Last Thursday Joe Rogan had Dennis McKenna once again as a guest on his show, making it the fourth time the ethnopharmacologist extraordinaire has been on this highly influential podcast that we love to listen to and comment on here at The Grail.
The main reason for Dennis’s appearance was to promote the book Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs: 50 Years of Research –edited by himself and published by Synergetic Press– which aside from being a drop-dead gorgeous compendium of the past and present state of psychedelic research in the world, it also reunites all the scientific papers presented in 2017 during an international symposium put together by McKenna and others in the United Kingdom, which was intended to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs conference, a historic scientific gathering organized by the American National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the U.S. Public Health Service (!) –this was 1967, before the Nixon administration launched the War on Drugs and delayed psychedelic research for half a century… not to mention all the countless lives which were needlessly lost because of it.
Now, we all know that when it comes to psychedelics and their huge benefits for mental health, as well as the exploration of other possible levels of existence –like the realms inhabited by the DMT ‘machine elves’ that Dennis’s late brother Terence McKenna used to talk about– you would be hard pressed to find a better platform and a more receptive host than The Joe Rogan Experience. But if you want Joe to take other fringe topics seriously –say, UFOs and encounters with aliens– you will find it quite difficult to coax him into abandoning his standard “there’s fuckery afoot!” stance towards those sort of things –unless you happen to be Dennis McKenna, that is!
At around the minute 51:30 of the recording, while Dennis was revealing to Joe his plans to found the McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy, he explained how the inherent limitations of Science make it too blunt of a tool for cutting through the fuzzy layers of phenomena that are nevertheless worthy of serious investigation, despite of being stigmatized by Academia and society in general. Rogan thought his guest was talking only about psychedelic experiences, but McKenna clarified he was also including so-called paranormal phenomena and things that are labeled as woo-woo by most people –people like Joe Rogan himself…
When Joe asked what sort of paranormal phenomena Dennis was most interested on, his answer was UFOs (a mystery his brother Terence was also very interested in during his youth) and how nobody really knows why people keep having these experiences, despite the fact the encounters defy any conventional mold we try to force them into –including the extraterrestrial one. Joe used this as an excuse to ask Dennis about the legendary experiment at La Chorrera and Terence’s purportedly UFO experience –something I recently touched upon on another article— and Dennis mentioned a presentation he gave at the Breaking Convention titled “The Experiment at La Chorrera: Psychotic Break, Shamanic Initiation or Alien Encounter” (which we will comment on more extensively on a future post), in which he made all sorts of interest parallels between stereotypical alien encounters, and what he and his brother went through in the Colombian jungle while they were ingesting heroic amounts of magic mushrooms –e.g. the transmission of information that is personally relevant to the recipient, as well as the exchange of gifts (paging Joshua Cutchin!).
But then the conversation went 100% Full Fortean at around an hour and a half into the recording, when Dennis began to talk about the self-negating aspects of fringe experiences, whether they have been chemically induced or not, and how they always seem to have an element of absurdity embedded into them (paging… myself!). That’s when Dennis suggested Joe to have someone like Whitley Strieber –one of the most famous alien abductees in the world– on his show.
At first Joe was acting like his usual skeptic self by dismissing Strieber out of hand and saying how he seems to be “out to lunch” (i.e. completely delusional). He also mentioned some Youtube video in which Strieber appears to be giving his opinion on a particular UFO which to Joe looked ‘like a fly’ crossing in front of the camera. I’ve no idea which video he’s referring to, although it is true that Strieber has a TERRIBLE record when it comes to assessing the authenticity of purported UFO videos (e.g. the 1996 ‘wobbling’ flying saucer from Mexico city, and the infamous CARET drone photos which Linda Moulton Howe still defend as real (!) despite the fact they were clear CGI hoaxes made using technical processes known as HDRI ambient lighting, which allows you to insert any kind of digital construct into a regular photograph or video, and to render it using the lighting data extracted from the photograph itself.
But then Dennis stepped in to defend Strieber, explaining how he too used to be quite skeptical of him and the things he wrote about in his best-selling book Communion, but eventually he was forced to change his opinion when he had the chance to actually meet Whitley in person alongside Jeffrey Kripal, back when the two of them had just finished co-writting the highly acclaimed book The Super Natural, in which Kripal ( who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University) analyzed Strieber’s alleged encounters with non-human entities neither from a “true believer” perspective nor as a skeptic, but rather comparing them with other types of mystical experiences which form the backbone of EVERY religious practice in the history of mankind. McKenna knew of Kripal’s previous work and was impressed by it, and so when he was asked to give a presentation at a workshop in Hawaii in which Whitley was going to be one of the speakers, Dennis accepted so long as Kripal was also invited.
Although Dennis doesn’t mention it on the podcast, we do know this Hawaiian workshop was organized by Jeremi Vaeni, who used to co-host the Paratopia podcast with Jeff Ritzmann and now produces his own show, The Experience, for Whitley Strieber’s Unknown Country platform. Although both Ritzmann and Vaeni claimed to have had the alien encounter experience at some point of their lives, they are extremely critical of the stereotypical explanations and theories propagated by the likes of David Jacobs and the late Budd Hopkins. So this gathering of Strieber, Kripal AND Dennis McKenna already sounds like the greatest UFO conference you’d never heard about!
