Psilocybin, the Mushroom, and Terence McKenna
Listen to what the mushroom says of itself in the cool night of the mind.
Illustration by the author
Illustration by the author
Psilocybin is a psychedelic tryptamine compound found in ~200 types of mushrooms worldwide. In a 1998 workshop titled “In The Valley of Novelty,” Terence McKenna called it “the phosphorylated form of DMT,” and observed that both psilocybin and DMT “particularly seem to impact the language forming portions of the brain, and this produces truly bizarre states of mind, because it's the language forming part of you that's explaining moment to moment what is going on.” For McKenna, psilocybin provided “the same confrontation with an alien intelligence and extremely bizarre translinguistic information complexes” as DMT.
The psilocybin-containing mushroom McKenna wrote about and discussed most, Stropharia cubensis (later reclassified Psilocybe cubensis), introduced itself to McKenna when he was only ten years old, in an essay titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” in the May 13, 1957 edition of LIFE magazine. Terence’s brother, Dennis, who was six years old at the time, wrote in The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss (2012) that he remembered his older brother “trailing our mother as she did her housework, waving the magazine demanding to know more. But of course she had nothing to add.”
Fourteen years later, McKenna was in the Colombian Amazon with Dennis and three friends searching for a mysterious DMT plant-preparation called oo-koo-hé. Instead, at La Chorrera, they found (and ate) Stropharia cubensis, or, as McKenna would later call it, “the starborn magic mushroom.” In True Hallucinations (1993), McKenna wrote:
I had never had psilocybin before and was amazed at the contrast with LSD, which seemed more abrasively psychoanalytic and personal. In contrast, the mushrooms seemed so full of merry elfin energy that casting off into a visionary trance was all the more enticing.
Psilocybin, McKenna discovered, allowed him to dialogue with a seemingly alien entity he called, among other names, “the mushroom,” “the teaching voice,” and “the Logos.” During the 1998 workshop mentioned above, McKenna explained:
Psilocybin and DMT invoke the Logos, although DMT is more intense and more brief in its action. This means that they work directly on the language centers, so that an important aspect of the experience is the interior dialogue. As soon as one discovers this about psilocybin and about tryptamines in general, one must decide whether or not to enter into the dialogue and to try and make sense of the incoming signal. This is what I have attempted.
McKenna brought spores of the mushroom to America and, with his brother, learned to grow it. “From the spring of 1975 onward I was not without a continual supply of Stropharia,” he wrote in True Hallucinations. That spring and summer, he ate Stropharia “at doses of five grams dried” once about every two weeks. Of these experiences he wrote:
The mushroom always returned to the theme that it was wise in the ways of evolution and sympathetic therefor to a symbiotic union with what it referred to as “the human beings.”
The McKenna brothers published their mushroom-growing guide using the pseudonyms O.T. Oss and O.N. Oeric. Also shown are audiobook/foreign editions of 'Food of the Gods' (1992).
Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide (1976)
In 1976, the McKenna brothers published a small book that provided “precise, no-fail instructions for growing and preserving the magic mushroom”—Stropharia cubensis—“not only one of the strongest of the hallucinogenic mushrooms, but also one of the most widespread and readily available.” Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide, which was about the size of a contemporary poetry-collection, began with a three-page foreword explaining that, though the methods in the book were scientific, “our opinions about Stropharia cubensis are not.” The foreword continued:
Our opinions in this matter do not rest upon the opinions of others nor upon anything written in any book, instead they rest upon the experience of five dried grams of this psilocybin mushroom; at that level a peculiar phenomenon occurs. It is the emergence of an I-Thou relationship between the person taking the psilocybin and the mental state it evokes. Jung calls this “transference” and it was a necessary condition of early and primitive humanity’s relationship to its gods and demons. The mushroom speaks, and our opinions rest upon what it tells eloquently of itself in the cool night of the mind.
The foreword then quoted the mushroom at length. The quote, which McKenna said in “The Syntax of Psychedelic Time” (1993) was “straight transcription,” and which he described as “the mushroom’s claims” in True Hallucinations—included these excerpts:
I am old, older than thought in your species, which is itself fifty times older than your history. Though I have been on earth for ages I am from the stars. My home is no one planet, for many worlds scattered through the shining disc of the galaxy have conditions which allow my spores an opportunity for life. The mushroom which you see is the part of my body given to sex thrills and sun bathing, my true body is a fine network of fibers growing through the soil. These networks may cover acres and may have far more connections than the number in a human brain.
