Today’s episode transcription of the Psychedelic Passage compares the cultural significance of Terence McKenna’s popularization of the term ‘heroic dose’ to Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology studies on ‘the hero’s journey’.
While one term places large emphasis on psychedelic dosage, the other works to unravel common themes that underscore ages of human suffering and transcendence. Our co-founders will debunk myths surrounding the heroic dose by highlighting its common lack of consideration toward harm reduction, community support, and intentionality.
Nicholas and Jimmy will explain how heroic doses are often unconsciously used to cloak the ego’s desire for validation and social recognition. They’ll discuss why dosage isn’t an appropriate measure of resilience and spiritual intellect.
Later they’ll use the themes of revelation, death, and rebirth to exemplify how the hero’s journey is embedded across all channels of intrapersonal transformation. How has the concept of a heroic dose been used to invalidate the self-actualizing initiatives of low-dose psychedelic journeyers? Why is the heroic dose based on conditionality and how does the hero’s journey accentuate the contrary?
Episode 18: Does The Heroic Dose Downplay The Hero’s Journey?
Jimmy: Welcome to the Psychedelic Passage podcast. My name is Jimmy Nguyen. I’m joined here by my co-host, Nick Levich. Really great to have you all on this week’s episode. We got a really juicy topic for you all. And this week, we’re going to be discussing heroic doses and how that compares to the hero’s journey.
I’ll preface by saying that there’s this term ‘heroic dose’ out there, originated from one of the forebears of psychedelic interest back in the 60s and 70s, Terence McKenna. And what folks tend to gravitate to is that five grams is a heroic dose.
What we’re trying to do in this episode is to debunk, I think, some myths around heroic doses. And then actually talk about where the origins of that come from, which is the hero’s journey or the monomyth, which has been really encapsulated through the work of Joseph Campbell.
So, we got a lot to dive in and discuss here. And, as always, we’ll try to make it tangible and applicable. Though, I also know that there are some philosophical components of the hero’s journey that really do apply to altered states and peak experiences, especially surrounding psychedelics.
Where do you want to start, Nick, do you want to start by breaking down the hero’s journey? Or, do you want to start by discussing heroic doses? Where do you feel–?
Nick: I think we should start with the heroic doses.
Jimmy: Okay, got it. Yeah.
When The Heroic Dose Cloaks an Unconscious Desire For Validation
Nick: You’ve already touched on this, but the heroic dose was really coined by Terence McKenna. And his definition of that was five grams of psilocybin mushrooms, in a dark room alone, by yourself. Now–
Jimmy: Which both of us have done, by the way. [laughs]
Nick: We’ve done this.
Jimmy: [laughs] We had a mixed result. [laughs]
Nick: I have been there but that’s not something that I would recommend to the average journeyer, especially not a first-time journeyer or someone who doesn’t consider themselves to be fairly experienced with psychedelics. One of the things that you always touch on, Jimmy, is that doing that doesn’t make you a hero.
Jimmy: Yeah. I share two things about this. One is that there is a history in the culture of psychedelic use, at least in this country, where people really push themselves to the brink and go as far as they can go.
Almost as some type of a badge of honor to say, “Oh, I’ve had hundred psychedelic experiences,” or, as we talked about, in some of our last episodes, “Oh, I killed my ego a long time ago,” or there’s kind of this like brazen cavalier part of, I think the psychedelic culture, which I share doesn’t have a lot of benefit or merit in intentional psychedelic use.
What I mean by that is the number of experiences that you have and the dosage that you have, does not remark how much healing you’ve done through psychedelics.
Nick: Let’s paint a little picture for folks, because you and I have both come across people that have 100-plus journeys under their belt, and they’re kind of an a**hole. The way they show up in the world does not reflect the number of journeys or the dosages that they’ve done.
What we’re trying to do here is separate out that how many of the times you’ve journeyed or how deep you’ve gone on those journeys really has nothing to do with how embodied you are, how you show up in the world, whether you’re actually a kind and compassionate person or not.
Psychedelics can be used to arm the ego with more material and more ideas of being this grandiose being. I think there’s this common conception, and I see this with clients too.
