plant medicines have started to escape from their ancestral home.
Like ayahuasca has escaped from the Amazon and now has spread its message across the world, and I think, and other things like mushrooms and cannabis even, suddenly these plant medicines that were before vilified and condemned and even prohibited people are now saying, well, wait a minute, these things actually have virtues. They can actually heal us. They can heal people, and I would go so far as to say that they can heal societies. They can heal the planet if we’ll allow them to, if we’ll get that message and act on it. So that’s one of the good things at the same time, acknowledging that to reconnect with the plant medicines also creates its own set of problems. This has to be done very consciously, consciously and very carefully. For example, you know, I believe that ayahuasca is one of the greatest medicines that we have.
I think it’s capable of healing, an individual, a culture, a society, it’s a medicine for the soul and it can heal the soul on all levels, the collective and the individual, even the planet too, but the other side of it is in order to do that, I caught in an ethical quandary because like yourself, I got the calling a few years ago, that one of the best things I can be doing is bringing people to these plant medicines, you know, particularly ayahuasca. So, I’ve been involved in organizing retreats in South America, mostly, and I’ve seen incredible transformation. The people who come to my retreats, they’re not looking for thrills. They’re looking for answers for their own issues, as well as their conscious beings. They’re aware of all the issues that we face.
Yet at the same time, the ethical dilemma is look at the pressure that ayahuasca tourism puts on the indigenous communities, on the resource. ayahuasca’s now under a lot of pressure and many of these plant medicines are under a great deal of pressure. They’re being over harvested and human beings seem particularly talented in some ways at destroying the things we love the most, and that is what I think that’s what we’re facing with ayahuasca. We love it so much. We care about it so much that we’re actually depleting it from the planet. So, we on the plant medicine side and I’m not excluding myself, I’m very much including myself. We have to come to a wisdom about this and we have to find a solution. I don’t think the solution is to just stop using them because they’ve come out of nature.
They are offering themselves as a gift to the human species to help us wake up, to help us become better humans and better monkeys, better biological entities, and they’re offering themselves as they always have, but now they propagated their message on a planetary scale. If you’re going to use them on a planetary scale, then you’ve got to develop some new paradigms. You know, how can you do this and yet keep it, you know, you’re not driving these species into extinction, and so that is a problem. In that respect, I’m encouraged by the different decrim movements that are taking place in various municipalities and now, you know, legalization of plant medicines, particularly suicide is on the ballot in several States. I think this is a good development. In the first place, the very idea that we can declare any plant criminal is just absurd on the face of it. If there are any criminals in this relationship, it’s us.
You know, we have to answer for what we’ve done to destroy nature. We are the criminals, the plants are not criminals who had the authority to declare that these plants should be eradicated from the face of the earth, which was basically the agenda, the war on drugs or certain aspects of it. So, I think that the decrim movements are represent a waking up and getting away from this idea. I like to talk about the right to symbiosis. Symbiosis is a relationship between different species that can be mutually beneficial, and you see that in our relationship with plants, you know, not just medicines, but all the things we get from plants. This is an example of symbiosis plants basically just want to grow, they just want to spread.
It’s in our interest to grow and spread them because they produce things that we value, whether that may be food or medicines, we get benefits from having those plants and from growing them, and that’s basically their agenda, I think. You know, it’s not so complicated, but the decrim movements opens up the assertion about this right to symbiosis. I think that the right to symbiosis should be articulated, not as a basic human, right because it goes beyond human. That’s the very point of what symbiosis is. The alliances are with organisms that are not human and [inaudible 15:44], right. So, it shouldn’t be a basic fundamental organismic right to engage in symbiosis with any damn plant or fungus or frog or any other thing you want.
It should just be articulated as a right. So, the decrim movements, I keep wandering off onto tangents, but the decrim movements are hopeful to me in the sense that these communities should, you know, bit by bit they’re beginning to recognize that no plant, whatever planted is, no plant or fungus should be prohibited or outlawed. You know, it’s just an absurd notion and it’s emerges out of this poisoned Judeo-Christian notion that we own nature. We don’t own nature. That’s the main thing, and these things decrim movements are hopeful because if it gets going, yes, I like to bring people to South America and hold ceremonies. I like to participate with them and you know, an exotic vacation and all that, it’s all very nice, but I am cognizant of the impact that it has.
So, I think I’d like to reverse that equation so that in every community, all throughout the land, there are centers. We won’t call them psychedelic centers. Let’s call them wellness centers or health centers or something like that, where you can go and you can learn to be a better person. You can learn to be healthy, and on the menu among the services offered are psychedelic therapies, whether mushrooms or whatever, that should be part of it, but that’s not the whole thing. They’re really wellness centers, and they would be established to treat the mind, and the body of psychedelics are an important tool for doing that, but they shouldn’t necessarily be all that these centers are about, and if these centers, there are many of them already, but they’re underground, they’re basically illegal because they are using psychedelics, but with decrim these centers could come out into the light.
They could operate in the open and then you could reverse the equation. So instead of bringing people to South America, to the medicines, you can bring the medicines to the people and you can work with the indigenous groups to say, well, we’ll help with financial support or advice or whatever to help you develop and grow this resource in a sustainable way, and then you have a market for it. You know, it’s the old capitalist thing, but instead of bringing the people there with all the environmental impacts and social and cultural impacts that has, you can bring the indigenous medicines and the indigenous people to North America, and it’s a much more viable model.
