Global Perspectives and Psychedelic Poetics is what it says in the propaganda, which I assume is simply permission to rave about whatever comes to mind.
Global perspectives. I guess what I could say about this from a psychedelic perspective: the thing that is different for psychedelic people, looking at the global dilemma that we’re in, and that increases, that continues to deepen around us, is that it’s—from my point of view—permission to hope rather than despair. Because I think that processes, institutions that—for a thousand years or more—have been building toward some kind of symmetry-break, some kind of definitive self-revealing moment that we now are turning final, as pilots say. We’re now deeply embedded in the pattern. We can see enough of what’s ahead of us to begin to actually feel the texture of the end of human history. It’s no longer an abstraction. Even the straight people who own the world—with their long-term and short-term projections, looking at population growth, spread of greenhouse gases, disappearance of the ozone hole, rising third world expectations, so forth and so on—,when you propagate all these trends, it seems very clear that business as usual is no longer an option. Nobody’s talking about that. So, we’re either in some kind of final fatal meltdown of the values of western civilization, revealed now (after a thousand or two thousand year run) to essentially be bankrupt. Or, we’re going to transform ourselves unrecognizably. There really isn’t any middle ground. The most radical and least likely future of all, it seems to me, is the future in which we continue just to stumble forward, as we have been since the industrial revolution. That’s no longer an option.
And so, then, the question becomes sort of a gnostic conundrum. Yeah, is this the final act of some kind of great cosmic tragedy in which intelligence rises out of the slime, is shown to be inadequate, and sinks back into the slime? Or is this, you know, a tale of difficulty overcome and heroism won? And are we going to be able to shed the monkey nature, and shed the ego, and actually move up to some kind of shining ideal? You know, it’s—if you think of us as the descendants of the angels—this is a pretty tatty circumstance we’ve come to rest in. On the other hand, if you think of us as the descendants of shit-hurling apes screeching through the treetops, then it’s pretty amazing what has been accomplished here.
You know, one of the dilemmas that I feel very strongly—and I’m just sort of talking off the top of my head here, because whenever a crowd is small enough I sort of feel like I’m in my own living room. We don’t have to have the pretense of knowing lecturer and, you know, eager-to-be-educated audience. The real challenge, I think, is trying to decide what is baggage, and what is ballast that’s going to have to be dumped. Can the future be a celebration of humanness as we have known it? Meaning in the animal body, with all its, you know, joys and pains, with all its frailty and potential for ecstasy. Or, is what we call human nature somehow transcendental and did we only rest for a moment in the monkey body as once the cutting edge of evolution must have rested in the great reptiles and, at some earlier phase in history, rested in the fish and so on? Is consciousness something uniquely human, and must we keep the animal body with us? Is our destiny to become the gardener-caretakers of a revivified Earth? Or is the Earth like a placenta of some sort, that we have literally sucked all the nutrition and potential out of, because we’re on our way to some grander, higher domain of being?
I don’t have the answer to these kinds of questions. I feel it very poignantly. It’s very poignantly focused in the psychedelic, in the experience of psychedelic plants and psychedelic shamanism. Because, you know, as any of you who have followed my ideas on this know, I’ve spent a lot of time in the Amazon basin with human populations that seem to have struck some kind of dynamic balance with the Earth. And yet, the paradox of that dynamic balance is that when you take the sacraments—the hallucinogenic plants of these people—you’re propelled into a worlds of science-fiction-like strangeness: transcendental dimensions of titanic implication. And then, at least I, personally, have come to the realization that this is how those cultures have chosen to deal with the Faustian impulse in human beings. It’s been somehow confined in the domain of the imagination.
We—meaning we who trace our ancestry back to Europe—are part of a different style, a different strain of human being, if you will. We are the idea-excreters: not satisfied to have a canoe, a net, five fish hooks and a bowl. But instead, we take matter—we, Western civilization, Western technology—and we impress upon matter ideas; millions of ideas. Cities like Manhattan, high-performance weaponry, enormous works of art. All of this is a kind of impulse—very strong in Western human beings—to bring the ideas out of the domain of mind and to somehow solidify them in matter. Permanence. The cult of the West is permanence.
I always feel that when you can find the obsessive center of a society you probably have put your finger on its central neurosis as well. I remember when I spent time in India: India is rife with talk of śakti. Śakti is energy, conceived of in various ways; it can be sexual energy, or it can actually be electricity flowing through wires is called śakti. And I realized—being in India—that the Indian obsession with śakti was a consequence of there not being any. That this was a society where energy had become the hardest commodity to encounter. And I think in the West permanence is the thing, is our great bugaboo, because we are born into the realization that everything is slipping through our fingers at the very moment that it comes into existence.
The hardest psychedelic truth to assimilate—and you don’t have to take psychedelics to assimilate this. If you just live, this will be hammered in on you again and again. And it’s not… well, it’s a cause for exaltation, it’s a cause for despair—it’s that nothing lasts. Nothing lasts. You know? Not your fortune, not your misfortune, not your lovers, your enemies, your children. Ultimately, not even your own life and body. Everything fades. And so the western response to this is the attempt to create something permanent: civilizations, enduring ideas, enduring institutions. All this is doomed to failure. And I see this western obsession with the cult of permanence as a consequence of the western obsession with ego.
