The Experiment at La Chorrera
The story of Terence and Dennis McKenna in contemporary mass consciousness is inextricably associated with the so-called "Experiment at La Chorrera," which was chronicled by Terence in his book True Hallucinations (Harper San Francisco 1993) and more recently in my newly published memoir, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss (North Star Press 2012). Our story has attracted widespread interest over many years largely as a result of the fascination our quixotic quest holds for many people. We were children of the 60s, seekers, lured by the promise of high adventure and the passion to discover something truly astonishing. Many who have read our story came from similar roots; and it is partly because we were, in some sense, Everyman, that people have found such resonance with our tale.
What began as a search for exotic hallucinogens in the jungles of the Amazon in 1971 rapidly turned into a curiosity-driven quest for the ultimate truths of time and life and mind. We didn't know what we would find when we set out for La Chorrera in the dawning months of 1971; only that it was a great mystery, a Secret, that would change us, and everything, forever. We were right on both counts, though not in the ways we had anticipated. This is my story of the quest that I shared with Terence and a small band of fellow seekers; tongue in cheek, we called ourselves The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss. Terence has told the tale and told it well in True Hallucinations. But until the publication of my recent book, few had heard the story from my perspective. That story is now told in Chapter 31 of the book, entitled The Experiment of La Chorrera. It is excerpted here for the first time.
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The Experiment at La Chorrera
Whether the ideas that seized us over those days were telepathically transmitted by the mushroom, or by a mantis-like entity on the bridge of a starship in geosynchronous orbit above the Amazon (which we considered), or created within our own minds, I'll never know. I do know that our lively discussions led us to speculate about how the phenomenon might be assessed. I should clarify that. By then, the Teacher had suggested the outlines of an experiment to me.
Or I believed so anyway, in my state of hypermania. Wildly stimulated by the concepts at play, I felt I was downloading explicit instructions from the Teacher, the mushroom, or whatever it was, about our next steps. The goal wasn't simply to test the hypothesis but to fabricate an actual object within the alchemical crucible of my body. This thing would be a fusion of mind and matter created by the fourth-dimensional rotation of the metabolizing psilocybin and its exteriorization, or "freezing," into a physical object. Such an object would be the ultimate artifact. It would be the philosopher's stone, or the UFO space-time machine, or the resurrection body -- all these things being conceptualizations of the same thing. The Teacher was downloading the blueprints for building a hyper-dimensional vehicle out of the 4-D transformation of my own DNA interlaced with the DNA of a mushroom. But not just blueprints alone. I was also getting step-by-step instructions on how to build this transcendental object.
The basic idea revolved around our discussions about the violet psychofluid, the magical phlegm, and the scrying goo, for lack of a better term. Alchemical symbolism furnished the conceptual framework within which these notions made a kind of sense. The creation of the philosopher's stone, in alchemical parlance, involves a multi-step chemical reaction. The metaphors of chemistry are applied to transformative operations on the psyche and spirit of the alchemist. The process is not unlike a chemical synthesis that results in a final product; Jung would say that final product is the individuated self. We were postulating something more literal and much stranger.
Among the many stages in the alchemical synthesis, one essential step is called the "fixing" of the mercury. In this case, mercury symbolizes an inherently volatile, highly reactive substance: mind itself. The volatile substance created in the alchemist's alembic is literally "mercurial," thus making quicksilver a particularly apt analog for mind. The fixing of the mercury is the penultimate step in the alchemical reaction, the step in which the mercury is trapped, in some way tamed in a process that is analogous to crystallization. The completed stone would be my own mind, rendered visible and trapped within a 3-D container, like a Bose-Einstein condensate confined in a magnetic bottle.
To put that another way, what the Teacher had transmitted was a set of procedures for creating, and then fixing, the mercury of my own consciousness, fused with the four-dimensionally transformed psilocybin-DNA complex of a living mushroom.
"What?" the reader may ask. "What does that mean?" I might ask the same question now, but at the time it was perfectly clear.