Laura Dawn: Wow, Dennis, you just touched on so many important topics. There is so much to unpack there. I’d love to ask you, Dennis. I heard you say we erroneously believe that humans are running the show here on the planet, but it’s actually plants that are running the show. I’d love for you to unpack that statement. What does that really mean? Maybe you could explain our symbiotic relationship that we have with plants from a neurochemical level and how working with psychedelics and sacred plant medicines directly help us to completely shift our perceptual view of reality.
Dennis McKenna: Yeah. First of all, they do happen to make, I mean, I often emphasize to people that the language of plants is chemistry. That’s how they mediate their relationships with everything in their environment, because they are great chemists and they don’t have behavior. Plants substitute biosynthesis for behavior, and they often respond to challenges in their environment by chemical means, you know, and they make a tremendous array of these molecules that are basically messenger molecules. Some of them happen to fit into our neural receptors. You know, I mean, I think that what they do is they open up parts of our own minds, our own consciousness that was always there, but we had no way to access to it.
So, plants are not necessarily carrying the message. They’re enabling us to make the discoveries within ourselves, you know, and it seems like they’re carrying the message, and maybe in that sense they are. They’re allowing us to step out of our reference frame. This is what psychedelics do they let us step temporarily out of our reference frame and look at our existential situation from a novel perspective. That’s why they’re therapeutically so efficacious because that’s, you know, mental illness like depression, anxiety, trauma, all of these things, addictions, these are basically diseases of habit and diseases of the, you know, sort of incompatible reference frame that you build for yourself. Neuroscientists call the default mode network, right?
There’s a lot of talk about the default mode network. I had another term before that term became popular. I called it the reality hallucinations. We are all immersed in our own reality hallucination. It’s a model of reality that we inhabit. Not reality itself, it’s a model that our brains construct to make it possible, to live in reality, and a lot of what our brains do, it takes in information from the outside, through our sensory portals, right, and then it processes that information, it links it to associations and memories and all of this internal processing that goes on, and then it sort of extrudes, if you will, a model of reality, which is the movie that we create for ourselves, our own story, you know, we are the producers directors and stars of our own movie, but a lot of what the brain does in this process, it’s as much about what it excludes from reality.
There’s a process in neuroscience called neurogating. This is very important part of the default mode network, it’s about what it doesn’t allow in. You know, and Aldous Huxley talked about this in different terms years ago, he talked about the reducing valve, and the brain in a lot of ways is a reducing valve. If everything got in and you had no way to process it, you’d just be confused all the time. It would be a blooming buzzing confusion. So, the brain by creating this default mode network or this reality hallucination brings order and makes it possible to cope with it, makes it comprehensible. You can operate in this model of reality.
It’s important to remember that it is a model, it’s not reality itself that you can operate within this, but then you have to also be cognizant of what you’ve sacrificed in order to make this work, and the psychedelics give you that opportunity because they temporarily disrupt the default mode network, or they disrupt the reality hallucination, and they let you look at them from a different perspective. In a lot of ways, they, I say that what they do is they bring the background forward.
You know, indigenous people I think are less prone to this, especially if they’re not literate because for them, the background and the foreground almost doesn’t make sense. You know, their experience of reality is much more immersive, but for us in the West, particularly if we’re conditioned by literacy and there’s nothing wrong with literacy, except that it does impose this way of looking, this separation between you and what you’re observing and the psychedelics contemporarily abolish, then you realize, oh, wait, I’m not separate. Oh, wait we are all one, oh, wait, everything is one, you know, there is no separation.
Laura Dawn: I so appreciate what you’re sharing here, Dennis, and what’s really interesting to me is that there’s such a strong overlap between what you’re saying and what quantum mechanics has been discovering for many years now that we’re not actually as separate as we perceive or believe ourselves to be, and people like Tesla once said that if you want to understand the secrets to the universe, you have to understand energy and vibration and frequency. So, I am so curious your take on this. Do you think that psychedelics and plant medicines help us to sort of lift these veils of illusion so that we can peer into quote unquote the true nature of reality?
Dennis McKenna: Yeah. Yes, I do. I think that that’s what they do. I mean, some people are just naturally, you know, they have this out of the box way of looking at things and so they can look at phenomena and have insights about it that are normally close to this, but I think psychedelics also facilitate that very often for just ordinary schmucks, like us who are not necessarily genius. I like to say that you can think of psychedelics, they’re scientific instruments actually. They provide a lens through which you could look at the world and see it in a way you’ve never seen it before, and it’s not just that you’re stoned and all this bulk.
No, actually, after you come down, if you reflect on these insights that you have particularly looking at processes in nature, right if you go back in an unstoned state after you’ve had the insight and you look at a process of nature that maybe you would counter during your psychedelic experience, you can look at it and say, you know what? It’s still there. I saw it, now that I’m not stoned, I can still see it. It was always there. I just didn’t see it before. So, I think that the psychedelics are tools just like a microscope or a telescope, and this is often being said, you know, the cliche is that psychedelics are to the study of consciousness what the telescope is to astronomy as the microscope is to biology. Psychedelics are as important as all the tech that we create for probing nature. Psychedelics are a long neglected tool in that respect.
