Graham St. John, Ph.D.

Graham St. John, Ph.D.

Graham St John, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow, University of Fribourg, Switzerland. He is a cultural anthropologist specialising in event-cultures and entheogens. He has authored/edited eight books including "Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT". www.edgecentral.net
Graham St. John, Ph.D.

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Known to produce profound changes in sensory perception, mood, and thought, DMT is commonly smoked using crystal vaporizing methods, or blended with other herbs, as in “changa”.1 Whether explained as trips through parallel universes, odysseys in other dimensions, or journeys to the psychic antipodes, the vicissitudes of travel are implicit to DMT hyperspace, the passage through which is often embraced as a “breakthrough” experience. Like returned travellers, “psychonauts” familiar with this experience report passage into a “space” that may be shockingly alien or uncannily familiar, and possesses a deep quality of reality or realness.

While the experience is relatively brief, a perception of prolonged time is not uncommon. Distortions in space and time, complex geometric patterns, intense colors, energetic light-sources, and encounters with disincarnate entities are reported features of this visionary space. Users also report a variety of outcomes from what appears to be a deeply transpersonal experience: the DMT trance may be disturbing, or it may be exhilarating, it may give cause for alarm, induce a state of grace, challenge one’s belief system, inspire reevaluation of one’s motives, or incite a sense of responsibility.

As a transpersonal event, the DMT breakthrough experience could hold the status of an “exceptional human experience” (EHE). That is, it might be an experience that results in a transformed identity or worldview. To follow Stanley Krippner’s thinking,2 DMT might warrant this mantle if a consequential realization of the experient’s full human potential is not, at the same time, harmful to others. As a virtual passage event, the breakthrough experience is commonly received as a form of initiation, with users often behaving like initiates. Returnees share stories with fellow users in private gatherings or personal camping spaces at dance and lifestyle festivals, or through online retellings of the adventures of “SWIM” (Someone Who Isn’t Me) on webforums.

As reports of transitional experiences, effectively writings of passage, trip reports often possess the rhetoric of initiation, of risks taken, and ordeals endured and overcome. They evoke heroic journeys, with enthusiasts typically narrating passage through episodes involving shock and awe, dread and bliss, fear and love. Many advocates, including those who have only had DMT once, convey their exposure to an event, or series of events, challenging the precept that consciousness is localized in the brain. This was the case, for instance, for musician Devin James Fry, who was inspired to write the song “I Touch My Face in Hyperspace Oh Yeah.” Fry has been quoted to state: “It’s like seeing the source code of the universe: a river of vibrating mandalas, geometric shapes shifting and moving. That night I became it. There wasn’t a separation anymore—I was part of that. I was certain that consciousness is a non-local event …  It’s more like we’re antennas beaming something in for the duration of our time in these bodies”.3

Regardless of the outcome, it is evident from the archetypically liminal symbols—e.g. doors, gates, tunnels, time-holes, windows—that permeate the experience, and in the artworks, songs and other representations of the experience, that DMT is infused with mysterious potential. Sometimes depicted as spiraling wormholes, other times, fabulous archways pulsating in colors not of this world, hyperdimensional polytopes like rotating tesseracts, or fractal checkerboard vortices imbued with countless arcane sigils, thresholds are native to the DMT experience and its art.

Among the most common symbols of passage in the breakthrough DMT experience is what many have identified as “the chrysanthemum” effect. For Terence McKenna, the “chrysanthemum” appeared in the form of Chinese brocade, which, when enough DMT is ingested, would dissipate or dissolve. And then, as McKenna described, “there’s a sound like a saran wrap bread wrapper being crumpled up and thrown away… and then there’s a defined sense of bursting through something, a membrane”.

Promoting the effects of DMT in public speaking engagements, mostly in the US and UK, through the 1980s and 1990s, McKenna became the lead commentator on this threshold-popping moment, with his voice sampled more often than any other individual in psychedelic electronica.4 Here is McKenna demonstrating that he remains an authoritative voice: “And then, these colors begin racing together, and it forms this mandala … slowly rotating thing, which I call ‘the chrysanthemum.’ This is a place in the trip that you want to see as you go by it. And the chrysanthemum forms and you watch it for like 15 seconds. If it doesn’t give way, then you didn’t do enough. You have to do more, one more hit.”5

In the depiction of the transit in the video above, DMTrmx, visual media producers Martin Stebbing and Toke Kim Klinke feature McKenna’s voice: “there’s an enormous cheer that goes up as you pass through this membrane.” The “cheer” to which McKenna gave voice belonged to the now infamous “machine elves of hyperspace,” entities that were first encountered in Berkeley, California in the autumn of 1965. For McKenna, these beings were the clown-like archetypes of the DMT event, which he stated defies categories, is unlexicographical, non-Euclidian, and grotesque.6  While McKenna’s views were influential, there has been a great variation in reported experiences among a networked community of users of DMT and similar substances. And yet, the passage experience remains constant. For example, for SFos, reporting on an episode from the early 1990s, moments after smoking DMT, there were:

all sorts of frequency modulations and crescendoed stacatto pops as the trip descended. This sound data was quiveringly involved with these visual architectonic dream waters that were beginning to emerge, dripping and slipping amongst themselves, and my being became overwhelmed by vacuous, gravity-like suction experiences which impelled me further in. . . .The sucking experience took over for a while then, driving the morphological acrobatics of spacelove that lay before me. There was something about it that makes me think of a voluptuous alien seductress with big, fat lips, pulling me to her body in the weirdest-feeling embrace ever. It felt like I was being smeared sensually and lustfully around the space in some sort of vacuum-tube funhouse.7