Bear with me here as I introduce another concept. As the "experiment" became clear to me, I understood that the sounds that could be heard on DMT or on mushrooms at high doses were caused by the "electron spin resonance" of the tryptamines metabolizing in the nervous system. Electron spin resonance (ESR), sometimes called electron paramagnetic resonance, is a phenomenon displayed by certain substances that have one or more un-paired electrons. To study the behavior of unpaired electrons, researchers apply an external magnetic field to the electrons and then measure the changes in their "spin quantum numbers" and "magnetic moment."
This technique, known as ESR spectroscopy, resembles the more widely used nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, in which the spin states of atomic nuclei, rather than electrons, are measured. The ESR "signal" is generated by measuring the difference between the low- and high-energy electrons when microwaves of varying frequencies are applied in a magnetic field of constant strength. The signal can provide information about the energetics of the spin states of the unpaired electrons. The signal's output is the microwave frequency that generates the "splitting" of the spin states. It is not an audio signal, but it can be expressed as an audio signal, as can any electromagnetic signal if it is channeled through an audio generator.
What I have written above is pretty much all I know about ESR. I didn't understand the physics or the math behind ESR then, and I don't understand it now. Nevertheless, the Teacher plainly presented this information as the basis of the "experiment" I was to devise. The ESR signal, it said, would be generated by a molecular complex formed between the DNA in the membranes of my neurons and the metabolizing psilocybin and harmine intercalating -- that is, inserting itself -- between the base pairs of my neuronal DNA. And here's where the ayahuasca figures into the recipe, as my source of harmine.
Four decades on, we now know that the receptors for psilocybin in the neuronal membranes are proteins, a serotonin receptor classified as a 5-HT2A subtype. In 1971, however, almost nothing was known about the molecular nature of neurotransmitter receptors; some people even speculated that transmitters might be short sequences of ribonucleic acids localized in the membrane (Smythies 1969). At the time, we believed the newly formed harmine-psilocybin-DNA complex would generate an audible ESR signal. What's more, the Teacher explained that by listening for the audible ESR signal on a high dose of mushrooms, one could imitate this sound and thereby cancel out these harmonic frequencies, bringing about a chemical reaction that would cause the complex to drop into a stable, superconducting state.
Meanwhile, the harmine that had melded with my DNA would amplify its ESR signal and generate a stable standing waveform -- essentially a hologram. And the hologram would begin to broadcast the information stored in the DNA, making that data both comprehensible to thought and open to manipulation by thought. If the experiment worked, one of us in the near vicinity would be turned into a DNA radio transmitting the collective knowledge of all earthly life, all the time.
Got that? One thing was certain. I was making creative use of the lesson in sympathetic resonance my high-school band director had shown me on the strings of my stand-up bass. Here is an excerpt from the (now barely legible) notes I scribbled madly just hours before the experiment:
The Opus can now be summarized briefly:
1. The mushroom must be heard.
2. The yagé must be charged with the over-tonal ESR of the tryptamine via an amplified sound.
3. The [illegible] ESR resonance of the tryptamines in the mushroom will be cancelled, and it will drop into [a] superconducting state: the physical matter of the mushroom will be obliterated.
4. The superconductively charged psilocybin will pick up the ESR harmonic of the yagé complex: This energy will be instantly and completely absorbed by the 4-D tryptamine template. It will be transferred into the mushroom as a sound and condensed onto the tryptamines as a bonded complex of superconductive harmine-tryptamine-DNA.
5. The result will be a material object of fourth-dimensional superconductive matter, that receives and sends messages transmitted by thought, that stores and retrieves information in DNA holographic storage, and that depends on superconductive harmine as a transducer energy source, and superconductive RNA as a temporal matrix.
It is now possible to reconstruct the physical-chemical idea metaphor that we have evolved in the process of understanding this phenomenon, i.e., the fourth-dimensional rotation of matter.... It can be explained thus: The tryptamine complex that occurs in the mushroom acts as an antenna for picking up and amplifying the harmonic ESR tones of all tryptophan-derived compounds of all living organisms within its range; since the tryptamine undergoing metabolism is superconductive, this means that its range of reception is theoretically infinite, and the antenna does, to some extent, pick up a signal whose ultimate origin is the totality of living creatures; but since the tryptamine metabolism is carried on within the brain (or mushroom) at a very low voltage level, the antenna behaves as though it were limited, even though it is superconductive.
