The Evolution of a Psychedelic Thinker

June 1989

McKenna explores the role of psychedelic plants in human evolution. He proposes psilocybin mushrooms catalyzed the emergence of language, consciousness, and culture in early hominids. Psychedelics can dissolve cultural conditioning and accelerate the development of imagination and creativity. McKenna advocates the careful, sacred use of plant medicines to expand consciousness and rediscover our symbiotic relationship with nature. He envisions psychedelics inspiring a cultural renaissance and guiding humanity’s transition to an ecological partnership society.



The way I got into all of this—and it seems to me it’s worth talking about, because psychedelic… the word has in a sense been too narrow. It’s a kind of secret faith having to do with perception of the world, I think. I feel that I was psychedelic long before I knew anything about psychedelics, because what I was interested in as a child was nature and complexity. But not simply nature and complexity, but a certain visual suggestiveness of mystery. So I was a beetle collector, and a butterfly collector. And it was this pursuit of iridescence, was actually what it was. And then, years later when I studied psychology and the brain, I read Sherrington’s definition of consciousness as an iridescence upon matter, meaning: an effect that, when you shift the point of regarding slightly, the iridescence disappears. It’s hard to even explain to myself (let alone to a room full of people) how much I cared about this kind of thing. How is it possible for a nine-year-old child to hold the image of one insect continuously in their mind for months, as in almost a mystical epiphany, because of how it looks; something about how it looks?


And then, as I broadened my interest as a pre-adolescent child, I got into science fiction. And as I look back on it now, I see it was simply that it broke down barriers—conceptual barriers—about what was possible. And that it was setting me up for this position vis-à-vis the input of the world, which was that I would entertain any idea but believe in nothing. We’re trying to actually talk about a psychedelic canon. This is a very central part of the psychedelic attitude toward the world: to entertain all possibilities but to never commit to belief—belief always being seen as a kind of trap. Because if you believe something, you’re forever precluded from believing its opposite. So you have run a line down the center of the cognitive universe and divided things into the believable and the unbelievable. You know how a child lives in fantasy, and how fantasy then gives way (and gave way in my case) to science fiction? This is a kind of pre-psychedelic mindset that many, many people of my generation were experiencing as they came up through the Eisenhower years, which were spiritually a complete desert, but in these pulp magazines beneath the surface of consciousness.


Notice, throughout this month, how much of what is important to what we’re talking about goes on in the non-sanctioned corners of the culture: pulp literature, cults, unsanctioned gatherings of friends, Rock’n’Roll—all of these areas where the emotional content of the culture is allowed to come to rest are somewhat off limits. Into adolescence, this cognition-breaking, iridescence-pursuing thing came directly up against Eros, which was a complete new dimension for the goggle-eyed terror of the science fairs to be plunged into, which was myself. Women, sexuality, social signaling, intense emotion—all of this. And everyone experiences this. In a sense, sexuality is the built-in psychedelic experience that only a very few people manage to evade. Because we may like to think we are rational animals, but for purposes of biology, a whole set of completely irrational programs have been built in that just can take a professor of Indo-European grammar and turn him into a haunted figure pursuing chorus girls, or any of the other 50,000 variations on that theme. So Eros is an ego-overwhelming, boundary-dissolving, breakthrough-creating force scripted into human life that is pretty intrinsically psychedelic. I don’t really understand how all this works at all, but when you get very deep in (especially on some of these tryptamines), you brush up against some kind of—it’s hard to even put words to it—but it’s erotic. It’s a potential within the concept of Eros that is almost too much to bear, and almost seems to imply that what we call erotic sensibility is a kind of lower-dimensional slice of some higher-dimensional reality that our feelings are trying to carry us into.


This is sort of an aside on that, but one of the interesting things about psychedelics—and I now speak of the compounds themselves, especially the plants—is: they have a certain fascination with where the genes go, and will pair people across great lines of improbability. In other words, it’s almost as though the biological control, which is exerted on this mammalian species by the mushroom, is actually (at the materialistic level) a control of who has children by whom, which means the control of the evolution of gene lines. I maintain this is why the place most people feel magic in their own lives (even the most humdrum people feel magic in their lives) is in the matter of mate selection. I was just down in the baths and heard a story this morning where a man said, “I had a happy marriage for seven years. It was perfect. And I run some kind of a company. And one day I got a telephone call: someone wanted to sell me a new line of nails. And I knew when I heard the voice on the other end that my marriage was ruined, and that I would follow this voice, and possess this woman, and so forth and so on,” which he had done, for better or for worse. Well, this kind of thing (where the most staid lives can be skewed off in other directions) is—in the old style of talking about it—it’s an eruption of the unconscious. But where psychedelics are involved, it seems to be more of a winnowing of the genes. So sex obviously has this deep, complex, multi-meaning kind of feel about it that pretty much the rest of reality, for most people, doesn’t, I think.


The next step in my own evolution—and I feel like I am simply the fortunate beneficiary of a series of random events which were very fortuitous from my own point of view. In other words, without having a whole lot of sense and with very little foresight, I very fortunately found myself in a lot of right places in a lot of right times. And the place I went after adolescence was political awareness and the discovery of what it meant—you know, the goggle-eyed kid had conquered (or at least had had a brush with) the feminine. But then the next great item on the agenda was the community. And I was in Berkeley for the street uprising in 1968 and learned what a revolution is—not what it is from the point of a view of history books or the 11 o’clock news, but what it feels like; what it actually feels like to take and hold a place that’s been denied to you against the state. And what I learned from that whole thing is that one of the core elements of this psychedelic thing is freedom on the broadest scale. I mean, it truly is (and you will hear me use this phrase over and over again) boundary dissolving. And that is almost for me synonymous with freedom. This is what we want to do: we want to dissolve boundaries between the rich and the poor, the feminine and the masculine, the living and the dead. All boundaries do dissolve in the psychedelic experience. And the social metaphor that captures this is revolution. Revolution is an eruption from the unconscious. It is not a reasonable thing. It has a logic of its own. It’s as though the overmind reaches down into the mechanics of political process and says: no, it won’t be that way. It will be this way.


