At 25, a friend introduced me to “Surfing Finnegans Wake,” in which a nasally man lectures for three hours, ostensibly off-the-cuff, on the psychedelic, boundary-dissolving experience of reading James Joyce. I remember thinking his voice sounded extra-terrestrial. It was Terence McKenna. Here’s a quote from the lecture, which will hopefully be blurbed on the next jacket cover of Finnegans Wake: “This [Finnegans Wake] comes about as close as anybody came to pushing the entire contents of the universe down into approximately 14 cubic inches.”
A year or so later, having forgotten about McKenna, I found the Psychedelic Salon, a podcast hosted by a friendly man named Lorenzo. It had hundreds of archived talks given by what seemed to be a community of people dedicated to psychedelics, and to a counter-culture movement of sorts. I wasn’t prepared to discover McKenna’s oeuvre. It was like I’d missed out on a grade level or college degree. He was, and still is, by way of these lectures and his books, one of the most well known psychonauts in recent history (up there with Timothy Leary and Alexander Shulgin).
In his works, it’s clear that McKenna was a student of many things besides botany and entheogens. He was a renaissance man, capable of lecturing on literature, history, Western and Eastern philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, ecology, shamanism, chemistry, biology. He had insight into our collective experience as technological creatures, and predicted a future world of virtual reality and simulation. He passed away in 2000, but I wish he could have been here for the Oculus Rift. He was a storyteller, a feminist and an environmentalist. A fair amount of his lectures are collected online here, and on YouTube, and the Psychedelic Salon.
McKenna advocated for the “legalization of nature.” He thought it was dangerous to forbid access to any plant medicine. But he wasn’t ignorant of the addictive nature of heroin and cocaine, modern inventions that need regulation.
Of the few psychedelic thinkers whose strange ideas breached the bland guard of the mainstream, McKenna’s facility with language sets him apart. He has endeared himself to the psychedelic community by way of his earnest and sci-fi-like descriptions of DMT, which has helped to assemble a new psychedelic vocabulary.
There is the issue of the Timewave Theory, where, combining historical events with the I Ching, he predicted the end of the world (or ‘beginning,’ somehow, it’s unclear) on December 21, 2012. There were ironic parties that night, and since the world didn’t end, maybe it was a premeditated jest to avoid becoming a cult figure, a seed of doubt for the devout.
It’s a brave and rare thing to expose idiosyncratic and alienating personal truths. McKenna made a career of it. I imagine McKenna is like a boat at sea. It’s lonely, probably, but he’s also free from our rote and dominant Western culture. There aren’t many people but your boat mates. Other sailors are few and far between. That’s the life of an explorer. McKenna touched land somewhere, met some little elves, and came back to tell us about it. And now, many others have taken McKenna’s lead, manning their own expeditions into the psyche.
I recommend experimenting; allow yourself a moment to wander through the elfish, “self-dribbling machine” land of McKenna’s famous DMT description. It captures the psychedelic experience in a way that has definitely never been written about in the history of humanity. I’m sure of it. It will remind you the world is strange and magical. His ideas enlarge, add to, increase and create complexity. McKenna was among the best at that. He had an ethos of novelty.
I’ve culled these quotes down to give you a fair picture of the variety of things McKenna thought about. If you want more, I recommend reading one of his books or exploring the many hours of lectures online.
Without further ado, here is McKenna, organized by topic, sourced mainly from his book, Food of the Gods (1992). Enjoy:
“Cannabis is anathema to the dominator culture because it deconditions or decouples users from accepted values. Because of its subliminally psychedelic effect, cannabis, when pursued as a lifestyle, places a person in intuitive contact with less goal-oriented and less competitive behavior patterns. For these reasons marijuana is unwelcome in the modern office environment, while a drug such as coffee, which reinforces the values of industrial culture, is both welcomed and encouraged. Cannabis use is correctly sensed as heretical and deeply disloyal to the values of male dominance and stratified hierarchy. Legalization of marijuana is thus a complex issue, since it involves legitimating a social factor that might ameliorate or even modify ego-dominant values.”
“There is no doubt that cannabis is trivialized as a commodity and is degraded by the designation ‘recreational drug,’ but there is also no doubt that when used occasionally in a context of ritual and culturally reinforced expectation of a transformation of consciousness, cannabis is capable of nearly the full spectrum of psychedelic effects associated with hallucinogens.”
“It diminishes the power of ego, has a mitigating effect on competitiveness, causes one to question authority, and reinforces the notion of the merely relative importance of social values.”
“If every alcoholic were a pothead, if every crack user were a pothead, if every smoker smoked only cannabis, the social consequences of the ‘drug problem’ would be transformed.”
“The word ayahuasca is a Quechua word that roughly translates as ‘vine of the dead’ or ‘vine of souls.’”
“Native peoples of the Amazon region have brilliantly exploited these facts in their search for techniques to access the magical dimensions crucial to shamanism. By combining, in ayahuasca, DMT-containing plants with plants that contain MAO inhibitors, they have long exploited a pharmacological mechanism, MAO inhibition, not described by Western science until the 1950s.”