It seems clear therefore that the signal, which in this mushroom and in this ecologically dense area can be discerned so clearly, originates in the ESR resonation of the yagé plant, though perhaps all of the biosphere is picked up and broadcast amplified via the yagé superconductive transducer. This understanding will clarify precisely what will occur at the moment of 4-D warp. Ingesting the yagé harmine will speed up the process of metabolization enough to amplify its ESR tone to an audible level; this ESR tone will harmonically cancel out the ESR tone of the tryptamines within the mushroom, causing it to lose its electric field and snap into a superconducting configuration. The yagé ESR will have keyed the mushroom tryptamines into a superconducting antenna; it is then ready to have the tryptamine-harmine-DNA-RNA compound being metabolized within the body condensed onto its charged template matrix. A microsecond after the mushroom tryptamine has been superconductivity charged, its amplified ESR wave will then cancel out the ESR signals of the tryptamines and beta-carbolines metabolizing in the body, as well as the genetic material. This will cause these compounds to drop into superconducting configuration and bond together, at the exact same time that they bond to the waiting mushroom template.
This transfer of superconductive compounds charged within the body to a superconductive template prepared within the mushroom will not occur in 3-D space; no actual physical transfer will be visible, as the organically processed superconductive material will bond itself to the mushroom template through the fourth dimension. The result will be the work of works, that wonder which cannot be told: 4 dimensions captured and delineated in 3-D space.
The Stone will be all things, but the elements which, superconductively charged, bind together in the fourth dimension to form it are among the most common natural products, and the function and place of each in the Stone can be understood. The Stone is a solid-state hyper-dimensional circuit that is quadripartite in structure:
1. Tryptamines, first charged in the mushroom to act as a grid-template on which the rest of the circuit is condensed. In the final Stone the tryptamines act as a superconductive antenna to pick up on all cosmic energy in space and time.
2. The superconductively charged harmine complex within the Stone itself will act as its transmitter and energy source. It is interesting to note that the same energy that sustains the antenna circuits in superconductivity will sustain the whole of the device: that energy will be the totality of cosmic energy turned upon itself through the fourth dimension.
3. The third component of the Stone is the DNA bonded to and resonating through the harmine. It will constitute the 4-D holographic memory of the device, and will contain and explicate the genetic history of all species. It will be the collective memory of the device, and all times and places and conceivable forms will be accessible within its matrix.
4. The fourth part of the circuit will be the RNA, which will also be superconductively charged. Through its function of self-replication turned through the fourth dimension, the RNA will be able to act as a 4-D, waveform holographic image, and give physical form instantly to any idea. It will perform the same function it has always had in an organism, the process of replication through time. But this time, replication will be subject to the whim of consciousness. Of course a molecule which breaks itself apart and produces two duplicates of itself has to be functionally without electrical fields and hence is of course superconducting.
Does any of that make sense? It clearly isn't a carefully defined protocol for a scientific experiment. The words may sound like scientific jargon, but they are nonsense. It's more of an incantation than anything else, a recitation of charged words and phrases intended to evoke a certain state of mind. Nevertheless, this was the information that was downloaded to me by the Teacher, a recipe for constructing a hyper-dimensional artifact that would bind four dimensions into three and thereby end history. An object made of mushrooms, bark, and my own DNA, welded together using the sound of my voice.
The Teacher was blunt: "If you do this procedure, it will happen." Build it, and they will come; more precisely, build it, and you will hold all of space-time in your hands, in the form of the stone. The philosopher's stone -- singing to a mushroom while completely ripped on high doses of psilocybin boosted with harmine from the ayahuasca -- will make manifest the most miraculous object imaginable. Mind and matter will fuse into a hyper-dimensional object that is the ultimate artifact at the end of time, whose very creation brings an end to time, leading humanity to a state in which all places and all times are instantly accessible at the speed of thought. It's crazy stuff. It reads like the ravings of an unhinged mind, and perhaps that's what it was. There's more:
There comes a time...that time has come. History will end in a few hours. The day itself has ordained the command to humankind: March Fourth. March Forth, humanity, to greet a new dawn, as you slid and swam and crawled and walked down the spiral chains of evolutionary metamorphosis to your final awakening. For this is the day when you will sleep no more: you have been blinded by the black veil of unconsciousness...for the last time. Why I and my companions have been selected to understand and trigger the gestalt wave of understanding that will be the hyperspatial zeitgeist is becoming more clear to me each moment, though I know I won't understand our mission fully until the work is complete.
