The Ultimate Guide to Terence Mckenna’s Heroic Dose of Mushrooms

In our articles, we’ve repeatedly used the phrase “heroic dose” to refer, generally, to an advanced psychedelic experience (on a standard five-level scale of dose size, from micro to beginner to moderate and so on, “heroic” is the highest level). That usage is not uncommon, and we will keep using it, but the phrase has a more specific meaning as well[i].

Terrance McKenna coined the term, originally using it to refer, precisely, to five grams of dried Psilocybe cubensis, taken and experienced alone, in the dark, with one’s eyes closed[ii]. Of course, five grams cannot be a rigidly-applied rule, since the potency of mushrooms varies (even within a single species), as does the sensitivity of users, both from person to person and for the same person over time; five grams does not always do the same thing. But the point is to take enough to seriously shake the foundations of the mind.

The circumstance of the experience is as important as the amount of mushroom—just taking a huge amount of psilocybin to see if you can handle it is not what McKenna meant. The method he recommended (in the dark, etc.) is designed to maximize the chance of having an overwhelming, transformative time. So while some heroic dosers vary the plan in one way or another, the point is to take steps to make the trip psychologically deep as well as chemically intense.

Consider the name, “heroic dose.” It’s not a dose so large that only a strong and brave person—a hero in the ordinary sense—can take it. Rather, this is “hero” as in the Hero’s Journey, the archetypal process of personal transformation described metaphorically in so many myths and fairy tales. The heroic dose is one way to go encounter the ineffable and come back changed.

Now, that’s all well and good, but please bear in mind what happens to the people in fairy tales who encounter the ineffable unprepared—they generally get eaten by something nasty. Taking the hero’s dose is seriously dangerous. The whole procedure is to go right up to the edge of what the body and mind can cope with, meaning even a slight miscalculation could cause permanent damage or worse.

The point of this article is not to tell you how to take a heroic dose, as there is no way an article like this can, all by itself, teach you everything you need to learn. Instead, our aim is to let you know what the heroic dose is so that you will have a starting point for learning more if it sounds interesting to you—or so you’ll know to stay away from it if it’s not for you.

It’s not for everybody.

Preparation

The heroic dose is not something to do on a whim. It’s a process, an undertaking, and without proper preparation it is not only dangerous but also not really heroic—you won’t enact the Hero’s Journey.

The first stages in preparation have to begin long before the heroic dose is even on the horizon, since only experienced psychonauts who have also completed a lot of emotional and spiritual ground-work are in a position to get anything out of taking the dose, never mind doing it safely. But once that experience and ground-work is in place and you have decided you want to take a heroic dose, there are a series of more specific steps to go through before actually swallowing the mushrooms.

Intention

The difference between taking the hero’s dose and “munching a lotta mushrooms, man” is intention. One way to think of it is that you have requested an audience with some important spiritual teacher. You’d have some reason for asking for the audience, some question or request, even if it was a very open-ended request, such as asking for a blessing, right? You wouldn’t just waltz in there for no reason and say “yo, what’s up?”

People often take a heroic dose out of a conviction that doing so is the next step in their spiritual development—meaning they have already done a certain amount of work to get to that step. Taking the dose prematurely would not be as rewarding, just like liking PhD-level courses when you’re still an undergrad would probably just be boring and confusing, not enlightening. Users might describe this next step as “meeting the Shadow” or “understanding the inner workings of the mind.”

Some people also take a heroic dose in order get through some kind of specific blockage in personal development, such as resolving trauma or finding a way to relieve treatment-resistant major depression.

It’s important to recognize that there is no guarantee that the mushrooms will do what the user wants them to do—the dose may be helpful in an utterly different way, or it may prove unhelpful. The point is that establishing a clear intention makes it more likely that the user will get something valuable from the experience.

Dosing

McKenna said five grams of dried Psilocybe cubensis, period, but some people have a much higher tolerance of psilocybin and need more to get into heroic territory, while others need less. And the potency of P. cubensis strains varies a good deal. Mushrooms belonging to the same strain, even the same flush, don’t always have identical potency, either. And then there are other mushroom species whose potency is radically different. The point is to take a dose large enough to have the right effect, however big that happens to be under the circumstances.

We can’t tell you what that dose is, as we don’t know your circumstances. We can warn against two possible sources of confusion.

