'The Invisible Landscape' by Denis and Terence Mckenna (1975)

A selection from the The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching by brothers Terence and Dennis Mckenna, 1975.

Note: this selection is drawn from the revised and updated edition published in 1993.


The search for liberation, a paradisiacal state of freedom that mythology insists is the ahistorical root of the historical process, has always been the raison d'etre of the human species' conscious pilgrimage through time. In the name of drawing near to this liberation, humankind has built and then partially rejected an endless procession of societies, governments, philosophies, and religions.

It has not been a search without success; it may be said that although progress is erratic, nevertheless each successive age has expanded our understanding of the nature of being and freedom. [...] It may be argued that each of these events, rather than advancing humans along the path toward liberation, had quite the opposite effect, and, in fact, each step down the path of history has led deeper into time and away from the paradise in illo tempore. However, viewed objectively, the historical process may be seen as the expansion of cross-cultural contacts between various peoples and a resultant sharing of a continuously growing pool of information, ideas, and myths. This body of inherited and shared information represents our collective understanding of the nature of our species' conscious journey through time. [...] ...each of us pursues those threads of thought that seem... to be fruitful... .

Our interest... centered upon primitive societies where a connection with the timeless world of the unconscious is maintained through the office of the shaman, the technician of the sacred. We believed that the widespread use of psychedelic drugs in modern society was somehow rooted to the intuition that exploration and reassimilation of so-called magical dimensions was the next valid step in humanity's collective search for liberation. Our studies centered upon tribal peoples who had a highly refined tradition of shamanism and the use of psychotropic substances. [...] ...we organized, early in 1971, an expedition to the Upper Amazon Basin to locate sources of organic tryptamines and to explore their possible relevance to the search for liberation into eschatological time.

We were not wrong in anticipating that what we would encounter would leave our own culture-bound categories severely strained.

...a... ecological crisis within the community of species... may make access to the shamanic dimension a fact of historical "fatedness" of unique importance for humankind.

Chapter 1

The Figure of the Shaman

In archaic societies, a person (either man or woman) may become a shaman in primarily one of two ways: hereditary transmission or spontaneous election. In either case, the novice shaman must undergo an initiatory ordeal before he can attain the status of a full shaman. The initiation generally has two aspects: an ecstatic aspect, which takes place in dreams or trance, and a traditional aspect, in which the shaman is given instruction in certain techniques, such as the use and significance of the shamanic costume and drum, the secret spirit language, the names of the helping spirits, techniques of curing, the uses of medicinal plants, and so on, by an elder master shaman.

It is of the first order of importance to remember... that the shaman is not merely a sick man, or a madman; he is a sick man who has healed himself, who is cured, and who must shamanize to remain cured.

The shaman's primary functions are those of healer and psychopomp. This is related to the specific nature of the shamanic ecstasy... . The shamanic ecstasy is one in which the shaman is supposed to leave his physical body and journey to the Center of the World, which connects the earthly realm with the celestial world above and the infernal regions below. This axis mundi may be symbolized as a tree, mountain, tent pole, ladder, liana [
any long-stemmed, woody vine that is rooted in the soil and climbs or twines around other plants], or something similar; the shaman is able to make the journey and return safely because he is a master of ecstasy and possesses the guidance of helping spirits along the way. His main functions thus become either guiding the soul of a deceased person to its home in the infernal or celestial realms or journeying to those realms for the purpose of retrieving the soul of a sick person (which has wandered off by itself or been stolen by the spirits while the patient was asleep), returning with it, and restoring it to the patient's body. The shaman thus fulfills his functions by being able to travel in the supernatural realm, and he is enabled to do this because he is a master of ecstasy.

Lommel (1967) says of the social role of the shaman:

He is, so to speak, the regulator of the soul of a group or tribe, and his function is to adjust, avert, and heal defects, vacillations, disturbances of this soul.

The shaman is able to act as an intermediary between the society and the supernatural, or to put it in Jungian terms, he is an intermediary to the collective unconscious.

In his ecstasy the shaman reenters that mythical, paradisiacal condition that existed before the fall and thus reasserts, for the entire culture, the reality of that mythical time.

