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.
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.
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.
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?
"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)
"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)
"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)
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
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.