They are as powerful as any of these instruments that we might build for this purpose. It requires putting yourself in a receptive state, you know, granting yourself the time and the situation to look at what’s going on without making judgment about it, just experiencing that. There’ll be plenty of time later to make judgements about it, to try and make sense, but just open yourself. This is a different way of experiencing things, and for us, it’s very hard because for indigenous people, I think that indigenous people are more or less in this kind of state all the time. They are much more aware of the, or maybe the right word, just unaware of what separates them from the external world. You know, because there are all the time, pretty much cognizant of the fact that they’re immersed in this natural world, these natural process.
I would also say children are very much the same. You know, again, before the age of literacy, you know, I mean, literacy is a two-edged sword in a certain way because most of us are literate. Most of us grew up in a society and cultures that valued that, but in order to function in that again, this particular default mode network that you construct for yourself or this particular model of reality, you know, it’s very constraining. It discourages looking at things in a broader perspective.
You’ve always got that narrator and the storyteller that lives inside your head, that’s telling the story, and if you can just shut that down temporarily and just let the universe sort of engulf you, I guess that’s the right term without making any judgment, then you learn a lot and you learn something that’s fundamental, and when you look at it in the cold, hard light of scientific discourse, following the experience, you realize that it’s valid. I mean, you look at it and the insights are that, you know, we’re not separate from other phenomenon, we are part of it. Everything really is one, we’re an organism having our metabolism, but we’re also living within the metabolism of the Gaian organism, and it’s a valid perception.
I mean, we’re taking the long way to your original question, but this comes back to the question of plant intelligence and generally intelligence in general, built into biology, especially I personally think intelligence is built into matter at every level of organization. You know, and if you look at what we know about every level of organization, but particularly biological system, you can’t not be astonished at how much sense they make. You find these elegant solutions in nature. That doesn’t happen because somebody designed them that way. I’m not a believer in the intelligent designer idea. Nature itself is the designer and there’s not even necessarily consciousness involved.
It’s just that things occur, things fall together in a way that makes sense, and particularly in biology. So, you see the most elegant solutions showing up. It’s not like something decided one day that they were going to do this. It just emerges spontaneously, and you know why, because the ones that don’t work, they don’t make it, you know, and plants particularly, you know, I mean, people say, well are plants intelligent? Well, yes, they are. Not in the way that we’re intelligent. You know, they don’t have brains, they don’t have nervous systems, but they’re intelligent in the way that they optimize their relationships with everything else around them. You know, and if that’s not intelligence, I don’t know what is, I mean, we could do well to take a leaf, no pun intended from plants because we don’t do that.
We often do not do that. Plants have a way of just coming up with the best solutions, you know, to their particular place in space and time, and they do a lot of that through chemical processes. What’s called the biology signal transduction processes, signal transduction is, as you can tell, it’s a communication technology or phenomenon probably, but it’s a specific kind. It’s about information that is carried by molecules exchange from an originator to a target.
It involves a molecule traveling from the originator to the receptor, and of course in the brain, this is what the brain is all about, but you see the same kinds of processes going on in the ecosystem as well on a macro cosmic, macro environmental level. In fact, many of the molecules that are in our own nervous systems, the neurotransmitters, which are basically their function is signal transduction between neurons, but those same molecules occur in plants and fungi and everything else, and they may have been precursors and have a very similar function. I mean, these plant secondary compounds are the neurotransmitters something Gaian mind essentially. So yes, they have intelligence.
Laura Dawn: Yes, exactly, and it just doesn’t seem like a coincidence that at the same time, we’re witnessing crisis on so many fronts that we’re also witnessing this explosion of interest in psychedelics and sacred plant medicines, and aside from the pandemic, you know, we’re also witnessing an epidemic of depression right now, and I’d love to dive into that. We know that banisteriopsis caapi ayahuasca vine is an incredibly powerful plant teacher in its own, right. Even separate from its combination, with DMT, from the chakruna leaf or other plant add mixtures, but I’d love to dive into how ayahuasca works as a natural antidepressant.
Dennis McKenna: Okay. Well, in the case of ayahuasca and the beta-carbonlines, it’s a multifactorial picture here. It’s not simple. There are various mechanisms of action. One of them is simply that some of the beta-carbonlines particularly this one called tetrahydroharmine. There are basically three different major beta-carbonlines in ayahuasca. One of them is tetrahydroharmine, and tetrahydroharmine, the others are harmaline and harmine and there’s basically just a trace of harmaline in ayahuasca, there’s a low level, but harmine and tetrahydroharmine are the basic major beta-carbonlines in ayahuasca. They both have multiple effects on different systems. Tetrahydroharmine is an SSRI, it is a serotonin re-uptake inhibitor.
So, it has that in common with the standard pharmaceutical antidepressants, like the SSRI classes are generally, it’s not that specific, you know, and inhibits that re-uptake of serotonin and some of these other neural transmitters like norepinephrine and epinephrine, so on. So, it has that effect, but it also has a longer term neural modulatory effect, and that’s why I think it’s more efficacious as an antidepressant and what it does, this came out of the study that we did with the UDV back in the nineties, it actually increases the abundance of the transporters themselves of the serotonin transporters, you know in pharmacology it’s called up-regulation. In other words, they up-regulate the serotonin transporters so that’s like making the process of re up-taking the neurotransmitter repackage it and re-releasing it more efficient, and it’s also a longer term effect.
