Alchemical Youth on the Edge of the World


Can magic mushrooms save the world? Terence McKenna makes the case that today’s global youth culture is reviving ancient shamanic techniques to dissolve ego boundaries and empower imagination. Tracing this impulse back to prehistoric mushroom use, McKenna sees history fast approaching a transcendental tipping point. To end the modern era’s disequilibrium, he argues we must reconnect with the mystical power of psychedelic plants. McKenna paints a mind-bending vision of how neo-shamanic youth, guided by plant teachers, can lift humanity into a new golden age of ecological harmony and psychic unity.


Okay. Well, I think of this talk as Alchemical Youth on the Edge of the World, because I thought what we would do this morning is anticipate the psychedelic nineties, and talk a little bit about the youth culture that is emerging worldwide, and some of the other considerations that the youth culture seems to be building bridges toward. Altogether, these various concerns seem to me to add up to a kind of neo-shamanism or a kind of archaic revival of social forms, many of which have been suppressed for several millennia. There are several facets to this new emerging psychedelic youth culture of the nineties. First of all, obviously, the ecology movement. This is something that was absent in the sixties, when the awareness of the approaching degradation and destruction of the natural environment had not advanced nearly as far as it has today. So there’s a general awareness in the youth culture that its elders are handing on to it a looted, polluted planet in which very little planning or provision was made for the saving of resources for any future generation.


So the ecology perception is part of this emerging social phenomenon, as is feminism. Feminism has been with us now for about fifteen years, but gone through various forms and recensions. Seems now to have taken the form that is very concerned to recover the religious attitudes that prevailed before patriarchy and history established themselves. In other words, we know that at some point in the past, 10,000–15,000 years in the past, there was a partnership society which imaged its supreme deity as Gaia, a goddess of the Earth. And a reawakening of the awareness of Gaia—and this really goes to the ecology movement as well—a reawakening of this feminine, ecological, Earth-centered awareness is definitely feeding into the aesthetics of this new counterculture that is arising.


Now, another facet—which is somewhat paradoxical, and perhaps on the surface in seeming opposition to the concerns of ecology and feminism—is what I call cyberculture or hacker culture. This means that a lot of people in the 16–30-year-old bracket are very aware of the underground uses and applications of technology. Not only computers and virtual reality and game-making, but also desktop publishing, garage band rock’n’roll, and a countercultural record industry that often runs on very small pressings of very obscure groups and sounds. Nevertheless, this technological cyberculture is what is making possible another facet of this youth culture, which is a specialty music, a transformed rock’n’roll, a culture-wide reinvigorating of musical forms. And, of course, driving that concern is the rediscovery of psychedelics.


Psychedelics, which were very big in the sixties (in the form of LSD, largely), were almost lost sight of in the seventies and the early eighties when the management-oriented yuppie culture came along. But now, with ecology, with feminism, with cyberculture in place and cross-fertilizing each other, psychedelics have become the natural glue for this movement. And they are largely plants. What is going on is an attempt to recapture the shamanistic institutions and styles that existed before history. And this means not only cannabis, which has been with us throughout the twentieth century, throughout all the countercultural and alternative moves of the twentieth century, but also largely mushrooms, mescaline, and so forth.


Special emphasis probably being given to mushrooms, because mushrooms have gone from being an obscure, tropical, deep-forest endemic to being something which can be cultivated in any garage or cellar in the land. And many people are doing this. It’s sort of an odd fact about mushrooms that the qualities you need to take them are precisely the qualities that you will inculcate into yourself if you learn how to grow them: punctuality, cleanliness, attention to detail, so forth and so on. I really think that the mushroom-growers within the new culture are the alchemists of the new culture. Their formula is rye to mold and mold to gold. And thank god for them, because they then create the juice that fuels the creativity of these other concerns that I’ve mentioned.


Really, the psychedelics, in my view, should be seen as enzymes for the imagination, or catalysts for language. And really, what the new youth culture is attempting to do is to reclaim the language-forming machinery for itself. A culture can evolve no faster than its language evolves: what is unspeakable is unthinkable. And consequently, part of the task of the new spirituality of the neo-shamanism is to empower language to go into areas where it has never gone before, particularly the area of emotion. It’s incredible how few words we have for our emotions when we have so very many words for even relatively obscure technical processes.