We will be instructed in the use of the Stone by some infinitely wise, infinitely adept fellow member of the hyperspatial community; of that I feel sure. It will be the taking of the keys to galactarian citizenship. I speculate that we will be the first five human beings to be instructed in its use. Our mission will be to selectively disseminate it to the rest of humanity, but slowly and in such a way as to ease the cultural shock. It is also somehow appropriate that at least some segment of the species has an intimation of the implications and possibilities of this, the last cultural artifact. To many it was given to feel the stirrings of change, but to a few only was complete understanding granted in the final hours before the accom-plishment: surely so that the last words ever spoken in language in the final hours of history can be a chronicle of the defeat of the oldest tyrant: Time. And so now, against all the probabilities of chance and circumstance, my companions and I have been given the peculiar privilege of knowing when history will end.
It would be a strange position to find oneself in, if being in that position did not bring with it a full understanding of just what forces brought one there. Fortunately, as the phenomenon is an acceleration of understanding, one gains clearer insight into the forces that have bent space and time, and thought and culture back upon themselves to focus them at this point. Now I can look back upon my life spread before the scanner of memory and understand all those moments that have foreshadowed this one. It is easy to look beyond personal history to all of the events of history, and discern therein the prefiguration of this last moment. As a phenomenon, it has always existed and will continue, as it is a moving edge of phenomenal understanding that was generated with the first atom and has gathered momentum in a constant acceleration ever since.
What we are moving toward in 3 dimensions is the passing of the wave of understanding into the fourth dimension, the realm of the atemporal. As it happens, it will make the transition through one of us. But there will be no change in the cosmic order, or even a blip on the cosmic circuits, for the phenomenon has gathered constant momentum from the beginning, and will flow through and beyond the fourth dimension with the same smoothness it entered, until finally it has moved through all beings and all dimensions. Its job will then be complete, when, in a billion eternities, it has constellated full understanding throughout creation.
There is rich material here for the student of pathology. I'm acutely aware of that as I read those words penned so long ago in an Amazonian hut by a much younger Dennis who was utterly convinced he was about to collapse, or at least transcend, the space-time continuum. The ravings of a madman, I'll grant that. And yet, there is also poetry here, and beauty, and a longing for redemption. What I expressed is not that different from the vision articulated by the most compassionate and beautiful of the world's religions: the universe will not achieve perfection until all beings have achieved enlightenment. Isn't that what I'm saying? No doubt there is messianic delusion here; indeed, in passages a bit further on in that text I discuss my role as cosmic Antichrist. But there is also a deep wish for healing, not only of myself but of the universe. Our mother had been dead less than six months. I have to believe that much of what happened to us at La Chorrera was linked to that tragic event. So overwhelmed were we by the sense of loss, and of guilt, we were ready to tear space and time apart in order to reverse that cosmic injustice.
On the evening of March 4, Dave and Vanessa joined us for dinner at the forest retreat, but they wanted no part in our looming adventure. The sudden approach of a violent thunderstorm brought us all outside to stare agog at a massive, flickering cloud; then the wind and rain hit, and Vanessa slipped on the wet ladder as she hurried back into our raised hut, hurting her ankle. After the storm passed and Dave and Vanessa had departed, Terence, Ev, and I completed the experiment's final preparations, as dictated earlier by the Teacher. We knew our success was assured, thanks to the strange signs we were given as the moment neared, from the intense lightning to the apparent breach of physical law, including the eerie steadiness of a tilted candle's flame, our only light. These phenomena (or so we told ourselves) were caused by the shockwave of the continuum-destabilizing events, now just hours ahead, as it rippled back into the past like a kind of temporal echo. We were approaching the singularity. We knew we were going to succeed because, just a few hours ahead, we already had.