Ego, to my mind, is the very thing—if you had to, somehow, meld each problem into the next problem to try and reduce all problems to one, what you would eventually come to is the realization that ego is what is destroying us: our inability to displace our loyalty away from the unique locus of space and time represented by our own bodies. You know, community, communalism: these are the things that we fear, that we repress, and that we at the same time struggle to realize. I mean, the collapse of communism on one level was the collapse of a repressive nightmarish paranoid social system. But the dream which lay behind that was a dream of community, of unity, of sisterhood and brotherhood. And the great concern now is that, with the collapse of even a pretense of that position, that we are further fragmented, further atomized into individual competing microbes of greed and need. And this is precisely the attitude which will push us ever closer to species-extinction and to global ruin.
Well, when you look at thousands and thousands of psychedelic experiences, to my mind, what you come away with is the notion that, no matter who you are—Amazonian shaman, Hasidic rabbi, nuclear physicist—the psychedelic will dissolve boundaries. It will dissolve your boundaries and force you to realize the commonality of the flesh. You know, it’s a startling thing to realize that, really, what you represent is nothing more than a point of view, and that we each are such a point of view triangulating perception through what is essentially simply a nexus of our past history. We always are talking about “the past,” and “the future,” but it’s worth noticing that we all managed to get here this morning—this place, this time—and not one of us has the same past as any other of us. This moment, like any moment, is not a confluence of the past, it is a confluence of many pasts. And these many pasts come into a nexus of connection, and then move on to become many, many futures.
The reason I’m so interested in the psychedelic potential and willing to speak about it is because I think that the myth of our separateness—which was the glory of our institutional accomplishments: parliamentary democracy, individual rights, liberation of various classes, and so forth—has now turned somewhat sour. There has got to be something more to it than just turning people loose to loot the planet so that everyone can pile up more and more stuff, stuff which doesn’t satisfy anyway. And I think—in talking about the future—what we have to somehow do is dematerialize the future. And there are several ways, or many ways, to do this.
People have preached voluntary simplicity, and some people are into this. However, it’s hypocritical to preach this in the third world to people who have nothing. You know? We have everything, so we’ve seen the fallacy of condominiums and Mercedes. So then, we preach this in Bangladesh. This is a bit disingenuous. The dematerializing of culture: somehow, you see, what we have to recognize—in the wake of the collapse of communism—is that capitalism, as well, is a system with a fatal flaw that is set against human nature. Capitalism assumes an endlessly exploitable frontier of resources. This we have got not. So, capitalism is now, essentially—unless it can be radically retooled—an anti-human philosophy. It’s literally chewing up the ground we’re standing on. But there is nothing in the basic notion of capitalism that says we have to be thing-dealers. This is simply the style of capitalism that we have fallen into.
Somehow, we have to dematerialize existence. And I don’t know whether that means virtual reality—some of you have heard me say that my vision of a perfect future is 25% of the present world population living in ecological balance, living in an apparently primitive, naked, aboriginal state. But when you step into the minds of those people and look behind their closed eyelids, there are menus hanging in bio-tele-electronic space. Culture, you see, can be downloaded into a chip, installed behind the eyelids, so that it is, you know, freely commandable as an experience in the imagination. But if we insist on continually extracting resources from the Earth and fashioning our dreams out of the stuff of Earth, then our dreams are destined to turn to nightmare. It can’t be any other way. So that’s one thing about the future: the future needs to be dematerialized.
And then—you know, since people always accuse me of being a harebrained dreamer—I’ve tried to come up with something approaching a practical suggestion, and I took this need to the feet of the mushroom-gods—having been challenged by somebody at a talk like this. They said, “Well, you’re always saying these mushrooms speak. Why don’t you ask them how to save the world?” And I thought this was kind of disingenuous, but the next time I had the telephone to hyperspace in my hot hand I did make the inquiry. And the suggestion which came back, I think, is at least food for thought. The suggestion was: “You wanna save the world? You wanna overcome male-dominance, the momentum of consumerism, so forth and so on? Every woman should bear only one natural child.”
This is an interesting idea, whether you take it seriously as program or not. If every woman were to commit herself to bearing only one natural child, the population of the Earth would fall by 50% in 40 years—without war, or famine, or epidemic disease. If this program were continued for another 40 years, the population would fall by half again. This means, in 80 years, the population of the planet could be reduced 75%. Why have we not heard anything about this? Even for it to be denounced—I’m not saying it has to be embraced. But why isn’t a tiny fanatical minority advocating this? I think it’s because it’s inconceivable in this society to try and practice capitalism in a situation of retreating demographics. It also would be a solution which would place enormous power in the hands of women. Women are often heard to complain about their powerlessness, yet here is a plan which requires very little input from white guys.
I took this idea to demographers and said, “What about it? This seems so simple. Most people think there are no solutions. Here’s a very simple solution. What about it?” And they said, “Yes, well, it’s more startling than you realize, because women in upper class high-tech western society… a woman, say, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, or Malibu, or the sea cliffed district of San Francisco—a child born to that woman will have 800 to 1,000 times more negative impact on the Earth than a child born to a woman in Bangladesh. If you were to go to Bangladesh and meet a woman in the back streets of Dhaka, who told you that her ambition in life was to have nine hundred children, you’d think you were dealing with some kind of sociopath, a kind of typhoid Mary of the demographic scene. And yet, every child born into moderately well-off yuppie families in high-tech societies is in that position. We prefer to not to think of it this way.
I think it’s very interesting that one could make a case to women in western societies. You could say, “How would you like vastly increased leisure time? How would you like increased disposable income? And how would you like to take upon yourself a truly heroic social role?” This is what’s being offered with this suggestion to limit reproduction to one natural child. No more heroic—no more politically correct—action can be taken. And, interestingly, the women you want to convince of this position are the women you are most likely to be able to convince: educated, white women with above-average incomes. So that’s a very practical suggestion, more likely to be implemented than my dream of lunar inoculations with psilocybin for the entire population to dissolve the calcareous ego-formations that have sprung up in the bloodstreams since the last full moon—which I also think would be a fine idea!