I’ve literally had clients be like, “Oh, politicians should do psilocybin after they come out of a journey.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but also, they’ll find a way to spin it to their advantage too.” Our egos crazy and it can use anything that we give it as fuel to further boast its position.”
Jimmy: Yeah, hence that phrase we speak of commonly here, which is the nonspecific amplifier component of this. I had a visceral nervous system reaction when you were talking about politicians doing psychedelics, because, look, the amount of experiences that you have and the dosages that you have there, are just not a mark on how much internal work that you’ve done.
And this also posits what we share about how integration and doing that in a community or with support is so important because again, the mind is super powerful. It can convince you into anything.
What I hear you saying is that there is a somewhat this holier-than-thou type of aspect for some folks who embark on peak experiences, they drive for those all the time, let’s push our boundaries, let’s go ahead and do that. And then a lot of times that then puts safety, that puts harm reduction, that puts intentionality as lowered down the pole of importance there.
The main thing that I want to share is that you’re a damn hero no matter how much the dose is. The whole fact that you are even wanting to use psychedelics in an intentional way to heal or discover yourself, or look at your shadow side, or figure out how to show up in the world better, or address trauma. That’s just courageous in itself. I just had a client yesterday, two grams was the trick for them.
Jimmy: And for them, they dealt with decades of not-enoughness and lack of self-love. It was at the two-gram mark that they felt for the first time, this feeling of loving themselves, it is such a beautiful moment.
I’m still moved by it, and that was at two grams. And so what I want to share is that Terence McKenna is not a poster child for harm reduction, first and foremost, really, really– [crosstalk]
Nick: He was a psychonaut through and through.
Jimmy: For sure.
Nick: He was an explorer of consciousness. And there’s something to be said for that but what we’re talking about here is how to leverage the use of psychedelics for a much larger healing journey. And that is different than what Terence set out to do.
Jimmy: Mm-hmm, yeah. I think that in a world where sound bites and psychedelics kind of get packaged up in a way that is easily understood by folks, that’s where things like heroic doses that gets lost in translation.
From a just safety perspective, by the way, I don’t think everybody should be doing five grams. There are also people who go way beyond that to what they need. There are some folks who are in the 10, 12, 14-gram range. And that actually ends up what they need.
There are people in the two-gram, three-gram range, there are people who microdose. Are all microdosers not heroes then? Do you know what I mean?
What we’re sharing is that this sets up conditionality, thinking about heroic doses and that being the way or the only way, and it actually doesn’t have a mark on the potential for healing and change, depending on your life and depending on what you got going on with you.
Nick: Yeah, basically, what you’re saying is that dose and you being a hero are independent variables. One does not automatically lead to the other and vice versa. I agree with you that anyone that’s willing to embark on this journey, whether they use psychedelics or not, is embarking on the hero’s journey.
I think that inherently when we infuse something like psychedelics into the container, it really starts to look a lot more like what Joseph Campbell has outlined, which is the hero’s journey, not to be confused with the hero’s dose. And perhaps this is a good segue into that side of it.
Joseph Campbell’s Analysis of The Hero’s Journey
Jimmy: Yeah. Let me take a shot at this from a pure amateur and then maybe you can help me fill in the gaps. I promise I’m going to try not to ramble too hard here.
Joseph Campbell, he is an author, I say to a degree, he’s somewhat of an anthropologist, and what his focus in his work is comparative mythology and comparative religion.
So, a lot of what he was doing was analyzing and thinking about all of the differences, stories and myths across different cultures. And what he found is that there’s this commonality across many different stories. This is not necessarily for our purpose of conversation, not necessarily a conversation about religion or a conversation about specific cultures and things.
But what Joseph Campbell found was that there is this monomyth, this common story that really resonates with humans across different cultures, across different timelines, such as the story around Jesus Christ, Hercules, Hanuman in Hindu cultures.
What we find there is that there is this theme of this hero’s journey or this monomyth, where the main protagonist has this call for adventure. And then they go out and through some type of mystical or supernatural aid, whether it’s like an Oracle, or whether now some believe it’s actually the use of psychedelics in these ancient cultures, like Greece and the Elysian cultures.