"The shaman is undoubtedly, perhaps essentially, a doctor—but the factual medical knowledge of the primitives is very small; the shaman's medical function seems to be confined to psychological, perhaps psychoanalytical techniques, and his successes fall mainly within the psychological domain" (Lommel 1967, p. 25). By what exact mechanism he is able to do this is not completely understood. It is as though the shaman, in his capacity of ecstatic psychopomp, practices a participation therapy of the most sophisticated type; by means of his ecstatic capacity, the shaman "plunges" into the collective unconscious and restores the patient's self-identity (equivalent to "finding his soul") by taking onto himself the unconscious contents that have inundated the patient through the principle of transference (cf. Jung 1954). Because this is accomplished in the context of ritual, which is real and numinous to the participants, the shaman's task is doubtless somewhat easier than that of a modern psychoanalyst who is often faced with a demythologized, rationally hardened personality.
The shaman, then, acts as a doctor of the soul, both the individual and the collective soul, and he is also a real and living exemplar of the primordial, mythical human condition, and in being so maintains the reality and immediacy of the sacred. 

It is clear that the practice of shamanism, to a greater extent than other religious offices, depends on the unique personality of the shaman.

 An item of the first order in addressing ourselves to this psychological examination of the phenomenon is the question of the psychopathological nature of the shamanic personality.

Eliade (1967) masterfully points out where such theories have gone astray:

The problem, in our view, has been wrongly stated. In the first place, it is not correct to say that shamans are, or must always be, neuropaths; on the contrary, a great many of them are perfectly sound in mind. Moreover, those who had previously been ill have become shamans just because they succeeded in getting well [italics his]. Very often, when the vocation reveals itself in the course of an illness or an attack of epilepsy, the initiation is also a cure. The acquisition of the shamanic gifts indeed presupposes the resolution of the psychic crisis brought on by the first signs of this vocation. The initiation is manifested by—among other things—a new psychic integration. (p. 77)

Let us now consider the shamanic trance itself. All of the shaman's functions, his ability to cure, divine, converse with the spirits, and travel in the supernatural realm, depend on his ecstasy... . Thus, the human will employ certain means for achieving ecstasy, which may be frenzied and prolonged drumming, dancing, and chanting, sleep deprivation, fasting, and so on. [...] While Eliade (1964, pp. 22of, 223, 4oo., 477) asserts that the use of narcotic substances as an aid to ecstasy invariably indicates a decadence or vulgarization of the shamanic tradition, there is reason to doubt this (cf. Wasson 1971, pp. 326-334). On the contrary, the use of narcotic plants as an adjunct to shamanism is widespread... . The important role of the hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria in Siberian shamanism has been exhaustively documented by Wasson, and the incredibly complete narcotic technology of New World Indians has been examined by Schultes (Schultes and Hofmann 1973) at length.  From this evidence it appears that the narcotic experience and the shamanic experience are, in very numerous cases, one and the same, though the narcotic experience must be molded and directed by the symbolic motifs of ritual to give it its peculiarly shamanic quality.

Let us now focus our attention on a more speculative question: whether there are, or could be, institutions in modern society that draw their models from shamanism. There appears to be occurring in modern life a progressive alienation from the numinous archetypal contents of the collective unconscious... . The archetypal motifs of the Western religious tradition seem to have lost their effectiveness for the larger portion of civilized humanity or, at best, have been depotentiated to the level of a "merely psychological" reality. Western humans have lost their sense of unity with the cosmos and with the transcendent mystery within themselves. Modernscience has given us a picture of human beings as accidental products of random evolutionary processes in a universe that is itself without purpose or meaning. This alienation of modern humans from the numinous ground of their beings has engendered the existentialist ethic and the contemporary preoccupation with the immediate historical situation. Humans are regarded as leading a wholly profane existence within a wholly profane time, that is, within history; the reality of the sacred is denied or reduced to the level of psychology.
In non-Western cultures, in "primitive" cultures particularly, humans are not conscious of living in historical time, but regard themselves as inhabiting a numinous sacral time (cf. Eliade 1959). If these humans are conscious of history at all, it is of a mythical, paradigmatic history, a paradisiacal epoch that lies beyond the attritional influence of profane time.