As you watch this thing in China unfold, the revolution that I went through was child’s play. But the revolution going on in China is about consciousness. I mean, god, the notion that people were selling Jon Stewart Mill in translation in Tiananmen Square like hot cakes brings a tear to your eye. It’s incredible. As I said on Friday, the psychedelic dimension lies directly ahead of us. It is permission for cognition; permission for revolution and resolution of the contradictions that have emerged out of 500 years, 1,000 years, of practicing culture in this particular way that we’ve been doing. It just doesn’t work. Abbie Hoffman said that the first duty of a revolutionary is to survive. So my political career reached a point where I had to choose between exile and martyrdom—hope that you should be so lucky, because both choices are heroic, you see?


But I chose exile, which brings me to the next of these psychedelic metaphors—or these psychedelic styles that have nothing to do with the compounds—and that is travel. Travel. Some of you are traveling. I know because you have accents from far away. So you probably know what I mean. But the people who don’t go anywhere are in danger of missing a major point about what is going on. My traveling began very tentatively, and I went to Israel, and then I went to the Seychelles Islands, and then I went to India, and I got in trouble. And then I couldn’t come back. So then I had to be who I said I was, because I had essentially been making a tour in order to return to Berkeley and slay women with my tales of daring do. But I got caught out there, halfway around, and had to stay not the plan—three months—but years. Years and years and years. And India, and Indonesia, and the Amazon, and Tokyo, and just a series of scenes where my life—I used to say I never sleep in the same bed twice. I also came to realize, then, that what happened to me in ten days was more than happened to my friends back at home in a year. Because I would see three countries, five cities, eighteen ecosystems, five cuisines, so forth and so on, in two weeks. And for them, they were living out some kind of machine-like existence.


Nothing is as boundary-dissolving (except psychedelic compounds) as travel. Travel is really up there. Go to these places. There are many, many places. And they are not to be taken at face value. They are parts of your own psyche. They are syntactical intersections of intentionality and cognition. The fact that you have to fly there on KLM is only incidental, you see? Because what you come up against in these other places is cultural relativity. The deep coming-to-awareness of cultural relativity is finally permission to look at who you are—not who they say you should be. Because you see that, in this tribe, you’re an SOB if you fail to eat your uncle at a certain critical time in the situation. And in this society you’re an SOB if you don’t own a condo in Carmel. So how seriously are we to take all this?


There’s a great saying. An alchemist of the fifteenth century, Athanasius Kircher, said, “The highest mountains. The oldest books. The strangest people. There you will find the stone.” This idea that there is something to be found, first of all, this is very important to the psychedelic life. Again, I was very lucky. I read Carl Jung very early before the Jungians really got a hold of him and ruined it. And what Jung is saying about conceiving your life as a quest is absolutely true: psyche is some kind of semi-malleable medium, and if you set yourself up as a loser—if you image yourself as a loser—you will be a loser. And so forth. This is not big news. But what’s big news is that, if you set your life up as a quest, you will actually find something transcendental and unimaginable. I am living proof of this because I set my life up as a quest for a perverse reason: to prove that there was no mystery. In other words: to debunk it, to say I will follow the ancient formula and show that it’s baloney by doing it perfectly and achieving nothing. That’s the kind of guy I am!


However, what I discovered was that the model of the world that we inherit,—that it’s three-dimensional space, and very hum-drum, and you’re caught in its laws, and like that—it’s just not so. I mean, I don’t have all the answers, but this is where we need to put pressure; is: the world is some kind of thing which can be taken apart and shown to be something else. Many other things. And nobody’s saying this. I mean, these physicists are just sober as can be. And all this argument that goes back and forth about this paradigm and that paradigm and whether the world is made of anti-mu-mesons—the world is obviously made of mind and intention. And I don’t mean this in some airy-fairy, can’t-get-a-grip-on-it way. I mean: if the world is made of cognition and intention, then let’s get a technology together that allows us to use that principle to make it the way we want it to be.


My mother said to me when I was at her knee: “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” And I think the political implication of that is: beggars should ride. And therefore, turning wishes into horses is a reasonable political agenda. And the psychedelics show the way it is to be done. It’s somehow… I don’t know. I don’t know. My intuition is very strong that people with sufficient intelligence and sufficient courage could at any time break through and make this somehow happen. It’s a fantasy of two people having a conversation, which ends with the abolition of language, basically. In other words: turn the tools upon themselves, and unscrew everything, and lay it out and look at it. And then rebuild it the way we want to.


Now, this could not even be talked about if there were not evidence that it is possible. And the evidence lies in this weird dimension, this psychedelic thing. And I would be utterly despairing of the state of this planet and ourselves if it weren’t for the existence of these compounds. I think we would not have the chance of a snowball in hell—not a chance!—because everything on the surface spells ruin. We are murderous monkeys. We have looted the future. We have eaten the food of our own children! This is the kind of crowd we are. And yet, and yet, and yet—there is this shining, transcendent thing that is real. And this is what I hold against all the priests, and gurus, and rishis, and rōshis, and geishas, and Babajis around. They don’t explain that what they’re talking about is real. I don’t think they even know that it’s real. Perhaps they’re just parasites on an idea. But it is real, and it is possible to manifest it.


