Machine Elves 101, or Why Terence McKenna Matters


 

If anyone ever wanted to get to know me (i.e., what makes Daniel tick) the
first thing I would have to tell them is, "Read Terence McKenna." In
online forums and real life scenarios alike, I quote McKenna like Jules
Winnfield quotes Ezekiel in Pulp Fiction. Passionate. With conviction.
My armor and weapon when I'm ready to blast the meandering monotony of
day-to-day living. However, most people ask, who is this guy? What exactly is
the Terence McKenna circus? And, what makes him so important?

A few weeks ago my friend Michelle suggested I write a "Terence for
Dummies" piece. So, since "For Dummies" is under copyright,
here's my bent on the McKenna legacy.


The Background

Terence Kemp McKenna (November 16, 1946 — April 3, 2000) was born under the auspices of a conventional
upbringing. His brother, Dennis, shared a penchant for the eccentricities of
the fringe. Not unlike most psychopomp aficionados, McKenna's introduction to
the realm of psychedelic phenomena came through Aldous Huxley's The Doors of
Perception
. The seed planted by this classic experiential account never
left the McKenna boys in their ever-growing studies in philosophy and the
sciences. After attaining his B.S. in Ecology and Conservation at U.C.
Berkeley, Terence moved to Japan, eventually travelling throughout Southeast
Asia until his mother died of cancer in 1971. A year later, Terence, Dennis,
and friends made a long-awaited trek into the lower Putumayo of the Amazon
Basin in search of a shamanic plant preparation called oo-koo-hé. The
death of their mother, and the trials that came with Western society, was
evident in their escape into the wilds of the rainforest. "We are at last
freed of our umbilical connection to civilization," wrote Terence in his
journal the first day on the river. (1) Dennis makes this sentiment clear as
well, in a letter to his brother a year before their expedition: ". . . I
have considered that [this journey] may well give us, as living men, willful
access to the doorway that the dead pass daily." (2) Though their trip was
specific to the exploration of a particular ceremonial medicine, it was indeed
part of a larger quest in the spirit of imagination and exploration, to
investigate the capacities of psychedelic consciousness.

Settling on the outskirts of the Mission at La Chorrera, it was the events that
transpired during this crusade that became the catalyst of McKenna's ideas.

The Experiment

It was here that Terence and his party became acquainted with Stropharia
cubensis
fungi (now known as Psilocybe cubensis). The psilocybin
alkaloid in this particular mushroom is part of the tryptamine class, which
bears a structural relationship to serotonin in the human brain. Particularly,
the correlation of biochemical functions between tryptamines and serotonin is
what inspired them. In their experiments, Terence and Dennis pursued through
firsthand experience the "phenomenology of the tryptamine dimension."
(3) The study involved Terence and Dennis as guinea pigs, testing out this
hypothesis: "Hallucinogens, by effecting the neural matrix, can produce
changes in consciousness in the temporal dimension." (4) The temporal
phenomena experienced here is not just described as pertaining to the dimension
of time, but that of the physical or material world as well.

In essence, you can change reality while tripping on ‘shrooms.

The bread crumbs leading the McKenna brothers to this perspective was in fact
the shamanic method. The Amazonian medicine ayahuasca-brewed from the Banisteriopsis
caapi
vine mixed with shrub leaves containing dimethyltryptamine (DMT)-is
used by indigenous ayahuasceros or curanderos (curers) as a
sacrament and medicine to heal the sick. Called "The Vine of the
Dead," ayahuasca is renowned for giving healers supernatural
abilities such as the ability to speak with the dead, with animals, and with
plants; telepathic communication; curing physical, emotional, and spiritual
ailments of all kinds, including addiction; and finally divination. Terence
wrote: "By entering the domain of plant intelligence, the shaman becomes,
in a way, privileged to a higher dimensional perspective on experience."
(5) These fantastical attributes inspired Terence and his brother to apply the
Baconian practice of scientific investigation with shamanic faculty.

Undergoing a lengthy binge in psilocybin mushrooms, they put this hypothesis to
the test.