And then they go out and they then accomplish this great feat. And then they return and share that with their people and their society and their culture. So let me pause there because I know I’m missing some stuff. Help me fill in some gaps here so that people can have a good baseline of this hero’s journey.
Nick: Well, one of the fundamental pieces here is before we get to the return and all the juicy stuff where you come back as a hero, there’s this descent into the unknown.
And that’s precisely what journeyers are embarking on when they choose to have a ceremony with psychedelics is you’re taking this plunge into the unknown, you prepare and prepare and prepare, but you don’t know what you don’t know.
You don’t know what’s going to come up, you don’t know what it’s going to feel like, you don’t know what to expect. And that is where the courage is because our human psyche is triggered by the unknown. It goes, “Oh, my God, fear, fear, fear, fear, fear.” There’s no courage if there’s no fear.
What happens here is the unknown becomes this growth point, when we’re ready, willing, and able to plunge into the unknown, we start to shift and expand our comfort zone, because we’re basically pushing ourselves. This journey can be done with the assistance of a mentor or a helper of some kind. There’s almost always some challenge or temptation–
Jimmy: And trials of tribulations, like having to go through and endure and come out on the other end of obstacles and challenges like you’re saying, to be able to have this transformative process that you’re defining.
Nick: And so that brings us to this death and rebirth component. There’s almost always some sort of revelation or aha moment. And then there’s this transformation that takes place afterward and then this eventual return back to community, society, family, whatever it is, and we cross back into more of the known realm.
Jimmy: The sharing of your gifts, I guess. Sharing of your journey and your process, which relates to what we share in why integration is so important. What is the point of these experiences if we don’t get to bring them back with us into our everyday life?
Nick: We actually see the journey that we take clients through is very, very similar to this hero’s journey. We just use different terms, but it maps out very directly. The client feels called to some sort of healing process, expanded state of awareness, knowing something and then there’s–
Jimmy: Are they’re suffering so greatly [crosstalk] something’s got to change.
Nick: And then they call in the help of the supernatural aid, which is the plant medicine in this case. And then they enlist their guardian-mentor-helper, which is often a guide or a facilitator. And then they begin to cross from the known into the unknown and face whatever it is that’s underneath the surface.
Now, in the psychedelic work, the journey is inward. It’s not external, but in some ways to me, that’s more challenging terrain to navigate is the internal peace versus the external. We face everything that we’ve suppressed and repressed and pushed away emotionally, mentally, spiritually.
And we see this in a lot of journeys, I’m sure you see this, Jim, firsthand is like, you can actually watch a client go through that death and rebirth process, like actively, while they’re journeying. And you see the transformation that ensues on the back end, and then eventually they have this return that we speak of.
How The Hero’s Journey is Embedded Into Our Society
Jimmy: Yeah. Well, a really salient thing that I’m hearing you say is that a hero’s journey in the application of psychedelics, but also in default, sober life too. Like, there’s a lot of examples like this. Just think about our American society and culture.
You grow up in a hometown, and for those who are privileged and lucky, they go off and explore the world and live somewhere else and whatnot, and then for many people, they return back to their hometown and maybe settle down and are different. They’re changed.
They have a different perspective. They have a different worldview. So, that’s baked into our American dreams like this idea of wanting to go and discover the world and return and make an impact and all that.
When Joseph Campbell talks about the hero’s journey, he talks about how it’s embedded into our DNA to some degree, regardless of what cultural background or socio-economic background and whatnot.
And some people posit that like Greek gods and goddesses, those stories, those myths and things were actually analogy for this internal process, which is what I really hear and you share that it is an internal process.
Nick: Yeah, because to the outside observer, you’re just lying on a couch or bed.
Jimmy: Wriggling, like I normally do. Yeah. [laughs] And it takes on different shapes and forms for different folks. I would share that there is– I think, the monomyth, the hero’s journey can be applicable, regardless of the angle in which you’re looking at intentional psychedelic use.
Regardless of whether that’s karma, whether that’s personal growth, spiritual growth, neuroscience, like, I think that no matter your worldview or beliefs, or the ways that you think about psychedelics, there’s an applicable template here. And as people have a framework, then it will hopefully help them to navigate this.