You see, boundary dissolution is what is needed here; boundary dissolution of all type. Our separateness is an illusion. There is a kind of human bedrock. That’s why I think that the world sweep toward democracy is far more than simply a political trend. Democracy is not exactly a style of government, per se. Or, exclusively, democracy is something, is a biological institution of some sort. Because, there is no theory, there is no abstraction, there is no ideology. I mean, democracy is as close as you can get to anarchy and still have any theory of organization at all.
You know, I wrote a book, which is around and about called The Archaic Revival, and that’s why my belief in the archaic revival is what brings me out to events like this. I mean, I think the term “new age” and some of these other terms are pretty trivializing, and basically designed by the mavens of marketing to draw you in. But there is an impulse throughout the 20th century—in Freudianism, in abstract expressionism, in Dada, psychotherapy, sexual permissiveness, psychedelic experimentation, jazz, rock’n’roll—these are all facets of an impulse toward the archaic, toward the primitive, the non-straight, the anti bow tie, the wish to blow up the stayed world created by the fine ladies and gentlemen of the 19th century with their Christer-ethics, and their long dresses and all of that business.
There is an impulse toward the archaic. This is very healthy. This is what happens when a society seeks to revivify itself. When the medieval world exploded in the face of the Italian city-states and the new classes that were emerging, it reinvented classicism. It was actually the second time classicism had been rediscovered: it was also trotted out by the Arabs in the ninth century when they needed a stabilizing metaphor for the Ummayad Caliphate and those civilizations. Now, in the twentieth century, we can’t go back to ancient Greece and Rome, or Babylon. And, in a sense, the new age—I think—is an effort to go back to a kind of Minoan/Egyptian world—which never existed, except perhaps in the minds of certain menopausal theosophists. But the impulse is laudable, however screwy the results.
But I think we have to reach further back: that all of history is what our urtext, the Bible, tells us it is. It’s a confusion, a kind of punishment, a wandering in the wilderness, and that where we really want to be is naked, singing in the rain forest, stoned, and exalted, one with the souls of the ancestors, one with the Gaian spirit of the planet. And I don’t mean to imply that psychedelics simply act negatively; dissolving ego, dissolving social constructs, dissolving programming and neurosis. That’s all true, but what is left when all this dissolving has taken place is not simply a tabula rasa, a clean slate. What is left is what we forgot—what we have been so long away from—which is a connection into the reality of the Gaian mind.
The great news that all shamanism can attest to, and is built on, is the news that there is a sentient, minded, caring entity that surrounds and holds the planet in its hands, in its heart. And beyond comprehending; I mean call it Gaia, call it God, call it the spirit of nature—it doesn’t matter what you call it. It transcends the rational apprehension of higher primates, and yet it is there. We know that our own peculiar form of self-reflection emerged in just a couple of million years out of animal organization. Well, what we don’t know is how many other forms of mind there are possible, and how many times in the two billion year history of life on this planet intelligence has been able to shed the dark chrysalis of matter and launch itself into nearby dimensions in which it finds completion and happiness. And I think that this is the great news that informs the shamanic religions: that we are not alone, and that the Other that we can make our way toward is not, you know, a galactarian intelligence from Beta Reticuli that is part machine-symbiote, part banana slug, or something like that. That the coherent-minded entity that we make our way toward is actually a reflection of what is best in our hearts. That we carry in ourselves the seed of this thing, and that we are like the guy in the story of the prodigal son. We have fallen into history, and out of this misfortune—out of this experience—we can make gold if we return to the fold of the ancestors, if we can, somehow, take what we’ve learned from history and fold it back into the experience of being truly human.
And this is the challenge. And it faces us on the political level. Issues such as—you know, all kinds of community issues—such as racism, and sexism, and classism. These are community issues. And then issues between the human community and the planet. Our inability, you see, to emotionally connect with the consequences of what we’re doing. I mean, we as a species present a perfect picture of pathology, because what real psychotic behavior is, is: behavior that one cannot emotionally connect with the consequences of what is being done. And when you realize that we are literally looting the cradle of future human life—that we have decided that we are not simply transient occupiers of this domain, but that it is ours to trash, to use up, to do with as we wish, leaving nothing for the future—then you realize the depth of our need for immediate and widespread therapeutic (indeed, pharmacological) intervention on our state of mind. Because we have wandered from anything like real human values.
And the reason psychedelics are so threatening in this society is because they immediately throw into high relief the internal contradictions of the dominator-style of doing business. And this is must what happen. The momentum toward catastrophe, built up over centuries, is immense. The only antidote to that—that I’ve seen, extrapolating from what I’ve seen it do to single individuals—are the shamanic hallucinogens. Because, when you cut right to the bone, what has to happen is: we must change our minds. If we don’t change our minds we are going to go down with this self-generated titanic called western civilization. And we have the power to change our minds, but it won’t come from hortatory preaching. If that would work then we would have turned the bend at the Sermon on the Mount.