The problem is that we are so perversely committed in the way we invest energy. A modern, well-equipped fighter plane costs 75 million dollars. The United States government orders them in lots of 500 at a time. You know what 75 million dollars would do to consciousness research in California? The cost of one fighter plane! I, and the people I know, and they people they know could deliver the millennium for that kind of money if the law stood back. Because what we’re talking about is a correlation of data that has gone on now for 400–500 years: botanical data, chemical data, human data, anthropological data, data about language, data about complex systems generally, mathematical models, dynamics, chaos theory, so forth and so on. These are the tools out of which an understanding of the dynamics of mind can be created. And creating an understanding of the dynamics of mind is the way out of the political logjam. No amount of haranguing and preaching is going to do it. It requires a breakthrough to the mechanics of our selves. That’s what it basically comes down to: that we must see ourselves as potentially salvageable, reprogrammable, and worth saving.


I think that because the psychedelic experience is not bound in history, but in a way is a morphogenetic field-amplifier of our species. If you think of the Sheldrakeian model of morphogenetic fields, and then imagine that they cannot be detected by radio, they cannot be detected by any electronic means, the field is too subtle. But if you imagine that mind is a quantum-mechanically indeterminate and delicately-balanced-enough system that it can actually resonate to the presence to the morphogenetic field, then you begin to have a theory of what the psychedelic experience is. It’s the experience of the transcendent dimension of every object. And every object has a transcendent dimension—more than one. I mean, it has a dimension which extends into the past, it has a dimension which extends into the future, and it has a dimension which is orthogonal to any of these that is the internal horizon of its own transcendence.


Now, this kind of talk is Whiteheadian talk. Whitehead, in the 1920s and 1930s, actually created a philosophy—a rigorous metaphysic—entirely capable of working in a psychedelic environment. Had he written it in Sanskrit he probably would have had a wider audience. But he wrote in plain English. So if you’re interested in a metaphysic of the psychedelic experience, where you actually take it seriously and say these things which we perceive—the dissolution of boundaries, the recombining of form, the transience of form, the transience of meaning, the coming-together of actual events in a real world, and the dissolution of those events into a world of potentiality—this is all Whitehead type stuff.


Some of you may know the notion of memes. A meme is the smallest unit of an idea. It’s to ideas what genes are to biology. And memes compete in the same way that genes are competitive in an environment. A meme can be copied: I can tell you something, and you can tell someone else. The meme has been copied. A meme can be repeated: I can say the same thing over and over again to different people, who then copy it and take it away. But in the same sense as a gene is only effective if it remains faithful to its original, the meme must remain faithful to its original. And the only way we can correctly copy these memes and pass them among ourselves is through clarity of understanding. So there’s always this pressure on clarity: nothing should be ambiguous. I don’t believe in it. I believe that understanding passes everywhere, and that a thing is not existentially apprehended in some sense until it is understood.


As far as what understanding is, it’s simple. It’s nothing more than the perception of connecting pattern. So that here in a data field—could be a beach full of people, or a great corporation, or the history of England—a data field. What patterns do you perceive in it? The more patterns you perceive in it, the more you understand it. And there is no bottom to this. Understanding just falls through the phenomena of the world endlessly. Essentially it’s about communication. That most of what we say and do, even though we may define ourselves as wide-ranging intellectuals, most of what we say to each other is incredibly animalistic and low-grade data exchange. Because we’re not used to pouring the energies of cognition into articulate speech. We just tend not to do that. But actually, it’s (at this stage of things) the closest we can get to hardwired telepathy, you know? Honest, straight talk that draws from as deep as it can.


And the search for… well, Blake said this thing. Let’s see if I can get it right. He said: the truth, if it is told so that it is understood, must be believed. In other words, if you hear it and you understand it and it’s so, you will automatically give allegiance to it. This is because we resonate with some kind of ground of being that is below the speakable, and yet supporting it. So the idea here will be to try and communicate between ourselves to create a slightly different kind of reality than everybody else is hanging out in. Mostly, I hope, our reality will have more hope than the generic reality that’s going on outside, because I think that there’s a lot of data on the table now—more information than ever before—and we can actually begin to figure out what’s going on. Not in terms of the first three milliseconds of the universe, but actually: what is going on on this planet? What is human history? What is a cognizing species doing, running around by the billions on the surface of this planet, obsessed with religions, and driven by vice and hatred and visionary longing? This is not what they talk about in the biology books—still less is it what they talk about in the physical chemistry books. Something has torn loose on the surface of this planet, and we are embedded in it, and we are it, and it is sweeping us and all life on this planet into some kind of apotheosis; some kind of shit-hit-the-fan situation where all the hopes and dreams and fears and obsessions are going to be held up to some kind of transcendental inspection. Nothing can stop this.


Perhaps it could have been stopped in the twelfth century, or the sixth century. But now, technical processes, population growth, information transfer, destruction of the environment—the great dying is well under way. And the question is: does this make sense? And an even more cogent question: can it be made to make sense? In other words, can we come to in the situation of a planet sinking into chaos, and somehow run around and punch some buttons and close off some areas and salvage something? Can meaning be salvaged? Or is the process that has gone on over the last—pick a number, but it’s in the billions of years—essentially meaningless dumbshow and absurdity?