“It’s themes and hallucinations are oriented toward the organic and the natural world, in marked contrast to the titanic, alien, and off-planet motifs that characterize the DMT flash.”
“The experience induced by ayahuasca includes extremely rich tapestries of visual hallucination that are particularly susceptible to being ‘driven’ and directed by sound, especially vocally produced sound.”
“Ayahuasqueros use sound and suggestion to direct healing energy into parts of the body and unexamined aspects of an individual’s personal history where psychic tension has come to rest. Often these methods exhibit startling parallels to the techniques of modern psychotherapy; at other times they seem to represent an understanding of possibilities and energies still unrecognized by western theories of healing.”
“It was said that women could not be given the vote because society would be destroyed. Before that, kings could not give up absolute power because chaos would result. And now we are told that drugs cannot be legalized because society would disintegrate. This is pure nonsense!”
“We are discovering that human beings are creatures of chemical habit with the same horrified disbelief as when the Victorians discovered that humans are creatures of sexual fantasy and obsession. This process of facing ourselves as a species is a necessary precondition to the creation of a more humane social and natural order.”
“Not to know one’s true identity is to be a mad, disensouled thing — a golem. And, indeed, this image, sickeningly Orwellian, applies to the mass of human beings now living in the high-tech industrial democracies. Their authenticity lies in their ability to obey and follow mass style changes that are conveyed through the media.”
“I believe that the failure of our civilization to come to terms with the issue of drugs and habitual destructive behavior is a legacy of unhappiness for us all. But if we sufficiently reconstructed our image of self and world, we could make out of psychopharmacology the stuff of our grandest hopes and dreams.”
“Under the influence of DMT, the world becomes an Arabian labyrinth, a palace, a more than possible Martian jewel, vast with motifs that flood the gaping mind with complex and wordless awe.”
“The extraordinary ease with which DMT utterly destroys all boundaries and conveys one into an impossible-to-anticipate and compellingly Other dimension is one of the miracles of life itself. And this first miracle is followed by a second: the utter ease and simplicity with which enzyme systems in the brain recognize the DMT molecules at the synapses.”
“When intoxicated by DMT, the mind finds itself in a convincingly real, apparently coexisting alien world. Not a world about our thoughts, our hopes, our fears; rather, a world about the tykes — their joys, their dreams, their poetry. Why? I have not the faintest idea.”
On Psychedelics In General
“The chief lesson to be learned from the psychedelic experience is the degree to which unexamined cultural values and limitations of language have made us the unwitting prisoners of our own assumptions.”
“Through psychedelics we are learning that God is not an idea, God is a lost continent in the human mind.”
“Plants are the missing link in the search to understand the human mind and its place in nature.”
“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.” – Food of the Gods, 1992
“Nature, in her evolutionary and morphogenetic richness, has offered a compelling model for us to follow in the shamanic task of re-sacralization and self-transformation that lies ahead. The totemic animal image for the future human to model is the octopus. This is because the cephalopods, the squids and octopi, lowly creatures though they may seem, have perfected a form of communication that is both psychedelic and telepathic — an inspiring model for the human communications of the future.”— Food of the Gods, 1992
“Human symbol formation, linguistic facility, and sensitivity to community values may also shift under the influence of psychoactive and physiologically active metabolites.”
“Then we made love. Or rather we had an experience that vaguely related to making love but was a thing unto itself. We were both howling and singing in the glossolalia of DMT, rolling over the ground with everything awash in crawling, geometric hallucinations. She was transformed; words exist to describe what she became — pure anima, Kali, Leucothea, something erotic but not human, something addressed to the species and not to the individual, glittering with the possibility of cannibalism, madness, space, and extinction. She seemed on the edge of devouring me.
“Reality was shattered. This kind of fucking occurs at the very limit of what is possible. Everything had been transformed into orgasm and visible, chattering oceans of elf language. Then I saw that where our bodies were glued together there was flowing, out of her, over me, over the floor of the roof, flowing everywhere, some sort of obsidian liquid, something dark and glittering, with color and lights within it. After the DMT flash, after the seizures of orgasms, after all that, this new thing shocked me to the core. What was this fluid and what was going on?
I looked at it. I looked right into it, and it was the surface of my own mind reflected in front of me. Was it translinguistic matter, the living opalescent excrescence of the alchemical abyss of hyperspace, something generated by the sex act performed under such crazy conditions? I looked into it again and now saw in it the lama who taught me Tibetan, who would have been asleep a mile away. In the fluid I saw him, in the company of a monk I had never seen; they were looking into a mirrored plate. Then I realized that they were watching me! I could not understand it. I looked away from the fluid and away from my companion, so intense was her aura of strangeness.” — True Hallucinations, 1994
Daniel Hand has also written for AlterNet. He wants a cat.
Follow him on Twitter @Platysta.