But as it is, I think we turned the bend sometime in the twentieth century: either when Albert Hofmann invented LSD, or Gordon Wasson found the mushrooms of Oaxaca, or Richard Schultes brought back news of ayahuasca from the Amazon basin. You see, we have to humble ourselves, we have to give up the titanic ego-driven idea that we can do it by ourselves—as religions and yogins, and all that beady-eyed crowd are into promising. The first step on the path of real self-transformation is the admission that you must humble yourself so thoroughly that you need to form a pact with an organism that begins its life in a mound of manure. You know, it’s a true alchemical journey. You return to the dross, and out of that which everyone has rejected—literally, the compost of being—you find the jewel. And the jewel can be grown, cultivated, brought to fruition, internalized, globalized, shared, to create a transforming option that does honor to a human experiment that has been going on far too many millennia for us to fumble the golden opportunity away.
Is there anybody who’s burning with their own agenda that—oh, here’s a burning person. Yes?
I had an experience—about three years ago now, nearly four years ago—where I was on a hallucinogenic. And I had a feeling that I was talking to some people, and they were telling me that, when we leave this planet, we become stars. I was wondering what… have you got any more on the outer space connection?
Well, I mean, I think, you know, I mean… It’s funny for me to be talking at a place like this because I am actually a rationalist. It’s simply that my experience has been very, very peculiar, and I thank God for it, because I think most rationalists actually live lives which reinforce their rationalism. Maybe because they don’t poke around enough in the edges of things. I mean, you know, we have orthodox ideology—I don’t know what it is now; free markets, democracy and physics or something—and then you press out a little bit to the fringes and you discover that reality is not only not as you supposed it to be, but it’s not like anybody supposed it to be. The maps we have are largely based on conjecture and naïve hope. The hope that there’s nobody hiding in the woods, the hope that there’s nobody waiting behind the hill.
When I first started taking psychedelics it all ran pretty much according to Hoyle. LSD—it seemed like a tremendous tool for insight into the structure of the personality. Kind of high-powered, turbocharged, self-directed psychotherapy, you know? Which is certainly useful, illuminating, but doesn’t violate the laws of physics or threaten the the foundations of western science and philosophy. What has interested me, and become the focus of my personal life, I guess, are these tryptamine hallucinogens: DMT, psilocybin, and then ayahuasca—which is simply a strategy for making DMT orally active. And, you know, one could accept, I think, insights into one’s upbringing, insights into the structure of philosophy or mathematics or something like that. But what is hard to accept are—you called them “gibberish people,” I call them self-transforming elf-machines, or tykes, or fairies. And, to my mind, this is confounding, this is no mere extension of the models of the psyche that we inherit from Freud and Jung.
It begins to look as though, you know, the mind is not even in the brain. There’s some kind of extended landscape of possibility, and I speak as somebody who’s been there, who’s seen this stuff, but who doesn’t—I don’t have an agenda, I’m, in a sense, I’m sort of chicken-shit because the motivation for my public career is to get a whole bunch of people to march with me, in there, to check again. Because, you know—well, I talk in the book I wrote for Bantam, Food of The Goods, about DMT, because I think it’s, in a sense, the case where all the issues are most intensely brought together. It’s a naturally occurring neurotransmitter, endogenous in the human brain. It also is very fast-acting, it clears your system very quickly. Not only clears your system, but leaves no trace whatsoever. You can’t even feel that you have done some kind of substance a half hour after you do this stuff. Nevertheless, the content of the experience itself is absolutely paradigm-challenging, and the chief reason is because there are these entities in there. And on psilocybin you hear them; they speak to you—what you were describing. It’s almost as though this is some kind of a mandala of pharmacological approaches to the mystery, and DMT lands you right in the center of the bullseye. I mean, thirty seconds after smoking DMT you confront these things, which look like—I mean, it’s very hard to force language into these dimensions and then bring it back—but what they look like to me is self-transforming, self-dribbling basketballs, or something. I mean, they come bounding forward. When you enter into the space there’s a kind of a cheer, you know? “Hoo-ray!” And suddenly you’re there. And this is not the cumulative effect of spirulina, or hanging out at Findhorn, or imbibing any of these ideologies which permit this kind of thing.
I mean, I come out of, you know, Jean Genet, and existentialism, and Sartre, and very much more mainstream, down, dreary, western approach. These things do not require belief to sustain their existence. You may doubt, you may deny, and yet, there they are. And they—it is not some kind of neutral panorama, like window shopping. It’s an encounter, it’s a situation in which you see them, they see you, and the relationship between you and them is very rapidly evolving. They seem to have been waiting, and the impression I get is—well, it’s not an impression I get, it’s what they say. They say, “Here you are again, how wonderful!” It’s not exactly in English, you understand. And they have you know, they’re not made of matter. The questions, you know—what is the ontus of these things, what is their exact ontological status?, And as far as I can tell, they’re made of language. They are not composed of DNA, sinew, tissue and blood, they’re composed of syntax. They are like self-articulating sentences, or language that has no requirement for a speaker. It is its own self-generating system of meaning.
And in—you know, the immediate impression you have is (if you’re a sane person) is, you know, “My God, what is this?” And then, “Is it okay? Am I”—number one—“am I still alive?” And you check through, you know, take a quick inventory: breathing—normal. Blood pressure—normal. Heart—normal. But what you’re seeing is a complete replacement of the ordinary world. And these things which are not enough like elves, gnomes and fairies—it’s almost as though, you know, you’d look to folklore to provide evidence for the existence of these things, but the elves, gnomes and fairies of folklore are a little too predictable, a little too humanoid, a little too Disney-esque for what you’re dealing with. These things actually appear to be as alien a form of life as it would be possible for a human being to imagine and still cognize that it’s alien intelligence at all.