The really freaky thing about this, I think, is that it’s not clear. That it seems to rest in the domain of human decision. That the universe is not at all what we suppose it to be, and that we are in effect presented with a three-dimensional, four-dimensional, eleven-dimensional kōan—a labyrinth, a puzzle, a kind of conundrum—which has to be cut through. It’s all done in the mind. The whole apparent world is actually syntactical in nature. This is what they don’t tell you in the philosophy departments or the physics departments. That the universe is made of words, and that there has to be a speaker and there has to be a hearer. Photons, quarks, anti-mu-mesons—that’s not what it’s about. That is a linguistic model that floats above the bedrock of syntactical connectedness that mind travels through to create networks that it interprets meaningfully. That’s what’s really going on.


So, looking at this situation, years and years ago—knowing and feeling what I’ve essentially just said to you—twenty-five years ago, I’ve always been a skeptic. I’ve always been sort of a downer—cynical, even—and take things apart, and belittle them, and see how they tick. It’s a male rational style; a scientific style. And the assumption behind that is that you can reduce the whole world to something which is non-threatening and neutral somehow. But a weird thing happened on the way to completing this program, which was: I discovered something, which it is my intention to try and share with you. I don’t know—many people have made this discovery, but I can only speak for myself. So, for me it had a very intense and kind of transformative immediacy, and this was: I discovered that, in the realm of the so-called transcendental (I was raised Roman Catholic and, in the process of cutting that loose, switched Latin for Sanskrit for a while), I’ve had lifelong interest in the transcendental, but basically from a debunking point of view. In other words: not for me, sweeping up at the ashram. Not for me, the ambiguities of Babaji. And in India the tack which I always took with these people was: “What can you show me?” You know? Anything! Because talk is cheap. God, if I don’t know that, who does? So a line of patter is completely non-convincing.


Well, it’s not to be found in those traditions. What I’m trying to say is that, when I put pressure on the spiritual domain, the only people who could deliver were shamans with a history of use of hallucinogenic plants. And an awareness of this came to me, say, as early as 1967. And I begin to pursue it. At first I pursued a pharmacological basis behind Tibetan shamanism—the pre-Buddhist shamanism of Tibet is called Bonpo. And I went there thinking that their art could not possibly be what it is unless they had access to hallucinogenic plants and were using them. Well, I was 22, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t speak these languages. I had no notion of the task that I was setting up for myself. But later I went to the Amazon basin, and there there is, extant and thriving, a rich shamanic tradition of hallucinogenic plant use, and they can just convey you into astonishing dimensions. And it’s those astonishing dimensions that will form, inevitably, the focus of what we do this month, because we need to run it as a headline.


It goes something like this: “Scientists discover nearby hyper-object in alternative continuum.” It’s that sort of thing. It’s that, by pushing the psychedelic experience, we can satisfy—and let me define “pushing.” I mean: putting a great deal of research pressure on the tryptamines. By pushing the hallucinogenic psychedelic experience, I think we could fairly quickly satisfy ourselves (if the legal climate were different) that the Freudian model won’t do, the Jungian model won’t do, and that, in fact, all psychological models will fail. And that what we’re dealing with is something quite of another order. And I am not one to reach for the metaphors of spirit with the connotation of moral opprobrium and all that, but there is a dimension which is accessible to each and every one of us—this is the primary thing about it: it’s accessible—that is so appallingly, titanically, and bizarrely different than the continuum that we’re currently residing in that it seems to throw doubt on the entire effort to understand the world as it’s been carried out over the past 1,500 years.


In other words, there is an object in this mental space which, as culture-creating creatures, we are attempting to colonize and invade this cultural space through the concrescence of language. In other words, through exteriorizing our ideas as tools, we are invading this cultural domain. And the psychedelic tryptamines—very recently discovered, by the way. I’m doing a book for Bantam, and I have to go through the whole history of these things. And to my amazement, the indole hallucinogens actually were never studied. LSD was invented in 1938. They put it on the shelf for five years. Then the guy took it—Hofmann—he said it’s a hallucinogen. But the war was raging. That was 1943. It didn’t actually make its way into the journals until 1947. Then, from 1947 to roughly 1965, there was a great deal of interest in LSD and research on it. Then that ended with it becoming illegal. Meantime, psilocybin, DMT, and the β-carbolines—the number of articles and papers published on these things numbers in the dozens. In the case of DMT, it’s under ten. Human—we’re talking now [of] human experiments. Not rat-slicing and physical chemistry, but actual human data. So what we inherit out of the 1960s: one of the ways which we have been disempowered that we didn’t even know—isn’t this fun to learn a new way that you were disempowered that you didn’t even know?—is that the LSD experience was made the paradigm of the psychedelic experience. And it was placed at the center of the phenomenological mandala, and then all of these other compounds were sort of related into it in terms of: doesn’t last as long as, lasts twice as long as, that sort of thing.