Space, you see, is a vast ocean to those hardy life forms that have the ability to reproduce from spores, for spores are covered with the hardest organic substance known. Across the aeons of time and space drift many spore-forming life-forms in suspended animation for millions of years until contact is made with a suitable environment.
Symbiosis is a relation of mutual dependence and positive benefits for both of the species involved. Symbiotic relationships between myself and civilized forms of higher animals have been established many times and in many places throughout the long ages of my development.
A Chronology of Psilocybian Mushrooms
Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide, which by 1981 had sold “over one hundred thousand copies,” according to a later edition, concluded with a section called “A Chronology of Psilocybian Mushrooms”—a list of observations arranged into 37 dates, from 3500 BC to 1984, including:
- c. 3500 B.C. Frescoes of dancing shamans holding mushrooms in the presence of white cattle are painted on the rock surfaces of the Tassili Plateau in Southern Algeria.
- c. 1100-400 B.C. Eleusinian Mystery rites using ergotized rye (Wasson) or psilocybian mushrooms (Graves) focus the mystical aspirations of the Ancient World.
- 1502 A.D. Psilocybian mushrooms were served at the coronation feast of Moctezuma II and were used recreationally.
- 1958 Dr. Albert Hofmann, a Sandoz chemist from Basel, Switzerland, isolated two active agents and named them psilocybin and psilobin after the genus Psilocybe.
- 1975 Oss and Oeric (in this volume) bravely risked ridicule to become the first to suggest the extraterrestrial origin of Stropharia cubensis.
Stoned Ape theory
In 1992, McKenna published Food of the Gods, which, among other things, proposed the Stoned Ape theory, expanding the story of psilocybin from a temporal context of 6000 years, as outlined above, to at least ~100,000 years in terms of Stropharia and possibly more than a million years in terms of psilocybin mushrooms generally. The theory carefully, somewhat densely, and elegantly suggested that naturally occurring psychedelic compounds—specifically psilocybin—“played a decisive role in the emergence of our essential humanness, of the human characteristic of self-reflection.”
The theory observed that, at low doses, psilocybin increases visual acuity, especially edge detection. At higher doses, there’s CNS—and therefore sexual—arousal. At yet higher levels, there’s boundary dissolution leading to orgies, and there can also be a kind of glossolalia. “Our language-forming ability,” McKenna wrote, “may have become active through the mutagenic influence of hallucinogens working directly on organelles that are concerned with the processing and generation of signals.”
The Mushroom As Extraterrestrial
The idea that Stropharia did not originate on earth was proposed early in McKenna’s career, in the foreword to Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide (1976), but McKenna continued to suggest and discuss it—both playfully and in earnest, zanily and poignantly—throughout his life. “One of the reasons I like to make this argument about the mushroom and the extraterrestrial is to show people how one can see things differently,” he said, as you may recall from Terence McKenna’s Memes.
By continuing to think, talk, and write about the mushroom and the extraterrestrial—a multidisciplinary topic involving, among other subjects, evolution, nanotechnology, biology, botany, chemistry, psychology, language, narrative, the self, the other, the other inside the self, world history, science fiction, space science—McKenna further enlarged the story of psilocybin from a million years to at least a billion years, a thousand-fold increase. “I think that it is possible that certain of these compounds could be ‘seeded genes’ injected into the planetary ecology eons ago by an automated space-probe arriving here from a civilization somewhere else in the galaxy,” McKenna wrote in True Hallucinations. He elaborated:
Star-traveling species could be presumed to have a sophisticated knowledge of genetics and DNA function and therefore would not necessarily bear the form that evolution on a native planet had given them. They might well look as they wished to look. The mushroom, with its habit of living off nonliving organic matter and its cobweb-fragile underground network of ephemeral mycelium, seems an organism designed with Buddhist values of noninterference and low environmental impact in mind.
From The Archaic Revival:
The main problem with searching for extraterrestrials is to recognize them. Time is so vast and evolutionary strategies and environments so varied that the trick is to know that contact is being made at all. The Stropharia cubensis mushroom, if one can believe what it says in one of its moods, is a symbiote, and it desires ever deeper symbiosis with the human species. It achieved symbiosis with human society early by associating itself with domesticated cattle and through them human nomads. Like the plants men and women grew and the animals they husbanded, the mushroom was able to inculcate itself into the human family, so that where human genes went these other genes would be carried.