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For a great many users, the experience of DMT transit is consummated in the sensation of having gained admittance to an Ur-space of primary wisdom. While there is great variation, such a “space” is commonly perceived as a revered “vaulted dome”; the ultimate destination to which one arrives following a passage that is commonly fantastic and heroic. Among one of the volunteers of Rick Strassman’s experiments with DMT conducted in New Mexico in the early 1990, Marsha, an African-American woman in her mid-forties, having been injected with a high dose of DMT, found herself in “a beautiful domed structure, a virtual Taj Mahal… I don’t know what happened. All of a sudden, BAM! there I was. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen”8

The DMT transit is a subject textualized and given graphic expression on the Internet forum DMT-Nexus. In one thread, “the dome” is described: “The vaulted arching ceiling is a solid red against the dull grey floor. This area is sometimes populated by abstract entities, and sometimes not. Sometimes they just rest inert on the floor, and other times they may float about performing magical demonstrations”.9 For people who take DMT, this vaulted space seems to be regarded as much as an “inner sanctum” (a sanctuary and place of worship) as it is a “control center” (complete with scientific instrumentation and monitoring devices), or carnivalesque “elf dome.” Reports often conflate the spiritual, scientific, and carnivalesque aspects of a sacred panopticon of unfathomable proportions—a location from which all places and times, past, present, and future, can be viewed.

Even while people who return from this “space” struggle to convey the colors, shapes, and patterns, let alone the content “seen” in that realm, some make comparative reference to the interior of the dome in the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan Iran, which is considered to be a work of Persian Islamic genius. Upon first setting eyes on this marvel, art historian Robert Byron noted that the dome of Sheikh Lotfollah is “inset with a network of lemon-shaped compartments, which decrease in size as they ascend towards the formalized peacock at the apex”.10 And yet, this description offers nothing on the machinic contours of the DMT space, as described by McKenna. “You’re at the center of a mountain or something. And you’re in a room which aficionados call ‘the dome’ and people will ask each other ‘did you see the dome? Were you there?’ It’s softly lit, indirectly lit, and the walls—if such they be—are crawling with geometric hallucinations: very brightly colored, very iridescent with deep sheens and very high reflective surfaces. Everything is machine-like and polished and throbbing with energy”.11 The mosque and the laboratory, in turn, offer little insight on the exotic-erotic topsy-turviness of this space.

References

Cover artwork by Cyb.

  1. St John, G. (2017). “Aussiewaska: a cultural history of changa and ayahuasca analogues in Australia.” In B. C. Labate, C. Cavnar & A. Gearin (Eds.), The world ayahuasca diaspora: Challenges and controversies. New York City, NY: Routledge.
  2. Krippner, S. (2002). “Dancing with the trickster: Notes for a transpersonal autobiography.” International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 21(1), 1–18.
  3. Curtin, K. (2015, November 23). DMT journeys with Devin James Fry. The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved from  http://www.austinchronicle.com/daily/music/2015-11-23/dmt-journeys-with-devin-james-fry/
  4. St John, G. (2015). Mystery school in hyperspace: a cultural history of DMT. Berkeley, CA: Evolver / North Atlantic Books.
  5.  Terence McKenna sampled on “Atmospheric Refraction” by Solar Powered Beings, on PsyChill album Original Knowledge (compiled by Shoom), Mystic Sound Records (2015).
  6.  McKenna, Terence. 1994. “Rap Dancing into the 3rd Millennium.” Presented at Starwood XIV Festival, Brushwood Folklore Center, Sherman, New York, July 19–24, 1994.
  7.  SFos. (2000, June 14). The elven antics annex: An experience with DMT (ID 1841). Erowid.org.. Retrieved from: erowid.org/exp/1841.
  8.  Strassman, R. (2001). DMT, the spirit molecule: A doctor’s revolutionary research into the biology of near-death and mystical experiences. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.
  9. Global. (2013). Schematic of “the dome.” Message posted to DMT-Nexus. Retrieved from: https://www.dmt-nexus.me/forum/default.aspx?g=posts&t=47344
  10. Byron, R. (2004/1937). The road to Oxiana. London: Pimlico.
  11.  McKenna, Terence. 1994. “Rap Dancing into the 3rd Millennium.” Presented at Starwood XIV Festival, Brushwood Folklore Center, Sherman, New York, July 19–24, 1994.

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