When you think about this alternative reality and the exploration by drugs, with psychedelic drugs, and then the pervasive problem with other sorts of drugs in the society, it cuts very close to the core of ourselves as creatures. We are addictive animals. We addict to everything. We addict to each other and glorify it as our most noble outpouring of sentiment in the phenomenon of romantic love. When a pair of lovers are parted, the withdrawal symptoms are indistinguishable from heroin: vomiting, shaking, uncontrollable emotional outbursts, sleeplessness, short temper, hysteria—this is real. What romantic love is, is a pheromonal bonding; an exchange of chemical messengers which takes these two autonomous organisms and welds them into one galaxy of need, and intention, and understanding, and expectation. Well, then, you just tear that apart and people are shook up. We addict to political ideals—all kinds. It’s wonderful what’s happening in Peking, but several decades ago the same thing was happening in Berlin to a different beat. People find an idea, and it works, and all barriers appear to be movable and all goals attainable. We addict to things—like magpies—but then, through media, are trained to propel ourselves into ever more extensive relationships with objects. We invent money, which is kind of a multi-transformable drug. It stands for everything. Everything you ever wanted. And you can addict to money.


Nevertheless, what I will argue during this month is that this is not a bad thing. That we have a secret history that I will try to convince you of. And you should try to convince me that I’m wrong. And we will argue over the secret history of the human race, and why it is, therefore, that we are as we are, and why it is that these psychedelics are not some peripheral issue of screwballs who can see God in a cabbage, but that, in fact, the issue of psychedelics is directly on the tracks of the onrushing locomotive of rationalist, paternalist, schlokola society, and that it ain’t gonna go away. Because what we’re talking about here is a nude part of the human mind. What we’re talking about here is something which takes its place in the great unfolding of the defining of human freedom that characterizes the entire adventure of global civilization. In other words, we’ve got the Pope under control—that happened in the Middle Ages. Slavery has now been generally embraced as a bad thing to be into, and we’ve gotten that on the books as a bad idea. Women have been suddenly recognized to be human beings. And so forth. So this swelling bubble of a-ha and perception of the real nature of the universe should also include the sudden realization that governments have no business telling people what foods and spices they should prefer; that this is an absurd role for government. And that—like slavery, like the subjugation of women—the legal persecution of dietary habits has just got to take its place with the high-button shoe.


And we will talk a lot about the consequences of this. What does it mean? Because, you see, what the government would have us believe—and perhaps believes itself; although I doubt it—is that we would return to the beast. That’s all. We would just shoot junk and toot blow and flop around in ruinous orgies until hell froze over. And they—wiser, sterner, more disciplined than ourselves—represent the edifice of moral authority. This is a “I’m doing it for your own good” trip, see? And actually, this is all hypocrisy, and we will talk about that: the roles of governments in the promulgation of drugs and drug cartels. This is what I learned doing this book for Bantam, is that: drugs have always been there and have always been manipulated by governments. This is almost what money was invented for, was to do dope deals! I’ll show you what I mean as we get into it.


But I want to return for a minute to the transcendental object, because that’s the part that gets me off the most. It’s taken me a long time to believe what was actually happening, in that I always said I could believe it if I read it in the newspaper, but I can’t believe it because it’s happening to me, or it’s happening so near to me. It hardly now seems to matter. And what we just have to do is to try and talk frankly based on the experience which each of us brings to this about the thing. How much of it have you seen? Well, what do you think? How does it cast its shadow into your life? What is it? Because I talk on these subjects, I am a sort of a nexus point for information, and I gather stories. And I see that science and rational philosophy and all that stuff is going on over here quite to its heart’s content, while hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands and thousands, of people exactly like ourselves are logging in these experiences which are absolutely off the scale.


There are a lot of people having problems. People abducted by UFOs, people visited by Whitley Strieber’s triangle face. That’s not where I’m coming from. I have nothing but scorn for all weird ideas other than my own. And the reason I tolerate my own weird ideas is basically because of what I’ve gone through. I would never believe it if I hadn’t seen it. There’s a wonderful story—and I have no love for Christianity, either, but I’ll tell a Christian story—this is what I got out of the Gospels. Christ appeared several times in the upper room after the crucifixion to the apostles. The first time he appeared, the apostle Thomas was not there. And so then Thomas came after the visitation and they said, “The master was here. He was with us.” And Thomas said, “Bah, bullshit!” They said, “No, no, he was here.” And e said, “Unless I put my hand into the wound, I will not believe it.” So time passed, and Christ came again to the upper room. And Thomas was there among the other apostles. And Christ said, “Thomas, come forward. Put your hand into the wound.” And he did. And he did. Now, the conclusion that I draw from this story is: alone of all human beings in human history, Thomas the doubter touched the incorporeal resurrected body of Christ. Only the doubter was allowed that privilege. For everybody else—the show.


And I just take that absolutely seriously. I think that God (or he, she, or it) loves the doubter, and prepares treasures in paradise for the doubter that eclipse anything. And the method has worked for me, and I have seen absolutely astonishing things. I’m sure many of you have, too. I have seen things where I had perfect confidence that no human being had ever laid eyes on these places before. And I’m sure you have, too. Because that’s how big it is in there. The further in you go, the bigger it gets. We are like monkeys sitting in the presence of a flying saucer whose doorway has just been flung open. This is what we need to become conscious of. We need to dissolve the assumptions of the culture. And this is why LSD was so terrifying, because I firmly believe that one of the things psychedelics do is: they dissolve cultural assumptions. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a member of the politburo or a go-go dancer in Berlin or a professor of agronomy in Kansas, you will doubt your beliefs and your world if you take psychedelics. This is good. We need to dissolve our cultural conditioning and try to get down to brass tacks, because I’m convinced that reality is a tinker toy set that we can learn to take apart and put together in completely different ways. And we’re going to have to pull some real rabbits out of the hat, or the planet is just going to pour over the edge into chaos.