By then, we'd taken the ayahuasca off the fire and set it aside, along with some bark shavings from the Banisteriopsis vine we'd used to make it. We planned to drink a small cup of the brew when we ate the mushrooms and, if necessary, smoke the bark to activate and synergize the psilocybin. Earlier, we'd gone to the pasture and located a beautiful specimen of Psilocybe cubensis and carried it back, intact and metabolizing on its cow-pie substrate. We had also collected several perfect specimens we'd eat to initiate the experiment. Though we hadn't taken any for a couple of days, the mushroom "ESR" signal had been more or less audible to me ever since our last major session when I'd created the loud buzzing sound for the first time.
On the floor of the hut we drew a circle marked with the four cardinal points, and placed drawings of I Ching hexagrams at each one, to define and purify the sacred space where the work was to occur. Inside the circle, we placed the mushroom we'd chosen as our receiving template, along with the ayahuasca and the bark shavings. We suspended the chrysalis of a blue morpho butterfly near the circle so the metabolizing tryptamine from that source would be present. Why that of all things? We were attempting a kind of metamorphosis, and so clearly we needed a chrysalis close by. Kneeling together in the circle, each of us drank a small cup of the bitter brew, still slightly warm from its preparation. I munched two mushrooms, and we climbed into our hammocks to wait.
By then we were fully in the grip of the archetypal forces we'd activated. We were no longer in profane time or profane space; we were at the primordial moment, the first (and the last) moment of creation. We had moved ourselves to the center of the cosmos, that singularitypoint at which, as the Hermetic philosophers put it, "What is here is every- where; what is not here is nowhere." We were not in control any longer, if we ever had been. We were acting out our roles in an archetypal drama.
Though we were motionless, cocooned in hammocks in a hut in the Amazon, it felt as though we were approaching the edge of an event horizon. We could clearly perceive time dilating as we neared the moment of "hyper-carbolation," our term for the act of sonically triggering the 4-D transformation of the blended psilocybin and beta-carboline. Time was slowing down, becoming viscous as molasses as we fought against the temporal gale howling down from the future. "A series of discrete energy levels must be broken through in order to bond this thing," I said. "It is part mythology, part psychology, part applied physics. Who knows? We will make three attempts before we break out of the experimental mode.
Who knew, indeed? We were following a script, but no longer a script we'd written. I ate one more mushroom and settled back into my hammock, wrapped in my poncho-like ruana. It didn't take long before the mushroom's energy began coursing through my body. I could hear the internal ESR tone getting stronger in my head; it had been easy to evoke, never far from perception for the last several days. I was ready to make the first attempt to charge the mushroom template.
I'll let Terence take it from there:
Dennis then sat up in his hammock. I put out the candle, and he sounded his first howl of hyper-carbolation. It was mechanical and loud, like a bull roarer, and it ended with a convulsive spasm that traveled throughout his body and landed him out of his hammock and onto the floor.
We lit the candle again only long enough to determine that everyone wanted to continue, and we agreed that Dennis's next attempt should be made from a sitting position on the floor of the hut. This was done. Again a long, whirring yodel ensued, strange and unexpectedly mechanical each time it sounded.
I suggested a break before the third attempt, but Dennis was quite agitated and eager to "bring it through," as he put it. We settled in for the third yell, and when it came it was like the others but lasted much longer and became much louder. Like an electric siren wailing over the still jungle night, it went on and on, and when it finally died away, that too was like the dying away of a siren. Then, in the absolute darkness of our Amazon hut, there was silence, the silence of the transition from one world to another, the silence of the Ginnunga gap, that pivotal, yawning hesitation between one world age and the next of Norse mythology.