So I see the psychedelics as functioning in two areas. First of all, to catalyze and empower the imagination, and then secondly, to dissolve boundaries between people. I mean, if you look at 25,000 psychedelic experiences, the impression that you will have is: this experience is one which dissolves people’s boundaries. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a Hasidic Jew, a communist party apparatchik, a rainforest shaman. If they expose themselves to these psychoactive psychedelic plants, they will call into question their most basic beliefs and assumptions. This is what gives the psychedelics their inevitable political edge, because the establishment and maintenance of boundaries is something that most societies are very concerned with and put a lot of energy into. This is why, in the sixties, the spread of LSD was viewed with such alarm by the establishment, because it appeared that the machinery of right thinking, Christian, capitalist society was simply being dissolved before the startled eyes of its purveyors by virtue of the fact that so many people were calling into question the assumptions of the culture that they were inheriting.


Well, now we see something similar coming into being. Thirty years after the sixties, we appear to be poised on the edge of another youth decade, another decade in which youth will set the social agenda for society at large, and attempt to lead us away from some of the more lethal and self-destructive patterns that we seem to be so addicted to. Well now, why is this happening right at the moment?


Well, I prefer to think—rather than arguing rationally about it—that the reason the twentieth century has been so repeatedly disrupted or enlivened (depending on your point of view) by these eruptions of the avant-garde, the bohemians, the beatniks, the hippies, the youth culture of today, is because unconsciously we are actually responding to the presence ahead of us in the future of what I call the transcendental object at the end of time: a kind of strange attractor, a kind of sociological black hole, that reaches out to social processes in the act of evolving and puts a certain spin on them, calls them toward itself, so that history in the twentieth century is not a random walk or a trendless fluctuation as we are taught in the academy. Rather, history in the twentieth century is a triumphal march toward the revelation of a transcendental object that lies beyond the turn of the century. Every time we take a psychedelic compound, every time we slip into reverie, trance, or dream, we form a relationship, we encounter in mental hyperspace the long shadow of this transcendental object. It’s as though we’ve been moving along a surface for a long time now, many centuries, and now we are about to undergo a phase transition or fall off the cusp of the phase space.


And this falling off the cusp of the phase space is—for those who experience it—a dizzying sense of freedom, a dizzying sense of penetration into a dimension that was previously sensed and dreamed of, but which very briefly and occasionally comes forward to be realized. It’s a golden age similar to the golden age of Greece or the Renaissance. But for us it has a different character, because this transcendental object ahead of us in time seems like a kind of concrescence of all our hopes, fears, and intuitions about what the future and the evolution of our species could become. This is, I believe, why the UFO has been such a persistent motif in twentieth-century popular culture. It’s because we actually sense on the unconscious level a kind of approach of the end of time, a kind of closing distance between historical societies and some kind of truly mysterious, truly transcendental object that lies ahead of us in the future—in the near future.


And again, returning to the subject of the psychedelics: their role in all of this is that they seem to pick up and amplify that signal coming off this mysterious object hidden in the future. So that the contents of psychedelic experiences, when laid end-to-end in a composite, is to give a kind of picture of what this final scenario of global integration is going to be like. And though it is going to emerge as a phenomenon of culture, I think it will largely come out of not our cultural artifacts, not our technology, but out of human organization itself. It’s not for nothing that the self-transforming machine elves that one encounters on the other side of the DMT barrier, that what they seem to be concerned with is the teaching, invocation, and forced evolution of human language.


I think that, somehow, the part of human organization that is most likely to undergo an evolutionary transition is the portion related to the production of language. Even ordinary language, which we take so for granted—when looked at from the perspective of the rest of animal nature—is seen to be something very close to the thumbprint of god on the human world. I mean, you can take your dolphins and your ants and compare them to a Grateful Dead song or Milton’s Paradise Lost, and it’s clear that human communication is going on in a domain of glorification and completeness that is transcendently other when compared to all other forms of communication going on in the world.


Well then, isn’t it suggestive that when we use these tryptamine hallucinogens (hallucinogens which are strangely enough analogous to neurotransmitters within our own brains), that then what we burst through to is the equivalent of a kind of shamanic finishing school where self-transforming machine elves—apparently the animal life of this parallel continuum—are urging us to perform some kind of transformational act on our own language?


