Terence McKenna, R.I.P.
Psychedelic visionary explored mind-expanding drugs, the Amazon rain forest, the end of time and, now, death.
Note: The following was an article I wrote and published in the Tacoma Reporter, an alternative weekly, on April 27, 2000. I am posting it here today to honor the weekend of the 20th anniversary of Terence McKenna’s passing into the Great Unknown.
Note II: I share this not only to honor McKenna, but because his message of Being Human in opposition to the rise of Culture seems even more relevant today than it did 20 years ago. There’s much more I’ll say about that in future essays. For now, enjoy this look at some of the provocative thoughts of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating thinkers.
Terence McKenna lounges in the Café Beyond Time and he just can’t stop giggling at the Irony of It All. He spent just over 53 years on the human plane, sharing his cosmic consciousness with the rest of us, rapping about everything from nanotechnology, fractal mathematics and human evolution to the end of time as we know it, all while quoting extensively from the likes of Marshall McLuhan and Carl Jung.
Indeed, the world-traveling scholar with hundreds of radical theories could talk for hours without notes and without repeating himself. But on April 3, 2000, the universe had the last laugh on McKenna, when the wizard of the mind succumbed to an extremely rare brain tumor.
“The irony of it for me is incredible,” said McKenna in a final interview. “I’ve always made my living as a brain guy, thinking.”
I spent a Friday night soon after McKenna’s death, celebrating the vast resources of his mind with close to 100 other fans of the late theoretician. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect; we watched two videos about McKenna on the Art Deco ferry boat, the Kalakala, which sits at the north end of Seattle’s Lake Union and looks like something out of McKenna’s imagination.
Maintain Your Humanness, Don’t Let Culture Defeat You
While mainstream culture would like to ignore McKenna’s contributions to the intellectual world — writing him off as a crazy whack who ingested too many drugs — the reality is that McKenna’s words have inspired countless legions of people around the world to explore their consciousness and to resist buying into everything our society would have us believe. He taught us that to be more human is the greatest thing we can do in our short time here on Earth.
“The important thing at this moment is your humanness,” McKenna said in a brief video called Alien Dreamtime. “The major thing making war on your humanness is culture.”
Hearing McKenna speak is akin to a psychedelic trip; the word maestro is able to take one beyond the boundaries created by cultural conditioning and into a space where thoughts are free to roam limitless possibilities (“We shouldn’t assume time travel is impossible simply because it hasn’t been done,” he said).
First Time Traveler From April 2020 Intrusion
One can listen for weeks to his talks on the excellent, long-running Psychedelic Salon podcast.
After viewing his final talk to Seattle — a 90-minute video entitled Shamans Among the Machines — my mind was dizzy from contemplating our archaic ancestors’ use of psychedelic plants, how that practice affected our evolution and just where the technological revolution is taking us. On one hand, I wanted the information to stop moving around my mind, but on the other, McKenna’s words had created an insatiable desire to learn everything I could about everything.
While many — particularly those in law-enforcement positions who have never ingested psychedelics — like to discredit McKenna because of his penchant for “illicit drug” use, McKenna will only defend those chemicals
that are naturally occurring, that are time-tested and that lead to
transcendent experiences, including the super-powerful DMT, psilocybin mushrooms and marijuana.
“Drugs are about dulling perception, about addiction and about behavioral repetition,” he said in a 1994 interview. “What psychedelics are about is pattern-dissolving experiences of an extraordinarily high or different awareness. They are the exact opposite of drugs. They promote questioning, they promote consciousness, they promote value examinations, they promote the reconstruction of behavioral patterns.
“The important thing about cannabis is its consciousness-altering effect, and I think the Establishment is perfectly aware that’s the issue,” he continued. “They’re keeping cannabis illegal because it causes people to question the social values that they’re being programmed with.”
Second Time Traveler From April 2020 Intrusion
I live in Japan. Cannabis is still extremely illegal here. Getting caught with even a leaf will lead to lots of bad shit. I’ve heard prison, hard labor and oral sex with sheep. Not cool. Anyway, I don’t mess around with it here as a result.
So when I visit my native Washington state every few years, well, it’s a different world. And well, the weed nowadays … it seems a bit too powerful. To me.
After one paranoia-inducing smoke session, I had this thought: Perhaps the Establishment has legalized it and allowed such powerful versions as a way to keep the population dulled? Now, I don’t really think so, but perhaps that is what they are thinking.
And also, I’d just seen the excellent 2018 movie, Sorry to Bother You, and if you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why I was having those thoughts. Back to the essay …
It is this kind of straightforward, no-holds-barred approach to the issue of drugs — and the resulting suppression of consciousness-expanding agents by governments around the world — that gave McKenna’s fans reason to feel they were not alone with their ideas.