You know, before they were called “psychedelics,” they were called “consciousness-expanding drugs.” Well, if there’s any possibility that that’s true, let’s put our best people on it. Because consciousness is what we’re dying for. We don’t have enough of it. We can’t feed the hungry, we can’t manage a global economy, we can’t hold down guerrilla warfare, we can’t cure AIDS—we need to get smart. And if this stuff has anything to do with getting smart on any level, even for one in a thousand of those who use it, pour it on! We can’t stand around like a bunch of nitwits just watching the planet burn down around us.


Now, it’s very touchy, this whole thing, because it is literally (and perhaps metaphorically as well) illegal, forbidden territory. We’re like South Pacific Islanders. We have taboos. Bring this plant into your house and you must go away to the big slammer for a while. This is a taboo. My position—which I don’t suppose I should say I advocate it, because as I understand that’s one higher level of federal crime—so here is my position, but I don’t advocate it: is that people should be able to do whatever they damn well please. The government is for the convenience of people. And in particular, in the United States we already have in place a clause which says: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights. Inalienable. That means government cannot interfere with these rights. Well, pursuit of happiness—I don’t think you have to be a shyster to believe that pursuit of happiness covers experimenting with psychedelic substances. It seems to me perfectly clear. I think that part of what I do as I speak around (and I suppose I should say it here, because I imagine some of you will end up psychotherapists or are psychotherapists) is that, without an understanding and familiarity of the psychedelic experience, you should be sued for fraud if you’re practicing psychotherapy. Because the dynamics of the mind—isn’t that what psychotherapy is about? Well, you know this much unless you have had a variety of psychedelic experiences. That’s where the confirmation of all this theory is, and that’s where you find out what you’re running from.


It isn’t that it is a psychotomimetic, as the government researchers hoped it would turn out to be. It’s simply that it plays all the changes, you know? It pulls out the stops and it plays in the major and the minor keys. And you see it all. This is indispensable for psychotherapy. And if you look at the pure statistics on alcoholism with LSD, it’s phenomenal before LSD was made illegal. Now, understand. I don’t believe these are chemical cures to drug dependency. That isn’t how it works. It works like this: you take LSD—you’re an alcoholic or a junkie—you take LSD, all your illusions and defenses are dissolved, you see that you’re killing yourself, and that you’re a pathetic wretch, and that you’re destroying yourself and the people around you, and then you come down. And out of that experience you existentially draw in some cases the power, the self-will, and the motivation to change your behavior. Well, I believe that, as a culture, we could do this. And this comes perilously close to sounding like “everyone should take LSD.” I don’t believe that. I think that it’s a calling. It’s a kind of a profession. It’s… well, shamanism is the best model. And I think that the rebirth of shamanic awareness is part of a much larger cultural phenomenon, which I call the archaic revival. I hate the term “New Age.” I think it’s just 11 o’clock news stuff.


But the archaic revival is a notion of a series of integrated trends that have been going on for over a hundred years that are the actual turning belly-up of Victorian, Christian, scientific, male-dominated, materialist civilization. It begins with phenomena like ’Pataphsyics in the 1880s in France, and surrealism, and Freud, and Jung, and abstract expressionism, and even the Nazis had a piece of the action because of their understanding of ritual and propaganda—I mean, Goebbels was the architect of the German archaic revival. And LSD has a part of it. And what it is: it’s an intuition. An intuition that, to save ourselves from what we have done, we must reach far, far back in time for a stabilizing metaphor—not as the Renaissance did back to classical Greece and Rome to create classicism, which of course all happened in the fifteenth century—but further back to a prehistory, to a time when people and nature lived in a kind of balance. I don’t mean just any time in prehistory, I mean essentially the post-glacial period called the Magdalenian: about 19,000 years ago when the glaciers began to melt and the Sahara turned green again and the cave paintings were done at Lascaux and Altamira, bone antler technology was invented. It was the great springtime of our people and the last springtime of our people. And then we came down through.


But In that time, in a partnership society—and this is Riane Eisler’s term, and I will talk about that through the month—in a partnership society there was no oscillation between a matriarchy and a patriarchy. There are dominator societies and there are partnership societies. And gender has nothing to do with it. We can entirely overcome the bullshit about gender in talking about cultural forms. It’s dominator versus partnership. And the partnership society that existed in those times was the quintessential expression of a symbiotic relationship. And this is a new idea that I want to get across during this month, which is: our anxiety, our angst, our wandering in the wasteland is because there’s something wrong with us that we don’t know about. What it is, is this: we are symbiotic creatures. We require a relationship with a certain plant and if we don’t have this, we go slightly bananas. And this symbiotic relationship was disturbed about 12,000 years ago. It has to do (and I will go over it in more detail downstream) but it has to do with periods of drought in the African continent that forced people into the Middle East, to where they were no longer access this plant. Then begins what we call human history at the 11,000 BC point, at places like Jerico and Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia. What’s happening with human history is—perhaps not even articulated, but nevertheless—restless driving search for substitutes. Substitutes for the lost partnership ambiance, substitutes for the plant symbiote, which held that in stasis. And these substitutes work their way over the millennia through the opium cults of Anatolia, the hemp cults of the Skifians, the Eleusinian mysteries. These are the great acceptable substitutes for the mystery.