In that gap came the sound of the cock crowing at the mission. Three times his call came, clear but from afar, seeming to confirm us as actors on a stage, part of a dramatic contrivance. Dennis had said that if the experiment were successful the mushroom would be obliterated. The low temperature phenomena would explode the cellular material and what would be left would be a standing wave, a violet ring of light the size of the mushroom cap. That would be the holding mode of the lens, or the philosopher's stone, or whatever it was. Then someone would take command of it -- whose DNA it was, they would be it. It would be as if one had given birth to one's own soul, one's own DNA exteriorized as a kind of living fluid made of language. It would be a mind that could be seen and held in one's hand. Indestructible. It would be a miniature universe, a monad, a part of space and time that magically has all of space and time condensed in it, including one's own mind, a map of the cosmos so real that that it somehow is the cosmos, that was the rabbit he hoped to pull out of his hat that morning. (TH, pp. 108-109)
This didn't happen, of course. Nor did a new universe emerge from the Ginnungagap, the "mighty gap" or abyss or void from which the universe emerged, according to Norse legend. The mushroom did not explode in a cloud of ice crystals as its DNA radically cooled, leaving a softly glowing, lens-shaped hologram humming a few inches above the floor of the hut. That did not happen because it could not happen; such an event would have violated the laws of physics. That didn't bother us in the least -- we were convinced we were about to overturn the constraints of conventional physics. Besides, we'd been getting feedback from the future; we knew that we were going to succeed because we already had! Yet what I had confidently predicted didn't occur. What did?
Dennis leaned toward the still whole mushroom standing in the raised experiment area.
As I followed his gaze, he raised his arm and across the fully expanded cap of the mushroom fell the shadow of his ruana. Clearly, but only for a moment, as the shadow bisected the glowing mushroom cap, I saw not a mature mushroom but a planet, the earth, lustrous and alive, blue and tan and dazzling white.
"It is our world." Dennis's voice was full of unfathomable emotions. I could only nod. I did not understand, but I saw it clearly, although my vision was only a thing of the moment.
"We have succeeded." Dennis proclaimed. (TH, p. 109)
Succeeded at what? Not what I had predicted. But clearly something had happened. For one thing, I think we'd painted ourselves into a metaphysical corner. What I had predicted would happen, could not happen -- but we already knew that something would happen, because it already had! I realize this statement suggests a misunderstanding of the nature of time, because how can something that was still in the future have already happened? Nevertheless, this is what we understood.
After the experiment, Terence was confused. I, on the other hand, thought I had the situation well in hand. As dawn neared, we left Ev in the hut and walked out to the pasture in silence, each lost in our own thoughts. I said something to Terence like, "Don't be alarmed; a lot of archetypal things are going to start happening now." And they did. That might have been the last coherent statement I would utter for the next two weeks.
By then I'd begun to disengage from reality, a condition that progressively worsened throughout the day. The reader may quip that we'd been thoroughly disengaged for quite some time, which might have been true; but even what grip I still had was slipping fast. As we stood in the pasture, Terence staring at me quizzically, I said, "You're wondering if we succeeded?"
What unfolded over the next few minutes was an episode of apparent telepathy. I could "hear" in my head what Terence was thinking. I was answering his questions before he articulated them, though with or without telepathy they were easy enough to anticipate. All of them were ways of asking, "What the hell just happened?"
But there was more to it than that. I felt I'd manifested a kind of internalized entity, an intelligence now inside me that had access to a cosmic database. I could hear and speak to this oracular presence. I could ask it questions -- and get answers. As I explained to Terence, the oracle could be queried by prefacing the question with the name "Dennis."
For instance, "Dennis, what is the name of this plant?" And the oracle would instantly respond with a scientific name. Terence soon learned the oracle could also be addressed as "McKenna." Something very peculiar was going on. Whatever it was, we were both under the thrall of the same delusion.
Shortly thereafter I lost my glasses, or rather, I hurled them into the jungle, along with my clothes, in one of my bouts of ecstasy. My blurred vision for the next few weeks surely playing into my estrangement from reality. When I tried to share our wondrous discovery with the others, they were underwhelmed. Vanessa, our resident skeptic, asked some mathematical questions of the oracle, and it was flummoxed, or it gave answers we couldn't verify. Nevertheless, Terence and I were utterly convinced we had succeeded. We were sure that a wave of gnosis was sweeping the world with the advancing dawn line; people were waking up to find themselves, as Terence put it, "pushing off into a telepathic ocean whose name was that of its discoverer: Dennis McKenna."
Teaser image by neyercamilohrrerah, courtesy of Creative Commons license.