And they are performing an extraordinary activity in that place, which is: they possess a language that can be seen with the eyes. And this is fascinating to me, I really think that there’s something to be learned here. This is what they want you to learn. They come forward, they utter statement—which, remember: you don’t hear with your ear—but which you see as condensed sculptural objects, which are like Fabergé eggs or beautifully tooled machines of glass, shell, and crystal, except these things are in motion. They’re opening up in front of you, and they’re pressing in. There’s a kind of frantic intensity to this kind of an encounter; it’s like a Bugs Bunny cartoon running backwards at twice normal speed. I mean, stuff is just flying all over, and they’re saying, “Don’t abandon yourself to amazement. Don’t just go gaga with disbelief. Try and focus on what we’re doing.” And then, if you are able, you can moderately focus on what they’re doing. What they’re doing is they’re offering you these objects, and they’re saying “Look at this! Look at this!” As is it is passed before you, as you look into it, you have a very strong—and I believe, genuine—impression that this thing that you’re being shown (though it’s no larger than a kaiser roll) is somehow absolutely confounding to the principles and assumptions of this world. That, in other words, if I could condense this thing into my hand right now, I wouldn’t have to convince you, I wouldn’t have to preach to you, I could just show you. Hey, look at this! And in the visual confrontation with this thing it’s self-evident that this is impossible. Matter-like, but they don’t behave this way. It’s as though you have brought back a chunk of another dimension.
And then, what they’re saying about these things is, “You can do this. Do what we are doing.” And then the urgency becomes almost strident. They say, “Do what we’re doing! Do it now!” And you say, “Wha—, how—?” And then you feel—or I felt, at any rate—an upwelling in myself, like a calling forth. Then out of my mouth comes language—or, at least, syntax—but without meaning. Some kind of glossolalia where the modality of language is preserved, but the meaning is not. It’s a kind of an ecstasy. It sounds gibberish in three-dimensional space, but in that space it seems to be the key to unlocking a world made out of syntax and meaning. And I come before you with all of this stuff unfinished. This is not a teaching, or a system, or an anything. It’s an eyewitness account of a hyperdimensional automobile accident or something. We’re not saying what the conclusions are; we don’t know what the conclusions are, but this is big news. And when I first encountered this kind of stuff I was a young art historian at the University of California, and I assumed that any motif, no matter how autre or bizarre, you would be able to look at the painting, folklore, and sculpture of somebody on this planet and find a trace. And it didn’t. It seemed as though this defeated that idea. It was almost counter the idea of the collective unconscious, because it argued that you—Joe Anybody, Sally Somebody—can break through on your own—an ordinary person—to a place that Verrocchio never saw, Michelangelo didn’t anticipate it, Yates didn’t know, Blake hadn’t a clue, Melville wasn’t briefed, and yet, there it is, you know?
And this is—to me, as an intellectual, it was very confusing because, I think, as intellectuals we always assume that progress will be built on the shoulders of the giants that have preceded us. The idea of something actually one hundred percent brand new and unexpected is pretty daunting. And here it was, thirty seconds away, simply by the act of ingesting this natural neurotransmitter. Well, those of you who’ve been there know exactly what I’m talking about. Those of you who haven’t been there—I can’t imagine how you can even sit through this kind of thing because, you know, it makes the folks from the Pleiades and all that other stuff out there seem mundane by comparison. The other thing is, we’re not talking about camping out in cornfields night after freezing night with your eyes glued to the stars in one hope. This is a no-fail method for plunging deeper into these spiritual realms than the tantric yogas or the practitioners of X, Y, or Z dare scarcely suppose. It’s repeatable, it’s on demand, it does not depend upon your state of moral purity or tantric accomplishment. It’s something that is our birthright as much as our sexuality, our language, our eyesight, our appreciation of music. It’s an innate human thing.
And to try and return to the premises of your question—I tried to formulate theories about what could this be. Well, the first impression that I had, based on a reading of how weird this all was, was: this must be a parallel continuum á la Philip K. Dick and like that. That just, apparently, over some kind of neurological energy-barrier that’s all around us all the time, these things are there. And they are not made of matter, so the laws of physics don’t apply. And, hmm, you know? Like that. And then I entertained different possibilities, and I still entertain numerous possibilities because I haven’t got it figured out yet. One possibility is that these are things are actually human beings from the future. I mean, if you take the content of the experience seriously and say, “I am apparently in contact with diminutive English-speaking creatures of some sort,” well then, they have got to be either intelligent beings from another part of the universe, or humans from some extraordinarily advanced future world where human beings are now made of language and are only two and a half feet tall—so I would put it rather far in the future. Or—and I just simply offer this in the spirit of intellectual completeness—if you ask a shaman what these things are, they don’t hesitate. They just say, “Oh, well, those are the ancestor-spirits.” This is what it’s all about, is ancestor-spirits. Well, it takes a while for the implications of this to sink in. They’re talking about dead people. That’s what an ancestor-spirit is. They’re suggesting that the dearly departed do not evanesce into sunlight or something cheerfully nonspecific like that, but that this actually is simply one level of a cosmic system of some sort where birth and death are transitions from level to level. Well, this is just exactly the kind of thing that I’m intellectually set up to doubt, and to feel a kind of scorn for. Because people have been running around since time immemorial claiming this sort of thing with an incredibly underwhelming body of evidence to back them up. And yet, if you try to approach the problem scientifically, I think you would agree that, in terms of likelihood—although, operating in this realm, what this means I’m not sure—but in terms of likelihood, it’s more likely that these are human souls in another dimension than that we are being contacted by friendly extraterrestrials, or even that we share the Earth with an invisible race of syntactical, tribal elf-legions of some sort.