Well, I had this experience for many years before I found anything in the world of human experience, ethnography, or art history that could be mapped onto it. And then, in the early seventies, I took myself to the Amazon, and I discovered there groups of tribal people using a combinatory brew called ayahuasca: a visionary brew made of a giant woody liana called banisteriopsis caapi, and a small-leafed plant containing DMT called psychotria viridis. And when these two plants are brought together and brewed together for many hours, and then boiled and concentrated, a very powerful psychedelic substance results. And the people in these deep forest rainforest areas have been using this shamanic preparation for thousands and thousands of years.


When it was first encountered in the early years of this century, the compound was isolated and actually called “telepathine.” This was to refer to the apparent group states of mind that the people using this brew were getting into. Well, later it was realized that the compound had previously been isolated from the giant Syrian rue, pergamon harmala, and that the compound had already been named harmaline. So telepathine disappeared from the literature in favor of harmaline. But the thought is worth noting: that from the very beginning, the early explorers, ethnographers, anthropologists who contacted this folkway in the Amazon assumed that it had something to do with group states of mind.


Well, what I discovered—and I certainly wasn’t the first to discover it—in the Amazon in the early seventies was: the people in these tribal groups get together and they take ayahuasca, and their habit is to sing, to make music, vocal music. They have no drums, because in the Amazon the humidity is so high that no drumhead could remain stretched more than a few hours. So the people use rattles and leaf-shakers and vocal sound to produce what we would think of as beautiful tribal music. But what’s interesting about this beautiful tribal music is: after each performance, when you sit and listen to the people criticize the performance, they don’t say that it sounded very good, they will inevitably make comments like, “I liked the part with the silver bars and the blue dots, but I thought that the yellow could have been more intense, especially where it faded into the polka-dot brown and gray section.” In other words, when you listen to these people in these native contexts criticize these performances, you realize that for them it’s a visual performance. It’s sound which, under the influence of these plants, is actually beheld, actually seen by the people within this culture.


Well, this was very exciting to me. Because, you see, if you can see a situation from another person’s point of view, in a sense, you have become that other person. To stand in the other guy’s shoes is to see the world from that person’s point of view. It’s a very different way of relating to language than the way we ordinarily do it. You see, the ordinary way in which human beings communicate is: one person makes small mouth noises. The small mouth noises move across through the air as acoustical pressure waves. They then enter the mind-brain system of another person, and that person consults a culturally validated dictionary to see if their definitions overlap with the definitions of the person who created the sounds in the first place. Now, if there’s sufficient overlapping, then we say that communication is taking place, that understanding is occurring. But it’s always a very provisional and shaky kind of understanding. And as concepts become more complex, dictionaries become more incomplete and more divergent, and eventually two people of the same culture—if they’re discussing a highly technical question—may have no understanding of each other at all.


Well, this is very different from the situation that arises if we could literally see what the other person means. It’s not without implication for this argument that when we talk about perfecting communication, we unconsciously reach for visual metaphors. So someone will say, “I see what you mean.” Or “She painted a picture.” Or “His prose was luminous.” This means that we instinctively and unconsciously believe that meaning is something most clearly apprehended when seen. And one of the things that has excited me so much about the aboriginal use of psychedelic plants is: they seem to be on the brink of evolving forms of communication which move out of the realm of acoustical neurological processing and into the realm of visual acoustical processing.


Well, this has tremendous implications for the new world order that the youth culture is seeking to put into place. Cyberculture, music, psychedelics, feminism, ecology, the new spirituality—all of these concerns could profit and strengthen themselves by appealing to a visual language, a new way of processing what is heard. This is what I think art in the twentieth century has unconsciously been striving for ever since jazz and cubism and throughout the evolution of twelve-tone row, abstract expressionism, rock’n’roll, pop op, virtual reality. All of these schools of art and technological innovations in the art-making process are setting us up to be able to see what we mean at some point in the future. And this will deliver us essentially into the equivalent of a telepathic society. Now, you may have imagined telepathy as something different. You may have imagined it as some person speaking and another person hearing the thought composed. But this isn’t it. Telepathy will be nothing more than seeing what the other person intends; seeing meaning.