And, two paragraphs later:
One must balance these explanations. Now I shall sound as if I didn’t think the mushroom is an extraterrestrial. It may instead be what I’ve recently come to suspect—that the human soul is so alienated from us in our present culture that we treat it as an extraterrestrial. To us the most alien thing in the cosmos is the human soul. Aliens Hollywood-style could arrive on earth tomorrow and the DMT trance would remain more weird and continue to hold more promise for useful information for the human future. It is that intense.
Some Things the Mushroom Told Terence McKenna
McKenna, from 1971 until the end of his life in 2000, outlined and shared a billion years of the mushroom’s possible history to “the human beings” via books and lectures. In possibly gracious return, one could say, the mushroom allowed McKenna to engage it in a dialogue—the only condition being that he ingest five dried grams of it, preferably alone in silent darkness. “I don’t necessarily believe what the mushroom tells me; rather we have a dialogue,” McKenna wrote in The Archaic Revival. Below is a sampling of the wide range of things the mushroom told McKenna.
1. “You’re a mushroom, you live cheap.”
McKenna said in “New Maps of Hyperspace” that he once asked the mushroom “what are you doing on Earth?” The mushroom answered: "Listen, if you're a mushroom, you live cheap; besides, I'm telling you, this was a very nice neighborhood until the monkeys got out of control."
2. “If you don’t have a plan, you become part of someone else’s plan.”
3. “Nobody knows jack shit about what’s going on.”
4. “Nature loves courage.”
5. How to Save the World
In “In the Valley of Novelty,” McKenna said that someone once challenged him to ask the mushroom how to save the world. The next time McKenna was on mushrooms, he did ask, and the mushroom, “without a moment’s hesitation,” answered, “each person should parent only once.” McKenna observed:
This is an astonishing idea. This is not zero population growth, this is population falling by 50% every 20 years from here on out. If people in the high-tech, industrial democracies would limit themselves to one child, almost immediately the destruction of the Earth’s ecosystems and resources would halt. We preach population control in the third world, but the statistics show that to a woman in the first world who has a child, that child will consume between eight hundred and a thousand times more resources in the course of its lifetime than a child born in Bangladesh, or some other third world place.
6. Timewave theory
In terms of impact on McKenna’s oeuvre, this was probably the most significant of the mushroom’s teachings. McKenna elaborated on one aspect of this theory in True Hallucinations:
Times are related to each other—things happen for a reason and the reason is not a causal one. Resonance, that mysterious phenomenon in which a vibrating string seems magically to invoke a similar vibration in another string or object that is physically unconnected, suggested itself as a model for the mysterious property that related one time to another even though they may be separated by days, years, or even millennia. I became convinced that there is a wave, or a system of resonances, that conditions events on all levels. This wave is fractal and self-referential, much like many of the most interesting new curves and objects being described at the frontiers of research mathematics. This timewave is expressed throughout the universe on a number of extremely discrete levels. It causes atoms to be atoms, cells to be cells, minds to be minds, and stars to be stars.
But the mushroom did not tell McKenna everything—or even anything—he wanted to know. In “New Maps of Hyperspace,” McKenna described his relationship with the mushroom:
Sometimes it's very human. My approach to it is Hasidic. I rave at it; it raves at me. We argue about what it is going to cough up and what it isn't. I say, "Well, look, I'm the propagator, you can't hold back on me," and it says, "But if I showed you the flying saucer for five minutes, you would figure out how it works", and I say, "Well, come through." It has many manifestations. Sometimes it's like Dorothy of Oz; sometimes it's like a very Talmudic sort of pawnbroker.
Things the mushroom would not tell McKenna included what happens to human consciousness after biological death (“The Logos doesn’t want to help here”) and what it really is for itself. McKenna explained the latter in “Voice of the Mushroom”:
The scariest thing to say to it is “show me what you really are for yourself.” At that point, it just begins to come apart, and you can’t stand it. After forty seconds of that, you say, “I’m sorry I even asked.” You know, reassure me, because you have a sense, my god, this thing is what it seems to be. It’s a galactic intelligence. It’s a billion years old. It’s touched ten million worlds. It knows the history of 150,000 civilizations.
Next week’s topic is Cannabis. “My interest in Cannabis is intense and lifelong, I must say,” McKenna said in “Cannabis Trialogue” in 1991, calling it “a subject which is of interest to large numbers of people, though it’s rarely discussed and in fact seems to have gained the status of somewhat of a taboo in polite society.”
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Previously on Tao of Terence: DMT: You Cannot Imagine a Stranger Drug or a Stranger Experience
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