But I think this conclusion is the one that we would tend to resist most strenuously. I think it’s the most intellectually challenging position to take vis-à-vis Western thinking to claim that we have to reopen the question of life after death in a serious way. Not the cheerful round of reincarnation that haunts some of the zanier offshoots of Eastern religion, but actually say: you are going to die. And when you die you’re going to undergo a metamorphosis of some sort that is not particularly going to be designed to preserve your humanness—what you call your humanness—or to set you on a cloud with lyre and gown for the rest of eternity, but that, actually, the greatest adventures still lie ahead. And these things, intimations, of immortality are vouchsafed by these plant hallucinogens.
Why this should be, why it should be possible to get a look over the great divide—I have no idea. I think about these things constantly. My life is mostly questions. My friend Rupert Sheldrake, who some of you may know his books, he and I have talked about it. He thinks that there is a chemistry of dying. That, in the same way that there is a chemistry of giving birth, there is a chemistry of dying, and that DMT parallels and anticipates it. He calls it not a hallucinogen, but a necroptic substance. It actually anticipates the death state itself. I once had the fortunate opportunity of being able to turn a very prominent Tibetan lama onto DMT—a name that you would recognize, although not one of the top five, but a more wizened, older, stranger character. And he did it, and I said, “So, what about it?” You know? These people, these Tibetan Buddhists, they have a pretty good map of the territory. He said, “It’s the lesser lights.” He said, “You can’t go further than that without breaking the thread of return.” He said, “Beyond this, there’s no returning.” And so, in a very real sense, it’s a look over the edge.
But then, even that doesn’t solve all the mysteries. What is it about this wish to convey a language which is seen? What’s that all about? Is it that, perhaps, language has always been a gift from the other? It’s a little hard to picture how the kind of language I’m using right now ever got started. Notice that language is a behavior. It’s a behavior. That’s all it is. It’s a complex activity having to do with small mouth noises and the neurological processing of same. We must have been essentially as we are before language. It’s like break dancing or something like that. You’re fully set up to do it—and people have been for millennia—but until somebody actually does it, it only exists as a formal possibility in the organism. And I wonder how many of these things there are. Break dancing is an interesting example, albeit somewhat trivial. But is shows that, after five, six, seven thousand years of civilization, you can come up with a behavior that nobody has ever seen before. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about language and what a limited tool it is, and yet how our whole world is held together by nothing more than small mouth noises. And it’s incredible. The entirety of global civilization is held together by small mouth noises and symbolic notations of same, which have an even more rarefied level of abstraction. Our separateness, our notion of self and world of self, and species all rest on the carrying capacity of these small mouth noises.
One of the things that has interested me—some of you have heard me talk about this—is: I think good psychedelic trips inspire a lot of homework, which usually means reading in curious areas. And I discovered that octopi, cephalopods—which, in case you’re not up on your evolutionary biology: these are mollusca. They’re not even vertebrates. They’re related to escargot and banana slugs. You can hardly imagine a form of life more alien to ourselves. I mean, we broke off from the other primates three million years ago. But the invertebrates and the vertebrates separated from each other about 700 million years ago. Well, an interesting thing going on with octopi: most people have heard that they can change color. And most people, I think, assume this means that, like certain lizards and certain butterflies, they camouflage themselves against their background. That’s not what’s going on. Color and texture, for octopi, are the medium of language. You could almost say that an octopus is a naked mind. Because, as the octopus goes through certain internal changes—hunger, sexual need, whatever—color changes accompany these shifts of internal state, and appear on the surface of the octopus. It is almost as though it wears its language like an overcoat. It is clothed in its own meaning.
Well, obviously, in that kind of situation, you have always been suspended in an ambiance of language—unlike ourselves, where, apparently, language was invented one bright summer day, or series of bright summer days. And if you have a language such as we have; small mouth noises with culturally assigned meaning—in other words, if I say, “Where can I get a taxi?” If I don’t say this to a person who speaks English, it means nothing to a Ukrainian or a Chinese. Octopi don’t have this problem. They’re a not culturally localized language. There’s only a language of the body; the genes. It’s unambiguous. You see, even those of us in this room, if you were to check, our internal dictionaries are different. We have only the assumption of one-to-one mapping of meaning. I mean, if I ask you, “Where is the restroom?” this is fairly unambiguous because it deals with ordinary situations. But as soon as conversation leaves the main and well-trodden path of discourse, ambiguity enters in to a tremendous degree. We overlook this as a courtesy to each other. You almost never hear one person say to another, “Now, would you explain to me what I just said?” The reason you don’t hear this said very often is because the thin illusion of communication would break down completely if we actually demanded of our listeners that they repeat back to us. The only situation in which that happens on a regular basis is the pedagogical mode where the teacher teaches and then, by test and recitation, determines that the pupil has understood. But in polite discourse among adults we consider this an imposition—if not an insult.
So, somehow, these creatures are elves of language, catalysts for the concrescence of cognition. And I don’t know if these things can be understood. After all, we’re embedded in the world created by our own meanings. C. D. Broad—I think it was C. D. Broad—wrote a book called The Meaning of Meaning. Or, no—it was F. H. Bradley, actually. [Curator’s note: It seems McKenna was wrong on both accounts. It was written by C. K. Ogden] I think Broad’s book was called The Mind and its Place in Nature. Probably these two should be read back to back, just to see how positivists handle these kinds of problems. The meaning of meaning is a real problem, but it also tends to be solipsistic or tautological. Can we explain brain to give a full accounting of brain? Can we expect mind to give a full account of mind? Anybody who’s studied logic for ten minutes can tell you that that’s impossible because it is tautological.
