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 grams. 

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. I've encountered occasional problems with server availability, but I recommend having a listen to one or two if you can manage to download them.

MP3 Audio re Dosage (size: 271 KB)

There are also many written transcripts of his talks available on the net, though these sometimes don't include Question and Answer sessions.


Silent Darkness

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 interfere.

MP3 Audio re Darkness (size: 276 KB)

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 madness.

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 there.

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 cannabis.

Feedback from a reader


I'm quite impressed by TM's vocabulary and witty turn of words - but there's quite a lot of what he says which doesn't sit quite right with me. [...] his comments and reasons for recommending silent mushroom trips in the dark don't seem like very good ones, to me.

He says that he wants to know what the shrooms do with silence. Not what they do to nature, or to Bach. But in my experience - sitting in a darkened room still leaves the internal dialogue, which is far from being silent.

The closest thing to silence that I've experienced has been found out in nature. It's as if silence is a property, or a force of nature, which must be allowed to pervade into the mind, in order to quieten the mind.

On one recent walk there were times when the expanse and stillness of a glen seemed quite overwhelming. It's as if, in perceiving such a vast and silent space, another space of equal size must be created inside the mind. I'm not sure if the space quietens the mind as such - but it's sheer size and stillness makes the minds continual chatter pale into insignificance. Other 'silent' experiences have been up in the hills in the Hebrides, when the wind stops for a moment, and time seems to hang motionless in the air, before deciding where it's going to go next.

TM says that if you listen to Bach, you would have no choice but to proclaim Bach as God, and he gets a laugh from the audience for saying it - but really it's not true. You would, in fact, have a choice whether you proclaimed Bach as God or not - and in making that choice, one would need quite a clear idea of exactly what it was one meant - otherwise it's just silly. Bach was a very religious man and wrote all his music for the church. As an impeccable conduit of the spirit, he may merely have been acting as a channel for intent itself - and in this sense, maybe he is God.

TM also says that the usual cause/effect flow of reality becomes disrupted - and basically, being out and about in the real world would just be too weird. And here I think he's doing what you've pointed out before - simply choosing his own preferred level of weirdness.

He says that for him, nature kind of does it without the mushrooms. But by the same token, laying in a silent dark room for a couple of hours kind of does it without the mushrooms too. The mushrooms add the extra twist though don't they?

I've often been daunted at the thought of taking mushrooms 'cos I've necessarily equated it with a 3 or 4 hour walk. Recently though, I've taken on board the possibility of taking mushrooms and just staying in, and doing the washing up, or whatever - but following the flow of whatever I feel like doing. If I wanna go for a walk, fine. If I want to get in bed and turn the lights out, fine - but there doesn't have to be an agenda. I think if you get to a stage in bed, laying there, where you're actually quite bored, it would probably be better to get up and do something else (though I know you were just experimenting with the silent dark method). My feeling is that, the body, as perception, is capable of tuning in to the subtlest cues. And responding to those cues seems to be the real challenge, or where the real experience lays.


My Response

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 problem is.

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 astonish me.

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 future point.