The Result

Time stopped, became tangible. Encounters with a UFO. No sleep for eleven days
without any physical strain. These are just some of the phenomenal developments
manifested during the experiment at La Chorrera. To summarize their
conclusions, Terence and Dennis postulated that "all phenomena are at root
constellated by a waveform that is the hierarchical summation of its
constituent parts, morphogenetic patterns related to those in DNA." (6)
Basically, that time is an objective apparatus acting as a wave (instead of the
linear line framework we get from historiography) and that all events and
thought forms are the development of that wave's motion. The back and forth
motion, or crest and trough, of this wave is represented by critical moments in
history they call novelty: the discovery of fire, the birth of
agriculture, the creation of the Mona Lisa, the invention of the steam
engine, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and so on. "Time is
a topological manifold over which events must flow subject to the constraints
of the manifold […] by examining time from this point of view we can see when
in history great outbreaks of novelty occurred." (7) Within this waveform
the brothers found a pattern of novelty, a cycle in which the time spans
become shorter and shorter. When this pattern ends it becomes a singularity, a
zero point. Using a computer program they wrote, the McKenna brothers traced
this zero point to an approximate location on our calendar and found it
correlating with the end of the Mayan Calendar on December 22, 2012.

Now, keep in mind this theory was presented in 1975, long before the 2012 hype.
Before the 21st Century, the 2012 phenomenon was almost exclusively in the
McKenna camp. Most all of the apocalyptic doomsayers saw 2000, Y2K, or maybe
even Ronald Reagan's Presidential reign as the cusp of Armageddon. But, did the
McKennas really see this as the end of the world?

The Revival

"So historical patterns are largely cyclical, but not entirely-there is
ultimately a highest level of the pattern, which does not repeat, and that's
the part that is responsible for the advance into true novelty." (8)

Terence McKenna spent a large part of his career after this experiment
attending lectures and seminars. He had become an emerging figure of the
counter-culture, psychedelic movement, filling a void that had long been empty
since the quiet death of the hippie movement in the early 1970s. Through his
story-telling prowess, he regularly testified his arduous transition from
Platonic philosopher to psychonautic proselytizer. The common pattern found in
the majority of his presentations is a deconstruction of the modern,
consumerist tendencies that pervade Western society. These tendencies are
represented as the "dominator" model: "hierarchical,
paternalistic, materialistic, and male dominated." (9) What Terence saw as
the zero point at the end of history would actually manifest as the
dissemination of the dominator value system. This period would be characterized
as the "passing out of one set of laws that are conditioning existence and
into another radically different set of laws." (10)

This end point is a chaotic and trying time. Terence recognized this shift in
the world around us and did not lack a compass for which he could direct this
oncoming transformation. "The last best hope for dissolving the steep
walls of cultural inflexibility that appear to be channeling us toward true
ruin is a renewed shamanism," he wrote. (11) "In the view of our
present cultural impasse, I conclude that the next evolutionary step must
involve not only a repudiation of dominator culture but an Archaic
Revival." (12)

The Archaic Revival is McKenna's notion of our saving grace. It is a social
recovery of the value systems that have been lost since the late Neolithic Age
and can be surmised by these three aspects:

· The tribalization of society, reminiscent of the Goddess-worshipping days
before agriculture.
· A sense of planetary connectedness as a primary component of all cultural
habits and policy.
· Instead of values being imposed from external agencies, they should be
discovered in the inner realms through various forms of consciousness
expansion.

What this Revival looks like in the McKenna framework is a symphony of imagery
described as "energy unbounded by space or time," a "quantum
jump," or a "revelation of the interspecies' mind" as an
experiential "confrontation with the Jungian 'collective
unconscious'." (13). Whatever the result, the role of the tryptamine is
vital to this paradigm shift into the Archaic Revival. Simply put, psychedelics
of the entheogenic (plant spirit medicine) class are ego-suppressors. This is
the cardinal remedy for the dominator problem afflicting us, because "they
dissolve boundaries whatever the boundaries are. And as a consequence of
this they dissolve cultural programming." (14)

The Elves

"There are forces friendly to our struggle to birth ourselves as an intelligent
species." (15) The elf component is the spice in the Terence McKenna flavor.

It is the supernatural entities encountered during his tryptamine experiences
that compose the language of McKenna's Archaic pulpit. "In the phenomenon
of Stropharia cubensis, we are confronted with an intelligent and
seemingly alien life-form." (16) McKenna recounts time and time again the
analogous experiences with these entities, what he calls "self-transforming
machine elves" which one can make contact with in the psychedelic universe.
"Right here and now, one quanta away, there is raging a universe of active
intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien." (17) What
this suggests is that the psilocybin experience opens the pathways to a sort of
parallel dimension, where one can speak and interact with otherworldly beings.
The intrigue of this lies in its repeatability of these alien forms and the
nature of their interactions: "This spectacle of more than Oriental splendor is
the characteristic, even unvarying, manner in which this experience presents
itself." (18)

