What is a heroic dose?
Terence McKenna is (was) arguably the most famous proponent and explorer of
altered states facilitated with the use of shamanic plants. He was
certainly one of the most articulate. Psilocybin mushrooms were among his
favourite allies. McKenna advocated taking particularly large amounts,
which he referred to as 'heroic' or 'committed' doses. He made a
compelling argument for this, suggesting that lower doses could amount to a kind
of 'psychedelic diddling' which avoided the core experience.
The argument was frequently made at his live talks and workshops, but
somewhat less frequently, or with less detail, in his written work. In
particular, after first reading about it, it took me a while to figure that what
was actually meant by 'a heroic dose' was something in the region of 5 dried
The species of mushrooms is also a factor. I assume McKenna was referring
to Psilocybe cubensis, - the most commonly cultivated species. The magic
mushrooms found in the wild in the UK and regions with similar climate are
usually Psilocybe semilanceata, these may be some 20-25% stronger than cubensis
by equivalent dried weight.
One of the reasons more detail emerges from McKenna's talks is simply that
they would often include Q&A sessions, and "How much should I
take?" was a frequently asked question.
If you want to listen to some examples, there's a huge resource of McKenna
audio at www.elftrance.com/mckenna.htm.
occasional problems with server availability, but I recommend having a listen to
one or two if you can manage to download them.
Audio re Dosage
There are also many written transcripts of his talks available on the net,
though these sometimes don't include Question and Answer sessions.
In conjunction with large doses, another preference that McKenna advocated
was a form of sensory deprivation. In other words, silent darkness, which,
he argued, allows the experience more of 'the thing in itself', with nothing to
Audio re Darkness
I happen to agree with the idea of ingesting a substantial shroom dose rather
than a piddling amount (a personal preference, perhaps I am a bit hard-headed).
But I have to say, having also tried this 'silent darkness' method; I'm not yet
convinced that this is much more preferable to, say, being out in nature.
As it happens, the silent darkness experience was the initial rationale
behind my first ingestion of 200 mushrooms, - as reported in the account
'a committed dose' >
McKenna made little distinction between high doses of mushrooms and his DMT
descriptions, so I was at that time hoping to meet the 'self-transforming
machine elves'. I got frustrated with how much this felt like a hard graft
and how it wasn't really working. I pretty much gave up on it then with a
looping internal dialogue going on in my head, arguing with an imaginary Terence
McKenna, angry at him for talking so much rubbish, before it all petered out and
I somehow fell asleep.
The 200 mushroom experience as described was from the point of waking up
again, not knowing who I was or what had happened, except that I'd gone insane,
and that this insanity was an impossibly tightening spiral into ever increasing
Subsequent attempts at 'silent darkness' have also failed to produce great
results. After a couple of times feeling too restless to stick at it, my
feeling was that mushrooms produce too great a physical response for me to be
simply lying in the dark.
I've since listened to more of McKenna's talks. From some of these the
fact emerges that McKenna's much vaunted heroic mushroom doses were actually
combined with significant amounts of cannabis. McKenna was rather
habituated to cannabis, which may be why he neglected to always mention such
detail, but anyway, it suggests that he could have been talking more about a
synergy than a pure mushroom experience. At the very least I suspect that
cannabis would have a mediating effect on anxiety levels and thus make the
silent darkness approach more favourable and beneficial.
Mediation with herbal sleeping tablets
With the above in mind and as a further experiment I have tried 6g of dried
psilocybe semilanceata in combination with 4 herbal nytol tablets. In
other words, using the tablets as a mediator against restlessness.
The resulting experience was remarkably unremarkable.
It's always difficult to unravel these things when trying to think of the
causes. I think there were a number of factors, some psychological, some
physical, which makes the situation complicated.
On the physical side, I think the nytol tablets had a 'flattening' effect,
reducing the intensity of the over all experience rather than just reducing the
anxiety and restless aspects. Cannabis, as McKenna used, would probably be a
better thing to combine, having at least some visionary capacity.
Saying that, obviously there were some effects, and since these are
centred on the self and in the mind, one can't help reflecting on it. So
lying in the dark I was trying this and that approach. For example,
suspending my disbelief and being open to suggestion, I thought I would try and
vision some of the remarkable architecture and futuristic detritus that McKenna
reported. This seemed to work to some extent. I caught the suggested
outlines of fantastic geometric shapes and impossible machines, but they seemed
rather faint and elusive. I had a go at doing this for a while, but
couldn't help wondering if the visions were not anything more than just a little
bit more intense than some of the weak ones I thought I might be having when
taking part in drumming exercises on a shamanism class. Part of me thought
"perhaps it's me", i.e. a failing on my part, doing it wrong. But then
I remembered a thing that I found particularly compelling that McKenna said
about the experience, that "it was REAL", that one was not being asked
to "lower one's voice" or "avert one's gaze". It didn't
demand that because it was REAL. He also said that it could in no way be
considered boring, if you'd perhaps tried meditating and were worried that
silent darkness might be a bit boring. So if I was lying there for the best part
of an hour (after leaving a full hour before trying this) i.e. it should have
been coming on real strong, and I could honestly say that I found it rather
boring, or even only slightly boring, well, there was something wrong
Like I say, it was a bit of an experiment, and the sleeping tablets could
have had a great flattening effect, so perhaps I should just say that the jury
is still out on the 'silent darkness' approach. I've yet to try it with
Feedback from a reader
Yes, the continual chatter; that's a thing. As I was lying in the dark
thinking "this is rather boring" I realised that thought was part of
my internal dialogue. I could see this going a certain way. The feeling that it
was my problem or my fault if you like, that I was doing it wrong. You know,
like, under the auspices of entertaining any notion, not ruling anything out, a
proposition pops up, maybe I'm rather boring, perhaps that what the
Mushrooms seem to allow the possibility of turning on oneself in this way,
not doing much in themselves to help stop it, maybe even encouraging it. The
phenomena of them 'not doing very much' was an issue that I remembered from
previous occasions too. So, though the issue was this time complicated by the
ingestion of the herbal sleeping tablets, I was suspicious that the shrooms
would again facilitate a subsequent pulling apart of self. I think it's largely
because I've had enough of that nonsense in the past, that I dismissed, or at
least resisted, the notion this time around.
In fact, at this mid-stage in the trip I was quite tempted to take Salvia
on top of the mushrooms, feeling that it would enable me to break out from the
orbit round my own self centre of gravity. But since I expected a good few hours
to go yet, I gave the shrooms the benefit of the doubt, and more time. However,
as already suggested, as it turned out, they failed to really surprise or
I agree with you about some of the things TM said not sitting quite right.
Our experiences don't square with the notion of nature interfering with or
diminishing the intensity of what's going on. McKenna might have conceded this
point about intensity, but argued more from the point of view of
'strangeness'. - A stream running through the forest being beautiful and all,
but still grounding one in ordinary reality. But I'd pit some of my extreme
outdoor experiences, for example, being pulled backward in time by a force that
took control of my body, or having inter-species communication with a dolphin
that emerged from the swirl and surge of seaweed and sea, as being among the
weirdest I could wish for.
TM's point about listening to Bach and thinking he was God does touch upon a
danger when exploring altered states though, namely, that of coming back and
thinking that you've found the answer, the way to go. Yet perhaps
he fell into that trap himself if he thought the 'silent darkness' approach was
undoubtedly the best of all methods.
That's not to say he didn't come back with some eloquent and compelling
descriptions, or that it might not be worth trying his approach again at some