Another thing in Whitley’s favor, according to Dennis, is how he’s never admitted in understanding what’s happened to him, and I agree wholeheartedly; in fact, I feel one of the reasons Strieber’s account is uncomfortable to most members of the UFO research community, is because he’s always refused to categorize it into one of those neat ‘mental boxes’ we’re always struggling to place paranormal phenomena into: Box (A) for UFO encounters, box (B) for cryptid sightings, and box (C) for ghost sightings, etc. What those people still refuse to acknowledge is how a large chunk of these fringe experiences are full of high strangeness which is impossible to catalog with such simplistic terms.
McKenna also comments on one of the chapters in The Super Natural, titled “The Soul Is a UFO,” (chpt. 15) which resonated heavily on him because in a way that was the whole essence of what he and his brother were trying to accomplish at La Chorrera back in 1974: using the mushrooms to ‘transmutate’ the DNA of Dennis so they could manifest a transdimensional ‘philosopher’s stone’ which would not be bound by the limits of Time and Space. Ultimately such an object was not materialized, which led Terence into finding a way to justify their ‘failure’ by devising his now-infamous Time Wave Zero theory, which posited that the Eschaton of Mankind would come to pass on December 21st 2012. And again, all of this is also rather common in the UFO world –bizarre instructions imparted by the ‘Space Brothers’ in how to build a flying saucer (which caused many a barn and basement to explode) and outlandish prophecies which never came to pass…
At this point Joe charges again with the usual arguments against the alien abduction experience: How the always happen at night and while they are in bed, ergo they are probably ‘dreams’. Just a cursory review of the literature would dismiss such claims –along with the claim exploited by most skeptics that abduction memories only appear with the use of hypnotic regression– and yet I do think Joe is on to something when he speculates that perhaps these experiences have something to do with the endogenous release of DMT, in the sense that maybe they are not generated by DMT but mediated by it. My friend and colleague Micah Hanks also looked into the connection between paranormal events and drug-induced experiences a while back in his book Magic, Mysticism and the Molecule, and of course we all know the similarities found by Dr. Strassman between the alien abduction scenario and the experiences reported by the participants of his famous DMT/Spirit Molecule study.
No, Whitley Strieber’s UFO-related experiences does NOT make him an expert UFOlogist. And Yes, he also doesn’t seem to be the most well-adjusted individual on the planet. But perhaps the same was said at some point in time of ALL the mystics who ended up being the founding fathers of a new religion (whether that was their intention or not). Another friend of mine, Mike Clelland –who also claims to have had a lot of high strangeness creeping into his life in all sorts of forms, including highly vivid dreams and baffling synchronicities– has always said that instead of speaking with one of the ancient Greek philosophers sitting at the stairs of the Parthenon, he would much rather chat with the wild-eyed madman who’s just climbed down from the top of mount Olympus, babbling incoherently about meeting the gods face to face.
Because sometimes those ‘mad men’ don’t come down from holy mountains. Sometimes they come of out sacred caves like the ones in which the Eleusinian mysteries were practiced for thousands of years before the Greeks came up with ideas like philosophy, democracy, and the initial principles of the scientific method; which made our modern societies possible. And sometimes the mad men are not babbling incoherently but are rather charismatic and eloquent like ‘the bard’ Terence McKenna used to be, and manage to convey glimpses about their rapturous rendezvous with The Other to a large audience; influencing the world even long after they have departed from it.
That’s when the madman turns into an oracle.
Which is why I’m very excited with this idea proposed by Dennis McKenna of re-introducing a kind of Eleusinian mentality into academic thinking in the shape of a psychedelic institute, as a way of reminding Science of its humbler origins when it was still called Natural Philosophy and it’s enquiring spirit was yet to be stifled by reductionist dogma.
Because the same way as pioneers like him have caveats with the strictly clinical approach of the current psychedelic research, I too have a strong opinion against a ‘strictly scientific’ approach to the study of UFOs, especially if the ultimate goal of such an approach is to ‘prove’ the reality of the phenomenon –if the scientific method is ill-equipped to approach the ‘reality’ of the psychedelic landscape and its denizens, as reported by ‘Mind-Magellans’ like the McKennas and many others, what makes us think said method could tackle the absurdly-designed complexity of the UFO in its entirety, when we cannot even have the luxury of reproducing the phenomenon with the easiness that psychonauts can take a trip into the land of the machine elves whenever they want?
Accepting those limitations DOES NOT mean foregoing rigorousness, as Dennis rightly points out. It just means adding other tools into our tool box which could help us approach these fringe topics from different perspectives, instead of dismissing them right off the bat simply because they don’t fit into our given paradigm. Right-brain tools, dare I humbly suggest, that may have more to do with creativity and art than with actuarial charts and statistical analyses –and if you think art is less rigorous than an experiment you ought to have a long chat with a painter or a musician…
So eff MUFON and huzzah to the McKenna Institute! Meanwhile here’s hoping Joe does invite Strieber to his podcast –and if you want a list of potential guests to discuss other ‘woo woo’ topics, dear Joe, you need but to ask *wink wink*