William Blake used to say, “Nothing is lost. Nothing is lost.” And this seems, literally, to be true. It seems as though something once articulated, a statement, the reverberations are unto the last syllable of recorded time. Somehow it’s all there. Now, when I said these things approached and spoke in English, I didn’t mean to make it sound as mundane as it might sound. You know, Greek religion was characterized by what was called the logos in the Hellenistic period. And the logos was an informing voice, and all the great thinkers of Hellenistic times—Plato, Socrates, Xenophon, Thucydides—all of these people were in contact with the logos. It was the sine qua non of Hellenistic religion. And it was a speaking and informing voice that tells you the right way to live. Well, we don’t know what to make of this. And at a certain point in the evolution of the Western mind, judging by the writings of people who were contemporaneous with those times, the logos fell silent. There was actually a date. Some of you may know the story of the fishermen pulling their nets off the isle of Rhodes, and they heard a voice from the sky say that great Pan is dead. And this was at the change of the eon, the beginning of the Age of Aquarius. It was almost as though there was something in the ancient world that has gone latent, that we can no longer touch or imagine.
Gordon Wasson—who discovered with his wife, Valentina, the mushrooms—told a very interesting story in one of his books about how, in Mazatecan, the people who are speakers of Mazatecan, when they chant what the mushroom says, they have created a special form for this which goes like this: “Zabaz zabaz zabaz, tse.” This word, “tse,” means “says.” Zabaz zabaz zabaz says, zabaz zabaz zabaz zabaz says. I didn’t know this at the time I took mushrooms the second time. And in my head I heard the mushroom speaking in English, but adding the word “says” to the end of the sentence. So it was almost like this thing could speak in Mazatec, it could speak in English, but it always kept its cadence and its structure. The other thing about psilocybin and the DMT-thing is that it seems to be a catalyst for glossolalia. This is why I think it must have had something to do with he evolution of language. I mean, when you take psilocybin you can fall spontaneously into states of glossolalia. Sometimes, on DMT, it’s almost impossible to control. It just spontaneously comes out.
What is glossolalia?
Oh, what is glossolalia? Glossolalia—well, here’s an example of it. Then I’ll define it. Zee ding quap makti kipitech kving hwade molde ruff nobokethingiet efapsti tulch kvem bedegene hekengte techkt. It’s language-like activity in the absence of meaning. And it’s a very interesting thing neurologically because, notice that speech—ordinary speech—is this highly variable stream of data: we are set up to make these small-mouth noises. As a public speaker, I’m very aware of the fact that one can speak without tiring almost longer than you can do any other major human motor activity. But the glossolalia such as I just did—it is clearly under the control of rules. But there is no meaning conventionally conceived of there, but there is syntax. And I think, probably, that language was invented millennia before meaning, and that you could almost call language “toneless singing,” and that people used to sit around the campfire and amuse each other by making funny noises. As a kid I used to do this. And then it was only much, much later than anything approaching linguistic conventionality was imposed on this, and that that’s a lower function.
The other thing I want to say about this glossolalia thing is: you may say “Well, you’re just making it up” when I do that. But really, the experience I have when I do it is that I stand aside, then this variable data stream comes out through my mouth. Well, now, it has to reflect something about me. It’s a statement about my internal situation in that moment. And it’s evolving and changing as rapidly as if I were saying, “You know, I had a migraine headache last night, and I got up at about four and took an aspirin and…” You know, I’m telling you about my situation. But the glossolalia must be speaking to something about my situation, or it wouldn’t be possible to do it at all.
Not only is something not real unless it can be said, but the contrapositive of that is that, once that something can be said, it becomes almost too real. It displaces other possibilities. So we’re living in a set of constructs—some architectural, some ideological—and they can be very oppressive. How do you get rid of the notion of linear time and space? Very easily. It’s the slow work of consensus. One of the things that I feel I’m doing very consciously in these kinds of meetings is: we’re trying to launch and replicate memes. You all know this concept? A meme is the smallest unit of an idea in the same way that a gene is the smallest unit of organism. And so these things—DMTLs, transcendental object at the end of history, so forth—these are memes. And in the same way that genes are copied and spread around, and that fidelity of copying is the key to genetic success, fidelity of meme-replication is the key to communication. If I give a speech on something and then you hear it and then you go out and somebody says, “So, what did he say?” and you give a completely cockeyed account of what has been said, well, then the meme has been betrayed. But if you can actually transfer the meme to somebody else’s mind, and then they can copy it and pass it on, then it’s almost as though the ideological environment were like a rainforest, or a coral reef. Evolution is taking place. Stupid memes, dumb memes, have short lifetimes and they disappear. And memes of great power are able to thrive in many intellectual and ideological niches and to make many marriages of convenience with other memes, and so they are stabilized and passed along. Somehow we have to become hip to the power of language, and instead of just willy-nilly creating linguistic structures ad hoc, we need to begin to consciously engineer our linguistic intent.
So far, in the twentieth century, this has not been a program with a very happy history because only jerks have gotten a hold of it: Nazis and people with narrow social programs that say, “We’re not going to call each other mister and misses, or hey you. Everybody’s going to call each other comrade, and then this will create the notion of comradeship.” Which, to a certain degree, it does. But, you know, manipulating these things for political ends. The Jews—it was okay to put Jews in ovens because the official language for talking about Jews was that they were Untermensch: subhuman, not like us—whoever “we” are. So once the definition had been changed, people said, “Well, it’s okay to mistreat Jews. You know, they’re not even really people!” And this kind of thinking goes on all the time. It’s called stereotyping, and it always is an easier substitute… it’s a cheap substitute for clear thinking.