It is in this unenviable position, then, that we find the modern temper: anguished by the imminence of death, yet trapped in profane, historical time and thus able to regard death only as nothingness; the saving presence of a sacred, transcendent mode of being is absent from the contemporary worldview. Thus modern humans stand today at the very edge of the abyss of death and nothingness, and it is precisely here that one can perceive a useful role for a modern shamanism. Again there is a need for a doctor of the soul, a figure who can bring humankind into close and fruitful confrontation with the collective unconscious, the creative matrix of all that we are and have ever been.
Naturally, the modern shaman will have to search for means of fulfilling his psychopompic functions, which are different from the relatively straightforward ritualistic techniques of his predecessor. One of the most potentially effective of such means lies in his artistic and poetic capacities; the soul of modern humanity is still open to influence by aesthetic means. Hence one of the first places we should look for signs of a modern shamanism is in the artistic sphere. [...] Through manipulation of his physical medium, the artist seeks to express his personal vision of reality—a vision arising from the roots of the unconscious and not dependent upon public consensus, in fact, often actively opposed to it. More than that, the artist exemplifies in his life a freedom that is similar to the superhuman freedom of the shaman.

One area of modern life that does not appear to be shamanic, but that might profitably model itself after shamanism, is psychoanalysis. [...] One approach to such a shamanic psychoanalysis could be through the controlled and judicious use of psychotropic drugs... .

If we are to draw a conclusion as to how we can profit from the study of shamanism, it is this: Perhaps, through understanding the fascinating and alien figure of the shaman, we can draw somewhat nearer to that numinous, archetypal, living mystery that dwells within each of us.

Chapter 2

Shamans and Schizophrenia

Comparison of the two syndromes could be useful for what it might reveal, not only about the processes that trigger access to such unconscious material but also about the means of controlling these processes. Whereas schizophrenia may or may not result in eventual control of the nonordinary experience and psychic reintegration, in shamanism this step is, nevertheless, a sine qua non.

For our purposes, abnormal behavior can be defined as behavior differing from the accepted cultural standard as a result of an inner conflict or crisis in the life of the individual, regardless of the standard of normative behavior in the society in which the life-crisis occurs. One of the basic distinctions between normal and abnormal behavior lies not in the outward manifestations of the conflict, but in differing cultural attitudes toward the life-crisis and its resolution.
The term schizophrenia is used to denote a number of heterogeneous, but related, disorders usually characterized by withdrawal from the environment and preoccupation with interior processes, attended by a resultant disintegration of the personality. An early term for schizophrenia was Dementia Praecox, meaning an intense pathological state beginning early in life.

Both the shamanic initiation and the inwardly directed essential form of schizophrenia reflect an attempt at psychic reorganization as a means of resolving an inner conflict or crisis in the life of the individual. The non-paranoid type of schizophrenia bears the most favorable prognosis for an eventual working through of the inner conflict, resulting in a reintegrated, healed personality:
It is as if the paranoid schizophrenic, unable to comprehend or tolerate the stark terrors of his inner world, prematurely redirects his attention to the outside world. In this type of abortive crisis solution, the inner chaos is not, so to speak, worked through or is not capable of being worked through. Since the working through of the inner-world experience turns out to be a primary concern . . . (both for the shaman and for the schizophrenic), the paranoid schizophrenic resolution is considered to be an incomplete one, and the essential, nonparanoid schizophrenic form is therefore regarded as more comparable to that of the shaman, the healed madman. (Silverman 1967)

...cognitive reorganization occurs when the schizophrenic succeeds in reintegrating his personality and assimilating the new unconscious contents to which he has gained access. This stage constitutes the main difference between essential and paranoid schizophrenia, in that it is conspicuously lacking in the latter. It may be said to represent a "cure," not in the sense that the schizophrenic henceforth returns to "normal" and is no longer bothered by autonomous unconscious contents, but rather in that he manages to integrate these contents into the sphere of consciousness and learns to cope with the "expanded reality" in which he now must live. This stage may develop to any point, from a very marginal adjustment accompanied by constant relapses to an extremely pronounced state of mental acuity in which awareness, sensitivity, and creative capacity are likely to be many times greater than in "normal" individuals, as if entire areas of the brain, previously inaccessible, had been opened up by the transforming experience. The schizophrenic who has managed successfully to complete this final adjustment is in every sense superior, for he is truly a "healed madman," one who not only has crossed over to the other side but has returned and hence possesses access to both spheres of reality.

...shamans, sorcerers, and medicine men in general cannot be regarded as merely sick; their psychopathic experience has a theoretical content, for if they have cured themselves and are able to cure others, it is, among other things, because they know the mechanism... of illness. (Eliade 1964, p. 32)

The onset of schizophrenia usually arises at the time of some basic life-crisis, when the individual is likely to experience feelings of guilt, impotence, or incompetence in a life situation culturally acknowledged as crucial.