A SSRI effect will, you know, acutely help with depression, but this is a longer term effect, and it actually reorganizes the cortical networks in a certain way, so that essentially, they work better. When we made this discovery, when we returned the UDV study, this came up, you know, we took platelets, which is a sort of peripheral model of the central nervous system, and we ran all sorts of receptor binding assays in the lab in vitro and discovered that tetrahydroharmine in the UDV subjects, we found that they drink on the average every couple of weeks and compared to controls they have this elevated abundance, up-regulation is the best term to apply to it, of the serotonin transporters, and we thought we were just puzzled by that, but one of the questions we had when we started out this work, is there some biochemical marker or something different about ayahuasca drinkers from non-drinkers that sets them aside on the biochemical level that we can measure on a biochemical level?
It turns out we found this different and we thought, well, what does that mean? We didn’t really know, but we started to get into the literature, and we found that pathological deficits in the transporters, there were a number of papers on this. In other words, people that lacked sufficient re-uptake inhibitors whose re-uptake was down-regulated more than it should have been, had all sorts of pathologies associated with that.
Particularly depression, like major depression, alcoholism, homicidal tendencies, you know, just a number of things indicative of serious long-term mental health dysfunction, and so that was an interesting finding that we found in the literature, and then it made sense when we considered the outcomes of the subjects that we had worked with in the UDV, because they had almost all come to the UDV in a state of existential crisis, you know, life crisis, very often having to do with alcoholism, but also, you know, not just alcoholism, but alcoholism with tendencies to violence, and there’s different kinds of alcoholism.
They came to the UDV usually because a friend in the UDV urge them to come and they took ayahuasca. They have these regulatory experiences, you know, terrifying experiences, actually in a lot of cases where they saw their existential situation and they saw where they were headed, and they realize that, you know, you’re going off track here. You’re going to go down if you don’t change things. Interestingly, these experiences almost always have the redemptive aspect to it because they looked into the depths of their despair and their depression or mere trauma and their anger and all of this stuff, and then usually at some point in the proceedings, they had the regulatory vision of either Jesus Christ, you know, because these folks were Catholic or almost as often Mr. Gabriel, who was the founder of the UDV.
One guy described his experiences, he said, I was in a canoe, we were going through some rapids and I was terrified that the canoe was going to turn over, you know, and I looked ahead in the canoe in front of me, there was Mr. Gabriel standing in the bow and it was like, at that moment, I knew that I was going to be okay, and many, many people describe these kinds of experiences, you know, and they were. So, we have this neat correlation between changing behavior, right which we know ayahuasca does the insights and all that can change behavior, and we have a biochemical correlation, the modulation of the serotonin transporters.
It’s almost too neat to believe, but there it is, you know. So, the conclusion is that ayahuasca, you know, if you take it regularly it can actually reverse these biochemical deficits and rebalance the brain re-equilibrate the neurotransmitter balances in the brain. So, it does that. We also know that harmine, and I don’t know about tetrahydroharmine, but harmine also can stimulate neurogenesis. So, it stimulates nerve growth, especially in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain that trains the memory and this sort of thing. There’s a lot we still have to learn about beta-carboline pharmacology.
You know, it’s not a simple picture. Many people thought, well, they’re MAO inhibitors and they certainly are that, but they have all these other effects as well and may affect the immune system, various things through these signal transduction processes that are not necessarily neurotransmission. You know, it works on different cellular systems, this regulatory kinase called DRK1, I think it’s called and it’s involved with processes such as dementia and this sort of thing, and harmine is a very potent inhibitor of this kinase, which does seem to be one of the factors involved in neuro-degenerative processes, and this also may be related to the one reason why, you know, and back in the thirties before the current generation of anti-Parkinson drugs came along, harmine was considered a treatment for Parkinson’s and it is actually effective.
I mean, maybe not as what they use now, as L-DOPA, as you probably know, which is a precursor to dopamine and Parkinson’s is a deficit in dopamine, but harmine may reverse that process as well. So, ayahuasca unlike psilocybin or LSD or some of these other things, which, you know, I don’t diminish them. I think they’re very important medicines, but ayahuasca is mind body medicine. It works on the somatic level as much as it does on the cerebral level.
Laura Dawn: Wow.
Dennis McKenna: I don’t think these others do quite so much.
Laura Dawn: That’s a perfect segway because I was actually wanting to ask you that next, I’m really curious your perspective on the difference between psilocybin and ayahuasca and considering the fact that it feels like the conversation around cultural appropriation is much more heated around ayahuasca and that there’s major issues with sustainability and over-harvesting, and a lot of people agree that we should be consuming plants that are in our local environment. Do you think that in terms of the Western use of plant medicines for therapeutic purposes, that we should just primarily be focusing on psilocybin? What’s your take on that?
Dennis McKenna: Well, yeah, you’ve touched on again, these very complex issues about which there is no simple answer. I mean, first of all, yes. I think that psilocybin in its own way can be as effective a treatment for depression as ayahuasca. I think the mechanisms are different. You know, it has been suggested that yes, because of the cultural appropriation issues and the depleting of the resources people should just rely on mushrooms because you can grow tons of mushrooms. So, you’re not depleting it from nature and that sort of thing, and that’s fine, and I think that should be encouraged. I think that maybe psilocybin should be the major medicine as this process of integration of psychedelics into medicine proceeds because it doesn’t pose a threat.