One is that many writers don’t understand the difference between a strain and a species. Essentially, if two mushrooms belong to different strains of the same species, that’s like two different breeds of dog—one might be stronger than the other and shaped a little differently, but basically they’re the same thing. Mushrooms of different species are like, say, a dog and a wolf—knowing how to deal with one doesn’t mean knowing how to deal with the other! So when researching which kind of mushroom to take your dose with, make sure your sources of information are sound and you aren’t being told something is a dog when it’s really a wolf (or vice versa).

Second, you may be aware that there are psychoactive substances other than psilocybin—the mushroom, Amanita muscaria, for example, is psychoactive due to a completely different, and much more risky, biochemistry. Don’t assume that the heroic dose is a thing for all psychoactive substances. It might or might not be, and the ground rules for attempting such a thing could be very different, depending on what you’re taking. McKenna specified P. cubensis for a reason.

How Much is a Heroic Dose?

A ‘heroic dose’ is traditionally taken with five grams of Psilocybe cubensis. However; every mushroom has different level of psilocybin content. So if you wanted to take a ‘heroic dose’ with another species of magic mushroom you would need to take something equivalent to five grams of P. Cubensis. We have a magic mushroom dosage calculator which can be helpful with dosing.

Methods of consumption for a heroic dose are generally up to the user but popular ones include Lemon Tek and Shroom Tea.

Set and Setting

Any psilocybin experience depends on the user’s mindset (“set”) and surroundings (“setting”). For the heroic dose, the set is determined by intention and the process of getting ready, while the setting is supposed to minimize distraction and maximize psychological depth—in the dark, in the silence, alone, eyes closed, according to McKenna.

Some people vary the setting, most notably by having someone else present. The other person could be a trip-sitter who agrees to stay out of the way and not interfere unless something goes seriously wrong (a parachute on the “eject” seat, basically). The person could be a kind of security guard, standing by to take care of practical issues (such as an unexpected knock on the door) so the hero doesn’t get distracted by worrying about the mundane world. Or the other person could be a trained facilitator, such as a shaman or a therapist. The important thing is to not try to turn the experience into a social event.

Some people also choose to have activities available to do when tripping, such as food, art supplies, or music to provide a distraction and a focal point should the experience get to be too much. It’s important to realize that using these tools constitutes exiting the heroic journey mid-trip—that’s OK to do, just realize that’s what it is. This is part of what separates a heroic dose from just a really strong high dose; with a high dose, music or art or social contact with a trusted person can enhance and deepen the experience, but with the heroic dose the experience is supposed to consist only of an inner exploration with no distractions.

The final piece to consider is that while usually the whole point of attending to set and setting is to avoid a bad trip, with the heroic dose there is no bad trip. That is, the trip can become deeply unpleasant in exactly the way bad trips are and yet still be transformative and, hence, valuable. That doesn’t mean gritting one’s teeth and putting up with terror—it means adopting a fundamentally different approach to the experience such that very difficult thoughts and feelings can surface without causing harm. One technique is to accept whatever happens, to resist nothing—that’s a psychological skill that can be developed only through emotional and spiritual work and prior experience with altered states. So if your mindset doesn’t include a willingness to accept the deeply unpleasant today, it’s not the right day for the heroic dose.

Getting Ready

Once the trip is planned, the decisions made, helpers either summoned or sent away (depending on the plan), the dose measured out, there are a few steps you can take to prepare mentally and physically to take the dose. These include[iii]:

1) taking care of all issues and problems likely to distract you from the experience (for example, wash the dishes if you are otherwise likely to start worrying about the dishes needing to be washed).

2) fasting for 24 hours—said to make the trip feel “cleaner” and better-defined. Probably helps with psychological preparation, too, by setting aside the day prior as special and different from ordinary days.

3) focusing on and finalizing your intention for the trip.

4) meditating in order to achieve an open and grateful mindset.

If you think of something else, though, go ahead and do it. For example, a written record of why you want to take the heroic dose and what you hope to get out of it could be useful for after the trip, when you are integrating the experience.

You might think that the next section in this essay should describe the experience itself. It doesn’t. There are published descriptions of what taking the heroic dose is like, but they vary enormously and anyway they often contain statements along the lines of “I can’t really describe what happened next” or “you won’t understand what I’m talking about until you’ve done it yourself.”

We believe these reports. The ineffable, by definition, can’t be described in words, so we are not going to try.

Integration

Integration is the process of examining and coming to understand the trip after the fact[iv]. It is both an important safety procedure and the other thing, besides intention, that makes taking mushrooms become more than just a risky form of entertainment.