You see, what religion is, is a contact with the tremendum, the numinosum at the beginning of history in this context of plant hallucinogensis, and then the fall—literally, the fall is the telescoping stages that moved us away from the original purity of this numinous image, and it ends in crack addiction. It’s all about substances. This is why we frantically search the universe for what my friend Leo Zeff used to call the perfect high. That’s what we’re looking for. We can’t help ourselves. Whole cultures are doing it. And they don’t think of it as a drug, they think of it as an epiphany, a religious system, and a set of sacramental buildings, or a city organized on a divine plan. But what they’re trying to do is restore order—and they can’t do it, because like the romantic lovers parted, the partner is not present. The completing anima image is simply not there. And so we are restless, violent, neurotic, repressive, migratory, destructive, self-negating, so forth and so on. I think that we’re coming to the place where we can actually begin to take an idea like what I just said, and amass evidence for and against it, and try to, then, cure ourselves. In a way, I’m trying to carry out a Jungian analysis where we realize that we are all the children of some kind of very damaging thing which happened in prehistory. And it’s plain as the nose on your face, it’s just that we are so traumatized, we do not see it.


I mean, look at the story of Eden, which is the central datum, the central mythologem, of our culture. It’s a story of substance abuse and the consequent punishment that follows upon that. Because Eve eats of the fruit of the tree of life. And it says in Genesis: if they eat of this fruit they will be as we are. In other words, it was specifically the issue of consciousness-expansion, and Yahweh (the jealous god, the volcano god of a dominator culture) said no, you’re not coming into inner sanctum. But she had eaten of it anyway, so there was a parting of the ways. Well, this parting of the ways, I believe, is a metaphorical description of the breakup of this symbiosis in Africa and the fall into profane time. The withdrawal of the bride, really—in alchemical terms, or in terms of the Jungian marriage of the anima and the animas.


And we are now, I think, in a position to at least talk about this as a possibility. Because this thing which was driving these religions on the plains of Africa was a tryptamine hallucinogen. It was, specifically, a mushroom which was occurring in the dung of the early cattle that were just at that stage being domesticated. Well, the experience which that mushroom induces in us is no less overwhelming, and transcendental, and incomprehensible than it was to those people 15,000 years ago. We have nothing up on them. In fact, we may be in a worse position to understand it because our language is now carrying a millennia-long legacy of paternalistic, egocentric, materialistic, and empirical biases. They may have possessed languages that far better commanded the true modalities of the transcendental object than do our languages.


So the archaic revival is an invitation to historical humanity to view itself as a kind of prodigal son, and to abandon the wandering in history, the peregrination in history, and to return to the archaic fold with what has been learned. And what I will suggest to you that has been learned is the purification and rational analysis of the sine qua non of the whole shtick, which is the hallucinogenic compounds. In other words, human history is a dipping into matter; a kind of Faustian pact to come away with what the shamans of archaic times were approaching by a natural means.

Well, let’s see. It means I’ve talked for about an hour. Are there questions?



Yes. I’d like to hear you talk a little bit more about language and words. I read somewhere (I can’t remember exactly where) if silence is a reality, then all words, as intrusions, lie. You said reality is made up of words, and yet it seems to me aren’t you talking about it?



Yes, well, that’s a good question. My brother said a funny thing one time. He said, “Has anybody noticed that, as you expand the sphere of understanding, the surface area of ignorance necessarily grows larger?” So there is this paradox that, as we understand, there becomes more and more that we don’t know. What I am interested in—and it may not be the highest value, I’m perfectly willing to agree that it perhaps isn’t—is communication. So I can’t do much with silence. But I do, I think, grant it primacy. What we’re trying to do—but also, I have to say, and I suppose it’s good to say it in the early phases—I try to be rational and analytical about what I’m dealing with, and I don’t even know that I would agree that the psychedelic dimension is a spiritual dimension. In other words, all I’m willing to say at this point is: it’s another dimension. Trying to turn it into something which would make us better people or worse people—it doesn’t seem to operate like that.


William Burroughs had the notion. He said language is a virus from outer space. It’s possible that language is some kind of higher-order organizing principle. It only arises in the most highly organized higher mammal on the planet. To those of you whose hearts leap to the defense of dolphins, magpies, and honeybees—good luck, because it ain’t King Lear. That’s the point. It isn’t Milton. It's something, but it isn't—I mean, language has a force and a dynamic of its own. Perhaps it is a virus from outer space inhabiting us, using us to articulate sound. I’m fascinated by the mystery of language because it’s very central to understanding what psychedelics are. Why do I say that? Because—and I will refer again and again to DMT, dimethyltryptamine, as the most interesting for many reasons of these psychedelics, but today I just want to mention one aspect of it.


In the trance that overwhelms you when you experience this hallucinogen, it only lasts for a few hundred seconds. And in that place there are entities that are making sounds which visibly condense before you. In other words, language has the potential—I swear to you; in other words, this settles a question—language has the potential to be seen rather than beheld. Well, I saw this years ago in DMT flashes. And lo and behold, a thorough inspection of Philo Judaeus (who lived contemporary with Jesus Christ and was an Alexandrian Jew who wrote volumes of commentary on the religions of his era) Philo Judaeus talks about what he calls the lógos. The lógos was an interiorized teaching voice which Greek ecstatics sought to contact. And Philo sets up a little dialogue, and the first speaker says, “What would be a more perfect lógos? A more perfect lógos than the informing, teaching voice?” And Philo answers: “The more perfect lógos would go from being heard to being beheld without ever crossing over a noticeable moment of transition.” Astonishing! I mean, I always wondered: did these people, did they know what they were talking about? What did it mean to them? What did it mean to him to write that sentence?