You’re not going to deplete the resource, there’s plenty of horseshit in the world. There’s no shortage of that more and more of it every day, and psilocybin mushrooms happen to like growing on that. So, you’re not going to run out of psilocybin, and that’s a good thing. However, I think it would be a mistake to abandon ayahuasca or iboga, this is another one, or peyote, this is another one. These are plant medicines. They are very stressed, very over harvested and so on, but they are also incredible medicine. So, I think it would be a mistake to simply abandon them because we need these medicines. Now, the question of cultural appropriation, I am problems with this. I am not sure what to say about that. Even mushrooms, just because you can grow lots of mushrooms it doesn’t mean that you’re not appropriating this knowledge from other cultures.
You know, I mean, it’s just the cultural appropriation just happened earlier. It happened in the fifties and sixties, you know, when people were going to Oaxaca and so on, nobody worried about a cultural appropriation at that time and I am concerned with cultural appropriation, but I think that there’s another side to this as well. In the first place, I think that many indigenous cultures, they don’t really have a notion of ownership. These are ours, and nobody else should touch them. That’s not really built into the mindset of many indigenous cultures. Maybe it is for some, but the people that I’ve mostly interfaced with is they’re delighted that you’re interested in their medicine. You know, it’s a sign of respect that you’ve come all this distance to meet with them, to take the medicine, to learn from them, learn from their medicines.
Most people are really receptive to that. Is that cultural appropriation? Maybe. You have to be very careful because then you’re talking about possibly monetization and all of these things. It may just be part of the process. You know, I mean, we’ve always monetized spirituality. I mean, there’s nothing new about that. No, the church was handing out dispensations. You know, if you have enough money, you could pay off your sins and you could pretty much do whatever horrible things you wanted because you could always pay them off. That’s monetizing spirituality. So, I don’t think you can separate these fears, and I’m really not sure about how to deal with cultural appropriation. If it’s a real thing, I think people are very quick to say, well, this is our treasure you don’t get to have it and you shouldn’t have it. You’re not worthy of it.
I have problems like that, because for one thing it’s important to remember we’re all indigenous people. We’re indigenous to earth, right? We are earthly. Earth is an indigenous culture. It may be the only one in the galaxy, but effectively we’re all indigenous to Earth and to counter cultural appropriation. I think you can also say, well, these plant medicines, they’re too important to the survival, to the evolution of our species, to the salvation of the planet, to say that they’re off limits. You know, unfortunately they’re off limits to people like us in the West. We’re the people that are the most fucked up we’re the people that need them the most, you know, I mean we’re really damaged and we need that, but then how do you approach that? How do you get to a place where you can say, well, yeah, we respect these traditions. We want to preserve them.
We want to preserve the genetics. We want to come to some sort of place where we can say, we recognize that, you know, say to indigenous people, we recognize you’ve been the stewards of these plants, some of this wisdom for thousands and thousands of years, we respect that. We need it now, but we don’t want to just take it from you. You know, in fact we couldn’t to do it that way. Even though this has been the pattern, right? Like bio piracy and all that. That would almost invalidate what we’re doing. We need to come to some kind of collaboration, call it symbiosis if you will. Some kind of relationship where we say, you know, I mean the terminology here and all of that gets tricky, you know, because almost without intending to, I find myself, I think a lot of people find themselves falling unconsciously into this sort of patronizing patriarchal effect. Like, you know, we’re the big brothers we’ll take care of you.
You know, this poor indigenous culture that’s so fragile. They don’t want that. They’re not asking for that. You know? I mean like Wade Davis, who’s a person I respect immensely. You’re probably familiar with some of his writings. He makes the point that, you know, these other cultures, they are not failed versions of ourselves. They are fully flourishing, fully developing cultures. They don’t need us to be that, you know, and we have to find a way to respectfully relate to these cultures equal to equal and say, you have an incredible gift in these plant medicines, from the knowledge that you, you know have preserved. I’m not even saying you own the things, you know, I mean, ownership is a tricky term, but you’ve been the stewards, the guardians of this knowledge of these plans.
Now we’re at a cultural planetary crisis. We need that medicine. How can we respectfully ask you to share with us and respectfully again, say we have a few things too, can we share that with you? How can we give back to you, the indigenous person. What do you need? No, it’s not iPhones. It’s not the attractive toys that we have so much, but something more fundamental, and so this is a place where you come to Laura, where I think it’s just very tricky, and I certainly don’t have the answers, you know, I am asking the questions. This is all about what the Mckenna Academy is about. It’s about many things, but one of the biggest parts of our mission as we perceive it is establishing true reciprocity, and we have a lot to make up for when it comes to indigenous people. I mean, we basically decimated the New World.
I mean, it was the biggest genocidal event in human history, and part of it was deliberate and part of it was accidental, but it happened nonetheless. So, we have a lot to make up for, and I’m not sure how you do it. I think, you have to approach it with humility and through dialogue and actually learning to listen to each other in a really honest and receptive way, because you know, it’s very easy for a person or people or organizations outside of the indigenous cultures, you know, NGOs and this sort of thing to say, well, you know, we know what’s best for you and we want to benefit the indigenous culture and here’s the program. Here’s what we’re going to do and so on. Well, did you actually ask these people if that’s what they want? You know, and so it’s very tricky and this is one reason I very much respect ICEERS as another organization.
