What Ayahuasca is trying to teach us: An Interview with Dennis McKenna

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Wake up! Wake up to your relationship to nature. Wake up to the responsibility we all have..

Dennis McKenna was already deep into psychedelics when he first tried ayahuasca in 1981. He and his brother Terence had traveled to the Colombian Amazon ten years prior in search of oo-koo-he, psychedelic beans that come from the Anadenanthera peregrine tree. Instead, they discovered a psilocybin-containing mushroom called Stropharia cubensis, launching their careers as luminaries in the psychedelic field.

McKenna returned to the region, as a graduate student at the University of British Colombia, beginning his lifelong relationship with ayahuasca—or a sacred plant teacher, as he calls it. The message of ayahuasca to humanity is a clear one, he says: “Wake up!” Wake up to your relationship to nature. Wake up to the responsibility we all have to care for the planet. And, most importantly, take action.

He’ll be speaking on this topic and others this summer at the World Ayahuasca Conference in Spain. We sat down with him for a preview.  

What is the message?

The message is basically “wake up!” You know, we’re wrecking the planet. I do think that my ayahuasca experiences and other experiences have led me to think that the Gaia concept, the idea that the earth itself is an organism and that the earth itself is intelligent, this is not new age claptrap. There’s a lot of scientific evidence to support this and I think the earth, as a whole, the biosphere, as you will, is a super organism and it reacts to situations in the environment to preserve life. That’s why the parameters that support life on the planet have existed within broad limits for 3.8 million years, because life is actively regulating that and we are threatening those because we’re pushing the envelope on so many levels. The big one is greenhouse gases. We’re emitting so many megatons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that it’s actually destabilizing because the plants, which sequester carbon dioxide, can’t keep up. And, at the same time, we’re burning the rainforest, which is an enormous carbon sink, and releasing all the carbon that’s been sequestered in that biomass for, you know, millions of years so it’s a double whammy. I think Gaia is basically speaking to us through these plant teachers, through these messenger molecules, to try to get us to wake up a little, to understand our relationship with nature and then hopefully to change our behavior in positive ways.

This message you talk about, where do you think it’s coming from?

I think it’s coming from the plants, I think it’s coming from the community of species through the plants. The plants are like the spokesmen and it’s really because they make these neurotransmitter-like molecules. You know, plants regulate pretty much all of their interactions with the environment through chemistry. This is what they do, because they’re good at photosynthesis. They’re not so good, though, at running away, because they’re stuck in one place. They can’t employ the fight or flight strategy so they have to be more subtle. So there is intelligence and intentionality, but not in the way we think of those things. I mean, the intentionality, the intelligence is reflected in the way the plants adapt to their environment through chemistry. They are very good at optimizing their environment and they do that mostly through chemical interactions, either the production of repellants and toxins, which sends the message of stay away or, more interestingly, through the production of molecules that you find in the sacred plants that actually initiate not just a symbiosis, but can communicate to a big-brained primate.

We have big brains and complex nervous systems, we don’t always use them to great advantage, but I think the plant is trying to say “use them to good advantage, think about this.” In other words, “wake up.” And if enough people do that, and enough people with the power to change things do it, then maybe we can save it.

Getting back to the World Ayahuasca Conference, what do you think the value is in the community coming together in this way?

What is the value of the community coming together like this? That should be obvious. Ayahuasca, like many of these sacred medicines, is at the center of a hub of controversy where many interwoven interests come together. Issues related to its legal status, to the preservation of species and sustainable use, to the preservation of traditional knowledge and the prevention of biopiracy and cooptation of traditional knowledge, to standards of practice for curanderos catering to a global clientele, to the recognition of ayahuasca as an important element of traditional medicine and the best way to formally acknowledge that. etc. etc. These and many similar issues need to discussed, and in some cases solutions must be sought. It’s important to discuss these issues in a global forum like the World Ayahuasca conference for several reasons. One, to make as many people as possible aware of the issues and the challenges faced by the ayahuasca community as ayahuasca ‘goes global’. Two, to put as many intelligent minds together on these challenges and their solutions. There is no better forum than the World Ayahuasca Conference for this. And three, to acquaint those outside the ayahuasca community with this medicine, its cultural and medical potential, and the threats that it and traditional practices associated with it are facing. That’s just a few of many reasons.