And so I have a lot of folks who are like, “I’m looking for relief. I’m looking for healing. I’m just suffering so greatly.” I really hear them. I have so much compassion for those folks.
And then I have to have a real conversation with them to be like, “Look, as a part of this process, you may confront some of your shadow and some of your demons, you may have a part where it’s challenging and difficult and overwhelming.”
Again, the challenging, difficult, overwhelming parts in the history of human use of psychedelics is an integral and inviting and welcome part of this process. For folks who want to just get to the return, they just want to go on their adventure, get to the return.
Nick: Skip all of the challenge–
Jimmy: Skip all the stuff, get all the benefits and then they come back and they’re like, “Ooh, I’m healed, great.” And then sometimes those are the folks who skip integration. And then guess what, three, four or five, six months later, they’re like, “I feel the same as when I started this thing. I’m suffering again, and I’m suffering greatly.”
I think that this is also in a conversation of not missing out on the opportunity because if you skip any of these components, then you’re possibly not completing the real process, this real process of going out and looking at the hardest parts of yourself.
Nick: Well, that’s because the way that the true healing takes place with psychedelics from my perspective is by uncovering what’s beneath the surface and going right to the root cause. And so most of the clients that come to us, they’re actually trying to alleviate a symptom. Very few people have the desire to address the root cause, most don’t even know what it is.
Jimmy: Yeah, which our society does not set us up well for, which is okay, but it’s the basis of this conversation.
I also find that too where I just had a call with a client where they were talking about how some of their intent was around their work, was around their relationships, was around what they do with their time and their passions and interests, and all of that.
And where they arrive to was in the integration process, they’re like, “Actually, there’s kind of this question on who I am and how I show up in this world?” In which case, all those other things are related to that.
And so just know that there’s a lot of layers to this process and you get to choose how deep you want to go to a degree. Or sometimes the medicine just slaps you up a little bit. It’s like, “No, you got to go deep here, my friend.”
Nick: And this goes back to the dosage thing. Sometimes you take two grams and go deep and sometimes you take two grams, and it’s like a joyride. The dosage is not the end-all be-all here.
Jimmy: It’s not the defining factor on the depth and richness and potential significance of your experience.
The Hero’s Journey, a Path For All
Nick: I also think it’s worth noting, and we could probably do a whole episode on this but this hero’s journey is also this whole concept of Rites of Passage, very similar, that we don’t really have a lot of in our society.
Like, monumental milestones of moving from, let’s just say boyhood to manhood is like turning 18 and like, you can enlist in the military and turning 21, you can drink. And that’s about the extent of it.
There’s no actual ushering in of a new way of being a new paradigm and a model for what these major transitions in life are like. And so most people have not been on anything remotely close to a hero’s journey, or Rites of Passage prior to something like this.
Jimmy: Yeah. Even for me, I’m like, “Oh, cool, I can do more sh** now.” When I’m 13, I can go to a PG-13 movie. And then when I’m 18, I can vote now. When I’m 21, I can drink. When I’m 25, I can rent a car. And all of those things are stuff that we can do. But it doesn’t answer the question, this deeper question on the transition.
The transition from childhood into teen-hood, or into adulthood, or the transition into being a career professional or transition into starting a family and maybe being a father or mother and you know whatnot, and so I agree with you.
There is a lot missing in the celebration and how important that stuff is. I really find this also with my clients who skew older. I don’t think we do a good job in our society of revering elders. And I also know that you say this all the time, being an elder isn’t a mark, and how many years that you’ve been here.
I find so many folks who are in their 70s, 80s, some of my favorite clients, by the way, because they got a lot of social conditioning and programming to debunk and decide, but then they’re like, “Oh, I’ve retired, and now I’m trying to figure out how I want to live my life that is meaningful for the rest of the maybe 3, 5, 7, 10, 12 years that I have.”
And I think that’s such an inspiring thing because if somebody in their 80s is still trying to discover how they can find fulfillment and impact the world and impact the people around them, for damn sure people who are younger 20s, 30s, 40s have a lot of opportunity for that, too.