You know, they’re not perfect, but they’re trying to do the right thing, and, you know, judging on the last conference that we both were at they’re succeeding, but at the same time, of course, they’re making a lot more people aware of ayahuasca. That doesn’t mean that there are not solutions and there are not ways to do it, but the first thing I think is to communicate and that’s what the Academy is all about is to bring all of these, I don’t like the word stakeholders because that implies ownership, but all the different constituencies of interest, we’re all interested in survival. We’re all interested in preserving this beautiful planet to the degree that we can and the window is getting narrower and narrower every day, and we’re all interested in crossing the threshold actually, you know, beyond history, right?
I mean, history, as we know, it is ending. We have to transition into post history, some sort of host historical mode of existence. You know, we’re seeing, I mean, I think, you know, if we survive long enough, if we live long enough, we will look back. We’ll have to say, if you wanted to put a marker into the inflection point where things really began to change 2020, was it.
Laura Dawn: At the beginning of this conversation, you also mentioned that we’re at a very interesting moment in time evolutionarily. Do you think that we’re on the cusp of another evolutionary leap in consciousness? Do you think this breakdown is going to lead to breakthrough or just to break down? I’m so curious your take on that.
Dennis McKenna: Well, I think it’s one or the other, you know, I really do. I mean, this is the critical juncture that we’re at. It can’t happen without a leap in consciousness, a leap in wisdom, you know and that’s the other thing that I reminded myself of when it comes to when the discussion revolves around things like cultural appropriation and all that, that’s still an ethnocentric perspective. You have to take a broader perspective. You have to look at this in terms of co-evolution, you know, this is a co-evolutionary process that’s going on. We have co-evolved with these plants for thousands of years, and potentially they’re not done with us. We’re still co-evolving with them, but evolution plays out on much vaster timescales and cultural evolution than history itself.
These are very short and fast processes compared to coevolution you know and evolution works on much longer timescales. So, when I worry about you know, the cultural aspects and then I can step back and maybe I’m just telling myself this story to comfort myself, but I think, well, wait a minute, there’s a co-evolutionary aspect that’s going on too, and that’s totally out of our hands. You know, and maybe that is you know, that’s what’s going on, but that’s where the monkeys really aren’t running the show or anybody. There is no one thing that’s running the show. There is the force of life and evolution, and inevitably there are going to be rough spots in evolution. We know this from looking back on major events.
We know that there have been transitions in evolution where 90 percent of all life disappeared from the face of the earth. Right? Horrible. On the other hand, what did it lead to? It led to an incredible flourishing after that of diversity of life. Many phylum, you know, I mean, it was an explosion of evolution, but it plays out over hundreds of millions of years. So not a process that we can really observe. We can observe it because we look into the past and we can look at the fossil record and the geological record and say, well, yeah, this stuff did happen because we have the evidence of it. Very much harder when we’re immersed in it, you know.
I mean, this is all about being able to step out of your box conundrum, and we know it’s a very hard box to step out of and have a certain faith that the wisdom and the intelligence of the community of species of which we are apart, the community of sentient species vastly exceeds our own, you know, and we don’t have a very good picture of what’s happening on the macro level. You know, I mean, I think this is another thing that I ayahuasca and other psychedelics teach us. One of the big takeaways that I get from ayahuasca people say, well, you’ve been taking it for 30, 40 years, what did you learn, and I have to say, well, you know, what I learned is how little I know, you know, and it always reminds me of that.
Sometimes it does so gently and sometimes it hits me upside the head, but that’s a constant of the less of this to say, just remember how little you know, and you do not have this thing figured out, nobody hasn’t figured out, science does not have it figured out, religion does not have it figured out. Everybody has a little piece of the puzzle, but it’s a very small piece. We don’t know how it fits together. So that’s the other thing, if you have that perspective, then there’s no excuse to be arrogant. We need to remind ourselves, and if we don’t, the plant medicines will do it for us, that we don’t have this thing figured out. That our understanding of the totality is very, very limited and what you have to admit to yourself or what you have to come to terms with is not only do we not have it figured out, we never will have it figured out as individuals or as a species. We do not know what’s going on and so enough to make you believe in God, I suppose.
Laura Dawn: That’s just it, and I think that there’s such a strong human tendency to want to cling to the storylines around everything and to imbue meanings through the stories that we tell ourselves when really it would just be so amazing if we can all give ourselves permission to just not know and be okay in the not knowing.
Dennis McKenna: Yeah, it’s comforting, you know, and we have to accept discomfort in a way. I mean, the idea of God, you know, is, you know, it’s comforting. I mean, I don’t buy it. I’m sorry. It’s a fairy tale and fairytales are comforting, but they are not true, and the truth is a much grimmer in certain ways, but also more beautiful in a certain way. For me, God, well, the first place, you know, the term is not useful because it invites anthropomorphization. I mean, we always, you know, for example, but the common way that we think of God, if we anthropomorphize something is, you know, as a male, right? I mean, I suppose there are some cultures that think of God as a she. They’re probably closer to the mark. Many people think of ayahuasca as a she. It’s important to remember these are just projections.