David Brown asked me the question, “What about life after death?” It was somewhat of a sidebar. The Buddhists at the folk level in India do say you cannot attain enlightenment unless your mother is dead—which is a kind of an odd notion, seeming to imply that she had to precede you into hyperspace. When you die, what you do is: you literally, as appears to happen, you dissolve. And where you go is forward and backward into time, not like a gas released into time, but along the tracks and trails of the genetic machinery. In other words, you flow into your children and you become—well, let’s make a very simple model and say: at the moment of death you become your children and your parents. A few moments later, you become your grandchildren and your grandparents. You’re spreading down. It’s almost as though the thing which you were, which was this focus of ego and individuality, then it dies, and it’s almost as though the mountain begins to slump back into the generalized pool of consciousness and being.
That’s why I have somewhat less patience, maybe, than I should have with the idea of channeling and come-as-you-were parties and that sort of thing. Because it seems to me the key to understanding the idea of reincarnation and past lives is that you were everybody. Of course. That’s who you are. Here comes everybody! You weren’t just that shepherd girl, or that Roman Emperor, or that Greek philosopher. You’re everybody. And you can find your way into the great genetic telephone system and ring anybody’s bell in history. Well, then it would be absurd to claim you were that person. That would be as absurd as claiming that anybody that you could call on the telephone is who you are. No, it’s that we are everyone. And, you know, the great turning object in hyperspace that is the genetic—I dunno—trans-dimensional object, casts off glinting reflections of this personality, that personality. And astrology has a role to play here, and other things. But the bottom line is: we are all drawn of the same stuff.
I think one of the most profound insights you can have on psychedelics—and I certainly have it—is that we are all interchangeable. Anybody could do my job, and I’m pretty confident I could do almost anybody’s job. We define ourselves otherwise, but in watching the rise of my own career, it’s a kind of being deputized; chosen for the job. It’s just that they said, “Well, him. He can do it. He has the gift of gab, so give him the credit line.” But it could have been anybody. Our uniqueness is real on one level, but on another level it’s fairly illusory. It’s sort of a coincidencia oppositorum: you have to hold these two antithetical things in your mind at once in order to correctly perceive the proper level of ambiguity that’s resident in reality. It ain’t simple, folks!
Can I just ask this question: do I understand you to say that, to find our true self, we have to go back to the worm-like stage and reach out for the natural pharmacological that is in the Amazon basin and all those plants and everything to find our true inner being—
I don’t think we have to go back as far as the worm-like stage. I think what we have to do is: we have to get out of history. History is a con-game run by frightened men and their obedient stooges. We had a moment of happiness. There was a moment of completion. I guess I should explain my position on this. You see, there have always been dominance hierarchies in primaries as far back as you go. Clear back to squirrel monkeys there are what are called male-dominance hierarchies. Well, so then, in us this was interrupted by psilocybin use over a period of probably a couple of hundred thousand years. The psilocybin—forget that it’s psychedelic for a moment, just think of it as an inoculation against ego. And so, for 200,000 years or so, it was a dietary item which suppressed this normal monkey behavior. And so, then, females were shared, the sexual style was orgiastic, there was no awareness of lines of male paternity, and the children belonged to the group. This was not “natural.” The natural way is for the men to dominate, to control the females—the old tooth and claw. But for a couple of hundred thousand years, it was artificially interrupted by the presence of mushroom in the paleolithic human diet.
Well then, when—because of climatological factors and other factors that we can discuss in another meeting—the mushroom became unavailable. The old monkey behaviors reemerged only about 12,000 years ago. But in the previous 200,000 years language had been discovered, fire, toolmaking, song, a whole bunch of forward leaps had been made. Well then, when the psilocybin was withdrawn and the patterns of male dominance reasserted themselves in an environment where fire and language had been achieved, it exacerbated it. It made it much more nightmarish. It made it much more difficult to step away from. And all of history is the unhappy story of, essentially, our withdrawal and our agony over being unable to reach this connection back into the Gaian mind which, when we had it, we lived in Eden. We were balanced. But it faded, and history was the consequence. Now, in the last fifty years, information has arrived on our plate—lo and behold, in the final ticking of the final hour of our dilemma—that actually shows us the way back if we but have the wisdom to understand this, and then the fortitude to apply what we know.
One more question.
[???] motivation [???] psychoactive substances?
You mean motivation to take psychedelics?
To take action.
To take action. Well, I think that the psychedelic community has not yet recognized or named itself as a community. We’re well behind gays and black people and all these other mi—we’re still trying to figure out if we are a community. And if we are a community and we have a domain of action, I think where it lies—it’s not that we’re all supposed to become dope dealers, it’s that we’re all supposed to become artists. That the transformation of culture through art is the proper understanding of what you can do with psychedelics besides blow your own mind. And I really think what we need to do is put the art pedal to the floor and understand that this is art, we are involved in some kind of enormous piece of performance art called Western civilization, and it’s been a C- performance so far, and they’re just about to reach out with the hook and drag us off stage unless we begin pulling rabbits out of the hat pretty furiously. Art is poised for this, but art is ambivalent because the society is ambivalent. That’s why meetings like this, where you actually hear it said, the sooner the better. The clock is ticking. This is not a test. There will not be a re-try, you know? This is the window of opportunity between the unknown and eternity. If not taken, then the entire enterprise could be lost. The whole thing, from the cave paintings at Lascaux to Whitney Houston—it could all go down the drain if we don’t act to preserve it through an act of human cognition plus courage.