I just want to share that it’s not necessarily– one of the things that I like about psychedelics is that it’s not about your physical prowess when we think about heroes. It’s not about people who have this supernatural skill set, like athletes in our society are heroes.
I like this grounding of the hero’s journey because it denotes the possibility that anybody can embark upon a heroic process, this process of truly discovering who they are and how that applies to how they show up in the world.
Nick: Yeah, it reminds me of Buddhist and Eastern philosophy, they often talk about how the hardest battles you’ll ever fight are the ones within. And that’s what you’re getting at here is the hero’s journey really happens within. It may take the external world to spark some of the desire to embark on it or to reflect some of these things back at us.
But the journey itself, that transformation is deeply internal. And I personally have an immense amount of respect for anyone that’s willing to embark on that process because you’re willing to take a look under the hood.
And there are a lot of people who say they want relief, but aren’t willing to look under the hood. And that’s regardless of your situation, circumstance in history, where the answer lies is internal.
Jimmy: Yeah. And there’s context around why and when you look under the hood, so if we’re using this car analogy, are you looking under the hood when the maintenance light comes on? Or, are you just taking a look to see, “How does this engine work? How does this whole thing even work?”
And then maybe there are some parts to optimize, or maybe it’s just the learning, maybe it’s just the understanding on like, “Oh, this is why oil is important for the functioning of this vehicle.” or, “Oh, sh**, I might have wiper fluid.”
I mean, I’m obviously being silly here with this car analogy, but it’s not always a utility when something’s wrong, I’ll share. And so, we find people across a range of different intents and purposes, whether they’re seekers, I kind of call them.
Whether folks are just trying to discover more about themselves or discover more about their spirituality, all the way to people who are truly suffering and wanting to address some type of issue whether it’d be mental health or something that happened to them in the past, traumatic or PTSD related. It’s not for us to define the validity of your intent.
What I really want to share is that there is this possibility of the hero’s journey for everybody of which psychedelics is one avenue that folks can take. It is very applicable as people look up like Joseph Campbell in the monomyth. And they’ll start to see, “Oh, there are some parallels here.”
And then really, what we’re trying to do here is just debunking the whole heroic dose thing. I mean, it’s the same as my gripe about how people talk about ego death nowadays. It shouldn’t be based on conditionality, I guess, is what I’m saying.
So, for those who are considering a Terence McKenna heroic dose, I just really invite you to think, “What’s in the best service to you?” And I am a freewill, free choice type of person. So, if you do decide that a solo journey with no one around, with five grams of psilocybin mushrooms is right for you, I’m not going to stop you.
I’ll also share that in my experience a little bit of reflection mirroring and accountability has made all the difference in my own process, in my own experience. Like the hero is aided in his pursuit or her pursuit or their pursuit when we’re thinking about the Joseph Campbell framework and so–
Nick: Like Joseph specifically mentioned helper, mentor, guardian, it’s not taken alone. Even the return symbolizes that you’re returning back to a community, a family, a unit of some kind. Even when you’re on your own, you’re still being held by community.
You’re still being supported by this larger container that may not be physically present at the time. But they’re in your awareness. They’re still holding that space for you.
Jimmy: Hmm. Yeah, so I feel we’ve done a fair job on breaking down heroic doses and some of the misnomers and pitfalls surrounding that. I feel like we’ve done a fair job. Some philosopher or anthropologist might be like, “You all butchered that,” but that’s okay.
We’re trying to apply it to what’s applicable in the context of psychedelics. So, is there anything else that you want to share with our listeners surrounding this?
Nick: I just want to reflect that if you’re willing to embark on your own healing journey with or without psychedelics, to me, that is the hero’s journey. Your willingness to go there, your willingness to dig deep, your willingness to look inward is reflective of that hero’s journey. And it has nothing to do with whether you choose to engage with plant medicines. And if you do, how much you take.
Jimmy: Yeah, thanks for that, Nick. I think that’s a really important message for people to hear. Well, that wraps up our episode this week. Thank you so much for listening. I know that this was somewhat of a heady topic, but as always, Nick and I tried to bring it down to tangible and actionable and how this can apply to your own exploration and pursuit of the self.
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