“I never met Terence,” said one speaker in Seattle. “Lots of people just think you’re crazy when you try to tell them of your psychedelic experiences. And just when you think you may be crazy, you read the work of this man who knew exactly what you were talking about. That was comforting to me and I can’t thank him enough.”
For the average Joe to become comfortable with McKenna’s theories on psychedelic drugs, he first must drop most of his preconceptions about drugs — many of which are fed to us by a media that is more intent on manipulating the public through fear than educating it about the complexities of drug use.
“The word ‘drug” has been so totally corrupted by the forces in control that you can’t even have a rational discussion with people,” McKenna said in an interview with Mondo 2000. “When the myth of the dangers of drugs becomes too expensive to support, it will be abandoned and tossed away. Part of the problem is that people are easily manipulated and led because they have no information to base any resistance on.”
In the 1980s, a decade when even former LSD guru Timothy Leary was downplaying his promotion of psychedelic drugs, McKenna held strong to his message that these chemicals — if used correctly — could help humanity by raising our consciousness.
While the mainstream would like to believe that McKenna’s message is just on the fringes of society — among artists, bohemians and hippies — the reality is that McKenna’s work has made inroads into the lives of people in
Marty is a banker who lives on Vashon Island and does not want his full name to be used because of the stigma surrounding illegal drug use. He first met McKenna 12 years ago at a conference in California and over the years developed a friendship with him.
“He was so inspiring in how openly he talked about psychedelics,” said
Don, who recalls fondly sitting around a hot tub in Mexico at a conference and just listening to McKenna rap. “He was so fun to hang out with; he could just capture your mind.”
McKenna And Other 20th Century Greats Promoted Psychedelics
McKenna was not the first 20th-century individual to speak excitedly about the possibilities of psychedelics. In the early 1960s, psychologists were making groundbreaking progress in their field by using LSD and psilocybin.
And cultural luminaries such as Henry Luce, publisher of Time and Life magazine, actor Cary Grant and philosopher Alan Watts also raved about the potential use of these chemicals for spiritual and psychological purposes.
In fact, it was McKenna’s study of another psychedelic enthusiast,
philosopher Aldous Huxley — the author of Brave New World and two essays on psychedelics entitled “The Doors of Perception” and “Heaven and Hell” — which prompted McKenna, then a student in San Francisco in the mid-1960s, to pursue his career studying these substances.
And pursue it he did. Like a psychedelic Indiana Jones, McKenna and his brother Dennis, a research pharmacologist, traveled to the Amazon rain forest in 1971 and had their first experience with magic mushrooms and DMT, which McKenna later described as a “megatonnage hallucinogen.” The brothers brought home some mushrooms and began to cultivate them — which ultimately led to McKenna’s creation of a botanical garden for “ethnomedical” and rare plants on his property in Hawaii. And in 1975, they wrote a book about their experiences called The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching.
While this book put McKenna on the psychedelic map, it was his 1992 book Food of the Gods, which contains one of his more interesting theories.
The Stoned Ape Theory
Before our culture developed its puritanical attitude toward getting stoned, he wrote, we were primitive creatures living in the trees and eating plants. As we evolved, our diet changed. We discovered mushrooms growing in the waste of cattle and those who ate these magic mushrooms benefited in three ways: First, their visual acuity was improved with small doses, which increased hunting success; second, at slightly higher doses sexual arousal occurred, which increased reproductive success; and third, at even higher doses, psilocybin “triggers this activity in the language-forming capacity of the brain that manifests itself as song and vision.” All three of these things greatly advanced our evolution, McKenna argued.
Much of his studies surrounding pre-history concerned the art of
shamanism. Shamans, who used psychoactive chemicals to explore the inner resources of their minds, were often consulted by members of their tribe about future events — a pre-historic fortune-teller if you will. Through his use of psychedelic drugs and his study of this issue, McKenna came up with some shamanic predictions of his own.
“Apply psychedelics and the mind re-crystallizes on another plane,” he said. “It shows you a much broader swath of reality. Shamans have a different relationship to the future by dissolving the three-dimensional space-time matrix. Traditionally, they have used this to predict the weather, find game and cure illness.”
In fact, many shamans, including the Hopi elders of the American Southwest, have predicted a time of great (and possibly cataclysmic) Earth changes in our near future. McKenna, though, liked to think of himself as a glass-is-half-full personality and he thought our future might not be quite so dire.
“My idea of the perfect future is: The scene opens on a world that appears totally primitive. People are naked, people are orgiastic, and people are nomadic. But when they close their eyes, there are menus hanging in space,” McKenna said in the interview with Mondo 2000.
In fact, he said, shamans in the Amazon are already able to create these menus after ingesting DMT, which led McKenna to postulate that just as the mushroom aided our formation of language, these DMT trips may be predicting what our minds have in store for us in the near future. In an interview with High Times magazine, McKenna said, “We are going from a language that is heard to a language that is seen through a shift in interior processing.”