Well, we’ll never know. So here’s what it means to me. It means that the program of language is an open-ended one, and that we are dynamically caught up in it; that we are language. That’s what distinguishes us from those who chirp and twitter and romp in the trees: that we are language. And that language is evolving. It’s changing. And that, in fact, what we call culture is nothing more than a kind of shockwave trailing behind the forward edge of this language-making capacity. Because you can’t invent it before you can say it. You can’t sell it before you can describe it. You can’t do anything with it until it exists as a commandable set of syntactical connections. So, in one sense—and I will carry this forward over the month—what the psychedelics are for us as a species, rather than for each one of us as an individual, what they are for us as a species is an enzyme that catalyzes the language-making capacity. What is an enzyme? An enzyme is an organic catalyst. What is a catalyst? A catalyst is a chemical agent which causes a chemical reaction to proceed faster than it ordinarily would without being consumed. The catalyst is not consumed.


So I think that the astonishing proliferation of cultural effects, languages, religions, ontologies over the past 40,000 years—out of nothing ,because before that human organization, it was dull back there for a million or two years. There was, so far as we can tell, no material culture at all. Now, you may wish to defend that it was wonderful, but you will find you have no evidence for it. But suddenly, after staying stable for a million years, the human brain size doubles almost overnight, and there is this cascade of cultural effects. I maintain that it has to do with pastoralism as a behavioral habit bringing these proto-hominids into contact with psilocybin as a dietary element, and that psilocybin specifically catalyzed certain qualities of the human organism that worked to its evolutionary advantage—such as consciousness. Can you imagine a more multi-purpose, mutational, adaptational change that would serve you well than being able to think clearly? I mean, if a flatworm could think clearly, evolutionary horizons would open before it—or any other organism. It’s like a super nonspecific immune response. You can handle any problem. Give me a problem! I’m a thinker! I can handle it! But catalysis of language.


Well then, it only ceased 2,000 years ago at Eleusis, when triumphant Christers stomped out Paganism wherever they found it, and all of these mystery religions were driven underground and forgotten. And there are other factors, such as the botanical scarcity of decent hallucinogens in the European ecosystem. But details which we can talk about. But the point is: 2,000 years is all that we’ve been away from this. And in that 2,000 years we’ve elaborated the most lethal set of assumptions and cultural conventions ever brought forth. I mean, war: before, people used to knock each other on the head. But in the hands of these un-stoned dominator types with this linear linguistic bias, which then is totally reinforced by the printing press—well, you see, it’s a suicidal cultural style.


Well, one of the things that I think happened in the 1960s that supports my case: in the wake of LSD, you see a tremendous enriching of language endlessly sneered at by those who don’t talk that way. But it introduced the notion of the vibe, the ego trip. These are worthwhile concepts. The bummer, the flashback. These are linguistic pearls that crystallized out of that experience. I realized in the Amazon, hanging out with these ayahuasqueros (these people using ayahuasca, which is a different strategy to make DMT happen, but it ends up with the DMT happening), their songs were not to be listened to, but to be seen. And people would say, “How did you like my song last night?” And people would say, “You mean the blue one or the yellow one?”


So, you see, I believe that the psychedelics are working at the cultural level to promote language, but also to… it’s not simply a linear enriching of language, there’s also something going on biologically that language is actually gaining in the vertical dimension in its beholdability. And this is taken very seriously in the Amazon, because these small hunter-gatherer groups (where there is big pressure on protein and there’s no room for mistakes), they guide their societies by taking these drugs together in a group situation, and collectively they see (whatever this means) and they model what their future is going to be. It’s true telepathy. You see, when you listen to my voice, if you understand what I’m saying, it’s because my incoming words cause you to go to your dictionary and look them up, one by one. And if your dictionary is pretty close to my dictionary, we will understand each other. But the whole act of communication depends on this assumption that the dictionaries are the same. If they’re not the same, then you will not understand me. If, on the other hand, I could make you see what I mean, this is not a culturally conditioned avenue of information transfer. You don’t have to learn English to look at an English woman. It’s easy. You just do it. It’s at the biological level. And so this is, I think, in terms of consciousness expansion you say, well, it’s good as a general notion. But what direction is it moving? It’s moving in the direction of literally a clarifying of language—a clarifying of language into something that can be beheld. And it’s an arrow toward a greater domain of existential validity that each of us can move in. We need to communicate. We need to find out who we are—each of us, individually, and then we need to tell each other.


The whole dominator style of un-stoned culture engineering is ego. That’s what happens when you don’t take psychedelic drugs as a culture: ego flows in. That’s what was happening on the plains of Africa: every Saturday night, everybody was getting loaded, and boundaries were dissolving. The boundary of the assumption of the uniqueness of the individual. They were taking these things and they were having… well, group sex, basically. These were the two things. It’s clear, because of the quality of psilocybin, that it actually at midrange doses causes arousal. You see, at very low doses it increases visual acuity. Therefore, your hunting improves. Therefore, you and your progeny are more successful. And then, at slightly higher doses, everybody’s horny and there’s a lot of activity in the group and partying. At higher doses, then that turns into religion, and you just slam to the floor of the cave. So it’s this three-step thing, which plays on our basic needs to drive us into a deeper and deeper relationship with this mystery. And it’s such a huge idea that this is what we are, that this is so fundamental, that this isn’t just some curiosity of hedonic, west coast, so forth and so on. But that it is, in fact, central to understanding and defining humanness, and to trying to grab some of the controls of this sinking submarine of a planet and get it back up to the surface long enough for us to all climb in a rowboat and make our way somewhere.

So thank you for being here today, all of you!

Terence McKenna

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