In fact, these elfin beings are a construct of a greater picture. Terence makes
it clear the "speaking entity" of the tryptamine realm is an interior
manifestation of the Logos, the ultimate source of all knowledge. The
machine elves act as a sort of ambassadorship for the Logos, the collective
unconscious, Oversoul, or Gaian Mind. It is from this place that Terence
received the knowledge of his time wave theory: "Shamans and mystics and
psychedelic travelers may be getting a very noisy, low-grade signal about a
future event that is somehow built into the structure of space and time." (19)

Again, the shamanic model makes itself evident. In indigenous societies, the
shaman receives all of his/her knowledge from the same type of beings through
entheogenic plants; it is integral to the success of their curing methods. "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." (20)

The Gist

"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 and modern." (21)

Terence McKenna evolved to a sort of psychedelic prophet. The Village Voice
called him the "Copernicus of consciousness." The reason I feel he has
something to offer society is because he recognizes that the current system is
broken. It doesn't serve the community; rather the community serves the system.
McKenna's approach was to turn the value system of modernism upside down. And
although at first glance it may seem Terence was obsessed only with the naked
embrace of the natural world, he was not without practicality. Indeed he felt
technology was a problem-solving mechanism that would help get us out of this
mess. "I think the electronic shaman-the person who pursues the exploration of
these spaces-exists to return to tell the rest of us about it." (22)

Are his ideas totally out there? Absolutely they are! But, that is precisely
the point. The McKenna recipe is about finding a new language in which to
understand our world. Because our current model of operating is so damaging to
our way of life that it might actually end our life, it will take an
absolute and agonizing reappraisal of our situation. However, Terence will be
the first to admit that he doesn't have the complete answer to this enigma:
"You have to take seriously the notion that understanding the universe is your
responsibility, because the only understanding of the universe that will be
useful to you is your own understanding." (23)

In conclusion, Terence McKenna was a scientist turned gypsy spokesperson for
the shamanic realms. His claim is that by ingesting certain plants we come into
contact with an objective reality that has a message for us. That message is
about returning to a way of living that is more conscious of the Earth as
personality, rather than a resource to tap. It is Terence's contention that the
plant spirits are trying to tell us this and that it is imperative to tune in
to their frequency. "Nature is not our enemy, to be raped and conquered. Nature
is ourselves, to be cherished and explored. Shamanism has always known this,
and shamanism has always, in its most authentic expressions, taught that the
path required allies. These allies are the hallucinogenic plants and the
mysterious teaching entities, luminous and transcendental, that reside in that
nearby dimension of ecstatic beauty and understanding that we have denied until
it is now nearly too late." (24)

But taking ourselves too seriously is not part of the McKenna formula. The
great attractor to Terence McKenna as counter-culture icon was his insistence
on having a good time. When asked in an interview by David Brown what the
ultimate goal of human evolution was, Terence's judicious response was plainly:
"Oh, a good party." (25)

Footnotes

1. True Hallucinations, p.23
2. True Hallucinations, p.5
3. The Invisible Landscape, p.98
4. The Invisible Landscape, p.74
5. Food of the Gods, p.8
6. The Invisible Landscape, p.111
7. Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness, p.11
8. The Archaic Revival, p.215
9. The Archaic Revival, p.149
10. True Hallucinations, p.199
11. Food of the Gods, p.98
12. Food of the Gods, p.92
13. The Invisible Landscape, p.176
14. The Archaic Revival, p.243
15. Food of the Gods, p.13
16. True Hallucinations, p.209
17. The Archaic Revival, p.38
18. The Invisible Landscape, p.114
19. Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness, p.156
20. The Invisible Landscape, p.12
21. The Invisible Landscape, p.27
22. The Archaic Revival, p.165
23. The Archaic Revival, p.88
24. Food of the Gods, p.274
25. The Archaic Revival, p.210

Bibliography

Abraham, Ralph, Terence McKenna, and Rupert Sheldrake. Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic
Consciousness
. Park Street Press, 2001.

McKenna, Dennis and Terence
McKenna. The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching
. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993.

McKenna, Terence. The
Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual
Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of
History
. San Francisco: Harper Collins,
1991.

McKenna, Terence. Food
of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge
. Bantam, 1993.

McKenna, Terence. True Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Author's
Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil's Paradise
. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993.

 

Image by Felipe Venâncio, courtesy of Creative Commons license.