Just how soon will this occur? McKenna theorized that our society will take a great leap of consciousness on December 21, 2012: the day the 3,500-year Mayan calendar ends and the day the Sun eclipses the galactic center, which will occur only once. His belief in this date was a result of the computer program he dreamed up that describes the movement of time based on fractal mathematics and the rhythm of the I Ching.
Last Intrusion From the 2020 Time Traveler, I Promise
One of McKenna’s successors, Daniel Pinchbeck, has done some very fascinating speculating on what actually occurred in 2012 in two essays he published in 2019, The Occult Control System: UFOs, aliens, other dimensions, and future timelines, and 2012 Revisited: Prophecy and Transformation at the End of Time. He suggests that 2012 was a turning point into a new relationship with Time and, well, I tend to agree with him.
It’s a new consciousness that has emerged and solidified, a consciousness that is much murkier, much more content in maybe than in yes or no. I’ll save further speculation for future essays, but I did address the topic in the essay linked below, which I wrote last summer, about that first book of Pinchbeck’s and his appearance on the Duncan Trussell podcast.
Now, go away Time Traveler, back to the 2000 essay!
The Four Forces Impacting Our Future, According to Terence
Are McKenna’s theories too out there for you? Well, McKenna was always one to try to put difficult concepts in the most easily understood language. He suggested four areas that will have a huge impact on our future and could possibly lead to his predicted end date. They are: feminism, cybernetics, space travel and consciousness expansion.
“Feminism is a tremendously underestimated force,” McKenna said in a 1998 interview. “The understanding has not yet percolated throughout society that the advancement of women is a program vitally connected to the survival of human beings as a species. The reason for this is simply that institutions take on the character of the atoms which compose them, and what we are most menaced by are dehumanized institutions. If women played a major role in policy formation and execution on the parts of these institutions, I think they would have a far more benign and ecologically sensitive kind of character.”
While McKenna’s focus involving consciousness expansion has been devoted to psychedelic drugs, perhaps the most boundary dissolving revolution that is occurring right now is the role of the Internet.
“Terrence loved the Internet,” said a speaker in Seattle who designs brain machines which induce states similar to the psychedelic experience. “He viewed it as the Tree of Connectivity, a place where people could network and met others with like-minded ideas.”
Elizabeth Gips, a 77-year-old woman who spent over 30 years in the consciousness field, met McKenna before he became an internationally known super-lecturer.
“He was so brilliant,” she wrote in an e-mail. “His Irish gift of
spinning his brilliance out while talking extemporaneously was so enormous, that often it took me a long time, weeks even, after hearing him speak that I’d realize I didn’t agree with him at all. But it never mattered because always what he said titillated the far neurons of my brain, the nucleus of my cells, so that new ways of addressing life opened for me.”
Several other e-mails I received from cyber-citizens all reiterated the idea that McKenna had a life-changing influence on them.
“I think of Terence as an anchor in the space of possibilities that humans must explore to find our best evolutionary trajectory,” writes Valerie Gremillionpost. “By being open and honest about his personal research into psychedelics, he created a space in which others could do so. By speaking frankly about the degree of true weirdness and wonder accessible in our own minds through the use of these compounds, he expanded the ground from which we could explore our own potential, fearlessly and with a discerning and integrative eye. We owe him a debt of gratitude for his ice-breaking courage of these issues which are so important to human potential and awakening.”
A cyber-citizen who goes by Morpheus added, “For me, Terence clarified many points, made many more very much unclear and showed me whole new vistas that I never even slightly expected of existing. All in all, he proved in his own way to be about as psychedelic as the visionary plants he so lovingly extolled. Terence also drove home the conviction that one should not be afraid to be radical of thought and belief. In other words, if you do not chase your dreams, more than likely they will not ever actualize.”
Look past all the complex theories about our psychedelic history, the
possibility that mushrooms came from outer space, the concept that time will “end” in 2012. Look past and throw out our preconceptions about these issues and we find a man who’s message was overwhelmingly simple: Be more human.
And just how did McKenna advise us to do this? Through artistic expression, a greater appreciation for the beauty around us and from connecting with each other on a daily basis.
“He was such an inspiration to keep on plugging away at life,” said Marty, the Vashon Island banker. “The tendency is to fall into depression, but Terence pointed out the beauty of things, he convinced us to produce art and to fight back for humanness in an increasingly robotized, machine-like world. He was truly one of the most creative thinkers to come along in a long time and I already miss him greatly.”
Thanks for reading! You can support me simply by sharing my stuff. In addition I have a podcast, The B&P Realm Podcast, and my 2015, novel, The Teacher and the Tree Man, was very much inspired by Terence McKenna’s ideas and was released five years ago in April 2015 in honor of his passing. You can find that book in full here, or you can find it broken down into four shorter books (book 1, book 2, book 3 and book 4).