Taking any psychoactive substance is going to bring up new thought-patterns—and may at least partially suppress other thought-patterns. Changing the way you think, at least temporarily, is the whole point. But not all these changes are automatically good. Integration counts as a safety procedure because it catches and addresses changes that are potentially not good. It’s also how the user learns from and grows as a result of the trip. It’s important to recognize that mushrooms by themselves can’t impart wisdom, cure depression, or do any of the other things that people take mushrooms in order to do (besides feel really weird for six to eight hours). There is no such thing as wisdom in a bottle—or in a mushroom. Instead, the trip is a learning opportunity. It’s then up to the user to do the actual learning. “Integration” is the name of the process.

Without integration, you will soon forget everything of value you got during the trip, like a present that you unwrapped and got excited about but never took out of the box to use. What a waste!

There are multiple methods of integration, and it’s fine to use as many of them as you can, and to use them repeatedly over time. Here are a few, not in any particular order.

  1. Write down a description of the trip or draw pictures of it or both—make a detailed record, before you forget. Become aware of what you think it might mean. Notice anything that could be symbolic and research what the symbols could mean (there are multiple ways to do this). This procedure is rather like dream analysis, starting with an entry in a dream journal.
  2. Speaking of journals, try “journal” as a verb, rather than a noun. That is, use private writing as a tool to explore your thoughts and feelings. Sometimes things surface while one is writing that are not conscious otherwise.
  3. Talk to someone—someone qualified to offer guidance, ideally. This could be a therapist or a shaman (beware of people who call themselves shamans and aren’t) or other spiritual guide.
  4. Get moving. Yoga, acupuncture, dance, and other forms of bodywork can be very helpful for some people.
  5. Meditate—though be aware that “meditation” could mean a great many things, and some are more helpful than others. In fact, some forms of meditation are risky precisely because they are powerful—they effectively change how the mind works[v].

Unfortunately, many people who would never advocate the use of substances like psilocybin without the help of a guide (if they accept their use at all) happily provide a single paragraph of instruction and urge readers to use that paragraph to begin a solo mindfulness practice. There’s not a lot of research yet on what exactly meditation does to the brain, but it does do something—that’s the whole point. And it’s worth noting that the really old mindfulness traditions, the ones that go back hundreds or even thousands of years, don’t involve solo practices begun on the basis of a single paragraph of instruction. They involve close, long-term work with a qualified teacher within the context of a fully-developed philosophical and ethical system. There is probably a reason for that.

We’ll finish up by reiterating that taking the heroic dose means attempting the Hero’s Journey, an undertaking well-summarized (at least for Tolkien fans) by the phrase “there and back again.” It doesn’t count as heroic if you don’t come back.

Safety

Psilocybin is one of the safest available ways to alter your consciousness, but using it is not risk-free. Side effects can occur, and range from unpleasant to dangerous—fortunately, the latter are very rare, but it is possible to die from psilocybin use. Psychological problems are also possible. There are indirect dangers, too. A person might get hurt doing something dangerous that they would not normally try to do. A person might encounter law enforcement and be arrested and charged with possession and use of an illegal substance; in many jurisdictions, conviction on such charges could utterly devastate a life.

To minimize (though never actually eliminate) these risks, the standard advice is to understand the law in your jurisdiction, to begin with small doses (to find out how your body reacts to the mushrooms), to always err on the side of taking too little rather than too much, to pay careful attention to set and setting, and to always have a trip-sitter in case of difficulty. You will notice that some of these procedures are in direct contradiction with the basic definition of the heroic dose.

The thing is that taking the heroic dose is, to some degree, a deliberate risk. Just like rock-climbers sometimes climb without safety equipment in order to challenge themselves, psychonauts take the heroic dose in order to access those places in their minds that aren’t safe. It’s up to the user to decide how much risk to take and how many safety protocols it makes sense to ignore—yet another reason why the heroic dose is not for beginners. A beginner wouldn’t be able to make an informed decision about risk.

References:

[i]       Woolfe, S. (n.d.). Mushroom Dosage: From Microdosing to Heroic Doses. Retreat Guru

[ii]      Tripson, D.M. (n.d.). Magic Mushrooms: The Heroic Dose.

[iii]     PrimateWithShoesON (2020). Preparing for “Heroic Dose.”

[iv]     (2016). Integrating a Psychedelic Experience Through Personal and spiritual Practices. Psychedelic Times

[v]      Linder, J.N. (2021). The Potential Dangers of Mindfulness. Psychology Today

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