This is not really the way they are, but that said, I do believe that it’s not God as something separate. I think God is the universe becoming more conscious of itself. The universe is waking up to itself, you know, and I think it’s full of compassion and love and intelligence and all of those things and consciousness, you know, these are fundamental aspects of existence, but they’re built into reality. They’re not separate from reality. There’s nobody looking over, looking down into the aquarium and making changes. That’s an old model and it’s not useful, and in fact, I mean, I personally have little use for organized religions in a certain sense because they tend to be systems that tell you that they have the answers and all you have to do is have faith, and if you accept the faith, if you have faith, then you’ll be fine.
If you accept these principles of faith, but now wait a minute, this is an invitation to stop thinking. You know, it’s like, oh, you don’t have to worry about all that. You just accept the tenants of the faith and you’ll be fine my son. Bullshit, you know, I don’t accept it. It’s a comforting fairy tale. I’d rather leave with an existential terror, not knowing if there isn’t any meaning at all in the universe than this fairy tale, because it’s very likely does not reflect reality, and it distorts the choices that we make in terms of our behavior on the planet, and our relations to other people and all that, because you know, any group of people that think they have truth figured out their natural impulse is to tell other people that they haven’t figured out and, you know, invite them to join in the delusion, and if they refuse to join the delusion well, we’ll force you to join in the delusion, and if you’d resist that, well, then we’ll kill you because you’re obviously not human, you know, you’re subhuman.
So, I think religion is possibly one of the worst inventions of the human species ever to come down the pike. That’s just my view.
Laura Dawn: I’m curious if you think that psychedelics and plant medicines are our best bet to help support this evolutionary leap in consciousness versus the alternative where humans get wiped off the face of the earth. Do you think that they’re really our strongest bet right now?
Dennis McKenna: Well, I think they’re an essential part of the solution because they are these co-evolutionary catalysts, you know, they catalyze shifts in consciousness. Individually and on the collective level they catalyzed these very necessary shifts in consciousness and I’m biased toward them, and I think they’re a big part of the answer, but I wouldn’t say they’re the only answer. I think, to assert that again, is to give into delusion in a certain way, and to give in to the very thing that we’ve been talking about, you know, to say, well, if you’re not taking psychedelics, you’re just out of it. No, I think there are many wise people and I think there are many paths and some of them don’t necessarily involve psychedelics. There are other ways of knowing. I mean, I would just leave it there.
There are other ways of knowing. I mean, I think that for many of us psychedelics have been incredible. They’ve helped us come to these realizations. So that’s very important. I’m very grateful for that. I think there are many people in the world who may not be psychedelic at all, but they have a psychedelic mindset in a certain way. Maybe they have other spiritual practices or, you know, and I’m encouraged by that. I mean, one thing that really does impress me particularly about younger people now, I mean, they’re much more intelligent, much more conscious than I was when I was their age, you know, and this symposium that we did, that’s a younger generation. These people are so lovely in terms of their genuine connection to the earth and to each other. Yeah.
Many of them are psychedelic for sure, but not all of them, and many of them are doing what they’re doing because of, you know, the insights that maybe they got from psychedelics, and now they’re taking those insights and they’re acting on it. So that goes back, you know, the psychedelics, they help us to, you know, they can give us the revelation that we need to have, but then what do you do after the psychedelic? What you do when you go home, and that’s maybe where the real work begins, you know, psychedelics are catalysts. They can help us wake up, but then it’s up to us to wise up. You know, we have to actually get wise in terms of how we change the way we live, how we think about these things. You know, we have to become more thoughtful and clear about how we move through the world and we can say, yeah, well, thank you psychedelics for sort of illuminating that path, but now we’re walking the path well, it’s not that we leave them behind.
I’m not necessarily one of these people that sometimes said, once you get the message, hang up the phone. I don’t agree with that. I mean, maybe for some people that works, but I think these are sources of inspiration and wisdom. Why would we leave them behind? I think it’s important to go back to the well once in a while and drink from the well, even if you do it rarely, it’s important to remind yourself where, you know, this wisdom came from. What permitted you to discover the wisdom that’s already within you, but you didn’t know was there. So, I think that’s the thing, and that’s what I liked about so many of these young people in that symposium, they’ve taken their insights and they’re actually doing it.
You know, they’re down in the dirt, they’re setting up these permaculture systems and they have this cosmic and global perspective, and yet on the local level, they’re setting up food systems and sustainable agriculture and all that. You know, if everybody in the world did that planet would be saved. No doubt about it, and in a much healthier way than it is. Something that bothers me though, is that if you look around in the world and you look at what’s happening, it’s very hard to get your arms around the extent of this co-evolutionary transformation that’s taking place. You know, I guess the fundamental question is, is it happening enough? Isn’t happening fast enough to enough people? We in the plant medicine world and in the environmental world, and even in the permaculture world, we’re in our own sociological bubble a certain way.
I’m afraid, I worry that most of the world doesn’t know about this, and moreover, doesn’t give a damn, and that will be the end of us if more people don’t wake up to this, and you know, there seem to be many people who not only don’t give a damn, but they’re actually very much against these ideas because it’s a threat to the way that they’re used to living, but their way of living in this going to be disrupted no matter what. Like it or not, we’re all in for a rough ride in this century, it’s going to be a wild ride and it will not be easy.