Now, why it is that when we dose ourselves with a human neurotransmitter like DMT, why we then encounter armies of elves teaching us a perfected form of communication, this is a very difficult question. When you go to traditional cultures—shamanistic cultures in the Amazon—and put this question to them, they answer without hesitation when you ask about these small entities. They say, “Oh yes. Those are the ancestors. Those are the ancestor spirits with which we work all of our magic.” This is worldwide and traditionally the answer that you would get from shamans if you were to ask them how they do their magic. It’s through the intercession of the helping spirit who is a creature in another dimension.


Well, we may have imagined many different scenarios of future technological and social innovation, but I think very few of us have imagined the possibility that the real program of shamanism would have to be taken seriously, and that shamans are actually people who have learned to penetrate into another dimension; a dimension where, for want of a better word, we would have to say the souls of the ancestors are somehow present. It isn’t, you see, as though we penetrate into the realm of the dead. It’s more as though we discover that this world is the realm of the dead, and that there is a kind of higher-dimensional world with greater degrees of freedom, with a greater sense of spontaneity, and a lesser dependency on the entropic world of matter, and that that other universe is attempting to impinge into our own—perhaps to rescue us from our historical dilemma. We don’t know. Perhaps shamans have always had commerce with these magical invisible worlds, and it’s only the sad fate of Western human beings to have lost touch and awareness with this domain to the point where it comes to us as a kind of a revelation.


You see, I believe that the whole fall into history—the whole rise of male dominance and patriarchy—really can be traced to a broken connection with the living world of the Gaian mind. And there’s nothing airy-fairy about this notion. The living world of the Gaian mind is what shamans access through psychoactive plants. And without psychoactive plants that access comes as an unconfirmable rumor. I believe that the social style of human beings 15,000–20,000 years ago was very, very different form the social styles of today. In the first place, people were nomadic pastoralists. They didn’t stay in one fixed area, but rather they followed around behind their flocks, and in the manure of these ungulate animals that had evolved with the primates on the grasslands of Africa was the mushroom. And the mushroom was acting as a tremendous force for directing the evolution of human beings away from that of the rest of the anthropoid apes and toward the unique adaptation that we see as special to human beings today.


It was doing this through a series of self-reinforcing tendencies that are easily enough understood. First of all, when you take small amounts of psilocybin—such small amounts that no psychological experience is apparent at all—there is a measurable increase in visual acuity. Well, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that if a hunting animal is in a situation of high competition for resources and there is an object, a food item, in the food chain which imparts increased visual acuity, then those animals which admit that item into their diet are going to out-breed the non-mushroom-using population and gain a significant advantage by this means.


Well, it doesn’t stop there. If slightly larger doses of psilocybin are taken—still sub-psychedelic doses—you get what is called CNS arousal: central nervous system arousal. Now, all this means is: a sense of restlessness, an inability to sit still, a sense of energy, and (the classical meaning of arousal) sexual arousal. What this means, then, is that those animals in the population that were more successful at hunting and at obtaining food because they were taking small amounts of psilocybin are now going to act out what primatologists call more successful instances of copulation. This means a lot more sexual activity is going on. And wherever you have sexual activity, it stands to reason you’re going to have increased instances of impregnation and successful birthing. So the second factor—which builds on the first factor—is: the mushroom-using population will tend to out-breed the non-mushroom population, and it will tend then to survive into adulthood in greater numbers because of the greater increase success in hunting.


The third and final factor, then, which pushed these mushroom-using primates into a position of ascendancy is: psilocybin, at the psychedelic dose level, actually stimulates the areas of the brain that are concerned with the production of language. So you get spontaneous glossolalia, spontaneous bursts of modulated, syntactically structured sound. And I believe probably that language was invented long before meaning as a kind of abstract exercise around the campfire that these hominids and proto-hominids were doing for each other’s amusement.