The second stage of schizophrenic withdrawal is manifested by a sense of isolation and estrangement from ordinary cultural concerns, which may be followed or accompanied by a pathological fixation on certain ideas, events, or objects purportedly imbued with some sort of supernatural significance. This is also found in shamanism; initiatory seclusion of the shamanic candidate is common among many tribes, and this is symbolic of the shaman's psychic isolation, for "... the medicine man stands
apart from the world of the profane precisely because he has more direct relations with the sacred and manipulates its manifestations more effectively" (Eliade 1964, p. 31). In this and later stages, the schizophrenic or shaman may develop a fixed ideation on a narrow circle of significant ideas, "omens," or objects, often becoming so intense as to result in sleep loss or autohypnosis. The boundaries between sleeping and waking break down, and the novice shaman lives in a twilight world of hypnagogic fantasy and half-waking reverie.
In both schizophrenia and shamanism, this is followed by a fusion of lower referential processes with higher, so that the mind is inundated by a flood of archaic imagery that seems to come from outside sources; in shamanism, this stage is typical of the fully manifested trance.
The fact that they are entirely different from anything previously experienced lends support to the assumption that they have come from the realm of the supernatural. [...] (Silverman 1967, p.28)

The altered perception of reality into which this newly opened region of cognition plunges the schizophrenic has, in modern societies, no cultural validity.

The last stage in the progression, that of "cognitive reorganization" to cope with the altered perception in which the individual now lives, is for the shaman and for the schizophrenic much the same thing—the arduous task of learning to use the altered perception to good advantage, for creative endeavor and increased sensitivity. An important difference, however, is that in our culture the schizophrenic is forced to work out his adjustment without the benefit of culturally sanctioned attitudes of acceptance for the expanded reality that he now inhabits, whereas in primitive society not only is the shaman in possession of an elaborate body of traditional teachings regarding his illness, but his adjustment is made much easier by virtue of his accepted and respected social position.

He is the technician of the numinous par excellence, and his vocation is a demanding one, consisting as it does of maintaining a constant equilibrium between ordinary reality and the supernatural realm. The shaman's psychic life is not unlike the unnaturally dexterous dances he performs at the height of his ecstasy; it is a constant balancing act, as though he were a psychic tightrope walker on the razor's edge between the external world and the bizarre, magical, often terrifying world within.

However, one of the major differences between shamans and schizophrenics appears to lie in the cultural attitudes with which they are regarded, and this disparity is perhaps deserving of some comment.
Lommel (1967) says of shamanism as a possible cure technique:
The way out of the situation lies in shamanizing; that is to say, the mental sickness can be healed only if the sufferer accepts the often unwanted and feared office of shaman, which the spirits are forcing upon him. We gain the impression that early man has found an almost unfailing way of curing mental disease, that a certain psychic constitution makes escape from a pathological state possible. (p. 53)
The suggestion that we wish to infer from Lommel's observation is that perhaps, in literate cultures, the schizophrenic is the victim of a culturally misdirected attitude. It seems reasonable to suggest that in our culture the schizophrenic provides a necessary pipeline to the collective unconscious, just as the shaman does in tribal societies. The spiritual atrophying of contemporary culture may be due in large measure to its loss of sensitivity to processes in the collective unconscious. A reinstitution of the shamanic role in modern society might prevent its total estrangement from the collective unconscious, which remains the fountainhead of all human cultures, archaic or modern.


We could feel the presence of some invisible hyperspatial entity, an ally, which seemed to be observing and sometimes exerting influence on the situation to keep us moving gently toward an experimental resolution of the ideas we were generating. Because of the alien nature of the tryptamine trance, its seeming accentuation of themes alien, insectile, and futuristic, and because of previous experiences with tryptamine in which insectile hallucinatory transformations of human beings were observed, we were led to speculate that the role of the presence was somehow like that of an an- thropologist, come to give humanity the keys to galactarian citizenship. We discussed this entity in terms of a giant insect and, through the insect trill of the Amazon jungle at midday, seemed able to discern a deeper harmonic buzz that somehow signified the unseen outsider. This sense of the presence of an alien third entity was sometimes very intense...