Laura Dawn: I think it’s just worth mentioning for people who are listening, that when we start talking about cultural appropriation and the monetization of medicine, and we look at how much of a double-edged sword it is that psychedelics and sacred plant medicines are starting to really enter mainstream Western culture, that we understand that these are very complex and nuanced topics. There’s no way that we can really tackle these conversations from all angles in such a short amount of time, and I think it’s worth acknowledging that there’s not a lot of easy solutions because we’re trying to find solutions within a very broken system, and I do hope that this planetary transition that we’re going through right now does allow some breakdown to happen so that we can birth new ways of living on this planet.
So, I just wanted to bring that into our field of awareness. These are tricky conversations to be having, and there aren’t necessarily a lot of easy solutions given the context of the world that we live in, but I think if we hold the intention that we stay open to conversations, we stay open-minded and that we hold the intention that we all do the best we can to at least move forward in the right direction. That that’s really the best that we can do right now. So, thank you for letting me share that piece, and so you just referenced the symbiosis symposium that you and your team put on. It was an incredible online event and people can still sign up for that and watch the replay, and I’ll include those links in the show notes, and I’d love to give you an opportunity to tell us what you’re creating with McKenna Academy of Natura Philosophy.
Dennis McKenna: You know, I mean, I named it The McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy because I wanted the areas that we explore to be very broad. You know, natural philosophy is what science emerged out of. Science evolved from natural philosophy and natural philosophy, you know, science is reductionist, it’s based on what you can measure, it’s very materialist and all that, and that’s okay, that’s its function, but in evolving from natural philosophy into science, something was lost, and what was lost was the recognition there are other ways of knowing, you know, that are not necessarily quantitative and reductionist. You know, there there’s the intuitive, there’s the spiritual, there are other ways of apprehending the world and these are no less valid, and that the scope of natural philosophy is to ponder nature, ponder ourselves, ponder the cosmos, think in creative ways about this dynamic. Understand ourselves and our place in nature. I guess if I had to summarize it one way, that’s what natural philosophy is about.
Laura Dawn: Dennis McKenna, it has been such a pleasure dropping in with you. I am so grateful for all of your life’s work. You are leaving quite the legacy behind you, and I do hope that many future generations to come will benefit from all the work that you’ve done in this lifetime. So, thank you.
Dennis McKenna: Thank you. Thank you for that. You’re very kind. Like I say, I’m just the iconic figure, but yeah, we’re doing what we can.
Laura Dawn: Well, you’re doing a lot of good work, so we appreciate it. Thank you.
Dennis McKenna: Okay. Very good to talk to you Laura.
Laura Dawn: Hi friend, if you enjoyed this episode of the psychedelic leadership podcast with Dennis McKenna, I would so appreciate it if you could share it with a friend or share it on social media, or if you feel inspired to leave us a review on iTunes or subscribe, wherever you listen to podcasts that will really help us reach a wider audience, and if we’re not yet connected on Instagram, please feel free to reach out and say hi, you can find me at livefreelaurad, and now I’m going to leave you with this song called The Story of You by Satsang. Enjoy.
Dennis McKenna is an American ethnopharmacologist, research pharmacognosist, lecturer and author. Dennis McKenna’s professional and personal interests are focused on the interdisciplinary study of ethnopharmacology and natural hallucinogens. He received his doctorate in 1984 from the University of British Columbia, where his research focused on ethnopharmacological investigations of ayahuasca and oo-koo-he, two indigenous Amazonian psychedelic medicines. He completed post-doctoral studies at the Helicon Foundation in San Diego (1984-86), the Laboratory of Clinical Pharmacology at NIMH (1986-88) and the Department of Neurology at Stanford University (1988-1990). He worked at Shaman Pharmaceuticals as Director of Ethnopharmacology from 1990-93, and relocated to Minnesota in 1993 to join the Aveda Corporation as Senior Research Pharmacognosist.
Dr. McKenna taught courses in Ethnopharmacology, Botanical Medicines and Plants in Human Affairs in the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota from 2001 to 2017. He is a founding board member of the Heffter Research Institute and serves on the advisory board of non-profit organizations in the fields of ethnobotany and botanical medicines. He was a key organizer and participant in the Hoasca Project, an international biomedical study of ayahuasca used as a sacrament by the UDV, a syncretic religious group in Brazil. He is the younger brother of Terence McKenna. From 2004 to 2008, he was the Principal Investigator on a project funded by the Stanley Medical Research Institute to investigate Amazonian ethnomedicines for the treatment of schizophrenia and cognitive deficits.
In 2017, with the collaboration of many colleagues, he organized and presented a landmark symposium, the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs: 50 years of Research. The conference commemorated the 50th anniversary of the original conference held in San Francisco in 1967. Synergetic Press published a limited edition of the Proceedings of both the 1967 and 2017 symposia as a double volume set in 2018.
In the spring of 2019, in collaboration with colleagues in Canada and the U.S., he incorporated a new non-profit, the McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy – A 21st Century Mystery School, www.mckenna.academy. He emigrated to Canada in the spring of 2019 together with his wife Sheila, and now resides in Abbotsford, B.C.
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