So there you have a three-step process. Increased visual acuity means increased success at getting food. Further doses of psilocybin mean more sexual activity with more instances of successful impregnation and birthing of offspring. And finally, contact with the language-catalyzing psychedelic tremendum that even for a people as sophisticated as ourselves looms as the most tremendous, shocking, and challenging mystery in our world. We have always been caught up in the anticipation of the unspeakable. The human adventure has always been a flirtation with these gigantic forces in an unseen dimension. This is what sets our religions going, this is what creates gurus and messiahs and scientific breakthroughs. It’s that, somehow, we are in resonance with something much larger than ourselves—something which you could call the great attractor, the transcendental object at the end of time, the Gaian mind. Whatever it is, we, out of all of nature, seem to have a special relationship to it, and seem to be somehow both under its care and somehow involved in the manifesting of it in three-dimensional space. It’s that, as we make our way across the historical landscape toward the sensed presence of this transcendental other, so it is making its way toward us through the content of dreams, psychedelic experiences, the careers of spiritually advanced people.


The idea being that history—which is a state of extreme instability and disequilibrium which only lasts 15,000 or 20,000 years—that history is about to be transformed or ended; that the factors that shaped history—phonetic alphabets, male dominance, materialism, the scientific method, empiricism—these factors are about to be made obsolete by discoveries in the human and natural realm. We, the people of the high-tech civilizations, are like the prodigal son. We made a descent into matter. We have wandered many years in the wilderness. Now, in a time of great planetary crisis, we must return to the tribal fold. We must take what we learned from the peregrination into history and return to the tribal model with it. Only in that way, then, can we reclaim our sexuality, reclaim our identities, and reclaim the planet for itself.


The styles that have evolved within history—the styles of male dominance, concern for tracing male lines of paternity, private property, control of females, so forth and so on—all this has arisen as a result of the establishing and maintaining of the ego. The ego is the function of the personality that is most at home and at ease within the context of history. But really, this is not a situation of mental health. The ego is like a calcareous tumor that arises within the dynamics of the psyche and lodges, like a cancer or a tumor, in the structures of the psyche. And the only cure, or the only treatment, that I’m aware of for the calcareous tumor of ego is frequent, repeated exposure to psychedelic plants. This is the essence of their boundary-dissolving function. And 12,000–20,000 years ago, the ordinary style of human society was, as I said, nomadic pastoralism and psychedelic intoxication on a schedule that was very probably lunar.


So reclaiming that orgiastic, boundaryless style of sexual relating is part of what the archaic revival is about. Obviously, with a population of six or seven billion people, we can’t seriously suggest that we return to the sexual styles of a group of nomadic pastoralists on the plains of Africa who numbered probably no more than fifty or sixty people. But we can understand that the ego is a function that has arisen, in a sense, to empower our most lethal tendencies. Because as we look at the Earth as it exists today—with rising levels of toxicity and pollution and arms proliferation and so forth and so on—there are no problems that cannot be solved. We have the technology, we have the money, we have the industrial capacity. What we don’t have is the plan and the will to execute the plan. So really, the change that we and the groaning planet are waiting for is a change in the human mind. It’s the human mind that must change. And then the tools for the restructuring that must be done will be found present and near at hand.


And, as far as I can tell, we don’t have centuries or millennia in which to do this change. And if preaching alone could’ve inspired it, it would’ve occurred several millennia ago. What we must look for is a catalyst that is effective—not on the easy cases, but on the hard cases. And when we carry out an analysis of that sort, what we’re going to find is: psychedelic shamanism is the traditional human response to our dilemma. We must dissolve the boundaries of “yours” and “mine,” of “inside” and “outside,” even of “life” and “death.” We must dissolve these linguistically-conferred boundaries and replace them with a sense of the universal flow of energy through a series of vibrating and resonant fields of being. This is this core philosophy that lies behind shamanism, Buddhism, Taoism. This is the perception of the perennial philosophy.


And I believe that using the lessons of the twentieth century—what was learned at Auschwitz, and in the Haight-Ashbury, and at Alamagordo and Nagasaki—using the lessons of the twentieth century, the new youth culture can at last create a viable human alternative. We’re approaching the change of the millennium. We’re about to go into the third millennium. And we can actually use the change in the calendar as the wind beneath our wings to lift us to a new visioning of global completeness and of species and planetary holism that will then leave us the fitting inheritors of the birthright of the elven empowerment.

I think we’ve said enough. I think we can knock off. If they can’t get seven minutes out of that, we have to renegotiate!

Terence McKenna

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